I just recently got into gravel bikes and off-road riding. In fact, I had such a blast on the Co-op ADV 2.2 on a moderately technical single track that I’m looking forward to taking on some gravel trails. It is a very good gravel bike for the money, but I’ve discovered old-school steel frames are pretty darn good on gravel, too. The great thing about that is you might have an old bike in your garage that with a few modifications would make a terrific gravel bike.
With my new-found love for gravel riding, thanks to the Co-op ADV 2.2, I’ve been venturing off of pavement more. Unfortunately, I promised the ADV 2.2 I reviewed recently to my daughter before I fell in love with gravel riding. I was hoping she had forgotten that promise, but now I’m without a gravel bike, or am I?
While preparing to record the video review for the Priority Brilliant L-Train, and reading up more on gravel bikes, I’ve learned, and experienced myself, that steel frames might just be the way to go for a gravel bike. I discovered the L-Train handles gravel well, even with its 32-mm width tires.
Why are steel frames good on gravel? Steel is able to absorb much of the vibration of gravel riding, instead of transferring it throughout the frame and into your body. One of the complaints of aluminum frames is that they can provide a harsh ride, because aluminum doesn’t have the same dampening effect as steel.
Steel is also very strong, and a steel frame will outlast an aluminum, or even carbon frame. It’s hard to crack a steel frame.
Many gravel bikes have an aluminum frame with a carbon fork, like the ADV 2.2. With this, you get a lighter, more affordable frame, when compared to carbon, and a fork that can dampen much of the harshness of the trail.
But, I am seeing many more steel gravel bikes being sold today. The secret is out. Steel is the real deal. There’s even a steel gravel bike option from Co-op, the ADV 3.1, and if I knew what I know now, would likely have gone with it, and I wouldn’t have promised it to my daughter. Oh well, it’s a good excuse to go bike shopping again.
As for the L-Train, it has that old-school classic frame design made of chromoly steel. Chromoly steel is lighter and allows for some flex. That makes it ideal for bike frames. The L-Train reminds me a lot of the bikes I remember from the 1980s. The riding style is sure-footed, and planted. It holds to a line well, I think partly due to its weight. It’s not so jittery on gravel, like a lighter bike can be, but instead holds its composure well, even when going over rocks or roots.
The L-Train weighs between 27-30 pounds, depending upon which variation and frame size you choose. It’s no featherweight, nor is it amazingly fast, but it is strong and comfortable to ride.
The L-Train is sold as a commuter bike that can handle cruddy northeastern roads that are notoriously bumpy due to freezing and thawing. The bike definitely has an East Coast vibe to it. If the frame of the L-Train can handle the potholes of NYC streets, it can handle some gravel.
The L-Train is available as a 7-speed with v-brakes or disc brakes, or an 8-speed with disc brakes. Mine is a 2022 model with v-brakes and a 7-Speed Shimano Nexus internally geared hub.
The advantages of a geared hub is that they’re virtually maintenance free. There’s no fiddling around with a derailleur that needs constant adjustments. You also don’t have to worry about mud or water getting into the hub, since it’s sealed. This is great for bikes you’d like to take off-road.
You can also drop gears at a dead stop, since you don’t need to be pedaling to switch gears. This is nice when you forget to downshift and find yourself starting again at the bottom of a hill.
The L-Train is equipped with a Gates belt drive, which is known to outlast chains by 2-3 times as much. They also don’t fall off like a chain can on bumpier terrain.
Downsides of internal hubs is that they are quite a bit heavier than a traditional system, and they’re more expensive. They also require a break in the frame, where the frame can be taken apart, in order to remove or replace the belt. This is a potentially weak spot in the frame, but for gravel trails, I don’t see it being an issue.
The L-Train can accommodate a tire width of up to 45 mm, so you can really turn it into a comfy gravel beast! I see this being fantastic on crushed stone trails and even some chunkier gravel, if equipped with wider tires. I think I’m going to go with 40 mm for the rail trails in my area, but like I already stated, it rode comfortably over gravel with 32 mm width. It just wouldn’t be able to handle loose or chunky gravel as well.
On the downside, the 7-speed Nexus hub isn’t the most capable hill climber. If you were to convert the L-Train into a gravel bike, I’d go for the 8-speed option. The 7-speed has a 245% gear range, while the 8-speed has 307% gear range. The 8-speed is going to be better on hills.
Disc brakes would be the better option for hillier off-road riding since they have better stopping power, and wet weather doesn’t affect their performance nearly as much. For flat gravel rail trails, the v-brakes are fine.
I should note that Priority does sell a highly regarded gravel bike in the Priority Apollo. It has an 11-speed internally geared hub, with an aluminum frame and carbon fork.
I’m not saying that the L-Train is the better bike on gravel, but it’s dang good! The steel frame makes such a difference in comfort and even performance.
The point of this article is to show that steel bikes can make fantastic gravel bikes. Whether it’s the L-Train or the old steel bike collecting dust in your dad’s garage, you might already have a great foundation to build upon.
After all, that’s how gravel bikes came about. People took their old road bikes and made them more capable off-road.
When I bought the Priority Brilliant L-Train, I wanted it for its low-maintenance hub and classic design. I never planned to take it on gravel, but now that I have, I’m going to be going on a lot more gravel rides.