I have to admit it, the ideea of a gravel bike appealed to me from the very first moment my ears heard it. So, it wasn’t long from that point, to the point of actually buying one. Even if the entire madness broke loose recently, gravel bikes have been around for some years, lacking the catchyness they engulf now.
Things were dead simple until not so long ago. You had road bikes, that tackled any paved path, but were flimsy choices for off-road terrain, on which you had to travel slow, carefully and very responsibly. Mountain road lovers know what I’m talking about here, since high mountain passes tend to sometimes lack tarmac. The small clearance was the perfect opportunity for mud-blocks, the narrow tires were an easy victim of sharp stones, and the compliance needed in order to enjoy at least a bit the experience was nowhere to be found. On the other hand, you had the cyclocross bicycle, which was a distant cousin of the road bicycle, with a few adaptations for off-road, like disc or cantilever brakes and studded tires. Performance was good, and once using a pair of sturdy off-road tires, it became great.
However, there were some place left unfilled between the two types, since road bikes featured comfortable versions that couldn’t ride off-road, while cyclocross bikes featured off-road ready models that weren’t comfortable due to the short wheelbase and all the race-ready features. Still, even at that time, the soon-to-be gravel bikes made their way in the range, but they were listed as cyclocross bikes.
Maybe the need and surely the ideea of a special bike emerged in The USA, where figures show 2 million kilometers of unpaved, yet smooth off-roads. On top of that, you have long-distance popular race in the US like the Trans-Iowa, Almanzo 100, Dirty Kanza 200 and so on. The demand was somehow there already, all these roads begging to be crossed hastefully, but in the same time in a decent comfort condition. Cyclocross bicycles started having a more comfortable geometry, trekking or mountain bikes mutated and they all paved the way for the becoming of the gravel bike.
If smooth off-road are present everywhere, so are bumpy road, that feature damaged tarmac, full of potholes. Also, every seasoned rider knows that the riding off the beaten track is the ultimate experience, so these provided even more reasons for the gravel bike to become real.
So, which are the main features of a gravel bike?
Basically, it’s a road-type bicycle, designed for speed, non-sluggish, with a dropbar.
The generous tire clearance of, on average, 35mm stands out, while various models can accomodate even mountain bike tires. Cannondale introduced on the Slate the 27.5 inch wheel and tall tires in order to reach the diameter of the classical road bike’s wheels.
The brakes need to match the tires, so no classical rim brakes here. Although the cantilever or V-Brake would cut it, given that the gravel bike grew up in the time of disc brakes, no one could turn their sight away from the high performance delivered, easy maintanance and reliability. In fact, it’s almost a correlation between road bikes fitted with disc brakes and the larg-scale boom of the gravel bike.
The geometry provides comfort, with a large wheelbase, low center of gravity and proper fork angle, which all offer compliance and stability. Reducing or altering any of these elements would end up in comfort or control loss. Also, the headtube is longer, in order to lift the handlebar higher and reduce the strain on your back. This configuration borrows a lot form endurance road bikes, designed likewise for long and comfortable rides.
At this moment, almost every manufacturer has at least one gravel bike in its offer. Brands like Salsa have been dealing for a long time with gravel bikes, while brands like Felt or Merida are currently developing a model.
What is sure is that the gravel bike is a several-in-one type of product, capable of providing an epic ride for any enthusiast. Should you sell your cyclocross and get a gravel bike? Well, we couldn’t, since all the bikes a buff needs is N+1, where N is the current number of bikes!