It’s been nearly a month since Hawaiian Airlines announced its switch from the Airbus A330-900 to the Boeing 787-9. This was great news, but I was also too caught up in writing about gravel bikes to put much effort into a post here. The Hawaiian Airlines 787 will now get its due. Airline geeks will debate the merits of these two aircraft ad nauseum in some of the most opaque language. Fine. That’s what they do.
From a passenger experience side, this is good news. As a Phoenix resident, I think of Hawaiian Airlines as my secret airline. If I want to go anywhere on the Pacific Rim, they’re a strong choice that allows me to avoid Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. I flew Hawaiian Airlines to and from New Zealand with my wife and then-2-year-old daughter.
The 767s flying between Phoenix and Honolulu range from fairly updated inside to, well, let’s just call it long in the tooth.
The A330s flying between Auckland and Honolulu absolutely suck for tall people. I had to remove everything from the seat pockets to prevent my knees from touching the seat in front of me.
I’ve flown in 787s from San Jose, Calif., to Tokyo and from Shanghai to LAX in a variety of configurations. Even the United Airlines 787 was comfortable. Some travelers squawk about that one because United Airlines configured it with 9 seats – three rows of three seats each. Even being 6’2 and 200 pounds, I was comfortable. The cabin was also quiet, and the seats had all the latest amenities (hello, USB ports!).
I know Hawaiian Airlines intended to replace the 767s serving Phoenix with the A330; I hope that means Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport will get its first 787 service from Hawaiian. Most airlines will tell you that fleet commonality is a good thing, so it’s possible older A330s in the fleet get phased out in favor of the 787. I haven’t found any confirmation that Sky Harbor will be served by the Hawaiian Airlines 787, but it fits the situation well. They didn’t respond to a tweet asking about it.
This is could be great news for people who want to travel to the Pacific Rim while avoiding LAX, SFO and other busy, crowded airports. If it plays out the way I expect, Hawaiian Airlines and Sky Harbor should talk this up. I’m not sure what’s behind the hesitation. Phoenix Sky Harbor lags in intercontinental service for a city its size; that’s a combination of proximity to other intercontinental hubs and an economy that isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. But weather rarely cancels flights here. Savvy travelers could easily latch onto the Hawaiian Airlines 787 flights as a way to travel the Pacific without a stop at busier, more chaotic airports. I hope that Hawaiian Airlines doesn’t do something silly and replace the 767 with a single-aisle A321, which it has done for certain routes. I guess we’ll find out.
After riding the same road bike since 1999, I’ve decided to replace it. Just a few years ago, I had it — a Lemond Zurich — repainted. And then I put an Ultegra 6800 group on it. I just rode it and loved it in the 70-mile Tour de Tucson.Â
But gravel bikes have turned my head. Or audax, adventure, gran fondo, road-plus, or alt-road (ick) bikes -- whatever name you call it, it pretty much means more relaxed geometry, clearance for bigger tires, disc brakes and through-axles. Anyway, I’ll keep calling it a gravel bike, even though I’ll ride it on the road a good 80 percent of the time.
Here’s the deal: Drivers are making more and more nervous. They get away relatively scot-free with killing and injuring cyclists. Add to that an improving but still below-par local bike infrastructure -- and a multitude of unpaved canal routes, and you have a perfect place to take advantage of the "go anywhere" capabilities of a gravel bike.
Also, this whole gravel-riding thing just looks fun. They can go off-road and cover ground faster than mountain bikes. They’re in their element on unpaved forest roads, which opens up possibilities to see things and go places that are new to us. So yeah, I’m in.
Gravel Bikes: Build or Buy?
I considered buying a whole bike – I wanted steel or titanium. I love my titanium Domahidy mountain bike, and obviously the ride quality and longevity of my Lemond are strong arguments for steel. I saw quite a few bikes that I saw – The Milwaukee Mettle is wonderful; the All-City Cycles Space Horse likewise; and Fairdale’s new Rockitship looks terrific. This is just to name a few solid possibilities.
I am not a big fan of the big guys like Trek, Specialized or Giant – not because their bikes are inferior, because they do what they do extremely well. I just crave a certain mojo from my bikes that the bigger brands don’t deliver.
I put myself into “scan” mode for a few months. If I found a great deal on a complete bike, I’d do it.
Ultimately, I found a good frame and chose to repurpose the compatible parts on my Lemond; they’re are all relatively new and extremely solid. And I could focus on the filling bits according to my own personal vision.
Few Standards, Many Options for Gravel Bikes
Now, gravel bikes are still a bit of a Wild West. Some have two chainrings, while some roll mountain bike-style with one. Some are for touring/bikepacking and need all sorts of additional places to carry stuff. There’s definitely a learning curve in learning what to look for. That’s why I’m collecting my thoughts as I start this process, and I will share with you whatever I learn.
This post will link out to future posts covering some of the major details. By way of background, I used to work at a well-respected local bike shop. I’ve built and maintained my own bikes since the 90s. I leave hydraulic disc brake and suspension maintenance to others, but handle everything else myself. I’m not quite a cheapskate, but I love a good value.
Right now, all I have in my possession is a frame. After a lot of looking at geometry and asking a lot of questions, I landed on the Lynskey Urbano. Now, I was a little bit skeptical because it’s designated as a commuting bike on the Lynskey website. But I spent some time emailing a Lynskey sales rep, and I compared its geometry with my Lemond and with other eligible frames. The geometry is only a bit more relaxed than the Lemond, and its wheelbase is only a smidge longer. Some bikes seemed like limousines! It also has a threaded BB shell, which I prefer.
Just eyeballing the Lynskey, it appears very nicely made – good welds, beefy stays, nicely shaped tubes. It’s set up for flat-mount disc brakes and 12mm through axles, and can accommodate electronic shifting.
OK, that’s about it for now! Coming in future episodes – these will all have links when the posts go live, so you can use this post as your central Gravel Bikes hub:
Picking a fork – and why I am convinced that carbon forks are great, but they’re also a giant rip-off. I know this will be controversial. I’m willing for someone to prove me wrong when I make the case. Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know.
Tires are almost as difficult to choose as wheels. What width? What pressure? What tread? Argh!
A few thoughts about what impacted my choices beyond specs and prices, from the advice of knowledgeable friends to how companies handle themselves on social media networks.
Putting it all together and riding. I’m planning to go with 31c Vittoria tires to start. My big question is whether the do-anything, go-anywhere wheels and tires make my performance take a big knock. I’m determined to do better at the 2018 Tour de Tucson, and I’m curious to see what impact riding a gravelly, road-plus bike makes on my times as I train.
Special thanks to Craig Swetel from the Facebook group Riding AZ Gravel. Not only did he let me help myself to most of the photos in this post, he also is spreading the word about gravel-riding fun.Â
The year 2018 is going to be the Year of the Gravel Bike. Really, it might be already.
The Ongoing Gravel Bike Mission
This year, many of my rides have had a mission beyond logging miles. I’ve been trying to find as much off-the-road riding as possible. Not off-road, like for a mountain bike. More like paved canal paths and separated bikeways. I was hoping for some improvement in complaints I had years ago about how hard it is to commute by bike in Phoenix.
The reason is two-fold. Obviously, cyclists and cars have a hard time dealing with each other in Arizona. And it’s always the cyclist who comes out on the wrong end of that equation. Secondly, I like to get into a nice groove when I ride. On a mountain bike ride, I can literally pedal for hours without interruption. On a road bike, it seems like the traffic lights are actively out to get me every quarter of a mile (I’ve started thinking Scottsdale’s slogan should be City of a Million Ill-Timed Traffic Lights).
Here’s a piece of deep knowledge: Arizona has more miles of canals than Venice or Amsterdam. Many of those miles have bike-accessible, unpaved banks. They are perfect for gravel bikes. Some canal banks are closed off, and it would be good to open them up. Also, innovative projects like Grand Canalscape are underway to make canals better suited for bikes – the biggest benefit will be traffic signals where canal bike paths cross streets.
My mission has led me to two big conclusions: Every piece of decent bike infrastructure in metro Phoenix has at least one big flaw with it. And the gravel bike, in many cases, is a potential game-changer to rectify those flaws. We’ll save the flawed infrastructure for a future post and go straight to the gravel bike.
What the Hell is a Gravel Bike, Anyway?
For those of you unfamiliar with the term "gravel bike”: It’s a lot like a road bike, but with bigger tires, stronger brakes (usually discs), a longer wheelbase and often accouterments for long-distance, unsupported riding. Some people, especially overseas, called it an audax bike. Here in the U.S., marketing nerds position them as road-plus bikes, adventures bikes or — gag — alt-road bikes. They’re more stable than cyclocross bikes.
During my off-the-road explorations, I’d ride a beautiful piece of paved bike path that would inexplicably have a huge break in it. We’re talking a few hundred feet of chunky rubble. Or I’d spot a perfect unpaved workaround that would keep me away from cars.
One day, pointed my LeMond Zurich into one of these unpaved areas. Let’s just say a short wheelbase, aggressive road geometry and 25c tires inflated to 100 psi don’t exactly fit well in that milieu. A gravel bike would cruise through this sort of thing on 30-40c tires and a longer, more-stable wheelbase.
Right now, there are gravel riding Facebook groups swapping secrets. That’s a sign that the gravel bike movement is growing fast. One elite female racer told me that many of her friends are tapping into gravel bikes for training away from cars. And connecting with the overlooked female cyclists could be a huge shot in the arm for the bike shops, the manufacturers and the culture.
The Gravel Bike Can Also Help Transit Planners and Bike Shops
Now, the gravel bike also has implications beyond the users: They also have implications for government transit planners, especially those focused on bicycle infrastructure. It has huge implications for bike shops.
Let’s focus on the bike shops. The bike industry as a whole has a bit of a problem with re-inventing itself. It needs new stuff to keep customers engaged, and it needs stuff that customers will actually use. Too often, these attempts at re-inventing relevance take the form of “innovations” of dubious value.
The Gravel Bike Changes Things
They’re perfect commuter bikes in addition to being great for experienced, fit cyclists looking for a new challenge. The capabilities of the gravel bike were what finally prompted me to pick up a new frame to start the retirement of my LeMond, which I’ve ridden since 1999.
And bikes that can go anywhere means less need for paved bike paths. Planners could designate a stretch of unpaved canal, install signage and add crossings where needed -- and not worry at all about pavement. A perfect example is the Arizona Canal. This stretches for miles on the west side of Phoenix with underpasses and signed crossings.
But over on my side, it goes for miles with no pavement at all. I’ve tried it on my road bike, and it’s completely squirrely. If the road-plus/adventure/gravel bike becomes the standard, that’s something planners won’t have to worry about (though some signaled crossings would be nice still).
Buying a gravel bike is going to be a nightmare of options for customers, especially those newer to cycling. Should your new bike have a one-chainring setup or two chainrings? Through-axles or quick releases? How much air should you put in the tires? Even I’m still working through this as a long-time cyclist. The answers are going to come down to intent. I plan to use mine as a road bike -- but I want it to be able to swing onto an unpaved path and hammer for miles without being a squirrely pain in the butt. I’d also like to commute with it.
Gearing Up a Gravel Bike
As for myself, my new gravel bike – or more Road-Plus, in my case – will be equipped with through-axle hubs, hybrid hydraulic disc brakes and tubeless wheels that will allow far wider tires. It about 3c longer in the wheelbase for stability. I expect it will not only allow me to ride on canals and other unpaved surfaces, but it might even allow me to ride rather than walk the infernal sandy hell that is part of the Tour de Tucson 70-mile course.
And then there’s this Rio Salado bike path. The Mesa side is fairly well dialed in, aside from a ludicrous 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and a really silly break to cross McClintock (they’re working on an underpass, but it will literally be years before cyclists can use it).
The Gravel Bike = Better Experience for All
Having people on bikes that are able to handle any surface also cuts down on the possibility of user conflict. Rollerbladers and dog walkers can be the bane of a cyclist’s existence on a shared paved path. The rise of bike share services have also increased the number of people on bikes – and the bike share users aren’t exactly great bike handlers and haven’t yet learned the situational awareness skills that help serious cyclists stay safe. Spreading the load away from the paved path has huge benefits for keeping us all safe and friendly toward each other.
A little breathing room a la bikes that can ride on more surfaces will definitely be a great thing for all of us. I love bike shares despite some of their flaws – and I welcome any chance to get more people on bikes without waiting years for governments to catch up on infrastructure. The gravel bike is making this happen – and I, for one, welcome our gravel bike overlords.
HEY! I’m building a gravel bike for myself right now. I’m doing it bit by bit, part by part. Once I have it built and get a few rides in, I’ll share what I learned. Follow the blog or my twitter account so you don’t miss this post!
This is a small request to playground designers from a dad doing his best to stay fit: Remember that adults spend a lot of time at the playgrounds you build, and we could also use a little something to burn some calories.
Every single day, I see some news headline screaming about the nation’s obesity rate. Which is odd, because I also can’t escape people on their way to Crossfit, hot yoga, pilates or whatever classes. A good chunk of those people are parents -- parents who happen to spend a lot of time watching their kids go wild on playgrounds.
There is no better way to help parents get fit (or fitter) than by making a few modest additions to your playgrounds. For example, the city of Mesa recently renovated Pioneer Park to the tune of more than $7 million. That’s money well-spent – it’s a terrific example of a playground and park that looks great and keeps kids occupied. It’s beautiful and modern and flat-out awesome.
But how much more would it cost if the playground designers had put in some adult-sized pull-up bars and monkey bars? Maybe a bouldering wall? Or even just a simple rope-climbing station or three. Something tells me that would be just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of the Pioneer Park overhaul. And these additions would promote and enhance functional fitness.
Let’s go back to the so-called "obesity epidemic." American sports culture isn’t really about participation – it’s all about passive watching. I don’t even know where to find the statistics, but I would bet that most of the time allotted for sports leagues at public parks goes to youth sports. The message here is clear: You play sports when you’re a kid, then you turn 21 and start going to "sports bars" to watch other people sports, and then you become a parent and never raise your heart rate past 100 again. Then researchers and public officials wag their collective finger at us while simultaneously taking zero substantive steps to address the problem.
Not even with something simple, like putting some adult-sized fitness apparatus (apparati? What’s the plural there?) on the playgrounds where we spend a good chunk of time with our kids. It’s a simple, low-key, relatively low-cost addition for playground designers. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as this adult playground … not that I would mind having this near me!
Let’s think about the example that sets: If the kids see their parents cranking out pullups, box jumps, pushups and whatnot, staying physically active becomes their norm. We shift the thinking from the current "go to the gym because New Year’s resolutions to lose some of that fat" to "lifelong healthy lifestyle."
Remember, this doesn’t need to be extensive or expensive – but it can be, and I’m absolutely salivating over the GameTime Challenge Course. But even just a few small features could create a huge shift in the way we think of fitness. Over the past year, I’ve moved to chipping away at a few calories everywhere possible rather than just saving it for the gym, even if it’s just a few push-ups or turning a low wall or park bench into a box-jump station. I would be thrilled for a place where I could do a few things I can’t do at home, especially monkey bars and a rope-climbing station. I’m sure every parent who does Warrior Dash, Spartan, Tough Mudder or other obstacle course races would agree. Even parents who don’t get into that stuff could have some fun with these challenges.
So, playground designers, next time you plan a playground, remember that there are parents out there who could really use that time to get some exercise along with their kids. It’s already starting to happen in some cities – the expertise and desire are there. So get onboard!