Making Sense of Gravel Biking

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I suspect that the collection of memes now gravitating around the generic term “Gravel Biking’ are as nebulous and contestable as those collecting around that other ‘new’ dimension of e-biking.  

As with most concepts emanating from humans, what we end up with by way of a definition (of anything) is kind of an exercise in the survival of the fittest set of memes that are collectively the least offensive to the most number of people, at the end of the day, and all days thereafter.

It’s all about context and the context here is the ‘world view’ of the beholder. There are a bunch of ideas underpinning this ‘world view’ thing. That can get anything from a touch difficult through to pathologically difficult – academically philosophical; so I will put the disc brakes on any further travel down that particular path; mainly because any attempt to get philosophical usually causes the vast majority of readers to suddenly feel the need for iPhone consulting (usually while crossing a road or driving a car…). Suffice it to say that if world view/mental model/hermeneutic circling/ego identity self-validation interests you, I recommend enrolment in a university philosophy degree (but not at the University of New England, which is  rubbish…)

Anyway… 

The thing that most people overlook when seeking opinions on things is that, well, everything they turn up is actually just that: opinions. And opinions are shaped by the vast collection of biases, prejudices and limited (always limited) perceptions of individuals who are more than keen to push their own views enroute to self-validation.

This is the essence of critical thinking. They (the education bureaucracy and its coal face practitioners) should teach more of that at school. But that might cause the young and impressionable to develop ideas of their own that might, gasp, be in contradiction to the views of the ruling public service mantras in charge (which are collectively described as the wisdom of the Politically Correct).  

So let’s try to apply critical thinking to this game we have come to describe as gravel biking.  

For starters, gravel biking is, actually, the oldest ‘discipline’ of cycling there is. Back in the 1860’s or there about, gravel biking is what people did on bicycles because there were only gravel roads. Apart from racing penny farthings around Paris back in the good old days, bike racing back then was cyclo-cross and cyclo-cross bikes were and are what most intelligent people wanted to ride or race on gravel, dirt and maliciously unmaintained roads like those around where I live in the New England Tablelands.

We rural folk have been living on and near gravel roads from rural settlement days right through to today. I live on a sheep station and there is only one sealed road out to the nearest town. In the other direction, we have, literally, endless gravel roads. Real one-car-a-day remote gravel roads that go anywhere from high mountains down to the sea, through National Parks and State Forests, through to places where you’d go to witness duelling banjos being played on verandahs (which, come to think of it, is only 5km down the road from where I live….) 

I’ve been riding bicycles on these roads for 35 years. It’s only in the past few years that I have come to understand that all this is called gravel biking and that I am a gravel biker. Which must kind of mean that I ride gravel bikes when I am doing this gravel biking thing (which I’d hitherto just called cycling…).

Let’s get one thing out in the air and all clarified. Riding a mountain bike on gravel roads (as opposed to trails and assorted ‘bush bashing’) is a total misery. Too heavy, too BIG, too cumbersome, too much overkill. Mountain Biking on gravel roads is like paddling a cruise liner up a creek rather than a canoe. For starters, most mountain bikes weigh at least 11kg plus, which is 3kg too much, at the very least. While fat 2 inch plus tyres are great riding up a mountain track, riding 2 inch plus tyres on a gravel road is looking for a fight. You are fighting your fat wheels all the way when you take a MTB on a long gravel road ride. Yes, I do realise that not all mountain bikes are fat and cumbersome when the going gets fast (as it does on a gravel road as opposed to single track, by and large). A good Cross Country racing hard tail is a reasonable compromise. But, you are still stuck with flat bars and flat bars have only one hand position. Drop bike bars give at least four hand positions to spread the pain around (and gravel roading does cause pain, when you do a lot of it). Plus, the steeper frame geometry of a road bike-like design is going to give a faster, more nimble ride on a good gravel road than any slack angled mountain bike could ever provide. (Context Alert: I am a roadie by way of background as must be, by now, obvious). 

For 30 of my 35 years of gravel road biking, I’ve been using cycle-cross bikes. I still do, to a degree. 

So what is the difference between a cyclo-cross bike and a gravel bike? Not a huge amount, but different enough for the difference to be real. A cyclo-cross bike is, by definition, a design constrained by the UCI (because cyclo-cross racing is governed by the UCI and as for road racing and UCI controlled mountain biking, the UCI dictates what is and is not allowed for the bikes people race in UCI controlled races). One thing that the UCI mandates for cyclo-cross bikes is tyre width, which can’t exceed 33mm (on 700c rims). Many cyclo-cross bikes, therefore, are designed to take up to 33mm tyres and nothing much more. Cyclo-cross bikes are also pretty steep in terms of frame angles (73degrees head and seat tube angles are pretty common – much as for road bikes). Cyclo-cross frames are designed around high ground clearances (higher than for road bikes and even higher than many mountain bikes). Cyclo-cross frames are designed around fast steering (rather than the long trail Harley Davidson-like cruiser geometry of mountain bikes… which is great for stability on untracked trails, but not for the road – which is kind of why I sold my Harley Davidson in favour of a Ducati but that’s a different story). 

Which all implies that this thing we now call a gravel bike is a bike that can accommodate tyres of at least 40mm, is still pretty upright in terms of geometry (but slacker than a road bike), most definitely has drop bars, still has a road bike like stem, is high but not as high as a cross bike, and steers something like a road endurance bike on the gravel (slower than a road bike but faster than a mountain bike). Note that I have not mentioned suspension here. 

Suspension basically defines a mountain bike. Mountain bikes are all about suspension. Almost no road bikes have suspension (except the Specialzed Roubaix and the Pinarello Dogma FS). I am not talking about rubber/elastomer suspension like they use on all those strange ‘endurance bikes’ like the Trek Domane, the Specialized Diverge and the Giant Defy et al. The new Roubaix and the FS have actual springs…

And it’s here that we are getting to the actual core of the design brief that defines a gravel bike. Suspension is unnecessary and, indeed, reduces the efficiency, speed, tractability and even joy of riding a gravel bike on a good gravel road. I will repeat the most relevant bit of that last attempt at definition: a GOOD gravel road. A good gravel road is a fast gravel road. As in a good gravel road is pretty smooth, without ‘too many’ pot holes, corrugations and rocks. Where I live, a good gravel road happens from day zero through to about six months after a good grade by the local council. After which that gravel road becomes a corrugated nightmare on a bike without suspension. If you can imagine a graph of cycling bliss you get from riding a gravel bike vs a mountain bike on an unsealed road, there is a point where those curves cross over. From day 0 through six months after a proper grade, gravel bikes are the way to go, By the time you get to 1.5 years after a good grading, mountain bikes are what you need if you are still intent on surviving a ride (or at least your wrists are so intent). 

But, and now we get to the real nitty gritty, from about 8 months after a good road grading through to that 1.5 year point, a gravel bike with suspension out front is the bike to ride; a touch heavier and a bit more cumbersome than a pure unsuspended gravel bike and quite a bit less cumbersome and way lighter than most mountain bikes. Yes, I am calling it here. There IS a new update on gravel biking that has arrived and is ready for attention. Gravel bikes with gravel bike specific front suspension are a thing and are indeed, the very best thing for the vast majority of the gravel roads we tend to get these days (which means roads that are generically neglected by local bogan councils intent more on financing local car parks and Mayorial Robes than trinkets like road maintenance for us rural folk). 

So far, there are not that many front suspended gravel bikes out there. The first seriously integrated design was the Lauf True Grit. Which we Australians have to buy over the internet from Iceland where that company sits, because there are no dealers here. More specifically, the Lauf Grit started out as just the leaf sprung fork that defines the Lauf True Grit bike. And I have that Lauf Grit fork on the front of my 3T Exploro. It woks brilliantly. With that fork on that bike, I have a Council-neglect proof gravel bike – provided said Council can be persuaded to re-grade our roads before two years between grades, after which, even the Lauf is not enough. I understand that Fox has a gravel biking specific fork out too, but it is way heavier than the Grit and comes with the stiction issues of the hydraulic fork design. What you need for suspension on gravel roads is NO stiction (zero delay or instant responsiveness to the relatively small but constant bumps that define gravel roads). 

Are you getting the picture here that, really, gravel biking is a very dynamic thing? Unlike road riding, where roads tend to remain largely the same in terms of surface irregularity over time, and mountain biking where trails are always different (except, maybe, on bike park flow trails). More than anything else, a gravel bike is a bike that must be designed to accommodate road surfaces that are always more challenging than sealed roads and that degrade faster than local councils ever recognise. One good rain session and you have a whole new road to ride, probably for the worse. And, come a good drought, you end up with roads made of rocks. Loose, coarse, rocks. The challenge for gravel bike makers is a design that delivers compliance and speed over road surfaces that are vastly more variable than you would ever get from sealed roads, and those irregular gravel roads change (for the worse) faster than sealed roads. Which means that the one bike has to cover more abuse than most road bikes, and even cyclo-cross bikes can accommodate.

There is a point, however, when the distinction between gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes becomes very, very unsubtle. This is the point where all those rebadged enduro bikes (with elastomer bits here and flexi seat posts) are shown to be the product of marketing rather than engineering. There is a point where real designers have contributed real, genuine innovation to make gravel bikes distinct. When your favourite gravel roads hit 1.5 years plus out from a grade, or are decimated by floods and drought, or all three as has been the case around here, what do you ride? A cyclo-cross derived gravel bike will start to fail in terms of insulating you from the horrors of a truly bad road. Do you start to ride your suspended mountain bike at that point? No. Enter the genius of Gerard Vroomen, the engineer behind the 3T Exploro and Open gravel bike brands. Here’s where the true gravel bike comes into play: the ability to fit 650b fat wheels for when roads get really rough. When the luxury of last year’s grade has well and truly disappeared, and Council’s ignore all requests and threats to grade again, it’s time to swap out your 700c rims for 650b’s shod with 2 inch plus tyres pumped to 30psi or less. Here you can still get all those geometry benefits from your gravel bike combined with the greater compliance of mountain bike wheels. Yes, fat tyres are harder and slower to push on a gravel road than their 40mm 700c counterparts, but when roads are bad, fatter tyres are better than giving up or breaking your wrists. The capacity to swap 700c rims for 650b’s is not new, having some heritage in the touring bike domain, but it is a feature that needs to be engineered into a bike frame from the concept stage. Vroomen’s solution was to build in a dropped chain stay to accommodate the wider rubber while not compromising that same bike’s capacity to run faster, more nimble 700c rims shod with cyclo-cross derived tyres. The dropped stay gravel bike is a thing of astounding versatility. It will take you out into the territory of truely appalling roads. As you get when your local council prioritises its own payroll over the delivery of services to remote rural communities like ours. It’s at this point when gravel bikes really have become a thing. A genuine thing that’s different by design rather than by marketing fluff.  

It needs to be said, though, that these dropped stay gravel bikes are expensive, and hard to get. I have reviewed a bunch of these in a previous post; most are not directly available in Australia and none come from the major established bike makers like Trek, Specialized et al. They are niche. If, however, you do have access to gravel roads in reasonable condition, you don’t need to extend out past a gravel bike with ‘standard’ 700c rims and tyres fatter than 40mm. The choices you have are vastly greater if you are prepared to forgo a bike with a dropped chain stay. 

Given that, I think there is more life left in conventional cyclo-cross bikes when (relatively slightly) re-purposed for gravel biking than anyone is really giving them credit for. 

Yes, in my view, the ultimate gravel bike has been sitting there, largely neglected and overlooked, all this time. Sitting up the back of your local bike shop is probably the very gravel bike you have been looking for before all that re-badged road enduro bike marketing from the likes of Trek, Specialized et al. started confusing us. 

There are some pure cyclo-cross bikes that need only a wider set of tyres to make a seriously great gravel bike. Specifically, I am talking about cyclo-cross bikes that allow for tyres of 40mm plus. The UCI mandated 33mm is not enough for roads that are some six months out from their most recent council grade. Gravel bikes get their suspension from softer, wider tyres. In my experience, 40mm does the trick, and for my 65kg, 50psi is the max pressure I would ever need. I would present the Giant TCX as the ultimate cyclo-cross bike for transition to gravel biking in this regard. The carbon TCX is one of the world’s most underrated bikes. It is a superb frame. It is rigid, but compliant, fast and precise by way of steering and tracking through garbage road conditions and comfortable for seriously long rides. It is a work of art that has remained unchanged for going on five years. I have two. One is kept as a pure cyclo-cross machine with 33mm tyres and the other is riding on 40mm Schwalbe OneG tyres on wide and light 3T Discus Team carbon rims,  compliant 3T carbon Superergo bars, a top end Giant SLR stem and a carbon railed ProLogo seat. Not cheap, but seriously adaptable to most of the assaults dished out by council road maintenance neglect. So, if you are prepared to tinker, a cross bike with a few upgrades for gravel roading might well be the gravel bike of your dreams. And you will have a bike way, way more sensible for the realities of gravel road riding than any of that marketing derived, elastomer/flexi post enduro road bike nonsense being re-purposed at us from the likes of Specialized, Norco, Trek and Cervelo these days. 

My gravel biking has been defined by necessity rather than through following marketing trends. Where I live, gravel biking is what you do to go for a ride. If you want to go fast, have fun, and last for rides longer than, say, 60km, and on roads even further out than six months past the most recent council grade, your needs, like mine, will get rather specific. After 35 years of trial and error, I offer three perfect bikes by way of recommendation: the Open Upper (below), the 3T Exploro (tamed by a Lauf Grit fork) (photo at top of this post) and a gravel road tuned Giant TCX (bottom of post) (any carbon TCX will do, they all have the same frame. Do not consider the aluminium version; it is nasty). Of these three, the Giant TCX has the lowest entry price (starting at $3800 for the base carbon model, up to around $8500 where I ended up), and the 3T the highest priced (pushing $18k with the Lauf Grit fork). The basic Open UP is around $9k and the UPPER is around $16k specced with all the Tune bits I have on mine. The TCX is a bargain in stock spec. Just add fatter tyres and try to ignore the standard 9kg weight. My modified TCX is down to around 7.5kg. The Open UPPER can touch 6.5kg if I choose lighter tyres. Of the three, the TCX is the most versatile. Fit it with road tyres and you have a good road bike. Fit it with 40mm rubber and you have a great gravel bike for gravel roads in good to reasonable condition (up to, say, 6 months post grading). 

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One Year on My S-Works Roubaix

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It’s exactly a year since I purchased my violent orange/yellow Mclaren Special, Specialized S-Works Roubaix: a bike fully dressed in Top-Of-The-Line. On this bike alone, to date, I have ridden 8,625km.

Specialized don’t (just) pitch the Roubaix at feeble old men with bulging stomachs and hairy legs.  But then again, most cyclists I have ever met who do have bulging stomachs and the cycling prowess of an overfed horse with two too many legs, seem to imagine themselves as being in training for the very next Tour de France. Apparently, anyone in training for the Tour de France (and thus, most cyclists who wear lycra without a pro contract) would never contemplate a bike like the Roubaix. Which kind of cuts the market down a bit. Which is a tragedy and a shame. Because, once all the delusional types have self-exited themselves from the market for bikes like the Roubaix, it’s only the pros who do tend to buy bikes such a this. Isn’t that a perversity!. The Roubaix has done very, very well, at Roubaix, but not so much at local club roadie rides… That’s the very essence of what economists describe as a misinformed marketplace. Or as Behavioural Economists would have it, the predominance of behavioural delusions and psychopathy constructing market perceptions out of touch with scientifically interpretable reality. Which, really, is why we have Global Warming and tossers like Donald Trump and his Australian analogue, Barnaby Joyce, empowered to reinforce these negative feedback loops of destruction in the first place. Which also explains how Pinarello can get away with selling so many Dogma F12’s and why so many golfers keep on wearing shirts that are three sizes too small…

It’s also why, probably, the S-Works Roubaix costs so much: too small a market place for too much of a bike. And that Specialized is being a bit greedy. The latest version of the S-Works Roubaix is now at AUD$17,000.  

This bike is a response to a complexity of problems. It’s a solution to a bunch of issues. It’s a bike that addresses the reality of seriously crap roads. 

Bike buyers seem to face a conundrum. They can realise their delusions of podium proficiency through riding the latest Giant Propel or Focus Izalco Max on roads even a goat would avoid, or they can suck it up and match wheels to corrugated realities and ride something more compliant with the roads they ride rather than with the delusions of self-image. I blame Mathew Hayman. 

When Mattie Hayman won Paris Roubaix on a Scott Foil back in 2016, the whole world marketplace for the misuse of aero torture bikes for real world road riding was reinforced and validated. See, you can win Roubaix on an ultra stiff sprinters bike. He did, therefore, so can I. Or so should I, if appearances are to be maintained. All this without considering that Mathew Hayman rode said bike because he was paid to do so seems to escaped the attention of those who ride for image rather than traction.  The fact that Peter Sagan went on to win the same race two years later on the S-Works Roubaix seems to have escaped most folks’ attention. See, Sagan can ride anything! Isn’t he amazing…

Really, non-pros need to stop informing their bike choice though what the pros ride and all go get an Open UPPER instead. There’d be so many more smiling faces in the non-pro peloton via fantasies such as that. 

Anyway, all this fertiliser composts the observation that there are very few S-Works Roubaix’s out there on the roads despite the technical reality that most roads are better suited to a Roubaix than to silly stiff sprinter’s bikes. After enquiring at the two official Specialized dealers covering the region where I live (the New England Region of New South Wales, Australia), for example, I am told that I am, apparently, the only S-Works Roubaix rider in a region the size of a Balkan State… 

Real roadies don’t ride a bike with head tube suspension!  That’s only for blokes with big guts and hairy legs. Despite the fact that I have neither and ride 25,000km per year, which is way more than anyone else around here. And no, that is not pride speaking here. I ride because I can’t stop and by the end of each year, 25k is where it ends up. Or am I trying to project and validate some kind of uber-cool self-objectivity here? Too deep yet? I really don’t mind if you do go out and buy a Basso Diamante and a new set of dentures after the first two sets fall out enroute to your own personal vision of cycling glory.  

I started not to care about this perceptual malaise of keeping up with invalid social constructions of delusion on the day I bought this bike. After a year, if nothing else, my S-Works Roubaix has facilitated me to care even less. Perhaps my Roubaix is all about validating a perverse intent to be a radical or an anarchist. But I don’t think so. Having a stable of top end Italian super bikes all aging away in my shed, I don’t care what anyone thinks about such things, or really, anything at all, these days. Which is kind of why I gave up Facebook and am planning on going full private on Strava from Jan 1 next year. 

Or maybe I should simply abandon all I’ve said above and simply say, when you are forced to ride crap roads, the S-Works Roubaix is the best bike I have ever owned and would probably be so for you too if you had to ride roads like ours to the extent that I do.

So, there you go. If you don’t like thinking deeply, just match your roads with bike compliance/stiffness ratios and buy with sublime technical objectivity. You may well end up with an S-Works Roubaix yourself.   

But I have yet to meet any half-serious cyclist who informs decision making with any kind of demonstrable objectivity. That’s the problem!

We are all unguided missiles in perpetual search of self-validation.  If you are sure that the identity you are trying to self-validate is true and correct against some kind of objective metric, go forth and inform your decisions in accordance with the constructions of your delusions. Because there is no objectivity out there. All identities are self-constructions around delusions. Go reference contemporary philosophy (I recommend a jolly read of Hans Georg Gadamer as a good starting point but that’s a seriously subjective choice in a universe of subjective possibilities…). Or become a Buddhist. 

All you have to do, in the face of philosophical conundrums like this, is to accept that your decision processes are made on top of philosophical oceans of usually unconsidered complexity. Know, simply, that there are infinite realties out there, mostly in conflict with each other and that your own is merely a figment of your imagination subject to the push and shove you open yourself up to whenever you interact with other humans and their own constructions. When you are confronted by n+1, think of where you are going to ride first rather than be guided by what your inner mirror is trying to tell you. 

We philosophically-bent academics call this reflexivity. Or critical thinking. It’s free to do but painful to apply. I have a theory. Most S-Works Roubaix riders out there will probably be happy little Buddhas all really, seriously enjoying their ride… Are you? 

Hence my singular conclusion after 25,000km of riding this year: if your wrists hurt from riding too much on crap roads, do yourself a favour. Go forth and buy the first S-Works Roubaix you can find. You can still win Roubaix. And survive to ride another year. The Roubaix is one fine bike. 

eBikes and related disorders

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In the beginning, there was the bicycle (or velocipede, to be precise – think modern day kid’s balance bike and make it adult size). Then someone bolted an engine on a bicycle and thence came motorcycles. Then some deranged psychopath decided to add a few wheels and the world became blighted by cars. But the bicycle persists and the motorcycle persists and praise be to that. And the car remains as an instrument for maiming, polluting, killing and the empowerment of hate against all those who more sensibly stopped at two wheels rather than four. 

And now, some marketers looking for cash decided to rewind to 1860 and reinvent the motorised bicycle all over again. Only this time using battery powered engines rather than fuel. Which may or may not seem like progress when your good-for-90 minutes battery runs out wile its fuel-driven engine ancestor could be topped up to run all day, and night, and day and …

eBikes. Everyone is confused. Especially me. Given an origin from the dimension of supply (marketing-driven) rather than demand, the usual routine of understanding market needs to define design and purpose is upside down. Who are they for? How do they fit in? What needs to they address? None of this has really been sorted because eBike market evolution is working in reverse: now it’s first deliver the product and then engineer the demand.  Apparently, we’ll eventually figure it out. That’s the exact same plan that’s worked for the fashion industry from day one.  eBikes are the conception of fashion and have evolved accordingly. A bit like how disk brakes happened for road cycling. Only much more in your face.

I’ve heard this approach to product development as ‘throwing it at the wall to see what sticks’. Or, possibly more cynically, throwing these things at a spinning fan to spread it all around (if you know what I mean). Only economists insist on demand driven supply these days. What would they know!

Well, here’s how I see this particular splatter pattern. 

Drawing from that astounding predilection of newbie cyclists everywhere to go for basic mountain bike designs for urban paved road use, most eBikes are usually dressed to look like mountain bikes rather than road bikes (I am ignoring fleet rental eBikes that are an entirely different story).  That’s probably because most non-cyclist folk contemplating a furtive entry into cycling seem to think mountain bikes are, somehow, safer and more comfortable than road bikes. Maybe they reckon road bikes are too elite or geared for lycra clad pros. Who knows. Newbies rarely seek reasoned advice. Which all explains the insanity of all those ultra heavy mountain bike plodders plonking around on precisely the wrong kind of bike. So, I am guessing that the marketing fraternity decided to pitch their early generation eBikes with knobby tyres and suspension, aiming at those very same misguided faux mountain biking newbies. That these eBikes would have zero capacity to ride off road via their toxic heaviness and a rather poignant lack of charging points out there on the trails… would never become a problem as few would ever venture past the tar. 

But now we have eBike road bikes showing up in the stores. Better late than never but never would be better…  eBike road bikes are a new dimension of dementia. Or more specifically, range anxiety on overdrive. The notion of a road bike is a bike you can ride on long and glorious forays into far away places, across continents, up stunning mountain passes and at speeds that must challenge those with empathy to the politically corrected nanny state.  What exactly is the point of an eBike road bike that can only go for 90 minutes?! Most roadies haven’t even warmed up by then… Three hours should be the minimum charge before we could even conceive of a use for these things for anything but the daily commute or walking the dog and kids down some local cycling path. And if walking the dog is the intent, why do you need a $20k Pinarello eBike (which, to be objective, would probably be heavier and less gainly than any of that same brand’s low end road bikes at one tenth that price). 

Irrespective of eBike design, I still can’t understand why anyone would want one in the first place. If you want to travel faster than a road cyclist, go grab a learner legal motorcycle or even a new eMotorbike or electric moped. What’s the appeal of these latest European icon brand eBikes? Who would want such a thing? Maybe, perhaps, the idea is a bit like a walking frame analogue for disabled roadies trying to relive their Colnago glory days? That I could understand. But why would anyone with an aspiration to fitness or fitness driven road cycling pleasure ever want to be deprived of the empowerment we roadies feel when we self-power ourselves up a hill or go for the thrill of a sprint? The road bike is the mechanical connection between our muscles and the road. Why would anyone want to disconnect the perfections of that connection via the insult of a battery powered engine?  

Let’s start at the core. What is it about serious, dedicated, cycling that makes so many of us want to identify as ‘cyclists’? I am not talking about bicycle riders who ride the occasional bike path or ride because their driver’s licence has been taken away. I am talking about cycling that is life defining for the cyclist involved. I am talking about cycling like blood, like air. Something you can’t possibly live without. I am one of that kind of cyclist. If you are too, you might, perhaps, agree with what I am about to suggest. We cycle because it’s hard. Our cycling reward comes from extending ourselves. A good ride can sustain a dose of smug insufferable superiority to keep us animated for days thereafter. A good riding schedule is the answer to the quackery of modern commercial medicine, of faith healers in stethoscopes and health perverted by symbiosis with your health care card.

Serious cycling is freedom. Freedom from the kind of inanity or delusions that encourage people to subscribe to gymnasium memberships; where those subscribers feed on the meme that health can be purchased and the very act of turning up in leotards to a body odour reeking room to be shouted at by twenty something instructors with way, way too much self-love, is, somehow, an investment in a fit future and membership of the ‘beautiful people’ set for ever more. Ahmen.

Serious cycling fitness is the gold standard: low body fat (7 per cent, let’s quantify a few claims here…), lean, low resting heart rate, flexible, fast up hills. That’s fitness. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the colour of your gymnasium leotards, or how you appear in your mind’s eye as opposed to how you still appear to everyone else…

Runners can play this game too. Real runners (not necessarily footpath plodders). 7 per cent fat runners. Lean, fit. And lean and fit because of LOTS of work. And nothing to do with how much you might have spent along the way or to which health club is the trendiest in town. 

The main point in here is that genuine fitness is earned. Not purchased. Genuine (as opposed to imagined) fitness is a product outside the market place of money and FaceBook memes.

And here is another point. The entry barriers to Genuine Fitness are not expressed in money, social alignments, or wishful thinking. Anyone can join up and become genuinely fit. 120 kg wheezing fatties can transform into 70kg athletes in under a year. Oldies, younguns, and even insufferable twenty-somethings can all make the grade. You don’t even have to leave your house if you have a treadmill and an indoor bike at hand. All you need is to put the sustained effort in and ignore the garbage of excuses (ohhh, I don’t have the time!, I am too fat to even start, or worst of all, my doctor advises against it). You can’t delude yourself about your progress when you consult your bathroom scales. 

Yes, real fitness involves intense effort. Heart pumping, sweat drenched throat burning effort. A meek twaddle on a treadmill is not effort. A five minute spin on a K Mart indoor bike is not effort. The effort has to, at least eventually, approach to dimension of gut busting. No pain no gain. There is no short cut and money is not going to bring it on quicker or easier. If you have more excuses than willpower, you are not going to make the grade. Tragic but unavoidable fact. You can wail and moan about those excuses all you like, and you might even believe them; most people are extraordinarily committed to the delusions of their excuses. I particularly enjoy the one about lack of time when said time constrained persons are inclined to spend a few hours in the pub wallowing in beer or traffic jammed in Macdonalds drive through queues –  or otherwise engaged in what could otherwise be prime exercise time.

It’s a harsh reality out there in the land of genuine fitness. Not everyone has what it takes, no matter how much they might spend in money or delusion. Remember, you can measure fitness with a pair of fat callipers and a set of bathroom scales. Turnouts at coffee shops straddling the latest Pinarello don’t measure anything. (If you are bulging in your Rapha lycra, you are bulging in your Rapha lycra; sorry, you can’t force the rest of us to see you the way you might prefer to see yourself…). 

Having said all that, it is always going to remain a fact that one of the most active markets on the planet is the merchandising of fitness; or at least, the merchandising of a sense of fitness. The fitness industry is mega. And very much along the lines of a black hole. It’s amazing how powerful are the attractors devised to suck people in. My favourites are the Apple Watch, gymnasium memberships and the ‘sports food industry’. 

The current ‘health watch’ craze is endlessly amusing. Apple, for instance, is overtly selling a relationship between ‘health’ and wearing it’s ‘health monitoring’ watch. The link most people are making these days is that the very act of wearing such a ‘device’ is an investment in health. Somehow, the one thing is positively correlated with the other. We spend hours perusing and parading our readouts. Comparing resting heart rates, measuring our sleep, and being beeped to stand up now and again. Standing up has become an act of competitive posturing for the boardroom and barista bars.  We wear fitbits to feel fit. The reality is actually perverted. What you might be measuring is, actually, how unfit you are; a good look in the mirror is all you really need and you can save $759!. If you are a six foot male kitted out in size 38 jeans, you are not fit. You are fat. I don’t care if you think all that bulk is muscle. You don’t need an Apple Watch or a Fitbit to quantify what should actually be obvious. And if you are actually fit, why do you need a watch to tell you so? Perhaps the main argument used in this merchandising charade is that all this monitoring puts us on a path towards fitness; it’s a friendly helping hand, an electronic fitness instructor. Garbage. It’s all about the dodgy presumption that spending money on fitness is correlated to fitness outcomes. Nope. Exercise and diet are the only pathways that matter. All you need are bathroom scales and a mirror. And a pleasant surprise when you downgrade from size 38 to 32 when shopping for your next pair of jeans. 

While the fitness watch thing is funny, the ‘sports food’ scene is most definitely not. That one is as insidious as telephone scammers or self-proclaimed religious cults. How, exactly, does swilling a litre bottle of sugar juice (aka Red Bull and the like) have any kind of positive correlation with health? How exactly does eating a bowl of sugar lollies dressed up as ‘ironman food’ have anything to do with becoming the image of the muscle junkie on the box? Here’s the nasty inescapable fact: if you are overweight, you do not need to eat so called sports supplements like jells and ’sport bars’. The aim is to redress the imbalance between energy in and energy out, expressed in terms of you being too fat. The only people who actually need supplements like jells are athletes who have no real fat reserves, who take these things mid-ride to avoid passing out. Is chocolate milk a health food? Are you stupid or what!

Which brings me back to eBikes…

There’s one other marker of my personal fitness that I hold dear (other than what the bathroom scales tell me) it’s my ability to drop other cyclists on hills. There, I said it. And I don’t feel bad… I don’t get a buzz from making others feel bad, I get a buzz from making me feel good. Hills, for cyclists, are where it’s at in terms of the place where push turns to shove, were rewards return to effort, where day in day out riding manifests in some kind of demonstrable, deliverable, result. And these days, you don’t have to drop someone in person, you can do it all on Strava! You can be all clandestine and still play the game. If you are concerned about excess ego gratification and the evils that might entail, you can pursue others on the hills and keep your KOM efforts private. Not that many of us do. But you can, if you are going for the Buddhist priesthood or suchlike…

You can pretend all you like. You can pretend it does not matter, that it’s the joy of company that matters most, or the rewards are in the scenery, or that just being out there on the road enjoying the moment is all. Garbage. Every cyclist loves to drop other cyclists on hills. Every cyclist hates being dropped on the hills. End of. It’s just a cyclist thing. It’s not an exercise in nastiness or about an urge to humiliate. Blitzing a hill is a certifiable cycling reward. If you don’t agree, you have probably never left the cycling path. It’s because of our predilection for taking hills that the good folk at Strava invented Strava. 

As we fade out into wobbly ageing cyclists, our hill taking might fade with time. That’s OK. We can remember, we can recall the glories of the past to spice our cycling into our nineties and beyond. We are an accumulation of our memories. If we once had that KOM, it’s still a little bit ours even after a pro takes a holiday into your local hills to take it all away. The investment in glory lingers on… 

But eBikes have arrived and the game is about to change. Inevitably, the merchants of the marketplace that seeks to convert effort into a product available for sale are now selling technology to take our hills without the guts or glory of effort. Now we have motorbikes fashioned on bicycles powering fatties up hills faster than the best of us can pedal. It’s perverted. It’s sick. It’s blasphemy in church. 

I can deal with all this by simply discarding all eBikers as motorcyclists and, therefore, as outsiders to the core game of cycling (which is dropping other cyclists on hills). I can do this. If I really try. But there is a difference between being overtaken on your favourite hill by someone on a BMW F800GS and some fat guy passing you on a bloody eBike. Especially when that fatty on the eBike is overtaking you with the pure, overt intent to rub your nose in his (always a ‘his’) prowess as an electronically assisted athlete enroute to taking your KOM away. If this were not the case, any decent eBiker would hold back, out of respect. Respect for the fact that you are intent on a climb on the merits of hard won unassisted prowess to which said eBiker can only ever aspire. Otherwise, said eBiker would be on a real bike and investing in the equation of effort equals reward rather than trying to dump on that mathematical reality through the shortcut of his eBike perversion diversion. 

I don’t mind eBikes on the flats, especially on longer rides because it’s always funny when they run out of battery and then have to ride their monstrously overweight toys back home again. Perversely, that is probably the only way an eBiker can become a real cyclist; riding one of those things without power is a really great workout!

eBikes remind us how motorcycles came into being. I love motorcycling. I love adventure motorcycling way out further than I generally travel on any of my gravel bikes. I love riding a giant American cruiser on highways that would hold little interest for cycling (being able to overtake caravans on a motorbike is a whole bunch more fun than being overtaken by those turkeys when you are on a bicycle).  Motorbikes don’t pretend to be bicycles. They never have. One is an evolution of the other. Not a replacement or an improvement. Motorcycles were developed to extend the concept of cycling, not to replace it.

eBikes are walking frames for folk who are otherwise unable to ride. That’s great. eBikers can do positive things like annoy car drivers just like we cyclists can. All good. eBikes are great for casual cyclist commutes. That’s great too. Keep them on cycling paths and off the road! They are great for the oldies or the partially disabled to enjoy mountain bike trails. That’s great. No eBiker is likely to be planning on entering a World Cup cross country event any time soon. More power to them. Battery limitations are likely to keep the eBikers out of our hair when we cyclists are going long. That’s the way the world balances things out. All good. 

But show some respect and don’t try to drop a real cyclist on a hill. That will only showcase you as a certifiable dork.

The Astounding Open UPPER – Part 1

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Welcome to the World of Post-Road Cycling

It’s taken the cycling world a century to re-invent the good old days. Back in the day, when cars were preceded by some bloke carrying a red flag, if you wanted to go for a bicycle (or, technically, a velocipede) ride, you rode on a gravel road. Back in the day, before suspension, gears and Strava, gravel adventure happened whenever you went for a ride. Then some idiot figured out how to mass produce cars and the world went mad. The flags disappeared and the roads were taken over by tin box Jurassic swamp juice burning barge carts. The boundaries of society extended as far as people could drive (or travel by train or ship). Only the wild places remained for walkers, horse riders and adventurous cyclocross-tourists.  Wild places were generally defined as those places beyond the reach of the family car; which is pretty much why those wild places managed to survive. (Isn’t it fascinating that all the best  places are places where cars don’t go…).

And so the world of gravel roading bicycles bravely persisted into the era of the automobile. Cycling niched off into camps of track, road, touring and cyclocross. Until a bunch on the Californian fringe decided to play around with fatter tyres to (re-)invent the mountain bike. Which, of course, had existed for going on a hundred years in Europe as the cyclocross bike. With suspension, mountain bikes took on a distinctive identity all of their own. Riders started to venture beyond the road, and even the track – in search of places unspoiled by cars and to escape the road rage that happens whenever people spend too long in a tin box.

All the while, those intrepid cyclocross-tourists persisted with their often outrageous explorations of deserts, cross continental adventures and circumnavigations of the world.  These proto-gravel grinders were generally unencumbered by the compulsive conservatism of roadies and revolutionary enthusiasms of the emergent mountain biking scene. They’d adapt and evolve what they needed to keep their wheels turning and their adventures rolling. Have a read of Bret Harris’s Tour de Oz for a rip roaring tale of Arthur Richardson’s 18,507 kilometre ride around Australia – in 1899 – to acclimatise yourself to the real deal of gravel riding before gravel riding became a Thing in around 2015…

And so the world turned. Like global warming, the roads became more and more defined by cars and less and less comfortable for riders of bikes.  The simmering dimension of escape down roads less travelled fringed ever more into the more obscure outer reaches of gravel and dirt. Until, nowadays, even our tragically neglected rural dirt roads are now trendy! The flags of this revolutionary surge finally woke the interests of the bicycle industry marketing machine. As the 21st  century progressed into its teens, the Next Big Thing became more and more self-evident: The age of the Gravel Bike had arrived. Again. 

To distinguish this latest off roading re-invention from the glory days before cars, or from what we rural roadies have always had to do just to negotiate our neglected local gravel roads,  this latest Gravel Biking era might be described as ‘Post Road Cycling’. 

Fuelled by an ever inflating barrage car driver rage and hate, cyclist attention to riding where cars aren’t has the attraction of a black hole. Despite critical mass rides of protest, political lobbying and superficially rhetorical leash tightening of car driver excesses via essentially worthless new road rules and related policy patch-ups (like ‘improved cycling infrastructure – where the only infrastructure that really works is the de-licencing of moronic car driver psychopaths), the simple seemingly unconstrainable intolerance of car drivers to anything or anyone who might dare impede their progress and psychopathic delusions of self-entitlement is the core culture that is making cycling a misery on public roads. And no one, anywhere, is doing a thing about that neurotic culture of entitlement that car drivers seem to wrap around themselves whenever they drive on roads they regard as theirs and theirs alone. Even a stray cow on the road gets politer treatment than a cyclist who might get in their way. (I get far more bogan horn blasting than cows do on the roads where I ride).  New road rules aimed at sharing the road only increase the rage and, like Australia’s new minimum overtaking distance rules, only tend to encourage even greater escapades of an intentional terrorism of revenge. Especially from trolls towing caravans and embryonic-brained provisional drivers fuelled more by testosterone than petroleum. Ah, it’s hell out there for we cyclists and getting worse every day! It’s no wonder that the great promised land of gravel road or post-road escape has started to draw and collect the entire bicycle industry’s attention these past few years. It’s now obvious to anyone and everyone that the world is now ready for Gravel Biking  as the Next Big Thing. Who can blame bicycle industry marketers from spinning the highest cadence of all time over this new promised land of escape and freedom (if you can, somehow, ignore the insidious predations of the 4WD set). We have lift off. Gravel Biking is here, planted and launched. The realities of rural road adventure has a new paint job (we rural cynics might suggest that all this is a ploy perpetrated by our local councils through which to avoid spending money on road maintenance…). Welcome back to 1880, only now with disc brakes, carbon frames, Garmins with maps, the Lauf Grit suspension fork and Schwalbe G One tyres – and the deliverance of Gerard Vroomen’s Gravel Plus vision via the wondrous 3T Exploro and the Open UP! 

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What is a Gravel Bike?

It is probably time to attempt a formal definition and specification for the Gravel Bike. No one else seems to be doing it so maybe I will give it a go given I have been gravel biking for over 30 years… (a bit hard not to when I live on an effectively infinite network of rural gravel roads starting, literally, from my front door).  But even before defining what a Gravel Bike might be, it would be sensible to describe what at least I mean by a gravel road. Yes, a gravel road is a road that’s not sealed with tar. Gravel roads are roads that are, more or less, maintained by some kind of publicly funded government authority. Road maintenance is generally via running a grader over the road periodically. And it is at this point that the whole show becomes vastly more complicated! The definition of maintenance is kind of idiosyncratic, at the very least. While there are standards, at least where I live, with which Local Councils have to conform, it’s the practical implementation of maintenance that is a bit erratic. My local gravel road network gets a genuine grade once every two years. So those roads range in condition from pretty fast and wondrous a week or so after the grade through to ‘up-yours tell-someone-who-cares’ by the end of year 2. On any single ride, a gravel road can cover a range of conditions that is far wider than anything you will ever see on a sealed road network. Some bits will be fast and well constructed, some others will resemble a bed of loose gravel scree, some will present so much sand you’d think you were riding on a beach, and in some places, the pot holes, corrugations, land slides, erosion gullies and wheel trenches turn the road into something like a black diamond downhill mountain bike run. And all this in the one 70km ride! A Gravel Bike is a bike designed, intentionally, to handle all these gravel road challenges while also keeping things together when your ride is interrupted by a bit of sealed road or maybe a bit of cross country MTB trail in between. The idea is that a genuine Gravel Bike will handle the lot.  And more. The point of such a bike is to allow the rider to ride routes that look good on a map without worrying about frame damage, tyres deconstructing and damage to your anatomy. When the sealed road ends, you don’t have to backtrack or call for help. 

The next point to make is that gravel roads are a feature of some areas more than others. I can’t think of any challenging gravel road networks in any Big City I have visited. But in rural places like where I live, I don’t actually have access to consistent sealed road networks. Gravel roads are our dominant roads. That’s a pretty common picture in Australia, Africa, many South American countries, Canada and the USA. Gravel roads are less common in Europe. However, most people live in the big cities, so most demand for bicycles will be from people who don’t have access to or may not have much desire to ride on gravel roads. In other words, in most places, genuine gravel bikes are likely to always be something on the fringe of the marketplace. Which probably explains why so many of the big bike makers are pitching rebadged or lightly detuned endurance road bikes as gravel bikes. These casual use ‘soft’ gravel bikes are probably all that the majority of the market place wants or needs. Such bikes are just fine for a ride that is mostly on sealed roads with a bit of gravel road in between. But for rural areas, where gravel roads become the dominant road type for any circuit or adventure route of choice, you will be needing a bike that is designed for heavy duty gravel road use – which means that your bike should suit the broad spectrum of road conditions you’ll find on your intended ride. A re-badged road endurance bike or a cyclocross bike will turn a serious gravel road ride into an exercise of misery as ride distance increases.  

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The Open UP: The Hard Core Icon of Gravel Bikes

As far as I can tell, most of the contemporary conversation around Gravel Bikes started with the launch of the Open UP (Unbeaten Path). Open is a hyper small brand established in 2012  by Gerard Vroomen (ex Cervelo designer and co-owner)  and Andy Kessler (ex CEO of BMC). Both Vroomen and Kessler were intent on reinventing themselves away from Big Corporate bike making back to grass roots Small-Is-Beautiful boutique adventure biking – along the lines of a tree change for two of the world’s leading bicycle industry luminaries. The intention for the Open UP was to build a bike that both Vroomen and Kessler actually wanted to ride rather than build a bike to cash in on current market trends (the Open UP happened before Gravel Biking became a Thing because Gravel Biking became a Thing after the Open UP started the craze!).  So, two bike guru’s created a bike from passion rather than as a response to the compulsions of the marketplace. Two boys building a toy for joy! It’s great to be able to build your own sandpit before the accountants and HR professionals start dictating the most cost effective sand to use and the right kind of protective safety gear while playing in it.  The original Open UP (now called the ‘Classic’) came out in 2016 in both orange and, yes, brown. It created a storm in the cycling press. Everyone loved it! This was something new. Something different. Something really, really good. Something that filled a need we never knew we had but then realised had been a need we’d had all along. Perversely, I have to wonder if this might actually be marketing genius on the next level…

So what is definitively unique about the Open UP? If this is the world’s first official Gravel Bike, what makes it a Gravel Bike rather than a bike like the bikes from everyone else? And, yes, I do realise that the Open UP is, actually, not really as unique as I am implying. Nearly everything about it has appeared before (it is not the world’s first dropped stay bike, and is certainly not the first bike pitched for the gravel – as I have said, touring bikes have been around from day one). But, I am not sure that all those predecessors ever managed to slip quite so definitively over the event horizon of marketing fury that Gravel Biking has since become. Perhaps Open are just the first to survive the journey to then sell the tale…

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The definitive Thing about the Open UP is its dropped chain stay enabled capacity to wear two different wheel sets as a blitzkrieg on the notion of versatility and multi-road compatibility. Vroomen and Kessler call this Gravel Plus. Simply, when you stick a two inch knobby tyre on a 27.5 inch rim, you get a wheel with the same diameter (or near enough) as a 40mm tyre on a road bike 700c rim (aka, 29er wheel).  All you need to run either of these wheel options is enough frame space to handle rubber ranging from around 28mm through to 53mm. The dropped drive side chain stay of the Open UP gives us this room while keeping those stays short enough to provide the lively, road bike like speed we need on good gravel roads. In other words, the Gravel Plus design delivers the capacity for road bike speed and response through compliance across a spectrum of road types beyond the reach that either conventional road bikes or mountain bikes can cover. This is not a hybrid bike kind of deal. Hybrids are, by definition, a bundle of compromises that constrain them from meeting the ultimate performance of either parent. The Open UP redefines the space rather than attempts to meet the space between those original markers of road vs. trail. If you consider a gravel road to be distinct and different to either a sealed road or mountain bike single track, the Open UP wraps that gravel space by more than 100 per cent. This is not a road bike you can use in the dirt. Or is it a mountain bike you can use on the road. It is both of those and vastly more. It is a bike designed for ALL the ideosyncracies of gravel roads (bumps, rocks, loose surfaces, mud, cow pats, snakes, water, bits of 4WD’s littered across the road, traction challenged ascents and corrugated death trap descents, and post-rain hard packed smoother than hot mix tar super fast dirt) that can extend its use equation right into sealed road space (you can race this thing in the Paris Roubaix) and way, way, further than you might think, into the domain of singletrack or even mild downhill (if you are game). Gravel Plus is versatility re-defined. Gravel Plus is one bike to rule them all. The Open UP is a definitive statement of Gravel Plus. 

Open does not exactly offer a wildly diverse model range. There are only two different bikes with a few model specification variants to fill out the range. Open offers a hard tail mountain bike (called the One+) and the UP. The UP comes in three variants: the original ‘Classic’, the ‘new’ UP (with an updated fork and disc brake calliper mounts) and the new for 2017/18 UPPER (which comes in matt black, or, for variety, unpainted so you can paint it yourself). Bravely, the UP is available as a frame only, so you will need to build up the bike yourself or buy it through a dealer with some idea of what fits best for you and the place you live. In Australia, the distributor is EightyOne Spices.  Interestingly, EightyOne Spices is also the Australian Syntace and Tune distributor (stunningly lovely German uber light exotic parts like the solid carbon Tune saddle from the latter and the zero offset flex seat post from the former) and is located right near that other Gravel Adventure icon of Australian Bike Biz: Curve Cycling. Now Curve makes some seriously desirable gravel touring/bikepacking bikes themselves, such as the Curve GMX (a titanium bike used for many an Australian desert crossing and gravel bike race). Curve also makes some astonishingly magnificent wheelsets! The Open UPPER was born to take the Curve carbon wide rims that are centre stage on my own bike. More on that in Part 2 of this feature. Irrespectively of where you live or what bike parts are locally available, Open is prolific in its advice for how to best set up their frames. And UP owners are just as prolific in sharing their builds on the Open website. So there are no real inner circle mysteries attached to how best to dress your new frame. While less convenient than buying a fully specified bike off the shelf, the Open approach opens a seriously ‘open’ set of possibilities for personalising your ride. 

Some Other Serious Gravel Bikes

GeIMG 0152rard Vroomen seems to have stored up some excess energy since selling up his stake in Cervelo. Apart from Open, he more recently purchased a stake in the venerable if not iconic Italian bicycle parts maker 3T. One of his first adventures with 3T was to design a bike that was even more unique than the Open UP. The 3T Exploro was released to the world in 2016. First cousin to the Open UP, the Exploro is an obvious genetic relative, while being very distinctive though its world’s first aero gravel bike frame profile. The Exploro shares an almost identical geometry to the UP and includes the UP’s dropped chain stay. The Exploro is also explicitly another manifestation of Gravel Plus. If it were not for the 12mm front axle of the UPPER and the 15mm front axle of the Exploro, anyone who buys both these Uber gravel bikes could share the same set of wheels. But, alas, such is life… I can most emphatically recommend both the UP/UPPER and the Exploro to any serious gravel biking enthusiast! The Exploro is for going fast and, as such, is all about speed. The Open UP/UPPER is more multi-purpose and cosmopolitan in its anatomy. It’s not an aero bike for a start. And considerably more compliant than the 3T. Succinctly, the 3T Exploro is a gravel bike with leanings towards the road bike domain and the Open UP is a gravel bike with a more obvious heritage on the mountain biking side. Vroomen’s pair are the Everest and K2 of the gravel bike domain. They are, pretty much, also the Everest and K2 in terms of price (think around AUD$16,500 a piece if you include two wheel sets with each). I have both and have yet to feel that I have doubled up. Both are as different from each other as they are the same. When I want an aggressively fast ride on roads that have been recently graded, I take the Exploro. When I just want a meandering ride without a fixed agenda, I take the Open UPPER. I could live with just one or the other but life is better with both! My review of the 3t Exploro was posted to this blog a few months ago. 

Now we have the high altitude of gravel bikes sorted, a brief synopsis of the field might help to complete a picture of this wonderful new cycling landscape. Just about every bike company out there is trying to palm off re-badged cyclocross and endurance road machines as gravel bikes to join in the party; some more seriously considered than others.  Giant, for example, has just released the TCX Advanced SX which is apparently an intentional ‘recalibration’ of its wonderful TCX Advanced SL cyclocross bike towards the wider application of gravel road riding. This is a rather explicit recognition that conventional cyclocross bikes are a bit limited when it comes to taking on the diversity of gravel roads. I have a TCX and love it, but I have not seen the new SX yet, so can’t comment. But this is an interesting admission from the world’s biggest bicycle maker about what’s needed to enter the gravel road market. Specialized has attempted something similar with its Diverge, a gravel road version of the Roubaix. Trek has just released its Checkpoint; a gravel road focused bike which, like the Specalized and Giant offerings, cannot accommodate 27.5 inch wheel sets . Other cyclocross-leaning bikes to consider include the Niner RLT (Road Less Travelled), now available as a relatively high end carbon variant after the original aluminium offering. Santa Cruz offers its Stigmata, which seems to be much more of a cyclocross bike than anything else, and Norco offers its Search (also in aluminium and carbon variants) – again, these Norco’s look and ride like slightly de-tuned cyclocross machines. While any of these bikes can ride a gravel road, they rarely offer the comprehensive versatility needed to cover all the multitude of surfaces and conditions making up the breathtakingly diverse array of challenges that gravel roads represent. In my view, if a bike is not Gravel Plus, it is not a Gravel Bike. Ride anything you want on a gravel road. You will probably survive the ride. It’s all cycling. But if you want to live the full Gravel Road experience, get a gravel bike that was designed for the gravel by engineers rather than one that is pitched and re-painted for the purpose by someone’s marketing department. 

In the category of serious, ‘full spectrum’ gravel bikes, the boutique and small makers have the field all to themselves right now. After the Open UP and the 3T Exploro, I’d put the Curve GXR high on my list of genuine Gravel Bikes. This titanium bike takes, naturally, either 27.5 or 700c/29er wheels. It has a serious track record in both the bike packing and gravel grinder racing fraternity. This is a versatile bike, especially if a frame made out of titanium appeals.

Next, the Merit Plus carbon Gravel Bike looks seriously interesting. It does rather look a LOT like the 3T Exploro… Merit is a ‘small garage brand’ located in the Czech Republic. 

New for 2018 is the South African Momsen R355 Gravel Plus Gravel Bike. Momsen is a mountain bike maker with an increasing international presence. This new engineered-for-gravel bike should be very interesting, especially considering the rather similar gravel road landscape that Australia and South Africa share. Again, I’d love this one in my shed. Or, really, the new shed I’d be needing if I could somehow justify adding even one more bike to my collection… But I do admire the very explicit advocacy this Momsen is making to the Gravel Plus cause. And the, again, rather uncanny similarity of the R355’s frame to the squared off tube set on the 3T Exploro. This one looks like another serious contender for the Gravel Grinder Racing scene (as in Dirty Kanza et al.).

And finally, just to contradict my precondition for Gravel Plus, I simply cannot ignore one bike that has me utterly intrigued: the Lauf True Grit. Made by the Iceland-based company who gave us the Lauf Grit leaf spring gravel road specific suspension fork (soon to be a fixture on my 3T Exploro), the True Grit comes standard with that amazing fork. Which rather suggests that, while without the capacity to host fatter tyred 27.5inch wheels, its gravel road specific suspension might actually restore the full spectrum of gravel road compliance that a genuine gravel road bike should exhibit. I wish I could test this theory out. But, despite trying, I can’t get one of these bikes in Australia. It took me four months just to source the fork (and that came via 3T). I have a space in my shed all ready for this bike. Maybe a trip to Iceland to pick one up is in order…

There are others out there. Enter any bike store and you will soon see ‘Gravel Bike’ plastered over the most amazingly eclectic array of bikes. I am sure there will be a Pinarello and a Colnago gravel bike any time soon… But, again, beware. It’s seriously easy to repaint and rebadge otherwise failed enduro road bikes as offerings into the  ‘adventure bikes’ – ‘gravel bike’ domain. Which is why I most emphatically recommend scrutiny of the genuine articles on offer from Open and 3T (and Merit and Momsen) before contemplating the rest of the landscape. You need a few benchmarks before you can judge anything else that might have floated into this landscape. 

A final qualifier is required. If you are an urban-based rider with limited access to gravel roads or contemplate rides that are in the order of 80 per cent sealed and 20 per cent gravel, any of these re-badged cyclocross or adventure bikes will probably meet your needs for a modicum of versatility. But, it is not necessarily the case that a non-gravel plus machine from Trek-Giant-Specialized et al is going to be cheaper, and will certainly be nowhere near as versatile as a genuinely engineered-for-gravel bike from the likes of the makers I have identified above. Don’t overrate the relative ease of purchase from the big end of town as opposed to spending a little time on-line to explore the more serious options I have identified in this article. I realise that your local bike store is not going to have any of these more serious contenders in stock, or even know they exist (and some will even deny they do). But it’s going to sting when you are out on your new GiantSpecialTrek bike only to be blitzed by an Open UP going twice the speed, with its rider having twice the fun and heading off to places you’d dare not follow. 

 

Beware Ignorant Advice

Just to restate and summarise, a genuine gravel bike is NOT a cyclocross bike. It is also NOT a road bike or a mountain bike. It’s not a hybrid of any or all of the above, either. As with any genuine cycling discipline, a gravel bike is, by definition, a bike designed from scratch to ride on gravel roads. It has geometry that is unique. And, thanks essentially to the design pioneering of Gerard Vroomen and friends, a gravel bike is now generally a bike that should come with two very different sets of wheels. The now default definition of a gravel bike is one that can accommodate both 27.5 inch and 29 inch wheels with tyres aimed at the extremes of gravel road surfaces and everything in between. The technology that enables this versatility of wheels is the dropped drive side chain stay. While Vroomen admits to not inventing this particular feature, he has championed it to perfection on both the gravel bikes he has designed to date: the 3T Exploro and the Open UP (Unbeaten Path). 

For all we gravel roadies who have ridden our roads on cyclocross bikes up to now, riding a genuine gravel bike is a saviour for our wrists, back and teeth. And for all those gravel roadies who rode those rides on mountain bikes, riding a gravel bike on a gravel road instead is like demounting from a Sherman Tank. There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING more miserable than riding a mountain bike long distance on a road. Gravel roads are roads up to the point where even 4WD legends-in-their-own-mind decide to get out and walk. Gravel roads are a misery on a mountain bike. I know this because for going on twenty years, I’ve tried to redress the pains of riding cyclocross bikes on gravel roads through seeking the extra comforts of mountain bikes only to always revert back again as their soft but heavy realities became an even bigger pain. I have five mountain bikes, two cyclocross bikes and two genuine gravel bikes in my stable. My thesis stands. The gravel bike is the bike for a gravel road. The road bike is the bike where tar is a thing and the mountain bike happens where the roads have disappeared. But, I do acknowledge that a good touring bike can pretty well still do it all, more or less (along the lines of something like a Kona or a Curve decked out in bike packing mode). If you don’t need the bags, and even if you do, the gravel bike is king. And just for the sake of completeness, I have tried road bikes with gravel weaponised tyres as a solution for riding gravel roads. I’ve had two Specialized Roubaix’s, including a range-topping S-Works as per the bike that’s won a couple of Paris-Roubaix’s.  Even with Gatorskin tyres, these semi-suspended road bikes are way too nervous and unforgiving for serious gravel riding, even when those gravel roads are in good condition, and certainly when they are not, as most gravel roads usually seem to be.  

I have read and heard the most astoundingly ignorant garbage from bike sales people and biking pundits on the subject of gravel bike choice. The big bike makers are not helping either, with some astoundingly misleading PR drivel through which to re-purpose their old hard tail mountain bike inventory or nasty hybrid rubbish as ‘great for the gravel’. Ask these people if they have competed in the Dirty Kanza or ridden the way-out-back gravel roads of the Barrington Tops, the New England Tablelands or the GravelAide course in South Australia in recent times. I thought not. Ask them about their bike-packing choices. I thought not. Just because it might be shod in Schwalbe One G tyres does not mean it’s a gravel bike. I can stick these tyres on my Giant TCR but that’s not going to make that roadie masterpiece a gravel bike any time soon! My simple advice is to research the places you want to ride and then match the realities of those places to the bikes best designed to ride them. If all you want to do is do ninety per cent tar with the occasional gravel interruption, you probably don’t need a gravel bike. A road bike with robust tyres will probably do. If you want an adventure down roads less travelled, as far from tin box terrorists as you can get, go visit the Open UP website for advice. The Gravel Biking scene is still too new for most bicycle industry ‘experts’ to have caught up yet. And most of the big bike brands have yet to understand the realities of riding serious distances on roads that are locked to the era of the horse and cart. All the best Gravel Biking gear is still being best served from the boutique end of the bicycling marketplace. 

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Twin Peaks

Two humps

There is a place with two wonderfully serious hills, one after the other. Two Hors Categorie peaks. Each is seven km or so in length, and about 10 per cent plus to climb and about the same to descend. They are located in a remote river valley with views to remember.  Both hills wind in a most alpine kind of way via a series of bends all the way up (and down again). Both are set within an uninhabited wilderness: just trees, steep precipices and wildlife; no people and best of all, no cars. There’s one of the world’s most spectacular camping sites (and serious Australian Bass fishing spot) on the approach side and there’s a great little village at the other end. 

These twin hills sit half way along a 250km route from the alpine New England Tablelands town of Armidale to the beach holiday town of South West Rocks. 

I ride this route once a year, as part of the local Tour de Rocks ride along with around 250 other cyclists, 248 of whom seem to insist on overweight mountain bikes as their peculiar weapon of choice.  

You’d think that this ride would be busy with cyclists, every other day of the year.. But there are fewer cyclists than cars on this road. Other than on the day the Tour de Rocks passes through. 

Why? 

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Because the first hill in the middle and the 100km to get to it is all gravel road, The second is sealed as is most of the rest of the 100km to the coast (unless you take a few interesting gravel road diversions along the way).

It’s as though the gravel/sealed road junction at the trough between the two peaks is something of a locked gate, a chasm or a wall. Almost no road cyclists will pass beyond the tar and most mountain bikers start to feel like they’re riding a tractor on the road once the gravel runs out.  

These hills represent something of a double dimension; the combination is a serious challenge to road cyclists on the one hand or the mountain bikers on the other. Neither is at home from one end to the other. The roadies ride the sealed side and return the way they came. The mountain bikers climb the gravel and suffer the tar. The hills are like a junction between two different gauge railway lines. The journey breaks in the middle. 

But the two hills and the two halves of this 250km journey the hills divide add up to a total trip that’s much greater than the sum of its two parts. They become a total journey of transition from rural tablelands, World Heritage Area country to sub tropical coast.  One half without the other is less than half the total deal. One part is black and the other is white (or gravel brown). Black without white would be too much black. Gravel and gravel would just become one long slug in the dirt. To ride from either end and return from the middle would be a totally different ride: one all remote and wild and the other all coastal and tropical. 

To ride the whole route is an adventure. To ride just one half there and back again is just a ride. 

I’ve ridden the whole thing on a mountain bike. Once on a hard tail XX1 KTM and another on a dual suspension XC Scott Spark 900 premium. Both very special bikes and each a chore on the tar. Especially on the long, long head wind-blighted blast of a last leg to the beach. Short of driving a 4WD tractor on the road, I can’t imagine anything worse than riding a mountain bike on the tar. Sit up and beg, all out in the wind with no place but one to rest your hands on the bars. Misery. I’d rather stick gatorskins on my road bike and hope for the best in the dirt. And probably break both my wrists over the bumps, washouts and a death defying 22km scream down the Big Hill Black Diamond dirt road sliding decent that dumps you 900 metres via a goat track embellished with 500 metre unguarded cliffs off to one side.  Fun on a dual suspension bike, hell on a road machine. 

I’ve also ridden the same ride twice on a cyclocross bike (A Giant TCX Advanced SL 0)  and twice on two exotically magnificent gravel bikes (a 3T Exploro LTD and most recently, an Open UPPER).  

Which brings me to the point of this story. 

These twin peaks are two versions of bliss on the right bike or a wall of no return on the wrong bike. Everything is about compromise here. The mountain bike can get you from one end to the other, if you must. The road bike is not going to work unless you are followed by a team support car with ten  spare wheels on its roof and a physio bench in the back. 

The right bike is a gravel bike.

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A gravel bike stitches the two halves of the ride together into the one seamless adventure ride. The twin peaks in the middle become an exclamation point of purposeful bliss. One peak in dirt and the other in tar become a thrill of transition rather than an agonised wall. 

A cyclocross bike is a bit more of a compromise on both halves with nothing particularly comfortable in the middle. A cyclocross bike is a bit like a hack that works ok on the dirt (though is a pain in the wrists and sobering on the Great Descent if you don’t want to be pot holed off the side of a cliff) and works on the tar (but you’ll be dreaming of your road bike once your too upright position starts to hurt). A cyclocross bike is WAY better for this kind of trip than any mountain bike, hard tail or full suss.

These twin peaks define the purpose of a gravel bike. And that purpose is adventure via astounding versatility. My Open UPPER with it’s sweet compliance and pedal stomping stiffness seems to transcend compromise on either the gravel or the tar. Yes a road bike might be faster when the road is well sealed, but you’d only really notice if you were in a race. And once you get to the dirt, your biggest challenge is to weave your way around all those mountain bikers wallowing all over the road like hippos dancing a waltz. 

That’s what gravel road biking is all about. You need to ride a ride like this to know that gravel bikes are not a fad or a marketing ploy. They are more like a wormhole star drive of transcendence between the gravel and the tar. One bike to rule them all. And yes, that KOM over the twin peaks is mine!

Objective Perfection – The Stupendous Greatness of the Giant TCR Advanced SL 0

Note: This post was originally uploaded in 2016. However, all comments remain just as valid for the 2018 TCR Advanced SL 0 rim brake version (the frame is unchanged, the Dura Ace group set has been upgraded by Shimano since, but the TCR has essentially remained unchanged since).  Of course, the Giant Propel has been radically upgraded since this review and the then top of the line Giant TCX Advanced 0 bike has been downgraded in terms of specification via Giant’s latest iterations of that brilliant design. 

P1000286I appreciate Giant’s conundrum over how to market its new 2016 TCR Advanced SL (and all the other bikes descending down that range). It’s a busy market out there with lots of similarly focused and at least equally race pedigreed offerings pitched at serious to enthusiastic road cyclists. They could do what others do and simply pitch a perfect correlation between podium wins and the winning character of the bike. But we canny roadies know that much of that pedigree is related to how furiously each maker sponsors pro-teams to ride their bikes. If you provide bikes to a bunch of teams (like Specialized does), you’re bound to come up with a winner now and then through which to endorse your bike. Colnago and Pinarello certainly flog that line a lot to sell their bikes. A maker might also attempt to go all scientifically objective and measure the qualities of their own bikes over others. Which is what Giant is trying with its new TCR via a new ’stiffness to weight ratio’ comparative test across a range of competitors bikes. Naturally, the TCR comes out on top. But that test, though no doubt fascinating, is not going to convince me to hand over my cash. Bike decision making is always more complicated than simply going for some kind of quantitative score. Actually, bike decision making is a wonderfully deep wallow in subjectivity. I’m always impressed by how many choices are made just on maker’s ‘reputation’ (like Colnago) or even just on appearance alone (it’s stunning to me how many people did NOT choose a Merida Scultura SL because of its eccentric lime green paint scheme…despite the abject brilliance of its engineering design). I am perpetually bemused by folk who proclaim Specialised over all others, despite rarely knowing what those ‘others’ are actually like. Bianchi ’nuts’ are as crazy as they come, in this regard (anything as long as it is in Celeste…). And why, would anyone necessarily choose a Dogma F8 just because Chris Froom is paid to ride one? But they do and the waiting list is at 3 months right now.

I am wondering if there really is any kind of objectivity that can be applied to the choice of one road bike over another. Or is it all a bit more like choosing art? Or is it both art and science with a bit of religion thrown in?

I’d really like to make a big statement about this new 2016 TCR, because it is worth making a statement about. As I don’t think measurement is the answer, I think I’ll couch my review in terms of Zen. Which is a bit different I guess, so I will need a bit of space to explain myself. 

Let’s start with the conclusion. This major 2016 upgrade to the Giant TCR Advanced SL is a big event for pro-tour level road bike tech. This latest TCR is the best yet of that line and is, via the convolutions of the probably eccentric and definitely unusual reasoning outlined below, the best road bike I have ever known and possibly less arguably than you might think, the best road bike ever made. 

It’s very un-zen to explain Zen. As the old Zen precept goes: those who know don’t say and those who say don’t know. All of which neatly avoides the necessity to clearly define the central theme of this review: that the one core characteristic of road cycling that appeals most to me is it’s ‘zen character’. Given the ‘aesthetic obscurantism’ of Zen, I can give myself licence to simply say that, for me, there is something deeply compelling, and very ‘Zen’,  about a machine that works as well as it looks. Which is the old form meets function deal that rather goes missing for so many contraptions these days. Going even deeper, the ‘Zen perfection’ of something like a bicycle happens when you just ‘know’ that a design is right simply from looking it over. This does not happen all that often! Most bikes miss that wonderfully hard to describe mark to the degree that a test ride is required to confirm any convictions to performance you might have assumed. But there are some bikes, some rare bikes, that simply speak the perfection of Zen without the need to prove or test. It’s a ‘yes’ aesthetic. Like I said, these philosophical-aesthetic notions are hard to describe and that is the point. Of the 20 road bikes I have formally tested over the past 20 years, this hammer blow of obvious perfection has only happened to me four times: the first was for my Vitus 979 aluminium racing bike from 1985. The next was for my Wilier Zero.7. And the third was for my Giant TCR Advanced SL from 2012 (the Rabobank team edition). And the fourth was the new TCR.

One aspect of this self-evident bicycle perfection thing is that there can be no kind of engineering compromise in evidence in terms of inferior bike components or any pandering to current trends just for the sake of pandering. Putting it another way, a bike can only reach this peak when it is pretty obvious that no economist or marketer has had any kind of fiddle with the design. Ever. A GREAT bike is a pure statement of engineering perfection. The purity of that statement is a big part of the Zen aesthetic I am talking about. For instance, I reckon that any bike that comes with road disk brakes is going to scream the interference of marketers in a bike’s design. So too is the offer of a top end frame dragged down by cruddy wheels, or other components stripped of performance in order to meet some predetermined lower pricing point. Which is not necessarily to imply that a GREAT bike must be expensive and out of reach. Actually, if a bike can escape the baggage of price point compromise, avoid pandering to ‘marketing trends’ and still come out more affordably than others on the market, that’s a boost to its overall character of ‘the perfection of Zen’. Which also implies that if a bike is offered at an astronomical price (like the Wilier Zero.7 at $16,500!), it really, really needs to deliver on the engineering side to meet the mark. All that Campagnolo Super Record EPS on the Wilier must be seriously, seriously good to justify that price over, say, the similar perfections of a bike like the Giant TCR at slightly less than half the Wilier’s price. You can spend more than you might on the Giant TCR, but it’s unlikely any more expensive bike will be ‘better’. At best, the more expensive bike will be a differently nuanced statement of perfection. Which is luckily the case for bikes like the Wilier Zero.7 or, perhaps, the Colnago C60. 

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There’s another aspect of the Zen character of a machine and living with a machine that adds to the overall picture of perfectionism I am describing here. That’s the dimension of ‘being in total knowing connection’ with both the operation and workings of that machine, as all so wonderfully obscured by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That’s when your deeply realised ‘knowing’ of how a machine operates or works meshes with and supports your ‘riding experience’. When you know the workings of the machine (which is more than simply knowing the basics of bicycle mechanics, but truly understanding how the thing works as opposed to how to repair it), your capacity to experience becoming at one with the machine is enhanced. This is the dimension of the Zen perfection of bicycling that connects most with me. Have you ever seen that tee shirt design that depicts the evolution of man from ape-like to upright-walking-man to man-on-a-bike? That’s what I am talking about. When we ride a momentously GREAT bicycle, we become one with that bike. We are something new and something greater than a person doomed to riding in a car or taking a train or being gassed by fumes and viruses in a ‘plane. 

Not all bicycles offer the prospect of a connection like this. Mountain bikes, for example, don’t do it for me: too many springy bits to disconnect rider from the road. I consider the necessity to read a manual to decipher the workings of modern suspension settings a pretty big fail in terms of necessary man-machine empathy. No, mountain bikes are busy technology tools, that, though great fun to ride, don’t do the Zen thing for me. Many road bikes also don’t do it for me in terms of offering up a real connection to become at one with the machine. A road bike that rattles and squeaks will not do it for me. A bike with brakes that don’t work too well won’t do it either. And a bike with shifters that are imprecise or with buttons deployed in less than ergonomic perfection will insert a layer between the bike and my experience of the ride. For instance, the appalling shifting of the old Dura Ace 7900 mechanical gear train was a blot on the landscape of any bike that groupo afflicted. That would never, ever, do it for me. But more subtly, a bike with an unnecessarily harsh ride is going to remind you that your bike is separated from you via a layer of pain. That’s not good either. And, as a climbing enthusiast, a bike that flexes during out-of-the-saddle climbs is going reduce a ride to a man-versus-machine rather than the man-and-machine-are-one result I am looking for.  

As you can see, there’s a lot involved for a bicycle to be declared as ‘GREAT’ if not to be ‘the BEST’. At least according to the metric of my admittedly eccentric conditions through which that greatness is claimed. In all of this there are the hazy justifications I use to convince myself of the need for yet another bike. Otherwise, I’d just be a ‘collector’ and I can’t see much point in collecting as a point worth the kind of investment these bikes require. After all, collecting bicycles is a vastly dodgy affair when compared to endeavours like collecting art. The depreciation that blights bikes damns bike collecting to the point of insanity. No, there has to be better reasons for collecting more and more bikes. I justify this path as being the search for that enlightenment when all the dimensions of ‘Bike-Zen’ mesh together in a rare but enlightened spark. After all, if we are to explain cycling as meditation on wheels, it’s nice to clear that meditative path via the context of perfection that becoming at one with the bike and, therefore, at one with the experience of the ride that a great bike can support. A great ride via a great bike is the church! This is a vastly more benign religion than declaring some kind of jihad or getting obese on a pew. 

I needed to work through these philosophical notions in order to justify and explain my contention that the new 2016 Giant TCR Advanced SL (the top-of-the-line version) is, quite simply, one of if not the best bikes I have ever ridden. The notion of ‘best’ is all explained in the philosophical notions around the nexus of ‘Zen’. Which, while hard on the brain, is, I think, a more honest and compelling justification for describing something as ‘best’ than simply declaring it so. Or, if you like, the ever so common game of asserting something as being ‘the best’ needs some kind of justification if such claims are to be believed. By justifying myself via philosophical notions, I am making the point that making claims that one bike is better than others or is better than all the rest is indeed a murky, imprecise business. But, after riding my new TCR for over 1,000km in the past two weeks, I invoke all the insights of Zen through which to declare that this new bike is the one that really, really, does it for me. This new bike is IT. It is home. It is a home run. It is the best. I just KNOW it is. I don’t need to measure my claim. It just is. 

P1000284Lets’s start with the notion of ‘being connected with the bike’. We riders are more in control than we could ever be with cars or motorbikes. Sure, there are some cyclists who don’t even attempt puncture repairs, but the point is, the opportunity to take full mechanical control is higher for a bicycle than it is for any modern, computerised car. I never tire of watching all the bits of a bicycle working together as some astoundingly profound exemplar of synchronicity at work. Now that is art! Why should I pay someone to have all the fun of tinkering with my bikes? For me, a bicycle is at the limit of mechanical self-sufficiency; and that is reassuring when I am way out in the backwoods riding roads as unpopulated as the canyons Mars. There’s Zen in there… there’s a beauty in a design that manages to combine mechanical complexity with practical simplicity. Which does not necessarily imply that I wouldn’t enjoy being followed by a team car loaded with spare wheels, food, water and motivation speeches shouted from the open window. It’s just that the freedom from being self-contained and in-control is a tonic counterpoint to otherwise dragging an elaborate support network of commercial services through which to keep your adventures mobile. The road bike sings to control freaks like me.

The Zen-like simplicity of a road bike also tends to have been lost by modern mountain bike designs. I guess there’s a bit of a thrill to be had to mastering the intricacies of dual suspension settings and keeping all those pivots moving about, but to me, all that’s all a baggage that diverts from the pure simplicity of a dedicated road bike ride. Which is why I tend to prefer riding cyclocross bikes than having to ride heavy, overly complex mountain bikes. Which is not to say that I don’t admire the modern mountain bike. With the emphasis on the word ‘modern’. Because, and here is my main point, mountain bikes are the product of a rather more disturbed and frantic heritage than the calmer trajectory of road bikes. The perfections of the road bike were pretty much as well embedded 20 years ago as they are today. My Vitus  979 from 1985 is still on the same page as the latest Giant TCR to which, believe it or not, this review applies. You can’t say that about mountain bikes from 20 years past: nasty, harsh, heavy, disagreeable bogan-like contraptions – they were a veritable punk anti culture bash to the refinements of the road bike. The evolution of the mountain bike has been a shouty, brash exercise of histrionics compared to the quiet, collected, considered trail we roadies have enjoyed from then to now. Consider electronic gear shifting. Mavic started that game way back in the ’80’s. It’s been a slow considered path since. it was the biggest thing to happen since Shimano invented index shifting. With the latter being the progenitor of the former. This has been an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary path. Each iteration along the way was a comprehensible upgrade, rather than an explosion of ‘the next big thing’ that seems to colour mountain bike evolution more along the lines of computer tech than the glorious conservatism of change in the road bike scene (putting aside the mindless pointlessness of road bike disc brakes…) 

I don’t think I have ever ridden a bike that offers such a profound, unfiltered connection between rider and machine as this latest TCR. Along the lines of the preceding model, the new TCR simply disappears when you really start to ride. It becomes a part of you and you become a part of it. One reason for this enhanced connection is the astroundlngly uncluttered character of the TCR. The new bike is pared down to the absolute essentials and those essentials are utterly refined. The ride is sitting right on the balancing point of stiffness and compliance. A bit more in either direction (like the Propel which heads off into a stiffness focus and, say, the Defy which shades down to the domain of compliance), and you would start to notice the bike as an insertion between you and the road. For me, the new TCR’s longer wheel base (over the older model) and its astonishing SLR0 in-house wheels clinch the deal over the old model. And, of course, the integrated seat post is a key engineering feature of this bike and is fundamental to how well it performs.  

There is astonishing  beauty to behold in simplicity. The whole is apparent from the sum of its parts and the parts add up to a whole lot more than anyone would at first guess. Each bit is worthy of a deeper look. The more you look the more you see, all the while while keeping the context of the whole in view. If that does not confuse. Which good design never does. Just about every aspect of the new TCR combines to proclaim a breathtaking statement of simplicity. There is nothing out of place, nothing that is not needed and no single part that does not connect to and enhance every other part on the new TCR Advanced SL. It’s raw carbon and somehow utterly ‘right’ electric blue colour patches is perfect for the overall character of ‘purposeful simplicity’ that is at the core of the Zen aesthetic. But in keeping with the Zen concept of layers of perfection unfolding like a Mandelbrot Set the deeper you look, we can be ever more impressed when we look more deeply into the new TCR’s carbon frame down to the carbon itself. This is Giant’s own T-800 carbon fibre material woven in Giant’s own composite factory. This is the best carbon you can get and it is restricted to this top-of-the-line model TCR. No one does better carbon than this. It’s a stunning frame material that warrants a good look via a magnifying loupe. Lovely stuff.  

All those fiddly fads of market driven design are slow to take hold in the road cycling scene. Just look at how slowly the argument over disc brakes for road cycling is taking to resolve. That’s the way it should be. Don’t add complications to a winning model unless there are very good reasons to do so. Each and every part of a road bike is the product of a process of engineering evolution with a history that way precedes the motorcar. The thing is that road bike design has, by and large, always worked and worked better than almost any other engineering work with which humans have  been involved. The things we add and change are worked through in agonising detail and at the studied pace of cautious scepticism. We all need at least one benchmark of engineering that works at the pace that engineering drives rather than being driven by the vastly more frantic and, often pointless pace of marketing or economic inspiration. It keeps us grounded. The new TCR is grounded like nothing else I have ever seen. 

A road bike is a statement of minimalism; nothing is added that does not add to the ultimate efficiency of the whole. Which kind of explains the reluctance of we road cyclists to accept things like valve caps, reflectors and guards of any kind. There are people out there who endlessly search for the ultimate weight:efficiency ratio for water bottle cages and saddles, and even handlebar tape. (Guilty). To prove the value of this otherwise ineffable design-engineering aesthetic, I need only point out that the more a bicycle maker refines this aesthetic, the higher the price that is charged for the final product; and we cyclists have proven time and time again that we are willing to pay a premium for what, in effect, becomes less and less (at least in terms of weight and clutter). How many car drivers out there could care less about hiding, for example, all the wires that clutter under the hood (have you ever, really looked at a modern car’s wiring loom?). How many roadies would not prefer internal cable routing on their bikes these days? And if this art of paring down and down weren’t real, why is SRAM investing in wireless gear shifters as their next big road bike thing? The art of creatively engineering for pared-down-efficiency rather than pointless complexity is a defining beauty for the road bicycle.

Yes, less is more in the road biking scene. Of the 20 plus road bikes I have ridden over the past few years, none have hit this ‘perfection of minimalism’ better than the new TCR. Giant took a razor to clutter on this bike. If there was an award for the perfection of bicycle design austerity, the TCR would win. Which, if you followed the arguments about the perfections of design simplicity, you’d know this is the ultimate compliment for road bike design. Finding that design point which is the nexus of minimalism and engineering efficiency is the BIG THING these days: from Apple Inc’s agonisings over too many  buttons on iPads to Max Richter’s epic 8 hour Sleep, an exploration in music with almost no notes, the aesthetic splendours of pared down ‘Zen’ deign is at the deep freeze end of Cool. Yes, the new Giant is a masterpiece in purposeful minimalism moulded in deep Cool.

If all this appears to be overly philosophical to you, consider just why it is that you would ever, if not for an at least implicit empathy with notions such as these, be prepared to pay a price premium for a bike sans all the bells and whistles that you might demand for things like cars. I suppose, it might just all boil down to less is more in terms of speed and speed wins races. Whatever floats your boat. I don’t want to be carting an anchor of unnecessary technology around in any boat I ride up my local 12 per cent hills. But try to sell me a car without at least 6 speakers and an on-dash GPS, and auto sensing windscreen wipers and light sensing automatic lights and I will tell you to go away. If I decided to buy a car. Which I won’t. Because that would detract from my budget to buy more bikes. 

All of which brings me to the final dimension of Zen that I would like to discuss. The engineering perfectionism aesthetic of the road bicycle needs to apparent and evident without any kind of recourse to packaging, dressing, pretension or, really, anything else that marketers might determine to matter for their own bottom line. A great bike makes a statement without shouting its own name. The greatness of a bike does not need a name to assert its value. The true cycling connoisseur can detect greatness without the ugly brutality of marketing. No one ever needed to promote Beethoven with TV prime time jingles; the music sells itself. The true cycling connoisseur will ‘know’ the feeling of perfection when a maker crafts a statement of the form-meets-function of engineering perfection. He or she will just know when the mark is hit square on bull’s eye. He or she will just know when nothing more can be added or taken away from a design that has hit the level absolute perfection possible within the context of the nexus of art and science. 

So, I have worked through a couple of thousand words to say now what needs to be said. It is indeed possible for an enterprise like the Giant bicycle company to produce as much of a masterpiece of the bike maker’s art as a company such as Pinarello, Colnago or Wilier. And they have. 

The new 2016 Giant TCR Advanced SL (the top of the range offering in this line) is an unmitigated work of art. On any terms, in any place, at any price. 

I am not just talking through my hat. I have lived with top-end Pinarellos, the esoterically magnificent Wilier Zero.7. I have a Colnago and I have a top-end Trek Madone. And a line-topping Merida (Scultura), a top-end Bianchi Oltre. I have ten top-of-the-line, pro-tour-level road bikes currently in my shed and have sold off many more. Even a Specialised S-Works or two. I am not trying to boast any kind of psychopathic bicycle elitism here. I am only trying to suggest that I am comfortable with making a grand statement like I have. This new Giant TCR is definitively THE best bike I have ever owned. At half the price of the Wilier and the Pinarellos in my shed. 

How do I define ‘best’ in this regard?

P1000294The ride for one. This new Giant has needle-pointed the absolute bulls-eye of frame stiffness and compliance. No other bike I have ever ridden comes as close as this. When a bike misses or does not quite hit that mark, the contest is always compliance verses stiffness. The search is usually for the best compromise. Were compliance wins, comfort overlaps speed. When stiffness wins, we get a rougher ride. Some bikes get close to the perfect balance (where compromise seems to have been completely removed and  both facets win in seemingly impossible equal measure). The Wilier Zero.7 is a close, close performer in this regard. Others, like the Pinarello Dogma and the Giant Propel don’t even seem to bother. Stiffness and speed are all that seem to matter. You don’t need to be any kind of roadie connoisseur to know that both stiffness and compliance are the two most desirable traits in any bike and the talent of a bicycle designer is judged by how well balanced these conflicting traits can be controlled. All set, of course, within the context of minimum bicycle weight. Bicycle weight, stiffness and compliance; choose two. Until now. My M/L Giant TCR weighs in at 6.4kg with Look Blade 2 (Ti spindles) attached. Beat that! Go on. Try. And try that without spending more than AU$8,500. My Wilier was $16,500. 

Photo Above Left shows the new TCR and the Propel, indicating a very coherent design brief for both

There is, of course, more to a bike than stiffness, compliance and weight. Let’s look at a few additional bits of the TCR equation.

The new TCR is one brilliant descender. While some rides like my Wilier and even the Giant Propel can seem a bit highly strung, if not ‘nervous’ when it comes to a flat out descent, this new TCR descends so well that all thoughts of caution with regard to bumps in the road and devious side wind gusts disappear. As for the old TCR Advanced SL, which I still own too, this new bike descends with authority and a degree of stability that is utterly confidence inspiring. You rarely need to feather your brakes. Or think about doing so. 

The new TCR is one brilliant ascender too. This is a climbers bike. There is no flex. None whatsoever. Not in the frame or, importantly, in Giant’s own new included carbon 30mm SLR wheels. Whatever power you might have goes straight to the ground. If you are lean, this lean bike will reward you to a degree approaching the limits of gravity aggravated by the degree of incline.  But it is not a skittersh fragile climb of the kind that characterise so many ultralight climber’s bikes these days (aka the Scott Addict, say). No, that same planted, grounded stability we noticed on furious descents also applies when going up hill. The rider always seems to be a part of this bike rather than sitting on top. The avid climber becomes one with this bike when going up or down hill, not to mention when moving along the flats.

Which brings me to the all important comparison to bikes like Giant’s own Propel: the speed freak’s aero sprinting machine. I love my Propel. It always feels like riding a hot knife when negotiating the hot butter of a head wind flat road ride. Until the first side wind hits those gigantic 55mm ZIPP 404 rims. Or the first set of pot holes that Council workers always seem to so creatively neglect via some kind of plan aimed at converting us to the poverty of driving a car. Surprisingly, the new TCR is almost as quick on the flats as the Propel.  But with considerably more comfort via a vastly less harsh ride. I was thinking the demarcation between the Propel and the TCR (and indeed, the endurance orientated Defy) would be greater than this when riding fast. I never felt such a close match in this regard between the Propel and the old TCR. But the new TCR is even more of a speed machine than its always admired predecessor. Frankly, the Propel now seems rather marginalised to the more specialised end of sprinting and time trials. The TCR does everything well and some things  brilliantly so: namely climbing and descending. The Propel is a great sprinter and serviceable descender. It’s an OK ascender unless you are running for GC. The Propel and the TCR are offered at the exact same price. I suspect that the Propel’s sales are about to fall faster than the new TCR can climb. 

But there is more on offer here by way of becoming the embodiment of ‘ best’.

Giant is now following the lead of Trek and Specialized in in-housing production of more than just the bicycle frame. Like its rivals, Giant is now in the wheel making game. This is no OEM rebranding exercise. Though the new top-of-the-range SLR0 carbon wheels feature DT Swiss hubs, the rest come from Giant’s vat. These rims are the product of an engineering exercise at least as intense as the design of the new bike. Giant has now launched itself from zero to the max with its new wheels. They now sit on most models in the TCR, Propel, Defy and vastly neglected and almost always overlooked (but nevertheless brilliant) TCX (cyclocross) range. This is a serious taking-on of ZIPP et al effort on Giant’s part. I can not judge as I am not comparing like with quite like, but the new Giant SLR0 30mm all carbon clincher wheel set on the TCR Advanced SL are as stiff and compliant as the ZIPP 404’s most definitely aren’t. The ZIPP’s (firecrest 404, not the newer fire strike 404’s) which are or were standard on the Propel flex when out of the saddle efforts are required. On the Propel, the ZIPP’s flex to the point where they cause brake rub unless those brakes are adjusted out a fair way. Not deal killing flex. Just flex that can be noticed as opposed to the none at all you don’t notice with the new SL0’s on this new TCR. The new wheels weigh in at about 1,300 gm, which is an industry podium placing for wheels like this. They are not the lightest wheels available, but then again, they were designed to match and synergise with the intentional engineering characteristics of the new TCR. That is the point and the true advantage of building wheels in-house. The wheels and the frame become two components of a whole under the total control of the same engineering team and within the same engineering brief. It’s about time. I never could understand why something as fundamental to an overall bike design as the wheels should ever be ’outsourced’ to the general market place. Sure, the bike designer can tap some inspired wheels for OEM. But that exercise becomes a search for wheels that are as close to a desired engineering brief rather than being a part of the same brief. The potential to reap the engineering rewards of intentional, designed synergy between wheels and frame are maximised, in theory, when the same team does both. In theory. Not disregarding the idiosyncrasies of the wheel building art that engineers focused hitherto on frames might now need to also master. But theory meets practice with these new wheels. Giant has delivered a coup to no doubt concern the independent wheel makers of the world. And by the way, the all carbon top-of-the-line PSX1 rims on the range topping Giant TCX Advanced Pro 0 CX bike are also ZIPP level plus. 

In terms of spec., the new TCR leaves nothing to desire. The new bike is dressed in Shimano Dura Ace Di2, say no more (other than to simply wonder what a Campagnolo Super Record EPS set up on this bike might be like). Giant has equipped this bike with its all carbon Contact SLR handlebars and stem. That is a great team of carbon bits to no doubt even further sweeten the new bike’s ride (but not by as much as that work-of-art integrated bar-stem combo on the top-end Propel (sigh). And while I am at it, where oh where are the sprint shifters I got with my Propel? I love those things when riding in the drops. Oh well. 

The new TCR comes in three divisions of declining price. The Advanced SL comes with Di2 at the top or mechanical 9000 Dura Ace for a few thousand less. Then there is the Advanced Pro group with lesser carbon and no integrated seat post. Last is the Advanced range. But for me, the integrated seat post is not negotiable. For me, this integrated post is what has always defined the TCR. It is also the source of some, if not more, of the TCR’s compliance qualities. The ISP soaks up the bumps on both this new machine, the old TCR, on the top-end Propel and to a modified degree, on the Defy and TCX range toppers as well. [photo below shows the new TCR (bottom), the new TCX (middle) and the Propel (top)] And there is no chance of slipping or creaking seat posts ever again!

P1000311To conclude, if you carry a bias against Giant for reasons to do with (misplaced) snobbery and the like, the looser will be you. Take it from someone who does possess some of the everests of road bike art (e.g.. the Wilier Zero.7 and Pinarello’s finest), this new Giant is right up there. You can pay more,  but you will not buy a better bike than this. If you define ‘better’ in terms of engineering perfection and performance as usually described. Plus, in its naked carbon and slightly less than subtle electric blue colour patches, the design of this bike is the very essence of Zen. It is a fundamentally beautiful bike. Nothing it does not need and it needs nothing more. In my view, this new bike is exquisite, in a total holistic sense.

I have ridden the new TCR for over a month. Just today, I decided it was time to ride something else. So I took my one time all time favourite bike, the Pinarello Prince (the classic ultimate Pinarello from the pre carbon Dogma era), out for a ride. I always regarded my Prince as the sweetest riding bike I ever owned. Now, I can only see it’s flaws. The new TCR has me thinking about selling a pile of bikes on eBay. 

The genuine, intelligent road bike enthusiast will not be blinkered by the stupidities of brand bigotry. He or she will choose a bike based on all the qualities of any bike under review. I don’t care if this TCR is made by Giant or Bianchi (and Giant probably makes both, anyway). Mount Everest is Mount Everest. To find a better bike, you’re going to need a space suit and a good imagination, because right now, there is nothing higher up than this latest TCR.