Gravel Bike Buyer's Guide 2022

October 12, 2022

Gravel Bike Buyer's Guide 2022

Gravel Bike Buyer’s Guide

How to find the right gravel bike model to suit your riding style. What should I be looking for? Single or double chainring? Carbon or alloy? Is suspension necessary? Can I get away with cable disc brakes? It's all here.

All through the 90’s and 2000’s I was occasionally taking my road bike onto gravel roads to complete loops in the Santa Monica Mtns in Los Angeles and the Santa Cruz Mtns near San Francisco. Often we would have a loop in mind that took in some of the greatest, scenic sections of mountain backroads, but in order to connect them we would have to do long climbs or descents on dirt roads. It was challenging and takes some decent bike handling skills to manage a 23c tyre on squishy gravel at speed, but we adapted – albeit with the occasional pinch flat.  Riders today have so much new technology, wider tyres, and a great selection of bikes across the spectrum that are so advanced, I’m almost jealous of their choices.

There is a lot to choose from out there and many of the features that gravel bikes offer can enhance your experience, but others might be unnecessary and might even hinder your ride overall. I hope I can shed some light to help you prioritize the list of features you’re presented with and make a decent choice.

Gravel bikes are a logical revolution of a road bike where the rider prefers to be away from cars, might live near a network of roads & paths that are not road-bike friendly, or just wants a little more adventure in their riding diet. They vary along a spectrum from very rugged with offroad features aplenty, to competitive road bikes with bigger tyre clearance than average. Choosing the right one and understanding the implications for some of the common features can be confusing.


 This experience chart, although oversimplified, covers the range of gravel bikes from the raciest to the most off-road.


The most common conversation I have about features is definitely the crank setup. Generally, the double chainring setup works best for people riding road bikes and shifting their riding to more dirt and gravel tracks.  They are accustomed to the small gear increments between rear cogs and not shifting from big<>small rings in the front constantly. They still have a big range from lowest to highest gears, but most gravel bikes with 2x come with slightly lower gearing than their road counterparts.  The 2x drive setup suits riders that are doing mild gravel roads, tracks, rolling roads, and a healthy dose of paved surfaces mixed in.

The single front chainring setup and the ultra wide range cassette works well for riders tackling terrain that goes up and down a lot, saving the rider from having to coordinate front & rear shifting. What they miss out on is the small increments between gears that road riders tend to enjoy when they are making small adjustments to their cadence in response to changes in wind or small changes in gradient over a ride. Although the 1x system can work well for all gravel bikes, it definitely suits more cyclocross and mountain bike-style riding best where the absence of a front derailleur simplifies things for speed and efficiency of shifting in rougher situations. Some riders who do long distance and remote trekking prefer the 1x for the simplicity, lower weight, and lower maintenance as well.


Bikes like the Topstone Carbon and Topstone Lefty have additional suspension or flex in the rear end of the frame that makes the ride smoother. Most of the suspension in a gravel bike will come from the flex in the tyres when ridden at the proper pressures, so suspension is not necessary in a majority of gravel-style riding situations. Bikes equipped with additional flex in the frame give the rider more comfort while in the saddle over rougher terrain.  Bikes with front suspension like the Lefty can allow the bike to be ridden as a light duty mountain bike, better at absorbing ruts, roots, rocks with a lot less force transferred through the handlebars into the riders hand’s and upper body.  But, with all it’s advantages, suspension almost always weighs more so can be a hindrance when climbing 20+ degree gradients while trying to maintain traction and momentum. If you’re riding more mountain bike-style gravel riding, suspension is definitely a plus, but not a critical feature if budget or riding style doesn’t require it.


Frame material is often a topic of discussion, but in my opinion makes one of the smallest contributions to the overall experience. Carbon frames are lighter, and since they are more expensive, tend to be built with higher end parts packages, therefore more expensive models. Lighter bikes are easier to accelerate and climb steep inclines, so there's an advantage there.  Durability-wise, carbon can match or even exceed the strength and impact resistance of alloy frames in many cases, but might be more expensive to replace if it sees a lot of abuse in it's travels. Overall, I believe a high quality alloy bike with the right tyres, tyre pressure, geometry and drivetrain can be an exceptional machine for the average rider. 


Bikes like the Supersix SE Gravel bike have the same, lower front end as their road bike cousins, for aerodynamics, a more competitive riding position. The increase in stability offroad comes mostly from the wider tyres and bigger tyre clearance. Many other bikes like the Kona Libre and Cannondale Topstone have geometry more like an endurance road bike, a slightly higher handlebar position, and a longer wheelbase that give the bike even more confidence on loose surfaces at higher speeds. Touring/trekking models are appreciably more comfortable with this more upright position as well, but might also be a bit slower in a headwind on an open road.  This is one time that the drop handlebar is super handy, to get low into the wind. Be aware of the general category that you’re searching in to make sure the position will suit your distance, terrain type, and comfort requirements.


What we knew as “touring” in the 70’s and 80’s is making a comeback, but it’s different now with all the new tech. Offroad trekking on mountain bikes with loads of bags for camping is coming back, but the gravel-style trekking and overnighting is also growing.  This can vary from someone doing an overnight trip with little more than a wallet and phone, to someone doing an extended trip with full camping gear and provisions.  One might just need a top tube bag and seatbag for their essentials, another might require bags on the fork, a rear rack with panniers, a roll bag for the handlebars and a top tube bag for their phone & navigation. The bikes at the racier end of the spectrum might not come with any extra mounts other than for two bottle cages, but most have more options. The top tube mounts save the paint from those pesky Velcro straps on the top tube bags, but fork mounts, dropout & seatstay mounts allow for setting up your bike for some extended trips. Consider what you might do in the future when looking at a new rig.


In my opinion, gravel bikes are best when set up tubeless. It's lighter, you get far less punctures, and all you need is a tube to fix a flat should you rip a super size hole in the tyre that tubeless will not fix on it's own. The main benefit is that you can run 30-35 psi and get great grip without the high risk of pinch flatting a tube. Most bikes priced over $3k come with tubeless-ready tyres. They come from the factory with tubes in them, and require a knowledgeable shop to seal the rims, install a tubeless valve stem, and then drop in some sealant & make sure it seals properly. My shop does this with a 90-day guarantee for $70 per end. If the model you're looking at does not say tubeless ready on the sidewall of the tyres, you're up for another $140 in tyres, so about a $300 upgrade, which puts the feature in perspective when deciding between two different models a few hundred dollars apart.


Very few gravel models come stock with this feature, but most mountain bikers consider a dropper post a requirement, not a luxury. A button on the handlebars allows the rider to drop the seat 80-100mm which lowers the center of gravity and allows the rider to move the bike around more over challenging terrain or get low while descending steep terrain. As someone who came from mountain biking, I’m very accustomed to dropping the saddle constantly during the ride on anything not completely smooth, so it goes without saying that my gravel bike has to have a dropper. I don’t shy away from the occasional set of stairs or gnarly, muddy descent, my gravel bike needs to be able to handle what I dish out.  Either way, you need a round 27.2 seat tube to install one, so bikes with aero, or D-shaped seatposts won’t jive with a dropper. Keep it in mind.


Many of the affordable models from most brands come with cable-pull disc brakes. This saves money on the relatively expensive hydraulic units on the higher end models, but if you can afford it, get a model with a solid, hydraulic system. Hydraulic disc brakes simply stop better. So when descending a risky trail, or trying to stop after riding through water, it's best to have some powerful stoppers. Brake pads seem to wear faster than people expect after getting water, sand & mud on them, so keep an eye on brake wear and don't let them run metal to metal.

About my bike & riding:

My riding tends to span the spectrum of super-steep, loose climbs and singletrack out Lysterfield way, from full-on singletrack loops alongside mountain bikers, to 45km paved & gravel flat rides in & around Patterson Lakes/Eastlink & Frankston. I opted for a superlight, carbon bike with carbon wheels (no front suspension) so I can still accelerate and keep momentum while climbing up the 22% fireroad beside 1000 Steps in the Dandenongs. I put a dropper post on it so I can descend some of the slippery & rooty singletrack near Belgrave. It's got to be fast & light so I can do 60km partly on the road and partly on gravel in a fast pack of riders, wherever the night takes us on our Wednesday Nightride. WTB Riddler 37c tyres set up tubeless are my favourite tyre combo as well. Recently sold my Topstone Carbon 2 with dropper post, and currently riding an alloy Kona Libre base model as a holdover until new arrivals start to arrive this summer.

Click Here to check out our gravel offerings at Urban Pedaler

Drop a comment below or feel free to email us at if you have any questions.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Also in News

The new Scalpel beats out the Specialized Epic 8 and is quite possibly the current technology and geometry leader in the highly competitive XC category!
The new Scalpel beats out the Specialized Epic 8 and is quite possibly the current technology and geometry leader in the highly competitive XC category!

May 06, 2024

The 2024 redesign of the Scalpel is already making it's mark! At the point end of mountain bike technology, features like the FlexPivot and updated geometry are edging the Scalpel forward while competitors are playing catch up, like Specialized ditching the much-touted Brain...

Continue Reading

The Tacx Neo 2T indoor trainer still reigns supreme in 2024!
The Tacx Neo 2T indoor trainer still reigns supreme in 2024!

April 09, 2024

The Neo 2T has proven to be the most reliable, boasts the most impressive list of features, and is still king of the trainers after four years at the top!

Continue Reading

2024 Cannondale Moterra SL - First Ride Review
2024 Cannondale Moterra SL - First Ride Review

March 26, 2024

"Now the uphill can give me the same feeling that I've had after chasing a group down Flickety Sticks and arriving at the bottom of a seven-minute roller coaster ride, at the edge of my ability, high-fives all around."

Continue Reading