Adventures, Gear

Why 2018 is the Year of the Gravel Bike

Why 2018 is the Year of the Gravel Bike
gravel bike
The All-City Cosmic Stallion is a great example of a gravel bike with everything I like: A steel frame, through axles, disc brakes and a healthy dash of personality. (photo from the All-City Cycles website)

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The year 2018 is going to be the Year of the Gravel Bike. Really, it might be already.

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 just perfect for gravel bikes. Some bits of the canal banks are closed off, and it would be good to explore opening those 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.

gravel bike
A closeup look at the big, aggressive, road-plus tire of a very sweet Lundbeck gravel bike. And that’s the sort of terrain that makes a gravel bike say “no problemo.” (photo from the Lundbeck website)

What the Hell is a Gravel Bike, Anyway?

gravel bike
The Central Arizona Project – Local gravel bike people would ride the hell out of this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “gravel bike,” let me fill you in. 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., you’ll hear marketing nerds position them as road-plus bikes, adventures bikes or -gag- alt-road bikes. It’s made to be 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, I decided to point my LeMond Zurich into one of these unpaved areas. Well. 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, on the other hand, would cruise through this sort of thing on 30-40c tires and a longer, more-stable wheelbase.

Right now, there are already fully engaged gravel riding Facebook groups swapping secrets. That’s a good sign that the gravel bike movement is growing fast. One elite female racer mentioned to me that many of her friends are tapping into gravel bikes for training away from cars. And a vector into the overlooked female bike rider 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.

gravel bike
I’m going with a gravel bike for the future, too.

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. Not so with the gravel bike, which has recreation and transit potential. 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.

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).

gravel bike
These bikeshares are adding more traffic to urban cycling infrastructure. Gravel bikes are a great way for riders to get a little more space to themselves.

It also ends at the 143 Freeway, separating it from one of the nicest stretches of car-free road biking that any cyclist can enjoy; not even a gravel bike can fix this thanks to the freeway. I’m sure there’s a solution, but the gravel bike can’t rise to this challenge alone. As you head west along Rio Salado, there are a few breaks in the pavement. Hard to deal with for a road bike, but well within the capabilities of a gravel bike.

The Gravel Bike = Better Experience for All Path Users

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!

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