7 Tips To Be SURE You’re Buying The Right Gravel Bike

Everything I know about mountain bikes translates to gravel bikes, and the bike industry makes it so damn hard. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned and sort of the seven things that I’ve boiled it down to what I’m looking for.

I’m on the hunt for a gravel bike. Everything I know about mountain bikes translates to gravel bikes, and the bike industry makes it so damn hard. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned and sort of the seven things that I’ve boiled it down to what I’m looking for. So hopefully, if you’re on the hunt for a gravel bike too, it will help you.

We’re in beautiful Bobcaygeon, about two hours northeast of Toronto, and we’re going on a gravel ride. The whole beautiful – oh, but I have to tell you about this body of water. This is the Trent-Severn Waterway, and it goes from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron. We’re in the middle of Ontario, in the middle of Canada, and yet we regularly see boats from Florida go by this dock from the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Boats from the world over make their way along the 385 kilometers of Waterway, navigating up to 60 Lakes and 44 locks, one of which we’ll end up at at the end of this ride. Come on, let’s go.

I haven’t started yet, and I’m already thirsty. So what I love about this ride, and it’s such a beautiful day, this is the quintessential gravel ride. There’s some pavement, there’s some legit gravel, as you can see now, a little bit of trail. We’re gonna go by some Lakes and into the farm country where there’s like such a good example of Rolling Hills workout, and then back to the locks. I call it the Tour de Bobcaygeon, hot Strava. I’ll link to it in case you want to ride it too if you’re in one neck of the woods. Maybe the one spot I think, what would this be like on a gravel bike?

Hey! Gravel riding has exploded in popularity. It’s so versatile. I mean, I’m really kind of getting excited about the adventures that we’re going to go on. It’s going to be fun. Last summer, we rode on our mountain bikes to Kinmount, the town north of here. But next summer, on my gravel bike, I’m riding to Halliburton. Okay, I’ve said it. I’m doing it. It’s never as easy as walking into the bike shop and going, “I’d like a gravel bike, please.” It’s always so damn complicated, isn’t it?

So the first thing I did was reach out to the 50 plus cyclist group on Facebook with this: “Hi gang, I’m a 55-year-old mountain biker who’s discovered she also enjoys road and gravel biking. On the hunt for my first gravel bike now. As a matter of fact, feel free to weigh in on your fave bike. I cannot take getting passed on the bike trails here in Toronto one more time. God, and hello to you, sir.”

So I was hoping, you know, to get a few suggestions for a bike. Check out the response I got. It was crazy. Between me and ChatGPT, we organized them into a list, and I’ll share that with you in a bit. In order of popularity, there were so many bikes, it was almost overwhelming. I thought, “I gotta figure out what’s important to me and find a way to get all this down into some focus.”

Oh my God, this is so pretty through here. It’s called Nogi Nogi’s Creek. Oh, I love this little bridge.

Gravel bike tip number one: get clear on what you want it for. Of course, there isn’t just one gravel bike. There are racy gravel bikes, there are endurance gravel bikes. When you hear endurance, that’s more comfortable, like you could go longer. Even gravel bikes that are trying to verge into sort of trail-worthy. Some of those will have suspension on the front fork. I don’t want that. For me, my gravel bike, just for my purposes, is the Goldilocks bike. That’s what I’m calling it. I spend probably 60 percent of my fitness rides on pavement in the city, so I want it to go fast so that we can go far. So we could go from Toronto to Hamilton if we wanted to up here. I want to be able to go on legit gravel and rail trails because we’ve got a lot of that here. But where I draw the line is I don’t want anything that has any kind of suspension. I’ve got a mountain bike. If I’m going to be on anything like a trail, I’m going to be on my mountain bike. So that’s my perfect bike, and I think you just need to get clear on that.

Tip number two is test lots of bikes. Lots of bikes. We tested five bikes. I have to interrupt this gravel ride with an important update. I was just about to talk about the importance of going to different bike shops and trying different bikes. All important, but things are moving fast over here, and I think I just unlocked a new level of the game. Let’s get back to the ride, and I’ll share that Pro tip with you momentarily. Back to gravel. This is a pretty hard pack though. I can’t wait to feel what this feels like with tires that aren’t 2.4 inches wide. The only bummer is that you’re always buying too expensive mountain bikes, too expensive gravel bikes. It’s not built up around here at all. Think about how much speed we’re going to carry down and then back up these Hills when we’re on skinnier tires, like 37 or 40 millimeter tires, and our bikes weigh 10 pounds less. 10 pounds.

I used to skate on this lake as a kid. Yeah, sometimes it was nice and frozen. Sometimes it was a little mushy.

On these bikes, a lot of them have these little attachment points, let’s call them nipples. No, we’re not calling them nipples. Okay, lugs. Little attachment points for bags and accessories, panniers, bottles. Bottles. I don’t know if I want to try bikepacking and loading my bike up with 50 pounds full of gear and camping by the side of the road. You know, going on overnighters. But I want the option, right? And a lot of them do. You say most.

So but that’s kind of a deal-breaker, I think for us, right? Yeah, I just, we might try it.

I love this road. It’s so beautiful. Thank you, foreign.

Skinnier tires. I know I’d be flying up that hill. So this is probably the perfect setup then to talk about the kind of gearing you wanted. And I went into this thinking, “Oh great, gravel bikes have one-by setups just like my mountain bike.” So one sprocket up here and then a platter with all your cassette back here with all your different gears, right? So clean, so simple. You’re never changing gears up here. There’s not a shifter up here. Now I’ve kind of changed my mind on that, and I think I want a two-by setup, meaning that there are two chainrings up here and fewer gears back here. Imagine if your bike’s all packed up with bags, and you’re doing the bikepacking thing, and you’re going up a big steep hill. You’ve got to have enough gears to get yourself up there. And so I’m on the side of thinking that it’s going to take a two-by setup to achieve that. And the other benefit of that is I think that there’s no more nuance between the gears. So instead of the gear going from here to here, it’s going from here to here to here to here. So there’s more steps in between.

So I think the fifth tip or category that you want to get clear on is what your bike must-have in terms of build quality, right? And that might vary if you’re in your 40s or 50s or 60s and you’re thinking about getting into cycling, it might be a little lower build quality until you know you’re committed. For us, these bikes are going to get a lot of use, and we know that. Yeah, so there’s certain things we’re willing to pay for: a carbon frame. It’s better for vibration dampening, and if you think about it, if you’re on a bike for hours at a time, you want all the vibration dampening you can get. Yeah, especially since I’m not riding with padded shorts today.

Hydraulic brakes, yeah, for sure. Not mechanical hydraulic. You know, we’ve had bikes with Shimano for our drivetrain and SRAM, yeah. I don’t really care; they’re both quality. But if it’s Shimano, for example, we want the GRX or higher. Yeah, drivetrain. Do we need electronic shifting? No, recharge the batteries before we go for a ride. If that pushes the price point up even further, I could do without it. And I’m not even sure about things like, you were talking about the battery. That’s mechanical; you just go and ride. It’s just one less thing you have to think about. Yeah, I’m fine with that.

Yeah, so that brings me to the penultimate tip number six: splurgy things that if they came in the package of a bike at the right price, yeah, fantastic. And that would be like carbon wheels, yeah. Wheels and tires make a big difference, right? I would love to get nice carbon wheels. On the other hand, though, if it adds a thousand bucks to the price of the bike and we’re buying two, I could go without the carbon wheel. How about a big electric motor? No, no.

And so the center tip is pretty obvious, right? It’s price, and so all these are great guidelines, but it has to fit in your budget. I could tell you our budget has increased twice since we started this thing, but sometimes it makes more sense to pay a little bit more now, good to figure out. Next summer, I have the right bike. If you’ve got a hard budget, go down to aluminum. I’m sure you’ll be so happy. Make sure you don’t blow your brains out because, ah, test. I’ll go back to tip number one: test the aluminum version versus the carbon. Do you care, and how much is that money better serving you in your bank account? And back.

So once you get clear on what you want your gravel bike for, and for me, it’s pavement and gravel, not racing, not trails, then it’s time to get to the bike shops and test as many bikes as possible. Here’s where my Pro tip comes in handy. But first, I need you to understand that those size charts that the bike brands publish are not to be trusted. More often than not, the size charts put me on a 54. A size 54 bike. But on, say, the Trek Checkpoint, which has a long reach, I got on that bike, and I felt too stretched out, too Tour de France-y. And so I tried the 52, which felt better. So because I don’t ride a road bike, I needed a second opinion.

And finally, here’s the pro tip: when we’re at the Trek Store, I asked if the bike fitter was around, and they said no, he’s only in on Saturdays. So I went back on Saturday, and that’s when I met Ivan. I asked if he’d mind eyeballing me on both the 52 and the 54 Checkpoint and give me his expert opinion, and he said sure and proceeded to take us to the bike fit room, put the bike on the rollers, and told me to pedal. Before I got on, he guessed, “You’re a 54,” but after setting up the 52, he immediately said, “Oh no, you’re definitely a 52.” I know. Not only did it feel better, but I got an expert opinion to say, “Yes, that is your size.” And that’s my Pro tip: try to talk to a bike fitter at the bike shop, and if that person is not there, go back on the day that they are.

And as promised, let me share the top recommended bikes from my 50 plus Cycling group.

The hunt continues; we’ll keep you updated until we have a bike review. This is Sturgeon Lake, and this is Pigeon Lake, where we were this morning. And as you come through the locks and go this way to Fenelon, you’re on your way to Lake Huron. And if you’re coming down through the locks, you’re on your way to Lake Ontario, 31 locks away.

Today, if you’d like more ride-along videos, make sure you hit the like button or leave us a comment. And keep your eye on the channels as the hunt for the perfect gravel bike continues. And finally, if you’d like to go on another ride with us, here you go.