For the Love of Gravel Biking

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my friend Bill, shortly after getting my first gravel bike. It was the Trek 920, and I fell in love with how I could ride from my place, on the road, to any trail system in town, and go for a mountain bike ride as well! I told him, “This bike is amazing, without the suspension, it makes even the easiest of trails fun and exciting!” He responded, bluntly, with, “Yeah, its’s nothing new. Gravel bikes are exactly like the mountain bikes of the 90s, which were already awesome!” He had a point. Nothing about gravel bikes were new, just new marketing, but that hasn’t stopped me from falling in loving again with a new type of cycling.

My ideal ride these days is on my gravel bike, mainly because I’m lacking the time to have a 3hr adventure on my mountain bike. I love being able to park at the bottom of my neighborhood, and hop on the the dirt rail trail that connects Park City to Coalville. I’ll usually ride that section all the way into town or up to main street, then spin back on the pavement to connect to a mountain bike trail system. My go-to’s are Round Valley for the expansiveness and mellow trails, or the Glenwild area. From there I’ll hop on a green or blue singletrack where I can hammer uphill with an efficiency that my mountain bike cannot offer. Of course, I always run into trouble with rocky or technical climbing without any suspension or beefy tires. Nevertheless, once I make it to the top of the climb, I hold on for dear life to the lower portion of my drop bars, get a finger or two on the brakes, and point it downhill and into the turns. And as I decend, when normally I will be looking 10+ yds in front of my tire, down the trail, I find myself having to keep an eye out closer to my front tire. I do this because those skinny 40c tires do not roll over everything my mountain bike’s 2.5″ front wheel can easily cruise over. But each turn feels different, the rock gardens are trickier, and keeping speed and braking effectively are all totally different since I can’t just plow through every feature. It’s a totally new way to ride! And I cap it off by riding the road back to the rail trail where I eventually make my way back to my vehicle to end my ride. All in all, maybe an hour and a half, which is fantastic!

Gravel bikes, are nothing more than a beefy road bike that can handle a wider, knobbier tire. Or for those who remember the rigid framed mountain bikes of the 90s, pretty much one of those with curly handle bars, and much better gears and shifting. With that being said, the gravel bike is an amazing tool in the bike quiver for many reasons. Some like the utility, some like the versatility, while others like it for the freedom it provides. But in reality, it’s just a new marketing phase for the cycling industry that has been plateauing since the peak sales during 2020. I mean, the top gravel races in the US draw thousands of riders each year, like at Dirty Kanza and Crusher in the Tushar. And based on my observations around town, the gravel bike boom is in full affect! I’ve seen gravel bikes replace most bikes on the road, dirt paths, and randomly out on some of the most technical of mountain bike trails!

Is a gravel bike for everyone, no. If you don’t have dirt paths or mountain bike trails near you, then it doesn’t really serve a purpose. But if you do have dirt, then the gravel bike is the perfect tool for the job. Depending on my mood, I can go out for any type of bike ride that I want. If I want to go for a cruise on the road because I’m short on time, I can ride at 80% speed of my road bike (due to the tires). If I want to do a long ride on the dirt covered rail trail that runs 30+ miles, it can transport me into a world of solitude without cars or many other trail users. Or if I’m feeling adventurous, I can ride it to one of the many trails in my town and tackle a green or blue trail. And though they might be a piece of cake on my big mountain bike, on the gravel bike, every drop, rock garden, berm, or feature becomes 10x harder without any suspension and a short handlebar width! Or, what happens most often, is all three of these options for an epic ride every time out!

To be honest, there are so many bikes in this category that an inch here or there can be the difference between calling it a cyclocross bike or mountain bike. To the novice (and even experienced) biker, you might look at a gravel bike and just assume it’s a road bike, and you wouldn’t be that far off. It’s got the similar frame, it has the curly bars, what else would it be. Well, the main differentiator between a gravel bike and a road, cyclocross, mountain bikes, and hybrids are the dedicate “gravel-specifc” gemoetry that’s a bit more slack, stable, and forgiving compared to a road bike. Not to mention the frame’s ability to accomodate larger tires (even up to a mountain biking tire for some models).

Sure, you could take your mountain bike out and do the same thing. But any rider will tell you, you can only go so fast on the road or a gravel path with a mountain bike due to its inefficient, grippy tires and suspension. And the gravel bike only takes a minor debit on speed compared to a road bike since those 40c tires have such small knobs on them, it’s almost negligible. And the simple truth is, there isn’t a bike out there that can do it all. A hardtail mountain bike really does hit the sweet spot for most times out, but would really struggle on a long day on the pavement between trails, or when the terrain really starts to get steep or chunky.

In the end, is the gravel bike just a new trend on an old, previously popular style of mountain biking/road riding? Yes. But is it awesome and challenging in an entirely different way? Hell yes!

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