If you’ve been around the block as a cyclist, you’ve often been asked, “I’m just starting out; what’s a good bike for me [wife-daughter-son-family].” Typically there’s a follow-up around affordability, then the quantifier of Road, Mountain, Triathlon, Track, Commuter, or now Gravel. Affordable is paradoxical. The budget of one person will be vastly different from another, as will someone’s perception of what good is. $500, $1000, $2000, $5,000? A “Wal-Mart” bike? Used? Bike shop? Direct to consumer? In my opinion, I think it is very hard to find a new bike of any genre for under $800. I think the sweet spot for a new starter bike is between $1000 to $1500. If you can manage $2,000 the realm of possibilities really open up.
My friends and I just had a heated debate around this topic; the conclusion we came to after insults, jokes, and hurt feelings? Unfortunately, there is no correct answer, and the bike you currently have or decided to buy is the best answer. However, there are a few key points to remember when starting your search.
First, if you are reading this from my site, you are most likely interested in Gravel. If you’re wanting to try out Gravel riding and already have a Mountain Bike, or a friend with one, use the mountain bike until you get a few rides under your belt to see if it is the cat’s pajamas you had hoped. Second, gravel bikes are now being sold as “All-Around” bikes and they are very suitable for many situations; Gravel, of course, but they also make great commuters and even road bikes. (changing out the tires to slicks is a pretty simple solution) Third, if you still want a new bike, let’s start with the basics of what makes a bike $10,000 vs. $1,000. There are many variables, but the basics are the frame, wheels, and drive-train. (Groupo) Forth, bikes are still hard to come by and finding one in your size could be a whole other challenge. (patience will be a must)
There are mainly four types of frames to choose from – Carbon, Titanium, Aluminum, and Steel – all with varying costs based on the substrate grades used to make them and the quality control used to build them. Deciding on your frame should be one of the most important factors, but don’t get too hung up on it. Most frames will last you long before the rest of your parts wear out. A steel or aluminum frame will likely be the choice of frame material for entry-level bikes. For this exercise, Steel is generally heavier than Aluminum but has a little better road feel with less vibration. On the other hand, Aluminum is lighter but has little to no flex and can give you a harsher road feel. I have bikes in all four materials and love each one for different reasons. Check to see what fork the frame comes with; an Aluminum frame with a Carbon fork will not be as harsh a feeling on rough roads for example. Since we’re talking about Gravel bikes, this is not nearly as critical. If your Aluminum frame feels a little harsh, take a little air out of your tires, this will help dampen the rigidity.
Note: I might be a little weary of an entry-level carbon frame. As I said, a manufacturer has to save money somewhere, and if they’re saving it on a carbon frame, I would question its build and quality control.
I started writing my own description of frame materials, but it has been written about repeatedly, so why beat a dead horse? And this blog post is already becoming more of a book.
Here is a good link with general overviews to help make your decision. https://wheretheroadforks.com/category/bikes-and-cycling-gear/
Like frames, wheelsets range from $150 to the absurd. Until you’re winning races or crushing Strava segments, worry only that your wheels are built well and have good parts for your budget. If you’re unsure, read the online reviews. It is easy to get sucked into weight savings with your wheels when, in reality, saving a pound of rotational weight can set you back $1,000. I recommend to my friends just starting out to look for a name-brand wheel and save the carbon for another time. For Gravel, consider tubeless-ready wheelsets – meaning you don’t need to use tubes in your tires, unless you want or need to. Tubless for gravel bikes makes a big difference and can keep you up and running and not stranded on some rando gravel road.
Every entry to mid-level bikes will save most of their money on the drive-train. They will mix and match, shuffle from one manufacturer for one part and another from another, etc. Some are even starting to use “private label” parts on drive-train-specific parts, once used more for less critical bike parts like seat-pots, stems, and handlebars. Unless it is a big-named bike manufacturer, I would steer clear of private-label parts on your main components for your first bike. Your shifter(s), derailleur(s), and brakes are the most critical part of your bike – next to the wheelset. Your crank and bottom bracket are to some extent, but making sure you can shift and stop should be your number one goal. When comparing brands, look at what they have for these three parts, try to get the one that is closest to their higher-end counterparts. Finding an 11sp bike vs. 10sp would make the bike more upgradeable as you get more into it. I would steer clear of anything 8spd for sure. Is it a 1x or 2x system – meaning does it have a front derailleur and two front chain-rings? Both are great options, but you have to look at your overall gear ratio to ensure you have enough gears to climb the hills you are about to tackle. Are the brakes older style rim brakes or disc brakes that come in Mechanical and Hydraulic versions? There is nothing wrong with rim brakes, and an older, higher-quality rim brake system could very well be better than a cheaper Mechanical setup.
A good bit of info on types of brakes:
Good drive-train info:
I quick(ish) thought on tire size as I think riders spend way too much time thinking about widths for gravel riding versus just going out and riding their bikes. Like wheelsets weights and Carbon frames vs “any other”. (Trust me you – the mortal, everyday, human- is not going to be that much faster on a $2000 set of carbon wheels over a nice $5-$700 set of Aluminum – insert the same analogy for frames here) There are limits to an extent, though as someone who grew up on gravel roads in rural Iowa and had to ride his road bike on gravel to get to paved roads, there are very few roads in Georgia where you can’t take your road bike. It does get dicy in the North Georgia mountains and if you ride Dirty Sheets just south of Atlanta, really only Upper Wooten road is problematic. Sandy roads in the south also up your pucker factor on skinny road tires expeditiously. Is it a good idea then? Not really, and PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RIDE YOUR ROAD BIKE AT BORDER WARS. YOU WILL NOT FINISH. You’ll spend a fortune in tubes and C02 cartridges while walking just as much as riding and you could crash if you’re not a good bike handler.
The new rule is “Wider is better”, which I don’t completely agree or disagree with. Wider just means a little cushier and easier on really rough sections. In my opinion, in general – the wider you go, the slower you will go. At this moment I hear several of my Georgia Tech engineering friends heads exploding. (My point to them, if that’s the case, why did most riders in the first gravel world championships use 33 – 36mm tires? Tradition? I highly doubt it. They will use whatever helps them win.) Will it be much slower, no? Are you personally going to feel much of a difference between a 36mm tire vs a 44mm? Not really. Will you feel much of a difference between a 36mm to 52mm tire? Probably a little. Will you feel much of a difference between a 33mm to a 52mm tire? Yes. Would it be enough to say no to a bike that only allows a max width under 40mm? In my opinion. NO! NO! NO! 33mm tire is the standard width of Cyclocross bikes and should be your starting point. You should 100% throw Cross bikes into your mix as you look for bikes. You can find a very good used cross bike for half that of a new bike and chances are you can probably bump those tires up to 36mm. (I did this for my daughters used 17lb Scandium Redline cross bike with V-rim brakes and she has gone everywhere I have with my 44’s) Any “Gravel” bike offering a tire width around 40mm or greater will be just fine. Until you start doing week-long bike packing trips through the Rockies or Smokies or Trans North Georgia, you will have all the fun you want on whatever width you have between 33 and 50. If you can get a good deal on a cross bike, do it! Note: I rode the famous death shards of flint rock at Unbound (Dirty Kanza at the time) on 36mm Specialized Pathfinder’s and had no problems. I rode the 100-mile version on 44’s a year later, but fatter, and more out of shape and had way more problems, including a flat, but more so because I was out of shape.
I’m ready to buy, where should I go?
Direct to Consumer (D2C):
I’m starting here because this is where our heated group discussion started. The arguing was swift and fierce and may have thrown the ultimate cycling insult of “Huffy” out more than once. Side note: I feel a bit for the Huffy name; it’s been around a long time. Heck, Huffy’s were even in the ’84 Olympics and America’s first Tour de France team, granted rebadged custom-built frames by Mike Milton, Serotta, and Land Shark. Today’s new bikes are not that much different. As I mention above most frames nowadays come from the same factories.
The mud slinging was based around a D2C bike offered by State, specifically the 6061 Black Label All-Round, costing $1399 with free shipping. (On sale right now (12-19-22) for $999 which changes the below a little and has started – thanks to me – our heated discussion all over again) Anyone asking “What’s a good bike to start” will most likely question $1399 as ‘affordable’, but as I said earlier, I think this is within the sweet spot (If you want cheaper really consider used). This bike is not (now is) quite under the elusive “$1,000 or less” but close, and State does offer more entry-level bikes at $899. This State appears to be a “nice” bike and comes with what appears at first glance to be a lot for the cost, including 11sp shifting that mimics – but is not – SRAMs doubletap. The question for this bike comes to the quality of parts and quality control of those parts as mentioned above. They are using “private label” components, meaning there is a bit of this, some of that, and big part of “we’re not exactly sure.” Which could be totally fine, but this to me, is the number one reason to think hard about B2C at the more introductory level of bike. You are buying a lot of unknowns and chances are being new to the sport you don’t know what a good part is or isn’t. If a part goes bad, how do you replace it? If it shows up with bent rims, or derailleur hanger, what recourse, or how long will it take to be fixed? Are the cost savings they put into it more important parts like brakes and wheels or something more simple like handlebars, stem, and seatpost? State is a popular brand; chances are they would replace anything damaged quickly, so that shouldn’t be a problem. However, private label parts, particularly on the lower end, are a huge unknown and differ vastly in function, reliability, and quality/safety. The 6061 lowers costs by using a cheaper wheelset and pretty low-end mechanical brakes. These are the two most essential parts – minus the frame – in terms of safety. Will they be fine? Maybe? Probably? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯?
If you’re new to the sport, how would you know if your hanger is bent and that’s what is causing shifting issues or if your rim seam was improperly pinned and missed in quality control? (Both are a few items in the reviews of the bike I have found – though most are very positive) That said, though, you can typically get a lot bang for your buck from D2C, and if you are somewhat handy or have some bike knowledge, D2C is a good option and as I said early, the 6061 does offer a lot for the cost. B2C becomes less worrisome the more expensive the bike is and the more familar you are with working on them. There are some great options, not just from State, but similar lineups from Diamondback, Kona, and Felt to top-of-the-line, dope as sh** high-bikes from Open, Lauf, and Canyon. I am personally riding a mid-range Handsling ordered direct from the UK.
The reviews on the State are mixed and as a group we are pretty split with this review from CyclingTips consuming most of the conversation (read about the wheels) https://cyclingtips.com/2022/08/state-bicycle-company-6061-black-label-all-road-review/ For the record they recommend the Triban RC120 which I have found for $599! https://www.decathlon.com/products/rc-120-disc-326838? Maybe a winner? Seems to offer a lot less than the State but is less more, or is their quality control just better. Geesh, I’m starting to frustrate myself.
The first direct to consumer bike I purchased was back in 2017 and it was the Diamondback Hanjo Trail. (Seen in the gallery pics above) I believe I paid $1499 for it. I’m finding out now that bike was a bit of a golden unicorn and those who have it will agree. It came with 10sp Ultegra, HED wheels and Shimano Hydraulic brakes!! If you can get your hands on one it is well worth it.
How about the new Diamondbacks? Well there are two around the above price. The Hanjo 3 retails for $1175 – https://www.diamondback.com/bikes/road-gravel-bikes/adventure-gravel/haanjo-3-4671 and Hanjo 4 retails for $1600 – https://www.diamondback.com/bikes/road-gravel-bikes/adventure-gravel/haanjo-4-4482 . Would I get either over the State? Can I answer with my 2017 Hanjo Trail? I honestly don’t know. While the State is using private label brakes the Diamondback uses Tektra Liyra mechanical brakes – with mixed reviews when you look it up and while the Hanjo 4 uses TRP SPYRE Mechanical brakes which does get good independent reviews. The State has 11 speed while the Hanjo’s use 9spd, though both are using industry leader Shimano.
Throw in this Fuji Jari 1.5 and you upgrade to 11spd SRAM for $1999 and you are into a bike that is very upgradable as you go? https://www.fujibikes.com/collections/jari/products/2022-jari-1-5
ADDED: 12/20/22 Thanks to a buddy and honestly I overlooked.
Canyon, which makes very nice bikes, offers the Grizl 6 for $1499. They have them in stock, which as of late has been issues with bikes in general. This bike does comes pretty complete with Shimano’s GRX 400 10spd groupo (minus a few non-essentials) but including Hydraulic Brakes and DT Swiss Wheels. This could be the new Golden Unicorn?
note: images are directly from their sites. I am not endorsing one over the other. Talk to them, talk to friends, check around before making any decision.
Local Bike Shops
For 90% of new-to-the-sport buyers, go to your local bike shop! Please and thank you. Even if, ultimately, you don’t buy from them, you need to be fitted to a bike. The more time you spend finding the right size bike, the better your experience will be as you start riding. A properly fit bike can last you a lifetime, and if you get a good enough frame, you can always slowly upgrade the parts as you go. Those are the things only a local bike shop can tell and show you in person. Be honest and realistic with them; they’ll be honest and realistic back, and somewhere in the middle, you will find your bike. Not only will you get a properly fit bike, but most shops also give you free tune-ups for the first year or more, and sometimes will upgrade you as you go. The bike you are getting has also gone through a better quality control and was built up by them. Bikes take maintenance, particularly MTB and Gravel so the D2C option may be cheaper, but a $75 tune-up can get costly quickly, or if you have to have them build it because D2C does come with assembly required.
In Atlanta, we have a ton of great shops; Outback Bikes, – Earl’s, – PBR, – Reality, – Roswell, – Peachtree, – Atlanta Cycling, – Podium, or any of the Trek Superstores will have a variety to bikes to choose from, and they have all been in business a long time. (sorry if I missed someone) Call them first to schedule a time to come in. They prefer it, and that way, you know, you will have their undivided attention. Check out a couple of options and go with the one that gives you the warm and fuzzies because chances are all the bikes you are looking at will generally be about the same for the price. Ultimately you are buying into a relationship.
Each dealer has a bike around the $1000 – $1500 price range at the time I posted this.
Specialized has the Diverge E5 https://www.specialized.com/us/en/diverge-e5/p/199973?color=322113-199973
Trek has the Domane AL 2 https://www.trekbikes.com/us/en_US/bikes/road-bikes/performance-road-bikes/domane/domane-al/domane-al-2-disc/p/33083/?colorCode=blue_black – Domane AL 3 https://www.trekbikes.com/us/en_US/bikes/road-bikes/performance-road-bikes/domane/domane-al/domane-al-3-disc/p/33082/?colorCode=grey_black
Liv built specific for women offers the Devote 2 https://www.liv-cycling.com/us/devote-2-2021
Cannondale has the Topstone in several costs under $1500 and this Topstone 4 is on sale right now. https://www.cannondale.com/en-us/bikes/road/gravel/topstone-alloy/topstone-4
Giant has the Revolt 2 https://www.giant-bicycles.com/us/revolt-2
Basically a ton of options. All similar, all worth looking at.
For one, if $1000 is too much, which is very understandable, then I would really start to think about used. For the beginner, used is and should be a tempting option, and if you can talk a cycling friend into helping you with the process – AFTER YOU OFFER THEM AT LEAST A SIX PACK – wink wink, nudge nudge they will help you find a good, well loved bike that is lighter, better built, and comes with safe, quality parts. However, how do you know if you are new to the game? Answer? You don’t, and there are some less-than-ethical options out there. It could be that the bike is just junk, in general, and worn-out, or you are paying a premium for a “Certified used” bike sticker. Ebay, Facebook marketplace, and some online used retailers can be good options if you know what you are looking for and do some price checking. If you DON’T have a cycling buddy willing to grind it out with you – because it does take time to find a good used bike – then take your time, do research with online reviews of the bikes you are looking and you should be able to find something if you are patient.
Used locally. A few options to think about. Your local bike shop could be a good option. Some bike shops – as they take in upgrades – will clean up and sell the bike being upgraded. Or, in the case of Atlanta, we have a bike shop called Bearings Bikes in West-end that teaches inner-city kids to be bike mechanics using donated, found or clearance’d out parts to build up a bike specifically for you. Ask around your local community to see if you have this or similar option. I have sent many friends to them and they all have come away happy – though it usually takes a few weeks to build you up something.
A few used options from Bearings I borrowed from their socials and from a friend. You can get a lot of bike for your money if you don’t mind a few scratches, using older rim V-brakes on a converted MTB to new Gravel Grinding steed.
The simplest answer on Big Box is steer way, way, way far from them for your bicycle purchases. Chances are they were built by someone who knows nothing about bikes, and they typically use very substandard parts. They are meant to be affordable, and unfortunately, affordable means cheap and you will spend more time off your bike fixing it than riding it. And a big note to say that most bike shops will not work on Big Box bikes for liability reasons. If this is your only option, then get the best they have and hope for the best. Ironically the Triban I mention above is sold online at War-mart, distributed by Decathlon, who I assume sends it to you with some assemble required.