We tested six fast, similarly priced gravel bikes on the grittiest roads, to find the best one for you. Here’s how they measure up, and our pick for the top option for most riders.
Over the past year, we’ve ridden and evaluated dozens of gravel bikes, from the incredibly fast Cervélo Áspero to the trail-ready (and fantastically named) Evil Chamois Hagar. But the sweet spot of this emerging category comprises speedy models that can be raced or driven hard on solo escapes, and cost about $3,000.
These bikes offer carbon frames, ample tire clearance, the efficiency of a good road bike, and a comfort-able position for riding over long distances on rough roads.
To choose these six bikes, we relied on past testing of these models and a deep evaluation of everything that’s available. To keep the comparison fair, we kept the prices within a narrow range: The lowest-price model is $2,900 and the most expensive is $3,300. Some well-known brands are omitted because they didn’t have a similarly priced bike, or if they did, it wasn’t available for testing.
The bikes we tested include the Cannondale Topstone Carbon Ultegra RX 2 ($3,300), Canyon Grail CF SL 9.0 ($2,999), Niner RLT 9 RDO 2-Star GRX 400 ($3,000), Salsa Warbird GRX 600 ($3,199), Trek Checkpoint SL 5 ($2,900), and Viathon G.1 GRX 800 ($2,998).
After testing these bikes on some of the top gravel roads around Durango, we see now more than ever why gravel bikes are booming. They can take you places that a road bike can’t, opening up new adventures. Plus, their versatility means they can do other things, too, like road riding, touring, commuting, and more.
Best Gravel Bikes Under 2000
Take a quick look at below comparison table of top rated gravel bikes under 2000, with details buying guide.
- SALSA Warbird GRX 600
- Cannondale Topstone Carbon Ultegra RX 2
- Trek Checkpoint SL 5
- Viathon G.1 GRX 600
- Niner RLT 9 RDO 2-Star GRX 400
- Canyon Grail CF SL 9.0 SL
How We Tested
We tested these bikes on the terrain for which they were intended, and we had evaluate each of them to discern the large and minor differences between these six models. Also tested them on loose and steep forest service roads, fast magnesium chloride–coated roads, unpaved county roads, and single track.
We used Strava segments to compare times when appropriate, and received feedback from trusted testers. Then we meticulously cataloged each bike’s dimensions, parts, and features for in-depth comparison.
Our evaluation prioritized overall ride impressions, and we looked closely at each bike’s efficiency, handling, comfort, gearing, and components. We also gave a lot of consideration to the bike’s value.
While these all proved excellent options, one model did emerge as a top choice for most riders. Below, we report how the bikes compared in our key categories. We then break out each model to show key details, highlight buying considerations, and provide bottom-line impressions.
Efficiency And Speed
On rough and bumpy roads and trails, these gravel bikes can play tricks on you. What can come across as a fast-feeling bike, because of liveliness and feedback, may actually be slower than you think—smoother is almost always faster because it gives you more control and wears you down less.
The two bikes that highlight this split are the Trek Checkpoint and the Viathon G.1. The latter feels very lively and gives you tons of feedback— step on the pedals and this bike goes. It’s the raciest-feeling bike in this group. The Trek feels more muted. But on one test segment that contained f lats, climbs, and a twisting and bumpy single track descent, I was over 20 seconds faster on the Trek, even though it felt like I was moving faster on the Viathon.
On smoother roads, paved or dirt, the Viathon offered crisp acceleration: Lift the pace a bit and this bike surges. The Trek has a liquid feel. It is smooth and f lowing and doesn’t provide the snap found in the more energetic models.
The other bikes fell between those two models. The Canyon and Niner have a crisp ride like the Viathon, while the Cannondale and Salsa are smooth like the Trek.
While these bikes are generally similar, they address comfort in unique ways. The Cannondale has a simple rear suspension system with 30mm of travel, and it works—the rear of the Topstone Carbon offers the smoothest ride even though this bike came with the narrowest tires of the group.
The Canyon and Trek both have compliance enhancing seat post/seat tube systems. The Canyon uses a two-piece carbon leaf spring seat post, while the Trek has the company’s IsoSpeed Decoupler, which allows the seat tube to flex farther than a fixed seat tube.
In contrast to the Cannondale’s always-active rear suspension, these damping systems work only when you’re seated. But both deliver noticeable benefits—you can stay in the saddle and pedal harder through rougher terrain than you can with a rigid frame. There is a small downside, however. Hit a large bump while hammering, and the rebound of those springy seat posts can almost bounce you out of the saddle.
The Niner, Salsa, and Viathon have traditional rigid frames. Of these, the Salsa delivers the most compliance while you’re seated and damps vibrations almost as much as the Canyon and Trek (the Salsa comes with the widest tires, 42mm, which helps). The Viathon’s snappy ride comes at a price. The bike never felt overly punishing but it is noticeably less compliant than the others. The rear of the Niner has a modest amount of compliance, but feels almost as firm as the Viathon.
None of these bikes use suspension to damp the ride at the front wheel. Instead they rely on the handlebar, fork, tape, and overall construction to keep your hands and arms from shaking and the front wheel tracking smoothly. The Canyon’s handlebar, with its elevated top section, makes this model the smoothest up front when your hands are on the bar top. The Trek, which is the only bike to come with pads below the bar tape, also feels quite smooth when riding on the tops.
Things reshuffle when you slide your hands to the drops or hoods. The Check-point remains very compliant, but the Canyon drops to the bottom of the group. The Salsa and, surprisingly, the Viathon feel just slightly less compliant than the Trek. The Cannondale and Niner aren’t abusive, but their front ends damp less than the others.
Overall, across many surfaces and considering all riding positions, the Warbird was admirably smooth and felt the most balanced. The Niner also offers a balanced ride, but that ride is firm, almost harsh.
The Trek is smooth, but feels quite imbalanced because the rear is so much more complaint than the front. The Viathon has the firmest-riding rear end, but a smooth front end. The Cannondale was the reverse: smoothest rear and one of the firmest up front.
Handling, on The Road and Across the Dirt
All these bikes handle well, but they do handle differently. The Canyon Grail has the longest wheelbase, most trail, and a healthy 75mm of BB drop (the Trek and Niner have the most drop, at 76mm). Of all six bikes, the Canyon is the most stable, and it carves fast corners better than the other bikes.
The Salsa has a balanced, neutral ride that feels steady at speed while remaining sharp when you’re going slower. The Niner is also very balanced, but its handling is less crisp than the Salsa’s.
The Trek Checkpoint rides like it is longer and slacker than it is—similar to the Canyon. Steering is light and intuitive, but the front wheel dips into turns easily, sometimes too easily, requiring a strong counter steer to hold your line.
Of all these bikes, the Cannondale has the shortest wheelbase, least amount of trail, and shortest BB drop. And that makes for a fast-accelerating, snappy ride, especially on hard packed gravel and pavement. But it feels less settled in looser conditions. With a long, 110mm stem and short front-center, the Viathon handles more like a cross bike than a pure gravel model. This is great for cornering traction in medium-speed turns, but the bike doesn’t feel as centered as the others and is less composed over loose and slippery dirt.
The Cannondale, Niner, and Salsa win points for handlebars with wide flares (12 to 16 degrees), which improve stability.
Gearing For Gravel
Gear range, expressed in percent, represents how wide a bike’s gearing is from its lowest to highest gears. It’s crucial on a gravel bike because of the diversity of terrain you can encounter—from 20 percent climbs to steep sustained descents.
The Viathon, with its 1x drivetrain, has the narrowest range at 382 percent. It’s biased toward the low end to prioritize climbing, but sacrifices gears on the high end, so you may spin out earlier. The Canyon has the largest range (479 percent); the Cannondale and Salsa (46/30 rings and 11-34 cassette) have slightly smaller ranges.
When comparing gearing, you also want to look at the high and low ratio. A bike with sub-1:1 ratio (the largest rear cog is larger than the smallest front chainring) is ideal to get up steep pitches. The Cannondale and Salsa come out on top here, with ratios of 1:0.882.
On the high end, the bigger the gear, the faster you can go. The Viathon has the lowest high-gear ratio: a 42-11 (1:3.818), and I spun out at about 25mph—if you ride a lot of pavement, this gear is probably too small. The Trek and Niner offer the biggest gear—the 50-11 (1:4.545) got me up to about 38mph before spinning out.
Wheels and Tires
The right tires keep your wheels from sliding on loose gravel and roll well across hard-pack and pavement. Of these bikes, the Warbird comes with the best rubber. Its wide, 42mm Teravail Cannonball tires smoothed bumps and floated easier across sandy stretches. They corner well, hold on tight when you hit the brakes, and roll impressively across hard surfaces. The Viathon’s IRC Boken semi-slicks are the fastest in this test, but work best on paved and hard packed surfaces, limiting their value. The other bikes come with adequate but not standout tires; none had the broad performance of the Salsa’s Teravails.
Five of the six bikes come with aluminum rims; only the Viathon, the second-cheapest model, has carbon hoops. Though a premium touch, we didn’t perceive any real benefits in acceleration, stiffness, or comfort.
Four bikes—the Cannondale, Canyon, Salsa, and Viathon—are tubeless-ready. The Trek has tubeless tires, but you’ll need to spend $54 for a pair of Bontrager tubeless rim strips and valves to make the conversion. The Niner’s rims are taped and tubeless-ready, but valves are not included, and the stock tires are not tubeless-ready.
After weeks of riding, and comparing each bike’s efficiency, handling, comfort, build kit, and value, we found the Salsa Warbird is the best option for riders who want a race-ready and versatile gravel bike.
It’s stable and surefooted on loose gravel and challenging single track without feeling sluggish on pavement or faster dirt roads. It has enough compliance to handle bumpy roads, yet it feels lively on all surfaces.
It also is the most versatile: Strip it down for day rides or shorter races, load it up for light bike packing or epic races.
It’s got all the right components, too—flared drop bar, gravel-appropriate gearing, tubeless wheels, and great tires. Salsa also makes it in seven sizes; of the bikes in this group, only Canyon offers as many.