The Chainlink

Can One Bike Do It All?

By Brett Ratner

For many cyclists, the accumulation of multiple bikes is a pretty natural progression as one gets more involved with their favorite sport.

Granted, it's a bit of a "first world" problem to have, but once a collection of bikes is accumulated, one might find that owning more than one can be a hassle. There's maintenance, storage, and swapping accessories around from bike to bike (depending which bike is needed for a given day). All said and done, it adds complexity, expense and can diminish a bit of the spontaneity one used to enjoy when he or she "just went out for a ride."

As such, I've always romanticized the notion of having just one bicycle that can "do it all." Basically a whip that you just hop on and go...and no matter where the day's adventure leads, the bike is up to the task.

At the Interbike trade show, we rode a bike that comes really darn close to this fantasy, thanks largely to its ability to accept a wide variety of tire and wheel types.

Why does it merely come "close," you ask? As cool as this bike (the Open U.P.) is, to truly get the most out of its premiere feature, you're gonna want to buy a set of 650b mountain bike wheels/tires, 700 x 23c road slicks, 700 x 40c gravel tires and (if you race) 700 x 33c cyclocross tubulars. And since swapping wheels mid ride isn't generally feasible, if conditions change, you're gonna be stuck with whatever tires you happen to be on at the time.

So what about simply having one bike with one set of multi-purpose wheels/tires? Naturally, there will be compromises here and there, but are they deal breakers? Can one bike really do it all?

In an effort to (sorta kinda) find out, I planned a 55 mile route that went as such:

  • 22 miles of paved, rolling country roads from the home base to the John Muir mountain bike trail head at the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest
  • One 10.5-mile lap of Muir's advanced-level mountain bike loop
  • A few hot laps of the beginner loop (which is essentially a grass cyclocross course cut through some trees with a lawnmower)
  • 22 miles of pavement back home

For this experiment, I felt a mountain bike would be too sluggish on the road, and a road bike would be fairly useless on the dirt (unless you're one of the guys from those Road Bike Party videos). A touring bike could possibly do the job, but wouldn't be terribly fun or exciting to ride. And the brakeless fixie track bike? Nope.

So that left me with my trusty cyclocross bike. To date, it's been a very dependable partner for three full seasons of 'cross, plus a dozen or so 60-100 mile gravel races. Considering all the grass, dirt, sand, gravel, mud, snow and even ice that's passed beneath its wheels, there's little question it was the most versatile bike available for this mini adventure.

For a variety of reasons, I haven't managed to enter a 'cross race this year, so lucky for me the bike was still outfitted for The Almanzo 100 (the most recent gravel race I completed).

In addition to the residual mud splatters, "outfitted for Almanzo" means water bottle cages, seat bag (containing a tool kit, levers, master link and spare tube), tire pump, and (most importantly) Clement X'Plor MSO gravel/adventure tires in the 700 x 32c size.

The Clement tires seem to strike a good balance between off-road traction and low on-road rolling resistance. It's worth note that Clement also offers a 40mm version of this tire, which may have been an even better choice for this ride. Unfortunately, many cyclocross bikes lack the appropriate tire clearance (they'd fit fine on the Open U.P., however, plus practically any of the new "gravel" bikes).

Anyway, I already have hundreds of miles of experience with this bike/tire combo on gravel and dirt roads, so the thinking was this route would help me gauge how it performs on smooth pavement, technical singletrack, and finally simulated cyclocross conditions.

In an effort to achieve a reasonable balance of low rolling resistance, traction and pinch-flat prevention, I chose to inflate the tires to 60psi and headed out the door.

On The Road
Since a 'cross bike is fairly similar to a road bike, there were no issues there. The difference primarily came down to the tires.

The larger tire volume and lower pressure added a pleasant bit of cushion, taking the sting out bumps in the road. This was especially nice since my particular cross bike features a stiff aluminum frame with not a lot of give to it.

The gravel-oriented tread made a slight humming sound at speed. This was not unpleasant in any way...just noticeable.

What was somewhat unpleasant was the added rolling resistance. It wasn't overwhelming by any means. It just lacked the effortless feel one experiences on a road bike with 23mm slicks. In addition, the tires seemed to knock a MPH or two off my normal road bike speed for any given effort. And on faster sections of road (like long-ish descents), the difference in rolling resistance (and ultimately speed) seemed even more pronounced.

Just to be clear, the Clement MSOs roll really well, especially considering how well they track in loose gravel and grip in the dirt. But when you're strictly riding pavement, a gravel/dirt-oriented tire like this makes pedaling a little tedious at times.

Meanwhile, I assumed the cyclocross gearing (46/36 in the front rings, 12-27 in the rear) would be a little under geared on pavement, especially on downhill sections. But it actually wound up being spot on for the tires. In other words, since the tires never really wanted to spin up, my gears never got spun out.

Our test steed performed admirably on extended stretches of pavement, but shod with mixed-terrain tires, it predictably required a bit more pedaling effort than a standard-issue road bike. 

On The Trail
To be clear, I've ridden 'cross bikes on mountain bike trails before. But those particular trails were relatively smooth and non-technical, with only the occasional rock or root to navigate. One simply needed to pick clean lines around obstacles and pedal onward.

'Cross bikes are totally fun and capable on smooth sections of singletrack, like this one. 

As it turned out, the John Muir trail is much more rocky and rooty than I realized. What I'm saying is that obstacles you don't really notice on a mountain bike are VERY noticeable on skinny-ish 32mm tires. I wasn't two minutes in before it became very apparent that a pinch flat (or worse) bent rim awaited at every turn.

To exacerbate the problem, a layer of fallen leaves hid a lot of the rocks and roots, forcing me to ride even more carefully.

From a gearing perspective, a 36-front/27-rear low gear would be a little tough for long, technical climbs (like you have out west), but for Kettle's steep-but-short climbs and switchbacks, it was totally fine.

The trail was greasy and off-camber in a few spots, but the tires did a surprisingly good job of sticking, especially at more than double the pressure you'd generally run on dirt. 

On rockier sections of trail, aggressive riding can result in pinch flats and bent rims. Safely navigating sections like these on a 'cross bike was more tedious than fun.

Ultimately, the trail was certainly "rideable," but none of it was fun. It essentially entailed going really slow, carefully picking around rocks and gingerly hopping over roots. And since I had to ride so methodically through downhill sections I'd normally bomb, my hands got pretty tired manhandling the relatively weak cantilever brakes.

So, the first chance I got, I transferred to an easier loop (which still had its fair share of rocky sections) and made my way back to the trail head.

On The Faux 'Cross Course
Not surprisingly, where the bike came alive (and I had the most fun) was when I treated the beginner's section as a mock cyclocross course by riding some "hot laps" as hard a I could.

As mentioned earlier, the beginner mountain bike course was a grass path mowed through a section of pine trees. It featured lots of tight, twisty corners and even some baby logs (spaced in sets of three, oddly similar to 'cross barriers).

Not surprisingly, the 'cross bike was loads of fun on the tight, twisty, grass curves of John Muir's beginner trail, which essentially replicates a mini cyclocross course.

There's not much to say here, expect that the bike felt very much at home in these conditions, and the X'Plor MSO rode pretty much the same as a set of "filetread" 'cross tires.

In Conclusion
The ride back home consisted of 22 miles grinding straight into a headwind. This gave me plenty of time to think about the day's experience and the answer to the hypothetical question I posed to myself.

Can one bike do it all? Yes, especially in the hands of a highly skilled rider (like those Road Bike Party dudes or that Vittorio Brumotti guy).

But for a regular rider I like me, nothing puts a smile on my face like shredding a flowy section of trail on a well-sorted out mountain bike, or attacking a smooth section of tarmac on an ultra-efficient road bike (preferably in a pack of fast, experienced riders). Trying to achieve those sensations on a "do it all, mixed-terrain" bike fell a little flat for me. It was like something was missing, like at no time was I ever on the right bike. Most importantly, I didn't quite feel that buzz I usually get after a great ride.

No matter what bike you ride, it can take you to places with great views.

None of these words are meant to discourage others from replicating this little experiment on their own roads and trails, or from people seeking out the growing selection of excellently-designed mixed-terrain bikes now available. And for their intended purpose (exploring unpaved back roads and double track) there's nothing better.

Which I guess is the answer to the question: One bike can do practically all things adequately, and one or two things spectacularly. Provided the bike(s) you choose excel at the types of riding you love, it's all good. 

About the Author

Brett Ratner ( began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.


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Comment by JT on December 27, 2015 at 2:50pm
Recently on CX bikes, rode brown, white, orange and 1/3 of purple loops. I was on 34psi tubulars & my son on clinchers @ 38 (both Specialized Terra Pro). Had a great time over 2, 90 min sessions. Next time I'll go higher pressure on tubulars to better protect rims (truing up now).
Comment by Brett Ratner on November 14, 2015 at 10:25am

Thank you for the comment, David! Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise. I think it was a good exercise, if nothing else, than to justify my mountain bike purchase :-)

I'd think a "gravel" bike with 40mm tires would have done a little better on the trail, and come a lot closer to the "do it all" idea, without giving up much (if anything) on the road....but still wouldn't have come close to my mountain bike in terms of trail prowess.

Comment by David Altenburg on November 12, 2015 at 7:09pm

I've been wondering about this very thing. Specifically, riding a cyclocross bike on the John Muir trails, which never seem all that technical on a mountain bike. Thanks for doing this experiment.

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