Thursday, July 17, 2014

What It Is And What It Is Not

This is a gravel road. We have over 69.000 miles of it in Iowa alone.
NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

I have noticed of late that many bicycling companies have been bandying about the term "gravel grinder" again, and many media write ups of late have also been poking the badgers out in web-land with this term as well. I wanted to address this, (once again), and also point out what is and what isn't a bike good for gravel riding. 

I don't mean to come off as some smarty-pants know-it-all, but when you are born and raised in Iowa, you damn well sure know what a gravel road is, and what isn't a gravel road. If you were like me, you didn't even bat an eyelash at riding a bicycle on gravel, but that isn't the point. Yes, you can ride any bike on a gravel road, Captain Obvious, but you also could ride any bicycle on the Porcupine Rim Trail in Moab too, but you use a mountain bike, because it works better. And guess what? We know something other than a road bike, or even a cyclo cross bike, could be a better bicycle on gravel. That is the point.

It is great that the industry is listening, but you don't have to.
The industry is jumping on a trend, no doubt about it, and since when has that ever been a surprise? Well, you'd think that some folks had never recognized this fact by their reactions to "gravel grinders" as a term, and that they had never heard of "free ride", "NORBA geometry", "aero road", or "enduro" before. (I could go on.) You know, you could simply ignore and ride whatever ya want to. That is an option, ya know.

I am stoked to see gravel bicycle design and components, for sure. However; it doesn't matter if it never happened at all. It just makes riding gravel better, and like I said, we all knew it could be better than using a cyclo cross bike, or a 29"er hard tail. In the end, it is just about riding though. That said, here we are, and companies are saying things about bicycles that are not really hitting the mark. They are using the term "gravel road", "gravel grinder", "dirt road", and other terms to describe bikes I wouldn't ever consider for any of the above here in Iowa.

Their tires cannot handle gravel here with aplomb because they are too skinny, or their geometry is so close to cyclo cross that it isn't "road-like" at all. Look, it is called a gravel road. We are not going to hop barriers, ride in ruts, or need to pedal through corners at high lean angles. But don't listen to me. I'm just some old, grouchy bicycle mechanic at a small shop in Iowa. What the heck do I know about bicycle design? You know those racer guys, they have a much better handle on geometry and what works and what doesn't, so let's see what one of the most famous racers in the world right now has done to influence bicycle design that is one small detail away from being the perfect gravel grinder bicycle.

Design input by Fabian Cancellara- Trek Domane
I guess maybe ol' Fabian Cancellara knows what a rough road is and what kind of bike you'd use to tackle it. The Domane by Trek is an "oh-so-close-to-perfect" gravel road machine that I cannot believe Trek themselves haven't jumped at the chance to modify it slightly to fit what gravel road, rough road, and pavement riders around the world need in a bike for everything but true mountain biking. In fact, other companies than Trek have similar rigs that are super close to what I would design as a gravel road bike. Why give us lukewarm cyclo cross bikes?

The Domane features a truly low bottom bracket. When you read about these other bikes pretending to be "all road", or gravel grinders, look at their numbers. If they are not below 70mm of BB drop, they are not really a gravel specific design. They are warmed over cyclo cross designs. The Domane has a BB drop of 80mm-75mm across the size range. Now that is a low bottom bracket! I totally agree with Fabian and Trek on that facet of rough road geo. It helps with stability, a major plus for a speedy, good handling gravel rig.

The head tube angle is another place a lot of these so-called gravel road/dirt road bikes say they are "slacker" at. Really? The Domane has a 71.1° to 72.1° head angle across the range. Many of these other pretenders have 72.5° head angles and steeper. I think the Domane is borderline too steep, by the way, especially on the large end of the range. That said, Fabian probably knows a thing or three about what he wants in a front end geo for rougher roads.

Then there is the brilliant de-coupler seat tube design which is an obvious advantage for the "paint shaker" gravel roads we have here. Even the chain stays aren't ridiculously short at 420-425mm across the range. (I'd go a bit longer, again for stability, but that's me.) That said, there is one area that the Domane, and many of these other so-called gravel bikes, fail at. That would be tire clearances. If the Domane could handle a 40mm tire, it would be dead on perfect for gravel. Of course, add in the disc brake option that future Domanes will have and we're really looking at a winner at the rough road game here.

So, there ya go folks. Measure these so-called gravel rigs from GT, Specialized, and others against the Domane, (keeping in mind we'd want bigger tires), and see how they measure up to Fabian's vision for a rough road rig. And oh, by the way- it's a race winning design as well.


Travis said...

Interesting. My Crux (52cm) has 71mm of BB drop, a 71.5° head tube angle, and 425mm chainstays. A 40 mm tire fits with room to spare in the front. The side knobs on Kenda Happy Mediums make their 40mm offering too close for comfort in the back (the knobs would rub the chainstay when pedaling hard out of the saddle) but I bet something like a Clement MSO would be fine. The Crux is also available with disc brakes.

Sounds like the Crux, at least in the smaller sizes, is real close to your ideal geo for a gravel specific bike.

Guitar Ted said...

@Travis: The Crux is a favorite amongst many gravel road goers, and for the reasons you state. However; that tire clearance issue can be a problem. I am pretty sure it was a Specialized at Odin's Revenge that had an issue with mud grinding a hole into the chain stays on one fellows bike due to the lack of clearance. I would also submit that was an extreme example, and perhaps more indicative of the negatives of carbon fiber as a frame material than anything. Still.....

Travis said...

Yup, I'm pretty sure you're right about Crux at Odin's. My Crux is the aluminum version which has saved me a few times with my tire clearance issue and also with a mud/gravel buildup on my crankarms during CIRREM this year. The driveside chainstay has a pretty good "scuff-mark" now. I'd hate to know what would have happened had I had a carbon frame.

The tire issue is annoying, however I just run a 40mm up front and a 35mm in back and it works very well so far. In my more limited experience, the width of the front tire seems a bit more important than the rear.

BluesDawg said...

I have a 2014 Crux Carbon Elite EVO and I have been running 40mm Clement MSO tires front and rear with no rubbing. Not a lot of mud clearance, though.

rideonpurpose said...

Two major disagreements here-

1. I have won category 1/2 USAC road races each of the last two years on courses which are primarily Iowa gravel. I was on 28s, as were 90% of the finishers near the front.

2. Low bottom bracket is nice for the reasons you stated. However, if we are talking about gravel bikes as in gravel racing... then I feel that many gravel race routes have CX type sections. Those sections are often where the separations between the riders occur and this type of geometry vs. a CX bike might be exactly what leaves you in the dust.

3. The obvious response to the above is that I'm too race oriented, or something along those lines. If that is your immediate thought then tell me why anyone would be better off on a Domane or Diverge or whatever vs. a 29er if that person doesn't care about going fast at all. In the end what works best for the people who want to go fast is what works best, period. This is why cars, bike companies etc. have always used racing to prove their designs and set up a 'trickle down'.

4. More on the BB height thing. You can say you know 'gravel' but there is no such thing as 'gravel'. It's different everywhere. There are actual bike rocks on the gravel roads in states only a short drive from Iowa. Not to mention deep ruts, 2' deep puddles full of muddy water etc.. Are those roads not gravel to the people who live or ride in northern Mn, Wisconsin, Michigan? I know I wouldn't want that low BB geometry for those roads but rather a more traditional geometry that works real great over a wide range of surfaces in the crucible that is cyclocross. Any changes to CX or road geometry is more an idea or a concept until we get a world level "gravel racing league" together, homologate what the courses should be and see how it shakes out up front so far as what bikes will work.

I guess what I'm really saying is- to each his own. Preferable to that even- to each all of the above on different days. Best to have a little bit of everything, but not to tell anyone else what is best.

Guitar Ted said...

@rideonpurpose. Did you forget to read the disclaimer at the top of the post? Also, did you not see that I also said none of this matters, and "it is all just riding bicycles"? Guess you didn't, judging from the length and content of your comments, but be that as it may, I will address each.....

1: You ride 28"s. That's awesome, yet as you yourself say, "to each his own". But that isn't the case with many offerings. I would submit that wider tires, (if one so chooses to ride them), won't fit on many offerings, so that is a limiter. If your bike has wide enough spaces for bigger tires, you don't have to run them, but you could. See how that works? Options are good.

2: Many gravel routes have CX sections? I am assuming you mean ruts? How about not riding in them? (Odin's Revenge is a perfect example) Otherwise, a higher BB is for pedaling through corners, which isn't an issue, or advisable, in most gravel racing situations. You know as well as I do that high speed descending on looser gravel is more stable and controllable with a lower bottom bracket. (Plus bigger tires help there as well) Finally, I would submit that in Europe, which the Domane was made for, the cobbles and gravel that this bike was designed on could arguably be said to be more rutted and rougher than many a CX course.

3: Your definition of "fast" may be one thing, but anyone is capable of speeding down hills at 30+ miles an hour and as stated above, a lower bottom bracket is nice for that. Nuff said...

4: I can say "I know gravel" and there is such a thing as "gravel" whether you want to agree with that or not. That's on you. Again- it's my opinion, and in my opinion words have definitions and meaning. "Gravel road" means something, it can be defined, and there are over 69,000 miles of it in Iowa alone, plus thousands more in Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas. There are "other roads" of which you bring up. Those are not what I define as gravel. Again, my opinion. You can believe what you want.

Finally, I believe what you really wanted to post is in your last few sentences. That makes more sense to me than the rest of what you posted, knowing you the little bit that I do. But since you did write the rest, I have responded in kind.

rideonpurpose said...

I'm certainly not arguing against options.

We are in this little corner of the world here though and I guess I don't attribute the offerings that are out there to the bike companies being "behind" some curve here. I think the bikes they are building currently can be used to do virtually anything very very well.

There is room for the exact bike you are suggesting, no doubt. But to discount other options as warmed over cx bikes blows my mind. CX bikes are amazing machines in their element, which is almost everywhere.

I define "gravel" as the conditions one finds in events which the organizers think are "gravel races". Obviously, there can be a narrower definition.

The bike you are describing is ideal for a nice solo or group ride on the type of gravel we see around here. I totally agree there. I'm just not so sure it will often be the best choice to ride one of those "gravel races".

Unknown said...

Right on G-T! More options are better, that is what I keep telling my kids. Better grades = more options.

There were two showstoppers when I was gravel bike shopping - clearance for 40mm tires and road width crankset. Clement MSO 40s at 40psi is a sweet ride on rough roads as well as sandy areas.

I suppose riding and racing are different but the winner of the Dirty Kanza was rolling 40s. 38mm and 40mm tires have ruled the top 10 the last two years and probably a lot longer.

Shane said...

I would say that gravel bike ANSI standards are needed to define these bikes, but then that would mean everyone would first have to agree on the definition of gravel. Oh my...just get out and ride what you like!

youcancallmeAl said...

Lol! watching Gravel Grinders and Monster Crossers struggling to define and stake out their specialized niches on social media these last months has been very entertaining! Over the years,Ive seen the same thing with skis, flyfishing gear, waterskis, windsurfers, etc etc and I can't help but be amazed at our culture's fascination with categories!

Guitar Ted said...

@youcancallmeal: And if- as your comment identity says- are an "al", I guess that means the pot is calling the kettle black.

By the way, what is an "al" anyway? ;>)

youcancallmeAl said...

well Ted, I think you should ask Paul Simon that question. as for pots and kettles, i have no idea what you're on about but you do seem a tad sensitive.

Guitar Ted said...

@youcancallmeal: Oh.....I get it, "al", I was just having some fun with ya! Lighten up. If anyone was being "sensitive".......