Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Is The Cycle Complete When It Comes To Gravel?

Colnago's C68 Gravel (Image courtesy of Colnago)
 I ran across some news on "X" (formerly known as Twitter) the other day regarding a new gravel bike from Colnago


Yes, Colnago, the storied Italian bicycle maker whose bicycles have been ridden by the icons of road racing's past and present. THAT Colnago. 

So what? Well, to me, this signals a high-water mark in this segment of cycling I've been enjoying for nearly twenty years now. See, back then, "gravel bike" didn't mean anything. Now? It's the backbone of the industry, racing, and popular cycling nationwide, with the possible exception of urban areas. 

How'd that happen?

Before I answer that question, I want to go over a few of my feelings about this new Colnago and gravel cycling in general. Then we'll get to answering that question of how we got here and what that might mean.

Long-time readers of the blog might remember my Colnago seen here.

When I started in the bicycle business as a retail salesperson and mechanic, my boss at the time, Tom Webb, (RIP), was an avid road cycling fan. Now, this was at a time, in the early 1990's, when road cycling was at a nadir. Literally no one wanted a road racing style bicycle around here. Things may have been different where you lived, but here, in Waterloo and Cedar Falls Iowa? Forget about it. Road cycling was pretty much underground at that point.

This matters because I was a mountain biker guy and Tom got me to care about road bikes, Pro road racing, and why it was a beautiful sport. This was before I was jaded by all the doping madness, by the way. Anyhow.... The point is that Tom got me hooked on Colnago, which by his estimation, was the "pinnacle" of road cycling in terms of tech and tradition. 

So, there is my sift spot for Colnago, still within me, and maybe why it is that when I saw the C68 Gravel, I thought it was really something special. And it is, but the frame set cost seven thousand dollars plus! Gah! Guess I'll keep dreaming..... 

A "gravel mutt" from the 2019 Solstice 100

Fast-forward to the 2000's. I started riding gravel on what I had at the time for a bike. It happened to be a 29"er, but that is not important. We had bicycles and we were starting to discover not only gravel cycling, but what worked and what did not on gravel. 

Trans Iowa, April 2005: The gravel race that started it all had several mountain bikes, both 26"ers and 29"ers, cross bikes, and even a road bike show up for the 300+ mile slog across Iowa on gravel roads. It was the beginning of the stage in gravel where maybe it did not matter what bicycle that you were on, but it quickly became a matter of "hey! that bike seems like it is 'faster' and a better idea than mine."

That led to a winnowing out of the random weirdness that was commonplace in the 2000's and even up into the twenty-teens when you would see bicycles that looked like garage sale rejects converted to gravel duty. Many brands were making purpose-built gravel bikes by late into the last decade, but not the serious, big-time roadie brands. That would maybe never happen, right? I mean, we filthy, uncouth Americans came up with this crushed rock road madness, and that would never reach the highest pinnacle of cycling.

But it did.

Now, about that question, and what does it mean in the end?

Cycling has banked out on "gravel" Image from Merchant Cycles in Emporia, KS

I've been a part of two big 'waves' in cycling in the last 25 years. First it was 29"ers. The bicycling industry at the time that 29"ers became available was pretty complacent, and even dismissive of the trend. This turned out to be a bad business move and many companies were left behind in the rush to cash in on the big wheel trend of the late 2000's. 

That seemed to galvanize the industry's brands and when the "next big thing" hit the train wasn't leaving the station without them being onboard this time. So, a kind of manufactured "next big thing" was tried when the industry pushed 650B really hard in the early twenty-teens, but that did not go as well as hoped. Same thing with fat bikes, which flared up in 2011 and flamed out spectacularly by 2015. 

Gravel was being seen as a growing, grassroots sport at this time and several companies were dabbling in the segment by 2015. This suddenly awoke the giants of cycling and by the late twenty-teens they all were jumping on the bandwagon of gravel.

Trek and other big brands jumped into the gravel market in the late 2010's. Here is a Trek Checkpoint in 2018

Now with the "Big Four" brands offering gravel specific bicycles, only the high-end, "bougie" brands like Colnago, Pinarello, and the like were holding out. But when the UCI announced professional level racing in its Gravel World Championship events in 2023, the entire cycling industry capitulated to this form of cycling. Only electrified bicycles were matching the growth in sales. Gravel events were pulling big numbers world-wide, and money was being made. 

That's a short story on "how we got here" and why a storied road cycling brand like Colnago would even consider making such a high-end gravel bike. Imagine this happening ten years ago. Ha! 

So, what - if anything - does it all mean? Are we at a point that, much like 29"ers, a gravel bike is "just a road bike"? I mean, nobody distinguishes the wheel size on a mountain bike anymore as it is pretty much assumed that a "standard" MTB has 29"er wheels. If it does not, or if it has mixed wheel sizes, only then does that matter. Are we at the point where any drop bar bike for roads is "just a road bike"? 

I think we are getting really close to that when you see current road bike offerings accepting up to 38mm tires, when you see bigger gearing ranges on 'traditional' road bikes, (remember when ALL road bikes had a 53/39T chainset and 11-25T cassettes?), and when all road bikes have disc brakes. The distinguishing traits of a "gravel bike" and a road bike are being blurred now. Maybe these bikes that take 29"er rubber are where "gravel" is going, but then aren't those just really drop bar MTB's? 

I don't know, but I feel like the "cycle" the industry takes with any trend in cycling has just about come full-circle. We've only got to figure out a few small details and then? I think we are there. "Gravel bike" will just become "road bike" and you know what? I'm okay with that. 

Let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks for reading!


MG said...

In some ways this is similar to in 2009 when you and I talked about how, at some point 29ers would just be ‘mountain bikes’ and wouldn’t be distinguished specifically… because 29ers had become ‘mountain bikes’. I see something similar happening in the road category as well.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - Yes. I remembered that as I wrote this post. That's exactly where I was coming from. And as we both know now, 29"ers are 'just a MTB". I think we're there with road bikes/gravel bikes as well.

NY Roll said...

I have my thoughts, i shall save for the podcast.

Tall Guy said...

The colnago looks nice, but am I the only one distressed by the headset cable routing and integrated cockpit trends coming to gravel bikes? I have completely noped out of the road bike market due to these two trends, which can only be loved by those who a) don't work on their own bikes and b) don't mind paying $500 to have any aspect of their cockpit adjusted.

Guitar Ted said...

@Tall Guy - No - You are not alone there. Of course, having worked as a retail mechanic for many years, I have seen many bikes be morphed from the "euro-racer, slammed stem" to the "sit-up-and-beg" riding position. I know that any major swap from the stock set up on that Colnago, or any other like bike, would be very expensive and possibly impossible.

Thankfully brands exist that have eschewed this trend for having every cable hidden and we don't have to be locked into their aesthetic/aero world.

But I still think that Colnago is a pretty fine looking steed. All that despite the fussy cable routing and integrated handlebar and stem.

Daniel said...

I forget fat bikes were a thing. They came and went so fast.

teamdarb said...

Daniel I'd say fat bikes have become more of a seasonal offering. Something akin to the McRib and Pumpkin Spice anything. I am still confused as to why a commuter e-bike needs to be a fat bike.

Sam said...

Interesting thoughts GT - it sounds like we have a lot of common threads in our cycling background, and about the need to categorize bicycles. We really oughta line up that pod!