Check out 5 things that weren't cool until gravel happened
Barely a week goes by without a new gravel bike, gravel specific bit of clothing or event being announced. That's A Good Thing because we love it a bit of dirty drop bar action, but we can't help noticing that it's made some things that were distinctly uncool into a perfectly acceptable part of riding...
- How to prepare for your first gravel race - kit, bike setup and training
- 11 tools every home bike mechanic should own
- The best gravel and adventure bikes you can buy for under £1000
We've rounded up a few of the things that gravel bikes have snatched from the chrysalis of mountain bike uncoolness and transformed into a narrow tyred, on-trend butterfly.
In the mountain bike world, the fireroad is a necessary evil, useful for gaining height or getting yourself to the interesting bits. It's wide, it's usually pretty smooth and it's definitely not the highlight of your mountain bike ride - unless you're completely insane.
However, in the world of gravel, the fireroad is literally what it's all about, sucking up mile after mile of the stuff. That's because on a bike with the riser bars on the wrong way up and tyres that are basically plump slicks, even a fairly tame fireroad can be pretty tricky, especially if you're trying to ride it at warp speed. You get to suck in the scenery and rip along at almost-roady speeds, without having to worry about traffic - unless you could sheep or the odd farmer's tractor as such...
As mountain bikes metamorphosised into the hugely capable machines they are today, there were all sorts of technological dead ends as people tried to figure out what worked and what didn't. That's why we had stuff like flex-stems and shock posts before settling on the tried and tested suspension technology from motorbikes, like forks and shocks.
However, gravel has breathed life back into these things. Proper forks and shocks are a bit too heavy and complex, but banging in some suspension via other means is a very good way to make life much nicer when you're being rattled to death on hardpack.
Behold the Lauf fork; terrifyingly flexy in the mountain bike version, magic carpet ride plush in the gravel version. Girvin Flexstem you say? Borderline dangerous rubber sprung steering madness says I - but check out the Red Shift stem we're testing, first impressions of which are very impressive. A suspension seatpost is just around the corner, we're telling you...
Narrow rims and skinny rubber
Back in the day - and by that I mean the days that existed in the 1990s - if you were running 1.8" tyres on your mountain bike, that was pretty damn chunky rubber - the same would go for a 17mm wide rim. Now mountain bikes tyres are commonly around the 2.4" mark with 30mm wide rims to match - or fatter if you're rolling on Plus.
However, gravel riding is pretty much defined by the fact that the tyres are skinny and the rims narrow to match - indeed, a cynic might say that it's has allowed many manufacturers to breathe new life back into their rim extrusion moulds from the turn of the century, but that would be awfully cynical, wouldn't it?
There's always one mountain bike rider that insists on adding as many accessories to their bike as possible - and let's agree to agree that this person usually is not what you'd call a style leader. No-one is queueing up to give them money as an Instagram influencer - and that's not because they don't have an Instagram account, it's because they're the beige slacks and bri-nylon shirt of off-road riding.
Chief offender of uncool off-road luggage is the saddle pack. It's positioned so that all your stuff gets covered in shit - often literally - as soon as there's any to be found and it hangs below your saddle, flapping about like an unkemp... you know... sack that dangles.
However, gravel bikes basically invite luggage as you're obviously always doing epic rides (obviously) and because it's a drop bar bike you can't wear a pack - it's the rules, apparently. That means you need some kind of super cool storage, preferably made in an artisanal fashion by someone that drinks much better quality coffee than you do. Tope tube bag? Yep. Little bar bag that's completely different in every way to the ones made from canvas that hard as nails touring cyclists still have from 1958? Better believe it.
Excessively long rides
Unless you're the kind of sick person that rides a mountain bike in order to hurt yourself and gain masochistic pleasures, most mountain bike rides are all about packing in as many smiles per mile as possible. Effort must be rewarded with enjoyment, pain is always followed by pleasure - that sort of thing.
Gravel bikes, less so. No-one raves about the super sweet trail they just rode - nope, quantity is the only way to know if your gravel ride has been quality. Want proof? Check out gravel races: the big daddy of them all - the Dirty Kanza - is 200 miles long. Two hundred miles. Northumberland's own Dirty Reiver is a mere snip at 200km. Even Gritfest - a short jaunt by these standards - had 90km of riding and 2,400m of climbing in the opening day.
Fancy a short gravel ride? Tough. You're not allowed one. Get out there and suffer and only come back when you've grown a beard - women too - and taken so many moody black and white photos of people covered in dirt looking sad in the countryside that you're not sure if you're watching a documentary about the Great Depression.
The weirdest thing about gravel riding is that, despite all that, we can't get enough of it. Long live the dirty drop bar...
I enjoyed everything about the early mountainbiking years. Bikes were simple, days on the bike were simple and adventurous; innocent fun with friend, exoploring and looking for (and finding) the limits of our bikes and our own capabilities. No set out routes, no bike parks, no GPS, no Strava. No suspension, no dropper posts, no disc brakes.
When all that changed, when mountainbiking got 'extreme!!1!' I lost interest. I used my '94 mtb as a daily bike, for errands, but hardly for rising trails anymore.
Until gravelbiking came along. One test ride on one brought me back to those early days!
I converted my old mtb to a gravel-ish 'monstercross' bike, with faster tires and a dirt drop bar, and it was the best decision I could make. I love riding again, just like I used to ride… simple rides, exploring, acting foolish, it's great.
I don't care that 'gravel' is an overhyped buzzword, it's also a very welcome reminder of simpler times. People say gravelbikes are 'just nineties mountainbikes with drop bars', and basically they are right. in fact, that's exactly why gravelbikes are so popular (and rightly so)!
So ture... most of it. Back in those days I rode a hardtail. Kept on riding it with its Marzocchi Bomber Z1 light airfork when those heavy suspension bikes arrived at the scene. Had to swap from 26" to 29" after they stole my ride. I had rimbrake Magura's on it and a lightweight rack system (front one adapted by me to suspension fork). I rode on 1.35" - 1.65" lightweight rubber. My hardtail 26-er was just below 20 lbs. So after some years riding racebikes mostly, this gravelhype is just the thing I always needed: lightweight flying and/or bikepacking on "small" rubbers... oooh yes... tubeless. Next to 29" advantages that is another welcome novelty; But those balloonlike 29" rubber belts weighing a frame of mine a piece... wrapped around bombproof wheels in those anvil like frames? Naaah... hail gravel! It's probably guys that rode like me back in the days that now created what they dreamed of back then. Maybe I should redo my Corsica bikepacking trip again... a good 20 years later. Might be interesting.
Wash your mouths out. Suspension seat posts never went away. Check out USE, Muc Off's older sibling brand for componentry.
Missed this first time round, cracking piece, love it - and kil0ran's quite right, all of these things... all true.
"Fancy a short gravel ride? Tough. You're not allowed one. Get out there and suffer and only come back when you've grown a beard - women too - and taken so many moody black and white photos of people covered in dirt looking sad in the countryside that you're not sure if you're watching a documentary about the Great Depression."
^ This is funny, well done.
All of these things. All true. Well, apart from the weird suspension thing. Although I'm hankering for a Redshift Shockstop - for my road bike rather than the gravel/tourer.