Innovation as Marketing: Gravel Bikes

The Gravel Bike

There is a story. It is a story about a dark, intimidating, scary chasm. A dark, moldy, unkind gap that split and schismed cyclists in twain. On one side, there were cyclists devoted to wearing super tight clothing and riding weight-weenie crabon bikes across miles of asphalt. On the other, thrill-seekers who, only recently donning ridiculously tight clothing, prefer squishy bikes with bendy frames, riding through nature and kicking up dust and dirt, ofttimes wearing goggles.

This is the way cycling was after mountain bikes hit the market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In this manner, through an eon-like continuum, vast and long, cycling would…well…continue. Until the gap was spanned. Made crossable by a whole new category of bicycle. The tale of the gravel bike is an epilogue to the storied past of cycling. That past where you decided what kind of cyclist you were and acquired the type of bicycle from the limited choices available.

I realize that my stream of consciousness seems to be going nowhere. But I promise, there is a point. That point is innovation.

Innovation, Dear Reader, is how marketing is made.

<rant>
Or it could be the other way around. Whatever. Marketing as an impetus for creating new products sometimes leads to good results. We have smartphones, incompatible outerwear, and liquid soap even though we were adamant that we would never need to buy them. However, wider tires, on road bikes, it turns out, are both useful and really cool. Because gravel bikes are so awesome, we shall obediently squeeze asses into Lycra®, don some single-lens sunglasses and embrocate ourselves across road and valley on the latest and greatest that bicycle marketing has to offer.
</rant>

Is it, though? Is the gravel bike an innovation that the bicycle companies have created to sell us more bikes? As I sit here in the coffee shop, amongst people meeting their life coaches, wearing Patagonia, and staring at their smartphones, I am having a real Bobos in Paradise moment. Gravel bikes are not smartphones or liquid soap. It so happens, after doing a little research, that they evolved out of necessity. They did not just spring forth like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, leaving Hera to wonder what the hell just happened.

Nope. Negative. A new category of bicycle is something that no one company can just summon from the dark, stinking depths of corporate marketing departments. Quite the opposite. The modern gravel bike came from the same place mountain bikes and BMX bikes came from. They evolved into existence over the course of decades, splitting off one bike and taking geometries and components from others. They came from the wooly wild of dirt, asphalt, very small rocks, and the desire for roadies to ride away from traffic. As with mountain bikes, once people started racing them, the companies took notice.

Jingle Cross
Jingle Cross. A big cyclocross race and really nice social media opportunity.

It was only a few years ago that cyclocross, having already been around for nearly a century, trendily entered the social media feeds of cyclists itching for something different. For the first time (for those who did not race cyclocross), there was a bicycle configuration that had the potential to build the afore-mentioned span across said chasm between road and dirt. Road cyclists could now get dirtier. Mountain bikers could wear more ridiculously tighter clothing and experiment with different colors of bar tape. Even commuters, who previously had been shoehorned into one type of bike or the other, could now drop-bar it to work and back, with wider tires and more compact geometry.

The cyclocross like-count dropped suddenly due to cycling-industry and Instagram-influencer overexposure. But not before it had brought into the mainstream many of the innovations we see on gravel bikes today: wide-tire compatibility, lower bottom brackets, disc brakes, wider handlebars, etcetera. When I say mainstream, I am talking about affordability and accessibility. Drop-bar bikes with wide tires were not usually seen as floor-model bikes. They were niche. They were expensive. Today, the gravel bike and its weird cousin the adventure bike are now produced by the larger manufacturers. They can be seen in many bike shops in sometimes surprisingly affordable builds.

Surly Travelers Gravelers Check
The Surly “Gravelers” Check on the Edison Canyon Catway in Santa Barbara, CA

There were other factors responsible for catalyzing the trend towards gravel bikes. For years companies like Surly had been offering wide-tire frames through the other gravel-adventure gateway drug: touring bikes. “Fatties Fit Fine,” Surly says. This was their way of telling the cycling community that it was okay to take your road bike off the asphalt once in a while. Touring cyclists have been doing it for years. It worked. Once the larger companies realized this, they jumped on it, producing the modern gravel bikes and adventure bikes we see on shop floors today. In my opinion, most of these bikes are pretty damn amazing.

And here we are. We can trace the gravel bike lineage all the way back through road bikes, cyclocross, BMX, klunkers, mountain bikes, touring bikes, and the need to test the limits and have many beers in the process. Influence in design trickles up. Now we are able to buy a single bike that would fit most of our needs. We can ride on the road, commute to work or school, and hit the trails (albeit light ones) and get dirty. All this with one type of bike. The best part, the large bicycle companies keep pouring money into research and development into making them better. Boutique companies and framebuilders, who have been in on this from almost the beginning, continue to produce a variety of traditional and innovative bikes.

Human beings (aside from those who play e-sports) will always want to be outside. It’s in our nature. I may go out on a limb to say that gravel bikes tick so many boxes, that they are here to stay. However, we are at the mercy of social media and marketing forces on this one. I can only hope that these bikes provide enough fuel for the likes to keep the momentum going.

Until then, please enjoy these images of a 2020 Specialized Diverge Carbon Comp X1. A great example of a gravel bike with awesome stuff all over it.

[Disclaimer: I work at a bike shop that sells Specialized. But no bias, I promise.]

NAHBS 2017: Get Ready

North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) from NAHBS on Vimeo.

Strap in an hold onto your butts, it’s about to get lug-tastic in Utah. The 13th edition of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show is going to be in Salt Lake City for 2017. For the past 12 years, this has been the bicycle equivalent of Fashion Week. A place where framebuilders from the United States and 10 countries from around the world showcase their hard work. As with the past show, we’re sure to see some amazing frame builds and artisnally-crafted lugs and brazing techniques. Carbon? Maybe. Titanium? For sure. Steel? Like you need to ask. One thing is for sure, there will be plus tires. Tickets are on sale now so get ’em while they’re hot.

Surly Straggler: A Cyclocross Experiment

Surly Straggler 1x11 Ultegra to XTR via Tanpan.

Surly Straggler 1×11 Ultegra to XTR via Tanpan.

I spoke to Captain Obvious and he told me (confidentially) that cyclocross is kind of a big deal. I was loath to believe him as I usually don’t trust people with ridiculous names. But a quick look at sites like the Radavist convinced me. It’s everywhere!

Cyclocross has been around since the early 20th century. It was a niche category with niche bike builds (usually totally custom) and a little-understood reason for why anyone would want to ride a drop-bar bicycle in the mud. As it turns out, human beings, especially cyclist humans, are filthy creatures. They love getting all dirty and holding it up as a badge of honor. Remember that guy who drove his 4×4 to get groceries with his truck all covered in mud from the last time it rained? The same theory applies to cyclocross. It’s just plain rad, is what it is. There’s nothing like getting all tricked out in some amazing, colorful kit, then getting it all muddy. Entropy is awesome. As humans and cyclists, we’re damn good at it.

So in response to getting older and wanting to be more awesome, I decided to build a cyclocross bike…only build one that would get me more points in the rad department. Though not a pure cyclocross frame, the Surly Straggler seemed to fit the bill for my needs. I love steel and Surly makes some pretty nice frames with disc tabs. I decided to do a frame-up compete build from scratch, including lacing my own wheels. So strap in and get ready, I about to attempt to blow your mind…

After acquiring a mint-colored 54cm Surly Straggler frame from my shop, I set to work building the wheels. Since I wanted to get a nice colorway going, I thought lacing red anodized White Industries XMR 6-bolt disc hubs to WTB Frequency Team CX hoops would look pretty neat-o. DT Swiss 2.0/1.8 Revolution spokes? Don’t mind if I do.

Disc brakes are always fun, but I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to hydraulic disc setups. I am still not comfy with the whole bleeding and olive and barb thing. Besides, cables are easy to maintain and can be fixed in the field. So I took a look at the new Paul Components Klampers and decided that the cool factor was too high for me to ignore. After much truing of the wheel and bolting on of the discs, I had a rolling frame.

Next was the drive train: I could have gone the traditional 2-by route and got myself a Ultegra or CX-specific setup. But I wanted to go deeper. I wanted the ability to climb, race, and haul heavy loads (like myself, for instance). I chose an Ultegra-to-XTR-via-Tanpan setup. Didn’t get all that? Well I wanted STI shifters, a single chainring, and the ability to run a 40-tooth cog. The only thing I could see that works well enough is the Wolftooth Components Tanpan cable pull adjuster. Now, with a Wolftooth 39-tooth narrow-wide chanring attached to my Ultegra crankset and connected to an 11-40 cassette lovingly cradled by an XTR 11-speed derailleur, I could get as rad as I want.

Combine all this with Salsa Cowbell 2 Handlebars,  Thompson stem and seat post, Chris King Headset, Brooks Cambium C15 saddle, Raceface Atlas pedals (until I get used to the ride), and S-Works Renegade 29 x 1.8 tires, I am now ready for some serious dirt assault. It’s entropy time!

Partial build list (costs MSRP or sale in US Dollars at the time of posting). Please order from and support your LBS (local bike shop) unless link provided below:

  • Surly Straggler 54 cm frame – approx. $500.
  • WTB XMR 6-bolt disc hubs – Front: $189, rear, $379.
  • WTB 32-hole Frequency i19 Team CX rims – $79.95 x 2.
  • Shimano Ultegra 6800 Crankset – $169.99 from Chain Reaction.
  • Shimano Ultegra 6800 2×11 shifters – $196.49 from Chain Reaction.
  • Shimano XT M8000 11-speed 11-40 tooth cassette – $59.95 from Chain Reaction.
  • Shimano ICE-Tech SM-RT86 6-bolt rotors (160 mm) – $32.00 x 2
  • Paul Components Klamper short pull disc brake calipers – $175.00 x 2
  • Wolftooth Components 39-tooth Chainring for 110 BCD 4-bolt Shimano cranks – $78.95. Get direct.
  • Wolftooth Components Tanpan inline pull adjuster – $39.95. Get direct.
  • Shimano XTR M9000 Shadow Plus Medium Cage rear derailleur – $149.99 from Chain Reaction.
  • Thomson Elite X4 70mm MTB stem (31.6 clamp) – $99.99
  • Thomson Elite 27.2 seat post – $99.95
  • Chris King Red Sotto Voce 1-1/8 Threadless Headset – $149.99
  • Brooks Cambium C15 saddle – $175.00
  • S-Works Renegade 29 x 1.8 tires – $59.95 x 2
  • Salsa Cowbell 2 handlebars – $50.00
  • Salsa Lip Lock seat post clamp (30.0 clamp) – $22.00
  • Raceface Atlas pedals – $150.00

Ride it!

Cyclocross Films: For the Love of Mud

I am going to try something new here. Usually I don’t feature work that is not my own, but I just saw the teaser for a new cyclocross video and I am so excited about it. It is called For the Love of Mud by Benedict Campbell.

I am excited about it for two reasons: First, because it is about cyclocross, a sport that I have been following for a while now. But because there are so few ways to explain it to people. I think this film, will do that. Second, the videography is amazing. The feel of the visuals and the music mixed in with the pain of the riders just gives me goosebumps.

When the full film drops, I will get back to you all here for a review.

I’m famous…

So I have been dabbling in video lately. The bank that I work for wanted to put together a series of social media videos about their new mobile app. There was no budget so I just raised my hand and did it. The only catch was, it would have to star yours truly. So check it out. It has very little to do with bicycles, but they’re in there somewhere.

Grass Racer Reincarnate

Mercier Kilo OS Double Top Tube Grass Racer

Mercier Kilo OS Double Top Tube Grass Racer

I have always wanted a nice townie to ride around the city. Santa Barbara is not super hilly and we have a lot of beach here. But I wouldn’t be caught dead on a beach cruiser nowadays as they can be a bit of a a bummer to ride anywhere.So a while ago I bought this double top tube bicycle frame online. It is a Mercier Kilo track frame but with a double top tube reminiscent of an old grass track racer. I think having a double top tube made the bike more rigid. In any case, the original paint job and component spec for the Kilo OS is not great, so I stripped the paint and clear powdercoated it. Instead of the crap wheels and components that come on most track bikes, I speced a build kit that would rival…nay, put all the other townie bike companies out there to shame. I envisioned something completely different while building it up from the frame. This isn’t quite Rivendell quality. But it turned out quite nicely.

First things to add were the Velocity A23 rims and Shimano Alfine 8 hub. I had the folks over at J&B build them for me through the bike shop. They are fantastic wheels. Combine those with Challenge Limus 33 Cyclocross tires and an IRD Defiant Track crankset and I was in business. The final touches came when I was working out the geometry of the frame. The 56cm frame fit me okay with the standover height, but the top tubes are almost horizontal so they are pretty long. Drops, although cool and traditional for a grass racer just wouldn’t do. I decided to make this a more upright and sophisticated ride. So on went some Ahearne MAP bars and a Paul Components Flatbed basket. I tightened everything up with a Chris King GripNut headset.

So to rival a Linus or a Public or a Civilian or the like, this is my attempt at making the perfect townie bike. Before you say anything, I know the tires are too knobby for the street. So I will take the demerit on that. But people are throwing kale and carrots directly into my basket at the Farmer’s Market. How badass is that? See the gallery below.

Colorful Frames of Mind

Awesome track frames at Cranky's bikes in Santa Barbara, CA.

Awesome track frames at Cranky’s bikes in Santa Barbara, CA

Even though I work in a bike shop, I still love other bike shops. Cranky’s Bikes is no exception. Jim always has some beautiful frames hanging over the counter. His shop is a very colorful place. All the folks that work there are awesome.

I have pretty much given up on fixies. My knees are getting a little too old to handle them. I still love  riding track bikes, tho. In fact, I wish Santa Barbara had a velodrome as I would be all over it ‘ERRYDAY. Cranky’s mainstays are track bikes, cyclocross, road, touring, cruisers and BMX. I hope if you ever get a chance to stop by, click through here and check out the directions to the shop.

May the (SRAM) Force Be with You

It’s the simple things in life that keep us happy. For me, it was when my good friend Tyler was adjusting the shifting on the SRAM Force rear derailleur after that long San Diego ride. Like I said. It’s the simple things.

2014 Jake the Snake: Quick Review

Like I was saying earlier about cyclocross: the bikes that some companies are coming out with are just fantastic. If you are looking to get into cyclocross, Kona might be a good place to start. There are four bikes in the Jake series for 2014: from entry level to high end they are the Jake, Jake the Snake (pictured), Major Jake and Super Jake. The reason why the Jake the Snake is a better choice than the jake is mainly the price. For MSRP of $1,699 US, you get some pretty nice features. The main one that impressed me is the tapered headset. You get an FSA 57B internal with sealed cartridge bearings. The tapering is important: even though the frame is made of the same Racelight 7005 Aluminum and is stiff to begin with, the tapered headset gives much more stability and response. That’s important when you are barreling down a decline surfaced with a mix of mud, gravel and dry grass. Also, the biggest bang for your buck comes from the Shimano Ultegra group and tubeless-ready wheels. It’s a great platform to learn on and you can upgrade it with nicer parts after you beat the crap out of the stock parts. If you want a good sub-$2,000 do-it-all bike, this may be the one. Yes, I know I am always saying that Surly is the way to go on account of the steel awesomeness they create. But Kona is a great company that makes race-worthy bikes and their employees do a lot of personal R and D on the frames. The Snake is definitely not Fred-worthy, so they deserve a test ride at your local Kona dealer with a subsequent purchase. You will not be disappointed. Plus it looks great in pictures!

Tyler

Tyler and a 2014 Kona Jake Cyclocross Bike.

Tyler and a 2014 Kona Jake Cyclocross Bike.
Shot in an alley off Ortega Street in Santa Barbara, CA

Some of you may not know about cyclocross. It’s a sport that has been around for quite a while but has really blown up lately. It started out as a steeplechase format where you would ride your bike from one point to another across fields and fences, rivulets and hills in relatively straight line. Nowadays, it is done on a preset track loop with a certain amount of dirt, mud, inclines, etc. What it boils down to is you ride a road bike with knobby tires through the mud and gravel, getting dirty and rad the whole way. There are sections where you must dismount and carry your bike up steps or inclines. The bikes needed to race cyclocross used to be just modified steel road frames that used cantilever brakes and knobby 700 x 35mm tires. Now, there are special models available from a number of manufacturers made specifically with cyclocross in mind. The Kona Jake line is a good example of where cyclocross is heading. Disc brakes are becoming more common and aluminum frames are reserved for the lower end price ranges.

But due to the less-than-aggressive geometry of these bikes, they make fantastic commuters. I myself have a Surly Crosscheck that I built up with a SRAM Force road gruppo and a Brooks saddle. Although it has a steel frame, it is light enough to get the job done and I don’t have to worry about being delicate with it. Cyclocross bikes are sturdy, comfortable and fast. The 700c wheel size means you have tons of options for tires and a larger cassette ratio means you can tackle the hills on your commute or on the course. Whether you call them CX, cyclocross or if you’re a Fred, a ‘cross bike, they are truly an awesome fit for lots of uses.