The gravel grinder is sometimes written off as a gimmicky cyclocross bike, or as an overused marketing term. We’re writing it off as a product of bicycle evolution, and we think it is here to stay.
In the Beginning
In the beginning there was the bicycle, and it was good; and the people of the Earth rode it to and from work, around their neighborhoods and to run errands with ease. The people were happy, for a time. Before long man began to compete with other men in competitions of speed and endurance on bicycles, pitting their hatred upon one another, cheating and lying to gain an advantage, and defying the the first law of cycling, “Thou shalt ridest thine bike for fun.” At this point the world of the cyclist was split into many factions, and they fell from paradise leaving the once pure cycling community in disarray and chaos.
Some Actual History
The bicycle was first introduced as the “Draisine” (Velocipede, or Hobby-Horse) in 1817 by Baron Karl Von Drais of Germany. It was made of wood, brass and iron. Though it didn’t have pedals and weighed over 40 pounds, it was the first steerable, 2 wheeled, human powered vehicle designed for travel over roads. This first bicycle was a modern machine designed to get a person from A to B as an extension of himself over the mild terrain and rudimentary roads of the times.
Bicycles continued to develop over time with different emphasis towards reliability, practicality, safety, commuting and racing. In Britain in the 1820s 3 and 4 wheeled bikes where experimented with, to little success. In the 1860s pedals were added to the design of the front wheel for power instead of having the rider push himself along the ground with his feet. In the 1870s the High-Wheel, or Penny Farthing was designed and manufactured. Although it wasn’t until the Safety Bicycles of the 1880s that the first rear chain driven bicycle, developed by John Kemp Starley in 1885, hit the market as a resounding success.
Along with the development of the pneumatic tire, the 1880s was a golden age for cycling enthusiasts. In the Late 1800s, Professional Track racing became very popular. By the early 1900s, racing grew increasingly popular with the introduction of the Tour de France in 1903. Cycling developed other new forms of racing during this time as well. Such as, during the road cycling off season, bike racers would race from town to town across the countryside, cutting through fields and jumping over fences. This practice eventually went on to become what cyclo-cross racing is today.
Through the first and second World Wars, bicycle development slowed due to financial problems throughout Europe with only slight improvements coming from military forces use of the bicycle as a means of transportation for messengers. Later in the 1950s, American companies began to imitate British and other European designs which had been highly popular imports due to their styling, speed and sophistication. American companies also developed balloon tire cruisers, which were popular for their comfort, durability and appearance.
In the 1960’s the modification of children’s bikes to more readily enable off road riding and the imitation of motocross events became wildly popular in the USA, spawning the dawn of BMX culture. Later in the early 1970s teenagers in Central California are credited with the initial development of Mountain bikes, built with a mixture of american cruisers and motorcycle parts. Since then, Mountain bikes, like road bikes, have developed over time to meet the needs of their riders and have spawned many sub genres of, so many in fact that we can hardly keep track of how many there are. It’s no doubt the the bicycle is the pinnacle of evolution in human-powered transport, and a truly purpose-driven machine.
The gravel bike of today is a proverbial “renaissance man” of our times, taking cues from cycling’s evolution without the frills and gimmicks found on bikes designed solely for racing.
Now here we are smack in the middle of cycling’s next greatest technological evolution. Electronic shifting, more geometry charts than you can shake a stick at, carbon fiber everything and tires so big that our bikes might as well be rolling motorcycle chassis. The resulting birth of so many different sub-styles of riding and specific-purpose bikes is overwhelming. We used to just be “cyclists,” then you were either a mountain biker or a road cyclist. Now it’s even harder to tell whether you identify as an enduro racer, a downhiller, a big hitting slopestyle trickster, BMXer, track racer, cyclocrosser, road racer or even as a road endurance racer. The choices leave me so puzzled and confused I can’t think straight. What ever happened to getting on the bike and just riding for fun?
Enter the Gravel Bike
The Gravel Bike is a simple machine built of steel or aluminum, taking on a similar appearance to the road bikes of old yet purposefully crafted to cover miles with ease. The gravel bike of today is a proverbial “renaissance man” of our times, taking cues from cycling’s evolution without the frills and gimmicks found on bikes designed solely for racing. It retains the technology that makes riding your bike as enjoyable as possible. A gravel bike can’t do it all, but it can fit all but the most specific of needs. A bike that is built to deliver a good time on almost any terrain.
The new-age label, “Gravel Grinder” is only the latest in a string of monikers given to the many new and different forms of the bicycle, and while it may seem like the rising star of trendy cycling fads spawned from the deepest, darkest corners of of social media with the likes of beards, flannel, leather goods, craft beverages, and other trends sure to burn out with the blowing winds of the next hot new thing to roll down the street, the Gravel Grinder is here to stay.
It seems that even with all the different types of cycling anyone can choose from nowadays that the majority of riders are really still just looking for a simple bicycle that harkens back to the origins of cycling. The average cyclist wants to go ride a bike, and they want a bike that’s comfortable, safe, reliable, and will get them from A to B and then back to A. That’s where the gravel bike fits in.
Most, if not all, gravel bikes originated in a similar way to mountain bikes, yet are distinctly different. Cyclists were going out and buying older mountain and road bikes on Craigslist, or digging them out of their parents’ garages, fixing them up with boxes of random spare parts and a little elbow grease. Their intent in this was to build a fun beater bike to ride around on so they could leave their $5,000 purpose-built machines at home when all they really wanted was to cruise around the neighborhood or ride to the store without worrying about becoming another bike-theft statistic. After that first ride on their garage-built, drop-bar franken-bike with 10-speeds and the biggest comfy tires they could fit in the frame, they quickly realized that they ride this “thing” more often than their other bikes, and didn’t have to worry about it getting beat up or stolen. It doesn’t look like much but it’s fun and relaxing to ride.
The more you ride a beater bike the more fun it gets. Just like early 80’s “klunkers,” cyclists began to ride their beaters faster and harder, organizing rides to the top of the nearest hill for beers, followed by a screaming, sketchy descent back down to the start.
Of course, Franken-bikes have been around forever, so why are versatile, multi-purpose bikes just now becoming available from manufacturers? This is happening in part to the bicycle industry finally noticing the consumer demand for more versatile bikes, and manufacturers have responded by designing brand new bikes with a utilitarian aesthetic and purpose, with a splash trickledown technology and cheaper entry points. Brands like Surly have propelled the movement towards utilitarian bikes for a while. Other brands that have been making cyclocross bikes and urban cruisers for years, such as Diamondback, have slowly been introducing new models designed with a more relaxed ride, bigger tires, and braze on mounts for extra utility, marketing the new frames to match current trends. I mean who wouldn’t want a brand new bike with reliable disc brakes, tubeless ready wheels and tires and a modern drivetrain mated to a frame with classic styling, a comfortable ride quality and relaxed geometry? Ultimately, it’s really what every cyclist has ever wanted throughout time: a modern classic. We dont have to settle any more for the jerry-rigged set ups; now we can have everything we want on a bike.
I also definitely want to stress the cyclocross origins of the gravel bike, After all the formulas for a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike seem similar: bigger knobby tires, drop bars and gearing meant to get you around on mixed terrain with ease. They also have similar histories. When cyclocross was invented it was really just racing a road bike cross country without roads or trails, using a purpose built bike for a different purpose. The main difference however is that in the years since its inception cyclocross racing has become a much larger part of the cycling industry and has spawned complex specialized components and geometry tending towards an aggressive ride. Thats all fine and dandy if you want to race for an hour, but not if you want to ride for hours on end. As cyclocross events have begun to trend towards off road endurance racing, like the Dirty Kanza 200 and other muddy mixed-surface sufferfests, manufacturers began to build cyclocross bikes that were more suited for full days in the saddle. These were the first bikes officially labeled as “Gravel Grinders” or “Gravel Bikes” by their manufactures, wanting to get a cut of the market. Ironically the melding of classic road style and modern parts synced up perfectly with growing trends in mixed terrain klunkers.
Of course, we can’t forget touring bikes as a major contributor to the gravel bike scene. As a bike made to be comfortable while passing the miles, with reliable parts and a utilitarian bent frame, it’s an obvious choice for an avid rider who wants an easy ride. Most touring bikes see action in temperate weather or for brief spans on epic adventures across the country, but are sold after a year or so of idle time in their owner’s garage when the “glory days” of a transcontinental trip have faded. It makes them perfect candidates for their new owners to supe-up and modify into the gravel bike of their dreams, taking us back to the genesis of the “beater bike” theory.
The gravel bike of today.
Social media also might be a good thing to take note of in the recent popularity of gravel bikes. Cycling can be a vain and social sport. Coffee rides, flashy cycling kits and other inherently social behaviors are ingrained in cycling’s DNA especially within the types of cyclists who are really more interested in going out on group rides with friends rather than race in a criterium. In a new age where social interaction via instagram is just as relevant as person-to-person encounters are, the instagram accounts of cyclists who can take an epic ride photo are as popular as ever. Taking a pic that gets people inspired to ride experience and explore is a valuable commodity, and if you’re riding your sweet gravel bike on that sweet road or trail, ‘gram’ it! These types of socially shared photos have definitely inspired some other riders to build up a bike just like yours. It’s no surprise that anyone wanting to seem legit in the cycling world is buying or building a gravel bike right now so they can fit in with the cool kids on the net.
So where does that leave us now?
While there is a definite “trendiness” to gravel bikes and gravel riding driven by social media, ‘gravel bikes” are easily marketed to a wide appeal , driving cyclists of all types to swing a leg over one. From there, cyclists are quickly realizing how great they can be and how they can be ridden well into the future. It all harkens back to the simple fun you can have on even the simplest bike.
You no longer need a quiver of bikes equipped with the newest frills and tech specifically designed for each type of riding you want to do (although having a couple of discipline specific bikes couldn’t hurt). If you’re riding from A to B with mixed terrain, asphalt, gravel and maybe some trails in between, get a bike built to go wherever roads, trails or gravel paths can take you. Blow up some corners, get a little loose, and grind away a few climbs with good company and no other intent than to have a good time and put in a few miles. To do this, you don’t necessarily need a specialty bike with 5 inches of suspension, full carbon everything, compact gearing or a racey geometry, unless your version of a good time includes gnarly fast downhills and big drops at the resort, or an Ironman through Death Valley. Overall, a modern gravel bike could be the only bike you need, because what bike is better than the one you can ride any time and (almost) anywhere?