Gravel Bikes: Do You Really Need One?
Photos: Ian Matteson, Jeff Stewart
Imagine it: You tackle your favorite climb, and instead of turning around where the road ends, you keep going. With equal parts planning and bravado, the fiery question of what lies beyond is quelled. As a cyclist, you are now whole.
Sure, that’s a glorified lens to gaze upon gravel through, but seriously, tell me that you don’t want a piece of this, mile after mile:
Depending on your geography, there are probably plenty of fire/service roads around you that are easy to tackle on your everyday 25mm road rig. It’s like Tom Ritchey said in a roadbikereview.com interview, “I thought all road bikes were gravel road bikes?” Though, from idiotic experience, I can tell you that a “road” like the one above, or exactly that road for that matter, will destroy your headset, knock your wheels out of true, and make climbing a slippery, tireless affair. In other words, no matter how many Rapha videos you watch, your everyday road bike can’t handle every road in North America. Enter the gravel bike.
Now, the modifier of this title, “gravel,” is a little off-putting. Yes, you’ll most likely touch some gravel at one point or another, but you’re far more likely to encounter good ol’ dirt. I guess that the “dirt bike” title is already spoken for, but “gravel bike” is just such a blah, misrepresentation of the tool and its job. Personally, I’d opt for a more apropos title, like “everything bike.” Which, in a pretty longwinded fashion, leads me to my thesis: What is an “everything” bike? Do you actually need one? And what the hell else do you need to get exploring out there?
An everything bike is for, well, everything. Mellow singletrack, farm roads, gravel, crushed limestone, regular roads — whatever. It’s a machine that’s capable of performing over various surfaces at the drop of a hat. And here’s the big surprise (not really), no one can really agree on what the best tool for the job is. To some, a ‘cross bike is ideal, while to others; a dedicated “gravel-grinder” is more appropriate. Let’s examine the differences.
On the whole, a ‘cross bike is going to be a little more squirrely over the rough stuff than a dedicated everything bike. Why? Well, because it’s purposefully designed for racing. On a ‘cross bike, you’ll find that the bottom bracket is a little higher, the wheelbase a little tighter, and the head angle is more acute. Ultimately, the feel is a little less “in the bike” and far snappier. In other words, it’s almost a road bike for the dirt. For some, myself included, this design is ideal if you intend on splitting your time evenly between the road and the trail. Personally, I have little ambition to race cyclocross, but I’ve been spending all spring climbing tarmac and descending intersecting trails once I reach the top. What the hell, it’s fun, even if it draws some hate from the local rollers, not to mention that you get to see awesome stuff, like this, while you’re out.
Meanwhile, a dedicated everything bike is stout and stretched, typically with a taller head tube, more head angle slack, and more clearance for 40mm+ tires. The Niner RLT 9 even has the capability of fitting 29er wheels. The geo on these rigs will feel more planted, able, and comfortable, but you pay for these characteristics with a little touch of sluggishness.
So, do you actually need a dedicated gravel bike? Well, this is going to sound very “unbusinesslike,” but if you already have a ‘cross bike, my answer would be no. However, if you don’t, and you have no intention on racing cyclocross, I would steer you towards a gravel bike. It’s really that simple, but admittedly, it’s a pretty subjective opinion at best. After all, I just built a ‘cross bike to use as my everything bike.
Now you know what it is and if you need it, but what other gear do you need? Outside of a strong will and spirit, the list is startlingly simple, and the levels of hacks are far too deep to get into here. The quick and short of it is that you’ll need some tread on those tires, an amply sized saddlebag to transport your tubes, multi-tool, and pump, and as much hydration as you’re able to carry. I won’t bother getting deep into a list here, so I’ve assembled a collection of our favorite products by category below.
Really, though, the moral of the story is to have fun wherever you want on whatever you want. ‘Cross or gravel, go hit some road climbs, some fire roads, or even some singletrack. I guarantee that you’ll have fun on the latter.
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