The steel bikes excelled in this category, as featured by the bargain priced Breezer Radar Pro, and the premium priced Otso Warakin. Steel is simply the correct material for this category, and the Radar Pro and Warakin both feel very comfortable on the gravel. The dampening qualities of steel slow the communication of gravel vibrations up to the rider, and though it is less evident on shorter smoother rides, it is really appreciated on the long haul. The Warakin in particular provides a perfectly dampened feeling on the dirt, and well spread out position for fit. A long top tube, and adjustable wheel base by virtue of the Tuning Chip, makes the Warakin the winner here.
The standout here is the Diamondback Haanjo. It’s hard to argue with a sub-21 pound bike that feels perfectly stiff when needed and reasonably shock absorbent when not. We loved climbing on this bike, and the stiffness was appreciated when getting out of the saddle on the ups. This bike almost has a race feel. The more refined bike, with an overall high quality feeling is the Otso Warakin. The stainless steel frame makes an ultimate all around gravel bike, that is compliant, yet snappy. The Warakin’s appeal will be evident to anyone that logs longer distances and ride more often, whereas the Haanjo will serve the weekend rider quite well.
This is a toss up between Diamondback’s Haanjo, and the Otso Warakin. Both are extremely good climbing machines with stiff and comfy frames that are a bit spread out, and also include a long(ish) top tube. Traction on both bikes was solid in the climb, with a slight advantage to the adjustable wheelbase Warakin. The carbon fiber Haanjo is the more rigid machine, without the finesse found in the Warakin’s stainless steel frame, however it may technically provide more efficiency on the climb.
When comparing gravel bikes on the downhill, there are a few criteria that help differentiate. Vibration dampening is the foremost, as speed on gravel brings in more vibration. The advantage here goes to the steel frames—and with the Breezer Radar Pro’s hydraulic brakes versus the Otso’s mechanical, the Breezer wins big here. The hydraulic brakes are far and away more powerful, and offer much better modulation. This is critical on rough descents when you can only afford one finger to brake because you need the other four to steady the bike, especially on washboard bumps. Finally, both have relatively slack steering, which makes for confident and consistent control on the dirt everywhere but the tightest turns.
Two things stood out clearly when comparing a variety of gravel bikes. One is the difference between mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes, as mentioned above. So with its SRAM Force hydraulic disc brakes combined with its 1×11 drivetrain, we give this honor to the Fuji Jari 1.1. Bear in mind that this is ideal for dirt and gravel, but not so much on the pavement—but since this is the Gravel bike category, we’ll let that slide. For your unpaved adventures, the hassle-free shifting and maintenance—especially critical with the rigors of off-road riding—give the Jari the advantage.
Wheelset quality requires some consideration on likely use. The Otso Warakin has the nicest wheels, with DT Swiss hubs spinning Lithic rims. And while we didn’t experience any terrible wheels across the bikes, we did see some things to consider. The Mongoose comes with Alex rims, which are often spec’ed on touring bikes, so if light touring is on your agenda, that is a consideration. Otherwise we saw weight and cost saving wheels, which may or may not meet the needs of the most laden rider, or the weekend tourer.
The standout value is the Breezer Radar Pro, which retails for $1,500. Steel frames are heavier but the ride quality is unmatched. Plus you can always rely on a Breezer bike to be meticulously built and last a long time thanks in part to the quality components. The Diamondback Haanjo Comp Carbon is also worth consideration at a price point of $2,200 for a lightweight carbon bike with a race feel.
In a cycling world were niche bikes are created for nearly every category, most are utterly unnecessary, gravel bikes are an actual real need. For those of us who have been suffering for decades riding our road bikes on gravel, flatting often, being vibrated off the bike, and wondering if our lightweight carbon frame was going to crack—or riding our cyclo-cross bikes with skinny race tires, race geometry, and an overall aggressive posture—the advent of a bicycle built for roads that don’t have a coating of asphalt or concrete is a welcome thing.
Gravel bikes solve several problems. They have wide tires less susceptible to flatting, they are also more absorbent of vibration, offering a minor bit of suspension even, and they provide superior grip when climbing or descending. Overall the bikes are more endurance oriented with slacker angles and more relaxed geometry. They typically feature a wide range of gears with good brakes and specifically overbuilt wheels and through axels. The gravel bike is built from the ground up for taking on the challenges inherent in the dirt.
Why ride in the dirt you ask? Fewer cars for one, fewer people for another, and often time access to remote places with phenomenal assets. Old mining or lumber roads, abandoned rail road beds, or just plain sleepy back roads through the woods and fields.
We reached out to over ten manufactures, ultimately reviewing five brands of gravel bike, with some diversity and some overlap. We wanted to see steel against carbon, big bike brand against boutique manufacturer, new guys versus industry veterans. The bikes were tested in the East, with its less forgiving dirt roads and trails, and in the West, with expansive miles of dirt roads and paths. The gravel category is largely new, and this is our first year testing.
We had two testers riding the same courses, with long climbs and descents, washboard and perfectly smooth gravel, and even rocky/sandy moderately technical ancient railroad grades in ghost mountain communities. We pushed these bikes to their limits, and also experienced them on bike paths and pavement. We wanted to know how they will perform across the spectrum of use.
What is a Gravel Bike?
Gravel bikes, already a pretty specific niche, of course have their specialties, even among other gravel bikes. In general they are longer and laid back than other types of bikes, however some do have more race oriented designs and features that will feel familiar to those making the transition from a road race bike. Others seek to be more utilitarian, with braze-ons for racking and even light (multi-day) touring. Those may be more substantial in design and construction, with stronger wheels and even more endurance specific geometry.
When considering a gravel bike, knowing what you are likely to ride is a big consideration. Not all gravel roads are equal. We look at how a bike climbs, and test it on a variety of styles of gravel, from smooth dirt roads that mimic pavement, to distant backcountry climbs littered with baby-heads and sand. Will you ride long, or really long? We try to test through a variety of distances to see how the bike performs, and more importantly in this category, how we feel after hours in the saddle on the gravel.
We tried to offer a wider range of price points in this category, from a budget offering ($1,500), a couple of mid-range priced bikes ($2,000) and some premium offerings too (>$2,500). All of these prices will get you a bike that will serve you the gravel, however braking, shifting, comfort and weight will vary widely based on what you spend.