I like the term Gravel Bike. There I said it. It has a certain elegance to it. But like the term Mountain Bike its not very descriptive of the bikes intended purpose. Show of hands. How many of you in New England have ridden your "mountain bike" on a mountain? Ok let's narrow it down. How many of you within 30 miles of Boston have ridden your "mountain bike" on a mountain? No Blue Hill doesn't count. Its a HILL....My normal every day "mountain bike" ride if accurately portrayed would be called woods riding, or maybe trail biking. If we were to be really honest it might be called root surfing and rock smashing. Get where I am headed with this? No one and I mean no one wants to ride on actual gravel. No way. Gravel is what you find on the side of train tracks. It is horrible to ride on. We ride on dirt. Dirt roads are a blast to ride on. And you certainly don't need a specific bike to ride on dirt roads. The first bikes were ridden on crappy dirt roads. So this is not a new thing by any means. But how we ride and why we ride has changed. And its not marketing driven. Its just not. Its a natural progression for certain riders looking for adventure or another type of way to have fun. Oops there is that word. Fun. People get crazy when you say that word.
I guess two decades of relying on racing to promote the sports growth has made people a bit antsy when they hear cycling described as fun. I know its serious business. Its not really. It is supposed to be fun. And fun is the main reason why gravel riding, adventure riding, gravel racing have blown up. If you have been riding any bike for any period of time you have taken what ever your preferred bike is on some dirt or the less traveled path and explored around. If you are like a lot of us these little explorations began to take up more and more of your ride time. And then you were hooked. I always say cyclocross is the Gateway Drug. And I believe that. Cross is so accessible. And once you try it you are hooked. Some get hooked on the racing or camaraderie others on the costumes and beer hand ups. Either way most people end up wanting to ride a lot of dirt before and after cross season. Cross racers do a lot of woods riding as training in the late summer and fall. Cross racers tend to want to extend their season and try mountain biking. I don't think its any coincidence that both mountain biking and gravel riding are experiencing growth right now. Ok so we can all agree adventure riding or what ever we want to call it is great fun. But why? I think its so much fun because like cross ten years ago it comes in many shapes and sizes.
There are as many different types of dirt road rides as you can imagine. Some are true gravel races. I am not sure that is my cup of tea to be honest. I can barely stand sitting in the sun for very long. Grinding along for miles on a gravel road in full sun holds about as much fun to me as a Russian slap fight. But for some it can be just the challenge they are looking for. I like real mixed terrain. I like singletrack. I like some stuff that scares me a bit. And I like bomber 50 mph descents. I am even finding some joy in climbing. See its like a disease without any cure. The rides that have always inspired me have been The Grasshopper Adventure series, Three Peaks, and our very own Ronde de Rosey. I love these rides for lots of reasons. One of the things I love the most is how wide open it is. No one cares what you are wearing. Road culture is almost non-existent. All shapes and sizes are welcome. No one is going to call you fat. Or skinny. Because NO ONE cares. Everyone is so stoked to see each other and ride some crazy ass route that they have way more on their mind than if Joe from accounting is at 5% body fat and is wearing a matching kit and aero helmet. People show up with barcon shifters and racks. Gasp everyone has saddle bags and frame pumps. Steel frames are everywhere.
Again I love that everyone brings what ever bike to the party that they want. Some may work better than others but it doesn't really matter. Steel touring bikes are just as great a choice as carbon fiber road bikes. Assuming the carbon fiber road bike can fit 25s. Which is a good segue to something that has been on my mind. I have been wanting to write a post about gravel bikes and gravel riding for a while. Its been percolating. Many twitter fights have ensued. Some of those twitter fights have inspired and shaped my thinking about how I would write the post. But at the end of the day I don't really care. I don't feel the need to convince anyone about the validity of gravel bikes or gravel rides. Its like what Pineapple Bob once said about cyclocross "Love it and leave it alone." I feel that way about gravel. Love it and join the party or go race an office park crit. I won't judge your lifestyle choice to be a crit racer don't judge my choice to want to seek out adventure with a legion of like minded souls. Gravel bikes themselves are amazing. And valid. Do you need one? No. From my perspective the ONLY bike you need is an All Roads. Again back to P-Bob. I had so many amazing conversations with him. Most around Bridgestone and how they developed bike designs. Both P-Bob and Bridgestone championed the "do everything bike" It was part CX bike, part touring bike and part dirt bombing machine. Sound familiar?
I like the term All Roads because it encompasses more what the bike is about. Granted a trail isn't really a road but to some it is. An All Road can eliminate three bikes. Easily. With 28s it is a great road bike, with 33s it is a fantastic cross bike, and with 40s it becomes a monster cross that is very close to a 29er. So when people say to me do I need a gravel bike I honestly would answer yes. If you only can afford or have one bike this would be the type of bike I would choose. But the naysayers will say you can't race on it and its not a mountain bike. No one said its a race bike. How much racing do you do? How much riding do you do? I can't think of a more valid bike out there right now. But let's compare it to the bike I love the most. The cyclocross bike. The modern cyclocross bike is a race machine. Over the past ten years the designs have morfed from touring bikes to pure bred race machines. Aggressive, stiff and twitchy for quick accelerations and turning. They make very exciting trail bikes! Having a chance to ride an All Roads the past six months the differences between the two bikes has become so clear. I call my All Roads the Fear Eraser for a reason. I always have ridden fairly well in the woods on my CX bike.
I wouldn't call myself a great bike handler by any means but I get the job done. I ride a lot in the woods on a CX bike so I can handle most that the trail throws at me. But over the past couple of years I have had some fairly epic crashes on the CX bike in the woods. Maybe its just pushing too hard or playing roulette with file treads but I have been pretty roughed up. I would never blame the bike. But the first thing I noticed as I got more and more woods time on the All Roads was the lack of crashing. And not being afraid. There are component reasons for this. Hydro disc brakes actually stop. I know that may seem surprising. Cantilevers do not stop or even control speed in a way that for me is safe in the woods or on a dirt road going 45 mph. Now some can make that work for them. I can't. And I have kids and a wife who need me with a brain that functions. Or at least functions on the level of the usual full auto ADD that is the #CBL. So the first huge advantage is disc brakes. The Shimano Hydros work as well or better than XT mountain disc brakes. True story. The next advantage is tire size. Being able to pair 40 mm high volume like the WTB Nano 40c or Clement XPLOR MSO with disc brakes opens up so many possibilities. Add disc brakes and fat tires with a stable front end, standard trail, low BB and long wheel base and you have one confidence inspiring bike that is purpose built for adventure riding.
Designing a purpose built bike makes sense. Yes you can do these rides on a road bike with widish tires or a cross bike. But neither of those is ideal. The typical scenario on these rides, especially the ones that are true adventure rides like the Rasputitsa, Ronde de Rosey, Raid Rockingham or Diverged ride is seeing road riders on the side of the road with multiple flats or broken bikes. Granted bad luck can happen to anyone. But if you hit a baby head rock at 25 mph with a 25 mm tire you are going to probably flat. Or dent a rim. Or break a spoke. I won't name names but a certain rider had at least 4 flats at the Rasputitsa on his road bike in the first 15 miles. He had so many tubes around his neck he looked like a Vintage photo from the Tour de France Smokers. Cross bike would be the next choice. Not bad. I have used a CX bike for years. The biggest draw back is brakes. At least with the road bike you have brakes designed to stop you at a high speed. Cantilever brakes are made for racing cross. News flash cross racers don't use their brakes while racing. If you want to go fast you stay off the brakes. Going to mini Vs can be ok. The braking gets better but the tire clearance sucks. You get a lot of brake rub and they are finicky. Lots of CX bikes have disc now so ok that certainly would be an upgrade. But a CX bike isn't very stable at 40 mph bombing down a dirt road with frost heaves and ruts. I had an epiphany at the Raid. Roger had stopped yelling at me before the descents. Usually he gets pissed because I bomb down some dirt track on the cusp of control laughing like a maniac. But at Raid on the All Roads I was going 10 mph faster but was in complete control. The bike was soooo stable and soaked up so much of the rough road. That was when it hit me. You don't need a gravel bike but they sure are nice.