Tuesday, March 21, 2017

650B Gravel Bikes: Are They Mountain Bikes Too?

The Twin Six Standard Rando now comes in 650B or 700c
NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

Okay, here we go folks. Just to reiterate, this is only my opinion.

The industry is making so-called "gravel bikes" which are dual-wheel size compatible. These are the "latest" thing now. The entire genre probably got its start with Open's "UP" model. Once that bike made a big splash it didn't seem to take long for others to follow suit. This is the gravel bike "du-jour" of 2017-18. Most will be made of carbon fiber, but I've seen aluminum and steel models too. Big, chunky carbon forks with through axles will be on the front, disc brakes all around, and typically these sport shorter chain stays to appeal to the roadies out there who think longer than 425mm chain stay lengths are "unresponsive".

There are a lot of announcements, but not much in the way of details, and even less in terms of ride reports. The one thing all of them tout is the ability to run a 2.1' X 650B mtb tire. This seems to be just "accepted" as being a "good thing" by all who have reported on these bikes. However; I don't think it is so much a feature as it is a marketing tool to get you hooked up to buy one.

Yes, I have tried it, as a matter of fact.
Before I get into that though, I will say that I do totally buy in to using a 650B wheel and a tire suitable to gravel riding, and for using that to actually ride gravel roads. What I have found is that there are certain benefits to running a light, supple, high volume tire tubeless on gravel roads with the 650B size. There are other benefits that 700c brings to the table that this 650B wheel size does not possess. But that said, both have their place.

While one could do whatever the heck they want, and run a heavier, knobbier tire and call it a gravel bike, I don't think this is what the marketers mean. I think what they mean is that your gravel bike can be a mountain bike. So, leaving the gravel stuff aside, let's take a look at what makes this a not such a great idea.

Okay, here's my take. When you eat steak at a restaurant, you could use a table knife to cut yourself a bite to chew. It is a knife after all, and why shouldn't you be able to use a knife for butter when eating steak? Well, I don't know about you, but when I eat steak, I like to use a steak knife. Just like when I mountain bike, I roll out a mountain bike, not some small wheeled, kinda knobby tired, drop bar bike. Why? Because one tool is better for the job than the other is, that is why.

Again, you can do whatever you want to do, but my point is that marketing these 650B/700c "gravel bikes" as do-it-all bikes that could be a mountain bike isn't reality. For someone, or two, or maybe three of you, yes. It will be that bike. For most folks that buy in to the idea, they won't be satisfied. They won't be satisfied because, if they have ridden a mountain bike, they will quickly realize that road-ish geometry and road bike positioning, which most of these bikes have, isn't an ideal solution for mountain biking.

So, I am totally not buying this malarkey about using these super-designed, gravelly bikes for mountain biking when they are the furthest thing from what reality in mountain biking is these days. Not for most people, it isn't reality.  Again, there are exceptions to every rule, I get that. But that said,  these 650B gravel bikes are not mountain bikes too.

15 comments:

phillip Cowan said...

Am I the only one who thinks these bikes are evolving back into the rigid framed, NORBA geometry mountain bikes of the late 80's? Cool! I already have an '89 Trek 950 that I'm still quite fond of. I guess I'll be ahead of the curve.

Guitar Ted said...

@phillip Cowan- I see the resemblance as well, so I would agree with you there. When someone pushes forth a "flat bar version", we will all have a good chuckle!

Doug Mayer said...

I had a custom gravel/dirt rando bike made to accept a 27.5 x 2.2" MTB tires and road width cranks. Not even close to a substitute for a real MTB, but it opens up some fun opportunities on occasion.

Roger Kummert said...

I agree with you GT. If you are out for a ride on one of these yes you can run some single track if that fits into your ride but I would not go out on one of these with friends riding mountain bikes.

Robert Ellis said...

A wider tire is the last thing you want to run if there is even the least bit of possibility of mud.

Smithhammer said...

Executed poorly, this sort of attempt at hybridization can be underwhelming, and not particularly adept at either realm. Such is always the risk when trying to spread the capabilities of anything too thin. And no, of course, it's not going to perform the same as an aggressive MTB designed for truly technical terrain. I have yet to see anyone really claiming that.

BUT....there are parts of the country where the lines between 'gravel' and 'mountain' are not so clearly and conveniently drawn, where these two realms actually exist in the same place, and where a well-designed bike, capable of handling dirt/gravel roads reasonably well and efficiently enough, while also able to cross onto at least moderate trails (or truly primitive, rough backroads) most definitely has a definite place. Just look at the 'monstercross' phenom - a spectrum of loosely defined attempts at arriving at a mountain/gravel bike that fits the above description. Many of these iterations are quite capable. And the number of individual riders building up these types of bikes from scratch, along with the increasing number of builders starting to offer them, like this suggests that I'm far from alone in this opinion.

The best examples of this niche, imo, point at one of the more fertile and exciting areas of development in modern bike design. But maybe my opinion is somewhat formed by where I live, where I can find the usefulness of such a rig right out my front door.

I don't know why do we get so hung up on these strict definitions and categories anyway...except that it makes for good blog fodder. The most interesting things tend to happen not at the center, but at the edges...

Guitar Ted said...

@Smithhammer- Your line, "The most interesting things tend to happen not at the center, but at the edges...", while maybe true, doesn't pay the bills. So, I would submit to you that these brands coming out with these bikes, which I am referring to and are definitely not custom, one-off, NAHBS rigs, are subtly nudging the idea out there, (and some not so subtly), that this is the mainstream rider's "do-it-all" rig. I am calling BS.

@Doug Mayer, @Roger Kummert - While it may be true that the knobby 650B tire would allow for the occasional foray in to mtb-land, are you actually going to burn up those tires on everything else, or want to turn that sort of tire the other 85%-90% of the time you are not on mtb-like trails? Maybe you would.

My thinking is that in reality people are going to "underbike" more than "overbike" a rig like this. What I mean is that they are either going to run typical gravel-ish 700c fare, or wider 650B, smoother tread/no tread tires all the time and just accept that when they explore the dirt and single track that they are not on the best tool for the job. Less fuss and you don't have to worry about two sets of wheels.

dkris2020 said...

I played with the idea of having my cyclocross bike be a rigid XC bike. I have 27.5x2 tires on there and primarily I like them because I can run them at 40-60 psi and have it not be harsh or squirmy (I'm 360lbs so that's a thing). I've gotten into riding trails and despite my bike having quasi-XC geo, the rigid fork and the limited tire clearance can only do so much. It's the only bike I can afford to keep up at this point so what else can I do?

youcancallmeAl said...

As someone that abhors the concept of a "quiver" whether it be related to skiing, biking, playing an instrument, surfing or any number of other activities, I am a fan of this kind of bike

youcancallmeAl said...

Lol! Here is the proof of your pudding! Gravel bike?? LOL!! Good one Pinarello!!

http://www.bicycling.com/bikes-gear/reviews/tested-pinarello-gan-gr-s?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=Social&utm_term=838636354&utm_campaign=Bicycling#product-1360541

Smithhammer said...

@GT - my comments are in reference to the potential usefulness of the concept, when it is executed well (of which examples exist). And while one could make the argument that what "pays the bills" is one metric of that, the latter also introduces a whole host of other variables beyond my point, and is a different discussion.

The accuracy of the term "do it all rig" is entirely dependent on what "all" one wants to do. To call BS on what usefulness someone else may or may not find in such a bike seems more than a bit presumptuous. Honestly, I can't say that I see a lot of marketing (if any) out there claiming that such a bike will cover what a Santa Cruz Tallboy or a Salsa Pony Rustler will do....

Guitar Ted said...

@Smithhammer-Your points are well known, and not unexpected to me. I am not saying you are wrong. I am taking issue with the presumption by marketers that by merely allowing for the fitment of a 650b knobby tire in 2 inch or slightly wider width the bike will be (a) useful to the majority of folks who buy such a bike because it is the wrong tool for the job (mtb) and (b) the likelihood of swapping wheels/tires for most consumers is low, at best.

That's my opinion.

I am saying it is pure marketing BS.

You are correct in that much of the rest of what I addressed in regard to your comment previously is an entirely different discussion. But then- you did bring that up. ;>)

PukeSkywalker said...

How do you feel about bikes like the Fargo vs. these 650b CX bikes? You seem to have a lot of drop-bar MTBs... and I'm in the market for one. But as a newbie I don't want to completely limit myself too much

Guitar Ted said...

@PukeSkywalker- Anything with 29"er wheels will eat up more level terrain and anything rough leaving the 650B bikes a bit off the back. Where I feel 650B X 47+ sized rubber really comes into its own is where someone is looking to fit big rubber on a 700c bike that maybe maxes out at 40mm tires in 700c. Or maybe you are shorter than 5ft 6 inches and want puffy tires with reasonably close to classic geometry.

I am of the mind to say that anyone should run the largest diameter wheels that work for them. As long as geometry isn't compromised and the weight isn't ridiculous, I stick to that simple maxim for most bicycling pursuits.

PukeSkywalker said...

Thanks a lot. It's hard to cut through the chatter with these new bike developments.