2022 brought heaps of exciting new gravel tech and plenty of trends to talk about, but there’s more to come for a discipline that is, in many ways, still finding its feet.
What will the gravel races of the future look like, and how can they be run safely? Who is eligible to compete in these events? What does the modern gravel bike look like? And what the heck even is ‘the spirit of gravel’?
These are all questions gravel racers, bike brands and governing bodies will need to tackle in 2023.
Among lots else, we predict this tireless debate will result in yet more gravel-specific components and endless bickering at the top tier of the sport – at least it keeps us in a job!
You can listen to the thoughts of Jack, Ash and special guest Ben Delaney in the podcast below, or read on for more of our 2023 gravel cycling trends and predictions.
Jack Luke | Suspension tech won’t go mainstream
Gravel bikes got squishier than ever in 2022.
All of this tallies with our 2022 gravel tech predictions (clearly we’re either cycling soothsayers or good at guessing).
While the industry has pumped loads of investment into gravel suspension tech, I don’t think the public has bought into the concept as a whole, and I’m doubtful they will for some time.
For example, I’m yet to see a single suspension-equipped gravel bike on my local trails – by that I mean the likes of a Lauf Seigla, or a bike fitted with a RockShox Rudy or Fox Taper-cast fork.
That’s surprising as south west England’s generally boggy, steep, muddy and rough ‘gravel’ trails are just the place one might expect to see a suspension-equipped gravel bike.
While comments rarely reflect the majority view, the discussion on any article or social post we publish about gravel bike suspension is usually… well, mixed.
I’m definitely not dismissing suspension on gravel bikes as a concept – you only need to look at mountain bikes to realise that adding suspension to an off-road bike is a logical next step – but the previously predicted takeover of squashy bits is some way off.
Ben Delaney | Gravel goes all in on the mullet – in events and bikes
Business in the front, or party in the back? For 2023, the spirit of gravel says: both.
Gravel events continue to proliferate around the globe, and as more pro road and mountain bike riders gravitate towards the space, the front end is pointier than ever at the big races.
In fact, at The Big Race (Unbound Gravel), the pro men and women now have separate starts from the masses (the single, mass start has been a hallmark of virtually all gravel races for years, with no separation by gender or category).
Still, gravel events draw far more completers than competers, so the one-big-mob vibe should continue to thrive.
Similarly, we’re seeing further nichification from bike brands with gravel bikes. We’ve got fast gravel, adventure gravel and do-it-all gravel machines now in a category that not too long ago was met with the question: Why not just ride a cyclocross bike or mountain bike?
I suspect gravel bikes that are fun for everyday riding but still work for racing will prove most popular. Perhaps that’s just my bias, because that’s my preference.
So, similar to Jack’s theory that squishy gravel won’t catch fire in 2023, I don’t see outliers such as the aero but 650b-compatible 3T Exploro Ultra putting much of a dent in the sales of straight-up-the-middle bikes such as the Giant Revolt or the Trek Checkpoint.
Ashley Quinlan | There will be a gravel tyre development race
We all know gravel tyre choice is one of the most important factors when it comes to performance (and enjoyment).
We see it all the time in cyclocross racing, for example, where tyre choice can make or break your ride. Roadies, meanwhile, are often looking for tiny improvements in grip, rolling resistance, comfort, ride feel and more.
Even in mountain biking, tyre choice is a deeply personal thing.
With gravel growing so quickly, and a performance edge now derived from the rise of UCI-sanctioned events, I think we could see a tyre development race ensue.
Where surfaces are constantly changing, and grip levels are at a premium, I think this is where race battles will be won or lost.
It won’t necessarily be because a rider is fundamentally stronger, more wily or a supreme bike handler, but if they win it’ll be because they’re using a tyre that enabled them to ride fast and efficiently.
When you consider how much energy can be wasted by non-optimal traction, especially over the course of a long-distance gravel race, this is where the biggest gains can be made.
On the other side of the coin, you have your Ben Delaney-coined completers. And whether you’re a completer riding to some kind of performance goal, or just want to enjoy the ride and finish, the tyres you use will play a huge role in determining how much fun you’re going to have.
I don’t know about you, but that’s the main reason I ride gravel.
I expect to see keen development in carcass design and compound choice, as well as tread pattern more specifically tuned for the varying demands of a gravel rider (and, yes, gravel racer, yuk!).
Liam Cahill | We’ll spend the whole year arguing about gravel rules
The corner of cycling that sprang to life with a healthy disregard for the rules has increasingly reached its difficult teen years and the arguments have started.
As per usual, it seems to be at the pointy end of events where the issues have arisen.
Gravel pros will naturally want to be as efficient as possible. However, their inability to reach a gentleman’s agreement to not use aero bars in mass-start events resulted in Unbound race organisers banning them.
Then the Gravel World Championships will roll around and some people will be up in arms because the course isn’t gravelly enough. Others will lament the presence of professional road riders. The Gravel Worlds, after all, must surely be reserved for retired racers and Instagram influencers, no?
Mathieu van der Poel will turn up on his road bike again, prompting outrage from everyone who has purchased, or is sponsored to use, a bike with any form of suspension.
As a result, I foresee another year of needless, baseless and frankly annoying arguments within the gravel racing and events world.
That is, unless you just go out and ride your gravel bike in nature, without a care for these petty arguments.
Warren Rossiter | Gravel-specific gets even more gravel-specific
I predict brands will invest more time designing proper gravel kit.
To start, we’ll hopefully see the end of super-stiff XC shoes ‘adapted’ as gravel shoes (ie, making them available in sand or khaki).
Shoes with more flex in the sole are better for gravel, better when you’re landing a drop, better for damping vibrations and better for the inevitable hike-a-bike sections on any adventurous gravel ride.
Clothing will continue to be designed with smarter gravel-specific design features – again not just road Lycra in muted colours or mountain bike kit in the same.
Smarter thinking and designs based on proper feedback will be released. Some smaller brands such as 7mesh, Maap, Isadore and Q36.5 are already pushing more considered designs, as are some of the bigger players, including Castelli/Sportful and Endura.
More gravel-specific components will come too – saddles, bar tape, pedals, bars and comfort-giving hardware such as posts, bars, stems. And yes, we’ll see even more suspension fork options.
George Scott | Gravel bikes will divide and conquer
What is gravel riding? For many dipping their toe into this fast-developing discipline, it involves very little gravel. You know, (gravel, noun) small stones, often used to make the surface of paths and roads – that stuff.
With ‘gravel’, in the cycling sense, being born out of the past decade, any machine designed for multi-terrain riding has been lumped into a single ‘gravel bike’ category.
If you’re buying a gravel bike, you need to choose your fighter wisely, based on an honest appraisal of where you’re riding and what you want it for.
Take the Scott Addict Gravel and Surly Grappler – two bikes that we pitted head-to-head on our YouTube channel last week. They are both ostensibly gravel bikes but cater for very different riders, with very different design choices that influence where one excels and the other falters.
However, we are seeing the increased divergence of gravel into sub-categories, and that’s only going to continue.
There will still be grey areas – all bikes exist on a spectrum, after all – but clearer groupings will emerge from muddy waters, from aero go-fast gravel at one end to suspension-equipped, big-tyred bikepacking bikes (okay, it’s a drop-bar hardtail) at the other.
With that, we’ll also see more brands launch a second gravel bike to provide an alternative option to its original take on the genre.
Take Specialized’s launch of the Crux as a super-light, pared-back (and damn exclusive) gravel bike to complement the Diverge, with its FutureShock headset suspension.
As for Canyon, the Grizl arrived as a more rugged version of the Grail, with additional mounting points and wider tyre clearance.
Expect more of the same in 2023.