Gravel bikes: roadie revenge on mountain bike progress?

The hot new thing... or a last-gasp attempt to turn back the clock? asks Steve Williams

There’s a literary genre known as alternative history, which imagines life today if key events had taken a different turn. Think Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Robert Harris’s Fatherland or Len Deighton’s SS-GB, all set in a world where the Nazis won World War Two.

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Gravel bikes (also known as adventure bikes, also known as all-roaders, also known as basically road bikes, also known as bikes) are the cycling equivalent of alternate history. They’re machines set in a world where the last 25 years of off-road progress was crushed before it could even begin, probably by Nazis.

Look, I’m not saying gravel bikes are literally being built by Hitler (I am, it’s Godwin’s Law!), but the tubing is 98 percent Hitler and any fool can see the obsession with super-compact ‘Goering’. Sure, they pronounce it ‘gearing’, but that’s just political correctness.

So let’s go back to where history diverges into our new gravel bike future.

It’s the early 2000s. For many years, mountain bike design has closely mirrored road bikes, despite the two disciplines having diametrically opposed demands. Obviously, the right geometry for smoothly undulating, solidly surfaced roads is also right for rough, loose, slippery and steep dirt.

The people asking questions are traitors. Why would a frame designed to stay agile at 40mph with the wheels in line be anything but jack-knife twitchy at 15mph with the tyres sliding… and on smaller rims? Shhh. Get some skills, mate.

Add drop bars to this 2013 hardtail and you’ve got a cutting-edge 2018 gravel bike
Steve Behr / Immediate Media

Truth is, nobody thought that short, tall, steep frames were best off-road, even then. It was just belief. Real riders pumped their narrow tyres hard for ‘fast rolling’ (and low grip and high vibration and poor control) and insisted they were right, often while mid-somersault over their ‘aero’ super-narrow bars that rarely went fast enough for aero to count. There was no science to it. There was only the will for it to be true.

What now if you want a bike like in the ‘good old days’ when just staying on at 10mph was the challenge?

And then mountain bikes diverged. They found their own way on geometry — getting longer, lower and slacker — while even XC bikes were dragged along with roomier front triangles, wider bars and typically bigger 29in wheels. They got more stable, capable and rideable than ever. They got faster.

But they no longer felt like road bikes. Call that progress?

What the rise of gravel bikes demonstrates is sheer strength of will; the will for ‘old-school XC’ to remain the one true path. Those whose only criteria for a mountain bike was that it feel exactly like their road bike were lost. Yet the roadies will have their revenge — they’ve dragged the sketchy XC nightmare from the skip of history and upcycled it as the gravel bike.

It’s an alternative future we need. Otherwise, what now for the Ordinary Jo(sephine) who values basic common sense over demonstrable fact? What now for the common (wo)man who values riding skill over capable machinery, because the latter is for talentless cheats?

My god, what now if you want a bike like in the ‘good old days’ when just staying on at 10mph was the challenge? You spool back to where it all went wrong. Then you branch into an alternate history, where mountain bikes never discovered, use-appropriate design, and you invent the gravel bike.

Welcome to the (alternate) future of off-road
Russell Eich / Immediate Media

A gravel bike is a road bike, but heavier and with slower tyres. It’s narrow and steep and tall, and you can’t shift your weight much, so it teaches you ancient, authentic skills such as ‘desperately trying not to crash’ and ‘how to still crash’ and ‘acting superior even now you’ve crashed’. It’s just like mountain biking used to be, before it was ruined by marketing BS! And quantifiable progress! And by, you know, physics!

Okay, your new gravel/adventure/gravelrash-adventure bike will probably have disc brakes, but maybe you can convert it to cantilever for that ‘real’ feel of loudly destroying your narrow rims while not slowing down. But watch out! It might have 650b wheels, which are so new-fangled you’ll positively vomit.

Hilariously, 650b/27.5in wheels could become the next big thing for gravel bikes, because designers have discovered they allow a greater air volume for the same 700c overall diameter. I say ‘hilariously’ because watching gravel bikes slowly rediscover basic concepts such as fat tyres and suspension, as if the last 25+ years of mountain bike evolution simply didn’t happen, is hilarious. Maybe in another 100 years they’ll cautiously try flat bars.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t get a gravel bike. By all means, buy one and ride on some gravel. Take a piece of gravel home as a souvenir. Have it mounted. It’s the kind of surface we could previously only dream of traversing, here in our alternate history where mountain bikes never happened. Your gravel bike will be slightly more comfy than a road bike, probably, and a little bit more versatile, though not as fast on tarmac (so you’ll still need a proper road bike).

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Most importantly, though, it’ll feel just like your road bike, so you won’t have to learn anything new. Just staying on board is the challenge… and any fool will tell you that’s the absolute definition of a proper mountain bike.