When it comes to the topic of which type of cycling is best, most of us can readily agree that as long as we’re outside and having fun, it shouldn’t matter. Where this agreement ends, however, is with the outliers—the people who defy the norm and do things with their bikes that most people wouldn’t do. Like a rogue cop who just can’t leave a case alone, I feel the need to drive everyone else away with my weird cycling ways. “You’re on the edge, man! You’re gonna burn yourself out and end up hurting those who love you the most!” …Is what my captain would say before he asks for my gun and badge.
Alas, I am not a cop. I don’t have a captain to listen to, and my life is not an action movie. Will I continue to alienate other riders with my flippant refusal to wear lycra (not a good look on me) and ride road bikes on any surface? Yes. Yes, I will.
I like to ride my bike where most people would ride a more appropriate bike. For example, the route I chose in the Santa Barbara front country is a typical one that many on a mountain bike would ride. Up Romero Canyon Trail and down Gibraltar Road. However, I wanted to see what that route would be like in reverse on a drop-bar bike. It did not disappoint. It was also not painless.
There is a very long ascent up Gibraltar Road to East Camino Cielo which includes some pretty tough sections for climbing. The bike I punished myself with on this ride is my All-City Super Professional. It is a steel, all-road bike with a single 38-tooth chainring that drives an 11-40-tooth cassette. It climbed slowly.
There are a few Cat 4 sections before the Gibraltar Road meets East Camino Cielo. ECC, as the cool kids call it, slowly ascends and rolls up and down. It is an enjoyable ride with vistas on both sides. It goes like that for a few miles until it reaches a dirt parking area. On one side is an OHV (off-highway vehicle) trail. On the other is the top of Old Romero Canyon “Road.” There is a cistern in front of which one can prepare for the bike and body punishment to ensue. Also, I deflated my tires a little. I have 700 x 42 Teravail Cannonball tires (tubeless) inflated to 50 psi for the road, 25 psi for the dirt.
The trail starts off with some flowy sections and hard-packed dirt with the occasional rock cobble just chilling in the middle of the path. Eventually, the course becomes more unpredictable with slippery areas of sandstone, loose rocks, and occasional loose dirt. It is only towards the split towards the singletrack that the ride becomes too much to stay in the saddle full time. There are areas where getting off the bike and walking are safer. Sometimes, giant boulders are blocking the path.
The best plan for a bike like mine is to avoid the singletrack and head towards the fire road. Once there, it is just a matter of avoiding the rocks and ruts. My bike handles speed in this terrain well. My body, however, does not. I begin to see why I had to turn in my badge and gun. I guess I might be getting too old for this.
Since I was on a road bike, I forded the creek on foot—the bridge was washed out in 2018 by the 1/9 Debris Flow—I then dodged some families on my way towards the trailhead.
The bonus descent down Romero Canyon Road towards the 192 was next after I re-inflated my tires. I carry a Lezyne Floor Drive for this. It comes in handy from time to time. After a bone-shaking experience, a quick road descent is always a great reward.
To sum up, no matter what, bikes can be ridden anywhere. Is it a good idea? Not really. But that is my jam. It is how I roll. The lesson is, you don’t have to wear lycra and put down watts to be a cyclist. It is simply a matter of being on two wheels, enjoying the fresh air.
I work with a bunch of people that ride mountain bikes and take every opportunity to do so. Because we live in Santa Barbara, we have the benefit of year-round riding conditions. Mountain bikers of all stripes are on the trails every day. This also means that there are hikers of all kinds out there as well. All too often, in my dealings with customers and co-workers, I hear about confrontations between hikers and mountain bikers that leave me stunned. There is certainly an us-versus-them dynamic happening on our beloved trails.
Mountain biking is a permanent part of the cycling world, enjoying a $6 billion market share of the US Economy. In 2016, that was 24 percent of total bicycle sales in the US that year. Mountain bike usage is on the rise. Now that e-MTBs (pedal-assist mountain bikes) are a thing, trails once thought too remote or too steep for traditional mountain bikes are suddenly accessible.
According to the pro-hiking set, mountain bikes and eMTBs are responsible for causing terror on the trails. Shock and awe. To them, there are legions of mountain-bikers flying down the trails at top speed, terrorizing innocent hikers and their families. Threatening their way of life. Curtailing their civil rights. Frightening them, the innocent locals, who are only out on the trail to find peace and enjoy nature. “Make the trails great again!” they scream (not really, just paraphrasing).
However, if you were to hear some of the conversations that mountain bikers have about hikers, you would think that they, too, are being denied the freedom to ride where they want. According to the pro-biking set, the trails are full of elite, crabby traditionalists that have nothing better to do than to complain about the frivolities of cycling with hatred and vitriol. They stand in the mountain biker’s paths and brandish their walking sticks. “Rid the trails of the walking dead!” the bikers exclaim (also not really, but you get the idea).
Conflicts and the development of trail management to accommodate bikers are well documented. When viewed through an anecdotal lens, it sounds like a fucking war zone up there.
There is also the question of conservation. A nature conservationist who is against mountain biking may cite the 1977 ban of bicycles by the US Forest Service in response to the growing number of people riding bikes on trails in federal wilderness areas as a good reason for bikers to stay off the trails. This was an addition and a re-interpretation of the Federal Wilderness Act passed in 1964, the core thesis of which was to leave the wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Fortunately for mountain bikers, this does not cover our local front country trails. To be sure, a lot of our trails are in the Los Padres National Forest, which does contain ten federal wilderness areas. However, our front country is not designated as such, and the federal wilderness laws do not apply. At the time of this writing, mountain biking is permitted on all trails in the Santa Barbara front country.
Even armed with that information, trying to reason with an upset hiker is near impossible. Some people take the perceived ruination of their personal serenity and communion with nature with an almost religious fervor. This type of emotional response to others having fun is, of course, not the fault of every mountain biker. But this potential of conflict is enough to make some bikers believe that every hiker is a pretentious douchebag who thinks he owns the whole trail just because he lives close by.
I am reminded of an interaction with a customer who came in looking to learn more about pedal-assist bikes. I showed him the road-specific models first since they were closest. However, this gentleman was more interested in e-MTBs because he was used to riding and commuting on a mountain bike. While I went over the features of the bikes, their motors, batteries, speed and such, I began talking about their performance on the trails. It was then that the conversation turned weirdly conflicting. The following is a reenactment of how the conversation went:
<highclassaccents> Customer: “So, my good man, how fast do these contraptions go? What’s the top speed?”
Me: “Good sir, I am glad you asked. The top speed is 20 mph. It is at that point the motor ceases to assist. However, the rider can still coast downhill faster than that without any hindrance from the motor.”
Customer: “Twenty! My word, that is certainly too fast for a mountain bike.”
Me: “Do remember, sir, that is the top speed the motor will go if pressed to do so—”
Customer: “Blazes! Why, would anyone want to go tearing around that fast through creation? Why it boggles the mind!”
Me: “For one to take full advantage of the power assist, the motor must have that much power for getting up hills and such. Most people will probably not by flying up hills at 20 mph—”
Customer: “Exactly my point! These beasts have the potential to be extremely perilous to hikers. Imagine being struck by one whilst out enjoying all that God gave us? Their use must be prohibited from the trails at once!”
Me: “That would certainly be terrible. However, good sir, there are currently no restrictions on the use of pedal-assist bikes on the trails. E-mountain bikes are certainly here to stay.”
Customer: “Please do not take this as an attack upon your station, for you are a mere bicycle salesman. But there goes the decline of civilization, good sir, right into the sewer! Good day!”
Customer: “I say good day to you!” </highclassaccents>
I came away from that conversation wondering if I was going to have nightmares. I sell mountain bikes for a living. I am in that sphere. I personally have never had a conflict with a hiker on the trails as I usually ride slowly, with a bell as a responsible rider is wont to do. The objects of my outings are not to see how fast I can go, it’s to be outside, stay fit and enjoy myself. But that is only my experience. Others to be sure, like some of the mountain bikers that I work with, prefer to go fast. That is their leisure. It just so happens that the only place they can recreate is on the same trails that everyone else uses. The result being, hikers and mountain bikers are going to end up in the same place at the same time, like it or not.
In a perfect world, mountain bikers should always yield to hikers. There is a responsibility that comes with wheels and speed when there are pedestrians about. However, when a bike is descending, it is much easier for the hiker to yield. It takes a lot of energy for a person and their bike to decelerate quickly enough to avoid a collision. Even when a biker is struggling up an incline, a hiker could, if they felt like being a decent human being, take a second to step aside to let the biker pass. If a biker is not able to stop or is being reckless and shredding too close for comfort, shouting at them, or even worse, intentionally blocking their path to make a point, is just irresponsible. That’s how crashes happen. That’s how fights start. What does that accomplish? Did you wake up one morning with the mantle of trail king thrust upon you?
Negative. That just makes you an asshole.
The same goes for the bikers. Use a trail bell. Control your speed. The trails are not exclusively yours and we do live in a community with thousands of other people. Going fast is fun but realize that you may not be alone. Just because there is no one to enforce any speed limits doesn’t mean you can use the trail to your abandon. If you choose not to care about the well-being of others around you, that makes you an equally devil-may-care idiot. Also, you and your bike are likely to be broken if a collision with a hiker is imminent.
Our trails and access roads are certainly something to take advantage of. We should never take them for granted. However, this enjoyment of our natural resources comes at a price. With more people out in nature, we must all keep in mind that we live in a society. No one person or group can claim the exclusive enjoyment of our trails. All of us need to go out into nature with the expectation that we will cross paths with another person eventually. Etiquette must be learned and practiced. Bikers, remember that hikers are not out there to yell at you and get in your way. Hikers, keep in mind that mountain bikers are not out there to deliberately ruin your audience with nature. Getting angry will only lessen your harmony and bum you out.
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.
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.
realize that my stream of consciousness seems to be going nowhere. But I
promise, there is a point. That point is 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.
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.
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.
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.]
I have often asked myself life’s deepest, most meaningful questions in the search for more knowledge: How far can I ride a touring bike on a singletrack trail? Will road plus tires even work on singletrack? When do I get to use the stuff I learned in Algebra 2? Who invented liquid soap, and why? I grew ever more pensive. As I carried my bike over some of the more difficult parts of Romero Canyon Trail, I tried to keep my mind off of my bad decisions…and the flies from the inside of my nose.
The Kona Sutra pictured above is certainly a capable bike. It is even able, with some difficulty, to make it on a trail, provided there aren’t that many loose rocks and dirt. Having converted the bike to 650b last year, the bottom bracket is nice and low, offering the stability of a gravel bike, with the load-carrying capacity of a touring bike. However, the bike, as pictured, is about 35 pounds (15.8 kg)…it’s really heavy. Too heavy to have a good time going up the trail. There were several washouts and debris flows over which I had to shoulder this beast. Once at the top, though, it looked great. So why do it? Research.
Research, Dear Reader, sounds like an excuse. But it is actually a reason. Not a great reason, but there it is.
Being without a purpose-built mountain bike, I thought it might be a good idea to test out the Sutra on a surface other than asphalt or gravel. The handling and the tire choice were my main focus here. Touring and adventure bikes are usually seen as the best option for an all-in-one bike. However, like a fancy SUV, just because it looks capable, doesn’t mean that it is. I have done quite a bit of touring in my life, and I can tell you that the Kona Sutra is perfect for that. Asphalt and gravel…no problem. Beyond that, I wanted to know what the limitations were for this particular build. Thus, like a Patagonia-Lululemon-wearing-Montecito mom about to drive her G-wagon in the dirt, so did I set out to get some scratches on my exterior.
The wheels of my Sutra are shod with WTB Byway 650b road plus tires. I often get some questions about the capability of these tires from other gravel or adventure cyclists. Some of them want a tire with a little more bite than the WTB Horizons, but not as knobby as the Sendero. I usually recommend running the Teravail Cannonball if they want a little more tread. These seem to be a good go-between. But since I get the Byway question most often, I decided to take my life in my hands and push them to their limits. I had them on there anyway, so there’s that.
What I found after riding the Romero Canyon fire road and singletrack, is that that the WTB Byway is barely capable of handling loose, rocky trail conditions. Loose dirt about half an inch deep was also a problem. There just isn’t enough bite, especially going uphill. Even with decent bike-handling skills, and tire pressure at 20 psi, the tires slid out from under me way too often. Turns out, there is a reason why knobby tires exist: to make trail riding way less scary.
The Kona Sutra itself, despite the tires and the overall weight, handled well. There were some slight mishaps involving the too-low-for-this-use bottom bracket and the toeverlap. These problems became more manageable once I slowed down a little and found the right lines. Once on level ground, or even going downhill, the bike seemed to roll over almost everything. There were sections that were rutted and filled with cobble-sized rocks that seemed to pose little problems. Did I get some air on the way down? Why yes…yes I did.
I’m sure that without the Swift Zeitgeist saddlebag and the brass Honjo fenders to weigh me down, I would have had a lot easier time getting to the top of the trail. Again, I was trying to see if I could make it to the top, not how fast or how easily. Imagine those guys who go out with their 4×4 Jeeps, attempting to traverse huge gaps and rocks, just to see if they can. They stop often, look at where they are stuck, etc. That’s what this was like, except I didn’t have a spotter with me. I just went for it and made it from the trailhead all the way to East Camino Cielo. Slowly. It took me about four hours (with rest stops and photos). There were a lot of other bikers who passed me on the way up and asked me how it was going when they were on the way back down.
I would have been happier on a bike with suspension and a dropper post. But I don’t have one of those. I’m not that type of guy. This fact became obvious as my back and knees began to hurt from all the rigid-bike-on-a-trail-Spanish-Inquisition torture. It was even more apparent when one group of bikers passed me by, and one of them said to the rest of his buddies, “those are the tires that are leaving those smooth-ass tracks! Crazy!”
My nonconformist cycling style leaves little room for caring. Here is a summary of my research. Drink it in:
Road plus tires like the WTB Byway are not recommended for riding singletrack, loose-rock, and loose dirt trails…on purpose. They can be forced to work if you find yourself there by accident. I highly recommend the WTB Sendero, or Teravail Rutland tires, set up tubeless, inflated to around 20 psi for this kind of trail work.
The Kona Sutra is a seriously rugged bike. Geometry and handling on trails are exceptional. Just go slower than you would on a mountain bike and you will do fine.
Having the right gear ratio is tantamount. The base model Sutra comes with a touring-traditional triple chainring, that would work well. The LTD model comes with a single chainring…having at least a 42-tooth cog in the rear is a must. Anything less would be difficult.
Honjo fenders from Simworks are well-built and can handle this type of riding without rattling. This is only if they are properly installed with more robust M4 bolts and nylon locknuts. The OEM fasteners are not strong enough. Drill bigger holes.
With the lower bottom bracket, using platform pedals, for me, was a must. I had to get off the bike too often to make clipless pedals work.
To sum up: for all the Kona Sutra owners out there, you have an awesome bike. Push it to its limits. Just be sure to use the right tires for the terrain and be safe.
[For more images, please see the gallery at the end of the article]
The legend of the Kona Sutra is that it is a great platform upon which can be built many different types of bicycles: touring, gravel, adventure, or even a rigid mountain bike. It has been my favorite for quite some time. It offers plenty of tire clearance (Max. 29 x 2.25 / 650b x 2.6), compact geometry that allows for more maneuverability, and excellent Chromoly steel construction. For those looking to build a bike that meets their exact needs or satisfy a few at once, this is a great option.
Due to the warm reception of my Kona Sutra Dream Build that I completed last year, I had a request to customize another one. Of course, I jumped at the chance: who wouldn’t want to give back to the community an opportunity to ride an amazing bike? It has been almost two years since I built my Sutra, and I have gained quite a bit more bike-building experience during that time. I was eager to put this new knowledge to the test on this new bike.
I was asked to do a similar build to mine, except different. Effy wasn’t very specific about the nature of the build, only that she wanted the same Simworks accessories: Honjo Fenders, Rhonda stem, and Beatnik seat post. Getting the bike to look good was not a problem. That left me to change up the drive train and the wheels.
I started, as I am wont to do, with a custom wheel build. I used what I believe are some of the best hubs for this type of bike: the venerable DT Swiss 350. These hubs are remarkable. They are sturdy, easy to service, and the star ratchet is upgradeable for better engagement on the dirt. I laced them to 32-hole WTB i29 ASYM rims. They are a reasonable price and quite reliable. Effy is not super tall, so she agreed to lower the whole bike by using 650b wheels instead of 700c. This has the advantage of bringing the bottom bracket down for a little bit more stability. She also liked the gum wall look of the WTB Byway 650b x 47 tires.
The drivetrain, like mine, would be a 38-tooth single-front chainring with an 11-speed, 11- to 42-tooth rear cassette. Having had this ratio on my own Sutra for a while now, I have found that it is perfect for city commuting and light adventure and gravel riding. There is plenty of bottom end for climbing. Since no one will be racing these bikes in stages, the top end is just high enough for those early morning Cat-6 commuter showdowns. The major difference between Effy’s and my drivetrain would be hers is mostly SRAM.
When I was first working on my build, the SRAM Apex was not available, and SRAM Force 1 was way too expensive. In order to have STI shifters and an XT derailleur, I had to add a pull adjuster in order to make the system work. Not so for Effy’s bike. The Apex was a nice, cost-effective solution that achieves the same result. No pull adjusters needed! I did, however, stay with the Shimano XT crankset and Wolftooth chainring as I like the look better than the Apex cranks.
Like my Sutra, I chose the Simworks by Honjo Turtle 58 fenders in black. These fenders do not come pre-drilled, allowing for an exact fit on whatever bike they are installed. With all the other black parts on this build, I thought it would be a nicer look than the brass ones I used on my own bike. After these were drilled and fitted, I wrapped the bars in Brooks leather bar tape to match the B17 saddle that came with the bike.
Effy was pleased with the final product. The fit was right and the bike looks great. The possibilities that this bike offers are, for Effy, unlimited. Sure, she is not going to blaze down singletrack trails. But if she finds herself on gravel, fire roads, or tarmac, she will be able to ride comfortably. Hopefully she will get a lot of good years out of it. Please check out the gallery below for more shots of this awesome build.