Gravel Culture: Gravelly algebra – G = N-1

Posted By Gravel Union On 17 November 2020

There’s a hackneyed phrase used in cycling which is “How many bikes do I need? N+1” where N is supposed to be number of bikes you currently own. What if owning a gravel bike meant you could actually have N-1 instead? Olly digs out his old school books and a calculator and goes in search of the answer.

During the course of this summer, for a number of inconsequential reasons, I ended up using my gravel bike everywhere – gravel rides, half-gravel/half-road rides, on MTB trails and on ‘proper’ road rides. You would have thought that it would have been a compromise for quite a lot of that – too slow and draggy on the road and too rigid for MTB trails for example? But actually, it rocked! It made me question whether I actually needed separate bikes for different disciplines – was it possible that a gravel bike was great (even if not perfect) for everything?

Does having one bike which can do everything sound like an unachievable utopia? Seeing as the team at Gravel Union work in the gravel cycling world we’re probably a bit biased, so we thought we could do some simple web research, outside of our little ‘gravel bubble’, to see whether our hypothesis that a gravel bike can do everything was actually true.

As part of a recent promotion on Gravel Union, we sent a sponsored advert to Facebook members who we thought would be interested in gravel riding. As part of the advert, we asked them what they thought of gravel riding as a genre and the results were hilarious and eye-opening in equal measures. Here’s some of the (anonymised) highlights to our question:

• There's always a need for another bike no matter how many you have. Them's the rules [sic]
• In the good old days, before marketing took over, one bike did everything
• Love my gravel bike! It’s a significant upgrade to my MTB and rides well on our pot holed roads. Nicer relaxed riding position compared to my old road bike
• Buy a road bike and stick 38mm tyres on it sorted 🤷🏼‍♂‍ that’s all I did and it works perfectly fine 😂
• Have you tried riding the British roads? Most have gravel on them. I can actually ride my road bike on bits of gravel without thinking of buying a specific bike for that task. I also have a mountain bike I use off-road. No need for a gravel bike...ha whatever next, electric gears and disc brakes lol
• Also, someone define ‘gravel’ please, because these nice pretty pictures we see of ‘gravel’ bikes on ‘gravel’ are totally misleading. If you’re a ‘gravel’ purist, good luck to you, but in my book rigid forks are for the road, end of. If I’m taking my bike off road I’m on front suspension.

We had nearly 200 responses (not all of which were suitable for printing here!), with the consensus split – it felt as though everyone who had actually ridden a gravel bike understood why you would want one and everyone else either wanted one or couldn’t fathom why you would want one!

If you look at the image above you’ll see a typical country lane found in many parts of the UK – narrow, grass-up-the-middle, ancient asphalt surface. This was taken in the middle of summer when the surface was bone dry and mud-free. What you can’t tell from this picture is that two minutes ride away in either direction are to be found potholes that literally take up the width of the road and dappled shade from overhanging tree branches that makes the potholes much harder to spot/judge the depth of. Is this style of road ideal for a skinny tyred, minimal clearance road bike? Maybe, but probably not. Obviously country lanes in the rural backwaters of the UK aren’t representative of riding conditions in other bits of the world, but I suspect for most of us, our local road riding conditions aren’t significantly smoother than many gravel trails.

What I realised this summer was that a gravel bike actually made a much more sensible/fun/practical/comfortable road bike than many road bikes do. I rode a lot of kms this summer on the road, all with 50mm WTB Venture tyres set-up tubeless and run at 40psi/2.75bar and my gravel bike flew. I easily kept up with friends on road race bikes and I arguably had more grip, more bombproof-ness and more puncture resistance, without significantly increased drag. For ‘normal’ riders, using a gravel bike on the road doesn’t put you at a significant disadvantage.

Who cares about road riding, you may well be thinking, isn’t this supposed to be a gravel riding website?

If you look back in the mists of time, when gravel bikes first came out, they had clearance for 35mm tyres, steep road racing-based geometry and were not dissimilar from CX bikes. Come back to the present day and most gravel bikes now offer at least 45mm clearance (in fact, that’s pretty much the figure we look for when we see new product releases to figure out whether the manufacturer really ‘gets’ gravel riding), have had their geometries tweaked to make them more stable off-road and have better rider comfort features built in (whether that’s just from tube profile changes, suspension-esque systems or vibration reducing inserts). A modern lightweight gravel bike is just as competent in an off-road environment as an MTB in many situations and is frequently lighter, more nimble and arguably more fun. Obviously, there are situations/trails where you would be better off with 2.5” tyres and 100mm of suspension at either end, but even then there are riders/companies who push the envelope as to what’s considered “real gravel” terrain.

“I just don’t get it. Why cane the f*ck out of your bike and your body on rigid forks on gravel?! Are you guys sadists?! 🤪”

That was one of the comments in our survey which made us laugh/roll our eyes/nod appreciatively. It’s a totally fair comment – riding off-road trails on a rigid-forked gravel bike can make it feel like your dental fillings are going to shake loose at times and make you question your sanity, but (and it’s a big but) – isn’t it also part of the fun?

One of the reasons a lot of us got into riding gravel bikes in the beginning was that mountain bike technology had developed to such an extent that our local trails were starting to feel a bit tame – that was certainly the case for me. I was starting to feel a bit bored of trail riding on an XC MTB and was looking for ways to make my local riding more involving and more challenging – take away the suspension and the dropper post and you’ve instantly got to think more, pick better lines, work on your body English and improve your flow. All of which make riding a gravel bike off-road more fun and give you a bigger buzz.

The arrival of autumn and its slow fade into winter means one thing to cyclists – extra maintenance! A combination of sludgy trails, roads liberally coated in corrosive salt to keep ice build-up at bay and puddles everywhere = increased wear&tear. Everything from suspension pivot bearings to fork/shock seals to dropper post mechanisms all take a battering in the winter and it sometimes feel like every ride is costing as much in maintenance and repair as it ‘generates’ in fun payback.

We’re not claiming that a gravel bike is any less prone to wear than an MTB during the winter, but the sheer fact that they are less complicated and have less expensive parts fitted to them will help reduce the burden of keeping them in good order – the motto of “keep it simple, stupid” could well have been designed for gravel bikes. If you’re not too worried about winning any style competitions with your gravel bike, you can fit mudguards/fenders as well to keep as much of the spray off your bike as possible. Obviously, you can do this with a MTB too, but suspension movement and mudguards don’t always make happy bedfellows.

So, having looked at all the facts, we’ve concluded the following:

• On really gnarly off-road trails, an MTB > a gravel bike
• If you’re racing in the Tour de France, a road bike > a gravel bike
• But if you’re looking for flexible, low maintenance, fun then a gravel bike > everything else most of the time

We did some quick statistical analysis and have concluded that for 69.7% of the cycling population, a gravel bike will be the perfect choice on a smiles-per-mile basis 82.3% of the time. And really, who can argue with advanced mathematical analysis like that.

Leave your calculator and your trailside algebra at home. Go out and ride a gravel bike. We guarantee the fun quotient will be firmly tipped in your favour.

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