Do You Have Gravel Curiosity? A Guide to Choosing the Right Bike.

Are You Gravel-Curious? Here’s How to Choose a Bike.

A Cervelo R5 stolen from my friend Dan’s garage last year. With the proceeds of his homeowner’s insurance payout, he went in search of a replacement. Sadly, the bike boom pandemic caused unprecedented shortages in the products market.

The simple replacement of the R5 would not be possible within a short timeline, so he began considering other options. He sought advice on several topics, including whether he should buy a multi-surface bike. The problem isn’t just Dan’s. Bike industry growth is driven by the growth of the gravel segment. However, Dan and other traditional roadies aren’t drawn to it. A road bike’s ultralight design makes it ideal for climbing, riding along flatlands, and descending downhill. On smooth asphalt, they love turning the pedals for hours at 90 rotations per minute. Gravel riding has been around for a while now. How could you not hear about it?But they don’t really care about entering Unbound or going on a bikepacking trip. The dirt can often be reached only by riding over pavement. Gravel-curious is what I would call them.

Dan is that guy. His riding horizons were wide open since he was a longtime roadie. He wanted to avoid getting stuck with a bike that was too big and cumbersome for his needs, with fat tires, a slow steering geometry, and excess accessory mounts. Dan is fortunately able to find a new type of road bike to suit his needs.

What Are All-Roads and Alt-Roads?

Bikes can never be referred to by one term. The niche has been called road plus, alt road, new road, and all-road. There are several attributes that define the subcategory: a little bit wider tire clearance (around 35 millimeters), classic road geometry, limited accessory mounts, and an emphasis on performance both along pavement and smooth dirt roads.

It can mean a wide range of things to different riders depending on their own needs and preferences. All-road bikes range from bikes meant for racing, such as the Cervelo R5 of Dan Henning or Giant’s Advanced Pro Disc, to biking designs intended to provide a great ride quality and also fit 32mm tires, such as Specialized’s Aethos. (The latter two come stock with conventional 25-millimeter and 26-millimeter road tires). A changeling like Trek’s Domane debuted as an endurance road bike in 2012 and evolved into an all-road bike with 38-millimeter clearance. Allied Bicycle Works’ Allroad is a purpose-built all-road bike. There’s no doubt that the perception and marketing of all-road motorcycles are just as important as the actual specifications.

According to Sam Pickman, Allied’s director of product and engineering, an all-road bike is the best choice for most people. A lot of people were interested in exploring gravel. However, most people live in cities where there aren’t a lot of gravel riding opportunities. A bike like an all-road one allows them to ride normally without sacrificing much performance, but they can also go off-road if they want.

What We Did To Get Here

On all-road bikes, it’s easy to see the influence of gravel. The new category is in many ways a progression of the old category, according to Pickman. The Specialized Roubaix is the grandfather of endurance road bikes, having debuted in 2004 as the first of a new genre emphasizing comfort, with features such as a more upright rider position, vibration-absorbing technology in the frame and fork, and slightly wide tires.

Wider tires: the manufacturers claim that these figures are accurate, but they’re notoriously vague. The width of the tire varies depending on the rim it’s mounted on. Furthermore, ISO measurements require four millimeters between each chainstay and fork blade. As a result, many brands claim clearance prices only if they are certain. There is no rule that says a frame can’t accept rubber that’s wider than the rated size.

In the past, endurance road bikes struggled to establish themselves. In addition to marketing these bikes as hardcore race bikes for cobbled classics like Paris-Roubaix, they added features that attracted a very different type of rider, such as high stack heights and low gear ratios. This resulted in the stereotype of endurance road rigs as an old man’s bike, as Pickman correctly points out. As gravel became more popular, it seemed to give these kinds of machines a specific design direction and purpose that endurance roads lacked, as well as a more youthful, fresher expression.

What’s going on?

In common with all new genres, all-road is evolving rapidly as designers focus on improving bikes’ capabilities on various types of roads and trails. In Allied’s latest model, the Echo, the front and rear dropouts are modular, allowing the rider to easily adjust their geometry to accommodate either gravel or road conditions. You get classic road-bike geometry in the former position, with an upright position that is responsive and helps you clear 30-millimeter tires. By adjusting the dropouts, you can switch to gravel mode, which lengthens the wheelbase and increases tire clearance to 40 millimeters; the steering is relaxed to provide more stability on rough terrain.

Mountain bikes have been using flip chips for years. The new generation of gravel rigs feature them from brands such as Cervelo and Otso. Allied is the first brand to make use of them both front and rear. A drop-bar bike’s range can be greatly extended with this ingenious mechanism.

Allied bikes, including the Echo, are undoubtedly expensive. It is nevertheless enticingly versatile due to its flip chips. If you have two wheelsets (one shod with road tires and the other with gravel rubber), ten minutes, and a few Allen wrenches, you can build two different bikes in one package. The future of these bikes may lie in chips because, in addition to adjusting tire clearance, they offer geometry changes better suited to each riding style than changing wheelsets alone.

Which is right for you?

In the case of a reliable, mechanically sound, and comfortable road rig, there’s no need to change, regardless of how old it is. A new all-road model will be a noticeable improvement in versatility, not to mention components and ride quality, if your car is over ten years old now and you plan on replacing it (or, as in Dan’s case, you’re starting from scratch).

Even competitive road riding is possible on an all-road bike. With disc brakes, a larger gear range, and wider tires, your old rig may have been pushed to –or past — its limits because it’s not equipped with those features. If you live in an area where your gravel options are limited or require a lot of pavement riding, all-road is a great choice since it expands your options without compromising your efficiency on the road. Having a road bike that can do mixed-surface rides and even a gravel bike isn’t that bad when you can also have a road bike.

An all-roads approach must have drawbacks, right? In either case, all the gravel and road bikes would be sold and everyone would be riding only road bikes. Compromising is inevitable. No matter what kind of bike you buy, if you’re planning to use it for more than one purpose, you’re bound to sacrifice something, says Pickman.

Compared to high-end road bikes, all-road bikes don’t often have the performance-oriented edge you’re looking for. For instance, aerodynamics do not get much attention. On all-road bikes, the longer wheelbase can also create less responsiveness, which may not be desirable for criteriums or fast descents. (This is why flip chips are so cool: they combine two geometries into one bike.) All-road stack heights are higher than aerodynamic, so it’s harder to get into a low position while cycling.

You might want to take those factors into consideration when you are part of a competitive group ride or race. However, they are subtle enough not to hurt you in the race. A more significant limitation on the capability spectrum is on the gravel end.

Tire clearance is one of the most obvious factors. It made a point of noting that the original Up gravel bike, which was built to run 40-millimeter tires, would be pretty good for fast group rides when you use narrow road tires on it. It is impossible to go wider on a bike that accepts only 32mm or 35mm tires.

Second, while all-road bikes veer too far towards the other end of the spectrum, many gravel bikes come with more accessory mounting than most riders can reasonably utilize. There are no fender eyelets on the Echo, for instance, or top-tube bag mounts either, which limits its versatility a bit. It’s asymmetrical: both tires clearance and accessory mounts can be used on a bike with them, but they can’t be used on a bicycle without them. A road bike might quickly become too small if you think bikepacking or gravel racing are in your future.

If you have a road bike with disc brakes and 30-millimeter tires, and you’re not sure where your gravel exploration will end, an all-road bike might not be the best fit either. If you want to get into wilder terrain, you should experiment with the features offered by your current bike and then upgrade to a gravel bike.

Pickman says the difference between bikes is not just what they offer, but also how they feel. Dan was able to settle it the same way. Despite his preference for efficiency and responsiveness, he also wanted to be able to explore dirt on the new bike.

He chose the Canyon Endurace, with a claimed tire clearance equal to that of the R5. The reason for this was partly due to the pandemic: Canyon was one of the few brands which was able to ship out bikes within many weeks, not months. The Endurace also had a geometry that was more road-like than the typical all-road version yet still was capable of handling more substantial tires. Something like the Cervelo Caledonia or Trek Domane felt like a step too far away from his R5. (Canyon’s aggressive pricing didn’t hurt either.)

With the stock wheels and road tires, he rides mainly on the pavement around Denver. He also makes time to travel in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado, where the trails are more rugged and wild than those on the urban Front Range. He bought a second set of hoops and installed 34-millimeter wide Panaracer GravelKing SK tires on the DT wheels of the Endurance, which is four millimeters wider than the bike’s rated tire capacity.

I’ve mostly been happy with the rig’s performance so far. Since Dan doesn’t bikepack, he doesn’t need extra accessory mounts, and the gearing is low enough for even steep climbs. Having pushed his bike over washboards a few times, he’s learned that wider tires allow for lower pressures.

Having such fun on dirt that he recently purchased a gravel bike: a Litespeed Watia, which allows up to 53mm of rubber, or 45mm with the smaller 650b wheels. Three bottles, several more fenders, and a top-tube bag are also included, but there are no rack bosses or frame bag bosses. The Endurace is still a great road bike and light dirt bike, so he has no regrets about having bought it.

All-road has that advantage. Designed for the user who wants to bridge the gap between road performance and adventure capability, going between what you’ve been doing on a bike and where you may want to go next.

What’s Your Gravel Curiousness? Choosing a bike is easy when you know how. Outside Online first published the article.

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