Gravel bikes are the trendiest niche in the bike world right now. And for good reason! They let you go just about anywhere and do just about anything.
If you’ve been thinking about getting a gravel bike, but want to do more research before you buy one, this post is for you. We’ll guide you through what you should look for and consider when buying a gravel bike as well as offering up our top picks for women’s gravel bikes.
Photo credit: Juliana Bicycles
What Is a Gravel Bike?
But first, what the heck exactly is a “gravel bike”? Good question. This relative newcomer to the bike world is a bit of a confusing mix between a traditional road bike, a cyclocross bike, and a mountain bike.
The basic design of a gravel bike is a road-bike-like drop-bar bicycle that can be ridden on gravel and dirt as well as on paved roads. It’s intended to be ridden on terrain that a traditional road bike can’t make it, but is lighter weight and faster than a mountain bike.
In other words, it’s a great bike for doing a little bit of everything. You can ride it on pavement as well as gravel roads and even on mellow singletrack.
What To Consider When Choosing a Gravel Bike
Here are a few things to think about when comparing bikes and choosing which one will be the best fit for you.
Women’s-Specific vs Unisex Gravel Bike
Women’s-specific gravel bikes can be a good choice, especially for smaller women, but they are certainly not the ONLY choice. We’ve included several unisex gravel bikes on this list, all of which are offered in smaller sizes to fit even the shortest ladies.
Good reasons to choose a women’s specific gravel bike are the all-important women’s-specific saddle (although this is easy to add to any bike after the fact), smaller frame sizes, narrower handlebars, and shorter cranks.
With the exception of the saddle, most of these tweaks are intended for more petite ladies. If you are a taller woman or have wider shoulders, you should feel even less limited by gender-specific marketing.
Of course, women’s-specific bikes also tend to come in more feminine colors–and that might be important to you.
Gravel vs Cyclocross Bikes
Gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes are closely related cousins. They are so closely related, in fact, that at times it is pointless to differentiate between the two. Many bike manufacturers are choosing to design drop-bar bikes that can be used for both purposes. You’ll notice several of these bikes on the list below.
The biggest difference between a cyclocross bike and a gravel bike, however, is that cyclocross bikes are designed to be shouldered. They need to be easy to carry, where a gravel bike doesn’t need to be. Additionally, many folks choose a gravel bike for bikepacking and touring, so they are often differentiated by wider tires, less aggressive geometry, and more mounts for water bottles, racks, and bags.
Gravel bikes come with either hydraulic disc brakes or mechanical disc brakes.
Mechanical disc brakes are the cheaper of the two options. They don’t modulate as well as hydraulic disc brakes and they can cause more hand fatigue. That said, they also require less maintenance, which can make them an ideal choice for some women.
Hydraulic disc brakes, while more expensive, offer superior braking performance. Most women will want to choose hydraulic disc brakes. The drawbacks, aside from price, are that they do require more maintenance, and can fail in extreme cold.
More and more women’s gravel bikes are being offered with a 1x drivetrain as opposed to a 2x or 3x drivetrain (i.e. there is no front derraileur). We like this trend.
A 1x drivetrain is simpler to maintain, provides cleaner shifting, and doesn’t get as gunked up with mud and grime. That said if you are accustomed to a front derraileur and like the larger range of gears, then make sure to look for a bike that is compatible with one.
You’ll also notice that gravel bikes tend to have a wider range of gearing in the rear cassette than a road bike or cyclocross bike. This is so it can climb steep sections of trail yet not be spun out on paved road.
Frame / Fork Material
Most women’s gravel bikes frames and forks are made with either aluminum (alloy) or carbon composite. The frame and fork will not always be made of the same material. For instance, lots of gravel bikes are designed with a cheaper alloy frame but then finished with a carbon fork for better vibration absorption.
The vast majority of bikes on the market are made with aluminum alloy. It’s lightweight, durable, and affordable.
Carbon composite is lighter and does a better job of absorbing vibration. That said it’s also significantly more expensive, and (some would argue) less durable.
Wheels and Tires
Most gravel bikes are offered with 700c wheels (the same as the traditional road bike). That said, some of the smaller women’s-specific bikes may come with 650c wheels instead.
We would strongly suggest looking for a wheelset with tubeless-ready rims and tires. Tubeless tires can be run at lower pressures. This is particularly important when riding off-road, where a lower pressure tire provides both better traction and more comfort on bumpy terrain.
Tire width and tread is also important to pay attention to. The more challenging the terrain you’re going to be riding, the more important wider tires are. Wider, higher-volume tires can be run at lower pressures and provide superior traction. On the other hand, if you are sticking to a lot of pavement, with only the occasional foray onto dirt or gravel, then you’ll want to look for a skinnier tire.
Tire tread is also important. On pavement and compact dirt, you’ll want a tire with less tread. On loose gravel, singletrack, and mud, you’ll want a tire with more aggressive knobby tread.
- Read: Guide to Road Bike Tires
Finally, many gravel bikes are following mountain bikes and offering thru-axles on the wheels. Thru-axles provide greater stability and safety, and we highly recommend them if you are going to be riding rough roads or trails.
If you plan on using your gravel bike for long days in the saddle, or even multi-day tours, then you want to make sure that the bike you choose has plenty of space for gear. Look for mounts for water bottle cages, racks, fenders, and bags.
Women’s gravel bikes that are designed specifically for bikepacking will also generally have wider, flared handlebars. This allows you to mount a handlebar bag without interfering with your hands and brakes.
I had the opportunity to ride this bike last year while in Phoenix for the winter. I’d previously been pretty uninterested in a gravel bike, but the Canyon Grail won me over.
No matter where I wanted to go, the Grail was capable enough to take me there. Rolling on pavement, it was nearly as fast and smooth as my road bike but didn’t have the same limitations. It handled gravel like a champ, and even singletrack was doable. The carbon frame did a good job of absorbing chatter from rocky Arizona trails.
The bike comes in several builds from entry level to top-shelf components. Sadly, Canyon has discontinued the women’s version of the Grail, but for 2021 the bike will be offered is a 2XS frame size to accommodate the most petite riders.
Liv is leading the charge where it comes to women’s-specific bikes. Like all their offerings, the Liv Devote has been optimized for lady riders. This includes a Liv Contact saddle and narrower width handlebars.
New in 2021, the Devote is a true gravel bike. Previously, the brand had offered the Brava (a cyclocross bike that doubled as a gravel bike).
The frame is aluminum which means it has a little bit more chatter than a carbon frame, but some riders prefer aluminum anyway. It’s built up with a tubeless ready in-house Giant wheelset.
It comes in two versions: the Devote 2 and the Devote Advanced.
The Salsa Cutthroat is a little bit burlier than the other options on this list, which makes it ideal for folks who want to hit a little bit of trail in addition to gravel roads.
Unlike most of the other bikes on this list, it’s also not a women’s-specific bike. It does, however, come in smaller frame sizes which makes it a choice for riders of all sizes. The XS fits women as petite as 5 feet.
The Cutthroat is particularly well suited for bikepacking and touring thanks to space for 4 water bottle cages, plenty of bag and rack mounts, and internal routing for dynamo hub lighting systems.
The Specialized Diverge provides the quality and value you would expect from a big name like Specialized. It has a lightweight carbon frame and fork (even on the base model), and lots of tire clearance. There are several models/builds, so you can spend as much as you want.
Like many of the other brands on this list, Specialized quit making the women’s-specific version of the Diverge this year, so you’ll likely want to swap out components like the saddle and handlebars for more female-friendly options
Ibis Hakka MX
The Ibis Hakka MX can do a little bit of everything thanks to it’s acceptance of either 650b or 700c wheels. Have a set of both to use the bike on pavement, gravel, or trail. The 650b wheels can handle tires of up to 2.1 for the dirt.
Both the frame and fork are carbon for extra comfort, and the fork is made by ENVE. Top that off with a SRAM Rival drivetrain and brakes, and you’ve got one nice bike.
This is not a women’s specific bike, but the smallest frame (49cm) does fit women as small as 4’11”.
The Juliana Quincy is the women’s version of the popular Santa Cruz Stigmata. In fact, the only thing different about the Quincy is the option for a smaller XS frame size (49cm) with 650b wheels and a women’s-specific Ergon saddle. So, if you don’t need a 49cm bike or don’t care about the saddle, the Santa Cruz Stigmata will work just as well for women.
Now that we have that out of the way, this is an awesome bike! It comes with two build options, the more affordable of the two still being pretty snazzy. It offers the SRAM Rival groupset, carbon frame and fork, WTB Asym wheels, and 1×10 drivetrain.
The best thing about the bike, though, might be the beautiful midnight blue paint scheme. In addition to pretty looks, the Quincy is also utilitarian. It has mounts for fenders and three water bottle cages.
Pivot Vault Ultegra
Pivot has made the (smart) choice to only build unisex bikes. That said, they offer plenty of bikes for smaller riders. The Pivot Vault XS frame fits women as short as 5′.
The Vault was designed with the belief that you shoudn’t have to have multiple drop-bar bikes. It is equally at home on the road and the ‘cross course as it is on a gravel road.
The standard Ultegra build is top-notch but the frame has also been designed for a highly customized build should you choose to do so. It can accept 650c or 700c wheels, a 1x or 2x drivetrain, and a 27.2 or 30.9 seatpost.
Cannondale Topstone Women’s
The Cannondale Women’s Topstone is one of the better women’s specific gravel bikes out there. It comes with tubeless-ready wheels and tires, hydraulic disc brakes, 12mm thru-axles (front and rear) and a Shimano Ultegra drivetrain.
And in case you’re worried about gravel road vibration, don’t worry. The carbon fork does a good job of helping to dampen vibration as does the unique Kingpin suspension.
The Trek Checkpoint comes in both an aluminum and a carbon version depending on how much you want to spend (and ride). The carbon version also features the IsoSpeed decoupler that adds a bit of supsension. Both frames come in a 49cm frame to fit riders as short as 5’1″.
The Checkpoint has extra mounts for gear and accessories so you can head out for a day or a week. While the bike comes with 40c tires, there is enough clearance to fit tires up to 45c.