Today we venture off the trail and onto roads less traveled to explore the emerging genre of gravel road racing.
Some readers may be quick to point out that dirt and gravel road racing is nothing new, and they would be correct; bicycles predated paved roads in many corners of the world. So what’s all this fuss about?
Like 650b wheels and the adjustable-height seatpost, what’s old is new once again. Increasing numbers of North American cyclists are venturing off the pavement to explore lonely country roads, which can be as remote as any stretch of singletrack.
Defining the gravel race bike
According to a 2008 study by the US Federal Highway Administration, there are more than 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads in the United States. The surface of these roads varies greatly—from hardpacked dirt to fist-sized gravel and everything in between. Dirt, crushed limestone, flint, they’re all very different to ride on. Perhaps it’s the variety of substrates that makes defining what exactly a “gravel race bike” is so difficult. Depending on where you live, the unpaved roads may be as smooth as asphalt, or more treacherous than your local trails. Your choice of bike and components is likely to vary accordingly.
Tom Ritchey’s assertion that he “thought all roads bikes were gravel bikes” speaks volumes about how singularly focused (perhaps to a fault) road bikes have become in recent decades, yet it falls short of acknowledging that there are occasions when even a versatile road bike may not be up to the task.
The ideal bicycle for conquering these gravel roads would be one that could traverse them swiftly, one with drop bars to allow the rider to switch hand positions and to hunker down when facing a stiff headwind, it would have enough seat and chainstay clearance to run tires with sufficient volume to take the edge of the rough and rutted roads, it would provide more stability than a contemporary road racing bike, yet still be nimble enough to make quick course corrections to avoid other riders, ruts, cowpies and rattlesnakes masquerading as sticks (all things I’ve encountered while riding gravel).
Purpose built gravel bikes: Sean Mailen, design engineer for Salsa Cycles
Cyclocross rigs make great gravel race bikes: Dan Hughes, former DK200 champ
You can read more at BikeRadar.com