Gritty Take: What Is A Gravel Bike?- by Guitar Ted
Bicycles and the gear it takes to ride them consume a lot of my time, obviously, here on Riding Gravel. I have been immersed in the dissection of all of this since 2005 and it never ceases to amaze me how the simple machine gets redefined year after year. However; before my reviewing and writing days, I was well aware of this trend the cycling industry engages in. The redefinition of bicycles, their recasting and remolding into different shapes and purposes, has been going on since the bicycle was invented. Lately I have seen the “gravel” or “all road” bike become a bit more homogenized. The forms and intentions for these “anything bikes” have been sharpened into focus. It seemed we were all good with that until recently.
There have been some outlandish bikes shown at expos and bicycle shows throughout the years and perhaps the most noteworthy one of those (so far) in the niche world of gravel bikes has been the Niner MCR 9, a full suspension gravel bike. It’s easy to pass off such a radical bike as being outside of the box so far that it isn’t relevant. However; it isn’t so easy to pass off elements like dropper posts and front suspension forks. These two features, most recently added to bikes like Otso Cycles Waheela S and potentially the v4 Warbird, seem to cause much discussion on our pages and forums. Why are dropper posts on gravel bikes? Why do we need front suspension forks? These particular questions lead to a broader, genre bending question- So, when does a gravel bike simply become a hard tail XC 27.5″ or 29″er bike? I mean, take your garden variety hard tail XC bike and add drop bars. Right?
These are questions I posed to expo vendors at the “All Things Gravel” expo at the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200 event which just wrapped up this past weekend. The answers I got lead to a more round, all encompassing look at what a gravel road bike is in 2018 and beyond. In fact, it brings me to a stronger belief than ever that “gravel bikes” is completely the wrong term to use for such bicycles. But I’ll get back to that in a bit……
First, I wanted to pass along the answers to “why dropper posts and suspension forks” on these bicycles. The answers I received, almost universally, were pointing to the fact that these drop bar bikes with mid-range sized tires are so fun that many in the industry are using them to do buff single track and even some rougher back roads. Things that would be far beyond the capabilities of any road bike previous to “gravel bikes” being available. These sorts of conditions and terrains call out for a dropper post. Now I will butt in here and say that if you’ve never experienced what a dropper post can bring to a ride, then you need to experience that to really understand. Only then could you really see why these newer gravel bikes are dropper post compatible. Dropper posts are truly worthy of the term “game changer”.
So, why not just ride a hard tail 29″er? Well, that was nearly a universally panned idea. Why? Because mountain bikes don’t cut it on hard surfaces or pavement. You lose that ability to zip, maintain speed over longer distances, and of course, they are generally going to not be as comfortable on roads. The consensus was that “gravel/all road” bikes were a lot of fun on roads, gravel/dirt, and could be more fun on single track if they had dropper posts and suspension. The wheel size versatility plays into these thoughts as well. Run knobby 650B 2.1’s on your single track days and narrower 38’s in 700c on your road days. Own one bike. Do (Mostly) All Things.
My personal take on “what is a gravel bike” has always been “the bike you are riding on gravel is a gravel bike“. Say you have an old Schwinn cruiser with balloon tires, well that’s a great gravel bike if you get on with it. Fat bikes? I see a lot of those at gravel events. Mountain bikes, old 26″ers, even recumbents, yes- all gravel bikes. Now, is there a better tool for the job? That’s where we get into refining, innovations, and maybe this is where we are going in 2018 and beyond with what will define the bicycle we use for these “not road racing”, “not pure mountain biking” type of rides. So, of course, what the name of these bikes should become is perhaps the thorniest question of all. Their existence is exciting and has turned on a lot of riders to the in between margins not covered in pure smooth road riding and gnarly trail shredding sessions. The types of riding the masses can more easily and safely participate in. What should those bikes be called?
I’m saying, and have said for a long time, that “gravel” is not a good term for these rigs. It isn’t going to work, and it has been shown to even be offensive to some riders. Some say “all road”, but that doesn’t work either, since, you know, not everyone is limiting themselves to roads on these bikes. I find it ironic that these bikes fit the older term for mountain bikes best- all terrain- but even that seems “not right”.
So, I am not coming up with an answer to the question posed by the title of this piece. The answer eludes me because it isn’t a black and white, clear cut answer. These bikes are so versatile these days, so the purpose to which they are designed for is not easily defined. They are, in fact, multi-purposed. The “GP” military vehicle became known as the “jeep”, and maybe these bicycles are the “jeeps” of the cycling world. I’m not sure, but whatever you want to call them- gravel bike, all road bike, or general purpose bike- they aren’t going away anytime soon.
I guess I’m going to stick to my original answer to the question then. A gravel bike is whatever bicycle you want to ride on gravel. Whatever that is………