There I was, fresh from finishing my third 62-mile Barry-Roubaix Gravel Road Race. Thoughts were primarily focused on sore quads and the stark realization that I REALLY need to spend more time training on hills. My mind eventually drifted, however, and I started pondering this whole "gravel grinding" thing, and “gravel bikes” in general.
It seems (based on my observations) that lots of serious bike riders, racers, and industry members bristle at the terms “gravel bike” and "gravel grinding."
This aversion exists even as more and more bike manufacturers add gravel-specific bikes to their product lineup, and tire manufacturers work to develop new options for gravel-friendly rubber. Thousands of riders, meanwhile, participate in the larger gravel races like Barry, Dirty Kanza, Almanzo 100, Hilly Billy Roubaix, Southern Cross, and the many excellent rides put on by Axletree. New gravel events are constantly popping up too.
There’s been a fair amount of ink and internet chatter dedicated to the subject of gravel bikes, riding and racing too. Is it a fad? Is it actually fun? Why is it fun? Do gravel bikes even make sense or are they a cleverly-marketed dumb idea? And what is gravel racing, exactly?
Chicago's Mike Hemme leading the pack of elite racers at Barry-Roubaix. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
To the uninitiated, gravel racing takes place on rural roads, which primarily are dirt and gravel. To spice things up, the route might occasionally take you through a river crossing, on a rutted-out double track farm road, and even occasionally over some single track trail. But for the most part (at least at the races I've done), you're mostly chugging away through rolling farmland.
The inclusion of rutted-out double track adds technical challenge to many gravel events. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
Since it's indeed a road race, there's a hard-charging peloton at the front. And if you have the legs and the nerve to ride wheel-to-wheel and elbow-to-elbow with minimal traction at speeds that sometimes exceed 30 miles per hour, you can make short work of 100 kilometers. If you get spit off the back (or just want to ride at your own pace), it's you and your thoughts and the wind for the next several hours.
You make a lot better time working as a group. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
Up until the industry started making gravel-specific whips, cyclocross bikes (which generally allow for 700x32c tires) and hardtail mountain bikes have been the primary options for gravel.
I can’t claim to know why an increasing number of people enjoy riding and racing on gravel. One possibility is that since we don't have cobblestone roads like they do in France and Belgium (but LOTS of gravel), it's a way we Americans can host our own versions of the fabled spring classics like Paris Roubaix and Tour of Flanders.
But my real suspicion is that people are drawn to gravel bikes and the concept of gravel rides because they take us back to a much simpler (and in some ways, happier) time. Specifically, I’m referring to the late ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s, when everyone rode mountain bikes.
When I was growing up, I was only aware of two types of bikes: 10-speeds and BMX. Kids rode BMX and adults rode 10-speeds. If you were a racer, you rode a 10-speed with the shifters on the downtube.
One time, a really cool 4th-grade teacher at our school showed us a magazine photo of an early-generation Specialized Stumpjumper. So, technically, I knew about mountain bikes as early as 1980. But, while awesome, to me they were simply BMX bikes for big people.
Anyway, BMX bikes were great for riding on dirt, but a bit tedious if you had to go any sort of distance. 10-speeds were much faster, but for the most part limited you to pavement and crushed limestone paths.
When mountain bikes really went mainstream in the mid-to-late 1980s, however, everything changed. Here was a bike that could do anything we wanted. It was plenty fast to ride on the street, but really in its element when things got dirty. It could take all sorts of abuse, and it was pretty versatile too. If you wanted it to be zippier on pavement, you’d throw some slicks on it. If you wanted more utility, it was certain to have eyelets for a rear rack.
As such, everyone I knew had a mountain bike and that was the only bike they had. We rode them to class, to work, down stairs, over curbs, on trails, on bike paths, in snow, and on dirt and gravel roads. I’d see messengers in Chicago on them. I’d see bikes racks full of them (with the quick release seats removed, of course). They weren’t mountain bikes to us. They were simply bikes.
Most people I saw around town seemed to have Specialized Hard Rocks and Rock Hoppers, Trek 850s, 930s, and 8000-series, or GT Timberlines and Outposts. A local bike shop in my college town was carrying those Grant Petersen-designed Bridgestones. If you were really cool, you had a Stumpjumper. And, at least to me, the holy grail of bikes was a Klein Attitude.
The forks were rigid, the brakes were cantilever, the bars were flat, and the wheels were 26 inches.
As mountain bikes grew in popularity, I’d venture to guess our counterparts in those days bristled at the term “mountain bike” the way we may cringe at the term “gravel bike.”
If they did, I can’t say that I blame them. For example, I have thousands of “mountain bike” trail miles under my belt, and very few of those miles happened on actual mountains. Perhaps “trail bike” or “all-terrain bike” or “off road bike” would have been less sexy from a marketing perspective, but more appropriate.
Fast forward 25 or so years, and our bike choices are almost endless by comparison, but in some ways our situation as cyclists is the same. What I mean is that we’ve grown to lack the “Swiss Army Knife” bike that our old mountain bikes used to be.
The practice of adding drop bars, rigid forks, and skinnier tires to hardtail mountain bike frames could have been one of the catalysts for the creation of gravel bikes. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
Many of today’s road bikes are laser focused on speed and in some respects not terribly practical for general riding. Today’s mountain bikes, meanwhile, have become incredibly specific in their purposes.
You have downhill bikes. You have enduro bikes. You have freeride bikes. You have dirt jump bikes. You have bikes with 160mm of front and rear suspension travel, dual piston hydraulic disc brakes and dropper seatposts.
This ain’t a bad thing, mind you. Most of the trails I rode in the early ‘90s were basically bridle paths (complete with logs the horseback riders would passive aggressively lay across the trail). To be honest, many of those trails weren’t a lot more challenging to ride than pavement. It was like going for a hike in the woods on your bike. Therefore, a rigid fork, steel-framed hardtail with not-that-awesome braking was more than up to the task.
Trail building since that time has been risen to an art form, and bike design needed to meet the demands of these new, more technically challenging trails. So for the rider with the requisite skills and the cajones, today’s wildly-spec’d bikes make perfect sense. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is watch a clip from Red Bull Rampage, Crankworx, or a World Cup Downhill race.
But what about riders who have no desire to tackle gap jumps, North Shore skinnies and 6-foot drops? What if someone doesn’t need a bike with more suspension tech than a Ducati. Or what if someone doesn’t feel like loading their bike into a car and driving several hours to a trailhead? What if he or she just wants get out and explore? What if someone just wants to ride a bike?
Gravel riding is oftentimes a solitary endeavor. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
Enter the gravel bike. Without going into a crazy amount of detail, a gravel bike is more or less a cyclocross bike with room to accommodate up to 700x40mm tires. A slightly revised frame geometry, meanwhile, is intended to add stability and comfort at the slight expense of quick steering and pedal/ground clearance. Practically all gravel bikes feature disc brakes, which (combined with the larger-volume tires) come in really handy when you are exploring a bit of twisty, rocky and rooty singletrack. Among the growing number of excellent offerings are the Salsa Warbird, Raleigh Tamland, Niner RLT 9, Moots Routt 45, Seven Evergreen, and the Breadwinner B-Road. To me, they’re a natural progression of the mountain bikes we rode back in the day. More importantly, gravel rides and races are merely the tip of the iceberg of the things they can do...
Feel like a group ride to the new brewery across the state line? Sure.
Wanna shred some light singletrack trail? Check.
Planning to hit the Saturday morning training ride with the road bike crowd? Throw some skinny tires on there and you can prolly hang.
Need to ride it to work? Toss your stuff in a backpack and start pedaling.
Try your hand in the local cyclocross series? A gravel bike is plenty good to get your feet wet (make that muddy).
If the gravel bike’s versatility and “can do” attitude isn't enough for you, companies like Revelate Designs, Bike Bag Dude, Bedrock Bags, not to mention the locally-owned LovestarBicycleBags make “bikepacking” accessories. Provided you can travel light, gravel bikes can be your companion on an unsupported tour. Best of all, when the pavements ends, you can keep going.
Anyway, I’ve been shamefully late to the party when it comes to this whole gravel grinding thing. But now that I’ve gotten to know it better, I gotta say I’m ok with it. And silly name or no, if a gravel bike can take me back to the days I did practically everything on one bike, it's alright by me.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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. His goals for 2015 are to complete the Lumberjack 100 mountain bike race as well as a 600 kilometer brevet.