The Best Gravel Bikes of 2023
9 testers tried 18 bikes. These ones came out on top.
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As a relatively new creature in the cycling world, gravel bikes are still evolving. Each year brings new innovations to the gravel-cycling scene. The latest generation of gravel bikes are lighter, more capable and—perhaps most important for the average cyclist—more comfortable than ever before. These are the six bikes that won us over with their rough-road performance.
The Winners at a Glance
BMC Kaius 01 One
3T Exploro Ultra
YT Szepter Core 4
Specialized Diverge STR Expert
How We Test
Bikes Tested: 18
Miles Covered: 1,1789
Bike reviews are some of the most complicated tests Outside performs. Choosing bike builds, having them shipped, building them up, and then riding them on the appropriate terrain takes many, many hours and lots of dedication. Luckily we work with some of the best in the business.
The majority of our reviews were performed at our Field Test in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where we tested ten bikes with four riders over a week. We also do long-term reviews out of Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado. Bikes are judged on their overall performance, ride quality, weight, speed, cost-to-value and many other factors.
Meet Our Lead Tester
Josh Patterson has been riding and wrenching on bikes for 20 years and, with a master’s degree in journalism, has been writing about the sport for over half of that time. He’s a cycling generalist who finds joy in riding road, gravel, and mountain bikes, which made him the ideal candidate to manage Outside’s Gear Guide bike coverage for the past four years. He grew up in the Flint Hills of Kansas and was an early adopter of gravel racing and participated in the first Unbound 200. He’s now based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The Reviews: The Best Gravel Bikes of 2023
Best All-Day Racer: BMC Kaius 01 One ($11,999 as tested)
Because the gravel category includes a broad range of riding experiences, BMC has an expansive quiver of bikes to cover adventure riding as well as racing. The new Kaius is unapologetically focused on the latter. The light and stiff carbon frame has an aero-inspired silhouette and a fully-integrated one-piece carbon handlebar and stem combo to match (though it’s also available as a two-part stem/bar). As a result, long-time roadies will feel right at home. This high-end gravel bike is fast from the first pedal stroke, thanks to ultra-efficient power transfer and noticeably low weight. The maximum tire width of 44 millimeters is narrower than some of its competitors, though it’s spot-on for racing, where most riders select tires between 38 and 42 millimeters wide, depending on the course. That tire clearance and the limited cargo-carrying options for bikepacking and adventure cycling make it clear that the Kaius is aimed explicitly at the all-day slugfests on unpaved roads. 16.5 lbs
Best for Speeding off the Beaten Path: 3T Exploro Ultra ($5,699 as tested)
Is it possible to combine off-road capability with aerodynamic efficiency? That’s what the 3T Exploro Ultra promises. It boasts immense tire clearance and dropper-seatpost compatibility, combined with the unlikely duo of a carbon frame shaped for aero efficiency and road-bike handling. We tested this whip with 27.5-by-2.1-inch Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires and were impressed with how much traction they gave us when speeding through flat corners strewn with loose gravel. And despite the Exploro Ultra’s monster-truck looks, it’s quite nimble. Our testers were split on whether its handling was too much like a traditional road bike or just right for gravel racers looking for a high-speed accomplice. But everyone agreed that it’s a fun, fast, and very capable gravel rig. If you like to keep the pedal to the metal while traveling way off the beaten path, this bike ticks a lot of boxes. 19.4 lbs
Best Mountain Biker’s Gravel Ride: YT Szepter Core 4 ($4,499 as tested)
(Photo: Courtesy YT)
YT isn’t well known in drop-bar circles, but this direct-to-consumer brand is an established player in the mountain bike scene, with a full line of value-packed trail, enduro, and downhill bikes. Given that background, it should come as no surprise that its gravel bike sits at the more aggressive end of the spectrum. The Szepter has a slack, 69.4-degree head angle paired with a RockShox Rudy XPLR fork with 40 millimeters of bump-eating suspension, and a RockShox Reverb XPLR dropper seatpost rounds out the off-road-ready package. Because it’s fully loaded, the Szepter isn’t the lightest or quickest-handling gravel bike on the market. And while it feels overbuilt on hardpacked gravel roads, it shines on singletrack and rough gravel roads. The Szepter is a mountain biker’s gravel bike and exemplary for time-strapped riders who want to link up their favorite gravel roads and singletrack segments and come home grinning. As one tester said, “It turns out YT brought the boombox to the gravel party.” from ear to ear. 21.8 lbs
Best Full-Suspension Gravel Bike: Specialized Diverge STR Expert ($6,700 as tested)
The Diverge is one of the winningest gravel bikes of all time thanks to its stable handling and the Future Shock, a unique front suspension placed above the headtube that provides heaps of confidence when speeding across rutted gravel roads. New for 2023, Specialized took gravel suspension one step further by adding 30 millimeters of rear suspension tucked into the bike’s top tube to further smooth the ride over rough terrain. As a result, the Diverge STR is incredibly smooth. Although the rearward component of its motion is a little unnerving at first, it doesn’t take long to forget it’s there. The system is so wonderfully free of stiction that even the slightest road or trail imperfection is totally erased. The result? Less muscle fatigue and more power to the pedals. Our testers agreed that this is the best attempt at a full-suspension gravel bike to date. This technology doesn’t come cheap, but we think the Diverge STR Expert with SRAM’s outstanding 1-by-12-speed Rival group is the best bang for the buck. 21 lbs
Best Value: Salsa Journeyer ($1,850 as tested)
The Journeyer is not only Salsa’s most affordable gravel bike but it’s also one of its most versatile—this rig doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed into any sub-segment of gravel. It’s well suited for commuting, mixed-surface racing, or dirt touring. After extensive test riding at our Steamboat Springs field test, reviewers dubbed this “The Happy Bike” for the smiles it left on their faces.
It all starts with the new 6061-series aluminum frame, which keeps the price down, but also offers a smooth ride quality on rough surfaces while still being sprightly when you mash the pedals. It features an approachable geometry (69.5 degree head tube angle with 78 millimeter trail), with relatively short reach figures and tall stack heights, which will save you from having to stretch too far for the handlebar. Salsa combines this with a fairly long wheelbase for easy riding stability.
The bike is sensibly specced for this price, but we’d still like to see hydraulic brakes available at for less (it’s a $600 upgrade currently). And the sizing of the Journeyer is a little funky, so if you’re considering buying one, be sure to consult with Salsa’s sizing recommendations or get on a bike in a shop to get the correct fit.
Of all the bikes at our Field Test, the Salsa Journeyer was the most unanimously loved. We all agreed the bike was easy to ride and confidence-inspiring. If you’re in the market for an affordable do-it-all-style drop bar bike (Salsa also offers it in flat-bar configurations) you should take a look at the Journeyer.
Most Unique: Lauf Seigla ($3,990 as tested)
The Lauf Seigla is unmistakable, both for its ride quality and for its unique fork. The Grit Leaf spring suspension, which utilizes fiberglass springs to give the bike 30 millimeters of maintenance-free travel, is a conversation starter that people will ask you about every time you ride it—and we’d wager you’ll have a lot to say. The entire bike is designed for racing across challenging mixed surfaces as fast as possible and does that by combining absolutely enormous tire clearance (up to 57 millimeters) with sporty geometry. And while it may be built for speed, it’s also plenty of fun.
“For the gravel rider I am now (occasional race, all-day adventure, multi-terrain linkups), this is probably the bike I would choose,” said Betsy Welch, senior editor at Velo. “It’s capable of all of the above, and the ride quality is superb.”
Given the fast and fun ride, plus the sheer amount of bike on offer here for the cost (you can thank the direct-to-consumer model), several testers agreed that they would buy one themselves if they were in the market for a competitive go-fast gravel bike. Just be ready to talk about it. 20 pounds
How to Buy
Gravel bike shopping is daunting these days. There are gravel bikes that are close to road bikes and gravel bikes that are basically mountain bikes, and manufacturers are stretching the distinction more all the time. So how do you pick what’s right for you? Follow these four steps.
Ask the question: What terrain will you ride most? Will you be riding on an even mix between road and dirt? How much will you be climbing? Are you a mountain biker that wants to get into remote roads? Be honest with your answers to these questions—you don’t want to get a bike that you dreamed up but isn’t realistic for where you live and how you will actually ride.
Look at bike geometry in relation to your riding style. Trail, the combination of fork offest and head angle is the most important number in this equation. Road bikes generally have trail in the 55 to 61 millimeter range. Mountain bikes are usually in the 80- to 100 millimeter range these days. Now think about how the bike you’re looking at might react underneath you as you ride the terrain you prefer.
Pick your components. Do you want a 1x or 2x drivetrain? Probably the former if you’re a mountain biker at heart, and probably the latter if you’re a roadie looking for off-pavement speed. Tire clearance is another big one. A racer is probably fine with a max 40 millimeter tire while more exploratory riders will want at least 45 millimeters, if not 50.
Go ride them! The large spectrum between gravel bikes means you can notice big differences between them easily and quickly. We highly recommend demoing as many gravel bikes as you can to see what you gravitate towards.