Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Pushing The Limits

I liked the Venture 650B X 47's. Now they have a 700c X 50mm.
The "bigger is better" bug has bitten every form of cycling. Road tires that are 25mm wide are now considered "skinny". Mountain bike tires in the 2.25" range, once considered too wide for XC, are barely even on mountain biker's radar nowadays. Of course, fat bikes, "plus bikes" , and yes- even gravel bikes, are all pushing, or have pushed, tire volume and width boundaries outward. In some cases, too far.

Take fat bikes, for instance. Once the realm of the 3.8" - 4.0" tire, they soon saw sizes balloon to 4.8" wide, and then everyone was thinking that it would just, you know, automatically get wider. So, there was Vee Tire who did this ginormous five plus inch wide tire, and then.........everything just kind of stalled out. You can say the same for 29+ and 27.5"+ too. Things just reached and went just beyond their logical ends. Just beyond what made sense for most folks. Sure, there are a few oddities, but for the most part, I do not foresee those different sizes getting bigger. If anything, there has been some pull-back. 29" X 3.0 is now 29" X 2.6"-2.8". The 27.5" X 3.0 is now 27.5" X 2.6"-2.8" as well.

But here is a weird thing. 700c tires are a range where there are many "gaps" in tire types. Those "gaps" are getting to be smaller and smaller too. The WTB 700 X 50mm Venture that was just announced is just such a tire. In 1998 parlance, a 2.0" tire with slicker center section and outer knobs was an XC racing tire. There was no "gravel/back road" scene back then to slot these tires into. Not in marketing terms, at any rate. Now we have 700c X 50mm Venture tires, (and Schwalbe G-One Bites), which for all intents and purposes are "go-fast" XC racing treads reborn as "gravel tires". At nearly two inches in width, it is hard to see these tires as "road" type treads.

The Schwalbe G-One Bite was just recently released in a 700 X 50mm size.
So, let's go back a little over ten years ago. Salsa Cycles released their Fargo 29"er drop bar bike. It was heralded as an "adventure bike", a bike that took mountain biking back to its roots as an exploratory, touring/bike packing sort of activity. It had no provisions for a front suspension fork, and in that way, it was a true throwback to 1979-80 mountain biking and yet it was thoroughly modern with 29" wheels and disc brakes. I bring this bike up because it was waaaay ahead of its time, and these newer, wider "gravel tires" are just now catching up to what this bike really was all about.

Now, thinking about how many newer gravel bikes are hyping their ability to swallow two inch wide tires in either 700c or 650B, and thinking about how many of these gravel bikes have no suspension, many braze ons, and capabilities far exceeding those "one trick pony" full suspension rigs, and you might start seeing how the original Fargo called this theme out over a decade ago.

This whole "gap" where there wasn't anything from about 45mm to 52mm in tires for gravel bikes seems to be filling in. The question is, at what point do we say that these are really mountain bike tires, 29"er tires, or "monster cross" tires? The Fargo example would say 2.0" and above is a mountain bike/29"er tire, but these "gravel bikes" are making the lines blurry.

If we keep seeing the bikes being offered to fit these 2.0-2.2" tires, I think a couple of things are going to happen. First, there will be no "monster cross" bikes anymore. Everyone will label these drop bar rigs as "gravel" bikes, (wrong term, but whatever), and the old "monster cross" name will be shelved like "hybrid" has been shelved. The "hybrid" I refer to is the 1980's/early 90's term for 700c X 40-45mm tired bikes that were set up like a hard tail mountain bike. These morphed into the "pavement bikes" we see on bike paths today. Secondly, the term "mountain bikes" will only refer to a bike with fat tires and at least 100mm of front suspension travel. Handle bar type will not figure in to this. So, a modern Cutthroat with front suspension would be a mountain bike despite its drop bar spec. A fully rigid bike with a flat bar, like a flat bar Journeyman, would be a "gravel bike".

But none of that matters if the boundaries have been crossed already and we actually see some "pull-back" where gravel bikes only go to 45mm tires, or maybe even narrower. Take, for example, the new GT Grade, or Cannondale's Topstone, or some other newer gravel bikes that list 42mm as being the biggest tire they will handle.

In my opinion, that's where it is going. I think 45mm tires are going to be the wider limits on most gravel bikes and anything 2.0" and wider will be mountain bike territory, regardless of handle bar type.Perhaps we've reached the logical limitations of what a "gravel/All-Road" bike should be for most folks. The next few years will see the major bike manufacturers decide this for us. It should be interesting......


Ari said...

Yes , that WTB Vulpine was a most excellent spec on those Gen 1 Fargos. Also the mutanoraptor in 700x45 was all great gravel tire back then. Giggles and I had those on our SS Gunnar Ruffians.

DT said...

seems link the crankset/drivetrain has also been figuring into this, with the 45mm tire spec being the max clearance when used with road size chainrings (2x setup)

Guitar Ted said...

@DT- Great observation. I'd agree.