Gravel Bikes: Advice for Buying and Building

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. 

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.

Niner Custom. #whiteindustries #dtswiss custom wheels. #3tcycling bar and stem with #praxisworks crank #gravelbike #gravelcyclist #roaddisc

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.

gravel bikes
Gravel bikes and their riders getting ready to launch from McDowell Mountain Cycles in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

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.

gravel bikes
This rider is sporting a Lauf fork, a cool suspension fork from Iceland (aka one of my favorite places on the planet). And yes, gravel bikes are perfect in Iceland!

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.

gravel bikes
Gravel bikes hitting the backroads of Arizona.

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.
  • Wheels -- after great luck with pre-built Shimano and Stan’s wheels and spotty luck with locally hand-built wheels, I take the plunge with a reputable company that does nothing but build wheels. Their insightful blog is part of the reason I picked them in particular.
  • 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. 


When Should You Get a New Mountain Bike?

new mountain bike
My current full-suspension bike – a Santa Cruz Superlight.

When is it time for a new mountain bike? If you’re the bike industry, the answer is "every time we come up with a new wheel size or standard" -- both of which they seem to be doing with ever-accelerating frequency these days.

If you’re a guy like me, the answer is a bit more complicated. Here’s what I mean by "a guy like me:" I go out on frequent rides and love nearly every damn thing there is about the bikes I’m riding. But I also know that everything has a limited lifespan, especially stuff that gets pounded by a 200-pound dude plowing over rocky terrain with -- let’s say not exactly the most deft of skills.

I want to start a fun conversation about how we decide it’s time for a new mountain bike. I’ll start off by talking a bit about my bikes and my impressions of riding them. It would be great to get your thoughts, and also to hear about your thought process for deciding to retire a mountain bike.

Bike #1 is a 2012 Raleigh XXIX that I built up largely piece by piece -- back in 2013, when I scored a killer deal on the frame and the previous iteration of the Gates Carbon Drive singlespeed drivetrain (that’s right, I don’t have CenterTrack).

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Riding the Tour De Scottsdale

After a more than 10-year hiatus from road-biking tour events, I made my return at the 2016 Tour de Scottsdale. In the meantime, I’ve ticked the box on some 12- and 24-hour mountain bike races. Why the hiatus? Road bike tours tend to have a rather mixed bag of skill levels -- and some of them freak me out (like the guy who crashed and slid shoulder-first into my front wheel at the Taylor House Century – how I didn’t crash, I still can’t figure out).

Anyway, that brings me to the Tour de Scottsdale. Here’s my rundown of thoughts and observations. Let me frame this by saying I ride once a week, either road or mountain depending on the time of year. The rest of the time, I lift weights, do hot yoga and various other odd exercise. I’ve done a few 12- and 24-hours races. When I’m solo or duo, the goal is to not be within 10 spots of DFL.

OK, onto the ride report. I didn’t get to pick up my race packet in advance. My wife ran a half-marathon the day before, and I didn’t want to cart the little person all over. I wasn’t able to get the pick-up point, so I figured I’d just grab my packet and stash it in my car.

Busing to the start line makes me furious.

Except that most of the parking was a few miles from the race start, and they were running trolleys. Fortunately, the nice people at the info tent were nice enough to let me stash my t-shirt (which I probably won’t wear outside my house, to be honest). That’s why I really don’t like busing to the start line – things can go wrong. I did find out that there was at least some parking near the start. Show up early!

Scrambling for my packet had another ill effect: I got stuck behind the 30-mile riders -- which included a multitude of fluorescent-yellow-clad people clearly from some sort of organization. They struck as some sort of group from a bro-y sort of church where the pastor wears a trilby and quotes the network TV version of The Big Lebowksi. They filled me with dread, and they demonstrated handling skills and a lack of situational awareness that fully lived up to my expectations.

tour de scottsdale

Once the yellow spazzes and others like them cleared, I was having myself a grand old time. I tucked in with a few smart riders, including this one older women with silky-smooth skills, all sorts of energy and the manner of a peloton patron (I was sad later when she broke off on the 30-mile course).

Let me diverge for a moment to talk about earbuds and headphones. They are stupid, stupid and stupid. That is stupid to the third power. So many riders cluelessly weaving along listening to Nickleback or whatever, absolutely oblivious to what was happening around them. My favorite was the guy with full headphones – his rear derailleur cage was pinging into his spokes, making it a very real possibility that he’d break a bunch of spokes, twist his derailleur hanger and blow the derailleur itself into shards. Do you think he heard? Nope.

Still, I was feeling great!


I screamed past the first rest stop. Then the second, even though it had Gu -- the crowd of 30-milers was a bit thick, and my groove was fully on. I turned up Dynamite, where another rider pointed to one of those electronic speed signs that was totally demoralizing us as we headed uphill into the wind. Near the top of the hill, we were rewarded with the third aid station.

But wait -- no Gu. Just bananas, pretzels and Gatorade. At this point, I barely had any of my Nuun-Skratch Labs mix in my bottles, though I still had a few of my own Gu packets. A twinge of concern lurked in my gray matter because Gatorade absolutely sucks – more accurately, it blows right out my backside after souring my stomach. I started kicking myself for not bringing a tube of Nuun and a boatload more Gu.

Back on the bike, things were still going swimmingly. We ripped down Nine-Mile hill, and then turned south to have the wind at our backs. Having the wind at my back and riding on the tops always makes me feel like a pirate ship – arrrrr!


I figured Aid Station Four would be the place to grab some Gu. I was still ripping it up, nearly 40 miles down at a pace I haven’t maintained before. I was feelin’ it!

Then, Aid Station Four. No Gu. I didn’t even bother stopping since my bottles were still pretty full, and I barely needed anything on the long descent.

The terrain started rolling, which seemed to just make everything even more enjoyable.


The miles ticked, and I started to feel a few little twinges in the legs. Nothing too big. Just that little electrical current-like feeling of muscles saying "Dude, you need to relax."

This morphed into a serious problem on the last incline before dropping into Fountain Hills. The small twinges turned into multiple “check engine” lights. My left quadriceps seized. I tried to come to a stop with dignity and not freak my right leg out, too. That required my to fall over on my side.

tour de scottsdale
“This is not good.”

It took a few minutes of smacking my leg to get it to bend again. And then I was off, fully aware that I was in for some hurt. I got to Aid Station 5 without further problems.

Guess what?

No Gu. That’s like deer camp with no whiskey. And I knew right than that what had largely been my happiest day on a bike in a long, long time was about to get shitty. I drank more of that god-forsaken Gatorade, feeling it clump in my stomach. I had no choice as I rode but to let some out -- so I stood up, let it fly, and both my legs seized.

Yes, you read that right. I farted so hard I fell down. This time, both legs were fully flamed out. I flipped onto my stomach and dragged myself fully onto the sidewalk to restart my engines. This involved whimpering, beating on my legs, whimpering, draining my bottles, whimpering, cursing the gods and whimpering.

tour de scottsdale
Can someone help me find my legs, pleeeeeez?

Once my legs were mobile again, I stretched out a bit and got myself moving up the hill on-foot. I figured a different motion for a few minutes would help. Meanwhile, my project finishing time ballooned like Baron Harkonnen at an all-you-can-eat buffet.


Fortunately, we had big downhills on the way! And the next few climbs followed downhills so big that I could coast up most of them. We turned onto Shea, and I was hitting 40 miles per hours without doing a damn thing.

Oh, hai, Aid Station 6! I can haz Gatorade? (Yes, I know I’ve been fustigating the very existence of Gatorade throughout this post. Well, it’s last call and I’ll take anything.) They had a few thimblefuls left.

Blessedly, they had Gu! Even the super-salty, sliver-of-the-Dead Sea Roctane variety! Praise be the Seven, the Red God, The Drowned God and anyone else listening! But where was the Gu when we really, really, needed it? (My wife, a far smarter and more experienced racey sort of person – this isn’t a race, of course – summed my dimmwittedness up with a sympathetic but probably exasperated "Never put your faith in them.")

And then we went up a hill I usually climb in my friggin’ big ring -- but now, I’m spinning my lowest gear and hoping my legs wouldn’t seize again. Sure enough, I got away with it! Then down the hill, and it’s all downhill from there!

Except it wasn’t.

Even a speed bump was an hors categorie climb. FML. At one point, I slowed down to massage my left quad into compliance. It was just good enough to coast to the finish. My legs were the only problem – I was clear-headed with no other aches or pains. I have to rue my bad decision making and how it affected what could have been a really awesome day in the saddle.

So just the other day, I was talking to a co-worker about events and how I can tell when organizers and volunteers know they’re stuff, and what a difference it makes. The Tour de Scottsdale makes me suspicious on this point. Consider the Tour of the White Mountain – this race has destroyed me body and spirit three times, yet I still love it. Part of it is the plugged-in volunteers and organizers. Every aid station is different, and tailor-made to the distance where it falls. For example, the last aid station always had boiled red potatoes that riders can roll in salt. Carbs, potassium and salt to stave off cramps – brilliant!

Tour de Scottsdale
My first-ever photo of myself at a road bike event!

Maybe Tour de Scottsdale skimps on quality sports drinks and Gu because of the cost. Tell you what – skip the t-shirt that I won’t wear much. Even skip the medals. Just fuel me right because I’m counting on you." Or if you (or more likely the participants) want to keep all the swag, say "Hey, we provide stuff -- but not much. Bringing your sports food/gels is own is a good idea, but we’ll hook you up with water and gels at every XXXth station."

I still like the event, don’t get me wrong … especially since this my depleted electrolytes area ultimately my fault. I’ll ride it next year. It was decently organized, and the volunteers were nice. The course was pretty fun, too. It just has the sort of problems that are part and parcel of larger events and tours (I’m looking at you, Spaz Riders in fluorescent yellow).

And I will show up loaded with a bandoleer belt full of my favorite hydration stuff and riding food. I suggest anyone outside the front of the pack do the same.

This ride taught me some valuable lessons. Some tweaks to my training and eating, and I started to improve yugely. Read this report of my latest Tour de Tucson to see how much better things are going now.


My Best Travel Advice – 2015 Edition

Kettlebell snatches - a great way to sweat enough to test the tasc Carrollton T.
Working out kind of sucks – but it makes me able to do cool things when I travel.

One thing people often tell me is "I wish I could travel with you!" I’m flattered, honestly. When someone says that, I hear "You know what you’re doing and you know how to have fun." Great! I’ll take that any day.

The fact is, though, I like traveling with as few people as possible. The odds of me opening up my travel time to just anyone are slim to none. The odds of our schedules aligning? Even worse (though I did get to travel overseas for work this year, and had a phenomenal co-worker with me).

Here’s some good news, though: I’m going to give you my best travel travel advice to help you check out the world the way I do. I’ve learned much beyond these, but I think these are the most important to me.

Better Fitness = Better Travel

Some people love tweeting from the gym, or taking selfies at the yoga studio. I am not one of them. My exercise routine is personal, almost solitary (with the exception of hot yoga classes) and always kind of grim. I don’t exercise to impress people or to be a male model. I exercise so I can do cool stuff.

best passenger planes
Flying ALWAYS beats a covered wagon.

Fitness is the basis for being ready to do anything you hear about when you travel. It gives you the ability to do a long hike, sign up for a 10k (which I’ve done in four countries so far), go cross country skiing -- you name it. There is no one-size-fits-all method to getting fit. My system of weightlifting, hot yoga, running and cycling is just right for me. There are so many ways to get sweaty these days that I can’t fathom it. Try a few things. See what you find fun or at least tolerable – and then stick with it. Start right this very minute. It will make your next travel experience better.

poop chute 1
Who knows what you might end up eating when you travel?

Love to Fly for Your Best Travel Ever

Airport security is a hassle. Airplane seats are leftover torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition. You always wind up sitting next to someone who hasn’t bathed since the Game Of Thrones season finale.


Look, heading to Oregon in a covered wagon was no picnic. In the time it might’ve taken your ancestors to get out of the county, you can be on the exact opposite end of the planet. You can do this for a price unprecedented in human history, and you can do it breathing nice, clean air: I feel like smacking people who yap about the Golden Age of air travel when people suited up in their finest to fly -- and then smoked like chimneys the entire time (how easily we forget that, right?).

Even if you never learn to love flying, just remember it’s a means to an end. And that end is a new place, a new culture and new experiences.

Change From Your Usual

Let’s say you’re a meat-eating, football-watching SUV driver. If you travel, you just might wind up in a place where everyone else is a vegetarian cricket fan who gets around on a motorbike.

Guess what? You’ll have to fit in, because the culture isn’t going to change for you.

That goes for the vegans, too. I watched a vegan have an emotional warp-core breach because she had to ride in a horse-drawn cart. There was much blubbering and torrent of tears -- all because she expected that the world and its cultures would revolve around her comfort zone.

This isn’t the way travel works.

You’re going to get the best travel experience if you are willing to morph in any direction. Stay somewhere that doesn’t have a 5-Star rating. Eat something that would normally frighten you. Use your own two feet. Try to speak a different language.


What NOT to Do With an Expired Passport

expired passport Boeing 787 Dreamliner
My flight was waiting for me … all I had to do was bring the right passport.


Shortly before the government shutdown in October, I realized my passport would expire just days before we left for Vietnam. I filled out the paperwork and sent the money for an expedited renewed passport. Two weeks later, I had a shiny-but-blank passport. A few days after that, I got my old expired passport with a hole punched through it. I tossed them into my top drawer.

The morning we left (the day before Sarah’s birthday), I stuck a paw in my top drawer and grabbed my passport. Of course, it’s only after a cab dropped us off at the airport -- and after we’re nearly to the check-in agent -- that I realized something.

I grabbed the old expired passport!

I told Sarah what’s up andsaid to get on the plane, and that I’ll go home and get my passport. Naturally, the first cab up was a hoopty minivan ill-suited to high-speed hijinks. Still, it got me back home. I stormed into my room, grabbed the new passport, tossed the expired passport somewhere safe, petted the cat good-bye again, and bolted back into the cab.

Everything turned out alright. I got back to the airport in time. We got to the gate … where we had some delay because the gate crew didn’t want to let me board. For some reason, they thought I needed a Vietnamese visa to even board the flight (which was to San Jose, never mind that travelers get visas when they arrive in Vietnam).

But I caused more stress than I really needed to. So here’s your simple piece of knowledge to take from this: Store your old and much-stamped expired passport somewhere far away from your current passport.

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The Travel Tattoo – A Lasting Memento (Guest Post)

kelly lewis travel tattoo
Kelly Lewis shows her awesome pachyderm ink. (Courtesy of Kelly Lewis)

Hey, everybody! Ready for something different? Then check out this guest post from Nichole L. Reber about getting a tattoo while traveling. Seems like something to permanently keep the memories alive, eh?

The thought of getting a tattoo abroad often brings hygiene-obsessed Americans images of Brynn tossing a bag of frozen peas over her shoulder a la Bridesmaids. And whilst living abroad for the past four years I never did see tattoo artists quite so randomly placed as in a van, I did once see a tattoo party in a bar. And no, I didn’t get any of my five done there.

Tattoos are gaining in global popularity, I noticed whilst living in China, Hong Kong, India, and Peru. Though the trend hasn’t reached American heights. You’re not likely to find a Chinese guy with a sleeve or an Indian woman with a large Shiva tramp stamp.

Kelly Lewis, the globetrotting founder of the Go! Girls Guide travel series, has a bit more derring do than I, though. She’s been inked a couple of times abroad in less conventional places than the tattoo studios I visited.

travel tattoo
Nichole goes under the needle for the first time in awhile.

"I got my fingerprint tattoo in my shoulder from a guy I was friends with in New Zealand. He tattooed me in his bedroom and it was like $40," she said. "My elephant was done in Chang Mai Thailand. It was done in a shop, with (an ink) gun, and was truly done by an artist. The Thai guy I was seeing at the time helped me translate."

My experiences with tattoos abroad were a bit more sedate than making myself vulnerable in a strange guy’s bedroom. In fact, tattooing is one time in my life where I wait for someone else to test the waters before I dive in.

nichole travel tatto
It’s tat time again.

In Shenzhen, China, a local expat magazine hired me to review a new tattoo studio. I knew the owners, had even watched them throw a tattoo party at a pub and so I brought along a friend, an ink virgin ready for his first time. I was there for moral support.

The artist/owner discussed with him the dimensions and shading and location of the tattoo sketch he’d brought along. She then got set up with various colors of ink and individually, hygienically wrapped needles. She thoroughly cleansed his arm. Then it began— that sound we the tattooed grow to love: bizzz, zzzz, kg-kgzzzzz. With that first prick she deflowered my man.

My henna tattoo was scheduled for two weeks later but deportation killed my chance. Two years later, in the Northern Peruvian desert city of Piura, I had another chance at ink.

I’d already rung the tatuador, Jorge Arista, through the ringer of 20 questions. Arista, one of four tatuadores in Piura, had 10 years of experience and was the long-time friend of a colleague who I accompanied during her most recent tattoo. The pain was worse than I remembered it, having had my last ink a decade before. As soon as the needle touched my skin, a loud, piercing squeal escaped my mouth, even causing the security guard to come check out the scene.

Over the next few weeks, I remembered all the itching and the constant application of an ointment Jorge recommended from a nearby pharmacy, from my previous tattoos. I hadn’t planned for the new ink to preempt me from swimming in the Pacific on the next day’s planned beach weekend. Thanks to Jorge’s reminder, however, of the ruinous effects of salt water and sun on new ink, my colorful Ganesh and his rat companion turned out beautifully.

My good luck has led to this list of tips to find a good artist for your travel tattoo:

  • Take your time. No tattoo is worth rushing a lifetime of complications or regrets.
  • Seek studio recommendations from people you trust, not some random inked tourist you passed walking down the beach on your three-day visit to some third-world hamlet.
  • Hang out in the studio and watch
  • Look through the portfolio and observe the quality of art
  • Look for individually wrapped (disposable) needles and needle covers
  • Check that the inks are made specifically for tattoos
  • Get after-care instructions

Note from Wandering Justin: Nichole didn’t give me the usual “about me” sort of paragraph. So I’ll take the liberty … Nichole has lived in China, Peru and India. She now roams the streets of the truly confusing Phoenix metropolis. She has an eye for architecture, so visit her Architecture Travel Writer site to see what the world looks like to someone who knows something beyond “oooh, pretty building!” (Like me.)

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Rattlesnake Encounter – What Should You Do?

Photo by Tigerhawkvok/Wikipedia.

I’ve already written about how to deal with rattlesnake encounters. The folks from the Maricopa County Parks Department gave me some great advice.

Turns out, not everyone agrees with it.

I recently encountered a rattler curled in the shade of a creosote bush right alongside the Desert Classic Trail at South Mountain in Phoenix. Some other riders had stopped to warn people.

They were just warning people. Which is great for the amount of time they’re there.

What about the people who walk or ride by after everyone else is gone? Chances are, they’ll never see the rattler. And they might take that wrong step that results in one nasty, painful, dangerous, potentially life-threatening wound.

That was my logic behind tossing a few stones near the rattler, as I’d learned to do from the ranger I interviewed for my last piece about rattlers. The stones got progressively larger, but I made sure not to actually hit the snake. I was hoping to cause enough vibration to make it slither away. The snake wasn’t having any of it – too comfortable in the shade, I guess. And there were no sticks long or sturdy enough that I’d use to herd it.

"That’s stupid. You’re just going to piss him off," one other rider said, anthropomorphizing far too much. Anger doesn’t make a snake bite – feeling threatened makes a snake bite.

I told him that this is the advice I got from people who know what they’re doing. He rode away muttering about how much he knew about snakes. Probably not as much as a county ranger, I’d guess.

I tried my best to move the snake, but couldn’t. It didn’t even rattle or hiss. And I wasn’t willing to get any closer. Nor was I willing to kill it … it was just being a snake.

I felt we were at least responsible for trying to make the trail safer.

What do you think?