Gravel Bikes -Trend or Blip?

Is Gravel a genuine new category of bikes or a niche within a niche? We discuss the topic

Posted by Philip Cavell

29th September 2017

Open (gravel) road, Open bike. Is this a blip or a trend?

Gravel or Drivel

The emergence of the new Gravel genre opens up a few questions: the most fundamental being - is  'Gravel' an entirely new category that is going to endure, or merely a marketing tool to slice the market even more thinly?

This Journal looks at the theoretical venn overlap between Gravel, Cyclo-X, road and MTB – and is that space enough for a whole new genre or a flimsy reason to induce you to n+2? And most important of all does refining categories help the rider get a bike they are happy with?

Vintage Cross1

Cyclo-X started as a way to keep racers ticking over in the winter

Vintage Cross2

Pretty soon became a thing in its own right. It has always rewarded balance and smoothness.

Vintage Cross3

Jules races cross every season. Here he is in 2007

Cycle-X Roots

Everyone at Cyclefit races or has raced Cyclo-X. Barna was in the Hungarian Squad, Jules and Jimmy still regularly race every season (Jimmy is away racing the infamous 3 Peaks at the time of writing) and Phil was utterly useless and once deliberately left his shoes in a race car-park as a silent 'dirty' protest at the muddy conditions. Cyclo-X bikes back in the day had several defining features:

  • High bottom-brackets (to clear logs)
  • Skinny but treaded tyres – to cut through the mud to the firmer ground below
  • Racers preferred tubulars to avoid pinch flats - ran at low pressures
  • No bottle-cages
  • Crap brakes that barely worked
  • Never mind n+1, crossers had another algorithm - X 2 identical bikes with a dedicated bike-cleaner in the pits
  • Longer chainstays and increased tyre clearances.

A good ‘crosser’ is the bike-racing ballet dancer. Viewed from a distance their movements are metronomic and minimalistic. Up close you can see the combination of balance, coordination  and brute strength it takes to ride, run, jump, ride, all at threshold on relatively skinny tyres in thick mud and tree roots. There is no harder way to spend an hour. Jules has written a recent Journal on Cyclo-X for beginners


Jimmy riding a Trek Boone Disc for the 2016/17 season


Jules riding a Trek Boone non-disc for the 2015/16 season

Gravel Is The New Cross. Discuss?

Well sort of. Cross bikes have come along way from the pictures above. The Trek Boone is incredibly sophisticated - IsoSpeed suspension on either end, disc-brakes,12mm TA clearances for 33mm cx tyres and a high modulus, bonkers stiff BB90 bottom-bracket. Plus unlike the sepia days you now get bottle-mounts as well. In truth an Open UP, Trek Boone, Seven Evergreen SL or even a Trek Domane would all be fine for a bridleways or forest single-track. We bet a standard road Trek Domane could also handle a cross race once in while if it had to! So far this year Jules has done the following on his Open Up: road-raced, bunch rides, a summer of mountain bike races (650b x 2.1's) and he is about to start a season of cyclo-x. Now that is what you call versatile.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

By designing a bike that is primary intended for gravel an mild off-road use, there is useful by-product that we feel on the road as increased confidence and stability from longer chainstays, and lower bottom-brackets. Add to that clearances for wider road tyres and disc-brakes, and many of us prefer riding gravel bikes on tarmac. You don't know you like increased: grip, comfort, stability, safety-margins and confidence until you feel it, and then it is addictive. 

Gravel / Cyclo-X / Road-Disc?

So how do you choose between, for example, A Trek Boone 7 Disc, a Seven Evergreen SL (all titanium) and an Open UP GravelPlus? The answer depends upon where you plan on stacking the miles and therefore long-term intended use. If you plan to ride a dozen or so cross races a year, but want an all-round comfortable and utterly bombproof commuter/winter bike, then the Seven Evergreen is the only choice. If you are a dedicated crosser then the only dedicated race bike here is the Trek Boone 7. If you want a bike that can double as a road bike or a mountain bike but can also soak-up a touring trip to Turkey and back, suddenly the pathway to an Open U.P. ahem, opens up. 

Reasons to buy a Trek Boone 7 Disc 

  • You want the most competitive Cyclo-X bike in the world. Full-stop, new paragraph.
  • It is designed to be easy to carry when running round cyclo-x off-bike sections - sounds trivial but not after the tenth up hill running section!
  • You want the stiffest, lightest bike out there with fast cx geometry
  • You want IsoSpeed suspension built-in fore and aft.
  • You don't need clearances for anything more than 35c tyres
  • You will probably want the next lightest/greatest thing in a few seasons time.

Reasons to buy a Seven Evergreen

  • Custom means you get everything you want and nothing you don't
  • Exemplar Titanium truly lasts a lifetime and the ride quality NEVER changes
  • Titanium is crash-proof, rust-proof, scratch-proof, life-proof, even cross-proof.
  • Legendary titanium ride that will soak up a million miles around the planet and yet can still win a local cross race.
  • Custom geometry means you are not squeezing into stock geometry, if that doesn't feel right for you.
  • Everyone deserves a custom ti bike once in their life. Nothing makes you feel quite as special.

Reasons to buy an Open U.P. GravelPlus

  • Versatility - all the three bikes - it is the only bike here that could road-race, MTB race and cross-race in one weekend (wheel-changes needed)
  • Clearances for 650b x 2.1 MTB wheels is a huge deal. Purists may be dandy with a 700c x 35c off-road, but the rest of us need more, and Open gives that.
  • You may want to do a few cross races a year but you also want a bike that will do a lot more - touring, road-riding, off-road etc
  • Performance - the U.P.P.ER. is an 800 gram frame. With the stiffness of the very best race bikes on the planet. Open may be versatile but it is far from docile. Jules so far raced hiss in three disciplines this year!
  • It's great to be different. And Open has captured our imaginations with innovative design and aesthetics. 

2018 Open UP GravelPlus. The Swiss Army Bike. From err, Switzerland. 

Seven Mudhoney. Ridden by World Champions who can afford them 

Trek Boone 7 Disc. The most innovated CX bike in the world. 

Put Your Money Where The Miles Are

So the differences between gravel/cross/road are there but nuanced. All these bikes are so bloody marvellous, that they will happily deputise for each other's primary job, especially now that disc-brakes have blurred the separation even further. We have clients who have bought Open UPs with two or sometimes three pairs of wheels, so they can truly have three bikes in one. Equally we have clients who built up their UP with 650b x 2.1 MTB wheels/tyres, because that is the side of the bike's personality that fitted into their life. If Phil raced cross again (highly unlikely), it would be on an Open UP with the fattest tyres that the course commissionaires would allow. The Open U.P. edges it on versatility, the Boone edges it on out and out cross-focused performance. And the Seven would get your vote if you have a lifelong role in mind for the perfect titanium companion. So in answer to the original question, as to whether Gravel is a blip or a trend, the conclusion has to be the latter. Road bikes have come onto the cyclo-cross radar because the new designs incorporate bigger tyre clearances and disc-brakes. Gravel edges that idea into viable margin of riding your road-bike off-road into beautiful and interesting spaces, assisted by new tyre and component technology. If you intend to race a few cross races for fitness or because you are curious, then a gravel bike will do all that and more for free. if however, you are dedicated to cyclo-cross racing as a primary goal, then the Trek Boone Disc is unparalleled in its focus and performance, AND it could function as a high-performance road-bike as well. Too much choice? Too much fun?

About the Author

Philip Cavell

Co-founder, bike fitter and bike designer. Phil rides a Seven titanium disc bike. He likes dogs and fine wine. - Cyclefit Store