Thursday, May 05, 2016

Where They Are Getting It Wrong

So wrong on one end, so right on the other.
Everywhere you turn now, it seems that bicycle companies are hopping on the "gravel/adventure" bike theme. Sea Otter, a festival on the West Coast that concluded last month, saw a slew of new offerings for the 2017 model year. Some of these bikes are offerings from bigger brands, like the Specialized Diverge, but most are coming from mid-level brands looking to cash in on a trend. Emphasis on "cash in", and it often times shows.

I've been watching the trend with great interest, not just because I am involved with, but also because I have been beating the drum for what it takes to make a good gravel road bike on this blog for years. Long before these companies ever thought to make such beasts. That is important to note only because I have had these ideas for a long time and I'm not just coming around with criticisms made up recently. I have no horse in this race, but I do find how these bikes are coming out rather odd. It has more to do with corporate trappings and marketing than it does with what is going to actually make a good gravel road bike. What has informed these designs, many times, are things that just do not work well on gravel roads, or works poorly.

As an example, many bicycles companies are putting forth in this new niche have carbon fiber forks. Why wouldn't they? They are "road based" bikes, right? And what self respecting road bike designer wouldn't put a carbon fiber fork on a gravel road bike? Besides, they are lighter than the other options. You know, light weight sells. Well, the problem is that these are generally the same forks used on cyclo cross bikes, which value stiffness above all else. Sure, you get tire clearance for 40mm tires, but you also get the stiffest riding fork you can imagine. Not so hot an idea for gravel roads.

That steel fork might be heavy, and ordinary looking, but it works.
I've been on a few of these carbon forks. When I think of them, the word "jack hammer" comes to mind. I know of others saying similar things. What happens is that riders get their arms, upper bodies, and in worst case scenarios, even their neck and head going through the "paint shaker" routine. This isn't necessary at all, and absolutely something we want to avoid at all costs on a gravel road going machine.

The trouble is that companies are designing these bikes using components already available via parts developed for other disciplines of cycling, (cyclo cross), or that exist in catalogs from the carbon factories in the Far East. Almost none of what we see masquerading as "gravel/adventure" bikes is actually a ground up design specific to gravel road riding. The Salsa Warbird and the Raleigh Tamland being notable exceptions. Usually what we are seeing are bikes with some tweaks, or out and out cyclo cross bikes rebadged.

Some other bikes, which are new designs, and badged as gravel/adventure rigs, don't have features or geometry that is even close to what actually works on rough roads with loose gravel. It isn't hard to figure it out, because, was figured out decades ago by the European road bike designers. The historical references and designs are all there to be seen and learned from, yet the bicycles I see headed our way for gravel riding don't seem to have any of these seminal influences. Things like low bottom brackets, slack head angles matched up with long offsets, and forks that actually work with the terrain instead of fiercely resisting it. Instead, we get designs informed by the road cycling trends of the day, which are ultimately derived from American Criterium geometry. Not a design house that makes a good bike for gravel road riding.

So, I see this and find it odd. There are some companies that have gotten it close to the ideal I believe is best, but most bikes I see for this category are missing it by a country mile. 


james said...

I think I recall your thoughts on BB drop...around 75mm or so, but what do you think for head angle/fork rake? Most 'cross' type machines use 71.5-72 head with s 45-47mm fork. How about chainstays? 430-440? Love to here your thoughts.

youcancallmeAl said...

Bravo!!Most of them look exactly like a road racing bike with slightly longer chain stays, slacker head angle and bigger tires.And enough stopping power to lock up the wheels on gravel.And low low bars, I have yet to see a picture of gravel racers riding in the drops!

Tyler Loewens said...

Hi Mark,

What are your thoughts on the Lauf Grit carbon fork for gravel? Seems like it would be quite the ticket in both price ($800 - YOUCH!), and function (minimal lightweight "suspension").

Guitar Ted said...

@james: I think designers haven't delved far enough into the historical gravel designs nor have they paid attention to where they have taken 29"er designs over the past decade.

If I were to design a bike and build it myself, I would be a little radical, just to push the envelope. My design would have a deep BB drop, maybe 77mm, and a head angle of 71°, maybe 70.5°, (size 58cm)and a high offset fork, probably somewhere in the 55mm-60mm range, (I haven't run the numbers for trail, but this is in the ballpark), chain stays somewhere in the 430-440mm range, and a tall head tube to keep the bars up higher than what many maybe would do. Probably the most radical thing would be the brakes, which would be Paul Racer brakes, and the rear would be under the chain stays, which may sound stupid, but I have my reasons.

So, there ya go.

Guitar Ted said...

@Tyler Loewens: What do I think? It is the ugliest fork EVER! That's what. But other than that, it seems like a smart idea for gravel bikes. I don't like the execution of the idea, but as of now, I don't have an alternative idea. I just think that there has to be a more aesthetically pleasing solution to the problem of vibration damping.

Kelly&Ted said...

First time caller, long time listener:

You make some valid points regarding geometry of what a gravel bike should look like, but the reality of the situation even with the proliferation of gravel specific bikes is that the fastest gravel bikes are still cross bikes. Why? because there is not a gravel bike I am aware of that is ~15 pounds but there are plenty of cross bikes that are, and stiffness and weight definitely matter for going fast on gravel- much more that geometry-and that means carbon. It does not matter what the rake of the fork is, if the bottom bracket is slightly higher or lower, blah blah blah that splitting hairs when it comes to going fast. Gravel races are rarely won on a super technical downhill where super gravel specific geometry is necessary (tires would matter more in that case anyways). By and large on gravel you are going straight, and cornering is done at a leisurely pace, hence it does not matter what bike you are on as long as it fits at least 35mm tires. Races are won by attrition, and having a light, efficient bike is always going to be better in the long run. Tire choice and pressure are used to soak up the bumps, just like in cross racing.

Now, im not hating on steel bikes (I own 3), and if your goal is just to go out and have a good ride on gravel and be comfortable, great. If thats the case, why not ride a 29er its even more comfortable. However,I have ridden lots of gravel on both carbon and steel bikes, and when its go fast time, im grabbing the carbon bike every single time.

Guitar Ted said...

@Kelley&Ted: Hello! Thanks for the comments.

I think what you are saying has a whole lot more to do with a lack of "race level" gravel bikes than it does with what you are referring to. For example- Trans Iowa had one of its co-winners riding a Salsa Warbird Carbon. No slouch in the weight department, and waaaay more capable and comfortable than a cross bike. Some top tenners were on CX bikes, for sure, and some of them were even carbon bikes, but many were steel. As always, it is what is riding the bike that is of utmost importance, not the bike being ridden.

That said, using your logic, why not just use a cyclo cross bike for everything? Road crits, mtb, everything? Because, (obviously), there are better tools for the job. There aren't "better tools for the job" when it comes to gravel road bikes, for the most part, (obvious exception noted above- Plus there are others), and yes- millimeters and degrees do matter. Just ask any road racer, or mountain bike racer.

So, while I see where you are coming from, that viewpoint is not reality when it comes to making specific bicycles for specific purposes. It is already happening for gravel road bikes, (despite their not quite being right yet), and it has for other disciplines as well. Like for instance.....

Their is a very niche corner of the sport where riders used to take old road bikes and do these off road, cross country jaunts. Riding some on paved roads, then darting across pastures, sliding down ravines, and even running up steep pitches covered in slick mud. Then the sport got more serious, bicycles were developed for this new, weird outgrowth of road cycling. Geometry was tweaked, tires got specialized, and even the courses became highly groomed, man-made affairs where spectators could see the entire field in action at one time.

This highly derivative, specialized, niche sport with their own bikes and geometry? Cyclo cross, of course.

So, tell me again how we don't need gravel specific bikes with their own specialized geometry?

Make sense now?

Kelly&Ted said...

I guess I respectfully disagree in many regards.

YOu can use a cross bike in a road race fairly successfully (see previous version of paris-roubaix with people getting top 10 on cross bikes), but will have a slight penalty for it being less aerodynamic.

The main point Im tring to make is gravel racing IS road racing. There are attacks. There is drafting. There are breaks, chasing down breaks, etc etc. You need the ability to accelerate quickly at times, and go uphill quickly, just like a road race. To make a good gravel race bike, I want the exact same things that a good road bike has such as light, stiff, aero. All a good gravel bike should be is the geometry of a good all around race road bike (cannondale superxix evo for example) with clearance for 38mm tires. Companies are slowly starting to realize this (the updated trek domane clears 35mm easy).

Also- please explain to me how a salsa warbird is 'way more capable and comfortable than a cross bike' for gravel? Again, gravel racing is a very very nontechnical sport- you go straight the majority of the time and turn at slow speeds. Tire choice and pressure are truly the only technical aspects of it. Because its so nontechinical, I want my bike light, aero, and efficient. Even the warbird which is the lightest of the 'gravel racing bikes' is still 2-3lbs heavier than a high end cross bike.

Now, if you want to talk about geometry and frame material of a gravel touring bikes, thats a differnt story, and if I really am touring on gravel, im going full plush with a krampus.

75 miles south said...

I'll stick my nose in here. Reasonable people may differ in their opinion of need.

I have a traditional RX1 from Raleigh, 2007 iteration. The full carbon fork can be stiff as all get out when braking or plowing through on the rough stuff, but a little technique can minimize that. For "grinding" out long days, its probably not the best tool in the world, but for spirited gravel rides lasting a few hours, I don't think I've really found a short-coming.

Each and every bike is a compromise, like any tool, vehicle, weapon, breed of dog etc. Some bikes compromise comfort, other compromise handling or cost aero or .... I don't need a 100% gravel race bike or 100% gravel grinder or 100% cross-racer, as my gravel miles tend to be commute miles, and since I only have enough budgetary and physical room for so many bikes, I'm casually browsing for the a bike with the right set of compromises.

I agree with the publisher here that 35s aren't quite enough in some situations for comfort or control, but having run a 35 rear and 40 front, and a 35/35 I can't say that those 5mm really made a huge difference in control or confidence. Who knows if a 40 out back would make a difference, thats too snug for my frame. But I'm also 185lbs and ride like an angry bronco, so someone who is 155 with more finesse can probably easily stomach a 35/35 combo at lower pressures than me.

Guitar Ted said...

@Kelly&Ted: Much of what you are saying we are actually in agreement on, however; you are skipping over the obvious points I made in my first comments in reply to you.

Think about gravel roads- It is like riding on marbles much of the time. There are high speed descents, many times over 40mph, and loose, steep pitches ranging in gradient from 10% to as high as 15% and more. This is just in Iowa. If that is not "technical" to you, we have no further discussion worth pursuing here.

Furthermore; are you at all familiar with Salsa's Carbon Warbird model? It would be absolutely meaningless for me to explain how that is going to be an advantage over a stiff, squirrely CX bike unless you have studied the bike, which I don't have the space to explain here in the comments.

Then there is the road aspect of the type of riding we do. Exactly! And people ride cyclo cross bikes all the time for road racing? No. They do not. Certainly, there are exceptions, which you and I have already pointed out. That is obvious and not the point here. Gravel road riders should ride bikes informed by decades of design and experience that predated the American Criterium geometry that is influencing almost every road bike in the US now, including gravel road bikes, and probably your road bike.

I wrote a post for tomorrow, by the way- far before your responses to my post today, which gets into more detail about these things, and points out a design which has already won road races at the Pro level, and is light enough that even you cannot deny it's worthiness. (Depending upon spec, of course) Check it out if you care tomorrow.

Guitar Ted said...

@75 miles south: Well, here you go....

"For "grinding" out long days, its probably not the best tool in the world...."


And again, you are correct- You either justify your need, or make do with what you have. That's a decision everyone can make, and is valid. In my opinion, I don't find that sort of compromise necessary or desirable.

I say there is a better tool for the job I want to accomplish, and there are others that feel likewise. Of course, not everyone does feel that way, and the comments on my posts about gravel bikes often draw those folks out. Today is a perfect example of that.

Kelly&Ted said...

g ted

Thanks for the replies.

I guess I dont consider the scenarios you mentioned of ridding gravel that technical, and I have never in 90+ gravel races ever seen a race decided by technical abilities or descending skills. Not once. Its just not an important aspect to deciding outcomes of races (unlike mountain biking or crit racing which I do consider technical and do affect outcomes). I especially don't consider milllemeters of bottom bracket difference or fork rake or fork material or being on a gravel specific bike or cross bike being any indication of success or failure on those technical gravel sections.

I have ridden the warbird. I have ridden hundreds of miles starring at the rear wheel of the warbird. The designer of the warbird is a friend of mine. I know the warbird. As far as gravel specific bikes go, there is no close second, it is an extremely well thought out bike, and beautiful to look at and ride. However, You have not done anything to convince me that the same person ridding a 'squirly' stiff cross bike and a warbird would be faster on the warbird in a 100 mile gravel TT, and ultimately this discussion is about racing and speed.

Obviously most people do not race road races on cross bikes. However, if cross bikes were lighter, stiffer, and more aero than the current road bikes, you better believe that they would, and thats exactly my point- cross bikes are still lighter and stiffer than most current gravel bikes, hence the better weapon of choice for gravel RACING.

Based on your clues, I can only assume your post tomorrow is about the domane and the dual iso speeds and fabian. Never ridden it, but looks like a great bike. It looks less great when you realize its 18.5 lbs for a size small and costs 6.5K!! I would still take the warbird over the domane :)

Adam said...

Re "If I were to design a bike and build it myself"... Interesting - sounds like a similar direction to what Mike at Black Mountain Cycles is doing! Chainstay length is right in the ballpark, and while that BB drop and headtube angle are more radical than his bikes, he increased the offset on the forks of the latest bikes dramatically - right to 55mm.

Guitar Ted said...

@Kelly&Ted: Thank you for you replies:

This statement; "You have not done anything to convince me that the same person ridding a 'squirly' stiff cross bike and a warbird would be faster on the warbird in a 100 mile gravel TT, and ultimately this discussion is about racing and speed."

So, if you know Sean, as you claim, then you probably know about the data he culled while doing the Warbird project. And if that is true, you must also know that energy transferred from rough roads to rider can cause fatigue, because of the energy being generated by rough gravel.

You must also be aware that any form of vibration damping that isolates the rider from this energy transfer makes that rider more efficient. That translates to being faster. It's a well documented phenomenon, again, as you must know. Therefore; using this to judge by, a Warbird with its VRS system should be a faster bike than a stiff, unforgiving cross bike. But that doesn't matter when.......

When the rider is talented, skilled, and determined. Again, all of this minutiae goes out the window when you consider that Trans Iowa's other co-winner was on a Surly Cross Check, a bike I am certain you would dismiss as a "race bike".

In the end, it is always about the motor. Just like I said at the top of this discussion.

Kelly&Ted said...

Wait a second- somebody was actually able to win trans iowa on cross bike? how did he stay upright? Props to him, i bet had he been on that exact same bike but 8 lbs pounds lighter he would have won solo! (Im only kinda kidding. dude must be a serious stud to handicap himself that much and still win)

I appreciate the responses G ted but my reality is that the majority of gravel roads I have been on are not that rough (ridden lots of them), a good line can generally be found, and tires do a damn good job smoothing based on pressure. If the roads are so rough that I need some sort of suspension system beyond 38mm tires, Im guessing a mountain bike would be faster then anyways.

Your ideal gravel bike already exists in the warbird, T6 rando and tamland, which is great. My ideal gravel bike is a racing road bike (Ill even call it a super stiff crit bike if that pleases you) that fits 38s. Im guessing that will happen sooner than later as this all road bike segment continues on.

Thanks for listening!

james said...

Would you ever consider 650b for a wheel size (assuming you have the same selection of tires regardless of wheel size)?
My thought in asking this is with 650b you get an overall lighter 'rotating mass package'compared to 700 and your 650 wheel would theoretically be stronger. The negative would be the reduced diameter and the increased effort rolling over larger obsticals

Guitar Ted said...

@james: Yes, I would consider trying that. I have a bike I'd like to set up that way, as a matter of fact.

james said...

Any chance we could talk off the blog about geometry?

Guitar Ted said...


Unknown said...

Excellent conversation. I’m looking closely at the Warbird as a gravel AND road bike. I wonder you might compare it to the Exploro perhaps set up with something wide or even 650b/47s for gravel and 700c/28-30 for road. Going fast on gravel and the road is my primary interest (given the trade-offs of using one bike for both). I’ve lots of experience on the road, but only a little on gravel, but I’m learning that wide/soft seems to carry well over washboards, potholes, and off-camber marbles which are not always avoidable when in a group that is racing pell-mell down the road. I wonder how something like an Exploro would fare with 650b/47s at something like 25-30psi verses a putatively more compliant Warbird running something like Riddler 45s at 30+psi.

Guitar Ted said...

@Cameron Reddy- The two bikes you wish for me to compare and contrast are very different bikes. The Warbird is really only going to be its best with a 700c X 35mm-40mm tire. Salsa does not recommend using 650B tires and wheels, and I am not sure you could put anything very wide on it with that wheel format anyway. The way the chain stays are formed would seem to preclude that choice.

So, the 3T/Open Cycles design is quite different in that you do have the option to run quite large 650B tires and wheels or puffy 700c tires and wheels. Many folks run the 3T/Open Cycles model with the 650B X 47 or even 650B X 2" mtb tires with good results.