Last week I was riding through one of the many regional parks in the East Bay, on one of the narrow, winding roads that should be so pleasant to bike on. The problem with these roads is often that cars pass too close, motorcycles sneak up and terrify you with engine noise, and they generally don't feel safe.
This time, a minivan passed me so close that the rearview mirror almost hit my handlebars, so I shouted, “What the hell, I need more room!” Which I think is actually a pretty reasonable thing to say. The minivan then swerved into the other lane, where there was an oncoming motorcyclist, who then swerved off the road, and laid down the bike. Nobody was hurt, but everybody was shaken up – my point is that this stuff happens all the time. That’s why I try to get off the roads as soon as possible.
A cynic might say that a gravel bike is just a cyclocross bike, or just a road bike with ample tire clearance, when confronted with this buzzy, admittedly kind of silly new marketable category. The bike industry is hilariously segmented – it seems like there’s a new bike type to buy/sell every year. Gravel bikes join other recently christened segments like enduro, fat bikes (and mid-fat bikes), endurance road bikes, aero road bikes, adventure bikes, and a bevy of others.
And it’s fair to say that the gravel road bike isn’t particularly radical – before everybody started buying racing bikes in the 90s basically all road bikes could fit a big enough tire to ride on unimproved roads comfortably. But the current class of gravel road bikes is more than just neo-luddite revivalism. They’re a response to people actually wanting a bike that can handle gravel roads, unimproved roads, and occasional trail use – oh and they usually use modern technology and materials to make a bike that just works better. Disc brakes, contemporary drivetrains, carbon fiber or high strength steel, modern tubeless tires, can make a high-performance package that doesn’t cost as much as a boutique bespoke multi-surface bicycle.
Many of these “gravel race” bikes, like my Raleigh Tamland, are aimed at the crowd that takes on races like the Crusher in the Tushar in Utah
, the Almanzo 100 in Minnesota
, the Dirty Kanza 200 in Kansas
, and a bunch of other organized but not quite official races. These rides are more about finishing and less about finishing first. These rides came out of the urge to escape traffic and ride a little bit farther afield – most unimproved roads aren’t exactly busy thoroughfares and most drivers are loathe to subject their vehicles to dust and gravel.
Here in the Bay Area, there might not be a ton of gravel roads – but there are miles and miles of fire roads. Mountain bikers might bemoan the lack of legal single-track, but wearing the skinnier tires of a gravel road bike, the rutted and rocky fire roads are challenging enough. Plus, at least in my niche of the world, it feels great to ride to the trails and ride home, rather than loading up a bike rack on a car to drive to them.
While it might be tempting to speculate that bike companies are just making a new kind of must-have bike to fit in between the mountain bike and the road bike, that’s not how I see it. A gravel road bike turns out to be the perfect kind of bike: it can go anywhere, and do anything. At least for me, for now, I’m way more excited to get off the roads, away from cars, so I can enjoy the ride.
Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill — literally and metaphorically.
Over the past few years I’ve found myself gravitating towards gravel. A nice smooth open road can be a beautiful thing, but the unfortunate thing about roads is that cars use them. It seems like around here, whether it’s Marin County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the East Bay Hills or Mount Diablo, there’s always hellacious traffic. While you can get up really, really early, to find empty roads, I’ve opted to just get off the roads as much as possible. But that means I don’t want to drive to the trail heads either: enter the gravel road bike.