Dave and I both just bought new drop bar bikes. Dave's riding is predominantly on the road on his November Hot Buns cyclocross bike, and mine is almost exclusively on singletrack on a Yeti SB100 "downcountry" bike. Both of us bought gravel bikes - for the same reasons but from different perspectives. A gravel bike lets Dave extend his rides onto less paved surfaces. Mine will let me find unpaved roads when the trails are too wet over the winter, but also venture into singletrack when conditions are right. We'll each do follow up on our decision and decision-making process, but I was struck by how this segment of bikes pulled us both in, and how it's maybe doing exactly the opposite of what the bike industry intended.
What Dave will see from his new gravel bike (left) and what Mike will see from his (right).
If you ever utter to Dave the phrase "one bike" he'll immediately respond with the rejoinder "2 sets of wheels," like he's playing Marco Polo in the pool. That's his driving motivator for this new bike, and he'll equip it accordingly. Specialized is pleased I'm sure to have a new Crux customer in Dave, but would prefer he supplement it with a Tarmac or Aetheos for fast smooth days. The differences between drop bar bike segments though - how they ride, what terrain they can cover, how much they weigh - is not as meaningful to those of who ride them as they are to those of them who market them. I get that it's easy for insiders to find the daylight between different segments. When you live and breath frame geometry and carbon layups a degree of head tube angle is as striking a difference to them as that between Himalayan sea salt and Morton's kosher salt is to a Michelin chef. But the rest of us? We can maybe tell the difference in a side by side test if you tell us exactly what we're looking for, and if our confirmation biases are fully loaded.
We've long believed the biggest determinant of the riding experience is a function of tire selection, and we also believe the right tire properties are enhanced by the right wheel properties. That's pretty much why we've existed - to make you happy with your tire choice. But now that the difference between bike segments has narrowed, we also exist to save you $5,000. You don't really need another $6K bike, when a separate set of $1K wheels will satisfy almost all the same use cases.
Another view of what Dave sees from his bike (left) and what Mike sees from his (right). Yes we both took these pictures while riding.
The other thing that is unique to the gravel segment - perhaps because of its nascence - is how wide a range it covers. Many brands' road bike segments are split into Performance and Endurance (and marketed as different use cases, or more commonly different rider types), and within these sub-segments are often multiple franchises. Specialized for example has a performance sub-segment, a value sub-segment and an ultra-performance sub-segment. The same is true on the other end of the spectrum - mountain bikes. Even playing in this segment means offering different bikes for minimally cross-country, trail and downhill, and some brands split those segments even more narrowly with downcountry and enduro specific bikes. But gravel as a product category hasn't been divided up as clearly yet, which means that gravel as a riding category exists as an equally broad continuum in riders' minds. Dave can think gravel and imagine turning off a paved road at 24mph onto a gravel road where he can hold speed at 22mph. And I can imagine stringing sections of singletrack together on 2 miles of improved fire roads and it still being fun. Yet in our minds we both need gravel bikes.
Dave's new bike is a Specialized Crux like the one pictured at left, and Mike's is a Solace OM-3 like the one at right.
And the bikes themselves, despite existing in the same segment, are more purpose-built for the different preferences Dave and I have. Ostensibly evolved from a cyclocross bike, the Crux nevertheless sends out strong road vibes, with its narrow seat stays, extended cockpit, pronounced seat to bar drop and of course its carbon construction. Specialized says about the bike, "The Crux is the lightest gravel bike in the world," touts its "performance gravel geometry" and telegraphs effortless speed with "it’s your one-way ticket to gravel enlightenment."
Mike's Solace OM-3, in contrast, shows stouter titanium tubes, wider tires, a smaller chainring, a compact cockpit with flared drop bars and even a dropper post. Solace calls it "A dirt road, drop bar slayer with mountain bike roots" and says about it, "Built with the same ethos as our trail bikes, the OM-3 is a rowdy dirt road bike inspired by mountain bike geometries, and built with mountain bike components to take you beyond gravel." Very different positioning from the Crux, and a very different bike in what their surface of choice is after gravel. But on gravel and equipped with the same wheels and tires these differences start to fade away.
It's just a matter of time before the bike industry acknowledges the gaps between road-leaning gravel bikes and mountain-leaning gravel bikes, names the segments something more appetizing than "groad" and "grountain" and begins making bikes to split the segment. Until then it's easy for us as customers to see one bike that feels purpose built to satisfy a range of use cases, especially if, as Dave will remind us, it's equipped with two sets of wheels.