Where Did All The Freaking Gravel Come From?

One of the tenets that I had going into the cross season and preparing to launch our first cross pre-order was that race bikes would become increasingly specific to cross racing.  As the sport gains popularity and matures, and people decide to make it a higher priority, it follows that the equipment should move away from the sort of "commuter with your road bike's old parts on it, strip off the racks and fenders from commuting all week and let's do some racin' on the weekend" bike to a dedicated, purposeful bike that offers little to no concession to life outside the tape.  

I still think this is the case in general, and conversations with a lot of people have borne this out.  Cross is really fun and it continues to grow.  The scene at the races is fun, the racing itself is great, despite at least one really awful exception I've seen it seems to have a far lower injury rate, and in general there's a lot to like about it.  I think that people enjoy the technical skill aspect of it, and that that mixes up the pecking order quite a bit.  It's also a pretty short race, so you don't feel like you have to put in brutally long training.  Heck, most weeks it's Tuesday before you can even walk properly if you've done a good job on Sunday, so you really CAN'T do any ridiculous training in season.  There's no time.  Last, don't underestimate the fact that cross is a pretty family friendly day at the races, with great spectating.  So it's no surprise that people are into it and it's gaining traction all the time.  And a lot of people have been putting more emphasis on the cross part of the race season, and they are making equipment choices that reflect this higher priority.  

The unexpected part is how many people are in the market for a bike that's great for "epic gravel rides."  I swear I think this is threatening to become a whole new category of riding.  I've done a fair bit of gravel riding on road bikes, and to be honest I'd rather have my eye teeth pulled.  I don't mind the occasional unimproved road, and the race that I most love but that refuses to love me back has a dirt section (on which I flat every year), and my new favorite race (Killington) has a longish dirt road section.  But in general, I like my off road riding to be done on off road bikes.  To be fair, the road that broke the camel's back for me on that was some not yet constructed highway in WV, and "gravel" would be minimizing the irregularity of the surface - in extremis.  These were rocks, and it sucked, and I got two flats in about a half a mile, and another guy slaughtered a tire.  This was not fun, but even on a 29er with 2"+ tires, this would have been a section to be survived and not relished; on 23mm tires, it just cold sucked.  

I've spent a lot of time riding singletrack on my cross bike, and it's fun for the novelty and you know, it kind of really is fun.  But if a lot of singletrack is the question, my 29er is the answer, hands down.  But I have been doing this one ride pretty much every Friday after work, and it's a hoot.  I take one of three ways (one on road, one on dirt trails, one on pretty gnarly dirt trails) to get to the C&O Canal Tow Path, and just bomb it out that sucker a ways.  Lately, it's been twilight at the beginning and pitch black for the majority.  I've got a pretty good light setup, so seeing is no issue at all, but you are "in the tunnel."  So much so that a few weeks ago I COMPLETELY missed my turnaround point and went oh, around 8 miles beyond it by the time I thought "you know I'm getting a little tired, I shouldn't be getting tired on the way out, what's up with that?"  I had no computer or anything but did have my iPhone, which fortunately combines "where the hell am I" capacity with "honey, I'm going to be a little late for dinner" function.  In any case, it's a fun ride and I look forward to doing it.  Usually I'll do it on the cross bike but the 29er is getting the call for it sometimes too.  

There are a couple of reasons why I think I enjoy this ride so much.  First, it's Friday, and I'm not on the trainer.  Two BIG plusses there.  Second, no cars.  Third, no stopping or intersections or interruptions.  You can go 6 to 8 miles too far and barely notice you've done it.  Fourth, it's interesting just riding on that terrain, so long as you have a proper bike on which to do it.  Fifth, it's dark, so I don't really notice that I'm literally making about 4 turns in 100 (or sometimes 150) minutes - my whole world exists about 2' to each side and 40' ahead.  

So, in small letters, I get it.  But to the degree that a lot of people seem to be entusiastic about epic gravel rides, I don't GET IT.  People are just going gaga for the idea of epic gravel adventures (and it's like there was a mailing list somewhere that expressly forbid not using the words "epic" and "gravel" in the description), and they're looking to cross bikes to be the bike for these rides.  Which to me makes some modicum of sense in that cross bikes have sort of a fast road-like stance and the tires are fat and floaty but not tank treads like you've got on your mountain bike and the gearing is pretty straightforward and a good cross bike is going to weigh in the sub-17 pound neighborhood.  All good.  

On the other hand, cross racing is such a specific discipline of riding that I sure wouldn't want to compromise anything my bike does between the tape for anything I might want to do with it outside the tape.  Most cross bikes (ours included) fit about a maximum 38mm tire.  Anymore than that and there are going to be some funny things going on with geometry, like a long wheel base with long chainstays.  Dedicated cross bike are moving to shorter wheel bases, with chainstays as short as they can get away with.  The disc brake thing has sort of been pounded to death in the various fora, and in any case we're offering forks for disc and rim brakes, so that's a gender you can choose, or choose to have both on.  "All day comfort" is another hot button, again I think there was a mailing list on that phrase.  Cross races are like an hour long, and bikes are moving toward steeper seat tubes with relatively more weight on the front half of the bike - sort of the opposite of an all day comfort position, although the generally higher bars and more upright position you set cross bikes up with do a good job of regaining comfort.  But you know what really gives all day comfort?  Big ass floaty tires.  32mm Grifos on the canal tow path feel both plenty fast and really floaty.  

One thing I really don't sweat is carbon bikes on gravel, although people in general are pretty freaked by it.  My 29er has a strip of helicopter tape running down the top tube, which does an inspiring job of protecting the down tube from slings and arrows of life on gravel and worse.  Shelter (tm) tape is even more protective.  You have to watch the demo video on their page to believe what that stuff can do.  Not that carbon is perfect, but everything comes with its downside.  Carbon has pretty good upside to go along with it.  

Some people are asking about carbon clinchers for such riding.  This, to me, is just plain daft.  "Daft" is not a word I often use, at least while not wearing my ascot.  I don't have my ascot on right now, which shows you how sincere I am in this belief.  P'shaw! 

So, now, we are after all a company that's about racing bikes and bikes for racing.  None of the foregoing really has anything to do with racing.  Except that it could, and it might.  And I think that there are a lot of dynamics at play which could make it a more significant thing in the near future.  But for now, I am seriously in the James Michener-length blog here and before I go beyond and into David Foster Wallace territory (along with those possible ramifications), I will leave you anxiously awaiting the next installment of "things Dave thought about while gazing at his navel (and what a fine looking navel it is)."  

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Midwest gravel rides are a thing to be experienced. You don't need anything special. A steel (or aluminum, or carbon, or Ti) CX bike with anywhere from 30-35mm tires, S/S, geared, doesn't matter. Just make sure it's something you're comfortable riding for (potentially) 6+ hours.


Here is a database of dirt/gravel roads in Loudon County that some guys I ride with made up…they do a ton of rides out there in the winter when the singletrack is hosed and the roads are dicey (ice/salt/etc).I think there is an equivalent database for Frederick county, MD, but I don't have a link for it.


Stamper -Thanks for the insight. What do you use for a frame/wheels/tires on these "roads"? Dave

Dave Kirkpatrick

If you live in the east, you will never understand the cyclopean nature of the middle-west gravel network. You can ride for 60 miles in rural plains states and never see a person. There are no stop lights, no buses, just the wind and the pebbles dancing at your feet.


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