CategoriesGear

Thinking About Buying a Bike in 2021?

Here’s a handy roundup of advice for people buying a bike in 2021. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Hybrid Bikes
  • Gravel Bikes
  • Mountain Bikes
  • Random Thoughts

This post is inspired by a message from one of my high school friends:

“Any advice on buying a bike? I haven’t ridden since freshman year of college. I’m just looking for something casual (like 2-3 times a month) that I can ride on suburban streets but also dirt roads/trails (but not crazy off-road mountain biking). I’ve heard of gravel bike or hybrid bikes.”

The person asking this question mentioned the Co-Op Cycles DRT 2.2, which goes for about $1,800, as a possibility.

I figured he’s not the only person considering buying a bike in 2021. So rather than dump all my thoughts into email or FB messenger, I’ll just turn it into a blog post to help out anyone else facing a similar situation.

Are Hybrid Bikes Any Good?

Let’s tackle the hybrid question first. Hybrids as we knew them aren’t as big a slice of the market anymore. They were the wimpy offspring of a road bike with skinny 700c tires, swept-up handlebars, a short wheelbase and a very upright seating position.

I hated them during my bike shop days. Now in 2021, bikes like the Kona Dew with their 26.5/650B wheels, disc brakes and more-maneuverable geometry have totally crushed that same corner of the market: the person who mostly rides city streets, but also wants to hit unpaved paths. With a change of tires, the Dew and other bikes like it will let you ride some trails without killing you (keep in mind it doesn’t have a suspension fork). I like the Dew so much that my brother and I pitched in to buy one for our dad – he absolutely loves the thing.

I suppose there are probably some 1990s-style hybrid bikes out there. But they’re really not good for anything.

What About this Gravel Bike Thing?

I’ve already written about gravel bikes extensively. Still, I see a split in this category between hardcore off-road only gravel bikes and the “road plus” or “all-road” category, which is how I’ve built my Lynskey Urbano.

Either way you slice it, I love gravel or all-road or whatever. They are super-stable on the street next to a road bike. They’re in their element on unpaved paths. And in the right hands, they can chew up singletrack mountain bike trails. (I don’t consider myself the right hands — I still prefer a mountain bike for that sort of riding.)

buying a bike in 2021
Gravel bikes are pretty awesome for so many reasons.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone who hasn’t really ridden in 20 years to get on a gravel bike to go forth and shred the singletrack, though. That is best left to experienced roadies or mountain bikers who have their handling skills down pat.

Gravel Bike Recommendations

So for my friend here, I’m gonna say that a gravel bike is great as long as he really has no intention of hitting real mountain bike trails. With that said, I’d recommend the State Bicycle Co All-Road Black Label.

The standout specs to me are the 1X chainring setup, carbon fork, tubeless wheelset and excellent Vittoria tires. I’m pretty sure the shifters and derailleurs are made by Microshift. So it’s serviceable more than spectacular.

Still, it’s a lot of bike for the money. A lot.

A few hundred more bucks brings the All-City Cycles Space Horse Tiagra into the frame. (Tiagra, by the way, is the grade of Shimano components on the Space Horse, which is available in various build options. Tiagra is a lower-end Shimano group but still solid – the next levels up are 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. Below Tiagra from low to high are Claris and Sora. The gravel-specific GRX group exists in three flavors: RX400, RX600 and RX800. Which sounds a bit like a weird pharmacy, but whatever. )

I love the steel frame on the Space Horse — a lot of old bike dudes love the ride of steel, plus the durability. As a brand, All-City Cycles also oozes personality. Their bike just look f-in’ cool. One concern I have about All-City Cycles is that they can be hard to find at a local bike shop. Many bike shops can get them, but it’s unusual to see them on the showroom floor.

What if I Want a Mountain Bike?

If my friend decides to go for a mountain bike, I will always say that if you’re spending less than $2,000, you should buy a hardtail. Avoid rear suspension below that point!

I also favor telling less-experienced riders to go with a mountain bike. Yes, they’re not as fast on city streets. But the maneuvering and fit is more-forgiving than a gravel bike.

What I’d look for in this price range is a Shimano Deore build kit. I’d avoid SRAM’s SX group. The general consensus on SX is “plasticy shite.” SRAM’s mountain bike component levels start pretty much at SX, then NX, then GX and then into fancy stuff with so many Xs you’d swear they were shooting porn.

Shimano’s minimum level of competence starts at Deore (which is actually fantastic stuff for the $$$) and progresses to SLX, XT and XTR. Alivio is below them all. Avoid it.

Fork-wise, you’re really not going to get anything great here — a Rock Shox Recon is the best you can hope for. The Recon isn’t actually bad, though.

When it comes to getting a lot of mountain bike for the money, the brands that are my top-of-mind for me are Salsa, Kona and Marin. They not only offer good value, but they seem to be plugged into what’s going on with modern geometry. They’re also relatively easy to find at local bike shops, which is important.

One concern: Every bike in the price range seems to come with tires that are a minimum of 2.4 inches wide, with some non-plus sizes going to 2.6. I typically ride a 2.3 (usually something like a Continental X King). When those tires wear out, I’d opt for something less chubby.

So what bikes have this?

The Salsa Timberjack was the first one to come to mind. It seems Salsa no longer has a Deore version of the T-Jack, just the upper-level SLX and XT stuff. One of the reasons I like the T-Jack for my friend is that it has mounts for EVERYTHING. This guy is a hiker – I could see him getting bit by the bikepacking bug, and Salsa had exactly these kinds of shenanigans in mind when they created the ‘Jack.

buying a bike in 2021

Now here’s an outlier: If my friend wants to keep it casual, maybe he doesn’t even need gears at all. Maybe he needs an overgrown BMX bike like the Kona Unit.

A singlespeed can do a lot. You can use it for coffeeshop runs … or you can race the hell out of it like I do with my Domahidy.

Plus, if he hates it, he can revel in using all the dick puns in his Craigslist ad.

But I’d predict that nobody can hate a singlespeed. They are versatile, capable and low-maintenance. I’ll also add that Kona has a knack for frame design and geometry. The Unit is also so cheap that he can slap a good suspension fork in it the very day he buys it — he might even be able to swing a good deal on that upgrade since he’s buying a bike, too. Can you imagine that bike with a new-generation Marzocchi fork on it?

I really wish State Bicycle Co. still offered their Pulsar model. That 29er would’ve been PERFECT for my friend.

What About the Co-Op DRT 2.2?

The Co-Op bike mentioned earlier doesn’t do much for me. I’ve not enjoyed riding a 26.5+ wheel/tire size at all. Those huge-volume tires can smoothly roll over a lot of stuff, but they are serious work to pedal. They also don’t like changing directions with near the agility of a non-plus tire. The components are decent SRAM NX stuff with Shimano brakes — an astute pairing. I’ve never had a problem with SRAM shifting, but I’ve never loved their disc brakes. I’ve always preferred the feel of Shimano disc brakes.

Going with Co-Op also men’s that REI is going to be your bike shop, which doesn’t sit well with me. Aside from a few flagship stores, the accessories and parts sold at most REI stores are substandard. You’re also going to find better mechanics at specialty bike shops. REI does sell Salsa at some of its stores. Again, though, REI just isn’t outstanding at bike stuff.

Random Observations

I’m not recommending “direct-to-customer” brands in this case. A new rider is going to wind up needed shop support. For best results, I recommend buying local from a shop that makes you feel welcome. You’re buying the shop just as much as you’re buying the bike.

It’s also important to budget for other stuff: hydration (pack, water bottles/cages or both), bike shorts, tools, etc. This can get in-depth, so I won’t cover to many of those variables here. I might actually have to do a “shit every new rider needs” sort of post.

What About the Big Brands?

You’ll also notice that I didn’t mention the big brands like Specialized, Trek, Giant or Cannondale here.

To me, they don’t offer near the bike for the money that these other brands do. Aside from the brands I’ve mentioned in this post, I’d also look at Marin, who has lately proven they know how to offer some real value.

Not only do I find the big guys a lesser value, I also just find them boring. As one of my friends observed long ago, a bike is like your personal X-Wing fighter. Go with something that offers some panache and individuality — and maybe support a company that has some spirit.

buying a bike in 2021
If you’re going used, be sure to get a second or third opinion.

The Used Bike Question

Buying used can get you some extra bike for the money. At least, most of the time. The bike industry is going through some serious supply chain issues right now, and used bike prices are higher than you might expect.

Also, buying used is a tricky proposition for someone who hasn’t spent a long time working on their own bikes. If you’re considering this route, it’s best to have a friend who’s a serious bike nut to help. This is also a good time to plug for a singlespeed — they just have fewer vectors for serious problems.

Final Thoughts on Buying a Bike in 2021

I’ve done the bike advice dance many times before. My friend probably didn’t expect this much of an info dump, and it will probably spawn follow-up questions. I’ll update here as the conversation evolves.

Knowing what I do at this moment, though, the bike I recommend is the Salsa Timberjack. It’s an excellent value from a reputable brand. The State gravel bike is a great value, but the handling qualities of a gravel bike present a steeper learning curve than a mountain bike like the ‘Jack.

Also to come in a future post — another buddy asked me about buying a full-suspension mountain bike. So we’ll break that down in the future.

CategoriesGear

Gravel Bike Versus Road Bike

A few years ago when the gravel bike trend was starting to take off, one of my local Wise Veteran Riders sniffed "I can do all that stuff on my road bike."

Great. Maybe he can hop off the pavement on his road bike and hit some singletrack. But not all of us can plow through loose gravel on 25C tires pumped to 110 PSI without winding up on our heads. 

I see his point, though. Many of us cyclists are too quick to buy new stuff when we can re-purpose old gear. Here’s how to figure out once and for all the Gravel Bike Versus Road Bike conundrum.

Your Road Bike is Really Old

My road bike was a 1999 Lemond Zurich. Beautiful Reynolds 853 tubes welded in the US. Smooth riding. Strong. Relatively light.

lemond zurich gravel bike versus road bike
My Lemond Zurich before repaint and reassembly.

But I got my money’s worth out of it. So if you have 10 or more years on your road bike, maybe it’s time to treat yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

Your Road Bike Can’t Fit Bigger Tires

Age plays into the tire clearance question, as well. My Zurich had rim brakes, so that limited the size of tires I could jam in there. 28c, tops. 

gravel bike versus road bike

Most gravel bikes are rolling 32c and up. I trained on 40c tires from April to November before I popped on a set of 30s for El Tour de Tucson (where I broke my previous record by 30 minutes).

Enormous gravel tires will slow you down if you’re riding on the road most of the time. Don’t worry — ride ’em until they’re worn out, and replace them with skinnier gravel tires in the 30-32c range.

You Want Disc Brakes

I love the disc brakes on my mountain bike. And there are times on long descents when my old rim brakes felt more like I was melting the pads than actually slowing my roll.




Adding discs to a frame like my Zurich would’ve been possible, but not cost effective. I’d have to strip the components and paint, turn it over to a welder, repaint it and then rebuild.

gravel bike versus road bike
In 2018, I set my PR on a gravel bike at El Tour De Tucson.

You Want Stable Handling

For stability, there’s no question about gravel bike versus road bike. When I plow into softer or rockier ground, my Lynskey Urbano doesn’t twitch thanks to its relaxed cyclocross geometry. Lemond made road bikes with steep road-racing angles, and they never fared well on soft or loose surfaces. 

Do some number-crunching over geometry. Wheelbase and standover will reveal quite a bit about how a bike will fit you if you can’t test ride.

Still Want to Convert Your Road Bike? Do This.

Go Tubeless: Tubeless tires are way better at shrugging off flats when use them with sealant. Pluck the thorn or other foreign object out, spin it and add more air. Done.

Schwalbe G-One Tubeless Gravel Tire gravel bike versus road bike
This is a super-awesome gravel tire mounted on a set of tubeless rims.

Get a Flared Drop Bar: A flared drop bar will make you way more comfortable. I was amazed at how much better I felt on long rides, even when I never left the pavement. In fact, I’d say most road riders should consider one.

Bigger Tires, Lower Pressure: Jam on the biggest tire you can, and take some pressure out of it. Drop 20 PSI from your usual pressure and see how it goes. Experiment a bit.

 

CategoriesFitnessGear

Recap: 2018 Tour De Tucson

The 2018 Tour de Tucson started to go pear-shaped for me about 20 minutes before the start.

As I walked my bike toward the start, I heard a "whiiiiiiiirrrrrr" sound from the front wheel. Disc brakes problem? I was sure of it, until I notice that the zip tie holding the brake cable to the fork had broken. My wife solved that problem by pulling out a roll of clear packing tape.

 

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Sending my dad off for El Tour De Tucson. Once this goon is on his way, I’m going to the zoo. #cycling #bikes

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Then, as I rolled to the start, I got caught being a wise guy. There was a line of people waiting to go under a tape barricade to get to the start. "A-ha," I thought, "I’m on a gravel bike!" So I popped onto a landscaped parking lot island, went around them and grabbed a nice spot in the line. Great success, right? Well, I noticed the goat head thorns in my front tire, then in my back tire. I pulled them out and spun the affected parts of the wheel to the bottom until the tire sealant did its trick. Thank you, tubeless wheels and tires! (And yes, they held for the entire race).

Then I went to turn my wrist-mounted heart rate monitor on. And it refused to wake up. I thought I’d charged it, but you know how that goes. So I’d have to rely on the Force.

2018 tour de tucson

And We’re Off for the 2018 Tour de Tucson!

Things got way better from there. My mid-pack starting spot saved me much of the frustration of passing a bunch of people, and it gave me and a work friend a chance to tag onto some faster-moving groups.

The 2018 Tour de Tucson had a different starting place for 75-mile riders than in the past few years, and it was definitely more convenient than it’s been in years past (please keep it, but sort the road signage out so we know we’re allowed to drive to the staging area). It routed us past a bit of the AMARG airplane graveyard – which also hosts a 10k run in the fall that you shouldn’t miss.

Desert Boneyard 10k
Hell, yes, I did the Desert Boneyard 10k in a frilly pirate shirt!

Being sans heart rate monitor, I had to rely on how my legs felt. I was a bit distressed to feel that electricity-like jangle high in my quads. I’d hit the electrolytes hard all week. I made a mental note to keep an eye on that situation. Within 10 miles, though, it was gone. Last year, I rode a tiny bit conservatively because of the crampfest that my first Tour de Tucson had been in 2016. This year, I wanted to really open in up a bit. So I did, which involved working with other riders for as long as possible until one of us wanted to slow down or go faster.

New Bike Comes Up Aces
Lynskey Urbano November Wheels
My Lynskey Urbano sporting its November Bicycles wheelset.

It was also my first race on a new bike – a Lynskey Urbano, which leans more toward the cyclocross side of the geometry spectrum. It’s longer than the LeMond Zurich I rode for nearly 20 years before, and it can accommodate some wide tires (I was on 30C tires after a summer training on 40Cs -- and the LeMond always had 25C). This made the Urbano super-stable on the fast descents. I was also riding with disc brakes and a flared handlebar, which made for great braking and a nice variety of hand positions. Part of the 2018 Tour de Tucson also goes through a wash (just like in years past). Rather than dismounting and walking, I rode the whole thing – Schwalbe S-One HT tires, for anyone looking for the right tire for their mostly-road-but-sometimes-gravel bike. Fast on the road, but still capable of getting you through some dirt with confidence. I’m also very enthusiastic about my November Bicycles wheelset.

After the gravel section is the short, steep climb where spectators love to gather. That would be a good test to see if that electrical pre-cramp leg tingle would come back. Nope, no sign of it. Strava would later tell me that I beat my best time handily, as it would for most segments of the ride.

I was worried about the wind. The ginormous used-car-lot American flags along the route were stretched taut on their poles. And it appeared to be headed opposite our direction for the final stretch of the ride up Silverbell Road – or Silverhell, as I like to call it – and along the I-10 freeway. Oddly enough, that meant the wind should’ve been at our backs as we headed north. But I couldn’t feel any benefit from the wind – I rode that part with a fast, experienced rider who seemed to know everyone on the course. Super-smooth bike handler, too. We’d been near each other off-and-on for the first 35 miles, and teamed up for about 15 miles. She finally latched onto a fast-moving group of dudes right around there.

Feeling too Groovy to Stop

I was also skipping aid stations. No need for a bathroom, and my two 20-oz bottles and little 16-ouncer filled with Nuun tablets and Trace Minerals magnesium tablets were doing the trick perfectly. It was also pretty cool out, so I wasn’t sweating up a storm. Every 45 minutes, I ate a fig bar. That and the electrolytes kept me sorted out.

2018 tour de tucson

I’d planned to refill water bottles at any stop around 40 miles, but I skipped it. I blew past the 50 miles stop. I stopped for the first time in the race at 61 miles to use the bathroom, fill bottles and get my EFS gel shot ready for use. By that time, I’d slayed the Silverbell dragon. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much wind. I grabbed onto a passing group as I left the aid station – they were some of the faster people in the 42-mile category, which made them pretty sprightly. I wasn’t able to stay with them, but I did team up with some guys who got bounced out of the group along with me. We all took turns at the front, but they couldn’t stick with me. Another guy on a Lynskey was a huge help for a few miles until he tagged onto a faster group. It was only about two miles to the finish at that point.

Those last few miles went well, and I sailed into the finish line about 35 minute faster than last year. I wasn’t really sure about how this year would go. I’m not sure why I rode that much faster, but I have some thoughts:

I’m 10 pounds lighter than I was last year. I’d ridden 500 miles more than I had by this point last year. Since August, I’ve done regular HIIT workouts at TruHit and switched up my routines a lot more. In August, I did plenty of squats at higher weights and lowers reps … and I experimented with the keto diet. I couldn’t stick with it … and I know I’m not being scientific here, but shaking my eating habits up temporarily did something.  

My Lynskey Urbano versus my Lemond Zurich. The Lynskey’s tires, fork and brakes are heavier. I’m not sure if its titanium frame is that much lighter than the LeMond’s; it’s overbuilt like crazy. They both fit well, but those wider tires and its relaxed geometry allow me to let it hang out on the downhills more.

2017 tour de tucson
Me in the 2017 Tour de Tucson. I’ll update when I get my new photos!

I trained solo a lot. In the summer heat, I was out there training for the 2018 Tour de Tucson. I spent a lot of time riding in the dirt and into the wind on those big 40C tires. I even did a 55-mile group ride with roadies on them, and was able to more than hang.

I started in mid-pack instead of working my way up from the back. This allowed me to team up with faster riders, and helped my first 10 miles go far faster. It’s a huge chore to churn through riders who are slower or – worse yet – not conversant in how to handle themselves in groups of rider (hint: slower traffic stays to the right).

Which of those factors made the biggest difference? I don’t know. Being lighter is, to a point, a good habit to keep up. I hope my Urbano will last as long as the Zurich. And I will definitely make it a point to get a good starting spot in the future.

 

CategoriesGear

November Bicycles – Review of a Wheelbuilder

November Bicycles solved a big problem for me: trying to pick gravel bike wheels. Nobody seems to agree on what gravel bikes (or their wheels) really are. The genre/category spans everything from touring to 200-mile offroad races, with a few stops like "road plus" in the middle.

I didn’t want wheels that were made for something else. I wanted to buy with complete confidence on that point. When I ran across the blog for November Bicycles, I knew I had the right people.

I don’t even remember what that first post was about because I took an immediate deep dive into their blog content and products. I was amazed at the detail and thought they put into the most microscopic minutia of building wheels.

The Current State of Bicycle Wheelbuilding

This is important because machine-built, pre-made wheels are the norm. And some of them work extremely well, like my original Stan’s Arch mountain bike wheels and my Ultegra WH-6800 road wheels. Good pre-built wheels have made wheelbuilding a declining-though-not-lost art. Go to a local shop, and not all of them will have someone ready to lace up a custom set of wheels.

They’re more likely to push you toward pre-built wheels. Or they might have someone good, but -- a retail bike shop is (to me) not the place to build a quality wheelset. A stream of customers and other demands can turn a build into a stop-start process.

November Bicycles
One of the nice builds you’ll see on the November Bicycles website. I shamelessly borrowed this from their website.

November Bicycles seemed like people who just might listen to what I’m going to do, make recommendations and then assemble them in the manner of Shaolin monks turned bike nerds. I emailed them to introduce myself and my needs:

  • 6’2, 200-ish pounds, likes beer
  • mostly does weight training
  • building build a road bike that can do canal paths and gravel, but is still speedy on the road
  • likes riding events like Tour de Tucson
  • not so into blingy hubs, somewhat of a cheapskate

First Contact With November Bicycles

Dave from November Bicycles soon replied with a friendly email. He gave me options, asked insightful questions and made some recommendations. He didn’t just recommend, though: He told me the “why” behind his suggestions.

In the end, November Bicycles built me a wheelset based on Bitex hubs and Belgian HED+ rims with Wheelsmith spokes and brass nipples. They arrived neatly packed.

No, not those kind of brass nipples.

After opening the box, I installed a set of 38-c Vittoria Terreno tires. Even without sealant, the tires and rims seated immediately to each other. They showed barely any air leakage as I waited for the rest of my parts to arrive. They didn’t PING with the authority I’m used to, but they’ve seated perfectly. I’ve since deflated them, put in sealant and re-inflated.

First Ride and Final Thoughts

I’ve also had my first ride, which was an exercise in happy riding. Is it the November Bicycles wheels? They’re definitely part of the whole, and I get the impression that their true worth will reveal themselves over time. That’s often the way quality components born of quality labor work. They just keep doing what they do without complaint or undue fuss.

november bicycles

As for the experience of being a November Bicycles customer? I’m largely a local-vore and try really hard to keep my business in Arizona. Most of the new parts on my bike are locally sourced. But the November Bicycles blog showed a depth of thought in the wheelbuilding craft that I don’t see from my locals – at least not publicly.

The way November Bicycles shared their knowledge convinced me that I wanted them to build my wheels. That’s the way to get my money. Good advertising amuses me. But as much as I love The Most-Interesting Man in the World, I would only drink Dos Equis if I was dying of thirst. Blog posts that show me knowledge and absolute enthusiasm for what you do are the most-effective way to market to me. November Bicycles nailed this.

Consequently, I wound up with a wheelset that is exactly made for me and what I want to do on my gravel bike.

Hungry for more gravel bike talk? Here’s my main post about the process of building my new bike. I’ll update it with more links as I kick out more content. 

CategoriesAdventuresGear

Why 2018 is the Year of the Gravel Bike

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.

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)

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?

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”: 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.

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.

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).

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.

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!