The gravel biking scene has been a bit of a black hole in recent times. It’s been a gigantic gravitational well seemingly sucking the entirety of the cycling world’s marketing efforts with a fury from which there is no escape. Once upon a time, say, five years ago, anything went when it came to riding gravel roads. After all, gravel roads are just roads without a veneer of disintegrating asphalt. Gravel roads were where you’d ride with your road bike equipped with gatorskin tyres or properly fast cross country mountain bikes, preferably hard tails. Over the past decade, bike maker marketing has tried hard to define riding gravel roads as a Thing. Bikes have come and gone and most should stay gone. But in very recent times, I’ve noticed a real sense of maturity with the shaping of gravel as a genuine genre of cycling with attached comprehensible engineering to match the hype.
What seems to have really stimulated the gravel scene is our declining tolerance for being run over by Landcruisers driven by manic tradesmen. There’s no vaccine for that disease and it kills more than Covid.
Lonely rural gravel roads are the new promised land for sparsely trafficked cycling pleasure.
But for rural folk like me, these roads are my local roads and I live on gravel; like it or not. For over thirty years, I have run through a retinue of cyclocross bikes to match geography with physiology. I can’t say any of these were ever particularly comfortable to ride and my wrists feel like they have been grafted from someone post 110 years old. And, I might add, Landcruisers are most certainly still a thing and their drivers are as manic as they have ever been; it’s just hat there’s fewer of them the further you get from any local town. I am a long way from town.
Where once you’d choose a gravel bike from the one or two options you’d find in your local bike shop, now we have choice. Lots of choice. A spectrum of choice that now rivals that confusing the road bike scene, or the dimensions of MTB. We now even have gravel tribes like cults circling within what’s now effectively become a religion. Now we have UCI official gravel racing, bike packing, dirt grandfondos, multi day endurance eventing, and, yes, gravel Everesting. There’s a bike for every application and pricing to match every budget. Actually, now we have so much choice I suspect newbies will find it easier to revert back to the old model of picking a bike based just on what you’d find in your local shop (which means that the choices are made by your local bike shop owner rather than you). The choice, otherwise, is utterly overwhelming.
I reckon the best bet for making sense of gravel biking is to plot a graph of bikes: with the curve extending between the two extreme poles of the Chamois Hagar (Evil Bike Co.) at the hardly-different-from-a-mountain bike end to the Scott Addict RC Tuned Gravel Bike at the hardly-different-from-a-road bike end. Something in the middle would probably represent an average for the average rider. So what’s in the middle? What’s the average gravel bike for the average gravel rider? That would have to be something from the Giant Bike Company… And the answer is the Giant Revolt. Not too mountain bike and not too road. Which means not too heavy and rugged and not too stiff and unyielding. Soft but efficient. Not a racer. Not a plodder. Check it out at your local Giant store. It’s not for me because I like my gravel bikes to be fast, quick handling, alive, sharp and compliant; no fat tyre pseudo road endurance bikes for me (Specialized Diverge et. al).
If you have refined your own personal gravel zone, you can zero in on a more specific choice. That comes with practice and experience. I recommend a year or two on the Revolt (or similar) to find that zone. And that would be hugely dictated by the kind of roads you ride and the kind of rider you are or seek to become.
For me, the zone is fast hard packed gravel riding on roads that are, at best, egregiously maintained. That’s the kind of road we have where I live and reflects the kind of riding I am used to. I come from road racing, and I do around 25,000km per year. I have bad road damaged wrists that scream out for a bunch of front end compliance. I don’t race on gravel and, actually, vastly prefer to ride alone. I have lots of local KOM’s but then again, most of those are kind of remote and off the radar of most KOM hunters. Plus, I don’t care who might compete as I generally just compete with me. I love bikes and am a serious bike nerd. These things inform the kind of bikes I’d choose and you need to keep that in mind for any bike recommendations I make and the bikes I have committed to.
All of which I feel compelled to lay out as background to my recent bike buying exploits. In the past year I have managed to acquire three new gravel bikes and all three are pretty consistent with my own specific local realities and preferences. These three bikes are all subtlety different and distinct, while looking pretty much all the same to someone who is new to the scene. I reckon I have the bases covered now and am, probably out of the new gravel bike buying game for at least the next five years.
It all happened in 2021. Not because of Covid et al. Or the shortages issues that accompanied that strange disease. No, it just happened in 2021 because 2021 is when the bike industry decided to ramp up the gravel bike domain into a place that is now, at last, more informed by engineering that marketing. It took a while for the industry to arrive at this point. It’s been a learn-as-you-go or make-it-up-as-you-go kind of show over the decade before 2021. I reckon that gravel tech has arrived. At last. And it all is thanks to one man: Gerard Vroomen – the engineer genius behind Open and 3T, and before that, Cervelo. My shed is looking like a Vroomen shrine! It all started with the Open Upper. And then the 3T Exploro. With the Open MIN.D to come. And those bikes influenced the industry like a million plus followed influencer on Instagram. Now everyone is doing copies or iterations of the Open gravel bike. And the Exploro. Someone needs to build a statue to Vroomen on the world’s most illustrious gravel peak. Of course, no bike company is going to admit to this influence and that is the lot of genuine influencers everywhere. But it’s all pretty obvious to me.
I have written about these Vroomen bikes before (summarised here) so you can read those views if you choose. I still have these bikes and always will. They are keepers and I plan to keep them to the grave.
So I refer to the Vroomen influenced era that really culminated in 2021 (the Open MIN.D did it for me). And the iconic bike from there is the brand new Cervelo Aspero 5.
Subtle it is not. And I am not just referring to the wild paint scheme. This thing is fast. This thing is compliant. This thing can climb. This thing can outpace a road bike on the road and a mountain bike on single track. It’s a flawless design. If fast gravel is your thing and that thing is where I am at, then this is the thing for me. And it is.
Read the review on CyclingTips. It’s a great review by a reviewer who actually knows a thing or two about gravel bikes (Dave Rome). I don’t need to repeat it all here. Except to say one thing. I like Shimano GRX. This is my first GRX bike. I have five gravel bikes with SRAM Force 1. I loath and detest SRAM Force 1. On all five bikes Force 1 disintegrates into dysfunctional chaos after about 7,000km where no amount of adjustment, new cables, new chains, new cable housing, new cogs, sympathetic shifter lubrication, B screw tuning or derailleur hanger alignment is going to work. SRAM is, simply, junk. Notably, mechanical Force 1 has been dropped by SRAM. Now it is all electronic shifting and mass avoidance of steel derailleur cables for evermore. Probably a good thing for those who lacked the talent of Campagnolo and Shimano to build reliable mechanical shifting in the first place. Like SRAM never did.
GRX is great, but Campagnolo EKAR is god.
In 40 years of riding bikes and riding bikes with Campagnolo, Shimano, SRAM, Huret, you name it, I have never, ever, encountered a gear group as good as Ekar. To get Ekar, I purchased a Lauf True Grit. Because that’s the only way you can currently get Ekar. As OEM. So I bought a Lauf to get Ekar but the Lauf has me intrigued.
The Lauf True Grit has been on the menu since around 2017. Lauf started out as the maker of the Lauf suspension fork (a radical and lateral deployment of fibreglass leaf springs, hence the name Lauf which is Icelandic for Leaf…). Ekar also happened in 2021. Lauf was one of the first bike makers to spec Ekar.
I have always loved that Lauf fork (I have one on my 3T Exploro and it works a treat). So I have always wanted a True Grit as the True Grit is a bike designed around and specifically for that fork. So, because Lauf is not available via retail in Australia, I ordered direct. What a triumph of direct selling that is! It took a week to get to Australia and another week to get from Sydney to where I live 500km away (not a compliment to Australian transport logistics). I could get to like the direct sales approach… But I like my local bike shop more. So this is probably a once only event for me.
Anyway, the True Grit is a masterpiece. It is actually my favourite bike of all time (I have and have had, lots of bikes upon which to base this claim). The Lauf is technically unique. With some of its geometry out of the mountain bike playbook (mainly slack head and seat tube angles), and other geometry from the road book (it’s seriously low with the shortest head tube of any bike I have ever owned), this compact, stretched yet low and racy bike is a rocket on the dirt. And comfortable when the front end hits rocks and corrugations. The True Grit is unlike anything I have ever ridden before. Light and fast, compliant and with a sweet ride, it’s a paradox. It breaks the rule book in a most delightful way. I love designs that break the mould. I love creative and frankly brilliant engineering like this. If you close your eyes, (not recommended), you’d imagine you were on a top end pro racing bike on the tar. If you keep your eyes closed, you might think you were on a pro level cross country racing bike on the dirt. Yes, the Lauf is a genuine quiver killer. One bike to rule them all and, really, the only bike I actually really need. I am still waiting to find a fault. With the bike or Campagnolo’s magnificent Ekar.
But first (in 2021) was the Focus Mares. Yes, I know it’s a pro CX bike. It’s not supposed to work on gravel roads. It’s supposed to win cyclocross races and it does and always has. It’s a CX legend.
I found my Mares in my local bike shop. It was relatively price attractive so I lashed out. I was surprised to find that this bike is both fast and, beyond expectations, compliant on our local gravel roads. I really did not expect that. Thus encouraged, I proceeded to totally upgrade everything on the bike to customise it into a full-on fast gravel bike, starting with DT Swiss top-end CX carbon wheels, 3T Erganova bars, an S Works stem, Pathfinder tyres, and a top end Fizik saddle. That doubled the price but now I have a genuine gravel road bike that climbs like my Wilier Zero.7 or my Giant TCR Advanced SL 0. Without killing my wrists. This is a bike for a fast three hour ride. Not for expeditions or all day, perhaps. But when the local Council has bothered to turn up with their graders this is the bike I will take every time. Faster than the True Grit, not as fast as the Aspero 5. It’s my gravel bike in the middle.
So there’s my three gravel super bikes from 2021. Each with a personality that is distinct and thoroughly engineered. All three are timeless. I can’t imagine them falling out of favour or becoming antiques. All three are right on trend and now that that trend has matured in an engineering sense (rather than a marketing sense), I am confident that we four will hang in for the long haul. Until at least two of us are taken out by a Landcruiser driver, rather than by some new marketing fad.