In the past year we've tested more gravel and adventure bikes than ever before. We’ve also tested some jolly expensive bikes in this new and exciting category, which is why for the first time we’ve introduced the new Super Gravel and Adventure Bikes or Super G award – in much the same way as we've already divided road bikes and superbikes. To qualify for this award the bikes cost in excess of £3,000.
These are bikes that we expect to provide exceptional performance with components that provide the mix of road and off-road capability. As this category of bike evolves we're seeing some interesting developments aimed at providing more capability and comfort for dealing with rough gravel tracks and the demands of everything from hacking around the woods to epic adventures across multiple borders.
Coming in right on the money is the brand new Hook EXT-C, an all-new carbon fibre gravel bike from the small German company that has been impressing us with some really nice bikes. This new model is no disappointment at all, it’s highly capable, comfortable and provides great handling.
You get a full carbon frame and fork with three bottle cage mounts and eyelets for mudguards and racks. This is clearly a bike designed for going the distance. It’s a shame the external bottom bracket from the steel Hook bike has been swapped for a press-fit design, though the stiffness the massive bottom bracket area of the frame provides is noticeable when you’re really giving it full gas.
Fitted with on-trend 2.1in wide 650b tyres, you can ride anywhere with more capability than most circa 40mm tyres that most adventure bikes are specced with. You really can go anywhere, over any trail, terrain or obstacle with the extra volume providing more vibration absorbing cushioning when the going gets really rough and tough. They don’t feel as fast as a 700x40mm on flat out blasting fireroads, but when speed doesn’t matter but traction and comfort does, they are hard to beat.
The Hook’s geometry lets you make the most of the bigger tyres. The relaxed head angle and long wheelbase provide good stability in the rough and when you’re hurtling rough bridleways or nipping between the trees in the woods on a thin ribbon on singletrack.
On the road, the Bombtrack is no slouch, though it’s obviously not going to keep up with friends on road bikes. Add a bit of air to the tyres though and it rolls along the hard stuff without any huge increase in effort, provided you keep the speeds this side of 20mph.
With its chunky 650b tyres and light and stiff carbon frame, the Bombtrack is straying perilously close to a hardtail mountain bike, but there’s enough to distance it. It’s smooth and swift on the road, and insanely good fun off the road in the trails and woods, with bags of enthusiasm and planted handling that will have you grinning from ear to ear.
Why it’s here: It’s a highly capable, fun and comfortable big-tyred adventure bike
With exquisite attention to detail, understated looks and a cracking good ride on road, forest paths and gravel tracks, with space for wide tyres on 700C or 650B wheels, the new J.Guillem Atalaya Gravel is an enticing choice in the premium titanium gravel bike market.
It’s a beautifully designed titanium frame. The cast one-piece bottom bracket and chainstay yoke looks lovely and provide wide tyre clearance - there’s space for 700x40mm wheels and tyres or the increasingly popular 650Bx2.1in option. The tapered head tube is also cast with neat internal cable routing and the company’s own carbon fibre fork. For versatility, there are removable Mudguard and Rack mounts.
The geometry works well both on the ride or barrelling along forest tracks and woodland singletrack. The high-speed stability is very impressive, but it still turns into corners positively and the WTB Riddler tyres bite throughout the turns. It doesn't have point-and-shoot responsiveness when you turn up the intensity, but it’s reasonably agile in twisty trails.
As you’d hope and expect of a titanium bike, the ride quality is highly impressive, as good as any of the best titanium frames I've tested. It's compliant but still transmits a little feel through the contact points, and the steering is light and easy. Ride down a bumpy track and the Atalaya won't jolt and buck you about as if you were riding a wild bronco. It's composed and controlled.
Where the Atalaya succeeds is being a really good all-rounder. It'll spend all day on the road, wafting from coffee stop to farm shop, with all the smoothness and comfort you expect from a titanium bike. Feel like untapping your adventurous spirit and it'll wrestle through forest trails, smash along fast gravel tracks and handle all the associated bumps and twists of rough stuffing.
Why it’s here: Beautifully made and lovely riding titanium gravel bike
British brand Vielo’s new V+1 is a carbon fibre road plus and adventure bike that offers a highly impressive ride. It’s smooth and composed, fast and fun, and bristles with smart details that make it as practical as it is intoxicating.
Shod with the excellent 38mm Schwalbe G-One Speed tyres, the V+1 displays superb stability: show it a fast descent and it carves easily through the bends; rough roads don't unsettle its composure; loose surfaces don't shake and rattle your confidence. It’s the ideal bike for the road cyclist fed up with being shaken to pieces on poorly maintained tarmac. It’ll take up to a 42mm tyre or you can go down the 650b route with up to 2.1in tyres.
For its first frame, Vielo has pulled a blinder. It's an impressive accomplishment. There's a high level of design and attention to detail on display, with the years of experience really shining through. It brings a lot of features and design cues that are increasingly common on such bikes, with a couple of extra ones that are often omitted. It’s also very light, a claimed 890g and 400g fro the fork, competitive with the latest Open UPPER.
It taps into the growing appetite for bigger tyres and increased versatility, with a beautifully designed and lightweight carbon frame and fork that provide splendid handling and performance. At £5,499 it's not cheap, but if you've got deep pockets and want a versatile and highly capable bike for taming rough roads and going wild in the back of beyond, you're in for a real treat.
Why it’s here: Formidable road plus/adventure/gravel/gnarmac bike with speed, comfort and lovely handling
Orbea’s first gravel and adventure bike, the Terra, is a highly capable multi-terrain bike that is as fit for an adventure as it is for commuting and winter training with the addition of mudguards.
With a stiff and responsive carbon frameset, the Terra is one of the flightiest gravel and adventure bikes we’ve tested. The low weight and high stiffness help, giving it almost road race bike-like responses on the road, yet it's stable and controlled on rough and loose surfaces.
Away from the rough and tumble of the woods and gravel tracks and onto the road, and the geometry shows great composure on the road. It's as easy and comfortable to ride as any endurance bike, it climbs well, with enough stiffness for sprinting antics, and is comfortable enough to deal with cracked roads.
The All Road Geometry that Orbea has developed for the Terra follows similar lines to other bikes in this category. It's a longer, slacker and lower stance than a cyclo-cross bike, with a long wheelbase ensuring that when you get up to speed on gravel tracks it is as calm and surefooted as a rigid road bike on relatively narrow tyres is ever going to be.
The Terra M21-D bike on test costs £3,199 and is one of six models available. It's specced with a SRAM Force 1 groupset, Fulcrum Racing 500 DB wheels with 40mm Schwalbe G-One Allround tyres, FSA SL-K stem and seatpost, Energy Compact handlebar and a Prologo Nago Evo Space Tirox saddle. On the scales, this size medium is 8.4kg. As with most bikes on this list there are various specs available to suit different budgets.
One thing worth adding is Orbea's MyO custom option. For no extra cost you can choose the colour of your new Terra which certainly gives it a compelling advantage over its rivals. We stuck with an off-the-shelf bike for this review, but the quality of the paint finish and the design is first class.
Why it’s here: A good choice for covering gravel and road quickly
The Merida Silex looks to mountain bikes for inspiration, with a geometry that gives the Silex excellent off-road ability yet it’s no slouch when faced with asphalt. Don’t judge this bike by its looks, because once you get behind the handlebars you realise it’s the perfect bike for spending a lot of time off the beaten track. It’s one of the best gravel and adventure bikes we’ve ridden because it’s so much better suited to off-road trails than most road bike derived gravel bikes.
Road bikes don't really work off-road full stop but many a rigid mountain bikes have found themselves tweaked into commuting service without issue so Merida's school of thought introducing mountain bike geometry to their new gravel bike makes a lot of sense. Most people who are going to be buying this kind of bike are likely to spend the majority of their riding time away from the tarmac lanes.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first, that very tall head tube. The idea is to avoid a large stack of headset spacers yet provide a position that is high enough to use the drops effectively on fast gravel descents and technical downhills. Combined with a longer top tube and a short stem and compact drops, and you have a bike that is impressively capable off-road. Whether on hard pack gravel or flying through the dry trails in the local woods the Silex makes you feel completely in control and no matter how technical things get, the Merida's ability never felt challenged.
The steering is responsive but even with that the short stem the relaxed 71° head angle, compared to others in its class, means that it never becomes twitchy. It allows a smooth flow through the bends of a twisty gravel track or flicking the Silex between roots and potholes as you bomb down through a forest trail.
Comfort is another place where the Silex 9000 scores highly. That sloped top tube leaves a lot of seatpost exposed which creates plenty of flex. Merida has designed this bike to work with a 30.9mm diameter post so that you can replace the standard item with a dropper post if you so desire.
As you'd expect for a bike costing £3,500, this range-topping 9000 model is well specced. You get a Sram Force 1X groupset with a large spread of gears, using a 44t chainring paired with an 11 speed, 10-42t cassette which worked fine for off-road use if a little gappy between cogs for road use. The shifting at the Force lever was as sharp as ever and the rear mech sees the chain skip up and down the sprockets without issue even under load. The clutch operated mech also keeps chain tension high and I never had an issue with it coming off the chainring no matter how rough the terrain.
Merida have specced Maxxis Gravel 35mm tyres on the Silex 9000 and they aren't too bad, a decent compromise for both on and off-road if you are going to be mixing things up a bit on each ride. With no tread pattern to speak of on the central section, you need to pick your conditions carefully, if it's wet and even slightly muddy you're going to seriously struggle for traction but as the name suggests they are great on hardpack and all kinds of gravel.
Overall the Silex is the perfect bike if you are going to spend a lot of time off the beaten track thanks to that excellent handling and fast, responsive ride. The fact that it doesn't really sacrifice its tarmac manners makes it a true all-rounder.
Why it’s here: Lightweight speed machine with excellent off-road handling while being no slouch on the road either
The most radical and distinctive bike of any discipline launched in the last year is undoubtedly the Grail, Canyon’s first dedicated gravel and adventure bike. With its head-turning dual handlebar setup, it was clear Canyon had put a lot of thought into developing a bike able to meet the requirements of gravel riding. And blimey what a light, nimble, fun and fast bike the Grail turned out to be.
It's responsive to any acceleration and hard effort out of the saddle for those short, sharp climbs. And if there is no way to avoid that pothole/tree root/large rock, it bunnyhops like a pro. It's the way it just deals with everything in its path that's so impressive.
Canyon's innovative handlebar is a big help when it comes to providing stability and a real feeling of confidence. When descending in the drops at warp speed, you can wrap your thumbs around the base bar to give you a good firm grip. No amount of vibration or whack from a pothole is going to see you lose contact with it, and I found it easy enough to pull the brakes on full from this position too.
The steering is beautifully direct too. Canyon has gone for a 72.5-degree head angle which is a good 1-1.5 degrees steeper than most gravel bikes to take some of the quickness out of the steering for riding on loose terrain. The 1,209mm wheelbase helps keep some stability and reassurance too.
The Grail isn't only a massive blast off the road, it's a very capable machine on it too. That steeper head angle and an aggressive seat angle of 73 degrees, makes for a spirited ride. The Schwalbe tyres are grippy on the tarmac too, so you don't feel like you are trudging along the road on a set of knobblies crying out for a return to the fun stuff.
The Grail range starts at £1,099 for an aluminium version and £1,999 for a base carbon model and tops out at £4,099. The range has been tweaked for 2019 so you can no longer buy the £3,249 Ultegra Di2/ Reynolds Assault specced model we tested. Instead, this model now costs £2,999 with the same Ultegra Di2 groupset but with DT Swiss C 1800 Spline aluminium wheels wrapped with the same excellent Schwalbe G-One Bite tyres. So better or worse depending on your viewpoint, but we did think the carbon wheels dented its value for money a little so this spec change seems a sensible move.
Overall, despite its novel looks the Grail is a product of great engineering, not just the frameset but the Canyon components too. It's been designed as a complete package – you can call them gimmicks if you like, but wow, they all add up to an awesome ride.
Why it wins: The fastest and most fun gravel bike I've ridden by far with an adrenaline grin factor of 10/10!
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.