Gravel is one of the fastest-growing sectors of cycling at this point in time. Whether it’s riders looking to get away from busy roads, or simply to mix it up and explore new local areas that were a bit too rough for 25mm rubber, a gravel bike is a perfect do it all machine.
The other reason that gravel bikes are gaining popularity is that they are so capable. Want to go single track bashing over the weekend? No problem. How bout joining a Sunday morning road ride? Yep, your gravel bike can do that too. Maybe even a commute? Those rack mounts on the rear triangle will get the job done.
As with everything in the bike industry, you can easily spend the price of a used car on a top of the range gravel grinder, but you really don’t need to. Read on for our picks of the best budget-friendly gravel grinders you can buy today, or skip to our guide on what to look out for.
Best gravel bikes under £1000
GT’s Grade has long been one of our favourite platforms for its triple triangle rear end which sees the chainstays connect directly to the top tube. This effectively makes the seat tube to be free-floating, allowing it to deflect when you hit bumps and creating a rudimentary form of rear suspension. The extra-long and slender seat stays also deflect creating a plush ride. Officially there is room between those rear stays for 700x42mm or 650x47c rubber though there is definitely real estate to squeeze something slightly larger in there.
At the front, the Grade sees GT’s own flared drop bars, and there is routing for a stealth dropper post if you’d like to chase spicy riding. A Shimano Claris 2×8-speed drivetrain wrangles the chain, but be warned there is no clutch here, so practice good shifting. When it comes time to drop the anchors, Tektro Mechanic disc brakes with 160mm rotors keep your speed in check. As tubes and gravel bikes mean flat tyres; GT has opted for tubeless-ready WTB ST i23 TCS 2.0 wheels, however, the Wire bead WTB Riddlers may be challenging to get set up.
Gravel bikes are often accused of just being hardtail mountain bikes from the 1990s; the Kona Rove AL 650 exemplifies this to a ‘T’. Rolling on 650b, wheels, and 47c WTB Venture comp tires, this entry-level shredder is ready for wild adventures. The frame and fork are made from butted 6061 aluminium, and the geometry isn’t overly aggressive, meaning this bike is ideal for those who are still building their mix surface skills.
Spinning the gears is a 2x Shimano Claris 8-speed drivetrain, though notably missing is a clutched rear derailleur, so dropped chains are a possibility. Keeping your speed in check with a one-finger lever squeeze are cable-actuated Hayes CX come disc brakes are paired to 160mm rotors front and rear.
With a tight and slightly more aggressive geometry, the Octane Gridd 2 sees a SRAM 1×10 drivetrain with the brand’s APEX shifters and a GX 10-speed MTB rear derailleur. The reason Octane has opted to bolt-on an MTB rear mech is to allow for the wide range 11-40t Sunrace cassette, which is paired with an FSA Vero Pro 40T chainset for heaps of range.
The frame itself is made from 6061 aluminium, sees thru-axles front and rear and fork with composite blades and an alloy steerer. There is room for up to 700x40c rubber between the stays, and the Octane One wheelset is tubeless-ready, and so are the 38mm WTB riddler tyres. Even though this is an entry-level bike, Octane has not used that as an excuse to produce an ugly bike, the olive green paint job is one that won’t go out of fashion in a couple of years and the gold anodized hubs and spacers add a bit of pop to an otherwise stealthy bike.
Buy allowing you to customise every component with its Bike Builder program; you can create a Ribble CGR AL gravel bike to hit just about any price point. You can prioritise the components you think are essential and spend a bit of extra cash, whether it be hydraulic brakes or a slightly nicer drivetrain, and save money elsewhere.
The CGR AL frame itself is made from aluminium, sees super clean seamless welds, internal cable routing and features a full carbon fibre fork. It’s compatible with 650b, 700c or 29er wheels and tires depending on the type of riding you’re planning to do, and has racks for luggage and mudguards too.
With the swap from carbon to Trek’s Alpha 200 Aluminium, other than a couple of thousand pounds off the price, the only thing the Checkpoint AL 3 loses is the IsoSpeed decoupler.
Based around the same geometry, the bike still comes with a carbon fork, flat mount disc brakes, Trek’s Control Freak cable routing, tubeless-ready wheels and tyres and stealthy rack and fender mounts. With room for a 38c tyre between the stays, the frame sees thru-axles front, and rear, a 2x9speed Shimano Sora drivetrain, Tektro mechanical disc brakes, and there is even a threaded bottom bracket. While it may not come with the flashiest parts off the rack, this is a bike that you won’t outgrow within a year or two and can be upgraded along with your skills.
The key feature of the Specialized Diverge is the bottom bracket height. Specialized built this frame around an 80mm BB height, which gives the ‘in the bike, not on top of it’ feeling while maintaining enough clearance so you’re not bashing the cranks into every rock or ledge you’re trying to crawl up and over. Made from the brand’s E5 Aluminium, the Diverge Base sees a slightly more relaxed geometry than its carbon and S-Works relatives, to suit the handling characteristics to beginner riders. Even still, the brand has used the same ethos as its high-end models with Diverge seeing an increased reach, slacker headtube, shorter stem and longer offset fork — all design elements borrowed from mountain biking. What this amounts to is a more stable bike that doesn’t sacrifice any steering precision.
Compatible with both 700c and 650b wheels there is room for a 700x47c or 650×2.1in tire in the frame, thanks to Specialized using a machined yoke behind the BB rather than a dropped chainstay. At the front, there is a full carbon fork, though you won’t find Future Shock under the stem at this price point; but you will find a 2×8 Shimano Claris drivetrain, and Tektro Mira flat-mount mechanical disc brakes.
Cannondale has a long history of producing mixed surface drop-bar bikes that impress, and the Topstone 4 is no exception to the rule. With gravel race ready geo, the Smartform C2 aluminium frame and BalisTech carbon fork; the alloy topstone is a lively ride, that doesn’t leave your hands or body feeling beaten or broken after a long ride.
At such a low price point, with such a high-quality frame you’d expect Cannondale to skimp on the other parts to keep the cost down right? Well, you would be incorrect. The 1x10speed drivetrain comes from Microshift, and while the brand may not have the same name recognition as the big ‘S’ drivetrain brands, this drivetrain offers something we rarely see on bikes at this price point, a clutched rear derailleur. A seemingly minuscule addition to a pivot on the rear mech, it pulls the chain taught to stop it bouncing; limiting chain slap over rough terrain, and preventing it from rebounding over the edge of the front chainring. Better still, with a long cage, it allows for a dinner plate 11-48t rear cassette.
At first glance the Cupe Nuroad looks like it has a carbon frame with the dropped seat stays and heavily shaped tubing; in reality, it’s made from what 6061 Aluminium — there is a full carbon fork at the front however, complete with fender and rack mounts. Based around the brand’s Gravel Comfort geo, the Nuroad rolls on 40c tubeless-ready Schwalbe G-One All Road rubber.
Clicking through the gears is a Shimano Tiagra 2x 10speed drivetrain, complete with an 11-34t cassette and a 50/24t chainset, and TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes paired with 160mm rotors. While this is technically the women’s specific version, the geometry is identical to the men’s bike, with the only difference being a Women’s specific saddle, slightly narrower handlebars.
What to look for when buying a gravel bike?
For nearly a century wheels were secured into bikes with a quick-release skewer. In combination with open dropouts this system allowed for wheens to be changed on the fly without tools, but the even today the design is largely unchanged from the day it was invented.
First introduced on mountain bikes, thru-axles provide a stiffer and more secure dropout-to-wheel interface, ensures the wheel is in the frame straight and removes the ‘have I done this up tight enough’ uncertainty — it’s either screwed in all the way or its not. All of this is key for running disc brakes, as too much flex in the wheel can cause the rotor to rub.
There was a lot of fluidity on standards and hub spacing when thru-axles first made the jump from mountain bikes, but the industry seems to have settled on 12x100mm for the front and 12x142mm for the rear. They are a bit more expensive to manufacture than QR dropouts, and at the entry-level price point, we do still see some gravel bikes using quick release.
Most drop bar bikes roll on 700c wheels, and so do gravel bikes, but many of them are compatible with smaller 27.5in wheels, also commonly known as 650b. With a smaller rim, a 650b wheel allows you to fit a wider, higher volume tyres (often measured in inches rather than mm) that sees almost the same overall diameter as a 700c wheel. These hoops allow you to tackle terrain that would put a skinnier 700c tyre out of its depth without changing the handling characteristics of the bike. Because the tyre has so much more air volume, they are also considerably more comfortable too.
That said, 700c setups are usually lighter and faster rolling, and are better suited to smoother gravel rides, while 650b’s are in their element on singletrack and bashing down rocky fire roads. Having the ability to slot in either size makes your bike that much more capable.
How many chainrings?
Gravel bikes will come with either a 1x or 2x drivetrain – meaning one or two chainrings at the crankset end of the groupset. While it would make sense that 20 gears would be better than 10, this is not the case at all. Borrowed from mountain biking, 1x drivetrains can hit the same, and sometimes a wider gear range than their 2x compatriots, and greatly simplify shifting because there is no front derailleur to faff with.
1x specific rear derailleurs will usually have a clutch which pulls the chain taut to prevent it bouncing over rough roads, this prevents the chain slapping the frame or bouncing off the front chainring — these are also advantageous to 2x set-ups too. A 1x specific rear derailleur will be paired with a chainring which has alternating narrow-wide teeth to grip the chain as it goes around. Unfortunately clutched rear derailleurs haven’t quite trickled down to all of the entry-level bikes just yet, so you will find some gravel bikes at this price point with standard rear mechs.
The downside to 1x drivetrains is there can be big jumps between gears, which is less of a problem with 2x. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, and what is right for you will depend on where and how you ride.