Thursday, May 30, 2013

"It" May Never Happen

Once again, due to circumstances and the way things played out yesterday, I was doing a bunch of thinking. Which is never a good thing for you blog readers because that means I am about to download an opinion piece on something or another. So, here I go with the standard disclaimer.....

NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

Gotta have room for fatties and mud.
 What Is "It"?

The world of cycling may never quite understand, but there is room for a gravel specific bike or two from the bigger brands. The thing is, "it" may never happen, and here are some reasons why....

Tire Clearances: The gravel cyclist should have options to account for different conditions and to mitigate the rougher ride a cyclist experiences on gravel. There is one really great way to do that, and that is to allow for bigger, fatter tires than a cyclocross bike uses. My observations have shown me that tire size is somewhere between 35mm-45mm which covers most gravel grinder's needs. Not all- but most.

That means chain stays need to be a lot more accommodating than many rigs I have seen out there. The thing is, manufacturers are loathe to go big on the stays for reasons I am not really clear on. At one time I was actually told that "it wasn't possible" to make for bigger tire clearances without using stupid-long chain stays. Which was funny, because I have a bike that actually fits bigger tires than I am indicating here and has reasonably short chain stays, within what was being told to me was "acceptable".  Anyway.....

Lively, Lightweight Frames: (That aren't waaaay expensive!)

Some companies get this, but the thing is, due to over-reaching safety tests and worries about litigation, a lot of companies just plain can not offer a steel frame that would have a sweet ride and be light. So, aluminum, right? Maybe, but nice riding aluminum frames get into the same territory here with regard to "safety" and what not. An over-built aluminum frame is going to ride.....well, not as well as gravel riders would like. (Assuming gravel riders know the differences here.) So, you end up having to look at titanium and carbon, which I have no quibbles about, but they are expensive alternatives.

Too bad. I remember nice, lively steel mountain bike frames, and those will never happen again from the bigger companies either, due to similar reasons. Gravel riders may never know how good it could be unless they go custom. Again- pretty expensive.

 Geometry That Works Better For Gravel:

Head tube angles and bottom bracket drop. Those two things never quite come together for the betterment of gravel riders. Cyclocross rigs often come in with a pretty good number on the head angle, (typically 72° is commonplace), and that gets within a half a degree of what I would like to see, but you never see those bikes with a road bike-like lower bottom bracket, which would add all sorts of stability.

Loose, fast descents just really call out for a stable, easy to control handling package which the slacker head angle/lower bottom bracket would give riders. Gravel riders don't need to lean over hard and pedal through corners, so the higher bottom bracket that cyclocross rigs use is worthless on gravel. Manufacturers don't get that a road bike with a slack geometry, wide tire clearances, and a nice, shock absorbing tire are what gravel riders need. That bike seems to be too weird to contemplate. Then add in the brake thing, and well.......

A Word On Brakes:

In my opinion, gobs of power in a brake is not what gravel grinders need. You're essentially braking on a surface littered with marbles.  Locking up a wheel, (and remember kiddos- a locked up wheel is an out of control wheel), is super-easy to do on gravel. Rim brakes are lighter. Set up well they work wonders on gravel. Rim brakes can modulate for days. Adverse conditions are not a big deal with cantilevers. Plus, (and this is the biggest reason I like cantis), the frame and fork do not have to be beefed up to accommodate a disc brake mount. This is especially true on the fork, where a good, steel fork design would be totally screwed up by adding disc brake mounts. could design a carbon fork to take care of that, and charge us accordingly. Not necessary. Not in my opinion.

And the industry has a different agenda here, where the perception is that riders "want" disc brakes, so that's where the designs and R&D will go. Too bad. It doesn't have to be so complicated, nor so expensive to work well.

So, for all those reasons and more, we may not ever see a really great design purpose built for gravel riding being sold by the mainstream companies. But then again.....

I could be all wrong about that.


Unknown said...

Well spoken, GT.

Unknown said...

Only think i would nitpick is brakes, i think disks allow for not wearing out your rims in sloppy gravel, and mud... and they work very nicely when bombing down gravel from 11k of elevation on gravel ;)

Guitar Ted said...

@David Nice: Horses for courses. I see your point, and raise you two worn out disc pads from one ride.

I get the "why" of disc brakes, but my point is that generally, for gravel grinding, they are overkill, add weight that isn't overcome by an advantage, and kill ride quality of frames which will not be using suspension devices. Cantilevers don't do any of those things, and let's be honest- can you wear through a rim sidewall in a single descent? ;>)

Unknown said...

haven't quite blown through a rim.... got one hot enough to melt a tire and tube though ;)

KC said...

There's word that a certain fast cyclist will be on a new proto from a certain large company at DK this weekend. I'll be at cp2, ready to grab a few pictures if that's the case :).
I'm in complete agreement on the tire clearance, and I'm really hoping said company is very generous with theirs. Tired of "35 is enough" being pushed by some companies when they know full well that's not enough for your average rider in rough conditions.

Ari said...

I just purchased 4 Giant TCX's for the shop. I love those bikes but the rear stays are so narrow and don't allow for anything wider than a 35 with a bit of room. I think the Crosscheck is way ahead of its time with all you mentioned, except for the weight. I think it is possible to widen the rear end to accomodate 45's with no issues. If BMC and Surly can do it so can other companies.

Unknown said...

And you are not starting a gravel bike company because...?

Michael Lemberger said...

There's a reason we see so many Cross Checks on these rides. It's not light and the BB is pretty high, but it's a stable platform, and I've run tires as big as the Bontrager Jones XR 29x1.75.

I'm about to build up a Space Horse, for which I have kinda high hopes. Saw a number of those at Almanzo, and the two owners I talked to love 'em.

J Fry said...


Just ask several of the riders in TIv6 how they liked their disc brakes during that race. I heard several of them were almost out of pad and a couple had to pull out because they were out of pads and that was only 50ish miles into the race! I had no problems with my rim brakes.... :)

Eddie said...

I'd much rather carry the additional weight of disc brakes as static weight on the frame, and the rotor being much closer to the center of the wheel's rotation, so that a lighter rim can be used (no need for a brake track) in lieu of a lighter-weight canti option. The decreased moment of inertia of the wheels, resulting in quicker acceleration would far outweigh the additional 100g carried on the bike with discs rather than canti's.

Further, the use of discs allows for designers to make for a frame that can be a little more forgiving - the seat stays no longer need to be as beefy in order to tolerate braking forces generated in the middle of their span. This is a big reason the new Madone has brakes underneath the chain stays, opposed to on the seat stays.

Wanting for additional mud clearance conflicts with sacrificing consistent braking performance that comes from discs as well. Concerned about wearing through a set of pads in a single descent? Throw out the garbage organic pads, and replace them with sintered metallic.

It'd be in the same price ballpark as Ti and carbon, but if you can re-evaluate your stance on disc brakes, you may want to take a closer look at the Soma Triple Cross ( Head angle is 72, so half a degree steeper than you think is perfect, but BB drop is 70mm, rather than the common 63mm - which should add to that stability you're seeking. Advertised tire clearance for 41mm - means you should be able to fit wider in no problem. Advertised clearance is dictated by the CPSC - Trek's Domane technically has clearance for only a 25mm tire, for example.

CJ said...

@ Guitar Ted

I am not a 650B Randonneur bike zealot, but it sounds like this is the type of bike you are describing. I would imagine that you are familiar with Bicycle Quarterly. From my reading of their publication and the comments posted on their blog, your comments in the above post sound very much the same. Could it be that gravel racers who ride in ultra endurance races such as DK, Trans Iowa, and Gravel Worlds are randonneurs, but with a modern twist.

I wonder what would happen to the industry trends if a racer won one of the above mentioned races on a 650B rando frame with 45mm wide tires.

With that said, I don't own a rando bike. And I loved my cross check until I bashed it into my garage while it was attached to my roof rack :(

Leslie said...

Vassago's Fisticuff?

Joe Partridge said...

I spent some time on a Warbird last week. I loved it! I think 38c is the max for tires; I was on 35s. I didn't get on as much gravel as I would like, but the super-chunk Arkansas double-track I did ride was no problem. In fact, the bike felt far better on the dirt (both up and down) than it did on the pavement!

I know, it's expensive. But no more so than the ti 29er I rode at TI last year...

Velocodger said...

Thanks for sayin' what so many of us are thinking.
I ride a 'Blue Collar' locally produced steel cross bike with 40mm Kenda Happy Mediums and V brakes. It has a low BB and a Beer components eccentric. I dialed the eccentric LOW and this puppy rolls over babyheads & deep gravel like butter. I prefer the modulation and quietness of the V brakes. Here in CA we haven't seen a heckuva lot of rain, so I can't speak to that. I'm lovin' the Paul crosstop levers. They work well with my V and BB-7 brakes.

Guitar Ted said...

@Kevin Collings: Nice! Hopefully you get an image and share that. Have fun at the DK 200!

@Ari: " If BMC and Surly can do it so can other companies." <===Right! But will they?

@Warren Kurtz: While starting my own company sounds exciting, I would need lots of money and resources to do it, which I lack. So- that's why not.

Mauricio Babilonia: Yeah- I've seen a couple up close. Nice bikes!

@J Fry- Yep! I've always remembered that....

@Eddie: Gravel grinding is not about lots of quick accelerations. It's more about maintaining momentum, which your points about wheel weight and where it is at make little difference, and some would say is actually a detriment.

I also would like to point out that the longer a frame tube is, the more apt it is to absorb a vibration/impact than a shorter tube is. Adding a disc mount to a chain stay, and especially a fork, makes those tubes shorter, and less flexible. Not that any of this matters in terms of rider comfort, which is more influenced by tires and the pressures they are run at, and perhaps exposed seat post, than anything a frame can give you. Maybe this is not so much an issue for a frame, but for a fork, I would say disc brake mounts kill the ride feel.

I also would say that all the cable mounts and disc brake tabs weigh just a wee bit more than 100 grams on a steel bike. Also, the brakes themselves are significantly heavier than discs. Weight advantage will always go to cantilever brakes.

Finally- Several folks have given their alternative choice bikes to me- none of which are what I am talking about as a solution here for a spot on, purpose built gravel rig. For instance, regarding the Soma, which you already concede is not quite perfect, I will add that the BB height is still high on that bike. As an example- your Trek Domane suggestion runs either side of 80mm BB drop, depending upon the size.

Oh.....and someone actually rode a Domane at Trans Iowa this year, and because of the tire size limitations, it was deemed a failed experiment. Again- close, but no cigar!

@CJ: Rando bikes, again close, but not quite. They tend to run a pretty steep head angle which would be a handful on steep gravel descents at speed.

@Leslie: Head tube is criminally too short on those bikes. No thanks.

@Joe Partridge: You must have ridden a titanium Warbird? I agree with your assessment of the ride feel. It is wonderful, but....that bike suffers from the minimized tire clearances, as you state. The aluminum 'bird is better in that regard, actually, but, ah......yeah. It is aluminum and comes with that dreaded alu ride.

@Velocodger: Thanks for your comments. This is what I am trying to get across concerning the BB and cantilever brakes to folks. They ain't broke, and they don't need fixin'!

Sean said...

Hey GT,

I recall our brief conversation about bringing the Snekkja to production, with exactly the same specifications discussed here. If you would like, I can order a prototype today for your evaluation. In all, it MAY happen.

Rawland Cycles

Guitar Ted said...

@Sean: Pull the trigger, Sean. I'm willing and ready if you are. said...

Sounds like you ought to try out Singular Kite GT - just say the word....

Sean said...


Awesome. Off the top of my head, here is what I have for your dream steel gravel grinder:

Clearance for a 700x42
31.8 DT (8/5/8 or 9/6/9?); 28.6 TT
73/71 geometry
47mm rake for a 72mm trail
430mm chainstay length
70mm bottom bracket drop
a 590mm stack
1-1/8" steerer
Straight blades
Cantilever bosses
Triple water bottle mounts

Anything else? Anybody is welcome to chime in.


P.S. How about the name Snekkja for this one?

rideonpurpose said...

I would like a definition of "bigger brands" in the context of this post.

Also, are we sure that the reason they are not building them isn't because there really isn't a market? Perhaps we exist in a small niche that just talks back and forth with those who are like-minded and building such a bike would be not real profitable.

Further, I might argue that IF the big guys are watching the gravel races they are seeing people riding traditional CX bikes at the front which may lead them to think this is all a bunch of talk.

Where was the first "gravel" bike in the Almanzo 100? When I flatted out of the lead group there sure weren't any to be seen.

Guitar Ted said...

Sam: Hey there! You know that MG is having a Kite review going up on GGN as soon as we get the new site live, (which should be really soon, as in any minute now!),and I have been talking with MG about his rig a lot. I am very interested in the Kite, but I am not going to press you on that one, as I am actually really interested in a Buzzard. Just so you know...

@Sean: That looks really great, but is there anyway to get the BB drop lower? I'd really like to see something around 75mm. Possible?

Guitar Ted said...

@rideonpurpose; "Bigger Brand" as in something available in a LBS nationwide that fits the criteria that I delineated in the post. Some are close, none are there with "it".

As to the marketability, that has already been broached by Salsa, Kona, Waterford, Independant Fabrications, and several small custom builders. If they didn't see a market, these already available bikes wouldn't exist. Not to mention the rumblings I am privy to that I can not talk about openly here.

It may all be just a bunch of "talk", as you say, so in the end- it may not matter at all. But- if the industry takes interest, and they actually do see a market, and thus a reason to build such a purpose built bike, (like THAT has never happened before), then what I am outlining is what I'd like to see happen. Just my opinion. (Like I stated at the top of the post)

Michael_S said...

@ GT you've almost perfectly described the custom I just ordered. I like a little steeper head angle for single-track turns but otherwise a twin.

@Sean that's a pretty good geo you've described other than the lower BB GT mentioned and room for 45's. You gotta get it to fit the BG Rock n' roads!

Mike Howard said...

I'm so interested in what you guys are saying here, I'm looking for that gravel bike to buy now.Warbird ? Trek ION cross bike ? maybe a homegrown built frame I can build up ? What ever I buy needs to last me for many years to come with hopes the real gravel bike doesn't get built next year and make me wish I waited.

Mike Howard said...

Know anything about the Giant Anyroads bike being released this fall ?

Guitar Ted said...

@Michael_S: Yeah, I don't need my gravel rig to be a single track bike, so I see where that may be something you would like.That said, the slacker 29"ers I have ridden of late are a blast on the trails!

@Mike Howard: You know- most of the bikes you bring up are really tweaked CX bikes,and as such tend to have too high a BB and too steep a head angle, especially the Trek, which is essentially a high BB road/crit bike geo. Not at all good for loose, fast gravel. If your gravel runs toward the very smooth, packed in variety, go for one of those rigs, but I'd hold out for the 2014 intros....or Sam's Singular Kite, or this proposed Rawland, or.....stay tuned.

John said...

GT- keep your eyes peeled for Velo Orange's Passhunter, which should be available soon. It looks to be very similar to the Campeur, but lighter. Maybe very close to your "it" bike.

.s.s. said...

Sean, why straight blade forks? Wouldn't a nice low curve be more shock absorbing?

Leslie said...

GT, Understood about the headtube; was just thinking of affordable steel bikes w/ clearances.

I think Rivendells are perfect for this sort, but, they're not the cheapest options out there, for sure. Lugged is pretty, but not essential. Nice paint isn't a requirement for a functional bike.

Rawland has some neat ideas (I see Sean's post here), but BlkMtn, OceanAir, there's lots of 'randoish' bikes that meet a lot of the gravel bikes' needs...

Michael Lemberger said...

@Sean: Is there a reason we can't have clearance for 45c? Part of the BB drop consideration? I mean, if the lowly Cross Check can do it...

Wouldn't mind a little more BB drop too: 72-74 maybe?

Curved fork blades also turn me on, but I'm funny that way.

Anyways, thanks for going out on a limb and even considering something like this.

@rideonpurpose/Drew: I think there would be a market beyond just gravel. I think the bike described would also do well as a light tourer/camper/casual road bike. Call it a distance adventure bike and maybe appeal to other segments. (But then, the US bike industry is not always known for taking chances like that.)

Also: 'Where was the first "gravel" bike in the Almanzo 100?'

Same place all the Beargreases were in the fatbike races this winter, I suspect.

Sean said...

Hey GT, et al.

I got called for jury duty, so I will reply to your comments by tomorrow morning.


P.S. a 75mm drop is not a problem, although the chainstay would have to be 435mm, 440mm for a 700x42.

Sean said...

Good morning GT,

I have dialed the Snekkja gravel grinder, and it looks pretty darn good. Just out of courtesy, should we continue this discussion here, via email and/or on my blog? Let me know, and I will proceed accordingly.


Guitar Ted said...

@Sean: Hello! Let's take this to e-mail for now, and if you want, we can go elsewhere with it from there.


Mike Howard said...

I like the way Mark and Sean are talking,I'm holding out until I hear what comes out of you two talking...Oh, by the way Sean I ride a 54cm ( Me thinking ahead to order, if you build to mark specs.)