The gravel phenomenon
It’s just a bike right? A road bike with a bit of clearance for a bigger tyre? Well, yes and no. that’s a road plus bike though…probably… or is that a touring bike? Hmmm, maybe maybe not although the gravel bike frame will probably have the ability to mount at least one rack, mud guards and multiple bottle cages. That is unless it’s a pure gravel racing bike, paired down to the bone for weight saving and the ability to move forward efficiently at top speed with scant regard for comfort.
A gravel bike will have a cyclocross tyre around 35mm, er unless it’s a 45mm tyre but then that’s a 29er XC mtb with drop bars. Phew! at last we’ve nailed it down. Oh but hang on there’s a 650b option with 2.2 inch rubber so that’s what used to be called in the days before gravel bikes, monstercross! Arrgh!
All road, adventure road, road plus, gravel, cyclo cross, monster cross, tourer, rough stuffer there are lots of fancy names and sub genres but when it comes down to it it’s just riding a bike. In fact that’s just what I’ve been doing. I have a steel mountain bike of at least 10 years vintage. It’ll take a 29er wheel and a CX/Touring/narrow XC tyre in the back, it’ll even take a 29 x 3.0 inch tyre in the front with the lovely steel fork I have fitted. But at the moment it’s got 35mm tyres that cost me £3.99 each from a well known northern online store. The tyres have a continuous centre line of rubber with a few shallow side knobs, The bike is no lightweight but rolls well on tarmac and is frankly scary on any damp surface so you can imagine what it’s like on wet trails, pretty lethal. However it’s made the bike much like HG Well’s time machine. When I ride it I’m transported back to the late 80s early 90s. a time of narrow bars, long stems and the excitement of riding local trails for the first time. The time when we went out exploring and nearly every trail you pedaled down was a new personal discovery. Bridleway signs were an invite to unseen (by me) vistas and new routes to the pub or cafe. handling was scary, brakes (canti) were frankly non existent.
The trails that you now dismiss on your fancy “trail/hardcore” hardtail as being too tame become a proper challenge again, low grip and twitchy handling just with disc brakes instead of canti brakes. except this doesn’t help as the wheels lock up easily unless you concentrate and go gentle with them rather than slamming the anchors as you would with a 2.4″ knobbly rubber tyre to bail you out. The bike skitters about like bambi on the proverbial ice, I suddenly have to pay attention to the trail ahead and actually have to plan where I point the front wheel. I’ve relearned the art of weight shifting to give some extra traction to the rear wheel and to lean on the front to get the most of the limited grip. The bike has old school XC geometry so there’s no relaxing behind a 65° head angle and letting a plush 160mm travel fork take the strain. I have to actually use my arms and legs as suspension! There isn’t even a dropper post!! The adrenaline rush is unreal as you bounce off the rock you missed when planning ahead, it’s how I imagine Danny Hart felt on his rain soaked world championship DH win, stay on your bike Danny!….ok maybe it’s not in that league but it’s the most exhilarating fun you can have at 8 mph, it just feels like 50mph and my thigh muscles are as clenched as they would be at that speed.
So, I’ve got basically a hybrid bike that I use on trails and lanes. I use it to explore. That little lane that has grass growing up the middle that you’ve never ridden up could lead to a gem of a bridleway or track that needs exploring and might link up to somewhere you know and create a great loop. You’d never go up there on a road bike, you wouldn’t have pedaled 30 miles on tarmac on an mtb to get there. The only things that I have on this bike that I didn’t have on a bike back in the day is consistent braking and bars over 600mm wide.
A gravel bike does all this; it’ll probably even have wider tyres too. It will be comfortable over long distances, be forgiving, have all the rack and bottle mounts you’ll ever require and you’ll be at the cutting edge of the latest buzz word in cycling after the “E” word. But do you really need one?
Nope, you just need to dust off that old hardtail you’ve hidden behind a pile of junk in the shed, stick on some narrow tyres, remove the peak off your helmet (not really) and hit the trails that you now ignore or avoid because they are too easy and not challenging enough for your enduro rig. Get back to basics and I guarantee you’ll have a big grin on your face and a little bit of fear in your heart as you hit that first 8mph downhill.
Would I gratefully accept a modern gravel bike over an old hardtail mtb/hybrid?
You bet your ass I would!