The good news about most bikes categorized as hybrids? They do a little bit of everything. The bad news? They do them poorly. Thankfully, there's a growing category for 2014 that is versatile enough for fast road rides, ripping around fire/farm roads, mellow mountain biking, and commuting. Since most are also rack capable, they're also great touring bikes and grocery getters. Dubbed "gravel grinders" after all-day rides/races that often take place on dirt and gravel roads, they're a veritable quiver killer.
At first glance, they look like road bikes with fat tires and disc brakes—in other words, a modified cyclocross bike. Gravel grinders have some significant differences, though, like a longer wheelbase and lower bottom bracket for better stability as well as a slacker head-tube angle for more relaxed handling. Most feature three water-bottle mounts for longer adventures.
Thanks to their versatility, they're great for exploring. I've lived in California for a decade, and cruising around on a gravel grinder was my gateway to discovering new-to-me paths in Los Angeles proper as well as rad dirt roads off Highway 395 on the way to Mammoth Lakes. And with all those distracted drivers on urban and suburban streets, it's tough not to be tempted to explore America's 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads.
Giant Bicycles: Revolt 2
At $1,025, this eight-speed steed is the least expensive in Giant's Revolt line. Complete with 35c tires, which are more or less standard, the Revolt 2 can accommodate a larger 50c set for riders who want a fatter tire for a plusher ride or better off-road/deep-gravel performance. Full-length cable housing keeps shifting working well in adverse conditions, and a guard on the down tube protects the aluminum frame from dings. Although the bike doesn't photograph well, it's not half as ugly in real life.
Diamondback Bicycles: Haanjo Comp
Dollar for dollar, the $1,300 Haanjo Comp is tough to beat because it delivers a whole lot of bike for just a little bit of cash—and looks good doing it. Spec'd mostly with Shimano 105 components, which are usually found on more expensive bikes, and impressive-in-action hybrid disc brakes, the 20-speed aluminum bike is also equipped with a carbon fork to soak up vibrations from less-than-ideal riding surfaces. And you don't have to be a Steelers fan to dig the black-and-yellow aesthetic, but you may be singing more "Black and Yellow" than ever before.
Raleigh Bicycles: Tamland 2
When most folks think about Raleigh, they think about old 10-speeds and tradition. Thanks to a frame built from steel, the Tamland 2 definitely has some of the latter. But, believe it or not, this ride quality can easily go head to head with carbon fiber.
The tubes are made by Reynolds, one of the most well-regarded manufacturers in the world, and possesses a more lively ride quality than carbon. Outfitted with the awesome Shimano Ultegra components, the $2,400 Tamland 2 is equipped with more road-oriented gearing (a greater range) than most gravel grinders. And the tires are slightly wider than those found on most of these types of bikes. Gravel Grinder News raves, "The Tamland is the standard by which gravel-bike-specific design will be judged going forward. It is hands down the best-handling bike on gravel I've ridden to date."
Love the movie "Anchorman"? This is your bike: It's named after the weatherman played by Steve Carell.
Niner Bikes: RLT 9
If George Clooney's fiancée, Amal Alamuddin, were a bike, she'd be the RLT 9: As beautiful as it gets and with an overwhelming abundance of substance, even an accomplished, modern-day Renaissance man will question if he's worthy. Built by a small American company, Niner, the carbon-fiber frame and fork can be built with three different component packages: a 105 unit for $1,999, SRAM Force 22 for $2,999, or Di2 Ultegra for $4,999.
If you can pony up the pesos for any of these models, you won't be let down. Compliant but stiff, the ride quality of this bike is as good as any out there. All builds are available in the murdered-out Black/Niner Red, Fresh Mint, or Industry Grey. But the Fresh Mint is one of the prettiest schemes of 2014. And if you still want more, how about a literary reference? RLT stands for "Road Less Traveled," because if Robert Frost rode, he'd choose the poetically perfect RLT 9.
Salsa Cycles: Warbird Ti
Although Salsa Cycles started in California eons ago, Minnesota-based Quality Bicycle Products has owned the bike brand since 1997. Located in the hotbed of the gravel scene, the Midwest, Salsa was one of the first to build gravel-specific bikes. Their hands-on-handlebars experience shows in the Warbird Ti.
Stable at speed and comfy for hours in the saddle, this titanium bike isn't for the economically challenged. It's $4,500 and the majority of that cost goes for the $2,500 frame. Draped with Ultegra, Salsa didn't cut corners on components: It's also outfitted with drool-worthy Thomson post and stem.
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