From casual riding to intense racing, “gravel” bikes have ignited the passions of new and experienced cyclists.
Cyclists by the thousands are buying “gravel” bikes. Why is this category of all-road bikes outselling other models? What is the attraction of these all-purpose bikes over traditional road bikes and mountain bikes? The answer isn’t a mystery when you learn that over 30% of the public roads in the U.S. are unpaved? Your riding possibilities are DOUBLED when you don’t need to avoid unpaved routes and connector roads.
By definition, any bike that you ride on an unpaved road could be considered a gravel bike. My mountain bike is a “gravel bike” sometimes. So is my fat bike and touring bike. But the category “gravel bikes” refers to the middle ground between traditional road bikes (with narrow 25mm or 28mm tires) and mountain bikes with tires over 2-inches (50mm.)
We all know the “Pandemic” has turned everything upside down. Virtually all segments of sporting goods posted record sales and product shortages during the summer of 2020 when we were locked down - EXCEPT for outdoor recreation. Prior to 2020, the sales of road bikes had been declining. At the same time, the sales of gravel bikes have been steeply trending upward, with growth of over 150% year to year. This is a bicycle subcategory that hadn’t been defined as recently as a decade ago.
The fact is the bike world has changed. Shaved legs, spandex, and space-age wheels that cost more than the down payment on a house are less trendy. Today, cycling has gained new (and renewed) enthusiasts who enjoy exploration away from the crowds, night rides with friends, and finding the perfect backdrop for Instagram pics. Two categories of bikes are experiencing booming sales simply because they are attracting new riders: e-bikes and gravel bikes.
To learn more about the rising interest in these all-purpose bicycles, I turned to Nick Legan, the author of Gravel Cycling. Nick is a former road bike racer, who then became a mechanic for the next seven years for professional road racing teams in the Grand Tours of Europe, World Championships, and the 2008 Olympics. Most recently, Nick has been the Technical Editor for VeloNews and Adventure Cyclist. Nick is someone who has LIVED road racing and cycling and has now become a gravel cycling enthusiast. His reasons: “Gravel cycling is a glorious return to the purest roots of two-wheel adventure. From farms roads and miner’s paths to the high passes of the Rockies and Alps, gravel cycling will set you free to explore, persevere, and discover.”
Selene Yeager is another convert to gravel cycling, having years of experience as a road and MTB racer, Ironman triathlete, USA Cycling coach, and personal trainer. She is a writer for Bicycling magazine and a contributor to many others including Outside, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, and Runner’s World. She has also authored or coauthored nearly 30 books, including her recent book, Gravel: The Ultimate Guide. Selene writes, “Gravel remains largely undefined, which is exactly the point. It’s supposed to be an adventure.”
“Gravel” means different things to different riders, in different regions of the U.S. and around the world. The general category includes:
· Any unpaved road. For some, this means the great network of “B-roads” throughout farm country.
· “Gravel” may include dirt Jeep trails also used by motorcycles and ATV’s.
· Some “gravel” riders include single-track trails normally the domain of mountain bikers.
· All these sub-categories may include steep climbs, hair raising descents, creek crossings, unrideable “hike-a-bike” sections – in general, any route that traditional road riders bypass.
· But “gravel” may also include a mix of paved roads, bike paths, and city streets. “Gravel” can start at your front door, take you everywhere, and bring you back home. Your route doesn’t need to bypass unpaved roads - which often have the best scenery and least traffic. And you don’t need to haul your bike to the trailhead and back home after the ride.
Selene Yeager sums it up by writing, “Gravel is: Unpaved roads, trails, tire-swallowing sand, singletrack, rocks, snow, puddles, streams, peanut butter mud, digging deep, getting lost, getting found, exhilarating, amazing, and occasionally, absolutely freakin’ sadistic. Gravel is LIFE.”
Doesn’t that explain the appeal of gravel? While many road cyclists fall into routines and complain about boredom, gravel riders glow when describing freedom and exploration, even if it includes rocks, mud, and hardships. Their rides aren’t dull, but “exhilarating”, “amazing”, and “freakin’ sadistic”!!!
Nick Legan agrees. He writes, “With a strong emphasis on fun, gravel may be the shining light in cycling’s future.”
Nick continues, “For new cyclists (and I would include returning cyclists after years or decades of absence), riding gravel and solitary dirt roads is a natural solution to the problems of road riding or mountain biking. Traffic on paved roads scares many new cyclists, and the absence of a safe shoulder or the threatening presence of a gutter strewn with broken glass and debris can be paralyzing. The technical skills required for mountain biking are also an impediment for many. Riding gravel and dirt roads, on the other hand, offers a quiet cycling experience with only a minimal amount of cycling prowess required.”
But what is a “gravel bike”? A “gravel bike” is designed specifically for travel on paved roads, and then transition seamlessly onto unpaved roads and lighter trails.
Bicycle riding used to automatically include sections of gravel roads. The vintage 10-speed bike from the “Bike Boom” of the 1970’s was outfitted with 27-inch x 1.25” (that is, the equivalent of 32mm) tires that worked perfectly on unpaved, rural roads. Millions of miles of “gravel cycling” and “singletrack” were logged by riders of these bikes long before the first “mountain bikes” were conceived and marketed.
In his book, Nick Legan states, “Gravel cycling is the original form of cycling. Modern gravel riders are simply rediscovering the sport’s roots.”
In addition to paved and unpaved rural roads, the Rails to Trails Conservancy has tallied over 24,000 miles of multi-use trails across the U.S. which are mostly unpaved and ideal for gravel bikes. The wider tires and longer wheelbase of gravel bikes travel effortlessly as your planned route traverses a mix of paved roads and unpaved segments. Then also, bike touring in the summer almost guarantees that you will encounter road construction, at least in the northern half of the U.S. Fragile road bikes are not designed for stretches of loose gravel, but “gravel bikes” handle these impediments with ease.
Event organizers and rural communities are also taking notice of the explosion of interest in gravel cycling. Casual group rides and competitive “gravel grinders” are springing up everywhere. And cyclists are buying bikes and signing up for competitions in droves. Many competitive events now have waiting lists or lotteries for the limited entries. This viral, organic growth has created a community of competitors (both hard-core and casual) who travel across the country to ride new routes.
Selene Yeager interviewed many riders and racers, one of whom summarized her passion, “Gravel racing changed my life. It made me fall in love with the bike all over again. We can just be this crazy community of like-minded people. We can just ride bikes. We can just embrace the adventure.” Selene agrees and writes, “Gravel is the Wild West of bike racing.”
But gravel cycling isn’t booming only because of racing. (Although competition is a natural byproduct any time you line up two or more riders.) Riders seeking new destinations as well as exercise are choosing gravel bikes. Nick Legan writes in Gravel Cycling, “For those who prefer solitude to competition, gravel roads offer escape from the increasingly busy paved roads around the world. Cyclists are discovering that riding on dirt lanes and gravel roads is the calmest form of cycling, a way to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life.”
Nick Legan covers both gravel grinders and bikepacking in Gravel Cycling. Bikepacking is basically ultralight backpacking but letting the bike carry your camping gear. A gravel bike is perfect for the new discipline of bikepacking. When you to extend your explorations overnight or over many days, you expand your horizons exponentially.
Selene Yeager calls this new generation of all-purpose bicycles “sport utility bikes”. Gravel bikes are designed for a wide range of wheel and tire sizes and treads, suitable for almost any road or trail. For this reason, Selene also states, “A good gravel bike is fast on pavement and is never boring.” I agree! My lightweight “gravel bike” is fast and nimble. The same bike can go from wide 650b wheels with 47mm tires on a backwoods gravel grinder to a fast Century road ride when I swap to 700c wheels with 28mm slicks.
In addition, the capabilities of a gravel bike uncomplicate your route choices. Many rural roads change from pavement to gravel and back. While road bike riders go out of their way to avoid unpaved roads, you can take more direct routes and enjoy whatever road surface you encounter.
Here are more views on the versatility of gravel bikes, on and off the paved road from our friends at Bike Radar: