When it comes to researching your next bike purchase, one of the primary considerations is always the question of which frame material to pick. If you are reading beyond the title of this article, it is safe to assume that you have already decided on a specific category of the bike (gravel) and a specific frame material: steel.
While comparing different frame construction materials is not within the scope of this article, it might be fitting to start with a few notes on steel bikes. While the phrase “steel is real” is certainly a cliché in the cycling world, it does hold a lot of truth in it as far as encapsulating how steel is in many ways a material that lends itself to making some really good bicycle frames.
Why consider a steel gravel bike?
Several qualities make steel a material that still holds much appeal in the age of more premium metal tubing, like Titanium and fancy carbon fiber. Some of those characteristics include:
- The ability to use “butted” steel tubing to optimize the strength-to-weight ratio of frames according to the intended application and type of riding
- The ability to use various construction methods, like brazing vs joining tubes using lugs.
- The ability to easily repair damaged steel frames by welding.
- More affordable cost compared to other “space-age” materials.
Perhaps most importantly when it comes to the type of bikes we are concerned about within this article (steel gravel bikes) is the riding quality that a well-made steel frame will have. Steel tubing has a certain springiness that few other materials can match.
This makes riding a steel bike over bumpy, chatter terrain more comfortable than a comparable ultra-stiff carbon bike due to the natural compliance steel tubing has. The vibration-dampening characteristics of steel bikes make them great for long-distance touring, bikepacking, and hardcore gravel riding.
Below we look at some of the best steel gravel bikes available on the market today.
12 Best Steel Gravel Bikes
1. Niner RLT 9 steel
Niner is no stranger to making great steel bikes. The RLT 9 combines all the great things about steel frames in a very modern package: balanced gravel geometry, internally-routed cables, lightweight carbon fork rated for bikepacking use, big tire clearance (700cx50mm or 650bx2.0″), flat-mount brakes, accessory mounts on nearly all tubes including fork blades and rack and fender mounts. The tubing is Reynolds 853, which is famous for its high strength combined with great ride quality.
2. Bombtrack Beyond 1
Bombtrack is a German bicycle brand with roots in the BMX world. Bombtrack has recently been designing some great bikes, with a strong emphasis in their product lineup on gravel and allroad bikes. The Beyond 1 is an affordable steel gravel bike with big capabilities.
You can run tires in the mountain bike width range and the geometry is optimized for the “adventure” end of the gravel riding spectrum. The frame tubing is 4130 double-butted Chromoly, so while not the lightest it is very robust, and rated for 140kg load (rider + luggage).
3. Marin Nicasio+
Marin is a big name when it comes to off-road cycling, and their gravel bikes confirm they know what they are doing. The Nicasio is one of their gravel bikes which is made of CroMo steel. It is fairly basic regarding components, but it offers an amazing ride and comes at an excellent price.
With 650b and large off-road tires, you can enjoy any trail with the comfort you deserve. The MircoShift 1×9 groupset offers plenty of gearing, and the relaxed geometry gives you a level of control that many other bikes don’t have.
The colors are quite cool, and we love the retro vibes with the gumwall style tires. It’s the choice of many gravel riders and a perfect bike if you’re a beginner getting into gravel biking.
If you’re looking for a steel gravel bike that is trail ready straight off the shelf and on a budget, this is it.
4. Surly Disc Trucker
Surly is one of the biggest names in gravel cycling. It’s not because they have a huge amount of bikes to choose from or they are winning races, but because they are built to last, and they have the ability to take you anywhere.
They make bikes designed to go round the world on or off-road and make it possible for anyone to do so.The Disc Trucker is one of the most popular gravel bikes.
It’s not the cheapest or the fastest, but you will struggle to get anywhere near the level of comfort that this bike offers.
With its steel frame, incredibly relaxed geometry, riser gravel bars, and tall top tube, you are getting a comfortable ride no matter how long you’re on the bike or how rough the terrain is.
The components are fairly basic, but they work. The triple crankset gives you more gears than you will ever need for hills, and the disc brakes, although mechanical, are incredibly easy to service and stop you well.
The wheels and tires are not the lightest but they are solid. Overall it’s a great bike that offers an excellent ride.
5. Norco Search XR Steel
Few manufacturers offer the same bike in three different frame materials. Canadian manufacturer Norco does exactly that with the Search XR, which is offered in a steel version along with carbon and Aluminum siblings.
The Search XR steel is also offered in three different spec levels (all sharing the same Reynolds 725 tubing frameset and carbon fork), from the least expensive Search XR S to the range-topping Search XR S1 which comes with a mix of Shimano GRX 810/600/400 componentry and even a dropper post (do you need a dropper post for gravel riding? Perhaps we can tackle this question in a future article!)
6. Jamis Renegade S2
Jamis is another manufacturer that offers its gravel bikes in all three popular frame materials. The Renegade S2 is one of three subversions of the steel-framed Renegade S line. Frame tubing is Reynolds 631 double-butted, and you get identical framesets across the range with the difference in spec sheets being in componentry and colorways.
7. Kona Rove ST
Kona has an impressively diverse range of gravel/allroad bikes. The Rove line sits squarely in the adventure category. The Rove ST comes with a butted chromoly frame and fork (if you want a carbon fork you can consider the Rove NBD DL), SRAM Rival 1×11 gearing, and 650b wheels with chunky WTB Venture TCS 47mm tires.
8. Specialized Sequoia Elite
“The Big S” offers some of the best gravel bikes on the market, namely the Diverge range of bikes. The Sequoia is Specialized’s steel-framed gravel/commuting bike.
With chromoly tubing with modern accouterments like flat mount brakes and internal cable routing in a well-thought-out component spec sheet in an affordable package. I also like the two classy colorways the Sequoia is offered in.
9. Otso Warakin Stainless Steel
Want a steel bike ride quality but worried about corrosion? Consider a stainless-steel frame! Otso is a bike brand by the same people behind American aftermarket component manufacturer Wolftooth. Otso has been around for six years but has managed to bring some excellent bikes to market.
The Warakin comes with the balanced geometry and generous tire clearance you’d expect from a modern gravel bike, but the most compelling feature of the Warakin frame is the adjustable dropout system (which Otso dubs “Tuning Chip“) that allows you to tweak the geometry of the bike by adjusting wheelbase, head angle, and bottom bracket height.
10. Chumba Terlingua
Chumba’s entire lineup uses either steel or titanium in equal measure. Chumba’s gravel bike, the Terlingua comes in frame only, frameset, complete bike, or even made-to-order options with various customizations offered as extras including custom geometry and tubing options.
The Terlingua is one of the more expensive steel bikes on this list, but the level of customization offered justifies the price tag for those who are seeking very specific things in their gravel bike build.
11. Knolly Cache steel
Knolly is best known for its full-suspension mountain bikes with innovative linkage designs, but their Cache Steel 700C gravel bike carries the same attention to quality their mountain bikes are known for. The Cache steel frame uses hardened butted tubing with an anti-corrosion coating applied both internally and externally, and comes with a carbon fork.
The Cache is offered in a sizing range comprised of a total of seven sizes, so you should have no trouble finding the size that fits you best especially if your optimal fit is, like for myself, often between sizes.
The Cache comes in two build kits based on Shimano GRX 810 and 600 groupsets. Brakes are flat mount and internally routed but curiously, shifter cable routing is external.
12. Rondo Ruut ST
Rondo is a Polish bike brand that has been making bikes for a few years now, and the Ruut really put them on the scene of gravel biking. Not only do they look very unique, but they also offer high-quality components and set themselves apart from the competition with some cool features such as adjustable geometry.
The Rondo is one of the most popular gravel bikes from the past few years, not just offering performance but being at a great price point too.
The Ruut is made from lightweight steel, and they pair it up with a carbon fiber Twintip fork, which allows the rider to tweak the geometry based on front axle position using a “flip-chip” style system.
You get SRAM Rival gearing, and they pair that with hydraulic disc brakes for excellent stopping power. Rondo uses their own wheels that come tubeless-ready and with Panaracer tires. It’s an all-round excellent setup, and it’s fast!
Previous models we used to recommend but are harder to find these days
Marin Nicasio 2
Marin has quite a few gravel-oriented bikes in its lineup. The Nicasio 2 is one of the bikes Marin offers in its “Beyond Road” category. The Nicasio 2 comes with chromoly tubing and a geometry that makes for a more upright riding position.
The Nicasio 2 can run 700c and 650b tires, with clearance maxing out at 700x40mm or 650B x 47mm. Bikes like the Nicasio 2 can be set up as super-commuters or comfortable adventure rigs. The sizing range is also generous, with six sizes to choose from.
Surly has arguably been at the forefront of companies committed to highly versatile and utilitarian bikes. The Straggler is a no-nonsense steel gravel/commuter bike with trusty 4130 chromoly tubing, a 1×11 SRAM Apex drivetrain, and Surly’s house brand Knard knobby tires in 41mm widths.
Like many other bikes on this list, the Straggler can run 700c and 650b wheels to maximize versatility and allow the rider to adapt the bike to various riding scenarios.
Steel gravel bike buying tips
Remember that frame material is not everything
consider things like geometry, gearing, wheel size compatibility, accessory mounts, maximum tire clearance, total bike weight and see if these fit within the scope of riding scenarios you intend to do. Even “do everything” bikes come with compromises.
Not all steel is created equal
Nothing wrong with your typical chromoly steel frame if the welding and finishing are done well, but there is some really fancy steel tubing that will make a steel bike that rivals carbon fiber weight with the selection of the right parts.
Keep in mind that there are different categories of tubing for different riding applications. Bikes made for gravel racing will use different tubing than, say, those designed to take the weight of fully-loaded panniers and frame bags.
Watch out for corrosion
if you ride your bike year round in all conditions, you’re going to have to take extra care with your steel-framed bike. The good news is that corrosion-proofing is not difficult to do.
Steel is durable, easily repairable, and has some amazing ride qualities. There are several good reasons steel has endured for so long as a frame construction material of choice. The ride quality characteristics of steel tubing shine in the gravel and allroad category of bikes due to its vibration-dampening properties.
As with the choice of any frame material, there will be compromises, the most significant of which is the heavier weight of steel compared to carbon fiber, titanium, or aluminum alloy.
That said, a well-made steel gravel bike with the right components will excel in a variety of riding scenarios, including long-distance touring and adventure riding, and even racing.
Hani Morsi is a seasoned multi-discipline cyclist with a particular liking for mountain and gravel bikes. Hani is also a mountain bike coach, trail builder and experienced bike mechanic.
the jamis s2 is actually not 520 steel its 631.
you’re right, Eric. S3 is 520, but s2 is 631. we’ll correct that in the article. thanks!