I was having a conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago and we were talking multi-surface road bikes, adventure bikes—okay dammit—gravel bikes. I made the offhand comment that there weren’t yet many production gravel bikes.
Him: What? There are plenty of production gravel bikes!
Me: Not from where I sit.
Him: What do you mean?
Me: If you can’t fit a 700C x 40mm tire on it, it’s not a real gravel bike yet.
I admit, that’s a pretty hard line. In fact, the answer is more complicated than that. Tire capacity is a big factor, but geometry is the other great decider. If a bike has 6.5cm or less BB drop, I consider that more of a cyclocross bike. I’ve encountered notable exceptions (the Pivot Vault doesn’t handle like a ‘cross bike), but for me to consider a bike a true all-road machine, I want to be able to fit a big tire on it so I don’t have to worry about center-punching a rock into the rim (and flatting) on a descent. Flatting due to running too-small tires is an ever-present fear of mine.
My solution: I don’t run tires smaller than 35mm ever, and I run a larger tire any time I’m able.
When I ran across the Jamis Renegade I was served up an instant reminder that sometimes the people who really get it don’t work for the biggest manufacturers. I’ve not met the product manager who oversees the Renegade, but I can tell you this cat gets it.
Suppose you’re going to buy a gravel bike. Unless you live someplace like Emporia, Kansas, where you can ride until the cows have returned home and left once again on roads that will never be paved, you’re probably going to spend some time doing things that aren’t, strictly speaking, gravel riding. You’ll probably pedal on some pavement. Maybe you’ll do some gravel events. Maybe you want to put some fenders on it and use it for your winter training bike. Or for commuting. Why not run it at some ‘cross races? It’s probably lighter and has more gears and better brakes than your old steel (or aluminum) rig. Heck, wouldn’t it be cool if you could finally do that bike packing trip with your friends you’ve been talking about? Maybe you get a second set of wheels set up with slick tires and it becomes your only road bike.
That, to me, is the real promise and possibility of a gravel bike. It’s not a do-everything bike. It is, however, a do a whole lot of stuff bike.
Jamis is one of those brands that doesn’t get the attention of bigger brands like Cannondale, let alone Giant. But they have been producing value-filled bikes for decades. In looking over their web site this spring I realized the Renegade is a bike that needed reviewing.
The Renegade hits five different price points. In addition to the top-of-the-line Renegade Elite ($3899), there is the Renegade Expert ($2699), Renegade Exploit ($2099) the Renegade Expat ($1199) and the Renegade Exile ($799). The Elite and Expert feature carbon fiber frames, while the Exploit and Expat are designed around steel frames and the Exile with aluminum. Every one of these bikes is well done for their price point.
Let’s start with the basics of the bike I reviewed: the Renegade Elite features a carbon fiber frame and fork, Ultra mechanical drivetrain with hydraulic discs, American Classic MTB Race wheels (12mm front, 12x142mm rear, 32-hole), a Ritchey cockpit, Clement tubeless MSO X’plor tires (36mm) and Fi’zi:k Aliante saddle. All for $3899. It’s a premium parts pick when what I usually see on a bike in this price range are no-name Taiwanese (or Chinese) parts, not parts I’m willing to buy aftermarket.
Another big difference between this bike and some other bikes in this price range is that it comes in six sizes. Five is pretty common. One fewer set of molds cuts tooling cost and reduces the amount of inventory you have to carry.
The sizing run is good, too.
48: 51.7cm top tube, 36.0cm reach
51: 53.2cm top tube, 36.9cm reach
54: 55.1cm top tube, 37.8cm reach
56: 56.9cm top tube, 38.7cm reach
58: 58.6cm top tube, 39.6cm reach
61: 60.1cm top tube, 40.5cm reach
I rode the 56, which comes with a 90mm stem. I swapped for a 100, but if I was riding mostly singletrack, I’d probably leave the shorter stem. Trail ranges from 6.5cm down to 5.8cm. I’d have expected a bit more bottom bracket drop than the 72mm on this bike, but out on the road the bike turned in without hesitation.
I rode everything from singletrack to fire roads to empty asphalt that wound into the mountains. While I expected it would perform ably on anything both wide and unpaved, but the bike surprised me just as much on singletrack as on paved descents. It was nimble through tight terrain as I wove between rocks too large to ride over.
Given my life, when I look at a drop-bar bike that can take big tires, I’m generally considering two different riding scenarios: pure road and mixed-surface. I’m not doing much in the way of touring or bike packing. If my boys were a bit older, I suspect that I’d be looking at doing more of that, or at least, I’d permit myself more room to dream about it. But that’s just my personal life. Were I a product manager, I’d want potential customers to be as unrestricted in their use of the bike as possible, and a well-made all-surface road bike is perfect for maximum adaptability.
The Renegade Elite (and Expert) comes with mounts for fenders so it can be your rain bike. It also comes with mounts for racks so that it can be a traditional, full-blown touring bike. But it also comes with double mounts so that you can mount bike packing racks or extra bottle cages; it’s up to you.
I fundamentally don’t believe one bike can do everything. However, a gravel bike is one place where you can look to give consumers a bike suitable to a number of different purposes without sacrifice. You can ride this thing on the road. You can ride it on dirt roads. You could race cyclocross with it. You could used it as rainy commuter. You could load it up with bags and ride it across the country. Or you could ride off into the wilderness with a sleeping roll. Hell, to get the full range out of this bike, I’d need to plan out my rides on a calendar weeks in advance.
What I love most about this bike isn’t its chameleon-like nature, but the fact that every time someone swings a leg over the saddle they’re rolling a lightweight, carbon fiber bike that handles well and cost less than $4k. That’s the part they can enjoy every day.
Final thought: More versatile than a pickup truck, and a good deal more fun.