You’ve probably heard a lot about gravel, all-road and adventure riding lately. In fact, if you follow the cycling press or social media at all, it’d be almost impossible not to have heard about it.
But what exactly is it and why is it a craze that’s all of the sudden sweeping the industry?
That’s a great question, and it has a lot to do with how the idea of “road riding” has changed over the years. It wasn’t so long ago that pretty much all riders on the road were riding around on bikes with skinny 17mm wide rims, 23mm tires and short reach caliper brakes. These were machines that were most definitely purpose built for one thing: road racing. There were a few endurance bikes out there that came stock with 25mm tires, but few bikes would clear even a 28mm road tire. Road bikes were made for riding on tarmac. There were riders out there doing what we would now think of as “adventure” rides, but they were using cyclocross bikes—a fine and totally capable machine for those rides, but perhaps not ideal for long days in the saddle.
The larger perception about road riding began changing maybe 10 years ago. Why? Well, a few things happened. 1) A certain British clothing brand known for the color black, black and white photos of suffering, and Helvetica type treatments hit the scene. We wouldn’t go so far as to say they invented gravel riding by any stretch. But their marketing and video projects, which often featured a group of Portland-based cyclists riding on beautiful mixed surface roads, brought the idea of riding beyond pavement into the collective cycling consciousness. 2) The emergence of Instagram allowed cyclists to share and showcase their rides on beautiful, forgotten roads, awakening the hidden romantic that lives within us all. Meanwhile, Strava was making public what might have previously been hidden local gems, allowing more riders to go out and find rides that took them out into the great gravel unknown. 3) Over the past decade there has been a general shift in how people are riding bikes. USA Cycling-sanctioned race participation has steadily declined across most of the country, while gran fondo-type casual ride participation shows strong growth.
There’s a little bit of cause and effect here, and we’re not sure whether the increasing interest in gravel is the chicken or the egg—but either way it’s had an undeniable impact on the way cyclists ride.
Probably the biggest impact has been on bike design. As mentioned above, people have been doing these rides for a long time…they’ve just either been using road bikes with skinny tires or cross bikes with race geometry. Either one is serviceable in this situation, but neither one is particularly ideal either…which got some people thinking about what a “quiver killer” bike would look like. Road bike geometry, massive tire clearance (up to 40+mm on some models), fender and rack mounts, etc… Basically what would become the modern gravel bike. This started somewhat away from the spotlight with a bunch of small builders, but the ideas they pioneered would prove popular enough to find their way to production bikes, and set in motion one of the biggest shifts in bike design in years. Gravel bikes are now probably the fastest growing category of bikes, and are certainly driving the most interest and innovation.
But this still doesn’t answer the question about why you would want to ride on gravel—isn’t this just kind of a niche that demands another special bike for a very specific kind of riding?
We’d answer that question with a resounding no. As the collective idea of what road riding is continues to evolve, we’ve found it’s opened up a whole new world of cycling to us.
1. It’s Fun
That would really be all we would need to say, right? But let’s dig into this a little bit more. We love road riding—a lot actually. In fact this author usually has to be dragged kicking and screaming onto anything resembling single track. But on gravel and dirt roads there’s a sense of engagement with riding that you sometimes miss on the road. One of the aspects we love about road riding is the chance to focus on nothing: even when doing intervals or a hard workout, there’s plenty of opportunity for your mind to wander, which is awesome– but it also sometimes gets a little, well…boring. On gravel you’re more engaged with your ride—the surface changes constantly and demands your attention. But not to the level of mountain biking, where you have to be fully in the moment all the time. It’s just enough to break the monotony of the road and add some spice to your ride. And for you mountain bikers, it’s a way to get road rides in while still feeling connected to the dirt, and get in some of those endurance miles while still having the fun you enjoy on the trails.
2. Gravel Bikes Are Truly Quiver Killers
We’re pretty dedicated to our existing road and mountain bikes. But since having had a chance to test bikes like the Diamondback Haanjo, GT Grade, and Fuji Jari over the past several years, these bikes could honestly be the only bike you would ever need. The overall impression these bikes always give is that they don’t excel at any one thing, but they do truly do very well at everything, which makes them pretty remarkable. Gravel bikes are zippy on the road, handle well on gravel and dirt, and most can even tackle some singletrack. Fender and rack mounts make them ideal for rain/winter riding and for light touring. Oh yeah, and they are probably among the most comfortable drop bar bikes you’ll ever ride. What’s not to love?
3. You Get Away From It All
This is honestly probably our favorite part about riding on gravel. You really do get away from it all. Whether it’s our local roads in NC, “B” roads in Vermont, or Forest Service roads in a National Forest, there’s a sense of solitude and quiet that you rarely get on paved roads. In most parts of the United States, gravel roads are found outside of well-populated areas, and are usually lightly traveled (this may exclude parts of Midwestern farm country though). That means fewer cars, less traffic, and a ride where your experience is defined by what you put into it, not what happens to you along the way.