What Is Gravel?

What Is Gravel?

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.

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  1. Andrew

    I’m not sure I totally understand the point you are trying to make here. Other than that the term “gravel” is poor. Agree- dirt roads are great fun, gravel stretches on them (after re-grading, for example) suck.

    I totally don’t get the low PSI madness. Each year at the Almanzo the bottom of the first serious downhill is littered with people changing their pinch flats. I run 50psi on Clement USH’s, weight 165 lbs, and have never had a flat on gravel. And it’s perfectly comfortable.

  2. Craig

    Surly Crosscheck … done … but seriously, that is a classic bike that hits a home run in this arena

    Not sure who is riding a cross bike on a 45mph descent and has a problem … every one I have done such things on has been like butter. Yeah, they don’t handle like my road racer but it sucks a$$ on the dirt …

    The biggest difference I find with the new multistrada bikes (I like that…) and cross bikes is that after a long day in the saddle I am not quite as beat up on the ms as the crosser … and I can use bigger tires … otherwise, not worth a new purchase for sure.

  3. Frank

    I struggle to see the point of “gravel” bikes. It seems no more than an effort to create a new category to sell to the n+1 crowd. I’ve been riding mixed surfaces for my entire cycling life. First it was a 700c touring bike with cantilevers, then a cyclocross bike, and lately an audax with long reach caliper brakes. They’ve all been fit for purpose in their own way.

    1. Author

      Depending on your particular world view, some might argue that you already have three multistrada bikes. If we’re going to talk in terms of purchases, consider what you might buy if you didn’t already have a touring bike, a cyclocross bike or an audax/randonnee bike. The difference between the traditional audax and what most builders are doing for multistrada isn’t big. Sounds like you already are on board with the thinking. And while I hate to harp on this point, we’re not about consumerism here at RKP. To the degree that we advocate anything, it’s only in the event that you’re in the market. For anyone who is satisfied with N bikes, if it’s enough for you, it’s enough for us.

    2. winky

      I agree with you. The point others make about CX not necessarily being good at high speed may be valid, but surely light-touring and randonneuring bikes (which have been around forever) are much the same thing as “all-road” bikes or (ugh) “gravel grinders”?

    3. Author

      Great point. Were I building a touring bike today, it would have the same gearing, or lower, as a multistrada. I’m not worried about the high end; I’m worried about low enough gears to allow me to climb stuff with a load.

  4. Touriste-Routier

    I believe Bridgestone or Rivendell used the term “all road” for some of their bikes.

    I am shifting to using the term “unpaved roads” in the events I organize, unless I am describing something in particular. I don’t describe the events as Gravel Grinders (a term which I never liked), but as “Mixed Surface”, since rarely do the unpaved portions exceed 25% of the course.

    1. Author

      For event promoters, the term “mixed surface” tells a potential participant all they need to know. I like that.

  5. John B.

    Saying that “a cyclocross bike isn’t meant to handle well on a 45 mph descent” is a rather vague statement, to say the least. Indeed, I’m tempted to ask what one needs to do to make a bike handle badly at 45mph?

    Looking at Mosaic’s offerings, they show Enve disk forks on both their ‘cross and – err – multi-strada bikes. The ‘cross bike uses Enve’s CX disk fork while the multi-strada bike appears to use Enve’s – err – Multi-Strada fork. Bizarrely enough, the latter fork has less clearance than the former but, be that as it may, the aspect I want to focus on is that both forks have the same offset. Looking at other fork manufacturers’ offerings, the majority of carbon disk forks are only available with a 45mm offset, while 3T offer a fork with 50mm of offset.

    Thus, if you want the handling of your ‘cross bike to differ from your multi-strada bike and you don’t build your own custom steel forks, how do you achieve that? A frame for a smaller rider doesn’t have any wiggle room in the head angle department. And, even for a rider in the middle of the bell curve, size-wise, how much is the head angle likely to vary between frames aimed for the two disciplines? Bottom bracket drop is a possible variable but, given that ‘cross frames typically run lower bottom brackets these days then back in the days of clips ‘n’ straps, there isn’t likely to be huge variance there either. You might want longer chainstays on a multi-strada bike to make it possible to fit the wider tyres that are useful on 45mph multi-strada descents (even if Enve think the opposite).

    All that is to say, I think that likely geometric differences between the two genres of bikes will be subtle and that far greater differences can be made at 45mph by tyre choice and pressure.

    1. Author

      As this could quickly become a whole post in its own right I’ll try to keep this brief. ‘Cross bikes tend to have a high BB and not much trail. That particular combination isn’t particularly confidence-inspiring at high speed. I’ve experienced shimmies at higher speeds on such bikes. By comparison, a multistrada will have a lower BB, longer wheelbase and more trail. They tend not to be as nimble at slow speed and in tight corners, but tend to feel relaxed at higher speeds. Changing tires and pressure won’t fundamentally change how a bike handles.

    2. John B.

      Bring on the separate post, I say!

      My point is, given the available [carbon disk] fork choices, you can’t change the trail that much and, in some frame sizes, not at all.

      And if you think tyres and pressure don’t make a difference, try fitting a pair of 650Bs in a disk equipped frame. That is meant as a serious comment, BTW, just in case it comes across differently.

    3. Author

      I’m not a believer in changing out a fork to try to alter a bike’s handling. My view is that either the bike handles for the kind of riding you do, or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, it’s best to get a different bike. And if you’re buying new and working with a custom builder, the single fork rake available from Enve (the most popular fork in this category) is all a good builder needs to achieve the fit and handling you need. You can do lots with head tube angle and top tube length. Also, changing wheels is way different than just changing tire and pressure; a bike can and will handle differently, but no amount of wheel/tire machinations will make a ‘cross bike handle like a good multistrada.

    4. Pat O'Brien

      There is an article in the April issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine about touring bicycle drive trains. “A Big Shift” is written by Matt Wiebe. Perhaps there is some overlap between touring and multistrada drive trains.

    5. Touriste-Routier

      Not all CX bikes can be lumped together. Bikes designed for European Courses can be very different for those designed for US courses.

      My Ritchey CX Breakaway (which I ride mostly on paved roads) handles very similarly to my custom made “stage racing” bike; it is definitely more stable with wider road tires (28 mm) than with narrower ones (23 mm). My original Alan CX bike was quite sketchy on fast corners and long descents on the road due to it’s high bottom bracket and other geometry differences to my road bike.

    6. Author

      Just like with road bikes, there’s a range in ‘cross, and it’s actually a broader range than with road bikes. You can find ‘cross bikes with as little as 5cm of BB drop, though that’s uncommon. They used to fall within a narrower range—before clipless pedals—but many brands have begun to increase the amount of BB drop; today there are a few brands that build around 7cm of drop, though that’s also uncommon. That said, one reason the Alans were sketchy is their aluminum tube set. It’s arguably the most flexible frame to be ridden in the pro ranks in the last 30 years.

    7. John B.

      I’m not talking about changing the fork on an existing bike necessarily but rather, the specific point about differentiating the handling of a ‘cross bike from a multi-strada bike when both types of bike are very likely to be built around the same fork.

      Speaking of working with a custom builder, Seven offer their 5E carbon road fork with offsets ranging from 36-58mm, in 3mm increments (http://www.sevencycles.com/accessories/5e-medium-reach-carbon-fork-data.php). There are many reasons that make that choice of offsets desireable and I don’t think that that list reduces when you put disk brakes on a bike. No, the only reason that [carbon] disk forks are offered in only one offset is because it is expensive to create a new mould and because it is difficult/impossible to change the dropout-disk mount relationship in a similar fashion to Seven’s road fork.

      I mentioned using 650B wheels and tyres as an extreme example after you said that “Changing tires and pressure won’t fundamentally change how a bike handles.” While I personally think that 700x28C tyres handle noticeably different from 700x40Cs [on the same bike], 650Bx48s (whose diameter is, give or take, identical to 700x28C) handle differently again.

  6. Chris

    Gravel is ubiquitous on forest service roads here in the southeast, so gravel riding is appropriate. I call the bike a dirt roadie though. Multistrada seems a bit pretentious.

  7. winky

    Rode the (absolutely brilliant) East Maui loop last week. 155km of smooth blacktop, combined with 20km of the worst roads I’ve likely ever ridden. The patches-on-patches sections were so bad that the unpaved sections (which were also in variable condition) were actually a relief. My buddy and I were on regular carbon road bikes (C59 and S3), and had zero troubles, in spite of skinny, hard tyres. Mine were 23mm at 115psi. My personal view is that we’re being convinced that we need fat, squishy tyres much more than we really do.

  8. winky

    I actually like that the marketing departments have now given us a lot of choice for all-road bikes. It now seems that the perfect winter/all-road/commuter bike is available to me, with many options to choose from, when I finally supplement my old loaded tourer that I use for these duties. My new winter bike will have discs (for a wet PNW winter) and a geometry that more closely matches my summer race bike (from a fit perspective, rather than from a handling one – I probably want it a bit “slower”). It’ll also likely be a bit fair bit lighter as I don’t need it for loaded touring.

  9. Hoshie99

    Different courses can mean different horses. I left the cross bike at home for BWR last year and rode my older Scott addict with 27 vittoria paves – was fine.

    At Grinduro, used the cross bike and 38s and that worked well.

    I do agree that low bottom brackets and slightly slacker geo for longer mixed terrain rides make a positive difference compared to many cross bikes. But you can do a lot on a cross bike just fine.

    Sometimes you just take what’s in the stable and go for it….


  10. Sage Titanium Bicycles

    Hello, I just came across this post and wanted to share my thoughts on the subject. I am the owner / designer of Sage Titanium Bicycles (https://sagetitanium.com/) in Beaverton, OR., and I went through many of these same types of questions/ issues when designing our new Barlow Gravel bike. The important thing for us was that the bike could handle high speeds on the road while also being stable off-road. To do this, I used a low bottom bracket with a slightly longer top tube than a CX bike as it allowed me to get the rider stretched out into a comfortable riding position. Short chainstays for fast acceleration and wide tire clearance are key to for enabling the bike to conquer various types of terrain.

    The big thing for us was the Enve GRD fork which has a unique Axle to Crown measurement that puts the rider in a more upright position than a road bike, but lower than a CX bike. I do believe a gravel bike should be treated differently than either road or CX bikes as the demands on the bike are different altogether. A CX bike is meant for short efforts on more technical terrain than what a gravel or a road bike will encounter, and a performance style road bike is meant more for aggressive riding when the road conditions due not vary like they would in an off-road situation.

    Technically speaking, a road bike or a CX bike can go off-road and work just fine. However, the new generation of gravel bikes address some issues that the road or CX bikes might not, and that is why there is a demand for them. The problem other brands get into is when they blur the lines between the different types of bikes. I believe a bike should be purpose built and while there can be some crossover, ideally, they should serve a specific purpose.

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