There’s a huge grey area on the cycling spectrum. It’s starts where the pavement ends and ends where singletrack trails begin. It’s the gap between proper road bikes with skinny tires, drop bars and caliper brakes and their XC mountain biking counterparts with fat tires, suspension and disc brakes. Welcome to the new world of gravel riding and gravel bikes.
The gravel bike, for lack of a better term, is the most exciting area of innovation in the cycling industry. The term “gravel” is used to describe both the bikes and the terrain. The machines are essentially hybrids. They combine the best of road and mountain bike technology to create a new category that fills this gap with countless iterations.
Gravel riding, on the other hand, can include the eponymous gravel road but also double tracks, fire roads, Rail Trails, jeep trails, Forest Service roads, cobblestones and just plain dirt roads. Anything that is not paved and not singletrack is gravel territory, and that adds up to a lot of terrain.
One of the reasons gravel bikes are so new is that certain technologies were required to realize their true potential. First, the bikes needed disc brakes in order to accommodate larger tires and to provide both stopping power and reliability. The bikes also needed tires designed to perform across this varied landscape, which can include healthy doses of asphalt.
Given these components, frame designers have been able to reimagine drop-bar 700c bikes and what they’re capable of. Over the past six months, I’ve been testing three different gravel models in both Park City, Utah, and the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles. These three bikes fully span the distance between road and XC, such that each has a specific application within the broader gravel universe.
The first thing you notice is that the Alfa Allroad frame is beautiful. It is seemingly sculpted from carbon fiber and finished with a custom PPG Harlequin paint job that shifts color as light reflects from different angles.
Allied Cycle Works is a boutique bike company based in Arkansas, which has become a major cycling destination thanks to rampant trail building and support from the Walmart family. It’s also the rare carbon frame that is made in the United States, complete with a proprietary carbon material from Innegra Technologies.
The company’s website features a bike building tool that reminds me of the car builder at Porsche.com, whereby you can choose the frame, color, drivetrain, wheels and various other options in completely customizing a bike to suit your style and taste.
The “multi-surface” Alfa Allroad frame is very light at just 920 grams. This complete custom build nets out at 17 pounds, 7 ounces with pedals and bottle cages, which is very light considering the terrain it can handle. Also somewhat novel are the company’s “plus-sized” frames.
It’s not for overweight people. Rather, a longer headtube extends beyond the top tube. This shortens the reach slightly and eliminates the need for headset spacers if you like to ride in a more upright (less road racing) position. This happens to be a better gravel position. By shifting weight toward the rear of the bike, the front tire is less likely to wash out.
On the gravel spectrum, this is closest to a road bike. In fact, it easily doubles as a disc-brake road bike by simply swapping the tires, so this could be a road/gravel category killer if your off-road terrain isn’t that demanding. What makes it gravel capable are flat-mount disc brakes and clearance for up to 35c tires.
This isn’t exactly wide, as many gravel tires exceed 40c. So the tire clearance effectively implies the type of gravel riding for which it’s designed. As such, I built it up with the the wheels, tires, drivetrain, brakes, and cockpit that I feel correspond to the spirit of the Allroad frame.
Wheels & Tires
Schwalbe makes tires for pretty much any cycling discipline, but the company has really leaned into the gravel movement. There are dozens of choices with very tight iterations. You’ll choose between tire widths, rubber compounds and tread patterns to get the perfect tire to suit both the bike and terrain. The G-One Speed 30c ($80 each) is that tire for the Allroad. It’s light and fast with just enough girth and tread to handle packed dirt. But it won’t slow you down too much on the asphalt. Also, with the choice of drivetrain (below), the rear tire comfortably clears the battery on the SRAM Red eTap front derailleur.
For wheels, Knight Composites is a relatively new player. The company’s founders and engineers previously served in senior roles a ENVE, Reynolds and Cervélo, so they have a ton of experience with carbon fabrication and high-performance wheels. The company’s mission is to make better wheels—faster, more compliant, more durable—for a better price.
By and large, it’s mission accomplished. I chose the 35 Clincher Disc Tubeless ($2,299) model for the Allroad. At 1,465 grams for the set, it’s light enough for road riding and has just enough dish to offer aerodynamic benefits. Yet it’s stout, wide and compliant enough to handle off-road terrain and tubeless tires from 25c to 35c.
Drivetrain & Brakes
The key decision for the Allroad was the drivetrain. Through the bike builder on the Allied website, you have multiple options from Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. The ideal, however, is SRAM’s Red eTap 11-speed group ($2,335) with wireless, electronic shifting and the Quarq DZero Carbon power meter ($1,079) .
Since this bike was built and tested, SRAM announced a 2019 upgrade to this drivetrain line known as AXS ($2,500). It expands the cassette to 12 speeds but fundamentally works the same way. There is a single paddle shifter on each brake lever. Left shifts up and right shifts down, much like a sports car.
Press both to shift the front derailleur up or down. Simplicity is key when you’re bouncing along dirt roads; the last thing you want to think about is what button to push. You just want a smaller or bigger gear, and the eTap system makes it that easy.
The corresponding disc brakes are suited to varied terrain with 160mm rotors front and rear and chunky brake hoods to grab when getting beat up on washboard sections.
The braking system is also very user friendly. You can adjust the lever throw to bring it closer or further from the handlebar (a small 2.5mm bolt under the lever), and you can adjust the pad positioning on each caliper (a 5mm bolt on top of the brake hood) to give each brake a softer or firmer feel. It’s the easiest set of disc brakes I’ve ever setup. Full stop.
Cockpit: Handlebar, Seatpost & Saddle
The Vision Metron 4D ($330) is one of the most comfortable road bars on the market due to its flat surface across the upper hand position. This is also raised above the stem clamp like a gull wing to offer a more upright riding position and relieve stress on the lower back. Behind the hoods it forms a comfortable platform for the hands that prevents the numbing effects of carpal tunnel and other wrist conditions.
Once in the drops, through, which are ideally shaped for wrist positioning, you are in the more aerodynamic race position of standard bars. All of this suits it to light gravel riding, where surfaces are more abusive. The gravel-specific difference is that I opted for the thicker Lizard Skins 3.2 mm ($46) bar tape to provide extra cushioning.
The seatpost is a corresponding Metron SB0 ($224) that absorbs vibration in lieu of its carbon construction and weighs just 242 grams, and the saddle is the new Ergon SR Pro Carbon model ($190). At just 175 grams, the saddle features a channel up the middle to minimize pressure in the sensitive perineal area and eliminate associated numbness. This allows you to shift fore and aft on the saddle without impacting that zone, yet there is ample padding for the sit bones where the pressure is focussed.
This is a superb gravel bike that easily doubles as a road bike, so it has plenty of range. It will also stand out among those in local group rides. It’s possible to order custom colors, and the bike can be purchased directly through the company’s website. This complete bike comes to about $12,000 as built, but a complete Allroad starts at just $5,799 with a Shimano Ultegra group.