2018 NAHBS: Best Gravel

2018 NAHBS: Best Gravel

I created the best gravel category because a few years ago we had more gravel bikes in the cyclocross category than we had actual ‘cross bikes.The thing is, what makes a ‘cross bike great is not at all what makes a gravel bike great. And trying to judge two bikes that do what they do well against each other just struck me as unfair. I mean, I can’t judge a track bike against a road bike, despite their apparent similarities. Scratching my head was a foregone conclusion. Creating the category was all but unavoidable. And then there was the conversation I had to have with show organizer Don Walker when I told him that I wanted to create a new category—after having cut other categories because … there were too many categories. So why bother? Frankly, from where I sit, small builders are still the most responsive to the varied needs of riders who want a multi-surface road bike. When I talk to builders I hear from some that they are selling more bikes made for all roads rather than just paved roads.

With gravel bikes, we want to see geometry that is different than you would see with a ‘cross bike: a lower bottom bracket, a longer wheelbase, a bit more trail. It needs to be a bike that will let you take a descent at 40 mph without making you certain you have no future. And generally speaking, a gravel bike needs even more tire clearance than a ‘cross bike because unless the builder gives us a solid reason why the bike doesn’t need clearance for 40mm tires, we want to see the opportunity to stick some fat rubber on the wheels to take in those roughest roads.

One builder submitted a road bike with 28mm tires and argued that because Paris-Roubaix has been won on tires no wider than 28mm, a road bike with 28mm tires is a gravel bike. He won a kind of argument, but he failed to appreciate that what the market thinks of as gravel bike specs tires much larger. I was disappointed because the awards aren’t an intellectual exercise. It’s about understanding the market, understanding riders and their needs. Ultimately, I want builders to do well. I want the job of being a judge to be as difficult as possible. I want to wrestle with the choice. A road bike with 28mm tires is gone in the first pass. It makes my job easier.

Similarly, if the bike has a crank with 53t and 39t chainrings, it’s gone instantly because we don’t ride with anyone running that on a gravel bike, including Ted King.

Two of our finalists for this award were builders new to us. It’s also true that both hail from New York. Horse is Brooklyn-based while Breismeister calls Queens home.

Horse caught our attention immediately due to the unusual black and pink paint scheme. The itty-bitty triangles of pink on the black field is an homage, if you will, to the builder’s cat. Those are claw marks. I love a bike with a sense of humor.

So while the paint scheme was cool, tire clearance gets my attention, as do brazeons that will allow the owner to do more with the bike than just ride Dirty Kanza. The vestigial brake bridge includes a brazeon for a fender, so that with smaller tires this can be the owner’s rain bike.

I loved these dropouts. They are versatile enough to include fender and rack mounts but also position the brake in a position that makes adjusting it easy.

Chris Bishop’s gravel bike was, from a riding standpoint, one of my favorite bikes at the show. I mention this as a way to betray my own biases. It’s fair to tell everyone exactly what it is I like beyond just my effort to recognize objectively great work. It’s steel. It’s lugged. It’s got thinned points. It’s got a bilaminate head tube. Lug transitions were smoothed with brass. The parts pick is appropriate to a bike that will be ridden in more locations than smooth asphalt and disc brakes will allow the owner to not just stop the bike but exercise fine control. Finally, the 35mm Challenge tires are terrific on a variety of surfaces, including pavement. This is a bike I could have ridden out the front door and been stoked about.

It’s almost hard to convey how cool a bilaminate head tube is. This is work that completely died out in the 1990s. It’s like some white rhino that was resurrected from DNA. It’s time-consuming work and is as functional as it is aesthetic.

Chris did a subtle bilam treatment on the seat tube as well and his tendency to put the seat binder bolt through the fastback seatstays makes that cluster really clean.

When checking the rear triangle for tire clearance this little stainless steel calling card in the brake bridge called out to me. This is a 35mm tire, so I imagine running a 38mm tire on a dry course would be possible.

The Co-Motion Klatch was a surprise to many. It’s not custom and there’s nothing about this bike that screams unique. It is, however, a significant bike within what was displayed at NAHBS. Why? Well the complete bike goes for $5000 and can be delivered on a reasonably short lead time (three to four months depending on the season), not the six months to a year that characterize the wait times for many builders.

Part of what I appreciated about the Klatch was the efficiency of the construction. These dropouts make welding the seat- and chainstays quick and with a minimum of coping or finish work. You can’t have 25 hours in a frame if you expect to sell a complete bike for $5k. There are people who will argue that a $5000 bicycle isn’t affordable, and in the big picture that’s arguably true. However, for a show devoted to the best of the best, a place where art and function merge, this bike is a way to have something handbuilt in the U.S. without spending as much as some motorcycles run.

Details like this tapered head tube and fork show that the Klatch is a bike designed to handle well on bad surfaces. It also had great tire clearance.

The TRP Spyre is one of the best mechanical discs on the market; spec’ing this brake was a way to bring the cost down without making control a joke. The thru-axle design will please many looking for a secure hold for the rear wheel while also making wheel changes easier.

It was the Breismeister, though, that carried the day. Rather than join the bilaminate head tube lugs into a single, seamless headtube, Doug Breismeister reversed the joints, positioning the lug portion on the head tube and the fillet flowing into the top and down tubes. Unfortunately, this shot doesn’t do a great job of showing the fork crown that he used. It’s big and airy and looks great with these big tires. Style, folks; it pays off.

Breismeister used the bilaminate technique at the seat cluster to great effect. This is a big bike and the bilam effect allowed him to reinforce the seat cluster without making it look overbuilt.

Queens. Srsly. I love knowing there are builders in New York.

One of the more easily missed details of this bike is how Breismeister used a curve-blade fork on a disc-brake bike. Most disc-brake brazeons are made to be brazed or welded onto a straight-blade fork. Breismeister had to do some very careful work to manage to braze this mount onto the fork and still have the brake positioned correctly. It’s crazy stuff like this, where a builder had to go out of their way to make and aesthetic choice (curved fork blade) happen without causing functionality to suffer, that gets us excited. The combination of the thru-axle and rack/fender brazeon shows how Breismeister wasn’t willing to give up even a tiny bit of functionality.

Internal routing always looks amazing. The way he positioned the disc brake makes it pretty easy to access for adjustment; too often we see designs where it is nearly impossible to get to the rear 5mm bolt to adjust the brake.

Finally, we loved the paint job. I can’t recall if it was Good ‘n’ Plenty or some other candy, but the particular collection of neon colors evoked nothing so much as a sugary treat.



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  1. Steve Courtright

    Not sure whether it the newness of this category of bikes, the smart combinations of different technologies, the artistry and creativity of the builds, the sheer versatility of the resulting machine, or all the above, I am smitten. Just picked up such a steed this season after nearly 30 years of riding. Hats off to the makers.

  2. AC

    It would really be interesting to hear what the geometry was on some of these, how it differs from a cross bike, and if the intended result was achieved.

    1. Author

      Generally, the big changes we see in geometry is more trail, a longer wheelbase and a lower bottom bracket. While wheelbase and trail depend pretty heavily on the frame size, BB drop doesn’t change that much (though you might see a big more drop in small sizes and a bit less in really large sizes. With ‘cross bikes I expect to see 6.5cm of drop, or less. With a gravel bike, I don’t expect to see less than 6.8cm. I’ve seen as much drop as 8cm.

    2. AC

      Interesting – I have a DeSalvo that was built expressly for multi surface riding, while still sporty enough to race cross or take some singletrack when desired. Mike increased BB drop to 70mm, and upped the chainstay to 430mm from my initial thoughts. That was in late 2013, and it’s been great as my ‘everything’ bike since then, as it replaced separate road and cross bikes.

    3. Author

      Mike gives good gravel bike. Yeah, a well-done all-road bike is versatile enough to replace both road and ‘cross bikes. After the fires here I know many guys who simply bought a Specialized Diverge and then started plotting their MTB purchase. A gravel bike with two sets of wheels can do a lot.

  3. Grego

    That Breismeister is one of the most lust-inducing bikes I’ve ever seen. Ever.
    To the point where I have had to repeatedly keep stopping myself from writing him to inquire.
    It is just exactly what I want, right down to the curved fork blades.
    Oh ^%$# it, I’m writing him now.
    Done. Mmm.

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