Let’s explore what gravel is. Yes, the rumors are true: gravel is tiny rocks, but it’s also a state mind. Gravel is dirt roads. Fancy bike people even have a word for that now: Groads. I still can’t get myself to say it. The truth is, you can ride gravel and dirt roads on a road bike, or a mountain bike, or any bike. Maybe instead of a rhetorical exploration of what gravel is, we should simply explore, because that is, in essence, what gravel riding is. Exploring. Hmmm. I like it. We are getting warmed up. We are going somewhere. It seems gravel might be a metaphysical concept as well as a physical action you do, and anytime you combine an element of mysticism with physical activity, mathematical equations start to break down.
Gravel is a belief system for cyclists that with the right bike, you can never be on the wrong bike. Gravel is about reinventing your daily ride, where the road, paved bike path, dirt double track, and twisty single track trail can all be melted down into one amalgam. It’s freaking alchemy on two wheels, pure gold. But it’s not a Hybrid. That is a dirty word that means one bike that does a bunch things not very well, whereas gravel means one bike that does a variety of things exceptionally well, making it the exact opposite of hybrid. It’s an adventure without having to go anywhere special if that’s what you want, but it’s also a way to go places, as seen by the growing niche of bike packing gear that allows you to pack up the bare lightweight essentials and get out there as far as you want to go. There is also gravel racing, with events you have probably heard of like the DK200 (Dirty Kanza, but they have changed the name recently) in the Flint Hills of Kansas, or the Crusher in the Tushar, a monster of a race down near Beaver, Utah, near Eagle Point ski area.
With all the Gravel-As-A-State-Of-Mind discussion behind us, we still haven’t discussed what actually makes a bike a gravel bike. Every painter needs brushes, but not everyone who buys paintbrushes is a painter. But you, Picasso, are going to produce great works of cycling art with gravel and dirt roads as your canvas. A great gravel bike will be lightweight like a road bike, not burdened with the weight of suspension (although there are some out there with suspension, I say avoid them, with very few exceptions). In fact, if you were spotting one leaned up against a cattle fence way up high at the top of Soapstone Basin from far away, you might mistake the shape and form for a road bike and think to yourself, what the heck is that doing up here in these rugged parts. Mostly because they have curly handlebars. Gravel bikes will have ample tire clearance for at least 40 c tires (a width measurement, approximately 40 cm wide when inflated). A great gravel bike is going to have high-quality hydraulic disc brakes, just like your newer generation mountain bike. Some popular bike brands allow you to use 700 c wheels (standard road size) as well as 650b (or 27.5, a popular mountain bike wheel size). With the smaller diameter 650b wheels, you can then mount mountain bike tires. I run this set-up on my OPEN, and I call them Party Wheels, and the bike is extremely capable of riding twisty and smooth single-track such as the trails you might find in Round Valley. When it comes to gears and shifting, there are a couple of schools of thought. One school of thought is to run a wide-range mountain bike style cassette in the rear, with a single chainring up front, or 1x, or “One By.” Simple. Light. Aesthetically pleasing. Another school of thought is to run a double changing upfront as you likely would do on a road bike or a “Two By.” I have done both, and I like both for different reasons. It will be a personal choice, and there is no wrong answer.
Whether you approach things from an analytical perspective or an artist’s perspective, Einstein or Picasso, it’s time to get a gravel bike.