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!
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.
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…
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
Gerard 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.