Gravel is a catch-all term for the evolution of fun on two wheels. Honestly, there is no true “gravel” bike unless you are looking for a dedicated racer. The term gravel comes from the idea of taking your bike off the pavement and onto the unpaved country roads across the world. It means to explore, to get out of your comfort zone (or maybe into it deeper). It means to go back to your roots of where the love of the bicycle brought you as a kid.
Every cyclist has a story or three from when they were young and first learned to ride a bike. Most of these stories involve riding down dirt roads or unkept alleys full of potholes and grit. All of these stories involve the thrill found of freedom. The freedom only a bicycle can give you. Somewhere between freedom and the real world, life happened. Many of us grew up, grew old, and had families. We developed work lives and habits (for better or worse) and probably fell into a rut. A groove of life if you will.
Now whether we rode mountain or road bikes or something in between, is irreverent. What matters is we all reached an impasse. An impasse of time, of convenience, of life. We all know that riding a bike for fun is something that once was but may not be achievable now for whatever excuse we create. Because they are all just excuses. This is where gravel can be found. Somewhere between the status quo and freedom exists gravel.
Gravel, as a discipline of cycling, represents the freedom we all had as children. It brings back those memories of riding through fields and down those dirt roads and unkept alleys as kids. Riding our bikes to see friends and visiting that person we had a crush on in ninth grade. Gravel represents freedom. The freedom of movement, the freedom to just get on a bike and go. Anywhere. It represents the adventurous souls we had and still exist under those excuses. It represents the bicycle we first fell in love with.
So, what exactly is this thing, this buzz word called gravel? Gravel is freedom and love, it is an adventure, it is a wonder. It is the ability to get on your bike in your garage, go ride, and ride anywhere. Gravel isn’t discipline; it isn’t a buzz word or hype to sell something you don’t need. Gravel is the life we all had. Gravel is nostalgia. Gravel is freedom. Gravel is love.
With that said, the concept of a “gravel bike” is still evolving. There are multiple ideas surrounding this model but all of them equate to just what I talked about above; to put more fun between you and the earth beneath you. Gravel bike needs to be first and foremost something that fits you perfectly. It needs to not just fit you ergonomically but aesthetically. It needs to speak to your soul, to your inner child and sense of adventure. It needs to scream to you “hey, stop what you are doing, and let’s go ride!” Even if just around the block or down the alley, a gravel bike should make you want to go ride it; because you can ride it, anywhere.
Secondly, a gravel bike should have ample tire clearance, room for your choice of wheel size and tire width. At minimum you need to have a 700x40 or 650x45 to keep the dirt and tarmac roads comfortable. Most new gravel bikes will fit up to a 700x45 or 650x50 with some companies allowing for up to 700x50 (29x2.1) allowing for some real serious versatility. Why would you want this? Easy; a bike with larger volume tires will be more comfortable and more capable the more off-road you get. A gravel bike with 29x2.0 or 2.1 tires is essentially a mountain bike that is perfect for easy trails and some backcountry trips.
Thirdly, ample accessory mounts. You will need to have room for at least three water bottle mounts on the frame with an additional two on the fork. Don’t settle for anything less. Some manufacturers out there have mounts all over the frame as well as fork allowing for up to seven water bottles. You may not need this many, but the mounts serve to hold more than just water bottles. There are a plethora of accessories designed to mount to the same two-bolt system as your standard water bottle cage. These include (but not limited to) bags, tool holders, and even a flask for those post-ride libations. Most of us won’t need to run so many accessories or we will end up having our bikes look like all those Overlanding rigs driving around the local strip mall. But trust me, you will want those mounts there. Remember, this bike is all about jumping on it and riding, a lot.
Frame material may or may not be a factor in your decision here, as the majority of what you will find are going to be made from carbon fiber. There are, however, a good amount of companies making these bikes from steel, aluminum, and titanium as well. The cool part about all of this is they all, for the most part, fall in the same price range. For the most part that is. I have seen titanium bikes priced the same as carbon and aluminum bikes priced the same as titanium and steel bikes priced more than carbon as well as less so there really is no magic formula for this. I suggest go with what is familiar to you. If you love exotic materials, go carbon or Ti. If you are used to the feel of steel or the stiffness of alloy, by all means, stick with what your body is used to. You can not loose.
Further thoughts I have about gravel bikes are where we are in the "bike industry" right now. If you sit back and just observe what is happening, aside from the pandemic that is killing off a whole generation of humans while igniting global bicycle feeding frenzy, the cycling industry is having a mid-life crisis. Now stay with me here, this is going to be a fun ride.
The industry is currently full of people like me. Riders who cut their teeth riding bikes in the '80s and '90s. We remember riding those dirt roads as kids and young adults. We remember riding full-rigid bikes with drop bars (because of John Tomac) and skinny knobbies for miles and miles. We remember that riding bikes was not about making money, it was not about a lifestyle or even where we rode. It was all about fun. It was all about adventure, it was about freedom. Now all of us 40 and 50-something individuals are running companies or working jobs for companies and we all have some sort of influence. But on top of that we all have the same longing. We all have the same pains in our souls. We all miss what riding a bike was all about.
The industry is facing a mid-life crisis. The gravel bike is our answer to a new Porsche or Corvette. It is our answer to fill in that missing element. That thing we yearn for still. The thing that our soul cries for. That thing we traded for a comfortable job, a family, being able to afford rent/mortgages (barely), and the occasional dinner out. Somewhere we forgot why we are in this industry. What it was that made us pursue low-paying careers trying to sell toys to adults. Somewhere we forgot that is was fun. We forgot it was for the love of two-wheels.
Gravel bikes came about as a way for all of us to have that badass Porsche 911 Safari, AND eat a nice meal with our family. Gravel bikes represent all that we had as kids, growing up in broken homes - the escape from reality. The escape from the chaos, the escape from reality. Gravel bikes allow us to just grab our helmet, put on our most comfortable cycling shoes, and head out the back door or garage. A Gravel bike is so much more than a bike; it is the freedom we had, the freedom we miss, and the comfort in knowing we have a home to come back to after going and getting lost for a while.