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.]

Kona Sutra Redux: A New Build

Effy and her Kona Sutra
Effy and her Kona Sutra

[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.

DT Swiss 350 hub as seen through the valve hole.
DT Swiss 350 hub as seen through the valve hole.

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.

Effy Sutra derailleur detail
SRAM Apex derailleur detail

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.

Effy's Sutra in its resting place.
Effy’s Sutra in its resting place.

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 riding her new Kona Sutra
Effy riding her new Kona Sutra

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.

Kona Sutra 650b : a Dank Build

2017 Kona Sutra 650b Conversion

2017 Kona Sutra 650b Conversion

This bike is now featured on Kona Cog Dream Builds!

Image gallery below at end of article.

There’s absolutely no reason to convert a perfectly good touring and adventure bike like the Kona Sutra to something other than what it is. No bicycle is perfect. People have different needs and wants. This bike happened to be a great commuter and touring bike. But I wanted something more. It is a great platform for upgrading. There wasn’t anything preventing me from doing it other than the expense. So over the course of a year, I waited: watching and comparing prices, gathering, mooching, convincing my SO of the need, nay, the destiny of my dear Kona. It must be rebuilt! I ended up with the dankest of dream builds.

I have had this particular Sutra since it debuted in early 2017. I was drawn to the metallic flake paint job and easy-going geometry. When commuting to work, I found it to be extremely comfortable. Out on the trail, it handled very well, making it not only an excellent commuter but a hardy adventure bike. With all the new categories of road/gravel/adventure bikes out there, the Sutra is like a do-it-most bike that seems perfect, albeit just a little too heavy. But that is Kona for you. Their frames are built very well. Steel, though. I will deal with the extra weight if I can have the durability!

Always on a quest to build my a better bike, stock off-the-shelf rides usually don’t last too long in my household. Even though this bike performs really, really well, I wanted to do a few things to it that required some major surgery. I agree that the bike is good the way it is, however, there is always room for improvement.

The Sutra standard (not the LTD) comes with a Shimano Deore mountain triple crankset. My relationships with the many front derailleurs in my life have been awful. Always adjusting, rejecting the new technology like SRAM Yaw and that tooth-pulling new Ultegra FD-8000 derailleur that Shimano dropped on us last year. I decided that the best place to start my Sutra upgrade was to convert the drivetrain to a 1x, and kill the FD with fire (seriously, I think i tossed in into a friends BBQ). I already had a Shimano XT M8000 crankset handy, but I wanted more teeth. I purchased a Wolftooth Components DropStop 38T chainring. Believe it or not, this part of the conversion was the easiest part.

Sutra9153

Shimano XT M8000 crankset with Wolftooth 38T DropStop chainring.

The harder part was getting the rear derailleur and cassette sussed out. I really like the way the Shimano XTR Shadow Plus rear derailleur felt. For me, Shimano has always has had the smoother-shifting feel. Believe me, I realize that something like SRAM Force 1 would have been easier. But to build the dankest, one must be a bit of a nonconformist. Problem was, in order to use the XTR with the Ultegra shifters and the 11-42 cassette, I needed some Batman-style gadgets.

Wolftooth Components, being as clever as they are, had two nifty devices that I could use. The Tanpan pull-adjuster for the Ultegra-to-XTR cable path, and the Goatlink 11 which would allow the normally 11-40 XTR compatible with 11-42. Though it sounds like overkill, it actually works really well. The shifting is smooth and accurate. When routing the inner cable through the Tanpan, it must be really tightly pulled through the pulleys and the cable bolt. Otherwise, the barrel adjusters will have too much slack to tighten the action.

2017 Kona Sutra 650b XTR Goatlink Tanpan detail 2

2017 Kona Sutra 650b XTR, Goatlink, and Tanpan detail

I also wanted wider tires and stiffer wheels. So, again, doing something completely unnecessary, I decided to build some 650b wheels. Both are 32 spokes, cross three, laced to WTB Asym i29 rims. I also put a DT Swiss 350 rear hub in the back wheel.

The handling is pretty nice. Even with the WTB Byway 650×47 tires, the effective diameter is still just short of what they were with the 700s. I need to get smaller cranks. Other than that, the bike handles like a dream. The stiffer wheel gives a great response on the road and the dirt. The wider tire certainly allows for better cornering and comfort as well.

Because I am always upgrading, eventually I want to get some Paul Components Klamper brakes and a new headset (suggestions welcome). I already have some Simworks Honjo brass Turtle 58 fenders that I need to tweak to fit as well. But that is for later. I hope you enjoyed checking out my dank bike. Build list, image gallery and comments below.

Build list (other than standard equipment):

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.

Light Action: A Lesson in Patience

Shimano Light Action Bar End Shifter

Shimano Light Action Bar End Shifter on Paul Components Thumbie

If you’ve read any of my posts you would probably infer that I hold bicycles pretty high in the hierarchy of super important things that humans have invented. Indeed, the bicycle as we know it evolved from a long history of rich people’s toys and false starts. I find it rather unfortunate that the modern bicycle finally began to be taken seriously about the same time cars and airplanes were invented. Indeed, if horses didn’t poop so much and weren’t so damn skittish, maybe we wouldn’t have bothered with the automobile. Imagine a world where people went places by bicycles and horses. Nope. Too easy. Humans would rather go to great expense to suck oil out of the ground to make a vehicle so energy inefficient that the only plus side is that it makes it easier for teenagers to make out in private.

So what does this have to do with the picture above? It’s to illustrate my point at how awesome bikes are. There’s beauty in simplicity and patience. How such dysfunctional race of beings that infest a planet they don’t care about can make such a simple machine that, despite its drawbacks (it’s not as fast as a car) can get us where we need to go just blows my mind. Seriously: we can ride a bike anywhere given enough time. Not only that, bicycles have a low cost of entry (pretty much anyone can afford one), they are cheaper to fuel (burritos give the best milage per unit), and they can be stunning examples of simplistic beauty. No matter what kind of bike you ride, they are all beautiful not only because some can be aesthetically so. But even the cheapest POS from REI still does the same thing as a Rivendell or S-Works Tarmac Disc…it has two wheels and moves you forward. You need at least one leg and a lot of patience to operate one.

<nonconformist_view>
         Patience, Dear Reader, is something that cars have destroyed — a hundred years ago. They have literally sucked it out of the earth as if they drank our milkshake.
</nonconformist_view>

I’m not saying that we should all hate the automobile. I just think that, deep down inside, they are ugly and dirty.

End of line.

George Gets Surly and Rides Again

George and his Surly Disc Trucker

George and his Surly Disc Trucker

A little while back we met George and his old Trek. It was his only form of transportation and he really loved that old bike. Then, a few weeks back, a drunk driver crashed into his bike while it was locked up on the sidewalk. That’s what happens when you combine enabling, alcohol and really large, metal vehicles that weigh more than 150 pounds. But that’s another story and one of my main problems with cars in general.

As you may have guessed, the bike was totaled. I mean, now the frame is hanging on his wall like a broken guitar. Sort of a weird but beautiful piece of art that reminds him of a different time.

In order to move past his old Trek, George came in an bought himself a Surly Disc Trucker. Talk about an upgrade. In my opinion, the geometry and versatility of tire sizes and rack mounts make this the perfect bike to fill the slot as George’s one and only mode of transportation. He rounded out the purchase with a nice Brooks B-17 Imperial saddle and a bitchin Kryptonite lock. And now that Surly is equipping the LHTs with a Shimano XT drivetrain, his new bike will be super reliable and able to tackle more varieties of roads and hills.

It’s almost as if the drunk driver enabled George to go further on his bike than before. Bicycles, my dear reader, are huge enablers. Enablers of awesome. See gallery below of George’s new bike:

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.

San Diego: Rubber Legs and Whiskey

Me at rest. San Diego, CA.

Me at rest. San Diego, CA.

I love bicycles. I love beer. I don’t drink beer often enough. During a recent trip to San Diego, staying classy was the last thing on my mind. We were called down there on semi-official business. It seems that F. was needed to translate at a Japanese/American wedding. My friends Chris and Hitomi are definitely made for each other and I wish them all the best. However while they were getting hitched, I was hanging with my friend Lane in Scripps Ranch just outside the city proper. From there, we rode bikes and drank beer and generally misbehaved as much as we could. He has two young boys (3 and 6) so we were limited but not dissuaded from having fun. Indeed, the hijinks ensued as demonstrated by the first picture Lane tried to take of me:

Photobombed. San Diego, CA.

Photobombed by a young metal fan. San Diego, CA.

That’s me, trying to do my best to look cool and hipster drinking an Orion Beer whilst wearing an Orion Beer shirt. In any case, it turns out that photobombs are awesome if done right. Notice the bullhorns this kid is rocking. This picture was taken the day after my ride with Lane and John. Let me explain that situation:

Lane likes to volunteer for the San Diego Center for the Blind‘s Blind Stokers Club. It’s a club within the nonprofit that gets blind people out on the back of a tandem and into the open air, to exercise and have fun. Riding a bike is not something that blind people normally do by themselves, so they have sighted riders like Lane to captain the tandems for them so they can concentrate on riding. It’s actually pretty awesome. John, our stoker, is a great guy. Right after I was introduced to him, I got the impression that he was the kind of person who was super excited to be there. To be honest, this was the first time I had ever seen blind stokering in action so I was very intrigued. Well, my intrigue soon led to my riding a lot faster than I normally do as a bike with four legs that are more in shape than mine is way faster than I thought. Let me put it this way: I saw the back of the tandem a lot.

After riding from Scripps Ranch through Del Mar and into South Carlsbad, we doubled back and took on Torrey Pines Hill. That hill must be some kind of sick joke as I found myself barely able to pedal by the time I got to the top. But I made it (swoon, ladies) and we soon headed to the Torrey Pines Glider Port for some sandwiches and awesome views. It was a great ride and I will never forget it. Well, I am not going to forget how totally out of shape I am and that I need to do some hill repeats to get my confidence back up.

We soon drowned the pain out of my legs that night with a visit to Ballast Point for some spirit tasting. For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you may recall how I drunkenly proclaimed that wine tasting is for pussies and spirit tasting is where it’s at. This is still true. I do not refute that one little bit. After more shenanigans after picking F. up after the wedding, we continued to eat well and reminisce and generally have an awesome time. We capped it all of with a visit to our friend Jerry in Pacific Beach. We ate some empanadas and talked photography and kendo (it’s what we all have in common). San Diego rules. I hope to get back there soon. It’s an amazing place to ride and it’s filled with amazing people. Too bad it’s named after a whale’s vagina.

Hugh (and Wednesday Bike Pron Vol. 8)

Trying out a bicycle photo gallery! This is Hugh. He rolled into Santa Barbara a little while ago and I just about fell over when I saw his bike. Rivendell Bicycle Works. Well what can I say? For me, and many others, it is the ultimate in handmade bicycle nirvana. Based, headquartered and just being plain awesome in Walnut Creek, CA, Rivendell sells just about everything you would need for cycling before you die. These frames are hand built. An entire bicycle can be had with all sorts of awesome stuff like Paul Components levers and brakes, Soma tires, they even do quite a bit of 650B randonneur-style stuff. If you have the scratch, the cabbage in your pocket, the green to invest, I say do it. Look at this! It’s a daily rider and he’s hauling water and things!