• Find yourself off the beaten track (Steve Thomas)Source: Steve Thomas
As the rough and dirty spring classics roll out there’s little doubt that you’ll see some interesting takes on gravel bikes in the peloton. What are they all about and do you need one?
By
Steve Thomas

16 Mar 2017 - 10:55 AM  UPDATED 16 Mar 2017 - 10:56 AM

In recent years the long established staples of dropped handlebar bliss have taken on a few twists and turns, and many new genres of bike have emerged. True enough, this is in part an attempt by bike manufacturers to procure more of your hard earned cash and take over valuable garage real estate but there is a whole lot more to it.

Gravel bikes have very much become de rigueur for road riders in search of a little rough riding and variation in recent times. When you crunch things down there is a whole lot of sense attached to having a capable road bike that can also mash up the trails when required.

I’ve been a near lifelong proponent of the once un-cool cyclo cross bike as the ultimate all-rounder and I still am. I’ve ridden, toured with and even raced hybrid cross-touring bikes all over the world for many years. Their advantage lies in their relative simplicity and versatility, and more recently I’ve added a gravel bike to my collection.

So, what exactly are gravel bikes? Effectively they are laid back road bikes with a little extra beef and stopping power. They have lower gearing, slacker angles and fatter tyres. In practice, they are not too far removed in design from cyclo cross, touring and sportive-orientated bikes.

During the past 15 years or so, for most of my travels I’ve either gone for a rigid mountain bike or a cross/touring bike. Sadly (like me) my rides are getting very dated now, and so I decided to switch to a gravel bike when given the opportunity to ride in a gravel based sportive. Living in Asia it was not hard to get hold of anything non-standard, so I bought one online while out of the region.

That decision was a close call for me; the good old cross bike tugged at my emotions, but it was mid summer and getting hold of one was not an option, so the gravel grinder got the nod.

First off, I wish I’d opted to spend more. Despite the decent spec of the bike it is a tad on the heavy side, but at the lower price point I guess that’s to be expected. The bulk of that weight penalty comes down to the frame, with a little padding from the wheels, but overall it’s hard to complain.

There were a number of things that were key for me; one being that it came with disc brakes. I’ve used discs offroad for more than 15 years now, and it really is tough to go back to standard cantilever or calliper brakes.

Given the price point cable pull discs were spec-ed, and while they are a compromise when compared to quality hydraulics, they are a clear few stops ahead of regular rim brakes. There is a slight weight penalty that comes with any disc brake. At first there is often an irritating grab factor between the pads and rotors, which although off putting is minimal, things soon wear in.

There’s been a whole lot of apparent insanity about the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton recently, which is extremely disappointing. Discs have been used on mountain bikes since the early 1990’s, and have progressed hugely since then. There really is no comparison with regular rim brakes. As for safety issues, well it’s almost a surreal what’s being claimed; chain rings, frayed cables, break ends, brake levers, pedals and skewers cause far more damage than a pan full of hot discs. When hurtling down a wet mountain pass I know which I’d rather rely on. Discs are the future, and an even bigger innovation and offer a bigger safety advantage gain than STI shifters and clipless pedals combined.

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Through axles are fast becoming standard on front disc mount forks, and although I was sceptical at first I’ve found them to be solid and secure, and more precise than regular open ends. They are a no brainer and maybe take a millisecond longer to switch when compared to old school skewers.

But, at the end of the day it all comes down to the actual ride. I have to admit that with switching from a regular road bike it took me a while to get used to the robust feel of the new ride, but it’s grown on me, and my road bike has not been used in months.

There’s no question that you can get away with a regular road bike on smooth dry gravel and dirt roads, but it does require a little precision handling and a lighter approach. There’s also no arguing that a mountain bike is a whole lot more adept on rougher trails and can take on serious climbs and descents. However, the possibilities, versatility and the fun that a gravel bike offroad brings to a ride is well worth the investment.

Would I do it all again? Well yes, but with a few tweaks. First off I would have gone for a lighter bike. Plus, lower gearing is something I really need to address to be able to handle steep offroad grinds (manufacturers are not going anywhere near low enough on their spec sheets), and the chunky tyres that came standard are a slight overkill but it’s all changeable stuff.

Give it a few more years and there will surely be minimal and ultra-light suspension as standard. It’s logical, and would make a huge difference on the rough rides these bikes are designed for.

If I was only going to chose just one bike for all of my needs then it would be a tweaked gravel bike, although a cross bike would be close second.