To some, gravel byways invoke thoughts of choking dust, potholes, washboard ruts, shoulder-less drops, grime slathered gear and grit-embedded road rash. So what's with the gravel fad anyway? A few years ago, no self-proclaimed "roadie" could be convinced to rattle over ten FEET of gravel, much less an entire ride consisting almost entirely of un-paved routes. But today, that's exactly what's happening. And chances are it's happening to you or someone you know. Gravel grinders, adventure riders, "groadies"...there are many names for the kind of rider that goes in search of the perfect ride and are now finding it on a gravel road.
The reasons are plentiful; less traffic, nice scenery, more challenging, etc. etc. The need to log more miles on the bike, especially in traffic clogged urban areas, is "driving" cyclists to seek out less vehicle-congested territory. Most paved thoroughfares are already crowded with motorists, even the rural routes, and average speeds just keep climbing. Endearingly coined "oblivoids", drivers are more distracted than ever and cyclists don't fall too highly on the watch list. Admit it, each of us can sheepishly claim to have been distracted behind the wheel at some point. Welcome to the current nature of our world.
Enter the glorious gravel road. With a surface completely at the mercy of the weather, the experience can shift from day to day; silky smooth after a spring shower, Sahara-like dust after weeks of dry winds, wheel swallowing holes appearing out of nowhere, jarring train track ruts, silt that rides like softened butter...no section of road is ever the same twice. What's more appealing is the utter lack of anxiety that one associates with paved road riding. Caution still prevails, but there's no minute-by-minute urge to look over your shoulder at every approaching vehicle. The cars you do encounter are usually traversing much more slowly and with less urgency. In fact, the same might be said about the gravel road cyclist. There's respect there, for the road, for the conditions, like a secret handshake or a sacrificial offering...you hope to stay upright on two wheels and in return, will tread lightly upon the pathway.
Right Tool For the Job
What's the age old formula again? N+1* = the number of bicycles a cyclist should own (*superseded by S-1 = the number of bicycles allowable by your significant other). So let's suppose this formula holds true. Then you might be amused to learn that yes, there's a tool for gravel road riding and it isn't your mountain bike. No, it isn't your cross bike. It could be your road bike (if you don't mind the occasional rock chip in your monocoque carbon frame) but that isn't ideal either (and that would defeat the purpose of the N+1 rule entirely). The answer then is a gravel bike. Yes, if you haven't heard, there is such a thing and it is gaining wild popularity. Of course it's just an excuse to get another bicycle...but who cares? Alright, all jokes aside, there is a point to the gravel bike craze. Let's breeze over the finer points. Your mountain bike doesn't make the grade because it's designed to be ridden up, down and around a mountain. Plus, the tires are huge and nobody wants to feel like they're dragging an anchor. Your cross bike technically could work, but ask yourself this: What is cyclocross? "Cyclo-cross (sometimes cyclocross, CX, cyclo-X or cross) is a form of bicycle racing". (Thanks Wikipedia). If you didn't catch that last part, it mentioned "racing". The geometry that makes a CX bike great for racing, also makes it lousy for gravel riding. A cross race lasts from 30-60 minutes and a gravel ride can last hours. The aggressive geometry and excessively high bottom brackets of most modern race CX frames start to get fatiguing for the average gravel rider, though some cross racers would argue that their bikes are perfectly comfortable on any road, at any distance. Yay them. They clearly don't want another bicycle.
The New Bike In Your Life
The gravel bike: Relaxed road geometry. Check. Carbon fork (or steel if that's how you roll). Check. Wide gravel tires (28's to 40's). Check. Lots of clearance for those wide gravel tires. Check. Aluminum cockpit (so if/when you hit the deck you don't limp home with a broken seat tube or sheared off handlebars). Check. We will stay out of the carbon vs "other" debate and simply say that our material of choice lately has been custom steel (see the Gunnar page) for its durability and ride quality. Not to mention we can pretty much pick our own geometry AND whatever dang color floats our boat.
Even You Can Ride Gravel
Still not convinced? Look, it isn't that scary. Slow down (but not too slow as speed can equal stability in deep sections), take your time and get to know how gravel behaves. You probably ripped down gravel roads as a kid on your department store BMX bike and it wasn't scary then, right? Nothing has changed. Sure, there's a chance you'll crash but that chance exists on any road. And just like any other discipline on two wheels, riding gravel is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. Practice makes perfect they say, so get on your bike and out the door. Practice starts now.