Thursday, April 01, 2021

Then vs Now: How "Gravel" Bikes Have Changed

In 2005, a new era in cycling got started. What were the bikes like?
 So, you long time readers know that sometimes when you comment, you put an idea in my head and I have to let it out, right? Well, you should know that. It's a thing. So, today I am posting from the inspiration of a comment left Tuesday on the blog here. The subject? What were the bikes like in 2005 for gravel versus the last year I did a Trans Iowa, in 2018. What was the equipment like? 

This post attempts to answer that question. 

I started this by mentioning in Tuesday's post that there weren't any gravel bikes in 2005 when we started Trans Iowa. In fact, there weren't any 'gravel bikes' at Trans Iowa, or anywhere, until about 2009 when Salsa Cycles sent Joe Meiser out to T.I. with a titanium LaCruz, which they said was a 'cyclo cross bike', (wink-wink), but we all know where that went eventually. So anyway.....what bikes were being used?!

The big 'cyclo cross vs MTB' debate for T.I.v1 eventually was won by the cyclo cross crowd. We never saw the sheer numbers of mountain bikes at Trans Iowa after v2, but mountain bikes continued to be used quite a bit up through the years. It probably wasn't until about Trans Iowa v8 when seeing a mountain bike line up for Trans Iowa was considered 'weird'. 

Jeff Kerkove (R) leads a gaggle of riders into a town during Trans Iowa v1.

Here in the image above you can see that the vast majority of bikes in the event were mountain bikes, since this image is fairly representative of the 50-ish rider field that day. Keep in mind that this may have been due to a few factors. 

  1. "Gravel®" wasn't a 'thing' yet. This was billed as a mountain bike event.
  2. Drop bar bikes suitable for gravel travel were rare. Road bikes were really not a good idea.
  3. Cyclo Cross bikes were rare. 
  4. Randonnuer bikes were even rarer. 

The amount of front suspension shown in the image above may be the most of any Trans Iowa even with the number of other front suspension forks in the other 13 events combined. And of course, there were other front suspended bikes at Trans Iowa v1 too. 

The other thing of note here is the number of riders using hydration packs. That was really about the only way you could get more than two water bottles' worth of water along for the ride. "Adventure Warts®" weren't a thing yet, so you did not have the capability to mount more water bottle cages by way of using braze-ons. 

Another notable thing- clothing. You can see Jeff's sponsored kit which is more indicative of later Trans Iowa looks, and toward the back of this group you see the more bulky, flapping-in-the-wind kind of get up that became more rare as the years went by. Riders realized that wind resistance over the period of a day's riding was something to contend with. 

What was old is new again? Or something like that..... A bike from T.I.v2 (Image by Jeff Kerkove)

Now once Trans Iowa v1 happened and the blogs and internet forums had had the time to digest what had happened, there was a big seismic shift in what a bike should be like for riding on gravel for long distances. Given what was available in 2005-2006, riders were often forced to get creative. 

The bike image above is pretty forward looking in many ways. Much of what you see there are ideas borrowed from the past and some ideas are new. I'm going to detail out what I see here and show how riders were really on to what would make gravel riding and 'bike packing' popular activities some ten to fifteen years later. 

  • The Bike: I've often said that the Surly Cross Check was the gravel bike of the early gravel scene. Here we see how it could make a perfect platform for any rider's desires. While it had its flaws, it was the cheapest, easiest to get, most modifiable, versatile platform for gravel riding available at the time. It was steel, pretty much indestructible, and reasonably light. Also of note- The drive train, being a single speed, is a traditional choice for gravel travel, and was popular from day one until the end of Trans Iowa.
  • Water Bottle Mounts: It is pretty much a standard issue feature on gravel bikes to have multiple water bottle mounts. Even having three sets of mounts is somewhat too few now days. Back then? You had to improvise like this fellow had done. Note the "Wolf Tooth-like" double bottle mount up high on the down tube.
  • Bags: Frame bags are no big deal in 2021. But in 2006? That top tube bag may seem a bit.....dumpy looking, but it took advantage of a space and made it useful for carrying stuff. The giant rear seat pack on a mini-rack is something that has a modern day equivalent in the Tailfin Rack and Bag system. Handlebar bags are not my jam, not traditional ones, but these made appearances in Trans Iowa throughout the years. 
  • Miscellaneous: Note the hydration bladder tube protruding from the handle bar bag.(Wait..... Now that I look closer that tube is actually coming out of the top tube bag!) This trick was one quickly adopted by riders to get weight off their backs and onto the bike. While hydration packs continued to be used up through T.I.v14, their numbers were very low by 2018. Fenders were seen as 'dorky' back in 2005/06, but various solutions ended up becoming refined and as companies paid attention, these clip-on fenders eventually became very useful and are now seen as a normal part of wet weather gravel travel.
Greg Gleason's bike here from T.I.v11 is pretty indicative of a "go-fast", long haul set up.

By the time we get into the mid 2010's the whole idea of a 'gravel bike' is well established and almost anything you can think of is 'gravel specific' if you want it to be. Materials technologies have advanced and drive train spec is amazing now. That said, there are some things that- while evolved- are fairly similar to that bike we see above from 2006. 

I chose Greg Gleason's bike from his T.I.v11 effort because (a) it is a great shot of just a bike, and (b) it is kitted out well and very representative of a set up for a long-haul ride in any event these days. So with that, I will comment as above....

The Bike: Carbon fiber, room for big tires and mud, and designed for riding unpaved roads. TOTALLY different deal now. We've got plenty of mounts, but typically 'the fast folks' don't use a lot of the bottle mounts like you'd think, plus some still use hydration packs. (Easier to sip while riding versus pulling a bottle and replacing it) Electronic shifting. Just amazing how that works, and of course, everything is optimized for light weight now and a tip of the hat to rider comfort. This is far more advanced than any steel framed cyclo cross rig. Or so one would think, until you realize that in Trans Iowa v12 Greg won on a bike like this and shared the honor with Walter Zitz who was riding a ........wait for it........A Surly Cross Check!! So much for modern technology!

Mounts: Yes, we have lots of water bottle mounts, but honestly, not a lot of the Trans Iowa racers ever availed themselves of those, especially the fork mounted bottles. Not sure why that is, because early on, in T.I.v1, Brian Hannnon showed up on a Redline cross bike with water bottle cages hose clamped to each fork leg and we thought he was a genius. 

Bags: So as you can see, Greg did not use an under-the- top tube bag, but many still do that. Otherwise he has it all nailed here with a big seat rail mounted bike packing style seat pack, the feed bags on the bars replacing the big, bulky, non-aero handle bar bag, and a sleek looking top tube tank. 

Miscellaneous: One thing Greg used here that folks have used since 2005 is aero bars. I know- I know! Controversial and all, but these extensions have been part of gravel grinding since the get-go. One piece that is missing here is the rack idea, but that bike packing style, 'rackless' bag is a big deal and basically does the same thing without the added weight and complexity of a rack in the traditional sense. I did note the fenders Greg used here, which also hearkens back to the beginnings. 

Final Thoughts: This all said, there are still experimental set ups, thinkerers, and tinkerers in the gravel scene. You'll see all manner of set ups at gravel events, which is part of the scene's charm. A lot of this is getting choked back by the "Marketing Machine" and the "Media" who are trotting out the "This Is How You Do It" articles, advertising, posts, and the like. To some degree, Greg's bike above represents that look. Racy, carbon this-and-that, minimalist, and expensive. It's certainly one way to do things, but it maybe is not representative of what most folks should be doing, or want to be doing. Not that I'm going to tell you 'what it is that they should be doing', because I like being surprised and unfortunately, too many people want to "follow the leader", so I don't want to drive things any certain way. I have what I think works, but that maybe is just for me. 

In a healthy scene, the "set ups" vary depending on where you live, what rides you want to do, and how you like events, or not. Letting everyone dictate to you what is "best" leads to homogenization and the next thing ya know everyone is on some racy carbon rocket ship that is not the best bike for them. Basically "Lance Era v2". Of course, this means you have to actually think through a lot of stuff, try a lot of things, and do the work. It is not easy. But it is very rewarding. 

But I digress.... This is what I saw, and see today, as the fly-over view of how things started and where they are now in terms of hardware for the gravel travel scene. Got any more questions? Topic ideas? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


graveldoc said...

Several years ago, I had a "gravel" bike built up after researching your geometry recommendations. I found a suitable frame within my budget. It did make a great difference in my enjoying riding on gravel roads. Thanks for your contributions which have been beneficial to so many.

Guitar Ted said...

@graveldoc - Thank you. I appreciate that very much.

FarleyBob said...

Awesome! Thanks GT! Ask and you shall receive!!

Slim said...

Cool article!

I was working in a shop in Minneapolis form about ‘05-‘10, and all though I hand’t heard about Trans Iowa, I did eventually hear about this weird thing called the Almanzo. Some of my mtb friends were doing it. It didn’t sound fun. No single track? 100miles? It sounded hard, but why would you want to mtb that far without any fun singletrack?

Of course, the idea to do it on my Sequoia comfort road bike, with 25mm tires and a 30/25 low gear didn’t seem feasible, haha!

Related to that, by 2007 so, Specialized released the Tricross. They called the category ‘freeroad’, a play on freeride mtb riding.

I don’t hear much about them in gravel events (history), but it can well be considered an early ‘gravelbike’. It took the fact that shop guys and others were using cross bike with big slicks as commuter bikes, and built something for that.
Something for riding fast, road like, but with practical additions and no need for super agressieve CX geometry.

They gave the cross bike more stable geometry, rack and fender mounts and a fork that would take a 29er tire.

Guitar Ted said...

@Slim - Thanks for the comments, Slim!

I remember the Tricross, and yes- there were a few ridden at Trans Iowa. I actually built one up as a single speed for a guy that used it as a gravel bike. While it isn't much of a stretch to think of that bike as a 'gravel bike', that wasn't what they were specifically designed for, and as far as I know, Specialized never outed that model as a gravel bike.

I know that all seems very 'nit picky', but words matter and you know, we went through the same thing with 29"ers too, so it is a viewpoint I am very familiar with. Nuanced? Totally. But this is also why I say that Trans Iowa 2005 was the beginning of the "Modern Gravel Scene" since it is well documented that other events using bicycles were contested on gravel. The big difference is that T.I.v1 started something we all know today as the gravel scene. Those previous gravel events did not do that, for whatever reason.

I know that's a long answer to your comment, but the details- while maybe unimportant to many people- are meaningful to me. \

Thanks again for the comments!

KeithG said...

Hi GT,

Interesting perspective on some of the bikes used over the years. I don’t know why, but I love hearing stories of riders having success on low tech, fiscally conscious bikes like Surly or others. Is that blue bike with the tan bags a Steam Roller?

Thanks for all you do.

Guitar Ted said...

@Keith G - The blue bike is a Cross Check. We've had other "low Brow" bikes used at Trans Iowa over the years as well. You mentioned the Steamroller, and I do recall seeing one of those at T.I.v4. In fact, it seems that the earlier years saw more bikes like that since, as I say in the piece above, many began to buy into the marketing of gravel bikes for better or worse.

the_eleven said...

Hi Ted, just stumbled back into your blog here as I start to stumble back into riding, due to a friend insisting I have to get a "gravel bike".

I feel like a bit like Rip van winkle, as when I stopped, the Fargo was the shiznit. After looking at all the possibilities available, it still seems as if the Fargo is a viable and versatile choice even in 2021. Thoughts?

What else would get me close to that "drop bar MTB" feeling?


Guitar Ted said...

@ the_eleven - Howdy! Welcome back. Glad that your friend was able to convince you to get back on a bike again.

You know, I just posted a bit recently on a bike that- I think - is the modern-day version of the old, Gen I Fargo. It is called the Stargazer by Tumbleweed Bikes. It would be a great bike for all-around adventures on gravel or dirt.

the_eleven said...

Hi Ted,

Yes, that looks like a vintage Fargo, for sure.

Could you clarify why the Gen 1 Fargo geometry is preferred?

Are there other changes that make the 2021 Fargo somewhat less optimal than earlier versions, or the Stargazer.

Thanks again for your time!


Guitar Ted said...

@ the_eleven - Tim, it is my opinion that the Fargo evolved into a heavier-duty drop bar MTB that was for off-road and that was all. In Salsa's evolving of the Fargo, they added extra fork length to accommodate a suspension fork, should one want that. This, in turn, pushed the front end up pretty high and takes away from its former prowess at gravel road riding. You'll note that the Stargazer has a non-suspension corrected fork and so the front end height isn't so out of control.

Secondly, the Fargo - in its steel form anyway - is a bit of a tank, weight-wise. Now- the Stargazer may be a heavy frame as well, I do not know for certain. Their info says a frame and fork is 8.8lbs, so not much different there, if that is true.

There are other alternatives, (Kona Sutra Ultra, Breezer RADAR) but the Stargazer is most MTB-ish than anything else I am aware of, so if that is important to you, then I'd go that way. If you are just thinking of doing something like tame single track and that's it, then anything in the gravel category is fair game at that point.

the_eleven said...

Hi Ted, just surfacing from a deep dive into the Fargo alternative universe on your blog and I can now see where you are coming from with the Stargazer.... it looks very thoughtfully designed, and their full build is very well specified!

Regarding weight: the Gen 5 Fargo frame plus fork is 7lb 9oz, so the Stargazer is going to be over a pound heavier...ouch.

The Kona Sutra seems like a reasonable alternative as well.

Since this will be used for single track, dirt roads, and in town, a modern Fargo is probably a reasonable starting point, and if those alternator dropouts and the handlebar position get on my nerves, I can always order a Stargazer.