[This article was last updated on December 1, 2017]
Descended from touring bikes, endurance bikes and cyclo-cross bikes, gravel/adventure bikes are go-almost-anywhere machines for riders who want to explore and race on dirt roads, and ride Tarmac to get there.
Disc brakes allow frame clearances for fatter tyres, making for a bike that can cope with a very wide range of surfaces and that points & laughs at potholes.
With even the tiniest lanes infested with motor traffic, gravel bikes get you properly away from dangerous drivers.
At the adventure end of the spectrum, these are the rugged successors to traditional long-distance touring bikes.
Some manufacturers are exploring short-travel suspension and 650B wheels to improve comfort and traction.
Gravel/adventure bikes have gone very quickly from the latest craze to a significant part of most bike companies' ranges. These bikes are tailored for long-distance comfort, with disc brakes, big tyre clearance and geometry honed to excel both on the road and off, whether it's a gravel, forest or dirt track.
Why you might want a gravel or adventure bike
Their adaptability, versatility and ruggedness makes them the perfect commuter bike, an ideal light touring or audax bike, a great winter training bike, or simply one bike that can tackle any sort of terrain you care to take it along. If ever there was a case for the one perfect bike for the British non-racing cyclist, then an adventure bike is probably it.
The US gravel racing scene hasn’t been much emulated in the UK yet, but the style of bike has piqued the interest of British cyclists. The idea of the bigger tyres and relaxed geometry that promotes extra comfort when the going gets rough and bumpy is very attractive given the generally poor state of repair of UK roads. Let's be honest, in many places they're almost gravel anyway.
They can be ridden anywhere, these bikes, on the road and off it. The idea of adventure (or allroad, roadplus and enduroad as some people are calling this style of bike) is also finding fans, with the ability to dart down a bridleway or over the plain or along a fireroad to mix up a regular road ride appealing to cyclists keen to get away from the congested streets and into the wide open countryside.
Of course, the idea of riding a road bike across any sort of terrain, be it smoothly paved roads or rough and bumpy gravel tracks, woodland trails laced with roots or edge-of-field bridleways, is nothing new really. Road cyclists have been doing it since the dawn of the bicycle. How do you think cyclo-cross was invented? Gravel and adventure bikes, though, are better suited to the demands of on and off-road riding. They split the difference between an endurance road bike and a cyclo-cross bike, with space for bigger tyres than an endurance bike and geometry better suited to road riding than a cyclo-cross bike.
Don't confuse a gravel and adventure bike with an endurance road bike like the Cannondale Synapse or Saracen Avro. While they do look similar, the key difference is in the bigger tyres the former accepts and the modified geometry. It's worth taking a look at our roundup of endurance road bikes for examples of bikes that come close to a gravel and adventure bike.
Call them what you want, these bikes are all about having fun and exploring the beautiful countryside we’re fortunate to be surrounded by. You could be riding along smooth tarmac one minute, then hurtling down a tree-lined bridleway the next, then trucking along a fireroad in deepest Wales the next. And that really appeals to a growing number of British cyclists.
What to look for in a gravel and adventure bike
For a start, gravel and adventure bikes aren’t simply rebranded cyclo-cross bikes. While there’s no single blueprint that adventure bikes follow, they generally sit between an endurance road bike and a cyclo-cross race bike, if anything leaning more towards the former. They’re designed with longer wheelbases, so they’re stable on the road and when riding over an unpredictable surface like gravel, and provide comfort over long distances. The geometry is more relaxed than a race bike, the head angle slacker and the head tube often taller. The bottom bracket will usually be a little lower than a cyclo-cross bike.
They all feature disc brakes. By removing the rim brake caliper you can easily design a frame and fork able to accommodate bigger tyres. Disc brakes, especially hydraulic discs, offer more power which provides more confidence when riding off-road and are useful in mixed conditions.
Gravel and adventure bikes will have space for bigger tyres, but how big varies from brand to brand. Endurance road bikes go up to about 32mm as a general rule, but gravel and adventure road bikes increase the clearance up to as much as 55mm. That provides a vast range of tyre choice options, including many rugged touring and cyclocross tyres, as well as road slicks, so you've got plenty of options for setting the bike up for your riding demands. In some cases you can even fit 29er mountain bike tyres.
Tyre choice very much depends on the riding you want to do and the terrain in your local riding spot. There’s nothing to stop you fitting light 25mm or 28mm tyres if you want it to be fast on the road. Or you could use a 35mm treaded tyre if you want to include some gravel and dirt paths in your rides. We’re seeing more tyre choice as well to go with the bikes, such as the Panaracer Gravel King, to name one example of the growing selection aimed at gravel and adventure riding.
While this new breed of bike has stemmed from the gravel racing scene, manufacturers have been wise to cotton on to the do-it-all appeal, and many equip the bikes with eyelets for fitting racks and mudguards. That means you could build up the perfect winter or commuting bike, or add a rack for some light touring and explore further afield. With events like the Transcontinental Race proving popular it’s this sort of bike that is becoming the go-to choice for long distance bikepacking or lightweight touring, where you want a rugged bike able to tackle any sort of terrain you might encounter, the comfortable riding position a bonus when going the distance.
See the sidebar to the right for more reviews of gravel and adventure bikes
Some bikes for your consideration
The Silex is a completely new platform for Merida, driven by some intriguing ideas. Taking a cue from current mountain bike thinking, Silexes (Silices?) are long out front compared to almost all other gravel bikes and at 71° have a shallower head angle. The idea is to make the bike more stable over rough surfaces, and our first impression from the Silex 9000 (above) that we currently have on test is that it works very well indeed.
South Coast-based Reilly Cycleworks has produced the Gradient as a do-everything adventure and gravel bike, with a lovingly finished titanium frame and smart specification in this £2,799 complete bike. It provides a ride that is as lovely as the bike is to look at, with space for wide tyres for heading off into the wilderness or adding dirt and gravel roads to your route, and a high level of refinement.
The Gradient provides a lovely ride. It's composed and comfortable, the titanium frame providing a sublime balance of stiffness and comfort. The carbon fork and oversized head tube gives the handling a crispness and it changes direction quickly when you want it to.
Cross, Gravel, Road, that's what the CGR initials stand for on Ribble's all-rounder. A disc brake-equipped, mudguard-shod 'do a bit of everything' machine that makes a lot of sense for the rider who doesn't always want to stick to the tarmac. Thankfully, this jack of all trades is no master of none.
The CGR is a very easy bike to ride thanks to some neutral and balanced handling. This might make it sound dull but it's far from it, especially when you go off-road.
With a long wheelbase, mounts for mudguards and racks plus being designed for disc brakes, the Ribble is likely to see a lot of use in the wet and cold of winter where the road surface is often less than ideal. It's a bike that's dependable and trustworthy when it comes to the handling.
Giant bills its new-for-2018 ToughRoad SLR GX range as "the perfect machine for tackling imperfect roads". With an aluminium frame that can accommodate up to 50mm tyres (and actually comes with tyres that size) it can certainly take bigger tyres than most. That's a big difference from the Contend and Defy bikes that only take up to 28mm tyres, so it don't fall into the gravel and adventure bike category . The ToughRoad SLR GX has a carbon fibre fork with disc brakes, a wide ergo-shaped handlebar and full-length cable housing to keep crud out. There’s even an integrated down tube mudguard to keep splatter out of your face.
British brand Genesis was doing adventure road bikes long before it became the latest trend, and the most recent changes to the Croix de Fer - a lower bottom bracket and taller head tube - took it further away from its cyclo-cross roots and closer to an adventure bike. And is there any adventure bigger than riding around the world? That's something that Vin Cox did in 2010, setting a new record in the process, aboard a Croix de Fer. Steel frames feature across the range with a choice of steel or carbon forks, plus disc brakes, external cable routing and eyelets for racks and mudguards.
Introduced in 2015, the Specialized Diverge is a series of adventure and gravel bikes with space for up to 35mm tyres. Production bikes are specced with 25mm and 28mm tyres, though, as Specialized apparently — and probably rightly — believes they'll get most of their use on the road. Carbon or aluminium framed, depending on price, the top-end models have thru-axle dropouts for extra stiffness, but all models get mudguard and rack mounts so they’ll double up as a touring or commuting bikes.
We really liked the Raleigh Mustang Elite when we tested it. It does everything a regular road bike does, but it does it with the added comfort of the big tyres. It's part of Raleigh's three-bike range of gravel/adventure bikes and a great example of the booming category. Its 6061 double butted aluminium frame is designed for both on and off road riding so if you're getting tempted by your local dirt roads and trails, or a canal towpath commute, it'll take it in its stride.
Along with a carbon fork with through-axle and TRP Spyre disc brakes, the 2018 version, above has SRAM's Apex 1X transmission with a single 40-tooth chainring and wide-range 11-42 11-speed cassette. It's the ultimate Keep It Simple, Stupid derailleur gear system and just the thing for a do-it-all bike.
The GT Grade is available with an aluminium or carbon frame (which features a frame design and carbon layup designed to provide comfort in the rough) with disc brakes and space for up to 35mm tyres. You could fit a slick tyre in there or a treaded cyclo-cross tyre if you want to inject more dirt and gravel into your riding. The Grade has versatility too, with mudguard and rack mounts neatly incorporated into the frame and fork. The top models have a carbon thru-axle fork for added stiffness.
We like the 105-equipped model for its combination of Shimano's excellent gears with TRP's cable-actuated hydraulic brakes. If you're looking at the Cycle to Work Scheme sub-£1,000 level, check out its Tiagra-equipped stablemate.
ATR stands for Adventure-Tour-Race and it's a bike built for adventure riding, cyclo-cross, touring and sportives. Kinesis build the frame from custom drawn 3AL/2.5V titanium tubing, with geometry featuring a low bottom bracket, long head tube and relaxed head angle, something that all these adventure bikes have in common. There’s space between the rear stays and carbon fork for up to 40mm tyres (but we’ve comfortably fitted wider) along with full-length 45mm mudguards, and there are rack mounts too.
Surly’s Straggler is a sturdily built and eminently adaptable steel all-rounder. It boasts a handful of interesting design touches, an unusual amount of tyre room, plentiful luggage rack mounts and a very comfy ride. It has a strong bias towards rough roads and trail use, but weight-weenies should look away now.
The Robinson, from British company The Light Blue, offers a really smooth ride, with steady handling and tyres that provide a good balance of fast road riding pace and off-road grip. In this SRAM Rival 1x build with cyclo-cross tyres it's an ideal all-terrain bike, at home on the road or tackling more challenging countryside terrain, or for just tackling rough roads in comfort. The Light Blue also offer a Shimano 105 build of the Robinson which they describe as an audax/light tourer.
The Robinson has very assured handling, not darting or flicking about the road. It's more measured than a race bike, with a long wheelbase producing the sort of stability that makes it a very easy bike to ride along back roads and over more challenging trails.
There's a lot to like about a good steel frame with a steel fork, and the Robinson doesn't disappoint. There's a suppleness you just don't get from stiffer carbon and aluminium rivals. The skinny steel tubes go a long way to isolating you from the small vibrations that can intrude into the ride quality, and, combined with the 30mm tyres, result in an ideal bike for making you feel at ease on many of the poorly maintained roads around the UK.
Canadian firm Norco is best known for its mountain bikes, and its Search bikes have been designed as adventure bikes able to tackle a multitude of paved or unpaved surfaces. Combining an aluminium frame and ‘endurance’ geometry with disc brakes and thru-axles at both wheels, it’s a bike ticking a lot of boxes. Comfort has been factored in with a 27.2mm seatpost and bowed seatstays, arcing chainstays and a tapered seat tube.
The four-model 2018 range kicks off at £650 with the Search Alloy Claris and peaks with the £1,150 Search Alloy 105 above.
The British made Shand Stoater offers a steel frame and fork that has been designed for “the pure enjoyment of go-anywhere riding… refined enough to be your main road bike but rugged enough for off road trails and singletrack, it could be the only bike you ever need,” according to the company. It’s available in several builds, we tested one with a Rohloff hub and Gates Belt drive costing £3,595, but other builds are available. Tyre clearance is good enough for 45mm tyres and the frame is decked out with rack and mudguard eyelets and three sets of bottle cage mounts.
The Renegade Elite packs a carbon fibre frame with space for up to 40mm tyres, and with disc brakes and rack and mudguard mounts it’s got the versatility box well and truly ticked. A carbon fibre frame and fork keep the weight low and, as we’d expect from an adventure bike, the head angle is slacker than that of a road bike. There’s a 15mm through-axle fork as well.
Available exclusively from Evans Cycles, the Renegade is available in three versions, starting at £975 with the Renegade Expat. If you have deep pockets, the Elite offers stunning value for money and a great ride.
The new Mason Bokeh is a highly capable adventure bike with a feature-packed aluminium frame, splendid aesthetics, and handling that ensures it's as at home on the road as it is on the trail.
The Bokeh combines an aluminium frame and carbon fork with all the key ingredients of an adventure bike, including wide tyres, disc brakes, thru-axles, relaxed geometry and mounts for mudguards and racks. The Bokeh goes the extra mile with a front dynamo mount, third bottle cage mount, 700C and 650B wheel size compatibility and fully internal cable routing.
As lovely as the Bokeh undoubtedly looks, its appearance is pointless if it's not backed by a high-quality ride. Fortunately, a high-quality ride the Bokeh most certainly does deliver. In a nutshell, it's a lovely bike to ride, whether on tarmac or gravel roads, or woodland byways.
The Genesis Datum joins a class occupied by the brilliant Cannondale Synapse and Giant Defy, but while both those bikes limit tyre size to 28mm the Datum accommodates 33mm tyres and has mounts for full-length mudguards. Add a beautifully finished carbon fibre frame and fork, a slick shifting Shimano Ultegra drivetrain with hydraulic disc brakes, Clement Strada tyres, and you have a hugely capable bike that is loads of fun over all sorts of terrain.
This is a bike that has a very sure-footed approach, whether cruising along a smooth road or exploring gravel paths and singletrack.
If you don’t race and you like a slightly taller front end, you’ll be right at home on the Datum. Long rides are dispatched with ease. We were impressed with how comfortable it was during a 190km ride during which the Datum revealed a quick turn of pace with lively handling that makes it a fun bike to ride.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.