Three gravel bikers riding

5 things to consider when buying a gravel bike

There are plenty of articles about what to look for when buying a gravel bike, but very few about things to avoid. And although over the next few paragraphs, I might be a bit critical of a few recent trends, I still believe the best bike is the one you have. By no means is this an attempt to rubbish anyone’s bike – you might even share some of my frustrations.

Still, if you’re looking for miles of smiles rather than worries; or hope to one day set out for your own grand adventure with maximum serviceability, then this article might be of interest.

We might think of Gravel as a relatively new genre to cycling, but a more accurate way to describe it might be as cycling’s very own Frankenstein. A bit borrowed from touring, a bit from mountain biking and a whole lot of parts from the road – a giant bolt of lightning, and behold.

The monstrous result is better on the road than a mountain bike, better off the road than a road bike. The gravel bike is a jack of all trades, but master of none. Taking the best bits from different disciplines has lead to some interesting bikes, but unless you want your Gravel bike to move with a limp, you need to be careful which bits you stitch together.

Here are my top five things to consider before buying a gravel bike or updating your existing stead.

Avoid the slam

Here’s one particularly for those coming from the road scene. It may look like your road bike, but don’t assume you want the same geometry.

A more relaxed approach achieves two things. First, by being a bit more upright, you’ll have a better view of obstacles on the path. Second, how much stack height you have will influence how much load you can carry on your bars. Slam your front end like a Tour de France winner, and you’ll finish up with your sleeping bag rubbing on your front wheel – and just think of the watts penalty that will cause.

same rider, different position

Save it for later

If you are still determined to slam it, then consider keeping the steerer intact and simply inverting the stack (i.e. place the spacers above the stem). I know road purists will recoil, but remember this bike is about versatility. By inverting the stem, you preserve stack height which means you’ll have more space upfront if you one day choose to go bike packing.

saving the steering tube for later 

Aero or shaped bars

OK, this is going to be contentious, gravel bikes should have round bars – always, the end. Here’s why.

I went for an adventure by bike, and on my bars, I clipped…

… my computer, my bell, my lights, my storage, my camera mount, my tri-bars etc., etc.

 

These things all require space on your bars and, without exception, they all come with a standard, round-bracket for fitting.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I don’t have round bars, mine ‘flare for comfort’ on the top-most section, so I only have a tiny amount of space for mounting stuff if I go bike packing.

Even if I’m not bike packing, I still want to be able to change the layout to better suit what I’m doing. In the summer, I don’t need light mounts, and if I’m just out for the day I don’t carry luggage. Changing needs mean I’m always shuffling things around. Round, parallel bars equal more space and more flexibility regarding what goes where and when.

these bars flare almost immediately, severely restricting useful mounting space

Novel things, or things peculiar to one brand

I’ve started out talking about handlebars, but it equally applies to brands with their own Bottom Bracket Standard, or who use only half the usual amount of fork.

I have nothing against innovation, but it might be better suited to ‘pure’ genres; let me explain. Imagine buying a gravel bike with an integrated cockpit arrangement or a fancy double-decker handlebar.

At first, everything is terrific, but then you notice your back starts aching on even short rides. You take the plunge and see a bike fitter who suggests you need to adjust your reach. On a standard bike, that means a new stem – £15 or so.

Canyon Grail’s integrated bars are the gravel equivalent of marmite and still divide opinion

For want of a nail

Unfortunately, on your new fancy bike, that’s a whole new cockpit. To make matters worse it’s only available in carbon, only one company makes it, and as a result, it’s expensive. That leads to my next concern. What happens when they stop making the one bike that uses that handlebar? How long before that bar is no longer available. For want of replacement handlebars, is that bike now unusable?

In another scenario, you’re on the adventure ride of a lifetime when you have a catastrophic front wheel failure. On a standard bike, you might have a bit of ‘hike-a-bike’ until you reach a bike shop, but you can be confident they have a replacement and you’ll soon be on your way. If your bike uses a single-arm fork, the likelihood that a shop has a suitable wheel in stock are slim. It all starts to sound like ‘for want of a nail….’

The best isn’t always best

Your gravel bike is likely to have a hard life. Taking the odd spill is all part of the adventure rough and tumble mean things are more likely to break (or be broken) than on your road bike. What you can afford to buy, might be different to what you can afford to replace.

bish, bash, broke! Not the most dramatic of smashes, but it shows how easily its done and there was no way to straighten this back into alignment

A groupset – less than the sum of its parts

Consider this. You save up and buy a new bike with the SRAM AXS. It’s excellent – everything you wanted, crisp gear changes, performance – you’re the envy of all your mates. Then one day you hit deep sand while out riding. You have an amazing crash (that nobody records) and somewhere along the way, the rear derailleur gets smashed. That is only the beginning of your woes. A quick search online tells you that a new rear derailleur is £600 (£350 for the Force AXS version).

Now re-run that scenario with Force 1 (mechanical). You can literally crash, smash and replace your rear derailleur three times and still have enough money left over to buy a new set of tyres for the cost of one AXS derailleur. Use Rival 1, and that increases to six epic crashes!

There’s also interoperability to consider. Again, let’s revisit our crash scenario on that once in a lifetime adventure ride. The chances of a bike shop stocking AXS is pretty slim – they will have to order it in, and it HAS to be AXS, you can’t mix it with the cheaper option – not only does it have to be 12 speed, but it also has to be wireless. Force 1 and Rival 1 work together, as do mechanical Dura-ace, Ultegra, and even 105, so chances are you can replace your mashed derailleur with something cheaper and keep going.

I don’t know about you, but I want to go and ride my bike and enjoy the experience, not spend the whole time worrying about dropping it, bashing it or scraping it.

Copy your mates 

Here’s my final comment – if you ride with a regular group, it might be worth looking at what they have. There’s strength in numbers – its why militaries invest so heavily in ‘uniform’.

I don’t mean matching clothes, but interoperability and standard parts. Snap a chain when you’re the only one riding 12 (or 13) speed, and no one else will be carrying a spare link that will fit. You either need to be prepared or be ready to get walking.

This concept even extends to group knowledge of how to adjust and fix things on the trail. On more extended expeditions, this philosophy means you can carry ‘group kit’ for repairs and reduce weight overall.

Final thoughts

If money is no object, or you ride alone, most of these considerations may seem unnecessary. For most of us, though, cycling is something that has to be balanced with other priorities.

Buying a gravel bike is likely to be a big investment, but despite that long term costs are rarely mentioned in reviews even though they’re an essential consideration. As is, the ability to fix things on the go, or with commonly available parts.

In many ways, your gravel bike is an old Land Rover, not a Ferrari. Yeah it clunks and bumps, and it might lack refinement, but you don’t mind driving it across a muddy field or cringe as you scrape it along an overgrown hedge. When it breaks you shrug, and grab the hammer, not gulp and wonder whether you can get by with just one kidney.

We all love lovely things, but sometimes want we want is different from what we need.

like the rider, a jack of all trades…

Alec is a serial biker, having dabbled in road, TT, mountain biking and gravel. If he's not riding, or dreaming of riding, he can be found in the shed tinkering…

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