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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