Why Gravel Bikes?
Posted on 21 February 2018
There are moments here at Curbside that we feel our industry can be out of touch with most cyclists. At times, it seems there is a trickle-down model that influences product design, where what the professionals ride dictate what the rest of us should ride.
But, we feel there is a strong dividing line between competition and performance. What's similar between a professional cyclist and performance cyclist is the love of speed and distance. What's different is the level of discipline and sacrifice. A professional wants a bike that optimized for one discipline only, and it doesn't matter how comfortable this bike is, it only matters that they win or beat their personal best. A performance cyclist likes to go fast, likes to go far, and likes something that is versatile - whether that means versatility on terrain or intended use (day rides, commuting, touring). Enter the gravel bike.
ANCESTRY PART ONE
Is it a cyclocross bike?
Devinci Hatchet: a swiss-army knife of off-road and on-road versatility
Many confuse the gravel bike with cyclocross bikes. That's not exactly the case. Cyclocross is form of professional or competitive cycling, whereas a gravel bike is a non-competitive, high performance bike made for adventure, hard work and fun. Cyclocross racing is a curious form of on/off-road racing that happens in the wet and muddy off-season, particularly on cobble-stoned roads in Northern Belguim. If there's a strange romance in competitive cycling with mud-and-ice caked lycra suffering, this is it. A cyclocross bike is basically a road racing bike in wheelbase and frame angles. The wheelbase is short to improve cornering and the frame angles activate power in the legs and front-end handling. Unlike a road racing bike, the frame is built for a wider tire and because the bike is often hopping over obstacles, the bottom bracket sits high, raising the center of gravity. A gravel bike gets confused with a cyclocross bike because they have a similar tire and handlebar, but they couldn't be more different.
A gravel bike might look the same as a cyclocross bike, but one look at the geometry tells a different story. First, a gravel bike doesn't require a super short wheelbase. Because the gravel rider might take their bike on a loaded tour, the wheelbase needs to be a touch longer to displace weight over a longer footprint. Nor does it require the steep frame angles. A cyclocross bike has a steeper seat angle that activates power muscles in the quads - that helps you win races. A gravel bike has a more relaxed seat angle to active endurance muscles in the hamstrings, so you can do longer rides more efficiently. Finally, the bottom bracket doesn't need to sit high. If you're carrying weight on a bike the center of gravity needs to be low, that's why a touring bike has an exceptionally low bottom bracket. So how is a gravel bike different from a cyclocross bike? It can ride the same terrain but privileges multi-terrain endurance and adventure over race-environment competitive advantage.
ANCESTRY PART TWO
Is it a sport-touring bike?
The Masi Giramondo: touring meets gravel
The gravel bike has more in common with sport-touring bikes first designed in the 1970's for cyclists who wanted a single platform to commute, perform speedy weekend rides and head out on a week-long or weekend light tour. These bikes have continued to exist as custom bikes (Waterford, the Marinoni Sportivo) until recently, when they made another comeback (Raleigh Clubman). These bikes share almost the exact same geometry as a gravel bike but don't have the tire width for speedy off-road flotation. And, that's really the only big diff. It's also representative of how the world has changed since the 70's. Touring has become more adventurous with the arrival of cheaper airfare and meanwhile, all over North America, old train routes are being turned into gravel trails for cycling and walking. The gravel bike is not made strictly for gravel (far from it), but it is in essence a sport-touring bike (a versatile performance bike) that can way more places (even more versatile!).
Like the sport-touring bikes of old, a gravel bike also makes a great commuter bike - especially if distances are longer. Unlike a road racing bike, a gravel bike is made for rough surfaces or dirt trails. That means it needs to have strong wheels, perfect for city streets (road bikes generally do not have strong wheels!). For a commuter, a gravel bike offers multi-position drop bars and a road-bike feeling that closes urban distances faster than a hybrid and safer than a road bike. So, it can do long speedy day rides over (most) any surface, it can commute, and it can tour. But how does this unpack for the various bikes we sell?
BIKEPACKING VS BIKE TOURING
Lighten up or time to get heavy
The rise of the gravel bike also brought the rise of a new form of bicycle touring, called bike-packing. Whereas traditional bicycle touring gear assumes months on the road, bike-packing is built around the recognition that few of us have time for this. As a rule, the shorter the tour, the less stuff you carry - and bike-packing is about taking this stuff and arranging it on the bike so as to not limit the bikes performance. Bike touring hangs weight off the sides of the bike, making the bike wider, slower and less agile while bike-packing adds no width to the bike, keeping all weight within the same vertical plane for maximum agility. Whereas touring is focussed less on speed and carrying a ton of stuff over distance, bike-packing is about speed and distance, so that even if your tour is short on time it doesn't need to be short on distance.
The Masi bikes we sell are good examples of this. The Giramondo 27.5 might be considered a genuine long distance touring bike that is tweaked to off-road touring (or trekking). It has wider higher-flotation tires and a smaller diameter wheel to increase handling and acceleration. Meanwhile, a bike like the Giramondo 700c is a long-distance touring bike with a gravel tire so that the bike can jump between paved surfaces, gravel roads, and rail-trails seamlessly. Both bikes feature the strong wheels, low-maintenance bar-end shifters and geometry (lower bottom bracket, slacker seat and head-tube angles, longer wheelbase) that make them true heavy-load touring bikes.
Bikes like the Masi CXGR are terrific light-touring (light touring generally involves a rack and one set of panniers) or bike-packing bikes because it uses a triple crankset up front, meaning you get a ton of gear range, especially on the hill climbing side (important when carrying heavier loads). Meanwhile, bikes like the Masi CXGR Comp and the CXGR Expert (and most of the Devinci Hatchet models) use a double crankset which makes them far more suited to speedy bike-packing or light-touring over flatter terrain.
The great thing about gravel bikes is just how perfect they are for commuting. In fact, the gravel bike has a deep origins with longer distance bike commuters who wanted drop-bars, tough wheels, and tires to battle potholes. All gravel bikes use strong wheels, grippy tires, a good range of gears, and powerful disc brakes for sudden stops. The drop bar provides multi-positions for longer rides and all of the bikes we sell have room for fenders and racks.
The big question when it comes to commuting is frame material. If the bike is being used primarily as a commuter steel is often preferred as it is 30% stronger than aluminum. If you're locking your bike to metal poles all day, steel won't dent as easily as aluminum and when it does dent the frame often retains strength (an aluminum frame would need to be replaced). However, steel can rust so you need to cover the tubes with a protector. One reason commuters love steel - especially for longer rides - is its high compliance. Like a gravel road, cities are bumpy, and the more compliant the frame the more comfortable you are over distance. If you're after a steel bike look no further than Masi, a heritage brand with strong cycling credentials and strong leadership in the steel market.
However, aluminum has strong merits for city riding, especially if you buy from Devinci, who - perhaps because they're Canadian and know about city cycling - ensure the frames are strong for daily lock-ups outdoors. These frames won't rust and while the frames aren't terribly compliant they are remarkably stiff. Compliance is handled by a carbon fork. And, speaking of carbon, we don't recommend using a carbon fiber frame in the city, unless you're parking the bike inside at both home and work. We'll tell you why below.
The open road and path...
Of course the best part about a gravel bike is its ability to help you escape whenever you need to have some fun and clear your head - whether an early morning/late evening ride or an all-day adventure. This is where the speed and distance capabilities - as well as the multi-terrain variability - of a gravel bike really shine. This also has to do with frame materials.
As a stiffer material, aluminum doesn't flex nearly as much as steel making it noticeably faster and efficient. If the bike is being used primarily for escapes, aluminum is light and its fast. Bikes like the Devinci Hatchet Sora and Hatchet Tiagra are excellent examples of this. While the frame isn't as compliant as steel, if you're switching it up between paved roads and gravel roads you won't really notice. If your rides are primarily gravel then a steel bike is perfect but many high performance riders say they feel a bit flexy. The frame material that has maximum compliance and maximim stiffness is carbon fiber, found on bikes like the Devinci Hatchet Rival. Carbon fiber is remarkably compliant. If you were to make a tuning fork out of carbon fiber and give it a ping it wouldn't vibrate. It's also very light. That's why all of our aluminum Devinci bikes use carbon fiber front forks, because the front forks are the leading edge of vibration feed.
Finally, there's parts. We've mentioned that some gravel bikes have triple chainrings, these are meant for touring. Other gravel bikes have double chainrings, these are meant for road. But, an increasing amount of gravel bikes are designed for gravel only and use a single chainring with an ultra-wide cogset on the back. This lightens up the bikes and speeds up the shifting, giving you incredible performance within a range of gears that is perfect for gravel (and commuting). However, with such a limited range you definitely couldn't tour with this bike, although you could bike-pack - although you'll have to keep the weight very, very low.
The hard part!
|Bike Trekking||Bike Touring||Bike Packing||Speed: gravel||Gear range||Comfort||Commuting|
|Masi Giramondo 27.5||Excellent||Good||Good||Slower||Massive||
|Masi Giramondo 700c||Good||Excellent||Excellent||Efficient||Massive||Excellent||Efficient|
|Masi CXGR Comp||Poor||OK||Good||Fast||Good||Good||Fast|
|Masi CXGR Expert||Poor||OK||Good||Fast||Good||Good||Fast|
|Devinci Hatchet Sora||Poor||OK||Good||Fast||Good||OK||Fast|
|Devinci Hatchet Tiagra||Poor||OK||Good||Fast||Good||OK||Fast|
|Devinci Hatchet Rival||Poor||Poor||OK||Fast||Limited||OK||Fast|
|Devinci Hatchet 105||Poor||OK||Good||Fast||Good||OK||Fast|
|Devinci Hatchet Carbon Rival||Poor||Poor||OK||Fast||Limited||Excellent||Fast|
So, what does it all mean? Well, all bikes are great for commuting although some are faster than others. Some might prefer a slower yet highly efficient bike in the city while others may want speed. Some people may want speed but are happy to settle with a slower bike if it means the ability to do heavy tours or trekking trips.
Likewise some bikes are better suited to touring than others. Bikes equipped with a single chainring (the two Devinci Rival models) are incredibly limited for touring and bike-packing while bikes with two-rings are good but limited. The two touring bikes (the Masi Giramondo) are stand-out models, but one is more tweaked to off-road while the other is more tweaked to on-road. Both of these bikes lose a bit of speed, however, for those fast weekend escape rides.
The balance of comfort and performance for your weekend escapes can be a difficult choice. If you love the feel of high-performance speed an aluminum or carbon bike is the way to go. Stick with carbon if you're doing a lot of gravel and aluminum if you're trying hopping between terrains. If performance speed sounds more like your thing then steel remains the most versatile material of all, since it is strong, compliant and light (though not as light as aluminum).