Ah, the humble, bumble, go anywhere gravel bike! I’m going to start here as a part of a larger post because if you’re on a budget, this is the only place to start. With a gravel bike, you get versatility built into the bike. I picked up the beauty above, brand spankin’ new, for less than $1,000 (end of season sale). With a simple, alloy, steel or carbon gravel bike and two sets of wheels, you can do anything and ride with anyone, almost anywhere. If I’d had it to do over again, I may have gone that route over having three different road bikes. Then again, maybe not.
If I had, I’d have gone with a much better grade of Specialized Diverge (cabon fiber frame, hydraulic brakes, lighter wheels, 11-speed in lieu of 9).
If you’re going to go with the one bike gravel solution, there are a few things one needs to know up front. First, gravel bikes tend to be heavier, though the more expensive models available are exceptionally lightweight. One should pick up the highest grade gravel bike they can easily afford, with a second set of wheels (I’d personally go with something lightweight and carbon fiber from Ican Cycling, but that’s just me). You use the heavier set of wheels with gravel tires for the dirt roads and the carbon fiber set for road tires and paved road rides. The grade of bike definitely matters, though. Even with a decent set of lightweight aero wheels, I wouldn’t like trying to keep up with my friends on Tuesday night on that bike. At 24 pounds, she’s on the beefy side and the nine-speed cassette leaves a lot to be desired next to the eleven-speed options.
Also, you’ll likely run into some aerodynamic issues going with a gravel bike – they’re not as efficient as your aero road bikes or light as your climbing road bikes. With the right options, though, you can find a gravel bike to suit most any need and partially mitigate the disadvantages.
First to look at is the transmission. If you’re only buying for gravel riding, a 1x system (single chainring up front, no front derailleur) will suit most needs, the system is also lighter – especially when you figure in the mech, the cable, housing, and shifter. If, however, you’re looking for a dual-purpose road/gravel bike, I’d go with a compact double chainset up front (50/34 with an 11/28 cassette in the back). With that setup you’ll be able to keep up with all but the pro quality clubs (provided you’ve got the legs, lungs, and fitness). Others would opt for a smaller chainset up front (48/32 or 46/30) – this is a personalized choice and it’s difficult to make recommendations but I can tell you from experience, 46 teeth for a big ring isn’t enough top-end speed for me. As long as you’ve got some play in your front derailleur hanger (space to move the derailleur up or down depending on the chainring size you end up going with), you should be able to tailor your transmission to your needs.
Second is the wheels. The best place for bikes to keep costs down and add weight to a light frame is to put a cheap, heavy set of wheels on a very nice frame. Gravel bikes commonly come with shit for wheels unless they’re expensive out the door. I would use the cheaper wheels to ride on gravel and get a second, decent set of carbon wheels (possibly with a tighter ratio cassette for group rides) with pavement slicks for road cycling.
Finally, you’ll have disc brakes on this bike. You want hydraulic disc brakes but you can live with mechanical discs if you have to. Hydraulic disc brakes are a little trickier to maintain but they’re the cat’s pajamas. They’re much nicer than their mechanical siblings.
The important item to consider is the grade of bike you’ll want. The faster you’ll want to be, the better the bike you’ll want, the more expensive it will be. If you’re absolutely pinched for a budget, try buying a second-hand bike at the Pro’s Closet or through the local bike shop. You’ll save a ton over a new bike and you’ll be able to afford a higher quality bike (if you’re willing to live with a couple of blemishes in the paint from use). If you want to ride with the really fast crowd, unless you’re some kind of phenom, you’ll need a lighter bike with a good set of wheels. You can make a lot up with “want to”, but that has its limitations.
More to come tomorrow.