Hopefully our recent article on segments of gravel capable road bikes helped you figure out what type of gravel road bike makes the most sense for you. Now it is time to learn a bit more about some of the better options within those segments.
Felt VR. Road Bike Roots, Dirt Road Friendly, Endurance Bike –
The Felt VR series bikes were designed to replace two previous models of Felt’s line – the endurance geometry Z series of road bikes and the short-lived V series of adventure bikes. The VR succeeded in being an excellent replacement for the Z series of endurance bikes; wide tire, fully relaxed geometry adventure bike (V replacement) it is not.
With the above in mind, we’ll focus on what the VR does really well. The Felt VR bears resemblance to the Cervelo C series bikes. Genetically, the Felt VR is an endurance road bike. It is built on the lighter side of the equation. The Felt VR is very happy making sure its rider is not sacrificing performance when riding on pavement.
The Felt VR comes from the factory with gearing that is closer to the ‘adventure bike’ side of the equation. This frequently means slightly smaller chainrings (48/32 instead of 50/34) and a nice wide ratio rear cassette (11-32+) in the back. Unless someone wants to road race, this gearing is frequently appreciated by most gravel capable bike buyers. Considering we are frequently changing gearing on many bikes to be more like what comes on the Felt from the factory, we applaud their approach.
The Felt VR has a pretty traditional endurance road bike frame geometry. This means it works well for a good number of road riders, but it also means that it is not the Felt V geometry – which was a true “adventure” capable gravel geometry. The Felt VR can be too long and too low for some riders. That was rarely the case with the Felt V. While the Felt VR is refreshingly lighter than the V models were, this does come at the expense of tire width options. The V could take a 40mm+ tire, the VR stops around 30mm. This means that the Felt VR likes hardpack dirt, but is not going to be as capable in softer and rougher dirt than wider tire capable options.
Pluses – Very good pavement performance. Wide range “adventure” gearing from the factory. Models start under $1000. On the lighter side of gravel capable bikes.
Considerations – Max tire width = 30mm. Designed for pavement and firm dirt. Make sure it fits you before you buy.
Cervelo C. Lightweight, Race Capable, Endurance Road Bike Performer –
Let’s say you like to ride pavement a fair amount, but you also want a bike that is confidence inspiring and stable on harder packed dirt. Let’s also say that you like a bike that doesn’t give up much compared to an ultralight pavement only road bike in the climbs. Meet the Cervelo C3 and C5.
The Cervelo C series bikes are performance oriented endurance road bikes at heart. With clearance for tires in the 32-34mm range, the Cervelo C-Series are gravel capable bikes. Being made by Cervelo, they are also bikes with a deep race oriented heritage. This makes them a great option for the rider who is not looking to explore unmaintained Class 4 roads, but is still interested in riding good condition dirt roads without compromising when they are on the pavement.
Cervelo uses the same 73 degree seat tube angle across all sizes of their bikes. From a fit perspective, this means some folks seat position may not align well with the seat tube angle Cervelo uses (73°) on their road bikes. However, it also means that Cervelo’s reach and stack on their sizes is linear and progressive (each size gets taller and longer in an even manner). One would think that this would be true of all bikes, but it is not. There are bike models where the size small actually has a shorter stack/or reach than the XS. We like how Cervelo’s sizes don’t get distorted; it makes more sense and is a lot more logical and clear.
If they fit you well, the Cervelo C-Series are very versatile bikes that can serve as “one bike to rule them all” for many riders.
Pluses – A lightweight endurance road bike that is very capable on the pavement and not at all afraid of good quality dirt. Consistent sizing. Race inspired responsiveness and climbing. Cervelo’s most supple and compliant bike model.
Considerations – Not capable of taking a tire much over 33mm (depending on rim); not designed for riding loose dirt or sand. Stock gearing range may be tighter than you want (this can be changed). Make sure it fits you before you buy.
Parlee Chebacco. Do It All Adventure Bike –
Do you want the ability to do an occasional cyclocross race, yet not be riding a stilted dedicated CX race bike the rest of the time on your daily rides? Do you want to be able to ride on the road without feeling like you are dragging a huge anchor, but still have a bike capable of riding the road less traveled? Do you want maximum versatility in your gravel capable road bike? Meet the Parlee Chebacco.
One thing we like about the Parlee Chebacco is that regardless of price point, whether you buy a $3500 Parlee Chebacco or a $10K+ Chebacco, you get the same high quality carbon fiber and engineering in the frame and fork. This is a frame first bike that offers a frame that hits well above its weight, particularly in its first few price points. At $3500, you are getting a frame that you have to buy a bike over $5K in many other lines to get.
In a world populated by companies who often focus on singular component upgrades (like rear derailleurs), the straight-forward component specifications found on the Parlee Chebacco are refreshing. With a Parlee complete bike, you know what you are getting. If the bike says it is “Ultegra”, rest assured that most everything that can be Ultegra is Ultegra (no down-spec’d bottom brackets and cranks). To take things a step further, with Parlee’s Chebacco LE, you can specify everything from crank length to gearing and tires. If you don’t like a part of the stock spec, or it doesn’t fit your position, we can get a different part right from the factory or simply substitute something else at the lowest cost.
Another thing to like on the Parlee Chebacco is the fit. While the bike doesn’t fit everyone (we wish it came a size smaller), Parlee’s versatile “Flex-Fit” headtube design safely expands the fit window beyond many other frames.
Parlee lowered the point of entry on the Chebacco down to $3500 (ready to ride) for 2018. This brings high-quality carbon fiber from a regional (MA) specialty company of passionate cyclists into the reach of more people than ever.
Pluses – Manufacturing & design quality. Flex-Fit headtube design creates a wide fit range. Small, regional U.S. based carbon company focused on producing road and tri bikes only. Custom finish options. Strong and straight-forward component specifications. Lower price points for ’18. No-nonsense modern design.
Considerations – Smallest size isn’t as small as it could be. Parlee doesn’t build sub $3K bikes. Make sure it fits you before you buy.
Moots Routt. Forever = Exceptional Long-Term Value Adventure Ride.
While not the race capable bike the Cervelo C series is (check out the lighter and stiffer Routt RSL for that), the Moots Routt exemplifies what many think of when they think “gravel road bike”. Capable of taking up to a 40mm tire (depending on rim), the Moots Routt is constructed of graded titanium and welded by some of the most experienced hands in the business (Moots welds are consistently the benchmark). Whether you put a lighter and narrower tire on it or a burly all-road tire, the Moots Routt is capable of being ridden in just about all conditions for decades.
The Moots Routt is a bike that is progressive, but not radical. For ’18 it receives the very well executed 3D printed thru axle rear dropout with flat mount brake standard that was previously only found on the top of the line Routt RSL. The 3D dropout adds lateral stiffness to the Routt while the flat mount brake is clean and currently the industry standard for brake placement. You can get a Routt built with standard mechanical shifting, for Shimano Di2 (or Campagnolo EPS) internal wire routing or with no shift wire holes in the frame at all for SRAM eTap.
The Moots Routt is pedestrian in the right places. As we have seen with some mountain bike designs, the standard old English threaded bottom bracket lives on. And for good reason, minimal chance of creaking and time honed reliablity with minimal weight expense makes good sense for a bike like the Routt. Likewise, Moots uses a tapered steerer fork and headtube that pairs up perfectly with the included Chris King headset. This is a combination that will go where you point it while also proving itself exceptionally durable and serviceable.
While Moots recently expanced their finish options significantly, the Moots Routt will never be the flashiest gravel bike on the market. The Routt has a price tag attached to it, but rest assured that you get what you pay for. And that means a supple, reliable, no-nonsense ride that has a frame well worth putting new parts on over time. This all adds up to excellent long-term value.
Available in a wide range of stock sizes to fit many and with custom geometry available, the Moots Routt is also one of the few gravel road bikes we can safely say is available in a size to fit almost anyone.
Pluses – Build quality. Engineering. Durability. Long-term value. Supple and smooth ride. Stability. Versatility. Frame geometry options to fit almost everyone.
Considerations – Price point. Weight.
Specialized Diverge. Price Point Adventure Bike Geometry Winner.
While the Felt VR models drift more towards an endurance road bike over an adventure bike, the Specialized Diverge embraces the fatter tires and a shorter and taller frame geometry of a dedicated adventure gravel road bike 100%.
Interestingly, while the gearing can sometimes be a limitation, the Diverge does a pretty good job on the pavement too. Don’t expect it to keep up with a good rider on a Cervelo C bike, but it is far more sporty than some other adventure bike options. It is a bike that makes a case for versatility having its place and riding a bike being fun before all else.
The Specialized Future Shock offers 20mm of suspension in the front fork. I’m not usually a huge fan of systems like the Diverge has, but the system does seem more active and less gimicky than some other systems (including Specialized’s own Zertz based systems). Outside of its ability to help the wide tires suck up bumps, I do like how the Future Shock effectively increases the stack height of the bike as well.
As far as fitting people who often have challenges with stock bicycles, the Specialized Diverge offers one the tallest handlebar stack options in the business. Combine this with the extra 20mm of height from the Future Shock and the 15mm of height of the Hover bar and the result is a bike that can fit a really wide array of riders well. Of course, there is no reason to compromise on fit when there are so many reasonably well-made bikes on the market. Get a Rider First Bike Fitting in advance of purchase from a qualified fitter and use that information to find out whether the Diverge is a good match for you or not.
There is a big delta between the $4K Elite and the $10K S-Works carbon models, otherwise there is strong coverage across a wide array of price points. You can get into a Diverge starting a little over $1K with an aluminum frame.
Pluses – Wide array of price points (from entry level to S-Works). 42mm tire capability. “Future Shock” smoothness and height adjustability. “Adventure Bike” gearing.
Considerations – Love it or leave it aesthetic. Adventure bike weight. Make sure it fits you before you buy.
Waterford. Cross Country Traveler Touring Bike.
If self-reliance and long roads over many days are your riding goals, a dedicated and loyal travel companion goes a long way to making experiences all that they can be. While having a great titanium frame built specifically for touring needs, like a Moots Routt 45, is well worth considering, it is hard to go wrong with classic chromoly steel done right on a nice touring bike. Building their own Gunnar house brand, as well as bikes for many other well known brands, the folks at Waterford Custom Cycles are some of the most experienced and skilled steel frame builders in the world.
Waterford understands tubing, they understand frame geometry and they understand personalization. All of these are particularly important for someone putting in long and loaded miles. A quality steel frame, properly maintained, will do its job well for decades.
Every Waterford is custom built for the individual’s fit and use needs. And, just because it is built of steel, doesn’t mean that it isn’t high tech. In addition to using air hardened tubing, we’ve had Waterford build tech laden touring bikes that include disc brakes and even integrated dropouts that allow a SON front hub to power lights and a USB charger with very few exposed cables and no connectors.
A personalized steel frame is as close to being able to buy a perfect family dog as the bike world can provide. Always there. Always reliably doing its job. Always loving you and the world around it. A true companion for both the loneliness and thrill that the open road can provide.
It is worth noting that Waterford also builds nice endurance and adventure gravel capable road bikes too…
Pluses – No compromise fit & design (when done through a qualified dealer/fitter). Personalized and built just for your needs. Durability and smooth ride. Pick your color…
Considerations – 5-12 week lead time. To last decades, steel requires more maintenance than titanium.