Triathletes struggle with the mountain of gear that is necessary to perform just the basic functions of the sport. Not only is it expensive, but it takes up plenty of room in your garage, basement, and maybe even your living room. For triathletes who own only a triathlon bike, considering a second bike can be hard to justify. However, the case can be made easier when that bike can perform multiple functions and help you get faster. This is where the adventure bike shines.
What is an adventure bike?
In the past few years, riders have increasingly wanted to explore new roads, and often those roads were not paved. Adventure bikes (also called gravel bikes) meet the needs of these explorers by offering a mix of road bike efficiency with mountain bike comfort and gearing. Overall, these bikes are designed with compliance and comfort in mind. To achieve those qualities, these bikes have a longer wheelbase, more relaxed geometry, have clearance for wider tires and are often set up for tubeless tires. This creates a smoother ride and gives you better control. Disc brakes are nearly unanimous. Gearing options are more sporadic, ranging from a compact road 50/34 to a 46/36, and some bikes simply go with only one front chainring. In the back, wide range cassettes are used to give you the ability to tackle whatever gradient the trail throws at you. All of this makes what can be considered the Swiss Army knife of bikes.
In addition to hitting the unpaved road, you can commute, race cyclocross and—yes—even ride on the road. Of course there are also gravel races, known commonly as gravel grinders. These events are like Gran Fondos, but on a mix of pavement, dirt roads and sometimes trails that have become increasingly popular. You can race them, or simply enjoy a well stocked long ride with others. The races range from 20 to 200 miles and mix racing with a sense of adventure.
A single bike for many training uses
The point of having a bike like this is not only that it can do many different things, but that it can actually help you become a better cyclist.
The very name of this category of bikes—“adventure”—hints at one major benefit: variety. The monotony of riding the same roads can drive down your motivation. On adventure bikes, the dirt roads and bumpy paths that you have avoided on your tri bike can be explored to open up an entirely new set of routes. In the long term, this can help you stay in the sport longer by keeping things fun and avoiding burnout.
Building your aerobic base is another way an adventure bike can make you a better cyclist. As you get out and explore, you’ll likely find that you want to ride longer to see what’s around the next bend. This makes gravel grinding perfect for building your aerobic base. Long days spent at a moderate effort are made more intriguing when you can ride on new roads out in the countryside. Plus, dirt roads typically have fewer stops signs and tend to go straight for long stretches at a time. This means more pedaling and time spent building your fitness.
That doesn’t mean that you have to go easy all of the time. Doing some big-gear work or even working on your functional threshold power is possible when riding on the dirt. And some dirt roads lead to some great climbs, which are a great place to build power in your hips and glutes.
For the intrepid cyclist who doesn’t mind a little cold or wet, adventure bikes fit the bill. Since these bikes are designed with stability and predictable handling as well as plenty of clearance, they are also perfect as a winter bike. You don’t want to trash the drivetrain of your $5,000(+) tri bike, but an adventure bike is built for just such conditions. Many have mounts for fenders to keep you dry.
What makes these bikes great for bad weather also makes them great for commuting. Add on the fenders and panniers, and you can easily get a few more miles in during the week. Commuting is a great way to work on your pedal stroke, do some big gear reps or just enjoy riding your bike for the sake of it.
If you’re inclined, gravel bikes can be used to race cyclocross as well. While not entirely designed for the rigors of ’cross, they work well enough to allow you to jump into a race and see what all the hype is about. Cyclocross is great for using that end-of-season fitness, mixing things up and working on your top-end aerobic condition.
Riding dirt roads or gravel paths means you encounter fewer vehicles along the way. With more cars on the roads (and more drivers being distracted by their phones), road riding has become more dangerous than ever. Soaking up the bumps of a dirt road is well worth the tradeoff of not having to worry as much about traffic. Plus, when you aren’t worried about the car behind you or a vehicle turning left, you can look up a bit more and really enjoy your surroundings.
Our top bike picks
In many ways, a gravel bike is the complete opposite of a tri bike. Instead of doing one thing very well, it does a variety of things pretty well. For triathletes that are considering a second bike and want one that can do more than just stick to the pavement, a gravel bike may be your best choice. Here are three different options to consider.
Giant TCX SX ($2,050, Giant-bicycles.com)
The TCX SX falls into Giant’s cyclocross category, but think of it as more of a monster ’cross machine that can easily handle longer miles too. The full carbon frame is built with the same geometry as its other cyclocross specific models, the main difference being more clearance for wider tires. SRAM Apex 1 shifting offers enough of a range of gears but doesn’t require continual maintenance. Hydraulic brakes are nice to see and add value. Giant uses in-house wheels, which are tubeless ready with tubeless-ready Maxxis Rambler 40c tires, but they ship with tubes.
On moderate trails, dirt roads and even a few cyclocross races, the SX met my expectations. The 1x set up was never an issue with a 40-tooth chainring and massive 11-42 cassette giving me plenty of range. That said, group rides on the road would be a struggle, however you can easily swap out the 40 tooth chainring for something larger to get more appropriate gearing. The full carbon frame and 1x setup keep this bike light (relatively speaking) and snappy. The Apex 1 hydraulic disc brakes were solid and consistent in all conditions. With hydraulic brakes also come taller shifter hoods to accommodate the brake fluid reservoir. These are great since they offer more to handle and decrease the likelihood of your hands slipping off. With 40c tires run at 45 to 55 psi it’s easy to put in longer miles on the bumpiest of terrain. A lack of fender or rack mounts alludes to a more race-inspired purpose, but slap on a seat post-style fender and you’re ready for the winter or your commute. The gearing is the main tradeoff for the TCX SX. The 1x is perfect for your gravel needs, but will likely hold you back if you try to take it on any group road rides. If your priority is something light, easy to maintain and versatile enough to tackle gravel, commutes and some ‘cross racing, the TCX SX is a great option.
Best for: Belgian Waffle Ride
Moots Routt 45 (Starting at $8,800, Moots.com)
Moots has mastered the art of building with titanium, and a gravel bike is the perfect application for this material. Handmade in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Moots bikes have a level of craftsmanship that is hard to replicate. The Routt 45 is the company’s most heavy duty gravel bike, with clearance for 45mm tires and chainstays 2cm longer than the standard Routt. Three different build kits are offered, with Ultegra Di2 and R785 hydraulic brakes being the least expensive option. Mavic Aksium Allroad wheels and WTB Rambler tires (my test bike had Schwalbe Sammy Slick tires) are a solid spec. Shimano Ultegra Di2 shifting, 50/34 chainring and hydraulic brakes round out the bike.
This bike shows off the amazing properties of titanium. The Routt 45 smooths out most of the bumps in the road. The tradeoff is a lack of stiffness, and it’s on the heavy side. The 50/34 tooth chainring gives the Routt 45 road bike gearing, which you may or may not want depending on your needs, but I think for most triathletes is the best option. During a local 50-mile gravel grinder race, the Routt 45 was an excellent choice, and the gearing was just right. The gearing also allows you to comfortably hit the road for some group rides. I did ride one cyclocross race and while it got the job done, it’s weight and gearing were not ideal. One nice touch is that you can customize your build to have fender or rack mounts, a pump peg and even couplers if you want to travel with it. The Routt 45 is one of the most versatile gravel bikes since it can also take on the road with few compromises. If you want a bike that can do just about anything on the road or trail, is made in the USA and will last you forever, the Routt 45 is your choice, though it will cost you.
Best for: Dirty Kanza
DiamondBack Haanjo EXP Carbon ($2,300, Diamondback.com)
An odd setup at first, the Haanjo EXP Carbon puts adventure as the top priority. The full carbon frame offers plenty of tire clearance—just over 50mm to be exact, enough to run a mountain bike tire, which it does. To give the Haanjo more trail capability, DiamondBack spec’d 2.1-inch Schwalbe Smart Sam mountain bike tires on HED Tomcat wheels. That’s not the only oddity. Rather than use standard shifters, Dura-Ace bar end shifters (like those on a tri bike) are placed at the base of the drops. To top that off, it runs a triple chainring up front, something not seen even on mountain bikes much anymore. The TRP mechanical disc brakes are decent, but lack the power of hydraulics. Fender and rack mounts make this bike an adventurer’s dream.
This bike is meant more for adventuring and finding the path truly not traveled—that’s what makes it fun. On moderate trails, the extra tire width makes the ride more compliant and stable, giving the Haanjo the ability to go where most other gravel bikes cannot. The tradeoff, of course, is when you head out on the road with extra resistance. However, you can easily put on some 40c tires and gain back a lot of efficiency. Even with a carbon frame, the Haanjo is pretty hefty, so the triple gearing does help when pointed uphill. The drop bar shifting takes getting used to, and taking your hands off the ends of the bars is not ideal. That said, the bend in the bars is shallow and they sweep back pretty far to make it comfortable to stay in the drops. More for the adventure seeker or commuter who places a high priority on traction and stability, the Haanjo EXP Carbon is a unique bike that can tackle an incredibly diverse range of terrain.
Best for: Alexander 380