Which 3 things matter most on your new gravel bike?
Which 3 items matter most on your new gravel bike?
Being a direct-to-consumer brand, we get the opportunity to spec bikes for lots of riders, and to chat and learn about them and their riding.
With over a decade of conversations in hand, we’ve built a good sense of what matters most when building someone a new bike.
Of course everyone is unique, so different things matter more to different people, but with the benefit of a larger sample size, I wanted to compile my personal thoughts on what matters most when spec’ing your new bike.
I’ll also add what I think is an important note here. Franco was born out of the crit racing scene, so we know racing. But we also build lots of bikes for lots of folks that don’t race. So my thoughts on what matters most are driven by what I think matters to most people. And “most” people don’t race :)
Let’s get into it.
Alright, so you’ve been thinking about a new gravel bike. You’ve probably talked about them with friends. Maybe done some online research. But maybe you come from road or mountain riding, so a lot of this gravel bike stuff seems different. There are differences and similarities of course. But while a gravel bike is a road bike that can go on the dirt, my “what matters most” list does vary from road to gravel. So it’s a good thing to look into.
Numero 3 - Flared Out Bars (and carbon is even better).
Number 3 on the list are flared out bars. A little back-story first.
I started riding gravel bars the second time I got into gravel. My first shot at it didn’t go as well. It seems my decent descending skills didn’t translate over to the dirt. I took some spills and rode the brakes quite a bit.
Then I built up a Grimes Carbon with some flare and my confidence pointing the bike downhill went up dramatically.
A flared out bar flares the drops outs, 12 or 24 degrees normally. This gives you a wider platform to place your hands. Think wide flat bars on mountain bikes.
Now some of you may say, well I don’t ride in my drops much. Well, I tend to descend on the hoods on the road. I know drops are faster, but it’s just a thing I do (hey Ivan Dominguez sprints in the hoods, so there ya go). But in the dirt, that shit isn’t going to fly. You’re going to want to be in the drops, trust me. Aside from the wider stance for stability, you’ll really appreciate the increased leverage on the brake levers. Your wrists will thank me.
Aside from the flared out drops, gravel bars normally have a shorter reach. Typically about 10mm shorter than a standard road bar. That’s because being a little less over the bike is preferred on those steep dirt descents.
Lastly, the flared out bars give your hands more positions/angles to rest your hands in. It adds up over the course of a long ride.
My take on flared out bars - they will replace standard road bars in the next 3-5 years. Once you’ve ridden a set, there’s really no way to go back to a road bar. Unless you’re racing in a peloton or an urban messenger, flare is going to be king. I’ll check back here in 3-5 years :)
Numero 2 - Wheelset
Number 2 (and almost number 1), are wheels and tires.
When you go on a road ride, you know what tires to show up with. It used to be 23c, then 25c, now it’s 28c or even 32c. In the prediction department again, I think 32c will take over in the next few years, but moving on.
I’ll tackle this in two parts, wheels and then tires.
For wheels, the name of the game for me is wheel width and the ability to run tubeless. On our stock eTap bikes (and as an upgrade on Force 1 bikes) we spec what I consider to be the best aluminum wheelset on the market - the HED Emporia. It has a 30mm external rim width and a 25mm internal, spec’d for a minimum tire size of 32c, and of course tubeless.
Ride a set of wide wheels down a hill for a while and try to go back to a set of narrow wheels for that same descent. I did that back in the day and I've been a wide wheel believer ever since. The stability you will feel descending is well worth it, and the added comfort when paired to a bigger tire is the icing on the cake.
Add tubeless to the mix and you now have a setup where you can run lower PSIs. No pinch flats, more comfort, built-in suspension and more grip.
Which tire size and model you run is dependent on the types of terrains you’re riding. We spec 38c gravelking sk as the stock tires, as it covers a lot of ground, but you can always run smaller or bigger tires, depending on your riding.
The fact that you can relatively easily change out tires, is why I put wheels/tires as #2 on the list and not number #1. #1 on the list is much harder to change out, so it’s even more important to get it right.
Numero 1 - Gearing
And the thing that matters the most on your new gravel bike… gearing. Not drivetrain brand or level, but just gearing.
If you have the wrong gearing, especially too hard of a gear, you're either going to hate riding or have to get really strong to stop hating riding… which is hard to do when you are hating riding.
The right gearing has always mattered on the road. Over the years we saw compact and mid-compact, with long cage derailleurs take the throne as the most popular gearing setups out there (for the 95%+ of riders). We’re talking 52/36 x 11-28T or 50/34 x 11-32T.
But that gearing is designed for paved roads. Paved roads that typically have rules about how steep a grade can get. Mother nature doesn’t give a damn about grades, and traction for that matter. So with that in mind, your gearing has to be able to get over much steeper, looser terrains.
1:1 gearing is a must. We spec our Force 1 bike with a 42T (or 40T if you’d like) front, and a 42T in the rear. In my opinion, that’s the minimum gearing for the out there.
Ideally (and what I ride), is the expanded gear range afforded by the SRAM AXS mullet setup. A 10-52t in the back and somewhere between a 38, 40, 42, 44, or 46 in the front (depending on your terrain or watts).
For the road folks out there, I look at a 38/40 front ring paired to a 10-52t cassette as the gravel equivalent of road compact gearing. A 42/44 as mid-compact. And a 46t front as standard gearing.
I wish Force mechanical had a larger gearing range option, but without going aftermarket modification route, there is no big 10-52 cassette option yet. So this is one of those unique cases where I think the electronic version (SRAM Force AXS) really adds a ton of benefit, outside of just electronic shifting. It gives you more range, which is a big deal out there.
Lastly, there’s a 1x vs 2x debate that goes on out there. I have my opinions on this, but I’ll leave this to a different post. Though I will say I can’t see myself ever going back to 2x :)
These are the things I think matter. As I mentioned before, everyone is different, and everyone rides different terrains and for different reasons, so there is no one size fits all approach. But I hope this gives everyone a good starting point as to what to think about as you spec your new gravel bike.
If you have any thoughts / opinions on this, would love to hear your thoughts! And as always, if you want to chat about a new gravel bike, always happy to talk bikes! Just message us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the form here.
Stay Out There,