Winner of the 2018 off-road.cc Benchmark Gravel Bike is the Lauf True Grit Race Edition, a lightweight speed machine with excellent off-road handling. It's a dedicated and entriely focused gravel racer with a unique fork. If you have been following the off-road.cc Best Bike awards you'll know this is the second of three gravel bike awards in the lineup alongside Bargain Buy and Best Buy.
It was a close run race, read on to find out all about the winner and the runner-up in this category. For all the information on our judging criteria and upcoming awards, you can click here.
Benchmark bike - Lauf True Grit Race Edition
When it comes to a bike that's wholeheartedly focused on going fast on gravel, few bikes can hold a candle to Lauf's True Grit, which pairs their unique leaf-sprung fork with a lightweight carbon fibre frame to deliver a bike that's extremely rapid as well as comfortable.
It would be remiss to start talking about the True Grit without mentioning the elephant in the room, namely, the unique leaf sprung fork. As standalone units, they've become hugely popular with gravel riders and cross-country mountain bikers after low weight without the full brutality of a rigid fork.
It's absolutely night and day when compared to riding a rigid fork over the same rough surfaces, with the Lauf delivering much more grip and comfort, something that your wrists will be eternally grateful for on a long day of riding or racing. In fact, the most noticeable feature of the fork is the fact that you forget it's there most of the time - it's only if you move back to a rigid-equipped bike that you realise just how much work it was doing.
While the True Grit's fork gives it a unique edge compared to most, that's not to say that the rest of the bike is an afterthought - far from it. The frame is full carbon fibre, with geometry that's dedicated to riding and racing gravel, rather than many that position themselves in the category to add excitement to a design that's probably going to see most use on the commute. That means it's pretty long and slack for a drop bar bike, with Lauf's Long 4 Speed geometry pairing a decent length top tube with a shorter than usual stem, from 70-100mm.
The reasonably-slack-for-a-gravel bike 70.5º head angle is paired with a 72.5º seat angle and a decently low 65mm bottom bracket drop across all sizes, giving confident handling at speed without making the bike feel sluggish to react. Thanks to the flattened seatstays, the rear is also pretty comfortable and there's very little twist or hesitation from the back when you stamp on the pedals to get things moving.
While it might be too focused for some, if gravel racing and riding is your bag at the expense of all-round versatility, then there are few bikes better at that task that the True Grit. The fork provides a genuine advantage in terms of comfort and control, which means it’s a reliable partner for serious distance racing without any of the downsides of telescopic fork designs, namely weight and static friction. The handling is really well dialled, striking a great balance between stability over rougher terrain but also a pert, agile feel.
The only real downsides I can think of are the fragile tyres - easily fixed - and the fact that you’ll need to ship your bike away should you have any issues. Apart from that, the True Grit is one of - if not the - best gravel dedicated bikes out there.
Runner up - Merida Silex 9000
Merida’s mountain bike inspired gravel bike, the Silex 9000, got our tester grinning over a variety of terrain, offering excellent off-road handling whilst still able to turn a wheel easily to road riding too.
The Silex 9000 gets a full carbon fibre frame and fork and it's a very good one indeed. Some carbon frames can feel a little dull through a combination of fibres used and how they are laid up but you get none of that here. You feel everything that is going on from a ride data point of you while the frame takes out the repetitive stuff you don't need like road buzz and minimal vibrations.
Delivering 30mm or so of undamped travel via fibreglass leaf springs embedded in two carbon substructures, the Grit SL is a sleeker and lighter version of the same well-proven Grit fork Lauf offers on the aftermarket, with lines and a colour scheme that makes it look somewhat less ungainly.
It's also extremely effective at doing what it's made for, namely taking the sting out of rough fireroad surfaces. While it can feel rather odd at slow speeds - especially trackstanding - once you're up to speed, the lack of friction from seals means that it's very sensitive and the lack of damping isn't an issue as the high-frequency bumps and short travel really don't need it.
Up front the fork has a tapered steerer for added resistance to steering and braking forces plus the legs stand up to the job too. Under heavy braking, there was no judder whatsoever. The front wheel is held in place by a 12mm through axle which is the standard that seems to have been adopted for road applications. You also get internal routing for the brake hose plus there are various mounting point for racks, guards etc. The frame uses a through axle for the rear too, plus it matches the fork in having flat mounts for the brake calliper.
Both frame and fork have clearance for up to 42mm tyres in 700c guise but you can also run 650b wheels with a maximum 2.25” tyre width if that's your thing, which certainly adds to the versatility of the bike. Adventures are in the Silex's DNA so the frame is adorned with more attachment points than normal. As you'd expect for a bike costing £3,500, this range-topping 9000 model is well specced. You get a Sram Force 1X groupset with a large spread of gears that I found could get me up virtually every hill I tried in the saddle. For slowing down Merida has specced Sram hydraulic disc callipers from their Rival range paired up with 160mm rotors front and rear.
Just looking at the side profile you can see where the Silex has taken its inspiration from. The mountain bike style long, drawn out and heavily sloped top tube in relation to its size is completely alien to the road scene, throw in that short stem (90cm) to keep the reach sensible but the steering quick and it's not really like anything else on the market. The 430mm chainstays are generous as well, they bring stability by extending the total wheelbase out to 1044mm on this S/47cm model plus it gives your heels plenty of clearance should you want to fit a rack and bags for full adventure mode.
Up front, though you do get a very tall headtube of 180mm. This according to Merida is because of the number of riders they see with stacks of headset spacers below their stems but it's still not high enough for them to use the drops effectively, not to mention the increase in flex. The Silex allows you to do this especially thanks to their own brand compact drops. For high-speed descents or fast flowing sections, you can get in the drops and lower your centre of gravity and really let the bike get on with the job.
Without suspension obviously, you need to choose your route through the trees a little more carefully, processing all of the incoming terrain detail and adjusting your line consistently and it's here that the Silex 9000 really comes alive. It was like I'd been transported back to my teenage years when I was doing the same on rigid steel MTB's, that same grin on my face as your elbows and knees fire up and down like demented shock absorbers.
Overall the Silex is the perfect bike if you are going to spend a lot of time off the beaten track thanks to that excellent handling and fast, responsive ride. The fact that it doesn't really sacrifice its tarmac manners makes it a true all-rounder.
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