The bike industry, always in search of the next big thing, stumbled upon it a few years ago in the form of hundreds of underground events and races being held on gravel back-country farm roads throughout the Midwest and the Great Plains. These "gravel grinders" are now everywhere. Naturally, so is a new category of bikes specifically built for them — and everything else, it seems. Like road bikes on steroids, gravel grinder bikes are built to go fast and handle abuse, with disk brakes, burly frames, taller handlebars (for an upright riding position), wide tires (for better traction on dirt and gravel) and a design with lowered cranks, a longer wheelbase and slacker head angles (for better long-distance comfort and stability). Not surprisingly, they turn out to be good at just about everything: touring, commuting, riding around town, some mountain biking — and even for cyclo-cross, multi-surface races that use similar but slightly more agile bikes. In short, if you want a go-fast, long-haul, indestructible, any-terrain bike, look at a gravel grinder, even if you're miles from a gravel road.
FOR THE RECORD:
Bicycle reviews: An article in the June 7 Saturday section comparing new "gravel grinder" bicycles incorrectly listed the website for Giant Bicycle Inc. as www.giant.com. It is www.giant-bicycles.com/en-us/. —
Giant Revolt 2: The aluminum-framed gravel grinder has a carbon-fiber fork, disk brakes with top-of-the-bar brake levers (in addition to normal hood brakes) and lots of clearance for wider tires.
Likes: Terrific value, safety, style and versatility. The Revolt's top-of-the-bar "sissy" brakes distinguish this bike, allowing you to brake while keeping your hands in the most-used riding position instead of switching to the hoods. The sporty frame design (with lower rear-seat stays) allows clearance for 2-inch-wide 29er mountain-bike tires to handle true off-road riding. The 700-by-35c semi-knobby tires are standard. The 16-speed Shimano Claris drivetrain is low budget but works great and even has helpful built-in gear-indicator windows. With a vibration-dampening carbon-fiber fork and threaded frame holes for front and rear racks, this is a great deal and the best bike of the bunch, even though it is far less expensive than the rest and is at the low end of Giant's three-bike Revolt line.
Price: $1,050. www.giant-bicycles.com
Specialized AWOL: This steel-framed and -forked gravel grinder has disk brakes and huge tire clearance.
Likes: Super comfortable. I loved the riding position. That's due to three things: a high, short head tube and handlebar (an inch taller than the Giant), which means less bending over; a steel frame, which has more shock-absorption than harsher-riding aluminum tubes; and cushy, extra-wide 700 x 42c tires, which are smooth on asphalt and handle well on gravel. It's versatile too, with huge tire clearance that makes it able to accommodate 2.2-inch-wide 29er mountain bike tires (a bit more than the Giant) and a frame design that allows you to convert the bike to a single-speed or a belt drive. The basic AWOL model has a 27-speed Shimano Sora drivetrain, with a higher-performance 20-speed SRAM X9 in the higher-end AWOL Comp.
Dislikes: No top-bar sissy brakes (like the Giant's), which would add comfort and safety. Also, no carbon-fiber fork (like the Giant and Niner), which would further reduce road shock).
Price: $1,350 (AWOL), $1,950 (AWOL Comp). www.specialized.com
Art on wheels
Niner RLT 9: The aluminum-framed gravel grinder has a carbon fork and disk brakes.
Likes: Beautiful. The flow from the oversized fork into the massive headset is aethetically pleasing, with the look enhanced by hidden-in-the-frame shifter cables that keep the grit out of the shifting system and make for easy setup and low maintenance. The bike's ride is just as smooth. Those interested in electronic shifting will appreciate the built-in seat post wiring port, which will allow you to upgrade to an integrated Shimano Di2 setup.
Dislikes: No sissy brakes (although you can set it up that way, since the bike can be ordered as frame and fork only). The tire clearance is a half-inch narrower than the Giant, which is ironic considering that Niner has previously made only 29er mountain bikes. Unlike the shifter cables, the rear brake cable is not internally routed through the frame. The frame is drilled with only two water bottle bases, not the other bikes' three.
Price: $1,049 (frame, fork, headset and seat collar) and $2,999 for the bike as shown, with a SRAM Force 22-speed drivetrain. www.ninerbikes.com
Kona Rove: The steel-framed and -forked gravel grinder includes disk brakes.
Likes: A great ride due to the natural comfort of steel. Includes front and rear rack and fender mounts, 20-speed SRAM Apex-X9 Type 2 drivetrain, and 700 x 35c tires. Has a slightly more nimble, aggressive feel that might make it a good option for people who want to do some cyclo-cross racing.
Dislikes: No sissy brakes. Rear frame spacing only 11/2 inches (a 42c tire), restricting the bike's off-road capability.
Price: $1,699. www.konaworld.com
Wallack is the author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100."