Rusty buys a gravel bike
For those that be thinking about investing in one more bike…
After a fair bit of investigation and research, mostly online, I purchased my gravel bike a few weeks back. Since then I have had the chance to test it on gravel in the Otway ranges and on the road at the Friday Friendly BRL. After the big reveal on the Friday ride several riders said that they were considering a gravel and were curious as to how I ended up with mine. So here ’tis…
The gravel bike is an emerging and, apparently, increasingly popular trend. There is an enormous range and variety from the traditional road bike manufacturers through to mountain bike specialists and pretty much everyone in between. The gravel bike is being positioned as the ’do everything’ bike in your garage by some manufacturers – commuter, bike packing, gravel trails, single track, coffee… Others are targeting it is a special purpose bike to fill out your stable.
I am not an expert in the space! I received some great input from Justin M, Gavin R, Kym T, Phil Sh, Gary D, Herb, plus a couple of bike shops that actually had some stock. It was an interesting research project and I am very happy with the end result.
- What did I want the bike for? I wanted to add rail trails, gravel roads, and easier (!) single track trails to my riding mix. I was not in the hunt for a pure mountain bike and wanted reasonable performance on road and good trails. My road bikes (Canyon Ultimate carbon, Condor Classico steel) are both limited to a maximum tyre size of 700×28 limiting them to paved road and maybe very good rail trails. Implications:
- The bike needed to allow for tyre size in the 700×38-45 range. This would allow for a knobby tyre for gravel and single track and also for a slicker skinnier tyre, if needed, for road/rail trail.
- Plus I needed the bike to be robust enough to engage with some single track but light, smooth and comfortable enough for 100km+ mixed road/trail rides.
- Budget? The $64 question. Bikes in the gravel category ranged from $1,000 to $10,000+. If your are after high end gravel bike perspectives this is not the place to look! Given that I am not racing it, it’s recreational only and likely to get ridden 1-2 times per month and perhaps 2-3 gravel outings per year (Otways etc) I set my budget at $3,000 +/- 10%, (in line with the rest of my ‘stable’) reckoning that I could get a reasonable mix of components, frame and wheels at the price. Implications:
- Pretty much ruled out carbon frames; both Giant Revolt and BMC URS started at around $4,000. The Merida Silex 4000 carbon was under the $3,000. Some reviewers and manufacturers suggested that the lower end carbon frames were more susceptible to wear and tear in the gravel environment and pointed towards aluminium or steel.
- Titanium frames ruled out; Lynskey was starting at around US$3600 before any spec changes. Pity as I did not have Ti frame in the stable.
- Steel framed bikes for gravel were getting great reviews for compliance and robustness but again were generally north of $4,000. (eg Bombtrack)
- And suspension was out… Also a pity as the Cannondale Topstone Lefty looked very interesting.
- This meant looking at primarily Aluminium framed bikes often specified with a carbon fork; relatively light and robust.
- Components? This was the next big question as the component specification was driving the prices and would also impact the riding experience based on shifting feel and braking capability.
- Hydraulic disc brakes were a mandatory requirement for me. Feedback from some of our riders suggest that mechanical discs work well, but I opted for additional capability and modulation of the hydraulic brakes.
- Groupsets in this bracket tended to be Shimano GRX – their gravel specific set, SRAM – mostly APEX but some RIVAL. Some feedback seemed to suggest that while the APEX was ok they preferred the higher versions in SRAM.
- Shimano GRX tops out at an Ultegra equivalent GRX800 (Di2 capable but too expensive for me), with the GRX600 aligned to 105 (800/600 are both 11 speed), and GRX400 aligned to Tiagra and 10 speed. Being familiar with Shimano shifters, already having Campagnolo in the stable I did not want another shift style in the mix. I targeted the Shimano GRX.
- Interestingly very few bikes in the price segment had 100% of a particular Shimano GRX group set, often having a GRX800 derailleur, GRX600 shifters and GRX400 hydraulic brakes (there are no GRX600 brakes). The mix and match no doubt aimed at hitting the right price point. The difference between GRX800 and GRX400 brakes seem to be the cooling fins. The difference between GRX800 and GRX600 shifters seem to be the texture of the hood materials. The difference between GRX800 and GRX400 derailleurs primarily being 11 speed vs 10 speed.
- 1x vs 2x? I found this to be an esoteric and religious topic that contrasts the simplicity and marginally lower weight of a 1x chainring favoured by mountain bike riders with the marginally greater range and more ratios of a 2x chainring favoured by road bike riders.
- The 1x configurations were mostly 42 x 11-42. What does this mean?
- The lowest combination of 42 x 42 yields a gear ratio of 1.0, gear metres of 2.22m (1 pedal rotation to metres travelled), and a speed of 8.0km/h at 60rpm. ie a very good low gear
- The highest combination of 42 x 11 yields a gear ratio of 3.8, gear metres of 8.47m, and a speed of 50.8km/h at 100rpm. ie pretty quick with potential challenges for a fast decent, certainly ok for cruising.
- The 1x has, of course, only 11 ratios (10 on the GRX400), has no overlapping ratios which occur on the 2x, but does have larger steps between each gear.
- The 2x configurations were typically 46-30 x 11-34. The GRX800 can be pushed to a max of 48 on the front and 17 tooth range. What does this mean?
- The lowest combination of 30 x 34 yields a gear ratio of 0.9, gear metres of 1.96m, and a speed of 7.0km/h at 60rpm. ie a very good low gear – slightly lower than the 1x.
- The highest combination of 46 x 11 yields a gear ratio of 4.2, gear metres of 9.3m, and a speed of 55.7km/h at 100rpm. ie pretty quick except for very fast decent, certainly ok for cruising, slightly higher/faster than the 1x.
- The 2x has 22 ratios (20 on the GRX400) of which you lose, say, 2 each chain ring due cross chaining, and 1-2 other due to overlapping ratios, providing 16-17 unique and accessible ratios, and providing smaller steps between each gear.
- Having more ratios meant smaller steps between gears. This broke the religious deadlock for me as I am an avid gear changer so I was now targeting Shimano GRX800 2x configurations.
- The 1x configurations were mostly 42 x 11-42. What does this mean?
My short listed bikes:
- Focus Atlas 6.8 – “our first gravel bike … made for adventure”
- $3,100, Aluminium frame/carbon fork, GRX800 F/R derailleur (46/30 x 11/34), GRX600 shifters, GRX400 hydraulic brakes, 700×45 tyres compatible with 650×50, weight ~10.8kg
- Received some great reviews. Challenges on availability.
- I liked this because of the Focus reputation, good flexibility, and great looks.
- Marin Gestalt X11 – “a mountain bikers drop bar bike”
- $3,299, Aluminium frame/carbon fork, GRX800 R rear derailleur (42 x 11/42), GRX800 shifters, GRX400 hydraulic brakes, 700×40 tyres compatible with 650×50, weight not listed
- Received some great reviews, appealing at the MTB end of the spectrum. Dropper seat post (allow you to drop the seat by 50-100mm to assist in control on single track riding. Challenges on availability.
- I liked the Marin for its MTB orientation plus its looks!
- Canyon Grail AL7 – online only
- $2,950 + shipping, Aluminium frame/carbon fork, GRX800 F/R derailleur (46/30 x 11/34), GRX600 shifters, GRX400 hydraulic brakes, 700×40, weight 9.4kg
- Received some great reviews. Arguably best price/specification. Online only Challenges on availability.
- Canyon quality, lightness, and price/performance were the attractions
- Norco Search XR S1 – Canadian MTB firm
- $3,300 ($3,600 list), Reynolds 725 steel frame/carbon fork, GRX800 R derailleur 105 F derailleur (46/30 x 11/34), GRX600 shifters, GRX400 hydraulic brakes, 700×42 tyres compatible with 650×50, weight 10.4kg
- Received some great reviews. Steel frame. Dropper seat post. And available!
- I saw the Norco early on and cut it from the list as I thought the steel frame would be too heavy. Further research and seeing it in the flesh changed my mind.
The long list also included Merida Silex (both 400 Aluminium, 4000 Carbon) and the Polygon Bend R5 – Indonesian manufacturer who, after manufacturing for other brands has decided to launch their own under the Polygon brand. All the majors have released or are releasing excellent gravel bikes in a variety of frame materials and component specifications across multiple price points. As I was working to a budget a lot of the big names were cut from the shopping list (Cannondale, Specialised, BMC, Trek, Giant to name a few).
My answer: Norco Search XR S1. [bought at BikeZone Smith St Fitzroy]
Having had a great experience with my Canyon roadie I was very tempted by the Canyon Grail. The Focus Atlas looked very good too. Very similar geometry and specifications (as with Trek Checkpoint and Specialized Diverge aluminiums). Unfortunately neither bike would be available until the second half of the year at the earliest. I was actually able to see the Norco Search in store. The steel frame felt lighter than expected and the steel flexibility and robustness really appealed to me. My Condor steely has always been a very comfortable ride. A number of the reviewers were very positive on steel frames for the gravel setting and finally feedback from Herb, who had been servicing the Norco for a client, was also positive – all pointed to the Norco Search for me, plus the bonus of it being a little bit quirky.
The first gravel ride was through the Otway ranges with Phil Sh, Kym T, and Stephen G. Fair to say the Norco Search fully met my requirements and expectations; held pace and line well on tarmac – Great Ocean Road and fast descent from Erskine Falls back to Lorne, excellent ride on the gravel Wye River-Forrest-Lorne – the 700×42 tyres were ideal for the surface, brakes excellent, the gearing was well suited to the climbs, and handling was good on the single track – albeit a relatively easy single track (I am a beginner!).
I have some video footage (17min!) from the Otways adventure if you are interested in more about the attractions of gravel riding.
All bodes well for some more off-piste fun rides on trail, gravel and track over the coming months and years.
[After I get through some of the initial setup and fit teething issues 🙂 ]
- What do you want a gravel bike for – what surfaces and distance? Will a relaxed roadie/Endurance/Gran Fondo bike and fatter tyres meet the requirement (eg Trek Domane, Cannondale Synapse etc)?
- What’s the budget? The $64 (or $10,000) question?
- What component mix; hydraulic vs mechanical brakes, 1x vs 2x, 10spd vs 11, 12, 13…?
- What frame/fork material; aluminium, steel, carbon, titanium?
- AND … availability – can you actually get one?