Take the rough with the smooth

Just when you thought you had all the bikes you needed, along comes a whole new concept. Introducing the gravel bike…

Until recently it existed in the shadows of the cycling world, an underground scene shoe-horned between the ‘cool kids’ of mountain biking and the ‘Lycra army’ of road riding. But now, with big manufacturers sniffing a new sales opportunity, a bona fide new market sector has emerged – the gravel bike.

A big part of the enjoyment of riding a bike is the freedom to explore, but with a 23mm slick tyre we’re mostly limited to asphalt to satisfy that desire. But imagine a road bike with fewer boundaries. Gravel bikes then, have begun to enter the mainstream.

If you’ve only just heard of a gravel bike you might think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but the concept is more nuanced than you might imagine. Ben Farver of Argonaut Cycles says, ‘The term gravel bike probably needs to be better defined as it means different things to different people. The spectrum goes from something more akin to a multi-surface bike, where the bike is going to be ridden on a lot of tarmac in addition to dirt and gravel roads, to mostly well-maintained gravel, deep gravel and 4×4 roads.’

A gravel bike has the essential make-up of a road bike and the capabilities of something nearer a cyclocross bike, the key difference being that a gravel bike isn’t built for racing but for longer days out in the saddle. Other than a lower bottom bracket, taller head tube and slightly longer chainstays (for a more stable frame) there isn’t any dramatic difference in geometry to that of a road bike. Only the presence of disc brakes and a generous clearance for fat tyres (up to 45c) would give away that such a bike isn’t built purely for the road.

The appeal of the gravel bike lies in its versatility, without compromising on speed. It’s like a sportive bike that can cope with a bit of off-road abuse, and while naysayers will suggest that it’s simply a hybrid of a road bike and cross bike, some of the models on offer are sure to pique the interest of riders looking for a do-it-all solution.

According to Farver, the Argonaut Gravel Racer is ‘designed to yield 90% of the performance you get from a straightforward road bike when riding paved sections’. The Specialized Diverge comes with the same Zertz viscoelastic dampers that are found on the company’s highly regarded Roubaix bike, installed on the seatstays and forks to dampen vibrations from the road, while the GT Grade comes with ‘all-day’ geometry, huge tyre clearance and flared drop handlebars that give an aggressive but stable ride position. The common denominator is that all the frames have increased compliance in mind, which means their appeal is likely to stretch to a broader market than merely those riders tempted by the prospect of venturing off-road.

Just add gravel

The gravel bike scene has seen an explosion in popularity, not least in the US. Dedicated events are popping up all over, such as the 100-mile Rouge Roubaix, Dirty Kanza 200 and a brutal 300-mile long Trans Iowa, but these aren’t the kind where crossing the finish line first earns you the greatest kudos. GT Bicycles’ Patrick Kaye says, ‘Gravel events tend to be low-key with a festival atmosphere. It’s not about big teams, support vehicles and top talent. These events are all about being your own hero. No big entry fees or license holders, no UCI and no attitude. It’s a chance to escape the hype, pedal your ass off, take in some spectacular views and simply try to survive.’

On these shores, new sportives such as L’Eroica Britannia (featured in the last issue) and the Tour of the Black Country (the West Midlands’ answer to Paris-Roubaix), might just spark a similar interest. But in the bigger picture, events are only a tiny part of what the concept is about. Gravel bikes are about diversifying from the accepted norms of road riding, and broadening the potential for exploration by bicycle. Why stop where the tarmac runs out?

As we’ve already suggested, gravel bikes could prove to be an increasingly popular alternative to traditional road bikes as the perfect answer for Britain’s world-beating collection of potholed lanes. Pigeonholing this new breed seems to be a doing it a disservice. These machines have huge potential as jack-of all-trade bikes, which is more than reason enough for N+1 to apply.