Wednesday, March 03, 2021

B.O.G. Series: What Bike To Use

 Welcome to the Basics of Gravel Series (B.O.G.)! In this series I will attempt to bring a very foundational knowledge of gravel and back road riding to anyone reading that may be curious or a beginner in riding off-pavement, but not wanting to be mountain biking. There will be a new entry every Wednesday until the series is complete. To see the schedule, click this LINK. Thanks! 

This is a 'gravel bike'.
The world of cycling is pretty 'gear intensive', and if you are new to this sort of activity, you may become bewildered by the amount of gear seemingly 'needed' to do cycling. If you've been around a bit you know that this can be a very confusing issue as well, but seemingly a necessary thing to navigate. The 'what bike?' question being a rather huge sticking point here. So, I want to wipe away all confusion, 'expert advice' you may be getting on-line or from 'that hardcore cyclist you know', and give it to you straight. 


If you can navigate the terrain and have fun on the bike you choose, guess what? YOU ARE DOING IT RIGHT. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Now with that said, if you are NOT having fun, having hurts, issues with how your bike operates, handles, or what have you, THEN you should be asking questions. All of your concerns can be addressed and you certainly can find a way to make gravel riding fun and an adventure, as much as you want to. But just to get started? Grab a bike and go check it out. 

When I started riding gravel I used a single speed mountain bike I had. Others started out on balloon-tired cruisers. Some used Wall Mart bikes. Others take some old used ten speed and get the job done. It's all a matter of what you want to do. Of course, buying a specifically designed-for-gravel bike can also be a viable solution. I'm not dissuading anyone in doing that, but I also don't want anyone leaving here thinking that they cannot go check out a back road or gravel road because they do not have a "GRVL BIKE®" like the online forums say, or that the media wonks are saying is the 'right bike'. In fact, anytime you see "GRVL" you should go the other way, most of the time this is pure marketing schlock, if you want to know the truth of it.

I led a gravel ride where these two bikes were used.

As a way to illustrate my points above, I'd like to share a story that happened in late 2013, when I led a gravel group ride called the "3GR". We met every Saturday, it was an inclusive ride, pace matched to participants, and was a "no drop" ride, meaning we kept the group together, no matter how slow we had to go.

So, two young women decided that they wanted to give gravel riding a shot. I encouraged them to show up to my group ride, and as it turned out, it was the last one held that year, being at the end of November. No one else but those two women and myself showed up that weekend. I said the ride was happening no matter what, so they felt comfortable going although they were now having 'no where to hide', as it were. One showed up on a single speed 29'er. By the way, she had been on this group ride before on an old 1970's era Kabuki 10 speed, and she did just fine. Her friend, on a 'mart bike' Mongoose, was a bit intimidated at first, but I encouraged her to give it a try anyway, despite the bike not fitting her correctly. 

It is also noteworthy that neither individual had anything cycling specific on but helmets. In other words- No- you do not HAVE to buy all the expensive equipment to go out and enjoy cycling. But that's another subject for another time. I just wanted to make that point here. 

Oh, and we rode the entire group ride course and they had a ball, despite what many in the cycling nerd-o-sphere would say were 'limiting factors'. So, they did not have 'gravel bikes', they did not have cycling gear, and they still had fun? Yes. It is possible folks. Don't let any perceived shortcomings short-circuit possible good times. 

Got an old mountain bike hanging around? Use it on gravel.

So, are there 'better bikes' for gravel? Of course! But you shouldn't wait until you get a 'better bike' because in all likelihood you have a perfectly serviceable 'gravel bike' already. Hybrid bikes, mountain bikes, even fat bikes are great on gravel. 

I led another gravel ride several years ago where a first timer, a middle-aged woman this time, showed up on her hard tail mountain bike. Oh.....and she'd only been riding a bicycle for a few months. As in EVER in her lifetime. Well, she came out and did 40 miles of gravel, albeit in small chunks with lots of stopping, which the group accommodated for, and she declared it the most fun she'd had in ages.  She did not wait to get a 'gravel bike' nor did she listen to naysayers who told her she was crazy for trying out a 40 mile, hilly gravel ride. You shouldn't listen to the naysayers either. You don't have to buy anything to come out and do gravel or dirt roads. You just need a bike and a sense of adventure and willingness to try. The rest can come later. 

And if you want to, you can get a bike suited to your needs and desires, but that shouldn't be a limiting factor at first. No- you should try things and explore. The knowledge you gain by experience will guide you to the choices which are correct for you. Maybe that will end up being an electric assisted bike, or maybe a fast, light, expensive carbon gravel bike, or maybe a single speed. Who knows? Who am I to say? You do you.

And maybe that will be what the industry has said is a 'gravel bike' and maybe not. So, what's the deal with these so-called 'gravel bikes' anyway? Well, here it is, boiled down to the easiest to digest details. A 'gravel' bike is an all-roads, versatile bike which generally has curly 'drop bars' for more hand positions and for cutting through wind, since it makes for a 'bent-over', more aerodynamic body positioning, if you want it. They generally are lighter weight, faster than many bikes, and look most like a 'traditional road bike', but they have lower range gearing and fatter tires than those bikes do. All tweaked out to handle rougher roads and unpaved areas in a fast, efficient manner. They cost anywhere from around $500.00 to $12,000.00 and all points in between, but the majority are $1,000.00 to $5,000.00 bucks. 

Fat bikes, like my old Mukluk here, make a great 'gravel bike'.

So, "What Bike To Use?" That's easy! Probably the one you already have! The good news is that all manner of bikes have been and will be used on gravel roads. More good news- bicycles specifically designed for gravel riding exist - if you want them. But the best news is that you do not have to buy one of those to enjoy gravel riding. 

NOTE: For a super-nerd-out look at gravel bike geometry ideas, and what I think makes a bike a 'gravel bike', see my post from Saturday by CLICKING HERE.  I will warn you! It is far more specific and technical than a beginner needs to be concerned about!

Next: What To Wear (Hint- You already have a clue where this is going....)


matt said...

Listen to GT, almost all bikes work on gravel (but if you ride skinny tire road bikes you'll probably quickly want wider tires).

Growing up we lived on a gravel road. I rode gravel on a Schwinn banana seat bike at first, then a single speed Schwinn Speedster. After college I lived on gravel and would ride my Trek road bike with 23c tires a couple miles on gravel to get to the hard surface roads. Then I moved into town, got a recumbent with 1.5" tires and didn't hesitate to ride that on gravel but I didn't do intentional gravel rides with it. Then it was a couple Surlys which were bought for gravel. Then a Mukluk fat bike also specifically for gravel.

Guitar Ted said...

@matt - Thanks for the comments!

Tman said...

Well said! I have been preaching simplicity for years. My favorite piece of "cycling" clothing is a 70s wool v neck sweater. Sure I have fancier stuff but that one WORKS

Andy said...

Hello Guitar Ted

After a lengthy search, I narrowed down my choice of gravel bike to the following:

I am looking for a more road-bike-ish geometry but don't intend to bike pack. This bike has clearance for 2.1" 29er tires (or 2.25" on 27.5" wheels). Does any tire bigger than 42-43 mm make sense when speed is the goal, and I'm not bikepacking? Tried to get access to the RidingGravel forum, but my membership hasn't been approved yet to let me post on the forum.

Guitar Ted said...

@Andy - The Waheela is a pretty cool bike. I got to test one for the site a while back. I also really liked the Warakin in stainless steel.

Anyway, to the point of your comment, about the tire sizes.

This is really dependent upon where you live, or where you will be riding. For example: In SE Minnesota I'd probably never want anything bigger than a 38mm tire. In my neck of the woods a 45mm tire is often a godsend. In West Central Nebraska I'd opt for the 650B X 2.8- 3.0 size due to stretches of silty dirt that exists out there. Maybe in the Rocky Mountains I'd stick to a 42mm tire. See, it really can vary a lot by location!

Fortunately the Waheela can cover many sizes. I'd use what makes sense to you to use, and by the tone of your comment, that would be in the 40mm-43m range. There are variances with regard to tread patterns which will further affect your decision making here too.

I'd love to consult you more specifically, but I don't know enough about you and your situation to say anything further here, and really, this is a poor forum to do such a thing. I hope that you get access to the RG forums soon, and in that area I am unfortunately not in control. That is Ben's realm and he is the guy that gives the keys to the kingdom out there.

Thanks for the comments!

Andy said...

@ Guitar Ted

I live in south-east Michigan. My goal is to ride in events such as the Watermoo or the Barry Roubaix or perhaps even the coast to coast Gravel Grinder.
I did a few rides on 32 mm tires on my Trek Domane - wasn't very comfy to be honest. I've been road-riding for about 3 years, I ride about 40-50 miles at a stretch. The stack\reach are about 570-ish\380-ish mm per my bike-fitter, and I've been working with him for about 2 years to dial in my bike comfort.

I'm also looking at the Salsa Warbird, Niner RLT 9 RDO and Ibis Hakka MX, but bike availability being what it is at this time, I have to take what I can get, and the Otso Waheela C can be delivered in December as per the LBS. The Warbird is what's recommended for speedy completion of the 210-mile COast to Coast gravel grinder or Barry Roubaix from those who've done those events.

My style is fast-ish rides (finish strong, but no hammerfest). I don't intend to bike-pack right at this time, therefore I think a carbon gravel is the best choice at this point of my cycling journey.

Warakin caught my eye too, but I don't intend to carry loads, so not sure if a stainless steel bike is the best choice for me.

I hope that gave some more insight.

Guitar Ted said...

@ Andy - Thanks for the insights. I haven’t ridden back roads in The Mitten, but from first hand feedback which I have from people who live there and have ridden the Coast to Coast, you have a really varied type of road situation there.

For instance, my feeling from talking with the folks from SE Michigan is that a 38mm-40mm tire is the ticket for fast travel on their gravel.

The Coast to Coast, however, is a mixed bag. The first two thirds being good for that 38mm-42mm range tire, but the last third calling out for the wider tires due to the sandy nature of those roads in SW MI.

So, you can’t really cover all those bases and again, I think you already are on the right track. Just trust your instincts and adjust as you go through time.

Good Luck!