Gritty Take: MG’s Best of 2019 – by MG
The momentum in the gravel scene is undeniable. A relative novelty just 10 years ago, today gravel is one of the fastest growing segments of the sport. From world-class rides and events, to bikes and gear built for the rigors of gravel travel, never before have we had it so good.
With that in mind, here’s my list of the best gravel-related bikes and products I used in 2019. For each product, I’ve either posted a review, or am working on a review to be published soon.
Shimano GRX Components
Does the world really need a gravel-specific component group? Time will tell in the court of public opinion, but based on our experience over the past five months, our answer is an emphatic ‘hell yeah’!
Shimano nailed it with GRX, the world’s first gravel component group. They took their time in development and talked to a lot of gravel riders. As a result, GRX offers many of the options modern gravel cyclists want. Whether you want a 1x or 2x drivetrain, with electronic or analog shifting, as long as your bike takes disc brakes, there’s a GRX setup for you.
GRX shifting is typical Shimano, which is to say it’s smooth and easy, particularly when pushed hard with multiple shifts and/or gritty conditions. The GRX hydraulic disc brakes are Shimano’s best drop bar brakes yet, and the GRX Di2 levers deliver next-generation ergonomics and brake lever pivot geometry that raise the bar for comfort and control on the bike.
The GRX wheelset is notable for its excellent 1,650 gram weight and low $419.99 MSRP. This makes the wheels an awesome upgrade option for folks riding around on the 2,000+ gram stock wheels found on many midrange gravel bikes these days.
Check out the latest installment of our Shimano GRX review for the full scoop, but in short, GRX is the right answer at the right time for the rapidly evolving world of gravel cycling. In time, I suspect GRX’s impact on gravel cycling will be likened to Shimano’s launch of the original Deore XT group for mountain biking in the mid-1980s. It’s really is that good.
GT Grade Carbon Gravel Bike
Earlier this year, GT Bicycles launched the second generation of its Grade family of gravel bicycles. Available in both alloy and carbon models, the new Grade is representative of the rapid evolution that’s taking place in gravel bicycles today. It offers more tire clearance and a smoother ride than the previous generation, and the top two carbon models feature a flip-chip equipped fork. When run in the forward position, the Grade Carbon fork offers a massive 70mm of offset. This makes it one of the only true “low trail” gravel bikes available today.
When combined with the ultra smooth ride the new floating Triple Triangle frame provides, the low-trail geometry makes the Grade Carbon Pro I’m currently reviewing my favorite new bike of 2019.
It may not be as racy as a Cannondale Topstone Carbon, or have the same tire clearance as Niner’s new RLT9 RDO, but in terms of balance, ride quality and sheer enjoyment, for me the Grade Carbon Pro comes out on top. It’s also an impressive value. Grade Carbon models start at $2,000 (Grade Carbon Elite), and alloy frame Grade models begin at just $1,000. That’s a lot of bike for not a lot of coin.
Get the full scoop in the latest installment of our GT Grade Carbon Pro review.
Roval Terra CLX Wheelset
Many of you longtime readers know I’m a big fan of great wheels, and 2019 has seen the introduction of a number of awesome new wheelsets for gravel riding. I mentioned the Shimano GRX wheelset as a top budget upgrade option, and now here’s my favorite new high-end wheelset.
With an MSRP of $2,500, the Terra CLX gravel wheelset from Roval Components is the most expensive I’ve ridden to date. For that price, nothing less than stellar performance will do, and the Terra CLX wheels don’t disappoint. Beautiful 25mm internal width carbon rims are laced to svelte Roval cartridge bearing hubs using DT Aerolite butted spokes and ProLock nipples. The rear hub features a DT Swiss EXP star ratchet system – well known for its strength and long-term durability.
The sub 1,300 gram weight of the Terra CLX wheelset is pretty incredible, but perhaps what’s more amazing is how good the wheels feel when pushed hard. We bombed the rocky mountain roads and trails outside Downieville, California during the Roval press launch, and they took the abuse with aplomb.
We posted a two ride review of the Terra CLX wheelset back in October. We’re planning to test one of the first available sets of Terra CLX EVO wheels. They swap out the 25mm internal width rims for even wider 30mm versions. This should be ideal with the new crop of 42-50mm gravel tires coming to market. Look for that full review to come in early 2020.
PRO Discover Dropper Post and Lever
In conjunction with the launch of Shimano GRX, the company’s parts and accessories division, PRO Bike Gear, significantly expanded its Discover line of gravel gear. Two of the coolest additions are a 70mm travel, 27.2mm diameter internally-routed dropper post and drop bar lever.
I’ve been running the PRO Discover dropper post and lever on our GT Grade Carbon Pro/Shimano GRX Di2 test bike. While some may question the need for a dropper post on a gravel bike, I’ve used it a ton more than I initially thought I would.
It’s not just on rocky descents, either. I’ve used it to get a little more aero on road descents, and have also used it on technical, rocky climbs, where I’ll lower the saddle 10-15mm to ease technical maneuvers. On long rides on flat or undulating terrain, I’ll occasionally drop the saddle 3-5mm for a few miles. I find the small pedaling position change can be beneficial for engaging different muscles and/or engaging the same muscles differently.
Do you need a dropper post for your gravel bike? The answer to that question depends on you… and to a certain extent, your bike since the PRO Discover dropper post requires a frame that’s compatible with internally-routed posts. That said, PRO also offers a 70mm travel, externally-routed 27.2mm dropper post in their Koryak line of mountain bike components, so folks without internal dropper fitment capabilities aren’t necessarily shut out of the gravel dropper party.
Learn more about Discover line of gravel cycling gear at PRO-bikegear.com.
Silca Sicuro Ti Water Bottle Cage
For some time now, I’ve exclusively used the excellent King Cage water bottle cages on my personal bikes. I have stainless and Ti water bottle cages, Many Things cargo cages, and even a Ti flask cage. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a King Cage fan boy.
And while I still use and hold King Cage’s products in the highest regard, the Silca Sicuro Ti bottle cage is my new standard for light, durable, beautiful water bottle retention. Built from tubular aerospace-grade titanium and welded using lasers, Sicuro Ti bottle cages enhance the look of any bike. Slotted mounts allow fine tuning of cage placement on the frame. Each cage comes with custom 6-4 Ti bolts too… Very nice.
At $70/each, the Sicuro Ti bottle cages aren’t inexpensive by anyone’s standards, but they very well may outlast the bike to which they’re mounted. And despite weighing just 29g apiece, they’re robust enough to securely hold even large bottles over rough terrain.
Check out Guitar Ted’s review of the Silca Sicuro Ti bottle cages for more.
Garmin Varia RTL510 Radar Tail Light
Whether on gravel or paved roads, knowing what is coming up behind you is an important component of safety on the bike. I’ve never been much for rear-view mirrors, so I was stoked to learn of Garmin’s Varia RTL510 radar tail light. It provides both visual and audio alerts when one or more vehicles is approaching from behind, either on a dedicated display, or with a paired compatible device.
In addition to the radar function, the Varia is a highly-visible taillight, with solid, daytime flash and nighttime flash modes. It’s USB rechargeable, with a claimed battery life of up to 15 hours in daytime flash mode, or 6 hours in nighttime flash or solid modes.
I’ve been pairing the Varia with a Garmin 830 GPS cycling computer, and it works seamlessly and consistently. Look for a review to come soon on Riding Gravel, but in the meantime, learn more at Garmin.com.
Pearl Izumi Elite Escape Barrier Jacket
The Elite Escape Barrier Jacket from Pearl Izumi has quickly become one of my favorite on-the-bike jackets. It’s incredibly light, is wind and water resistant, and has a two-way zipper – perfect for the variable temperatures of fall and early-winter rides.
The Elite Escape Barrier jacket is also highly packable, stowing in its own back pocket. When stowed, it easily fits into a jersey pocket or hip pack, so you don’t have an excuse not to take it with you.
At $90, the Elite Escape Barrier jacket is also very fairly priced. Look for our full review coming soon.
Shimano RX8 Gravel Shoes
For years, I’ve ridden gravel in mountain bike shoes, but the new Shimano RX8 gravel shoes are so good, I now see the value of gravel-specific shoes. They are lighter, stiffer, better ventilated and more comfortable than the mountain bike shoes I’d previously worn.
Shimano designed the RX8 with a stiff carbon fiber sole, which Shimano rates at a ’10’ on their 1-11 stiffness scale. The carbon midsole is capped by a minimalist tread that interfaces with the pedal body and recesses the SPD-style cleat. This makes the shoe walkable, however the relatively narrow tread isn’t nearly as stable on uneven surfaces as the tread on most mountain bike shoes.
The minimalist tread, one-piece upper and carbon fiber sole all contribute to the etherial sub-300 gram per-shoe weight of my size 45 samples. That’s more than 100 grams lighter than my next lightest pair of shoes (Giro Empire) – impressive. MSRP is $250 – not inexpensive, but fair for the performance and fit the RX8s deliver.
What’s even more impressive is how the Shimano RX8 shoes feel on the bike. The stiffness of the sole eliminates flex, so it feels like I’m putting power down through my entire foot, instead of through the ball. This lets me relax my feet over long rides, increasing overall comfort.
Products mentioned in this story were provided by their respective manufacturers for testing and and review by Riding Gravel. We are not being paid or bribed for our coverage, and will give our honest opinions in all cases.