Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally featured on THE ROCK FIGHT podcast and is available to listen to in the player below.
Today I’m picking a fight with…Gravel Bikes. Because they are not the one bike quiver that we’ve been promised.
Bikes, more than any other piece of gear will inspire judgey side eye glances from other outdoorsy folk as you pass them. This is true on dirt or on pavement. We are all a bunch of judgemental assholes when it comes to how and what everyone else rides.
Hey, I'm no different here. Don’t believe me? All you have to do is go back a few days on this very website where I shit all over mountain bike suspension.
A take I’m right about, by the way, but whatever. Why should you care if I think your giant downhill coil is pointless? Ride what you like.
Part of the reason we’re always looking down our noses at each other is that the bike industry is constantly giving us the ‘next big thing’. Be it a new design, material, wheel size, component, whatever. What you’re currently riding and loving is instantly the wrong thing the moment the next big thing comes around which happens with uncanny regularity.
(If you think I’ve sounded angry around here, just wait for a future episode about gravel bike suspension…a real thing by the way and the perfect example of what I’m talking about here.)
About a decade ago, one of these innovations was gravel bikes with the premise being a steed that could do almost anything. Sleek enough for the road, burly enough for the dirt and excels on any fire road.
Around this same time I had stopped riding road bikes and was exclusively a mountain biker. A move to a prolific mountain bike town combined with a couple of vehicular near misses and a growing awareness of the vain douchery embedded in the roadie scene drove me to exclusively worship brown pow.
Also, my road bike was stolen and I was too broke to replace it…so yeah, there’s that too.
Anywho, my initial reaction to gravel bikes was, uh, not overly positive. It really felt like the roadie world trying to cross over into the dirt world but without having to actually learn to mountain bike. Kind of like an easy way out.
I think my exact comment to a friend of mine who was gushing about his new gravel bike was something constructive like “fuck that bullshit. Just learn to mountain bike.”
Eventually I begrudgingly accepted that gravel was definitely it’s own thing and not just a money grab by the bike industry to get everyone to expand their bicycle quiver.
But I continued my personal protest and judged every gravel rider I’d see on my local trails, internally chastising them and wanting to tell each of them they were being misled and they should just get out that mountain bike that was definitely in their garage.
And then I experienced some, uh, karmic intervention, as the universe is often so willing to dish out.
I recently received word that I’d need knee surgery and even though it’s relatively minor, without the ability to get in quick and easy trail runs over the coming months of recovery, I served myself a healthy dose of crow and started to think about cycling options that didn’t require driving to a trailhead.
I could get a road bike and fight the system by riding exclusively in a mountain biking helmet and baggy shorts.
Or I could open up the portion of my brain that I had willingly closed off when it came to gravel bikes.
Preconceived notions are a curse of living. We all have them and it’s on all of us to fight the intuition that creates them until real world experience can inform how we should actually feel about something.
As soon as I opened my mind to what my experience on a gravel bike could be, I started to see what so many others had already seen, especially when I discovered the amount of riding options where I live. When I brought home my new adventure bike and I got out and experienced this new world, it was pretty eye opening.
But learning that there is no spoon after taking the red pill is not the rock fight I set out to take on in this episode. My affinity for my new gravel bike and excitement for the future adventures that await me don’t change the fact that gravel bikes are NOT a one bike solution wrapped into one.
If you dig around online you find a lot of content proclaiming the gravel bike as the one bike to rule them all. “Man you can really use it on the road to get to the dirt road to get a strip of singletrack and back again”. And while that’s true, it’s a pretty specific set of circumstances.
But if you want to ride paved roads, a gravel bike is going to hold you back. If you want to do some true mountain biking, a gravel bike is going to hold you back.
If you are currently taking a hard look at joining the gravel world, and you, like the rest of us, head over to YouTube to get recommendations or try to understand more about what you’re getting into, avoid any title like ‘Gravel Bike, the only bike you’ll ever need!’ because that’s a load of crap.
If you have the means, get yourself a gravel bike, place it next to your other bikes and ride them all equally. The bike industry may give us too many ‘next great things’, but anything that allows us to be in the saddle more often is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
And if you disagree you better pull over to the side of the road or the trail so your nice frame doesn’t get dented from the barrage of rocks you’ll face in this particular fight!