Gravel Culture: Is the future electric?
Gravel Union On
16 February 2021
It began two summers ago when my wife and I were searching for a gravel route around the Lac de Roselend in the Rhône-Alpes in the French Alps. The Cormet de Roselend and the beautiful lake before the col are places I return to over and over again. While we were searching for the route, a very fit young man approached us at rather high speed on his mountain bike. As he came closer, we realised that he was on an e-bike. The young cyclist helped us with the route, and we carried on our way. This incidence and the accompanying question in my mind didn’t leave me for years: Why would someone so fit and so adept as a cyclist want to ride an e-bike?
As I was to discover some time later, the answer to the question is - because it is such a BLAST!
Think about it - what would it be like to ride twice as fast and twice as far as you are normally physically capable of riding?
We humans have been using varying forms of technological assistance in most of our endeavours for a very long time. Do you use a vacuum cleaner to clean your home? Are you reading this with a computer or other electronic device?
What about staying fit? Don’t we ride bikes to get into and stay in shape? What about using a power meter, FTP [functional threshold power – ed] and training zones? Can you still do all that with an e-bike?
After my experience at the Lac de Roselend I put away my questions about e-bikes…for a while. I was so wrapped up in my goal to ride ever faster with a normal bike with increasing age. At the time I was 68 and totally enthralled with my sub-7kg Open U.P.P.E.R. (with 650b wheels and MTB tires) - a marvel of design and engineering that enables me to move fast over any kind of terrain with aplomb and comfort.
One year after my experience in the French Alps, out came the Specialized Creo, and there was a gravel version. That was in the summer of 2019. I saw this review and thought, “I’ve got to get my hands on one”:
“Getting my hands on one” meant taking delivery on one in early April 2020, in the midst of our first Covid19 lockdown here in Switzerland. There were a few more circumstances that “conspired” for me to own one that spring. Firstly, due to the dangers of Covid19 the radius of my cycling tours had suddenly become much smaller. Previous to the spring of 2020 we tended to use public transportation as part of our normal cycling tours, as do a large number of serious cyclists in Switzerland. Before Covid19 we used the excellent train service to transport us to one part of the country and then ride home from there. For example, in the summer my wife and I are accustomed to taking the train very early in the morning to Airolo in Canton Ticino, climbing the Gotthard pass over the cobbles from Airolo, descending down to Andermatt in Canton Uri, then descending over nearly 60 kilometres to the town of Arth-Goldau in Canton Schwyz and then taking the train home. For me, Covid19 meant avoiding train travel as much as possible because social distancing in trains is often impossible. No train travel=not being able to roam so far from home on the bike.
The “straw that broke the camel’s back” was a call from a friend a few years younger than I am with over ten rainbow jerseys to his credit - he had just bought an e-bike. That was it! My wife then insisted I buy a Creo, which I had been dreaming about since watching the review the previous summer. I got the highest-spec gravel version available and then re-built it to my preferences.
What is it like to ride a Creo, and how is different from a high-end superlight gravel bike such as the Open U.P.P.E.R.? The Open U.P., U.P.P.E.R and W.I.D.E. are, from my perspective, the epitome of what a go-anywhere bike can be. They are all very light, agile, offer high torsional resistance yet wonderful compliance and all accelerate like a Cervelo road bike (no wonder, considering that Gerard Vroomen is the design genius behind them). All of these bikes accept either 700c or 650b wheels, which means that you can ride anything with them from tarmac to singletrack
The Creo also accepts 700c and 650b wheels, so I have both, which means that I can totally change the character of the bike in only one or two minutes.
Different from my Opens (I admit to having two of them, one with 1x and one with 2x), the Creo is a veritable rocket, albeit a light rocket by e-bike standards. It does not have a very powerful motor, but it does double your power, and it climbs! It climbs and climbs and climbs… I use it for steep, long, climbs - routes that are nearly impossible for me without assist, day-long rides with lots of alpine elevation gain. Specialized says it will go for 120 kilometres on its internal battery and 200 kilometres when you take along the range extender. I am sure it will do that in Holland and other flat places. In Switzerland, with our mountains, the range is less.
The idea of the Creo is that it does not ride you - you ride it. You must work when you ride this bike. The more power you put into it, the more power it gives. That makes a ride on the Creo very rewarding. I use it for training - I can ride it hard and move very quickly with it over differing terrain. Often, I see it as a kind of hard-tail MTB. It has 3 centimetres of travel, after all! For someone used to riding a gravel bike over single trail, any travel is a big deal and makes a huge difference.
This morning I saw a t-shirt made with the Creo in mind: “If you don’t own one, you’ll never understand.” That just about sums it up. Everyone has value judgments about e-bikes, some of them positive, and surely many of them negative. All I can do is to end this short essay with a question directed at other gravel riders: What if you had a bike that is just as agile and comfortable and handles as well as the best gravel bikes available, only it will propel you twice as fast and take you twice as far?
I have answered this question for myself, even if I still love to ride my analogue bikes. If you I have whetted your interest, you may wish to try one for yourself.