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Best beginner's gravel bikes: Fantastic first-time adventure bikes

Best beginners gravel bikes
(Image credit: Linda Guerrette (JC Photography))

When it comes to a beginner's bike of any kind there's a tendency to think that 'beginner' means cheap. However, be it a gravel bike, road bike, whatever kind of bike, if you start people on a cheap bike, they are less likely to enjoy themselves. The idea that a beginner's bike should be a cheap bike is a recipe for turning people away.

The challenge is that when starting out it's hard to justify spending a lot of money on something you aren't sure you'll enjoy. If you are just getting into gravel cycling you don't know what the future will bring. Is it going to be a lifelong passion worthy of spending serious money on or a fleeting hobby not worth the big investment? Are you going to gravitate more towards gravel racing or bike packing? Or maybe single track you can only barely handle on a drop-bar bike is going to be your thing. You won't know until you spend some time trying things out.

The best beginner gravel bike isn't about cost - in fact, there's a good chance you can bag one of the best gravel bikes at a really good price point. Of course, price matters but try not to make it the only focus. Instead, try to focus your search on versatility. As you get more experience with gravel cycling, you'll want to look for a more niche bike that matches your interests. In the beginning look for an all-rounder that can work for whatever you want to try. Stay flexible and that first bike won't hold you back.

Scroll down to view our pick of the best beginner's gravel bikes or head to the bottom for a guide on what to look for

Best beginner's gravel bikes: Rondo

(Image credit: Rondo)

Rondo Ruut AL2

The adjustable fork tip makes it possible to switch geometry for racing or touring

Gearing: 42T chainring with 11-42T cassette | Wheel Size: 700c | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c x 45mm or 650B x 2.2 | Frame Material: Aluminium

Adjustable suspension
Tons of options for available builds
Difficult to find
Not fully hydraulic brakes

Rondo offers the Ruut in just about every configuration you could think of. A titanium frame, a carbon frame, a steel frame, and this aluminium frame are all available options. There are also multiple build options within those frame choices and if you want to later switch to a 650B wheel, that's a choice as well.

All purchase choices aside, the stand-out feature is the adjustable fork. If you are looking to tackle rowdy single track and need to be more upright with greater stability that's an option. If, instead, you decide you want to get low and racy, just adjust the tip of the fork. The other setting gives steeper angles, smaller trail and a lower riding position. It doesn't get more versatile than that.

Best beginner's gravel bikes: Cannondale

(Image credit: Cannondale)

Cannondale Topstone AL 1

Lots of versatility and quality components at a low price

Gearing: 46/30T chainring with 11-34T cassette | Wheel Size: 700c | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c x 42mm or 650B x 47mm | Frame Material: Aluminium

2x drivetrain
Easy gearing for hills
Low tyre clearance

Cannondale offers tons of options under the Topstone name badge. The Topstone AL lacks the suspension of the Topstone Carbon Lefty 3 but it gains a lower entry price and all-around usability. 1x drivetrains are excellent choices but if you feel like you'd rather stick with a 2x setup the Topstone AL 1 provides an option. Shimano GRX gets you hydraulic disc brakes and an 11-speed drivetrain specifically designed for gravel riding. 

Cannondale was one of the pioneers of aluminium frame building. The CAAD line of aluminium race frames are often considered the very best of what's possible in an aluminium frame. The Topstone uses all that expertise but rather than an ultra-aggressive race frame it's a gravel friendly endurance design. It's a design that's equally happy on-road and off.

The Topstone Carbon AL 1 is a 700C build as sold but if you'd rather switch to 650B down the road the frame will accommodate. 

Best beginner's gravel bikes: Vaast

(Image credit: Vaast)

VAAST A/1 650B Rival

A near mythical frame material, wheel size options, and a great spec sheet at a reasonable price

Gearing: 42T chainring with 11-42T cassette | Wheel Size: 650B | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c x 42mm or 650B x 50mm | Frame Material: Magnesium

Magnesium frame
Fender mounts
Wheel size choice
Not enough mounts
Big front chainring

Magnesium is kind of a mythical frame material. It's lighter than titanium or aluminium, it has a natural dampening flex similar to titanium or steel, and it's cheaper than carbon. It's one of those materials always right around the corner but never quite on the market.

VAAST made it work with an alloy from ALLITE and paired with an impressive build kit. Choose the 650B option and it's paired with a SRAM Rival 1x groupset, big 650x47 tyre, and a threaded bottom bracket that won't ever creak.

You might not have ever heard of the VAAST brand but it's part of the same parent company as Niner bikes. United Wheels Limited ships more than five million bicycles a year. The brand is new but there's plenty of experience behind it.

Best beginner's gravel bikes: Evil

(Image credit: Evil)

Evil Bikes Chamois Hagar GRX

If you're a mountain biker who wants to step into a drop-bar option, look no further

Gearing: 40T chainring with 11-46T cassette | Wheel Size: 650B | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c x 50mm | Frame Material: Carbon

Plentiful mounts
Massive tyre clearance
Stable Geometry
Expensive
Heavy

Evil bikes is a company known for mountain bikes. When it decided to enter the drop-bar gravel bike market the company took what it knew about mountain bikes and reapplied it. Modern mountain bikes are long and low to add stability no matter how rough the terrain is.

This is definitely a bike that skews heavily towards off-road riding. The huge tyre clearance and stable geometry design shows the prowess loud and proud. It might not ever be the best on-road option but that doesn't mean it's not versatile. There are more than enough bottle mounts for bike packing or endurance racing and nothing says you can't run smaller tyres. Feeling stable is also going to be a big plus to anyone new to off-road riding.

Best beginner's gravel bikes: REI Co-op

(Image credit: REI)

Co-op Cycles ADV 2.3

An adventure bike from one of the oldest American adventure brands

Gearing: 40T chainring with 11-42T cassette | Wheel Size: 700c | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c 42mm | Frame Material: Aluminium

Included dropper post
Great after sales customer service
Small max tyre clearance
Not many frame mounts

REI has always been a bike shop to some extent but it also has its own brand of bikes, and in 2017 that lineup went through a rebranding. The previous Novara brand went away and the Co-Op brand showed up with a focus more in line with what REI stands for; adventure.

Gone were the road bikes and in their place a solid lineup of adventure bikes, touring bikes, and mountain bikes. What stuck around was the excellent pricing that comes from a brand with solid vertical integration.

The ADV 2.3 is an adventure-minded all-around bike at a good price. The dropper post will help with rowdy single track while the GRX groupset, hydraulic brakes, and 700c wheels make it workable on or off-road. REI offers great after-sales care and the ADV 2.3 is pretty much the definition of a modern do-everything bike.

Best beginner's gravel bikes: Niner

(Image credit: Niner)

Niner RLT 9 3-Star Rival 650B

Niner is synonymous with the gravel riding market and the aluminium RLT 9 is the bike that started it all

Gearing: 50-34T chainring with 11-34T cassette | Wheel Size: 650B | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c x 50mm or 650B x 2.0 | Frame Material: Aluminium

Massive tyre clearance
Tons of frame mounts
Internal Routing
15mm front thru-axle

Niner is one of the companies that's been in the gravel market seemingly forever. The company has become synonymous with gravel riding and they make great bikes. If you are just getting started in gravel cycling ignoring Niner would be a mistake but there's also room to grow.

At the heart of its modern gravel designs is the Niner RLT. There are so many variations of the RLT that Niner has a post to help you understand which one makes sense for you. The aluminium version posted here is the all-arounder.

It's light enough to handle road biking duties but there's more than enough mounts to make it a bike packing companion. Choose the right tyres and it's a capable racer. The RLT 9 3-star build is a perfect everyday commuter that you can take out of town on the weekends.

Best beginner's gravel bikes: Ribble

(Image credit: Ribble)

Ribble CGR AL

Great pricing and all the customization you could ever want

Gearing: 40T chainring with 11-42T cassette | Wheel Size: 650B | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c 45mm or 650B x 47 | Frame Material: Aluminium

Totally customizable
Great Price
Threaded bottom bracket
15mm front thru-axle

The CGR in the Ribble CGR AL bikes name stands for cross, gravel, and road. That versatility speaks to exactly what a first gravel bike should be. You might not know exactly what you want to do on a gravel bike but it doesn't matter – if you spend some time on the road getting to gravel you won't get left behind.

If you want to enter a few 'cross races you won't need a different bike. Or if you want to spend hours in the mountains on forest service roads then this bike will do it. All you've got to do is pick the right tyres for the ride and you are set. There's even plenty of mounts for mudguards should you find yourself commuting in the winter or getting out in the mud.

Best beginner's gravel bikes: salsa

(Image credit: salsa)

Salsa Warbird

The first word in gravel bikes, but is it the last?

Gearing: 42T chainring with 11-42T cassette | Wheel Size: 700C | Max Tyre Clearance: 700c x 45mm or 650B x 2 | Frame Material: Carbon

Plentiful gear mounts
Dynamo Hub Cable Routing
Vibration Reduction Design
Mechanical disc brakes

Salsa is another of the brands that seem to have been there in the gravel scene since the beginning. The Warbird, in particular, was one of the first gravel race bikes on the market. Not because some corporate owner saw a growth opportunity in gravel cycling but because the people who work at Salsa like to race gravel. Those same people wanted a bike that truly worked for gravel racing and so they asked the question, what does gravel racing actually mean?

The experience of the team said that gravel racing was as much about finishing the race as it was about being fast. The Salsa Warbird is long, low, and comfortable with mounts everywhere. When the race goes on for days the ability to keep putting down steady power is what wins. Even if you aren't racing for days those same characteristics make for a great first gravel bike.

What wheel size do I need for my gravel bike?

Start looking for a gravel bike and it won't take long before you find yourself presented with a choice of wheel size. When it comes to the best road bikes it's almost unheard of to find anything other than 700c wheels. Start looking at off-road frames and there's a lot more variability. 650B, also sometimes referred to as 27.5 wheels, are a common option and some frames work with both options. How do you decide which is best for you?

The simplest breakdown is that a 700c wheel is more desirable for less technical riding and a 650B wheel works better for rougher riding. It's actually much more nuanced, and less critical, than that might sound but that's an easy place to start. If your riding is likely going to include long stretches of paved riding to get to the off-road riding then 700c is a better choice. If your off-road riding is going to mostly be well-graded unpaved roads or smooth trails 700c is again going to be a good choice. If you think your riding will be a bit more adventurous, a 650B wheel package is a better choice.

The overall diameter of the wheel and tyre combined affects the handling of a bike and design of the frame. Making room for a big tyre and wheel means a longer frame and less maneuverability. One way that frame builders solve this design challenge is to switch to a 650B wheel and tyre combination. With the wheel size reduced the tyre can be bigger to make up the same external diameter. A larger tyre footprint gives more traction in loose dirt or mud. A larger tyre also has more air volume and allows for lower pressure. Lower pressure adds comfort over rougher roads.

Whichever direction you go at the beginning it's okay to change your mind later. Many modern gravel bikes support both 650B and 700c and making a change only requires a new set of wheels and tyres. Even if you can't change wheels, or don't want to, whatever wheel size you have isn't going to hold you back. There are advantages to each but if you want to use 650B wheels on a road ride, or 700c wheels on chunky gravel, tyres are an easy change to make.

What frame material do I need for my gravel bike?

The vast majority or bike frames, gravel or otherwise, use carbon or aluminium for the frame. To a lesser extent you can also find titanium or steel frames on the market. Like wheel size, each material has advantages but their downsides won't hold you back.

The least common options are steel and titanium. Steel was at one point the only option for bike frames but as lighter, stiffer, options became available steel nearly disappeared. In today's world steel and titanium find their place mostly with small custom builders.

Both metals flex in a predictable fashion and those who know how to take advantage of that can tune a frame. Titanium is lighter but it's also more expensive and harder to work with. Steel is an excellent choice if you plan to be in remote areas of the world. It's heavier but it's easy to work with and any craftsman who can weld an axle can fix a broken steel frame.

For most people the choice is going to be aluminium or carbon. Aluminium is less expensive and is often looked at as the inferior option. That's a mistake in general but especially in the gravel world.

The main advantage of carbon frames is weight and tunability. Carbon is a much lighter material than any metal but it's the tunability that makes it special. Using different types of carbon, thickness, and directionality of the weave changes the stiffness. With this in mind, a manufacturer can add, or remove, flex anywhere in a frame.

Aluminium is less labour intensive, which saves money, but also less tunable. Like all metals, it's more difficult to change stiffness in only one area of a tube. Aluminium carries a reputation for harshness but a quality modern aluminium frame is a joy to ride. There are also some advantages to aluminium for gravel. A layer of sand that works its way under a frame bag can rub through the paint on an aluminium frame. If it's carbon it can actually rub through the frame. Don't be afraid to choose aluminium and save some money for other aspects of the build.

How many front chainrings do I need for my gravel bike?

Commonly you will see this referred to as 1x or 2x but call it what you want, it refers to how many gears you have available. 1x11 for example would mean 11 total gears while 2x11 would be 22. More is not always better though so it's not a clear-cut decision.

The primary argument in favour of 1x gearing is simplicity. Many people will tell you it's less weight and less to break but in use those are minimal concerns. What you will notice, on every ride, if you choose a 1x drivetrain is the simplicity of not worrying about the front chainring.

If you want an easier gear move up the rear cassette and if you need harder move down. It's especially handy when the riding gets rough and you've got a lot going on. Sounds pretty good, so why would anyone ever choose 2x?

The extra gears available with 2x make it easier to find the perfect gear. Two chain rings in the front allow for both more range and less space between gears. Bike packers who need an exceptionally easy gear for carrying supplies up steep grades often want 2x, or even 3x, to find enough range. Fast riders who spend a lot of time racing might also want to optimize cadence with a 2x setup.