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Best of the best: Cyclist’s favourite gravel bikes

2 Sep 2021

It has been a journey, but gravel is here to stay, so here are Cyclist’s four favourite off-road dirt munchers

Photography: Rob Milton

Gravel, gravel, everywhere, which leads us all to think… is there anything new under the sun? Take Tom Ritchey, he of the eponymous components. As a teenager in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ritchey and his pals were busy riding road bikes – you guessed it – off-road.

‘We were kind of thinking about bikes in the 1970s the way people are thinking about them now – in a more utilitarian way,’ says Ritchey. ‘The tool at the time was a 10-speed bicycle. It was predominantly designed to meet the needs of road cycling, but we quickly discovered we could take it beyond what most people were using it for.’

‘Beyond’ meant starting off on paved roads before disappearing into the wilderness along firebreaks and up old drovers’ tracks. By today’s standards these bikes were poorly equipped, repurposed steel racers with too high gears and too narrow tyres.

But the seed of a new industry had been sewn – here was early mountain biking, and with riders such as Ritchey turning framebuilder, a new wave of off-road bikes was born. Geometry was slacker, components more robust, gear ratios lower and tyres much wider. Wheel size even began to deviate away from 700c. Cycling history was being made.

It was also being made across the Pond with the UK’s Rough Stuff Fellowship, whose off-road origins trace back even further, to 1955. And even before then, taking a road bike and schlepping across fields had been happening in France since almost the dawn of the safety bicycle.

Riders would simply aim at a local landmark and ride, shoulder, run and jump their way there as fast as possible. Originally this was known as ‘steeple chasing’ (on account of distant steeples being the easiest things to aim for), and in 1902 France organised its first national steeple-chasing championship. But by 1953, the word cyclocross had entered common clubhouse parlance.

It’s for all these reasons that gravel bikes are often lampooned as rehashes of a bygone trend that has since been superseded by mountain biking, or as cyclocross bikes simply rebranded by a cynical industry hoping to sell you yet another bike. But, as the four bikes coming up will show you, nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, gravel bikes borrow from other categories, and early gravel bikes did look a lot like cyclocross bikes. But in the last few years distinct design points have arisen – the dropped chainstay, flared bars, interchangeable wheel sizes, 1x gears – that are enough to confirm a gravel bike as a very different bike indeed, and original enough that road bikes rather seem to be borrowing from gravel bikes now, not the other way round.

After all, it once seemed inconceivable that a road bike could fit 32mm tyres or might have multiple mounting points for bidons and bags; now it seems ridiculous to think you’d take a gravel bike anywhere on less than 35mm tyres with luggage enough to make safe passage for Africa.

Let’s not even get started on why a bikepacking bike isn’t just a reimagined tourer…

GT Grade

As chosen by tech editor Sam Challis

I’ve chosen GT’s Grade as much for what it has done for gravel riding as for what it does now. Back when the bike was launched in 2014, modern gravel riding was still an obscure discipline.

It was unsure of itself and people were unsure of it, seeing no niche in a space already taken up by endurance road, cyclocross and XC mountain bikes. Then the GT Grade came along with a curious mix of features.

It had drop bars and a rigid frame but disc brakes, along with relaxed geometry and wide (for the time) tyre clearances. Although GT was reticent to peg the Grade as a gravel bike at first, its design meant riders could go reasonably fast on tarmac but could then also rediscover the technicality of bridleways and easy trails that had long since been neutered by the ever-increasing capabilities of mountain bikes.

It was a seminal design that helped riders understand gravel’s potential even if GT didn’t really want to admit it at the time.

Ironically, the Grade helped kick off gravel riding so successfully that the trend grew at breakneck speed, meaning the original frame likely became outdated more quickly than if the bike had been less revolutionary.

The original Grade’s quick-release rear wheel, 15mm thru-axle front wheel, post-mount disc brake callipers and 35mm tyre clearance aged quickly as the gravel market settled on different standards.

The few details that did miss the mark can’t be held against the bike, for in general the Grade’s premise and performance were years ahead of many rivals. What’s more, all features were appropriately updated in the bike’s second iteration, which was this time positioned squarely in the now-distinct gravel discipline. This version was released in 2019, featuring 12mm thru-axles front and rear, flat-mount disc brakes and housing 42mm 700c tyres with room to spare.

More than skin deep

Practical changes weren’t the only thing GT built into the new version either. Although its makeover seemed subtle visually, there were some substantial design alterations under the surface to make sure the new Grade didn’t just catch up with the market but stood out from it: geometry got substantially longer and more stable, and GT built a flip-chip into the fork dropouts too.

This wasn’t to account for different wheel sizes, but instead to keep the handling consistent if the bike was loaded down with bikepacking gear (placement of the chip can be reversed so as to quicken the handling when the bike is weighed down and has the tendency to change direction more slowly). It was yet another valuable and perceptive addition to an already ingenious design.

The benefits of the frame’s standout feature, its Triple Triangle tube configuration, were similarly refined. The Grade’s seatstays now run uninterrupted from the rear axle up to an insertion point on the top tube, flying past the seat tube by some margin.

This longer length, combined with the stays’ novel glass fibre construction (glass fibres flex more readily than carbon), contributes to a high level of seated comfort that has the byproduct of preternatural levels of grip and confidence on rutted, technical tracks.

Credit should go to GT for achieving such sought-after attributes by manipulating frame architecture, and doubly so given that other areas of the frameset imbue the bike with an altogether different set of attributes.

The skeletal, detached upper is paired to a down tube, bottom bracket junction and chainstay spine that’s really rather chunky. So where the top half of the frame works to cossett backsides off-road, the bottom half makes it stout enough to reward oomph with a pleasing sense of speed on tarmac.

Being able to become a different bike in different situations is a key tenet in gravel design and one the Grade accomplishes particularly well. There are areas where this design simplicity isn’t all good, mind you – I’d love for GT to bury those external cables and hoses in the frame – but for the most part the Grade’s design balances capability and comfort with light weight and efficiency.

The GT Grade was the original seven years ago, and it still feels like one of the best today.

For more on the GT Grade, see here.

For our full review of the GT Grade, see here.

Open UP

As chosen by editor Pete Muir

I am a big fan of Jaffa Cakes. The sponge base combines sublimely with the jammy orange filling and chocolate coating to create a snack that is light, melting and so moreishly satisfying that one is never enough.

I would go so far as to suggest that they are my favourite type of biscuit. But were I to present the Jaffa Cake as a worthy champion in a competition entitled ‘Britain’s Best of the Best Biscuits’, some smarty-pants would be sure to pipe up with, ‘Ah, but it isn’t really a biscuit at all.’

It’s true. A court case in 1991 that aimed to establish the tax status of Jaffa Cakes ruled they were, in fact, a cake, and therefore not liable for VAT. I would be thrown out of the biscuit competition on a technicality.

I have a similar problem with the Open UP. I’m here to tell you that the Open UP is the best gravel bike, but the truth is that I’m not sure if it even qualifies as a gravel bike. Certainly the man who created it doesn’t think so.

‘Gravel bike is a terrible moniker,’ said Open co-founder Gerard Vroomen to Cyclist back when the bike launched in 2016. ‘It’s good for so much more than gravel. We call this GravelPlus.’

It may seem like semantics but his point is a good one. People who ride gravel bikes don’t always ride on gravel. When I tell someone I went for a gravel ride, what I actually mean is I went for a ride that incorporated gravel trails, tarmac roads, footpaths, bridleways, muddy fields and the occasional terrifying urban underpass.

Unless you’re a gravel racer or round-the-world bikepacker, a really good gravel bike needs to be really good at all sorts of surfaces, and this is where the Open UP shines.

A little bit of everything

When you first look at the Open UP, you think ‘road bike’. Its carbon tubes are sleek and slender; the geometry is compact and racy, with short chainstays and a relatively steep head tube; there are no suspension units; there aren’t even any mounts for mudguards or racks.

At the time it came out this was revolutionary, with most gravel bikes looking like two-wheeled tanks. In fact the only thing that marks out the UP as a gravel bike at all is its ability to slot in 650b wheels with 2.1in knobbly tyres.

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And that is the bike’s genius. It isn’t trying to be the perfect bike for one situation, it’s trying to be a great bike for all sorts of situations, which is what most of us encounter when we ride.

With 2.1in tyres on a 650b rim, the wheels have an almost identical diameter to a set of 700c rims with 28mm tyres, meaning the bike preserves its sharp road bike handling even on wide rubber.

On the tarmac, the big knobbly tyres affect the ride less than you’d expect, so the UP remains fast, light and agile. It can keep up with the roadie crew on the Sunday morning run, then leave them behind when the tarmac stops and the trail starts.

This is where the fun really begins. With a bit of air let out of the tyres the UP will smash across all kinds of surfaces with glee, its tight geometry lending itself to winding tracks and its light weight adding punch up slippery inclines.

When you pop back out onto the road again, the ride home is quick and comfortable – not the slog it can feel like on more off-road-oriented gravel bikes.

The one

For many cyclists, a gravel bike is a chance to indulge in n+1: one more bike for the collection. But with the Open UP it really is possible to imagine dumping all the other bikes and having this one alone.

It’s elegant and sporty enough to hang out with the Lycra brigade, and rugged enough to cut it with the baggies-and-beards crowd. What’s more it’s simply beautiful, blending classic lines with intriguing quirks such as the dropped chainstay to allow for tyre clearance while maintaining rear end stiffness, and the four sets of mounting points.

If you owned an UP, this would be the bike you’d reach for time and again, whether for a racy century ride, a blast round the woods or a leisurely roll to the local cafe. It’s made for so much more than gravel, and that’s what makes it the best gravel bike.

For more on the Open UP, see here.

3T Exploro RaceMax

As chosen by tech editor Sam Challis

Gravel has become my favourite way to ride a bike. The engaging technicality of twisting trails, the total absence of traffic, the shift in focus away from speed and power to enjoyment and interaction… for me it recreates what riding a bike was like when I was a child and I love it for that.

Several bikes have grown close to my heart and I couldn’t champion just one. Thus I’m also making a case for 3T’s Exploro RaceMax, which becomes my co-pick with the GT Grade for an equally justifiable reason. If the Grade helped kick the gravel trend off in 2014, then 3T took the genre in a bold new direction in 2016, introducing the concept of aerodynamic efficiency to gravel frame design.

It should come as no surprise that the man behind it was Gerard Vroomen, who is arguably the most qualified man on the planet to bring aero cues to a gravel bike. He co-founded Cervélo with Phil White, and they were the first to work aerodynamics into road bikes with the iconic Soloist back in 2002.

Most recently he’s been hot on GT’s heels in the gravel space, developing the Open UP soon after the Grade began gaining traction. Then Vroomen merged his expertise in drag reduction with his knowledge of gravel to create the Exploro with 3T.

Like gravel in general, the Exploro, along with Vroomen’s accompanying message of ‘go slow, faster’, was met with scepticism – surely aerodynamic efficiency was inconsequential on gravel?

Vroomen was quick to point out that at any speed over 15kmh air resistance is the biggest factor a rider has to overcome, so drag reduction is almost as useful on gravel as it is for road riding. What’s more, as so often happens, where riding goes, racing follows, so the Exploro began to generate a core following of competitive riders who appreciated the promise of extra help at speed.

Just like the UP, the original Exploro was ahead of its time and still doesn’t look out of place today, even compared to much newer designs. Even so, in 2020 Vroomen took the opportunity to update the bike, releasing the Exploro RaceMax.

As the name suggests, the versatile new design aims to let you tackle either end of gravel riding’s spectrum. If racing over hard-pack roads is your thing, the ‘Race’ guise with 700c wheels and slimmer tyres exploits the aerodynamic styling of the frameset, while with 650b in the ‘Max’ guise, tyre clearance increases to a huge 61mm, making the Exploro a brilliant bike for big adventures across rough terrain.

Gripping stuff

Ensuring such disparate bike setups work with equal efficacy required the inclusion of several clever features and an innovative approach to tyre sizing. To best develop the aero design, 3T says it needed to shield the disruptive effect on air that knobbly gravel tyres bring, so manually measured hundreds of tyres to define two new tyre metrics: WAM (width as measured) and RAM (radius as measured).

The proposed standards aren’t perfect, perhaps lacking clarity to the uninitiated, but the fact 3T is trying to develop tyre-sizing standards (currently at best described as ‘vague’) is to be applauded. It shows the brand possesses a level of care for performance development that not many other brands visibly display.

3T says its work also created a list of tyres that work best with the Exploro RaceMax, all while helping to optimise the frame itself. Vroomen says this more accurate tyre knowledge helped create a more effective rear wheel cut-out in the seat tube, as well as informing the shape of the down tube so it better guides airflow off the front wheel and around the water bottles.

Other neat features, such as the double-dropped chainstays and ultra-wide stance (yet frontally slim) fork lend utility to the ‘Max’ version of the bike without impacting the sprightliness of the ‘Race’ version.

I’m lucky enough to ride a lot of gravel bikes, and those that can switch from aero and racy one day to rugged and capable the next are few and far between. In my opinion there are none that do it so seamlessly as the Exploro RaceMax.

For more on the 3T Exploro RaceMax, see here.

For the full review of the 3T Exploro RaceMax, click here.

Moots Routt RSL

As chosen by deputy editor James Spender

How on Earth can I justify a gravel bike whose frame alone costs more than a second-hand hatchback?

The very nature of a gravel bike is to suffer the slings and arrows of off-road life, so it seems foolhardy spending vast sums on something designed, in a sense, to get trashed. But as my old man is always keen on saying, spend as much as you can afford and it’ll pay for itself in the long-term (a logic he applies spectacularly well to whisky).

The Routt RSL is about as much as anyone can afford, but within that it presents incredible versatility and an awesome ride, and it will outlast your hatchback’s grandkids.

Being Moots, the Routt RSL is pure titanium but it is titanium with aplomb. Most ti bikes boast 3Al/2.5V tubing (a titanium alloy with 3% aluminium and 2.5% vanadium), but few weld such tubes to 3D-printed dropouts sintered together by lasers from 6Al/4V titanium powder.

This isn’t just a cute trick; 3D printing allows Moots to create complex shapes and incredibly precise angles to maintain appropriate chainstay length, disc brake alignment and heel clearance.

True, the same thing could be done with machined parts, but those parts would be heavier – cut the Routt’s dropouts in half and you’ll see a semi-hollow lattice structure supporting the shape. It all helps the RSL frame weigh a mere 1.35kg, lighter than most titanium road bikes. Yet it is tyre clearance and geometry that make this bike what it is.

The Routt RSL boasts clearance for up to 700c x 45mm tyres, and can squeeze in wider with 650b wheels. The top tube is a little longer than on other gravel bikes and the head tube is of course slacker than a road bike’s, but paired with a shorter stem the handling is the personification of responsive.

This thing swivels on the proverbial across all speeds in a way I only really encounter on good road bikes. In this regard the Routt RSL embodies fantastic balance; surefooted and sturdy yet nimble, like Fred Flintstone’s scampering feet when he goes bowling. The upshot is with chunky rubber the Routt RSL rides almost like a very light mountain bike, and in so doing it pushes the rider into more and more ‘suck it and see’ moments.

‘I can handle it, give it a shot,’ it seems to say. And it means it. Titanium is harder and less dent-able than steel or aluminium, and certainly better in impact situations than carbon. The Routt RSL will ride for a lifetime without complaint, and it’s hard to see bike design changing enough in the component department that the RSL’s blueprint will look outdated any time soon. A bike for life in material and design. But there’s more.

Not just comparative

While a top-end carbon frame coming in at 1.35kg is portly, for a metal frame it’s downright feathery. Yes, parts play a role, but the baseline weight of the Routt’s frame affords an 8.7kg build rolling on 45mm rubber. That’s class-leadingly light for anything other than carbon fibre. But then put some 700c road wheels in the frame and suddenly you have a competitive road bike.

I did this with a pair of DT Swiss aero wheels with 28mm tyres. That dropped the weight to just over 8kg and turned the bike from reactive to downright zippy. It’s not winning climbers’ bikes awards, but the geometry translated near-seamlessly into road territory, carrying speed like the best of them with 50mm deep wheels. 

Off-road the Routt treads a near-perfect tightrope of stiffness to spring. That is, it feels efficient for the pedal stomp but smooth and forgiving over rough stuff, and on-road it’s the same story. I wanted not for more stiffness, but I was pleasantly surprised at the cruisy comfort it offered.

OK, so to get all this from one bike – that mountain bike hardiness, the gravel go-anywhere-ness and the road bike fleet-ness – will require at least two sets of wheels and three sets of tyres (let’s say 45mm for mountain bike, 40mm for gravel, 28mm for road). But you’ve already spent over ten grand so you may as well, because you’ve got one of the most brilliant all-rounders money can buy. It all but makes the tea.

For more on the Moots Routt RSL, see here.

For the full review of the Moots Routt RSL, see here.

And the winner is…

The bike that might just have invented gravel for 21st century

So where do you go from here? If there’s one thing our testers can agree on it’s that today’s gravel bikes bring something genuinely different and necessary to the cycling canon.

A cyclocross bike might be nimble and quick but lacks long-distant comfort and utility; an endurance road bike simply doesn’t have the robustness or the tyre clearance to go deep off-roading; a mountain bike is… well, it’s a mountain bike.

What unites the Open, GT, 3T and Moots is their immense across-the-board ability. As Sam remarked, ‘The gravel spectrum is getting wider by the day,’ and although its beginning is still a mere meander along a bridleway, its most extreme end now involves trekking across the Himalayas or performing three-foot drop-offs in the Alps.

Sam then declared that one of his bikes should win. He is tech editor. But after careful consideration and not unexcessive amounts of swearing, it was decided that because any one of these contenders could be considered the best of the best gravel bikes, the winner should also be the most original.

Thus the GT Grade is our runner-up and the Open UP our winner. So, through gritted teeth, here is Sam to explain:

‘The UP almost singlehandedly created the current gravel niche, so much so that despite little changing in its design since 2016 the bike is still competitive with the best designs today. For a start, Open pioneered the dropped driveside chainstay, now used by a host of brands to create tyre clearance in an area constrained by a narrow road Q-factor, without compromising driveside chainstay stiffness.

‘It did the same with dual wheel sizes – it was the first to design around 700c and 650b, and it did all this while keeping the road DNA that drew roadies to gravel bikes in the first place.

‘The Open UP is a genuine do-it-all bike, and it was the original – UP stands for Unbeaten Path so it makes sense. It also makes perfect sense that it was designed by the same bloke who designed the 3T Exploro. Which I picked.’