Gravel bikes have gained enormous traction among all types of cyclists and endurance athletes throughout the cycling world. Somewhat of a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike with drop bars, gravel bikes are designed to enable wider tire clearance, thereby allowing wider outlets for riding.
Although gravel cycling has yet to make a mainstream appearance in triathlon, like the case of XTERRA and off-road tri events, multisport athletes are still finding gravel bikes to be a novel alternative to get off the pavement but still go fast. Indisputably fun and virtually limitless for adventure, a quick rip on a gravel bike provides a renewed sense of freedom that many athletes desire.
Whether or not the triathlon world is ready for gravel cycling, our team of editors is passionate in all areas of cycling, including gravel cycling and adventure bike racing. In this post, we tackle a few frequently asked questions, our favorite gravel bikes, and notable races (based in the U.S.) – all associated with the rapidly-growing gravel bike scene.
Why is Gravel Biking So Popular?
Gravel biking has gained tremendous popularity in the cycling world for its mixed terrain versatility, adventure-ready potential, and go-fast capabilities. Often designed with drop bars commonly seen on road bikes, gravel bikes accommodate wider tires and thereby a plethora of unpaved riding surfaces.
Alternative racing styles, like ultra-distance gravel races and bikepacking adventure races, are gaining interest from all types of endurance athletes, including professional tour cyclists, like Team EF at Dirty Kanza 2019.
Compared to conventional road cycling, a major draw to gravel biking is the ability to access lesser popular, unpaved roads with low traffic. In addition to safety, gravel cycling, in the general sense, helps keep the journey fun, novel, and adventurous.
Top 10 Gravel Bike Races in the U.S.
Below is our compilation of some of the top gravel bike races in the U.S. We’ll be updating this list regularly as new gravel races come on our radar.
The Badlands Gravel Battle
A proper gravel grinder based in western North Dakota, the Badlands Gravel Battle is a fast-rolling but tough climbing gravel bike race that offers 60, 80, and 120-mile distances.
Nestled in the stunning gravel trail systems of the beautiful Badlands territory of the western frontier, the Badlands Gravel Battle is largely comprised of illuminating red scoria roads and the Maah Daah Hey trail.
As part of the Badlands Race Series, the Badlands Gravel Battle is one of the first races in the series, typically taking place in May. The 120-mile course has over 10K feet of climbing, making for a tough ratio of distance to elevation gain. Learn more at ExperienceLand.org.
A new gravel bike race starting in Moran, Michigan – just north of the Mackinac Bridge in the beautiful Upper Peninsula – the Moran 166 is a long-course event that’s fast, flat, and scenic.
Nestled in the Hiawatha National Forest, any development is few and far between, as the course takes athletes into the depths of nature-rich with wildlife and breathtaking sights.
The Moran 166 is comprised of the finest U.P. gravel roads that are lined with evergreens, hardwoods, and wetlands. Expect very few intersections as athletes experience pristine gravel roads, deep forest two-tracks, and fast-paced racing. Learn more about this Fall gravel bike race at Moran166.com.
Touted as the world’s largest gravel road bicycle race, the Barry-Roubaix brings over 3,800 athletes to Hastings, Michigan. This iconic gravel bike race typically occurs in early Spring, making for an inviting early-season event that brings a healthy dose of community and competition.
Drawing athletes from all over the Midwest, the Barry-Roubaix has four different race distances: an 18-miler (approx. 1,000 feet of climbing), a 36-miler (approx. 2,200 feet of climbing), a 62-miler (approx. 3,800 feet of climbing), and the century 100-miler (about 6,800 feet of climbing).
The Barry-Roubaix is a great season opener for cyclists of all levels who want to start their racing season with a proper challenge. Not only is the race a stunning experience the exposes athletes to the rolling scenery of Barry County, but the sheer popularity and interest make for a community gathering worth every minute. For more information, visit Barry-Roubaix.com.
Based in the bike-friendly town of Bentonville, Arkansas, Big Sugar is a 100-mile gravel race that spans across Northwest Arkansas and Southeast Missouri. No easy feat, Big Sugar packs 9,954 feet of climbing but delivers stunning views of the Ozarks throughout. A shorter-distance option, Little Sugar is a picturesque 50-miler that’s designed to serve as a stepping stone toward the Big Sugar route.
For those familiar with the Arkansas High Country Race, Big Sugar is an abbreviated century that includes the more challenging yet beautiful aspects of this territory. The course features rarely maintained, canopy-covered gravel roads with loose gravel, a handful of paved sections, and even a few water crossings and bridges.
There’s a reason why Northwest Arkansas has cultivated a reputation for gravel biking. Not only does the area host some of the best gravel cycling in the U.S., but events like these draw well-deserved attention and participation in the scene. Learn more about this gravel bike race at BigSugarGravel.com.
The Heywood Ride
Locally known as the “Deep South Metro,” the Heywood takes place in the rolling countryside south of the Minneapolis/St. Paul, spanning through the farmland, prairies, and woodlands of Southwest Minnesota, Southwest Wisconsin, and Northeast Iowa.
This popular event that draws over 500 cyclists per year features three distances comprised of 100, 162, and 380-mile courses. The low trafficked roads are smooth gravel with extended, steady rollers and steep, punchy climbs.
Base in Northfield, Minnesota, a college town that offers a thriving downtown with cafés, bakeries, and shops with personality, this late May gravel bike race is an awesome adventure located in the heart of the Midwest. Learn more by visiting TheHeywoodRide.com.
Crusher in the Tushar
If tons of climbing in rocky mountain territory tickles your fancy, then the Crusher in the Tushar is a must-try all-road/gravel race tucked in Beaver, Utah. Comprised of 60% gravel, 40% tarmac, the Crusher in the Tushar provides the opportunity to see the stunning backcountry of Utah’s little-known the Tushar Mountains and Fishlake National Forest.
The 70-mile course is a tough one that accumulates over 10,000 feet of total elevation gain, with some of the fastest finisher times coming in between 4 and 5 hours. Athletes start at 6,000 feet in elevation, pedal up a couple of massive mountain climbs that exceed 4,000 feet, and finish above 10,000 in elevation.
An epic gravel bike race that takes place in mid-July, the Crusher in the Tushar attracts competitive athletes from all over the US and North America, including professional cyclists. To learn more, visit TusharCrusher.com.
The Belgian Waffle Ride California
As one of the most groundbreaking gravel bike events in the US, the Belgian Waffle Ride (succinctly known as the BWR) has grown to become a series of races that take part across the country. Of the most iconic in the BWR line-up is the 131-mile event in San Marcos, just outside San Diego.
What makes the BWR California race so special is the community and course. The race has grown immensely over the years, becoming a huge draw among competitive cyclists from all over the world. As part of the course, athletes are challenged by 10 categorized climbs that together total 11,000 feet of elevation gain for the day.
Considered to be the only European-style Spring Classic bike race on American soil, the BWR brings Belgian flavor in many ways. Hosted by the Lost Abbey Brewery, the BWR is a proper cyclist party that delivers unique entertainment features and a range of food and beverage options. Get more information about this mid-Summer race at BelgianWaffleRide.bike.
UnPAved Susquehanna River Valley
With routes broken down by two unPAved courses at 120 or 90 miles and two SOMEpaved versions at 50 miles and 30 miles, UnPAved winds through the breathtaking forest roads and rolling farmland of central Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley.
If you’re familiar with Pennsylvania, then you’re probably well aware of the hills that span across the beautiful state. UnPAved captures the scenery, and the elevation, with the long course including 9,700 feet of elevation gain. The dense woodlands, rocky slopes, and lush hillsides of the Susquehanna River Valley deliver a scenic race that captures everything you’d want in a gravel route.
UnPAved brings an authentic sense of community to its event, combining all the wonderful aspects of rural Pennsylvania, including awesome breweries, award-winning wineries, great restaurants, and outdoor recreation options for the whole family. Based in Lewisburg, UnPAved Susquehanna River Valley takes place in mid-October, making for one color event. For more information, visit www.unPAvedPennsylvania.com.
Formerly known as Dirty Kanza, Unbound Gravel is one of the most widely-known gravel bike races in the US offering a range of short-course options along with the coveted 200-mile course and XL version extending 350-miles.
Bringing both amateur and professional cyclists from across the world, Unbound Gravel transforms the small town of Emporia, Kansas in early June. The long courses meander the rugged and remote roads of east-central Kansas’ Flint Hills region, which hosts the only remaining expanse of natural tallgrass prairie in North America.
Unbound Gravel attracts several thousand gravel cyclists every year, yet not all participants finish. The race is extremely challenging with considerable climbing, self-supported race dynamics, and hot conditions. Learn more about this world premiere gravel bike race at UnboundGravel.com.
Hell of Hunterdon
The Hell of Hunterdon is a scenic, mixed-terrain bike race that takes athletes through the beautiful farmlands and country towns of New Jersey’s Sourland Region. The event is considered the Mid-Atlantic’s Premier Spring Classic & Mixed Surface Ride and a fantastic early season event for those on the east coast.
The long course is the traditional race of the Hell of Hunterdon, boasting 82 miles and 5,200 feet of elevation gain. Alternative distances include a 56-mile course with 3,900 feet of climbing and a 30-mile course with just under 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
Most of the ride is on paved roads; however, there are several gravel segments across all distances. While road bikes will suffice, slightly wider and more durable tires are encouraged. To learn more, visit HellofHunteron.com.
What’s the Best Gravel Bike for the Money?
The best gravel bike for the money will depend on your budget and performance expectations as a cyclist. For beginners looking for an entry-level gravel bike, used and budget options can be found for less than $1,000.
In most cases, you can expect to pay between $2,000 and $3,000 for a quality gravel bike that enables your potential as a competitive or adventure cyclist. A couple of options we recommend in this price range are the Niner RLT 9 Aluminum and the Salsa Warbird (carbon).
For higher-end options designed from better quality materials, our top pick is the THUNDERHAWK titanium gravel bike from Bearclaw Bicycle Co. This all-road gravel bike comes equipped with a titanium or carbon gravel fork and is a true race bike that handles performance cycling, adventure bikepacking, and anything in between.
Another interesting off-shoot in the gravel bike market is e-bikes. While certainly designed more for accessibility and adventure versus racing, gravel e-bikes have gained interest in the unpaved world. Among the most progressive options in this category is the Specialized Turbo Creo SL, which delivers a 120-mile range and no compromise on performance. For more insights in this category, check out these top e-bike reviews.
How is Gravel Bike Fit Different Than Road Bike Fit?
When it comes to comparing bike fit and geometry, a gravel bike fit is going to have a steeper headtube angle, taller head tube, and a lower bottom bracket versus a traditional road bike fit, making gravel bike more stable in a seated position.
Cyclists will often find that gravel bikes are more comfortable than road bikes. However, gravel bikes can be positioned to be just as aggressive, if not more aggressive, than road bikes. This is particularly the case with the addition of aerobars and more race-specific geometry.
Are Gravel Bikes Worth It? Or Just a Fad?
While gravel cycling is particularly trendy in the cycling community, gravel bikes are more than just a fad and most certainly here to stay. For cyclists who wish to enjoy a multitude of terrain, including paved, gravel, two-track, single track, investing in the right gravel bike is most certainly worth it.
Not only do gravel bikes enable endurance cyclists to diversify their training without compromising too much speed like mountain biking, but gravel bikes are also a safer option. In addition to allowing wider tires compared to road bikes, gravel bikes also have a longer wheelbase as well as disc breaks, offering greater control and stability.
And as mentioned above, gravel biking allows cyclists to ride more remote, less-busy routes where road bikes can’t always go. Not only is this a safety benefit, but it also makes for a more interesting and exciting cycling experience.