Language. It’s a funny thing. It’s how we connect with other people. How we share ideas, tell the world who we are and integral to how we work, no matter what we do. It can get at the most ephemeral of truths and can be used to hide our true intentions to all but our inner circle. Witness the discussion of “dog whistles” in the American election cycle.
My question isn’t meant to bait the reader, nor is it some half-assed existential meditation on the nature of man. I mean to ask, what is it we’re talking about when we use the term “gravel”?
When I was riding dirt roads in the 1990s, we didn’t mention gravel. We just talked about dirt roads. “Hey, I found another dirt road.” It was simple, to the point. It was also accurate in a way calling any unpaved surface “gravel” is not.
Gravel, if we’re going to be super precise, is a chore to ride on. It’s frequently loose which can make the going both slow and unpredictable. When I think of the unimproved roads I’ve ridden on around the world, I wouldn’t call many of them gravel, so at a certain level, it’s an inaccurate term and that grates the way uttering the word “winter” in Southern California does.
Just no. Stop.
Nevermind the inaccuracy, by defaulting to such a broad term, we gloss over the incredible richness and variety of this fresh pursuit and in that, we cheat ourselves.
Case in point: I’ve all but given up on reviewing 23mm clinchers. All the high tpi clinchers are so good that you can race any of those tires and struggle to note any difference between them, and if I can’t tell you what the difference is, what use is a review? But with our pursuit of unimproved roads, not only are tire reviews relevant, but even conversations about tire pressure are relevant.
I encounter people who advocate running 25 psi in 35mm tires for all conditions. It’s as blind a recommendation as telling people the only rock album you need is Led Zeppelin IV. Sure, it’s an amazing album, but I’m not giving up Sgt. Pepper—I don’t care who you are. Around here if you run anything smaller than 2 inches at 25 psi you’re going to be walking home, Buttercup. There’s too much volcanic rock. But if I were anywhere in the Mississippi flood plain, it’s unlikely I’d ever pump tires up to 25 psi, unless I was doing an event that mixed dirt and pavement.
And that’s where the conversation gets really interesting. The moment you mix dirt and pavement, the math changes. The Belgian Waffle Ride is paved for more than 75 percent of its distance. But those unpaved stretches? Brutal. Anyone who runs 23mm tires pumped to 120 psi will pick up a new nickname—Buttercup (see above). The converse of that—35mm tires pumped to 25 psi will get any rider sawed off the back of a group the moment they accelerate above 25 mph. Rolling resistance, yo!
All of that is great fun, but I haven’t even mentioned the best part. The best part is that the custom frame building world has the upper hand in this market. That was borne out by what I saw at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show as well as when I go to events. Custom builders dominate. On those rare occasions when production bikes have outnumbered the custom, it’s been guys running cyclocross bikes. Talk to any builder and they’ll emphasize just how different a cyclocross bike is from—what the hell do we call these bikes? Well, since the best among them are meant to perform well on any sort of road, let’s borrow a term: multistrada.
Yeah, so a cyclocross bike handles differently than a multistrada. As Mosaic’s Aaron Barcheck told the judges at NAHBS, “a cyclocross bike isn’t meant to handle well on a 45 mph descent.” When I talked to builders and inquired about specific bikes, the story was always different. The road surfaces were different and the mix of pavement to unpaved varied wildly. The bikes I saw made for Montana didn’t need to hit pavement at all in some cases. That can be a very different bike than one meant to stitch together short stretches of dirt between a drum beat of pavement. That ability to design a bike for a specific circumstance and riding style was why many of the most interesting and creative bikes at NAHBS were multistrada bikes. Every time I looked at another multistrada I’d inquire about where the bike was to be ridden. You never do that with road bikes, unless you notice an abnormally large cog or a corn cob in the back.
The big manufacturers, with a few exceptions, haven’t really figured out a production formula to crack this nut. They aren’t doing themselves any favors by stocking only a handful, either. I’d like to see them sort it out as I think it can aid growth in this corner of the market, without hurting the custom builders. Rising tide and all that. But because they haven’t juggered this naught, the whole category is wide open. The bike I built for riding here in Sonoma County isn’t the same as the bike I’d build for riding in the South.
When I was a kid, the bike was as much a tool for exploration as it was a way to have fun and go places. When we found trails, we rode them. If we discovered a cool, new road, we went down it. And until my friends and I graduated to 10-speeds, our bikes were capable of taking us anywhere. I’m not nostalgic for my childhood, but that freedom of chasing any path I see is a feature I’m happy to welcome back in my life. It works as well today as it did when I was 10.