Friday Group Ride #236

Friday Group Ride #236

I live in a bubble. There’s no doubt about that. Working for a custom bike builder means I see a LOT of custom bikes, not only ours but lots of others, too. It’s almost all I look at, and of course, because it’s what I look at, it colors my perception of what people are really riding, what they really want.

In my world, gravel/adventure bikes have taken off like a rocket. My roadie friends are all about fire roads and single-track on drop bar bikes. We talk about tire sizes and tread patterns like mountain bikers. We seek out new trails, new events, and we look forward to the big established rides that come in summertime and early fall.

Disc brakes are another big topic. Which ones? Mechanical? Hydraulic? Mechanical offer better versatility for travel, easier maintenance out in the world, but hydraulic are better at stopping your bike. They feel better. Mostly.

I fear a little we’re in that fertile early period for this sub-genre of bicycle, when most of the componentry and the design vibe will change radically over a season or two, and today’s bikes will end up looking retro before they should. Think of all those Di2 bikes out there with chainstay batteries, or with external routing. They will forever be identifiable as having been built in two or three specific years.

The industry has only made a minor bet on gravel. Unlike 650b mountain bikes, which multiplied in production lines like rabbits in the spring, gravel offerings have only trickled out. The paucity of options is actually what clued me into the fact that what I see is maybe not the same show everyone else is watching.

This week’s Group Ride asks, do you gravel? Do you have any interest? Do you have a “mixed-terrain” bike now, or plans to get one in the near term? Or do you think this is a passing fad, just another attempt to part you from your hard-earned?

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42 comments

  1. bob

    No, gravel has zero appeal for me.

    This is however, my first season at trying cross. Talk about eating a lot of humble pie. Way harder that a road race or a crit.

  2. peter lin

    gravel is too much punishment for my taste. Plus I don’t like having to wash my bike after a ride, I’m too lazy. Washing the bike once a month is enough for me.

  3. Michael

    I ride anything I can. The way bikes had gone there for a while (and still are going at the extreme racer fringe of sub-900-gram frames), they were too delicate to do anything but ride perfectly smooth roads. I have one of those in my stable, but my cross bike and my big-tire road bike are my go-tos for so many rides. With couplers and fender/rack mounts on the BTRB, it can do almost anything but hard mountain-bike trails and heavy touring (oh, and being competitive at the pro level – not a problem for me). Who wouldn’t want a bike like that? Just choose the right tire for the ride. My cross bike is better in the dirt but not as good on the road, so I have to decide before the ride, or just wing it.

  4. Andrew

    I love, love, love gravel. Living in southeastern MN, we have just an endless number of gorgeous gravel roads. They’re generally more scenic, more wooded, far hillier, and much, much less traveled than the paved roads. You can go for hours on gravel and see way more turkeys, hawks, eagles and deer than cars. The cars you do run into on gravel roads tend to be nice to you- people usually wave, with more than one finger. You have to be able to deal with dogs- I really like dogs, and I have several on my routes that I make a point of stopping and petting. When a farm dog comes out- stop riding. Just make it obvious that you are a person- they’ll either come say hi to you, or they’ll leave you alone. I have yet to have any problem with any dog, using this strategy. Gravel roads in the winter are a blast, especially once they get iced over, with good studded tires (Nokian). They’re actually smoother and faster than dry gravel in the summer.

    I have trouble understanding when “pure” roadies say they have no interest in gravel. What’s not to like about roads without cars on them, where you can ride down the middle of the road, without cowering on the shoulder? It certainly makes you a lot stronger on pavement, and has to be great practice if you’re ever going to go ride the cobbles.

    I’m got a Warbird Ti- highly recommend it. The two best things I added to it were Industry Nine UL CX disc wheels (just phenomenal, light wheels) and TRP Hy/Rd brakes. I confess to lusting after Seven Cycles gravel bikes, but I’m pretty darn happy with what I have.

    Did I mention that I love riding gravel? :- )

    1. Champs

      I did plenty of growing up there, and can’t even imagine this. Gravel is not something to be avoided, but I see it as transition, not destination. The Minimum Maintenance Road is a washboarded domain I cede to the unleashed farm dog and its anger at all things alien.

  5. Miles Archer

    I have an ancient no suspension mountain bike with almost as ancient nimbus tires. It rolls on just about anything. I’m not buying a gravel specific bike.

    Disk brakes on a road bike – no thanks. I’ll ride when it’s dry. I’m in California.

    Then again, I am a cheapskate all the way around.

  6. Ransom

    Inadvertently, I guess… I want to say “no”, but there was a three and a half mile gravel climb toward the beginning of one of my best recent rides… On a ‘cross bike on road tires. I think I would rather have been on my mountain bike for that part, though I did enjoy the lack of traffic as compared to the roads that would have gotten me to the same summit.

    I do not see ever buying a gravel bike, though. My ‘cross bike is currently my road bike. I hope to return to having a dedicated road bike before too long, but I have to imagine the ‘cross bike will be an even better gravel than pure road bike…

  7. Kimball

    Living in the Pacific NW I’ve spent the last 25 winters grinding my rims away to nothing and constantly fussing with various clip on fenders. This past spring I pulled the trigger on a Niner RLT envisioning it as my winter bike with its disk brakes and eyelets for full fenders. Amazing how much cleaner rider and bike stay when riding through the slop with full fenders and mud flaps. Plus the added safety of consistent braking through all kinds of weather.

    What I did not anticipate was the occasional gravel stretch has creating short-cuts to road riding that was previously too far from home to access most days. Having a gravel capable road bike has actually gained me access to more pavement. Who would have thought!

  8. John Borstelmann

    Gravel road riding is awesome! And I say this as a lifelong, 60-year-old road rider. Where I live in Wydaho, there are thousands of miles of USFS gravel roads with beautiful scenery, no traffic and wonderful riding. I bought a Salsa Fargo and have bike toured, bike packed and sag wagon toured the Idaho country with it. Hot springs, sweet roads, single track, whatever you wanna ride – go do it on a gravel road bike! The roads are still smooth, but no traffic, no hassles, no risk of loss of life. What’s not to love?

  9. Don Peddie

    I have no interest in riding on gravel roads. Zero. None. This is a passing fad for those who once were mountain bikers or those who secretly want to be. Count me out. I hope this site returns and sticks to road riding and bikes that do so on paved roads.

    1. Shawn

      Let me cancel Don Peddie’s vote: I’d come here more often if the site had more MTB content. In answer to the question about gravel roads: Yeah, they’re OK … to get from one single track to the next.

      I raced road as a 2 for more than a decade. My friends got me on a mountain bike in 2009 just as I was souring on road riding (b/c of what I saw as an increase in auto-bike collissions). I quit riding road in 2011 and gave away my last road bike in March. Now I step off the mountain bike after every ride feeling like I’m 12 years old. Every freaking ride. I am a born again cyclist, and I will never go back.

      I still wear the Lycra though. I make it look fabulous.

  10. Lou D'Amelio

    I enjoy dirt road / gravel riding, especially in the cross season and winter. Can’t for the life of me understand why anyone needs a new genre of bike – seems like a contrived niche from a technical perspective. Depending on what you’re riding, road or cross bike with something between 25’s to 33 mm cross file treads is just fine.

    1. Anonymous

      Absolutely. What the “gravel bike ” and “endurance bike ” market speaks to us a desire for trad geometry road bikes made of durable materials, with room for wide tires. Once you have that you can ride anything. The best thing about “gravel bikes” is not caring what the road is like, just linking dirt to Tarmac to minimum maintenance to whatever.

  11. Nickolas Monson

    From the vantage point of managing a shop in Northern MN, I see it exploding up here. However, these races have existed longer than “gravel bikes.” I see them almost more as a course correction on the part of the industry for following the UCI into 33s on ‘cross bikes. Looking at the geometry of the few brands we sell that market “race” gravel/all-road bikes, they’re basically ‘cross bikes with better clearance. Some of the other gravel bikes look like light touring bikes from the ’80’s with disc brakes. So, I guess that my point is that the whole gravel scene is nothing really new, we’ve just came up for a name with it. Some of us always bailed out onto back roads to stretch out a ride, ditch the cars, or just find new scenery. It’s a good thing, and no reason to panic.

  12. Quentin

    I recently moved from Illinois to west Texas. The roads here in town are clearly less bike friendly than where I came from. Outside of town, the few paved roads tend to be narrow and have surprisingly high speed limits, and most of the farm roads are unpaved. I can get to unpaved roads in less than a mile from my house. I’ve been mostly a road rider for my whole life, but suddenly I find myself researching mountain and cyclocross bikes and thinking about what sort of riding I see myself doing here and what the best bike for that is. I now understand the appeal of a gravel bike. As far as regarding gravel bikes as a distinct category from cyclocross bikes–that seems like splitting hairs to me.

  13. wayno

    Whenever this debate comes up I keep seeing this quote from Tom Ritchey that says he thought all road bikes were gravel bikes. I think up until tight clearances of modern carbon frames, he is right.

    Another quote I have seen is that gravel riding is akin to rigid single speed MTB’ing; they are a blast for about an hour and then not so much. I tend to agree with that also.

    There are varying degrees of gravel too – the Dirty Kanza gravel really sucks, its a flat inducing, frame and wheel pinging, tooth chipping affair – but I guess that is the appeal to some.

    Riding gravel for the sake of gravel grinding doesnt add up if there are decent (low traffic) paved roads to ride on. But if you live in Iowa, Kansas or wherever gravel roads are plenty and offer safer riding, better views, I say get your grind on.

  14. Les.B.

    If I’m gonna bust my butt grinding up a grade, I damn sure well want my pay-back going back down, and I sure’s hell ain’t doing no 65kmph going down a gravel road.

  15. Emil

    Interesting replies…
    I ride road, dirt, gravel, frequently in the same ride, mostly on my Moots road bike. I do have a ‘cross bike and a mountain bike but have no trouble riding our rough roads on my road bike. I enjoy the lack of traffic, friendly waves, and increased wildlife sightings.

  16. Peter Kelley

    Love the gravel – but have been obsessing lately on having a ‘one bike,’ where I just change wheels or chainrings depending on what I’m doing… I know my cross bike is great on gravel – but why can’t it be a great road bike too? Seems like a waste to have a gravel and road bike – when one could do both..

  17. Pat O'Brien

    If all you can have, for whatever reason, is one or two bikes, then a multi-purpose bike makes sense. But, multi purpose bikes, or whatever marketing name the industry dreams up, are always a compromise in handling and comfort. I have four bikes to cover most of the bases. One for road, one for touring, one for off pavement, and one for around town. Since I don’t tour off pavement, the mountain bike (Niner MCR) handles all off pavement riding.

    I do think that the industry, notably the big names, churns the market strictly for profit.

  18. Jay

    Gravel bikes that I have seen seem to blend the characteristics of road and cyclocross bikes. They might be hot right now, but in the end I don’t see them displacing either. A road bike is already a multi-purpose bike, excluding true race or TT bikes. Just put on some wider tires and enjoy some dirt or gravel roads.

  19. MarkP

    Riding gravel does not seem like a fad to me. I rode on dirt a lot as a kid, and then again on rigid 1980’s mountain bikes. Sure, flying along on freshly paved smooth roads is great! Who doesn’t like that? But taking routes that include non-paved sections adds extra adventure that I really like. So far, I don’t feel limited with my current road bike… It even accommodates 28mm tires. The main area of concern I have is with cleats and pedals. In the past year, I have had trouble with my speedplay cleats getting clogged with debris after dismounting off pavement. I have also taken a couple of stupid, super slow mo spills; once forgetting to unclip while navigating around boulders at a gate, and most recently loosing traction and being unable to unclip in time on the steep section of Willow Creek Road in Sonoma County. For anyone considering riding a lot of gravel and or dirt roads, I would recommend using mtn bike or cross pedal/cleat systems.

  20. bigwagon

    I’ve done a fair bit of gravel riding, most of it on my CAAD10 race bike with 23s, so I can’t say I really understand the need for a dedicated “gravel” bike, especially with disc brakes (just to ride gravel; there may be other reasons to have discs but that’s a different topic). Slightly wider tires are nice, but even the CAAD10 will handle 28s. For wider tires you might want a CX bike, but I really can’t see the need for a third type of bike.

  21. Andrew

    You don’t need a third bike, just a road bike that’ll fit 35s. 28 is ok, 32 or 35 much nicer (and faster).

    Just got back from 50 miles of gravel over in the bluffs. 4000 vertical. Few cars. One dog. Stunning day. As good as it gets, imo.

  22. Kev Stevenson

    My steel touring bike with 25mm tyres and Crank Bros pedals seamlessly takes me from road to track to trail and back again. It always has.
    MARVO – On a MTB club ride my touring bike was faster uphill and downhill for 99% of the route. Only outperformed by a high-end full susser on the gnarliest section of our route. A few other riders questioned why they were dragging round those heavy ol’ 2+inch knobbies.

    Even my ‘Dale Synapse SL gets muddy sometimes.( Also pretty much every bike I’ve ever owned – including my Raleigh Chopper back in the 70’s).

    I ride Armadillo slicks most of the year and feel that the grip-limitations help hone my handling skills.

    I’ve recovered from front wheel slides on the road – because they happen all the time offroad.
    Wet Nottinghamshire clay is probably just as slippy as wet clay anywhere else.

    I’ve bought 28mm file treads to fit this winter for a bit of extra cushioning and front wheel braking grip.

    I’m hoping the tread will allow for more more aggressive braking and steering – but I do love the sensation of drifting at speed and ‘feeling’ for grip through bends.

    But a new bike… I don’t think so… I think I smell a marketing niche.

    P.S. In the UK we have a club called the Rough Stuff Fellowship – riding offroad for over 100 years, I believe…

  23. Aar

    I love riding on gravel roads and my “Roubaix”-style bike is quick and comfy on them. 25c road tires on 23mm rims are just a flat waiting to happen on gravel and I have to replace a tube after about every second section of gravel that I have the pleasure of riding. Those attributes make me a likely gravel road bike customer.

    On the other hand, there are so few gravel roads near me and I have the opportunity to ride them only a few times a year. That pushes gravel bikes far enough down on my “want to buy” list that it will prolly never happen for me. However, discs, tire clearance and gravel-type geometry could find their way onto a multipurpose bike I’m thinking of. To that end, how would a Rohloff Speedhub with belt drive fare on gravel?

  24. Dave King

    I first “graveled” in 1991 when I started college at U.C. Davis. Back then we just called it “riding” – no different, really, than anything else. We rode dirt farm roads amongst the pear and olive tree orchards between the paved roads. I’ve ridden similar roads in Death Valley, Bishop and Utah – just riding on my regular road bike with 23c tires. I suppose 25’s would be better in those conditions, and 28’s even above that. But a whole new bike for it? Nah. Of course, I’m not riding 3 inch deep true gravel roads but having ridden that kind of stuff on an mtb it’s not much fun.

    There’s been a big proliferation in types of bikes for different terrain. I suppose it’s a good thing. But personally, I want to feel the road/dirt/trail when I ride. It’s why I ride a hardtail MTB and ride my carbon Masi road race bike on the dirt also. Yes, I could probably go faster on certain terrain but I would also be slower on other types of terrain. But mostly, I like the simplicity of two bikes and the thinking and strategizing that goes into riding a bike on terrain that is a little over the bike’s head.

    1. Brian

      I commute on gravel into Washington, DC. I take the paved road in the AM and the dirt trail home along the Potomac River in the PM. Nice change of scenery and fewer cars to do battle with on the PM commute. I rotate between a Specialized CRUX and Specialized AWOL, both terrific on the gravel. The weekends, however, are for my road bike.

  25. Hoshie99

    Tires and tread options – that’s where it is at if you want some nice moderate versatility and not have multiple bikes. So I think that will be part of it. I suspect many folks will fall into the trend, but I expect it to be small as many with road bikes are fairly traditional in their habits. The pushback I hear about even riding 25s on racing bikes makes me smile; so I think some will get it, many will not.

    I do think the geometry of a gravel bike is different. My cross bike has a decently low BB, and that makes a difference if you are descending a lot. So, since I have a cross bike, a new gravel one is not high on the priority list.

    If I wanted a “B” road bike, I’d opt for a gravel set-up with versatility for an all arounder and I suspect some will be into it. Really fun if you are so inclined.

    j

  26. Rod

    My favourite type of riding by far, “rough road”. Think about it as Roubaix for those that can’t get to France. I’d say that 90% of the racers/enthusiasts here at least are capable of riding a simple gravel road.

    I don’t have a dedicated gravel bike, though. I have a multi-use road disc bike that is now being used to race ‘cross. I helped design it so it has my preferences for material (Ti), no paint to avoid worries about the unavoidable chips, bottom bracket drop (lots), angles and tube sizes, fender . And a local scene that has at least 2 annual races in rough roads/gravel, and about 6 organized rides each year. Plus you can always decide to explore the bush trails, greenbelt, unmanaged roads, etc. We have real winter here so even “nice” roads are chippy in the spring. I wouldn’t buy a dedicated gravel bike, just a CX bike that can double as one (so no silly lack of bottle bosses) – which is what I have done all this time.

    That said, I understand people’s reticence to ride a road bike on anything other than tarmac. One local team leader and well-respected cyclist organizes a ride a ride to MTL for the UCI race (about 200 km), with a bus to bring you and your stuff back the next day. He always picks a route with some dirt/gravel, nothing that can’t be done in 23’s with care, and widely discloses it. His rationale “to weed out the people that can’t handle the bike or lack self-sufficiency, and have invested effort in keeping themselves, their bikes and their mechanical skills in shape”.

    That ride always fills up. Maybe it’s just a product of the environment – cyclists here are a hardy lot to train and race when it’s below freezing and wet 4 months of the year

  27. August Cole

    When you live in a major metro area, the value of car-free or reduced exposure riding, to call it politely, gets higher and higher. Boston has amazing singletrack woven throughout the suburbs. It would not be much fun on a mountain bike, but on a road bike or CX bike it’s a hoot. That grin is why I ride; I can get a good workout a lot of different ways but this is one of the best to come back with a huge smile. My next bike is a road bike with disc brakes and room to fit a singletrack-ready tires. A bit heavier, sure, but being able to get out and ride intensely for 60 minutes and come back mud covered and recharged is something you can’t get playing in traffic.

  28. Full Monte

    So technically, isn’t a “gravel bike” mostly just a cross bike with discs?

    That said, yes please, a multi-surface capable bike for me. More and more, I find myself on mixed surfaces, from packed single track to smooth asphalt to hardly any asphalt left to gravel to dirt and back to smooth tarmac. And with a move coming up possibly this spring to an area that’s even more rural and mixed, an all-rounder will be pretty much mandatory.

  29. Ricster

    I have been riding my Cross bike on dirt (gravel if you will) roads for years. So now this is a “new” idea ?
    I must admit, I am a tad perplexed by the Gravel Bike tag line and I have to wonder if it isn’t an industry creation to sell more bikes.


    1. Author
      Robot

      All- Thanks for chiming in. My understanding of what a “gravel bike” is, is a drop bar bike, with clearance for wider tires, up to 40mm, disc brakes, and a more relaxed geometry than the traditional cross race bike, so that, after hours in the saddle, you don’t feel like your neck and shoulders are going to explode.

  30. Scott

    No thanks. If I had vastly more disposable income, loads more free time, and lived near interesting unpaved routes, I might be curious about other facets of cycling like cross, gravel, or mountain. As it is I don’t even get to spend as much time as I’d like on the road.

    “Third” bike? I only have one at the moment. And when I can afford a second one, it’s just going to be a more expensive road bike. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

  31. Dustin

    Robot – that definition makes a ton of sense.

    Also, something to consider is the type of gravel you’re riding. Here in the Augusta GA area we have roads that are mostly hardpack dirt with some nice fine gravel mixed in, they’re super smooth and fast and you can ride with 23’s without issue. We also have some with much chunkier gravel that’ll flat 23’s quickly.

    Near my inlaws in south GA they don’t have any gravel, it’s just dirt. When it’s packed it’s smoother and faster than the lousy paving on most of the roads. But when it’s not packed it’s 3″ deep sand you can’t ride with skinny tires.

    My current roadie/commuter/gravel bike has tubeless 28’s and they work great for mostly paved with some non-paved-not-terribly-chunky riding mixed in here and there. However, I’ve got a deposit in for a custom bike that’ll fit fenders or 40’s, and it’ll have hydro discs. The plan is for two sets of wheels, one with 25’s or 28’s for pavement, one with 40’s for gravel and smoother singletrack.

    I love the idea of riding from my house out into Sumter National Forest, taking gravel along the way as much as possible, riding a little singletrack, and then riding home.


    1. Author
      Robot

      @ Dustin – You make some good points here. The terrain you want to tackle really determines how you want your bike to be. I can fit 40s on my “gravel” bike, and that gives me access to a lot of single-track. It’s a different style of riding, slower, more methodical, and I really enjoy it. It’s like August said above, it plasters the smile on my face.

      The other thing I love about this bike is that I can throw some studded tires on it, and ride it all winter. It’s a sort of a Swiss Army bike. Or I can put 25s on it and group ride.

      I actually don’t know why I need a low clearance road bike, but that’s me. I don’t race, and my road riding isn’t super “goal oriented.”

  32. souleur

    living in Missouri, gravel is abundant

    Its funny to us here, as we laugh, because we have always gravel ground. Like Tom Ritchey said, we just thought that was the way it was. We laugh too, because everyone around us wants paved roads, but we want our roads left alone and regret some roads that were paved as it simply increases speeds of cars and….more cars.

    My bike for now has been a rocky mtn cheapo utility bike RC-30 i thinky, w/surly steel fork, ultegra goods and clincher tyres.

    however, my build will be i am working on making my own steel clad ride, with good clearance, disc compatible tabs and may run tubeless. Around here you can run 35mm, but most run either 40mm and up

    Its real, and here to stay since we really did all start on gravel to begin with if you think about it….

  33. Adrian

    It mostly depends where you live and ride. I prefer gravel to road, and I used to do it when I lived in PA. Now that I live in the desert southwest, a hardtail bike makes most sense. In fact I sold my cross bike, because it was mostly useless in the dry rocky trails. But maybe if I moved out to the midwest I would seek out a gravel bike, and maybe If I moved to Canada I would buy a fat bike.

  34. gregorio

    I like the change in pace when I get tired of having done all the surrounding pavement in all directions and combinations. Sometimes adding a section of gravel makes all the difference. For the occasional gravel section I run 25’s. For more gravel I run 28’s on beater wheels. Dedicated gravel bike? That would imply disposable income…and I’m still paying off my DA7900 to DA9000 upgrade.

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