Friday Group Ride #415

Friday Group Ride #415

I have a bad habit of valuing anecdotal evidence more than I value data. Maybe it’s that I hew more verbal than mathematical. Maybe it’s that it’s easier to support opinions with other people stories and opinions than it is to run stats and do real analysis.

So when I tell you that road bike sales are down, that’s only partially based on the numbers I see in BRAIN. In large part I’m telling you what shop owners are telling me, and what I’m seeing in my own work.

We seem to be in what I call Second Wave Gravel, a surge in sales of dirt road, drop bar bikes at every price point. How big and how real this surge is, I don’t have good numbers on. Muddying the water further is the fact that such a large segment of the traditional road market has gone to disc brakes. To parse the data accurately, we need to know what tire sizes people are running. Yes. That’s right. We’re down to defining categories by tire size.

The story you hear to explain why road bike sales are so soft now, is that people want to get off the road. They are tired of battling with car traffic, or at least they’re tired of thinking about cars. Better to be off on a dirt road in the back end of nowhere, where you can just pedal.

What I think may be happening additionally, is that less savvy road cyclists aren’t really sure what the industry is doing with road bikes. Those who might have been thinking about an upgrade are confused about whether they should be getting a bike with disc brakes and electronic shifting, or sticking with rim brakes and mechanical gearing. All the early adopters, and there are a lot of them, adopted those technologies already, and now the second wave, who should have come in behind are hesitating, riding their bike another season or two before they commit.

I’m guessing. I don’t have data.

This week’s Group Ride asks, are you graveling? Or are you still fully and wholly committed to the road? Do you foresee a future in which you don’t own a bike with rim brakes? Are you buying now? Or are you waiting to see what shakes out?

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20 comments

  1. Quentin

    4 years ago I moved to west Texas, where there is really fast car traffic on the paved roads and lots of empty dirt roads, so I bought a gravel bike within the first year. I ride it more than my road bike now. I will definitely phase rim brakes out of my life at some point, but I’m in no hurry to replace my road bike because I’m not accumulating miles on it very quickly.

  2. Skinny_Ankles

    I have always been a roadie but I can see that changing soon. I currently live in Maine where there is a decent MTB and gravel scene, but it never got me interested in joining, however next year I am moving to the south of Spain where gravel riding and racing has taken off and I’m keen on joining the fun asap!

  3. MattC

    JUST got my first new bike since I was a kid…a Trek Checkpoint. Yes, it’s a gravel bike. Or more accurately, an adventure bike. Takes up to 45mm tires (the front WILL go larger)…full rack mounts for road touring, disc brakes, 4 bottle mounts…this bike will do full on road w/ 28mm tires, comes w/ 35’s for dirt roads, and w/ a 50/45mm knobbies it will be able to do fantastic bikepacking. have since stripped my old road frame, don’t see myself riding it anymore…the Checkpoint and my Cdale Scalpel are the only stable I need. I’m older and not very fast…so no need for a speed-rocket road bike anymore. And anyway, I’ve lost my lust for the road…cell phones have changed that game and it’s just not even remotely safe anymore…so many people NOT paying attention. And besides, the dirt is way more fun anyway.

  4. W

    Gravel Baby. I have a sweet road bike with rim brakes that will not get UP-graded to disc anytime soon simply because I hardly ride it anymore. Grave bike checks all the boxes for me and the routes are fantastic. Regardless of sub category I can not imagine ever again buying a performance oriented bike that did not have disc brakes. Discs work better—deal with it.

  5. Jack

    While I do much of my riding on my MTB and CX/gravel bike – I’m still of the opinion that one of the great joys in cycling is a smoothly operating paceline and continue to seek them out on the road. I think there is safety in numbers, so 8-10 or me and my buddies with flashing lights feels acceptably safe.
    My last purchase (2017) I ordered with rim brakes because I moved away from Colorado and figured I wouldn’t be dropping down mountain canyons, and the rim brakes have always been good enough. I’m kind of regretting that now, but not enough to flip a bike I otherwise love.

  6. scottg

    No gravel, but my road bikes have had 28mm+ tires since 2004
    I had a bike built in 2004 for Avocet 30mm slick road tires.
    A Black Mountain Monster Cross with Gravel King 38 road tires
    is my weekend fun road bike and farmers market shuttle.

  7. Stephen Barner

    I rebuilt my winter bike around a closeout Marin frame so that I could mount discs. I was tired of dealing with the delay the iced-up cantis would experience when I hit the 16% descent on my morning commute. The discs really helped, and the weight penalty isn’t a factor on that kind of bike. No electronics, though–I went 9-speed because it’s really cheap to maintain and I like triples.
    All my bikes are gravel bikes, because it’s 5 miles to pavement, and I don’t like combining cars and bikes unless I have to. That doesn’t mean they all have wide tires, just that whatever bike I pull out for the day is going to have to roll over 10 miles of dirt before it gets back to the stable. That winter bike has 35mm tires. If I know I’m headed for an extended gravel ride, I’ll likely ride my Gunner, which currently has 32s and road V-brakes that work just fine. Most of the other road bikes have 23s to 25s–many have sewups. It all works. I doubt I’ll ever go electronic shifting. Everyone I know who has gone electronic likes it. That’s super, because it means they’re dumping all their old mechanicals, leaving me to stock up with spares on the cheap. To each his own. I ride at least twice as many miles as most of them, and it’s still fun. Overall, it’s about a 60/40 split between pavement and dirt for me.
    My take on it is that discs and electronics are better than their closest rivals, but only marginally so. The same is true of BMWs and Toyotas. An awful lot of people are doing just fine with the latter. If you’re building a nice gravel bike or a carbon rimmed road bike, by all means, go disc. If you’ve got the money, and a good relationship with a quality mechanic, you’ll like the switch to electronic shifting. If you’re happy with your existing bike, just ride it–with pride. I didn’t want to believe it when I was told almost 50 years ago that “It’s all in the legs,” but it remains true.

  8. David

    I ride a pure road bike (25C tires) exclusively on the road and see no change to that anytime soon. I’m not anti-gravel, it’s just that I prefer to ride on the road. I’ve got some decently surfaced roads out my front door with virtually non-existent traffic to ride on. I ride a titanium framed, rim braked, mechanically shifted bike. If it ever breaks I’ll maybe upgrade to discs, but here in North Texas rim brakes work just fine for me.

  9. Michael

    I’ve had a cross bike since I was given one by some really kind friends in 1980 and have used it, or its successor, as a gravel bike ever since. There are some differences in geometry, but the “gravel” I ride tends to be a mix of single track and double track and rocky beatup dirt roads, so a cross geometry is fine. I also ride road and mountain and touring and commuter. Any bike is good. I agree that the advent of mobile phones has been bad for safety, but also feel we need to be out there in numbers to make it safer, to make bikes “normal”. Living in Dublin this year, I have seen how the high numbers of commuter cyclists make it safer for all cyclists, even though the streets are chaotic and very poorly designed for safety. Drivers are familiar with cyclists, know them from work or church or elsewhere and from encounters on the road, and expect them to be around. Some are still aggressive and rude, but less commonly so than in much of the US. So , yes to gravel and to road.

    As to disc vs. rim brakes: it depends on the application. I don’t foresee a time when I won’t have a rim-brake bike, but it could happen. For a travel bike, dealing with the hydraulic fluid is a hassle, but cable discs can work (although still more hassle than rim brakes). On a non-travel bike, absolutely go disc, except for possibly a commuter bike that you want to be the lowest maintenance possible (single-speed, rim brakes, flat bars, fenders, chain cover). However, it’s not worth actually selling a perfectly good bike just to change the brakes.

  10. Aar

    I’m a roadie. Don’t know whether there are few soft roads nearby or I’m just not looking enough. I don’t want discs or hydraulic brakes on my road bike but suppose I’ll have to eventually join the movement because I can’t single-handedly beat industry forces. This is unusual for me. I’m typically an early adopter but I had a terrifying experience with hydraulic brakes on a mountain bike.

  11. Jeff Dieffenbach

    I started riding seriously in 2007. Picked up a low-end 26er MTB in 2009, but didn’t ride it much. Did 2 CX races in 2012 and got hooked. Since then, strong transition from pure road to mostly dirt (tending toward gravel, but with a fair bit of fat biking and the occasional 29er ride). Most of my road riding is before-work fitness rides.

    Earlier this year, I picked up a titanium gravel bike with disc brakes. Primary wheels are mounted with 40mm tires, but I’ve got a road set with 28s. As such, I’m prepping my old road bike (a pretty decent Specialized Roubaix Expert with carbon wheels).

    Here’s my current line-up in the order I like to ride them–I’d be surprised if I ever by a rim brake bike again:
    1. Gravel bike (disc)
    2. Fat bike (disc)
    3. CX bike (disc) … I LOVE CX but put this as #3 only because the season’s short compared to #1 and #2
    4. 29er (disc)
    5. CX C bike (rim) … C bike’s ahead of the B bike because it’s on an island in Maine
    6. CX B bike (rim)
    7. Beach cruiser (coaster)
    8. Folding commuter (rim)

  12. Phil Kent

    Got my first “Road Bike” in 1963. A Legnano with sew up tires. Rode to school and work in San Francisco. Did weekend group rides…. And gravel and dirt roads whenever I felt like it. Didn’t have special bikes for every condition, Still don”t….

  13. Steven Down

    Stasis point reached here. Waiting for SRAM to launch Rival Etap HRD 2×13(!) Sticking with cables and 10 speed rims until they all settle down again.

  14. Aaron

    I’ve ridden my rim brake steel road and touring bikes on roads and trails for decades.
    I bought my first new bike in 25 years this year.
    Honestly, its like I’ve come out of the dark ages.

    Due to my riding style, my propensity, especially in the heat of summer, to ride about 75% single track each ride and the rest road, or vice versa sometimes, I went with a gravel/adventure bike, the Kona Rove LTD. This is an 853 steel, hydro disc brakes and force 1X system with 650B wheels and shod with wtb horizon 47c’s off the rack. This is a very versatile ride though obviously not as quick with a sprint with the heavy rubber and long chainstays.

    I have moments of wanting a carbon 700X25, but the desire doesn’t last long. On long road rides on the 47c rubber, TBH, it’s sorta like training with a weight vest on on hills for sure.

    Again, due to it’s versatility, I’m currently considering a set of 700c’s to fit in the rove with something around a 30mm tire for pure road days. The lighter rubber will likely translate to a more road bike feel of acceleration. I miss a double Ultegra sometimes as well as I consider going up a few tooths on my 1X front chainring, AGAIN, only to have to grab a new chain (longer) as well to do that this time.
    For the the price of admission for hydro disc brakes and the versatility of 650B OR 700c makes it worth it for me. This is the rig I will likely keep with a mixed surface high volume 650B wheelset and a lighter 700c with more aero rubber road wheelset for many many years to come. Nothing like true one finger braking and stop. when. you. want. NOW! Confidence inspiring for sure.
    🙂
    Happy man upwards of 90% of the time with this choice.

  15. Kayce

    I manage a largish independent bike shop, with traditionally a road focus. I would say that the vast majority of drop bar bike customers come in saying they want a gravel bike. Only 1/4 of those that say they want a gravel bike, end up with one. But things like the current Cannondale Synapse is more of a “gravel bike” than the GT Grade was when it was introduced as the first production gravel bike.

  16. Neil Winkelmann

    Roadie here, but increasingly interested in gravel. Gravel offers to me what mountain biking promised, but without the terror of technical terrain, and the trail access issues (I am also a hiker and am torn on this one).

  17. Jesse H

    As someone who prefers flat-bar bikes to drop-bar, I do not have a road, gravel or CX bike. I do, however, have a flat-bar commuter (Giant FastRoad) with disc brakes. It has (relatively) narrow dropouts, so the widest tire I can accommodate is 35mm, but that is good enough for getting me down the road. I chose the bike for its disc brakes, and have been happy with that choice. As I ride to work several days a week, in any weather above 40 degrees (I can ride in colder, but why?), I enjoy the stopping power of hydraulic discs (upgraded to Shimano SLX from Tektro). If I want to go fast, I have some 25’s that I put on to keep up with my roadie friends. If I want to ride some of the gravel trails around town, I can slide on some CX tires and feel pretty comfortable.

  18. Chris

    I think a lot of people are finally getting smart enough to realize that riding a road racing bike on a daily basis is about as silly as using a WRC rally car to commute to work in. They’re also probably realizing that it doesn’t matter what your frame is made of, tire volume still plays the biggest role in comfort. Even pro racers have figured this out and most have now moved away from 23mm tires. I also suspect another factor is that bikes are getting more expensive and for many folks if they can only afford one nice bike it might as well be one that can do many things well rather than one very narrow thing extremely well.

  19. Lucien Walsh

    yea, I’m getting tired of the traffic. But I have no idea where gravel roads are anywhere close to me (in the heart of the DC-Baltimore-Philly corridor, i reckon they’re pretty scarce), I don’t have time to drive in order to ride. I want to step out my front door and be riding; time is a scarce commodity these days.

    To your second point Robot, I don’t think it has to do with savvy, but money. I was tempted by a Tarmac disc 2 years ago. Glad I didn’t; the wheels were specific to the bike, Specialized scrapped the idea and went to Thru Axle and longer stays, and in 24 months that Tarmac I tried is obsolete; no one is making a wheel upgrade for it, ever. Meanwhile, Cannondale is putting a QR on the back and TR on the front of the SuperSix Evo; tell me how much fun THAT is if you want to upgrade later, or sell the stock wheels to trade up.

    So why wouldn’t I hesitate? My Seven has been my only whip for 14 years, it’s great, it’s timeless, and despite dire warnings about a mass migration to disc, remains more or less future proof. I don’t have the income to flit from fad to fad every 3-5 years, and so I wait. Once a disc bike presents itself that is equal to or better than my Seven, that doesn’t price match a vacation for 4 to Europe, and that will be supported by the aftermarket for more than a couple of years, then I’ll jump. But it’s going to be a while unless I win the lottery. I guess my bike has set the bar so high that I can’t afford to move without giving up the panache and the overall feel and joy of my bike as a system, just to get discs.

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