Why Gravel Bikes?
Posted on 11 February 2017
The Raleigh Tamland 2: one of the nicest
It's a common theme here at Curbside that we feel the bike industry is out of touch with its consumer. If you're one of those (men) that shave their legs and ride in gruelling competitive races - you might disagree. But, these people aren't most people. And because of this, we believe these people also shouldn't direct product development.
But they do, and as a result many companies today spend more time talking to the professional racers they support than the customers who ride their bikes - kind of how shareholders these days are more important than the people using their products. It's a bigger problem than the bike industry. The net result is that companies try desperately to remove themselves from the echo chamber to hear the needs of their customer, but this is obfuscated on all points by the bias that built their bureaucracy.
Luckily, there are companies who don't oblige the trickle-down economics of the bike industry, where you are expected to ride a pro's bike because you want to be pro.... right? (Most of our customers couldn't even recite a current pro riders name, so rarified is the sport of performance cycling). One such company is Surly.
Surly is owned by a massive company that somehow still keeps their ear to the ground. Maybe this is because they give each of their brands a sort of horizontal autonomy that is bound only to certain fiduciary expectations. We would argue that Surly is the most seminal brand in North America today, having (arguably) brought the current single-speed/fixed-gear, Gravel bike, Touring bike, and Fat Bike phenomena to light. They take risks, and those risks are how they feel the market out. We like that.
The Masi CX: distance and speed across any terrain
Surly launched the very first gravel bike ages ago with the Cross Check (a bike we don't sell, but more on that later). The Cross Check was a complete revision of the Cyclocross bike, Cyclocross being a professional sport that involves riding snowy and muddy Flemish cobble-stone roads in the off-season. Historically, a Cyclocross bike was itself a modified road bike, with room for wider tires, much more powerful braking, and a higher bottom-bracket position which meant that the cranks sat higher so you could hop logs without damaging the drivetrain. In other words, a sport even more niche than traditional road cycling. So, what gives?
When Surly launched the Cross Check it was never designed to be a Cyclocross bike. It was designed to be a performance bike that could go fast-but-not-competitive-racing-fast, it was designed to go-light-touring-but-maybe-not-heavy-riding-across-Canada-touring, and it was meant to commute, because it had the wheelbase, tire-width (with room for fenders!), braking power, and general durability to handle the abuses of a city. It was designed to be what we call a performance all-rounder. Perfect for anyone who takes performance seriously, but isn't about to form a pro-racing drug habit. It was also the only performance bike that could just as easily function as a city bike too (and in our industry, that kind of versatility never happens). You wouldn't ride your thin-tired, 20 spoke wheel through streetcar tracks nor would you lock your carbon frame to a pole. Well, you could with a Cross-Check. And, you could still go fast and do the occasional light tour. Awesome!
Not surprisingly, the Cross Check kickstarted a re-interest in actual Cyclocross racing, and that's where things got confusing, because suddenly the difference needed to be teased out. Leading companies like Raleigh and Masi - both of whom we carry - suddenly carried an insane amount of true Cyclocross bikes and Gravel bikes, all in steel, aluminum and carbon options, making their catalogs swell with pages. The main difference was geometry, tire width, and spec - but it is fair to say things felt muddy (gravelly?) for a while.
The Masi CXGR: Adventure ready
The good thing about all of this was a sudden burst of Cyclocross technology that had great significance for gravel bike as well. This left bikes like the Surly Cross Check somewhat antiquated, since it didn't have disc brakes, integrated shifting, or the updated geometry tweaks that had evolved as the category grew. As an answer, Surly has recently come out with the Straggler - one of the nicest gravel bikes we have seen - but it's far too expensive - and that's why we don't carry it. And, it's very arguable that Surly now has to play catch-up to brands like Masi and Raleigh who also use steel but price the bikes within the niche.
We love gravel bikes because they refuse to acknowledge that performance equals professionalism. It recognizes there is a customer who likes to go fast and likes to go far, and wants something that can multi-task commuting, the open speed and distance of the open road, multi-day touring, and can do so whether on gravel or paved surfaces. It's a swiss army knife that stays sharp in all situations.
However, the gravel bike isn't that new. In fact, the gravel bike might have more in common with a bike that had it's heyday in the 70's - the sport-touring bike - than the historical cyclocross bike it is often associated with. Like todays gravel bike, the sport-touring bike was a product that recognized that most people never had time to do multi-week tours and were ill-served on true touring bikes, which were plodding and heavy. Plus, these people liked to go fast. The sport-touring bike was perfect for multi-day tours, non-competitive speed and distance, and commuting. It wasn't, however, all that good on gravel. But, neither were 1970's touring bikes either. Back then, no one was even thinking of that (they would, when the mountain bike came out ten years later).
The Raleigh Tamland 1: drool worthy fun
Now, to confuse things, most touring bikes on the market today have more in common with 1970's sport-touring bikes. They're not real long haul touring bikes, but rather light tourers instead. You can see this in the geometry and spec (short wheelbases, big chainrings designed for speed, and shifting systems that lack a back-up plan if they break). That's why the Long Haul Trucker is the one Surly we continue to carry, because despite the ever rising price, no one builds a bike with the same wheelbase, geometry, and spec. For heavy touring, no one can touch it. But we can't say Surly holds the same competitiveness in the gravel category. Not at all, in fact.
So, why don't we carry sport-touring bikes? Because real touring bikes like the Long Haul Trucker have also already made the switch to gravel. A touring bike from the 70's would have had a 32mm tire width max (most often a 28mm) - you could never ride gravel on that. Bikes like the Long Haul Trucker blew open the heavy touring category by using 35mm tires (or wider), which meant you could now tour on third-world roads during the rainy season. So, while bikes like the Long Haul updated the touring category with omni-terra possibility, we believe Gravel bikes did the same for the sport-touring category. So, while you could buy a sport-touring bike like a Raleigh Clubman, why limit yourself? A gravel bike will give you (pretty much) the same geometry, speed and gearing, but with the capability to jump on a quiet car-free trail when the opportunity arises. The future is omni-terra.
The exciting thing about Gravel biking is that it has created a whole new category of light-touring called "bike camping" - which marks an exciting new evolution in bike touring. Bike camping recognizes that most people are light multi-day tourists instead of multi-week heavy tourists. Because of this, bike-campers can ride a bike with more performance (a gravel bike) and want to preserve as much of this performance as possible. This has everything to do with how the bike is weighted when you need to carry more stuff. In other words, it has to do with bags. Typically, when you put touring bags on a bike they would hang off the side of the rack and would radically alter the bikes cornering and acceleration. Bike camping bags add no width to the bike (and no racks), meaning you can go on light multi-day adventures on-or-offroad while maximizing the speed-and-distance qualities of a gravel bike. If you can pack light and want to conquer long distances over several days, you now have the perfect bike and bags to do so with.
The Surly Long Haul Trucker: serious omni-terra touring
Since our customer does in fact ride in the city and on the open road, our selection of gravel bikes are steel, not aluminum or carbon. This means you can still safely lock it to a metal pole without worrying about dents or breaks. It also means you have a far more comfortable material for true gravel riding, because nothing absorbs shock quite like steel (well, there is titanium, but that costs a lot). And, that's why we carry Masi and Raleigh, two of the industries benchmarks when it comes to steel.
We carry the Masi brand as our entry point. Masi has been leaders in both steel and the gravel category, and the two come together in a selection of bikes that truly offer a world of exploration and practicality - from the daily commute to multi-day adventures. If you want a bike that tilts ever so slightly to a road-bike performance, we carry the Raleigh Tamland series (for some of our staff, this has replaced their road bikes). Raleigh has been the leading brand in the gravel category, and we suspect that's because the Raleigh DNA has always been about performance for everyone (not just the pros) and a long history of building steel bikes.
So, if you managed to read all of this (thanks!) do stop by the store and try out a gravel bike. If you can only afford one bike that does everything well, this is it.