Monday, April 18, 2022

Before There Was "Gravel"

My Black Mountain Cycles "Monstercross" pre-dates the "gravel bike"
 Last week I received a call from veteran bicycle journalist, Josh Patterson, and he was doing research for the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame. Apparently he was tasked by the GCHoF's LeLan Dains to find out what sorts of things should be included for people to see and learn about at a physical display regarding the hall. 

Yes- there will be a place you can go to eventually to visit the Gravel Cycling Hall of fame, but beyond that I probably should not say anything yet. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes right now, and I'll let those who are working hard to bring this to reality reveal their plans when they are ready to.

I just wanted to touch upon some things I was reminded of during my conversation with Josh. Specifically, that there was a "time before Gravel™". A time when the bicycle industry had no clue about dirt and crushed rock road riding. A time when the internet forums, where people were aware of this "fad", were telling us who were into it to "Just ride cyclo cross bikes and go away already!"

For myself, and many others into the scene early on, that wasn't good enough. We wanted more capable equipment. My conversation with Josh last week reminded me of the struggles many of us went through searching for better tools for this job of conquering crushed rock roads and minimum maintenance roads which events were putting us on. This in turn eventually inspired companies like Salsa Cycles, Clement (now Donnelly), and Challenge Tires to do something to help us out. Others like Raleigh and WTB soon followed, and the early successes of these companies drove the rest of the industry into the "Gravel™" niche and this helped propel the genre into its current status. 

But what about pre-2012? We'd been putting on gravel events for many years by this point. I was leading a weekly gravel ride here, and others were catching on to the trend. What stuff did we use?

2011 Raleigh RX 1.0- People used CX bikes for years like this.
Early on in the gravel scene the bikes were all over the place as riders brought what they had to bear on the gravel roads. Mountain bikes were very popular, especially the then 'new' 29"ers. But eventually it became increasingly apparent that cyclo cross bikes seemed to have an advantage, up to a point. That point had to do with tires, and really, it was all about the tires at this point during the history of gravel riding. Tires were the demarcation line between using a cyclo cross bike and a mountain bike. 

I can remember pouring over wholesale suppliers catalogs in the mid to late oughts trying to find options for 29"ers and anything  in a tire from 34mm - 52mm that was not a heavy, stiff hybrid tire or an over-armored touring tire. There weren't many options in that 34mm-52mm range at all back then. Due to this fact, there was a tough decision to be made regarding what style of bicycle to use. 

Cyclo-cross was never a really popular niche of cycling- not on the scale of mountain and road biking, and maybe on par with recumbents in terms of finding them on shop floors. Sure- there were shops that catered to CX. But try finding a cyclo cross bike on a shop floor in the Mid-West. Not easy..... Plus, many of these CX bikes were stiff, not suited to really long rides, (very few braze-ons for bottles, etc) and many had no room for really big rubber. If you chose to use a cyclo cross bike, you had many hurdles to get over, not the least of which was dealing with injuries caused by riding this style of bike. I remember hearing tales of Trans Iowa riders having numb hands or fingers for months after an event. 

But using a mountain bike was fraught with its own issues. Tires were big enough, sure, but generally too heavy, too treaded, and they slowed you down. Typical choices generally were WTB's Nanoraptors or Vulpines, IRC Mythos XC's, or the excellent Bontrager Team Issue XR1's of that time period. And also, generally speaking everyone used tubes, but if you went the MTB route, you could go tubeless, and many did. 

You can see the varied different styles of bikes used for gravel here in this scene from the 2007 Guitar Ted Death Ride Invitational.

I pulled this image above from 2007 as an illustration of a typical gravel scene from that time period. I think we can see that there were several approaches to "doing it" which we can observe. First in the foreground here we have, to my mind, what became "The Gravel Bike" of the time, the venerable Surly Cross Check. It's versatility, capability, value, and widespread availability made it an easy choice for early gravel grinders. By 2010, you were likely to see more Cross Checks at gravel events than any other type of bike. 

Next in line is a rare Fisher Ferrous, a semi-custom style steel framed 29"er. This represents the 29"er element of the early gravel scene. If you had one bike to do most everything on back then, it was a hard tail 29"er. Lots of people used them back then, (and I think I was using one on this particular ride as well, unless it was my old Salsa Dos Niner soft tail)

The next bike up the ditch edge there is obscured partially by a hydration pack, but it looks like another drop bar bike. It could have been a Surly Long Haul Trucker, which I know was on this ride. Then we see some fat tired oddity at the head of the line, and that is a Surly 1X1 fitted with big 26 inch DH Gazzolodi tires on Large Marge rims set up single speed. So, a kind of "fat bike" set up, which pre-dates the fat bikes on gravel thing by at least 4 years!

While the variety of choices here was fun to observe, each had its own pitfalls and things one had to get around to do gravel travel well, or at all. Perhaps I'll get into more about this if you readers find this interesting at all. I can think of a lot of things we had to deal with which eventually have become "no big deal" now. Things like hydration, lighting, and the aforementioned tire thing, which is pretty interesting if you want to know. 

So, I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse back and how we were experimenting and trying to find new ways to solve these 'new-to-us' issues out on the gravel roads. If you've got any questions or suggestions, let me have them in the comments!


S.Fuller said...

Your heavy touring tire comment reminded me of a conversation I had with someone earlier this week about the Schwable Marathons I used to run on my La Cruz. 42c and tough as nails. It was the holy grail of tires for me back in the early days of DK (2007 - 2009). I wouldn't even consider them now. Progress is good. :)

MG said...

Funny you say that, as I was just thinking back to finishing TIv5 on my Salsa Chili Con Crosso. It was a good example of being almost right, but not quite ideal. With the possible exception of your sweet old BMC monster cross, the bikes we're riding today are much better suited to the task at hand, and the ability to run 50-55c tires is a revelation for those who don't necessarily want to race, but still ride fast with a slightly more capable bike.

Guitar Ted said...

@S. Fuller - Those tires were very popular back then. That was one thing I mentioned to Josh during our conversations. I think some people even figured out how to set those up tubeless as well.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - Yes! That Chili Con Crosso was another popular bike from the earlier days of gravel. Thanks for that reminder.

MG said...

Oh yeah… I ran those Schwalbe tires tubeless. The hardest part was getting them to bead up initially. But if you did, they’d hold air pretty much forever with almost no sealant. The ride quality still left a lot to be desired though. I’m pretty sure they weren’t as fast as they looked either.