Saturday, January 25, 2014

Niche-Niche Marketing: Gravel Bikes

You need a Gravel Bike. If you're a "proper" cycling enthusiast then I know you've already got a "fast" Road Bike, a "comfort" Road Bike, and a "winter" Road Bike, plus a Time-Trial Bike, a Fixed-Gear Bike, a 26er Mountain Bike, a 29er Mountain Bike, a 650b Bike, and a Cyclocross Bike. You might also have a Shopping Bike, a Tandem, and a Folder. If you're really dedicated (or a parent) you might even have a Cargo Bike (or if you lean Dutch, a Bakefiets).
Whatever you do, don't call it a Cyclocross Bike

Now you need a Gravel Bike.

It is not exactly clear how a Gravel Bike is different from the Cyclocross Bike you already have, or any other decent bike with drop bars and room for larger tires, for that matter -- but the bicycle industry very much wants you to buy one. Even if they can't agree amongst themselves how to define it.

From a VeloNews review of Raleigh's Tamland gravel bike: "The question of what exactly defines a gravel road racer is a legitimate one. Even some dealers on hand at BikeDealerCamp in Utah were asking the same question. Gravel road races have long been more about customizing an existing bike in one's stable, such as a cyclocross bike that can clear extra-wide tires, but with the number of races rising and more riders seeking out dirt-road adventures, so too has the demand for dedicated gravel machines." 

Really? All those people riding on gravel roads with bikes they set up for the task have been demanding another special niche bike that will do exactly the same thing as the bike they've built up for themselves? Because simply fitting fatter tires alone wasn't expensive enough?

I repeat: Not a Cyclocross Bike (from
And in this article from BikeRadar: "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 single track. . . 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 chain stay clearance to run tires with sufficient volume to take the edge off the rough and rutted roads, it would provide more than enough stability than a contemporary road racing bike, yet still be nimble enough to make quick course corrections to avoid other riders, ruts, cow pies and rattlesnakes masquerading as sticks (all things I've encountered while riding gravel)."

Nope. You simply cannot do any of that without a specially designed and marketed niche bike.

CAUTION: You MUST have a specially designed bike to do this.
The Gravel Bike was apparently all the rage at the last Interbike trade show, with versions from Raleigh, Salsa, Kona, Niner, and many more. And the one thing they all have in common is that they are not Cyclocross Bikes. Apparently, the industry sees them as "the Next Big Thing" and they're banking on the notion that people who already have Cyclocross Bikes (which were the previous Big Thing, after the Fixed Gear Thing became passé) won't notice that it's basically the same bike they already have. However, the differences seem to be more a function of marketing than actual design and equipment.

According to the folks at Salsa, their Warbird Gravel Bike is designed "around stability and endurance. Meaning it has a longer wheelbase and slightly slacker head tube angles to give you a stable, at home feel." (from BikeRadar) I'm curious what that "at home feel" feels like. But what they don't want to emphasize too much is that the Warbird is pretty much the same as the Cyclocross Bike they used to sell, called the Chili Con Crosso. Add or subtract a couple millimeters here and there in the geometry, add disc brakes, and now it's a totally different bike, and you can't do without it, Right?

Salsa's marketers also say that "Comfort is key, and the reason we offer a model of the Warbird in titanium." (Bike Retailer) That's right -- because you simply cannot get comfortable on steel. So does that mean that if your Cyclocross Bike is comfortable, has disc brakes, or a titanium frame, then it's actually a Gravel Bike? 

Of course, it isn't that simple. In the BikeRadar article, Dan Hughes, four-time winner of the DK200 (Dirty Kanza 200 "Gravel Grinder" in Kansas -- on a Specialized CruX Cyclocross Bike, by the way), says, "I would want the bike to be light and stiff, have a short wheelbase for fast handling, and the ability to run a fatish tire, with clearance for mud on top of that." OK, so a Gravel Bike has a longer wheelbase -- except when it has a shorter wheelbase?

From Off The Beaten Path - The Bicycle Quarterly Blog
Then, to really anger the cycling gods, I found this article on Jan Heine's Bicycle Quarterly Blog where he suggests one doesn't even need a special Gravel Bike, or even a Cyclocross Bike to ride in the gravel. "One of the most exciting things we have found is that the same bikes that work so well on pavement also are ideally suited to unpaved roads. My René Herse has excelled on the paved roads of Paris-Brest-Paris, yet the same bike has performed wonderfully on many gravel rides. The wide tires that offer such great cornering on pavement also float over hardpack and gravel with amazing grace and pace." Riding on gravel with a comfortable, versatile road bike -- and not a specially designed, ultra-narrowly focused niche bike? What is Heine thinking?!

In a BikeRoar article on the topic, they had the following, from Thom Kneeland of Service Course Velo, in Medford, Oregon: "Any road bike with relaxed geometry that accepts a 28mm tire will work pretty well." Yeah, that's what I thought. And 28mm isn't even that large of a tire! The BikeRoar article also has suggestions on how to turn a typical MTB into a perfectly serviceable Gravel Bike. Hint: it involves changing tires, and maybe adding some more hand positions to the handlebars.

Last year, I wrote about the old Bridgestone XO-1, which was incredibly versatile -- a relatively light road bike with 26" wheels -- suitable for all kinds of riding, whether on the road, or on dirt or unpaved paths. A bike for exploring. But instead of being designed for a particularly narrow niche market, the idea was almost the opposite -- to be a bike that could do anything its owners could dream up. It didn't sell well. Marketers, the bicycle press, some retailers, and even buyers apparently didn't know how to pigeon-hole it. They wanted a niche. Go figure.

A Gravel Bike? Why not? Many comfortable and versatile
bikes with clearance for fatter tires can be adapted easily for
use on dirt and gravel. You may already have a Gravel Bike.
Gravel Bikes are just the latest version of the industry trying to sell us the same thing we already have, by making (some) people think that what they already have is totally obsolete. They also represent the next step in the increasingly narrowly focused niche marketplace -- taken to the extreme. A niche of a niche, if you will. Cyclocross is already a pretty narrow market -- with bikes much more sharply focused than they were in the sport's past when riders would just repurpose an old road bike with slacker angles and more tire clearances. Now we have the Gravel Bike, not because other bikes are unsuitable for riding on unpaved roads, but because they aren't specialized enough (or so we're supposed to think). I believe all of this is due to the fact that the market for bicycles isn't really expanding that much -- the numbers of people buying and riding bikes isn't increasing enough to power an industry that seeks growth. So they have to keep coming up with new "improvements" and new "upgrades," and new (increasingly narrower) market "segments" in order to keep existing cyclists buying more.

But as some out there, like Jan Heine, are able to demonstrate, you don't need to go out and buy another bike that's designed for just one type of riding. A lot of bikes can be adapted easily -- often by doing nothing more than swapping tires. My Rivendell Long-Low has been ridden on all kinds of roads, including some that are only roads in the most generous of definitions. With 33mm tires and room for wider, it handles packed limestone paths beautifully, and is comfortable all day. Thicker, knobbier tires could easily be fitted for coarser, heavier dirt or gravel. Likewise, my vintage '84 Stumpjumper, with its long wheelbase and slack angles, has been equipped with mustache bars and narrower, smoother tires -- it goes swiftly from roads to trails and back again. It would make an awesome bike for heavy-duty gravel grinding.

So, do you need a Gravel Bike? You probably already have one!


  1. In the 80s, I rode through the Canadian winter on a Velosport road machine with 20 mm Michelin Hi-Lite comp tires. I had had only a few crashes and most of them was because I list traction in one-foot deep snow. I use the same machine to ride through the pot holes strewn college town in Ontario where I went to university. Why would anyone need a gravel bike? Three machines should suffice - road bike, MTB and an old shopping bike.

  2. Brooks-

    So "they" tell us we need longer wheelbases, slacker angles, steel frames and wider tires to ride gravel. Look at the 1960s TdF photos of riders on the cols or on the Giro. Those guys rode gravel on their steel racing bikes, on tubulars. Seems like we already own the perfect bike when we take our Peugeot PX 10 or Gitane Tour de France out for a ride.

    1. Exactly -- classic bikes usually have room for larger tires, and those vintage steel frames have such a nice ride quality anyhow.

  3. I'm gonna push back on you a bit.
    I agree with your point about the over specialization of bikes, but I see the gravel bikes as a solution to some of those problems.
    My single biggest gripe with modern road bikes is their inability to take (on average) a tire larger than 25mm. Fine for the racers, but most of us don't race. As a heavier rider, running tires that narrow is an invitation for pinch flats on gravel, not to mention uncomfortable. Finding an older road bike (I run a 1980s Sekai 10 sp w/ 32mm) is certainly an option, but in rural areas it can be tough to find a bike that checks all the boxes.
    I've also noticed an annoying trend among new cyclocross bikes to come sans mounts for fenders, racks, even bottle cages, making them useless for any ride longer than an hour. And for gravel, I would love to get tires wider than 32.
    (Full disclosure, I wrench p/t for a Giant dealer)
    That's why I'm really excited about gravel bikes. I can actually sell a reasonably priced, easily available bike to people. They're bikes that take fenders, racks for some touring, wide comfy (fast) tires to cover ground without your behind reduced to tears, and just be fun to ride. I see them as a throwback to the style of bikes that Mr. Heine rides. I want to sell a bike that can do a ton of different stuff without a lot of work. I think that's a bike that the average rider wants.

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Pushback is welcome -- thanks for the comments! Your point is valid. Certainly, if one only has a bike that takes 25mm tires (another example of increasing "specialization" of today's bicycles), a bike such as this would be a real treat. And your point that many C'cross bikes no longer have things like rack/fender mounts, bottle cages, etc. is yet another example of that increasing specialization. But I do think there are bikes out there that fit the bill for versatility without being specially marketed as "gravel bikes." Some, like Surly's Cross Check (still has rack and fender mounts, if I'm not mistaken -- and choice of canti brakes or discs) and their LHT, are very versatile, and also relatively inexpensive. Thanks for reading, and for commenting. You called it push-back - but I imagine that we're really not that far apart on this.

    2. Oh-- also forgot to mention that part of my point here isn't that we don't need bikes that can be ridden like this -- because we do -- such bikes are a real pleasure. Rather, my point is that many people DO already have versatile bikes, but the marketing in the industry today is almost like "NO -- that won't do -- you need to buy THIS now." If someone does not have a versatile road bike that takes comfortable tires, then "gravel bikes" may give them another nice option. But if people do have a bike that fits the description, they shouldn't fall for the idea that their current bike must be replaced, or that they need to add another bike to their stable.

    3. In that point, I agree with you 100%. If you WANT a new bike, go for it, but don't think that you necessarily NEED a new bike just because marketing says so.
      Also, I have long admired Surly if for now other reason that their bikes can be modded to do almost anything. Their Cross Check is definitely on my "someday maybe" list.

    4. The bicycle industry has to sell stuff to keep going. A small percentage of the the population loves cycling and just can't seem to own enough bikes! Most the America never rides the Huffy they already own. So we (I am part of the Industrial Bike Complex, BTW), keep dreaming up ways to get the cycling faithful to buy.... just one more bike! Not the greatest business model for the long term, but it's what we got now.
      I'm hoping that this new crop of *gravel bikes* can be part of the process of breaking the cycle. We're looking at bikes great for all kinds of riding, perfect for your weekend warrior-weekday commuter types. Ride to work, ride Saturdays with your buddies, do a couple of big Charity Rides and try CX in the Fall, all on a $1500 disc brake drop bar bike. These are the days!

  4. Hi, I'm Al. Just found your blog and have been enjoying the hell out if. About a year ago I was in the market for a replacement for my MTB-based commuter. It would have to carry at least 80 lbs and make my 30 mile round-trip ride in relative comfort. I was looking at the LHT and drooling over an Atlantis but wound up with 1988 Panasonic PT 3500 touring bike. I got a complete bike, bone stock, for 250 smackers from ebay with what seemed to be under 1000 original miles on the thing (original tires!). Over the course of the last year I've incrementally updated/upgraded it to the point that it's a great all around bike and a very reliable commuter. After switching out the 27" wheels for 700c and upgrading (retrograding? that should be a slang term) to some early 90s XT cantis I can easily fit 35s on the thing WITH fenders, racks, and a place to hold my beer, um water. My point is this, 80s Japaneese touring bikes are pretty common, pretty cheap, and make darn nice commuter bikes. Yeah it's Tange 1000 but it's still double butted cromo. Yeah the lugs and the fork crown aren't as pretty as the ones on my go-fast, but it's still lugged and it has a proper fork crown. All-in-all a great workhorse of a bike...with friction barends, non-matching non-aero levers, a two legged kickstand, and a moustache bar (which I happen to be very fond of BTW) that is wrapped in cloth tape. And a B17. And Biopace Chainwheels HA! Keep up the good work, great blog, and nice to find a kindred spirit with grease and shellac all over his hands.

  5. Hi Al -- I know exactly what you mean. One of my first nice bikes was a Panasonic -- nothing fancy, but well made. Tange 1000 is fine stuff. Seamed tubing, but still butted chrome-moly -- and no difference in ride quality -- just a good bargain since some people turn up their noses (too bad for them -- good for us). Switching from 27" to 700c is a good idea -- more tire choices, and just a smidge more clearance. And I love mustache bars. Your bargain commuter sounds great. Thanks for writing!

    1. I should also say that since it has semi-horizontal dropouts and canti posts, it would be PERFECT for a fixed gear cyclocross/gravel bike conversion. That was what got me typing in the first place. I'll even throw in a rattle can of florescent green Krylon (TM) for the rims! Only $18999 payable to me or to Carapace Completed Umber only by Dubai Postal Money Order.

    2. Wow -- all that, AND a Sheldon Brown reference!

  6. Gravel bike indeed...I must have invented it when I found a slightly too large(for mtb) breezer jetstream about 10 yrs. ago but loved the ride and fitted it out with specialized hemisphere armadillo tires, a 1x9 speed do-all drivetrain and midge bars. Faster than my mtb's on road and gravel and a great bike for do-anything on the greenways. On dry days I even take it on the singletrack. More fun than my roadie (sold) and a great compliment to my mtb herd. Don't know where everyone rides (on road) but here in cackalacky it is VERY nice to hop onto sidewalks and through parks to evade driver-texters (yes, a texting driver actually followed a bike through a grass covered park here in NC....I gave up my road ride when 2 friends were seriously hurt by cars) Anyhoo....let's all realize that 90% of us can make do/approximate whatever current trend with what is already out there with a few mods. Heck, I know there is some backlash coming when I say I am selling my Ti 29er and going back to my steel old faithful 26er....horses.

  7. My Surly cross check is a gravel bike, road bike, light touring bike, commuter bike, and it was pretty reasonably priced. I run 38c tires and full fenders on it with 36h rims. It gets me to pretty much wherever I need to go. If I had known that gravel back roads required titanium frames and specialized geometry, I never would have embarked on that 200 mile trip down the Washington coast this past summer. With the mixture of paved roads, gravel roads and mild single track, I should have brought 3 bikes with me. Boy, it sounds like I'm lucky to have survived the ordeal on that non-specialized frame. Time to get life insurance.