Gravel bike suspension: the next frontier or costly gimmick?
For a category that borrows tech from both road cycling and mountain biking, it was only a matter of time before suspension tech became more commonplace in the gravel riding world.
Integrated frame suspension, short-travel forks, bouncy stems, squishy seatposts and headset springs: there’s now a growing number of suspension options on the market, from new gravel bikes that integrate suspension to aftermarket components.
In this guide, we’ll discuss whether or not suspension has any place on a gravel bike, go into some of the history of gravel suspension and explain the gravel suspension options currently available on the market.
Suspension: gravel’s next big thing?
From micro-suspension gadgets such as the Trek Checkpoint’s IsoSpeed decoupler to integrated headset suspension as seen in the Specialized Diverge and Roubaix: you could argue that the origin of modern gravel bike suspensions was actually bike tech from the spring classics.
Here, the rough roads and pavé of Paris-Roubaix and Flanders led to early road tech innovation, which we’re now seeing a few generations later in the gravel market.
At the other end of the scale, mountain bike suspension specialists such as Fox, RockShox and Suntour have released shrunk-down gravel forks, with around 30-60mm travel.
Do you need suspension on a gravel bike?
Gravel bike suspension is largely used for one of two reasons: either to add capability on more technical trails, or to smooth out high-frequency vibrations, improving comfort and reducing fatigue over longer rides.
If you’re considering buying a gravel bike and you know that suspension is something you’d like to try, check out the latest builds that feature in-built suspension.
Our testers have been really impressed by bikes such as the Lauf Seigla and Cannondale Topstone Carbon, and they shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re in the market for a new gravel bike.
Alternatively, there are plenty of options that you can retrofit to your current gravel bike for a little extra squish.
Equally, you can try altering your tyre pressures, or opting for wider-volume tyres or tyre inserts to run lower pressures, which can also make your ride more comfortable, typically with a lower price tag. More on that later.
Whether or not you feel you need suspension on your gravel bike is personal, depending both on where and how you like to ride, and how you’d like your ride to feel.
If you have any niggles or ongoing physical issues, then a little extra cushioning might not be a bad thing either – although it’s well worth getting a professional bike fit first if you feel that it might be caused by your position.
Gravel suspension: what are your options?
Here are the current choices in terms of gravel bike suspension, and how they’re best utilised.
There are only a couple of integrated headset suspension options on the market currently.
Debuted in 2017 on the endurance road-focused Roubaix and since introduced to the gravel-specific Specialized Diverge, the Future Shock yields 20mm linear travel above the head tube.
The coil suspension cartridge is housed within the fork steerer, with on-the-fly adjustability added for the most recent second generation.
The system allows the stem and handlebars to move up and down independently of the rest of the bike, reducing road chatter and vibrations from rougher gravel roads. We’ve found it to be very effective in testing, though it’s not to every rider’s taste.
The BMC URS LT features a coil spring within the head tube, coupled with a hydraulic damper to give 20mm travel.
BMC claims this can reduce front-end suspension by up to 46 per cent, allowing you to run slightly higher tyre pressures, should you wish. This mechanism can also be adjusted with three different spring stiffness settings or locked out.
Suspension stem for gravel
Although not such a popular option in terms of gravel bike suspension, the Redshift Shockstop Stem scored well on test, effectively absorbing trail vibrations through the use of interchangeable internal elastomers.
This has similar results and benefits to integrated headset suspension, although can be easily fitted to any bike and is available in a range of lengths.
Suspension fork for gravel riding
Transform your gravel bike into a hardtail (of sorts) with one of the short-travel suspension forks on offer, or opt for a novel suspension system such as the Lauf Grit to help smooth out bumpy tracks.
There are a growing number of aftermarket gravel bike suspension forks on offer, although you should check the specs carefully before you buy to make sure they’ll be compatible with your frame, and also consider how they might alter the geometry of your ride. Be aware that adding one could void your bike’s warranty, too.
A popular upgrade for long-distance riders and racers alike has been the Lauf Grit. This carbon fibre fork utilises 12 glass-fibre leaf springs, which provide up to 30mm travel. These really come into play when the road gets more choppy, killing road buzz and harsher hits.
Lauf also offers the fork as part of the Lauf True Grit bike build.
Moving on to more conventional suspension fork designs, there are options available from Suntour, RockShox, Fox and MRP.
Rather than simply reducing upper-body fatigue over longer distances on rougher terrain, these increased-travel designs help you transition onto even rowdier trails than you might otherwise dare to tackle on a rigid bike.
The SR Suntour GVX comes out as a good budget option at only $500. The air-sprung fork features adjustable travel from 40-60mm, an in-built mini fender, and comes in 700c or 650b options.
The new 40mm or 50mm-travel Fox 32 Taper-Cast Gravel fork builds on the brand’s outgoing 32 AX. It’s a fork that has been designed from the ground up with gravel riding in mind and comes in Factory, Performance Elite and Performance models.
MRP’s Baxter fork is available in two configurations, with 40mm travel or 60mm travel, both with tyre clearance for up to 700x50mm tyres (29x2in). Again, this option offers three-position compression damping, and with adjustable offset is designed to be compatible with a range of modern gravel bikes.
The RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR fork is also designed specifically for gravel riding. Tyre clearance here is generous, allowing you to fit up to 700x50mm tyres (29x2in), and the fork is available in 30mm and 40mm-travel options.
The other suspension fork option on the market is the distinctive Lefty fork from Cannondale, although you’ll need to buy a complete bike such as the Cannondale Topstone Carbon Lefty 1 to run it.
The single-bladed Lefty Oliver fork is a scaled-down version of the brand’s Lefty mountain bike fork, offering 30mm travel for the modest weight of 1,340g (carbon model), with clearance for 47mm 650b tyres and 45mm 700c tyres.
Suspension seatposts for gravel riding
Designing seatposts to increase compliance and comfort is nothing new: road bike compact frame designs have long allowed for more exposed seatposts, and therefore greater flex.
Many gravel frames will feature a sloping top tube to maximise this, but you can go further with a number of different options, from enhanced flex to suspension seatposts.
The split seatpost of the Canyon VCLS 2.0 is a good example of clever design: with the parallelogram design offering up to 25mm of movement to reduce road buzz and minimise the impact of harsher bumps.
The Redshift Shockstop seatpost works in a different way to the brand’s suspension stem, using springs here to deliver up to 35mm travel. The Cane Creek eeSilk suspension seatpost is a slightly lighter option, employing elastomers to provide a smaller 20mm travel.
A few other suspension seatposts are on offer at the budget end of the market, including the SR Suntour SP12 NCX and the £24.99 / €25 / $34.99 Decathlon suspension seatpost.
The RockShox Reverb AXS XPLR dropper post also offers suspension. Choose between 50mm and 75mm-travel options, which are fully locked out when fully extended.
As soon as you drop the post, even by a mere few millimetres, the post’s ‘Activeride’ mechanism kicks in, using the air shock internals to provide some suspension to reduce the impact of rougher trails.
You’ll need to be running a wireless SRAM AXS groupset to use it though, and it doesn’t come cheap at £500 / €600 / $600.
Gravel bike rear suspension
You’ll find that there’s a growing number of gravel bikes on the market featuring rear suspension. Typically, this is in the form of micro-suspension such as the Trek Checkpoint IsoSpeed decoupler. It gives a little flex to aid comfort, but is far from the realms of conventional mountain bike suspension, for example.
The BMC URS LT has taken tech from the brand’s hardtail MTB line to add 10mm micro-suspension to the rear end, via a set of elastomer inserts on the seatstays.
Recent developments involve more elaborate frame designs, such as Cannondale’s Kingpin suspension system, as seen used in the Cannondale Topstone. Effectively, the seat tube acts as a leaf spring, giving a maintenance-free 30mm travel at the rear end.
The Basso Tera ‘semi-suspension’ design looks very similar, with a carbon fibre fixed-pivot rear married to the alloy frame, giving a small 8mm rear travel.
The Niner MCR 9 RDO features the most mountain bike-like full-suspension design. The 29er features Niner’s patented Constantly Varying Arc (CVA) suspension system, engineered to deliver sensitivity when descending without compromising on stability for climbing.
This pioneering gravel full-sus offers 50mm travel, while retaining generous tyre clearance for 700c x 50mm or 650b x 2in tyres.
While all of the above are very exciting opportunities to fettle your bike setup and try something new, don’t forget that the first port of call when it comes to suspension setup is your tyre pressures.
Optimising your gravel tyre pressures can not only improve your speed and grip over rougher surfaces, but also how comfortable you are.
You’ll find that running wider tyres will allow you to drop the pressures, as well as employing a tubeless tyre setup, if you haven’t already.
Consider gravel-specific tyre inserts if you’d like to tackle rootier, rockier terrain on lower pressures while reducing the risk of damaging your rims.