Thursday, January 03, 2019

The State Of The Gravel Scene: 2019- Part 2

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

Today in part 2 of my "State Of The Gravel Scene" I want to take a look at the hardware side of gravel cycling and where it could be going.

First of all, it is a gross understatement to say that the cycling industry is in upheaval. It is really worse than you might think. To say that this industry is very sick is not hyperbole in any shape or form.

All the more reason for the industry to latch on to the only forms of cycling, at this time, that are in any sort of "growth mode". It's pretty obvious that gravel cycling is one of those areas. The other- electric assisted, "hybrid powered bikes", are the other, and yes, there are electric motors on bicycles meant for gravel riding. (An example of which you can read about on "Bike Radar" as they cover the slightly over 40lb, slightly over 4K Cannondale Synapse NEO Gravel) So, you could say that in some ways the two are actually one thing. But for the purposes of this post, I will only address the fully human powered version of cycling.

Again- perspective is a good teacher. Only six years ago we had gravel products, but only enough that might account for the the fingers on one hand's worth. Tires were just being produced specific for gravel. Bicycles were just emerging for the discipline. Now, on the door step of the last year of this decade, we cannot count the numbers of bicycles, tires, wheels, clothing, and even handle bar tape that is "gravel specific".

And the end of it cannot be seen yet.

Conversely road bikes are in a nose dive in terms of sales figures. No doubt, a preponderance of notable deaths portrayed in media, both established and social, has given pause to those who once gave the open road all their cycling miles. Reports stream in of "distracted drivers" and fear rises which has certainly driven more numbers to the gravel/back road scene. But that doesn't completely account for the rising numbers of sales in the genre'.

I was saying back ten years ago that a gravel bike, should such a thing become reality, would make way more sense for most riders, be they riders of pavement or not, than the typical "racing bred" machine. The versatility a gravel bike can bring with rack mounts, fender mounts, and more used to be the sole domain of heavy tubed touring bikes meant to haul heavy loads. What a "gravel bike" does is different than that. It has the capabilities to hang with the paved road club ride, be a commuter hack, and go off pavement. Like......way more off pavement than a typical racing bike can with more stability and comfort than any racing bike could ever give you. Essentially, what I said then was that this style of bike was what 90% of the non-racing cycling public should be riding if they are not mountain biking.

Several years ago this carbon, Di2 equipped gravel bike cost a little more than 5K. That's "cheap" now.
So, now that people are figuring this out, coupled with the fear of being on pavement, road racing style bikes have not been moving as well in the market. This has pushed more gravel/back road bike development. Even on the high end. We're seeing more "halo" type offerings. Bikes in the five digit price category. I know of at least a couple slated for release in 2019 that are going to top out at well above $10,000.00 and I am sure I do not know about all of the future offerings. This was totally unthinkable even just a few years ago.

Another facet behind this would be part of what I was talking about yesterday- the attendance of more Pro level and semi-pro level road and mountain biking athletes at gravel events. Getting a top ten placing with a well known rider on your gravel rig is now a big deal, apparently, for the marketing departments. Gravel is stealing the spotlight from traditional road racing, and especially in the USA, where anything other than the Tour de France barely raises an eyebrow.

Types of gravel bikes are going to morph along with these changes in marketing and what is perceived as "cool" by the former road race driven product managers and marketers. I look for more "road racing" style gravel bikes to be foisted back upon the average consumer with the typical claims of efficiency, low weight, and........stiffness.

Former and current road racer types typically slag on "gravel bikes" as being "unresponsive", heavy handling, and porky. Well........of course they would. That's coming from a smooth road racer perspective. Keep in mind the same Pros don't like racing on gravel sections in the European events. Quite the disconnect there, but you know, racing drives the brands, and average riders aren't in positions of decision making, typically, in these brand's marketing and development departments. You know this when you see marketing copy that reads, "These are the kind of bikes we want to ride". Which is to say, probably not what the mainstay of riders really want in gravel/back road bikes. But what else is new?

2019 Warbird- Currently "cutting edge", but I don't think it will stay this way.
So, that means, in my opinion, that the current trend in gravel/adventure drop bar bikes to have tons of braze-ons, wheel swap-ability between 650B and 700c, and big, 2" tire clearances will eventually give way to something more "racy" in the future.

Some of this depends upon how the racing scene changes- or does not change- in the coming years. Self-supported racing has driven current design, but if that was to go away, you are going to see changes made which will reduce versatility in these bikes. Costs will dictate this to some degree, as will the overall health of the industry going forward. In fact, all of the above quickly becomes a moot point if we see a big change in what brands survive, and which ones do not. How bikes are bought and sold will also be a big player in all of this. Gravel bikes as we know them could easily become a thing of the past. It just depends on how the next couple of years go in this crazy industry. Easy come-easy go.

Of course, there is enough product out there already to sustain gravel riding for what.......a good decade? Maybe longer. Which brings to mind another longstanding issue with all of us- there are already enough bikes to go around. Do we even really need new ones? That's another post for another day.....

Next: Part 3 where I will discuss events and their seemingly ever increasing number, variety, and differing styles.

1 comment:

john said...

Mark - so nice to see your renewed interest in road riding and racing.