Gravel curious

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  • Gravel curious
  • Premier Icon orangespyderman
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    I’ve become gravel curious. As winter draws in some of my favourite singletrack bits in my local forest get a bit, well, boggy, but there are plenty of wider paths that remain in fine condition, drain well but are just a bit boring on my full suss.

    So I’m gravel curious. I know that it’s a bit of a fashion, but what does STW think? I’ve never owned a road bike but there are clearly some places where I could ride on the road to get to some decent-ish woods. I assume they work OK on the road, just not as well as a proper road bike. The roads round me are riddled with potholes too.

    Any feedback? Things I’m missing?

    Premier Icon weeksy
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    ‘sketchy’ doesn’t necessarily mean more exciting… it can just mean it’s more rubbish.

    kerley
    Member

    They are great for wider well drained paths (pretty much what they are made for) They are even better in summer when the path are drier and faster but still good in winter on wet gravel.

    However, if you find gravel roads boring on MTB then they will probably still be boring on a gravel bike. Just as many people find road riding boring.

    The key thing will be whether you get on with drop bars as you have never owned a road bike.

    Premier Icon roverpig
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    Me too, so I shall watch this thread with interest. I’m currently having a bit of a shed clear-out while I try to decide whether to dip my toe in this pond. I do have a road bike (complete with 23mm slick tyres) and have been taking it down a few tracks to see whether it’s something I might enjoy.

    I’d agree with @weeksy that sketchy isn’t necessarily more fun. I don’t enjoy crashing and anything that makes that more likely reduces the fun for me. Even the tame tracks that I’ve ridden my road bike on would probably be more fun on my full-suss MTB than on a gravel bike. But I am surprised at what even a full on road bike can handle with a bit of care and it is so much better on the road.

    So that’s where I am currently with the whole gravel thing. My opinion may well change as I learn more but currently I’d take my MTB for any ride that was 90% off-road, no matter how tame the trails were. It’s just more fun.

    For a ride that’s 90% road I’d take the road bike as (even with 23mm tyres) it can cope with more off-road than I expected.

    Where gravel might work is that middle ground (50:50 road/off-road up to around 70:30 either way). But I’m still undecided on that.

    What I have decided (and I realise this is still controversial) is that I’d want a dropper. Trying to ride my road bike down a track it wasn’t so much the silly tyres that bothered my (I just had to go slow enough not to break them) it was the combination of a low front end, steep head angle and that saddle pushing my back end up in the air. If I could just get my back end down I’m sure the whole thing would feel a lot more secure.

    Premier Icon weeksy
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    Rover,
    Sounds like you want something like my current HT then. Setup as a normal HT but with CX tyres. I get the light weight of a HT, but with the riding position on the downhills of a HT not a road bike, along with being handy enough on the road.

    Premier Icon thisisnotaspoon
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    I dunno if I’d describe it as sketchy or not. It’s not as capable as a mountainbike, but it’s not a mountainbike. It’s a different set of geometry numbers and constraints that arrive at a different optimum for different trails.

    e.g. on a mountainbike the BB is low and the bars are high, on a cross bike the BB is higher and the drops much lower. What that means in practice is a mountainbike leans a lot farther to move your COG in a corner. So on tight singletrack a cross bike stays more upright, important if you need to make a lot of sharp turns. Or when descending, a modern mountainbike deals with not throwing you OTB by having a short stem, slack angles and long reach to get the front wheel as far in front as possible. A cross bike just moves your COG lower on the drops so you have less leverage pushing you over the front wheel in the first place.

    I can even do a lap of Swinley’s Red on it, what you gain on the fire road you lose on the rough bits. And the big bermed corners are test of faith because the geometry is less ‘self correcting’ than an MTB, if the front wheel lets go while your in the drops you’re going down hard, there wont be a stylish counter-steering drift!

    I’ve got two now (one SS with dry/mix/gravel tyres and one with mud tyres). They’re just brilliant for the basic Chilterns bridleway riding I have on my doorstep.

    Premier Icon Bez
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    I know that it’s a bit of a fashion, but what does STW think? I’ve never owned a road bike but there are clearly some places where I could ride on the road to get to some decent-ish woods.

    As kerley says, the key thing is whether you get on with drops. There was a thread a while back (one of the daily “what the hell is this gravel bike stuff about anyway?” threads) where a number of us noted that we didn’t use them so much for using roads to connect nice bits of off-road, as for using bits of off-road to connect nice roads, ie to bypass highly-trafficked roads.

    So if your main focus is having fun on surfaced trails, and you just want something that is tolerable on the road, and you’ve only used flat bars, then you’ll probably be fine with just a change of tyres on an MTB, or even a 700x40ish wheelset that you can swap onto it.

    Personally I can’t abide riding on roads with an upright position and flat bars (it used to be fine in 1992 with rigid forks, zero-rise 150mm stems, 54cm bars and long L-bends), but plenty of people don’t mind it. And yes, gravel bikes are just as good as road bikes on the road unless you’re Strava Jesus with shaved legs and all the ANT+ gadgets.

    But at the end of the day bikes are just two wheels, two pedals, a seat and some handlebars. You can build them however you like. If you ask me, in terms of how the bike copes with terrain the biggest factor is the tyres, and in terms of how the rider copes with different styles of riding the biggest factor is the handlebars. YMMV.

    Premier Icon linusr
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    A gravel bike (or CX bike in my case) is a lot quicker on the road and climbs a lot faster off-road providing the terrain is not too rough. I’d definitely go for a bike that you can get big tyres – like 40mm or more. I can only get 35mm on my Cannondale CAADX which is ok and fast for a lot of terrain. I would prefer a gravel bike (lower bb) to my CX. I also use my CX bike fitted with full mudguards and slick tyres for winter road riding, so it’s quite versatile. I have a road bike with 23/25mm tyres that I do a bit of gravel riding in the summer, taking short cuts to avoid busy roads. With 35 to 45 mm tyres you can switch from road to gravel, to a bit of hardpack, and back to road again if the terrain is not too challenging. But for anything remotely challenging — and mostly off-road — I stick to my hardtail MTB. I have very poor bike handling skills.

    scotroutes
    Member

     I know that it’s a bit of a fashion,

    Fashionable since way before mountain bikes became a thing. Don’t let a new marketing term fool you.

    scruff
    Member

    For just getting out on a bike whilst avoiding as many roads and possible and not riding nasty muddy singletrack they are great. Great for exploring places you wouldn’t normally ride to on an MTB or road bike (through country estates and wotnot).

    Premier Icon roverpig
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    Sounds like you want something like my current HT then.

    To be honest, I have no idea what I want at the moment 🙂 I have toyed with the “fast” hardtail option a few times. It would certainly be more capable off-road than a gravel bike and faster on road than my MTB. On the other hand I suspect I’d enjoy it less off-road than my MTB and less on-road than my road bike and it could just end up being disappointing everywhere (for me).

    It’s all a compromise at the end of the day, but I think what I need to do is get a better idea of what I’d use this bike for (hence the “experiments” on the road bike). If it’s mainly going to be hours on the road with a few tame off-road sections then gravel may be the way to go. A gravel/adventure/road-plus setup may actually be better on country lanes than my road bike anyway while also being a lot better on rougher tracks. If, on the other hand, what I’m really after is basically an XC bike for tamer off-road trails with a bit of road to link them up then HT may indeed be the answer.

    Premier Icon weeksy
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    It’s all a compromise at the end of the day

    100% this… as soon as you stat crossing disciplines you’ll always have to compromise. For me, that compromise is weight/speed. But i get the comfort/riding position and the stability. I’m not even using my MTB for trail stuff (well, this one in the discussion anyway) but i still corner better on muddy/slippy/damp roads on the MTB than i would on a pair of skinny slicks. But of course there’s times when i’m compromised for speed.

    joemmo
    Member

    They’re basically a road-style bike with bigger tyre clearance and depending on the sub-niche, some accomodation for luggage or slightly more off-road geometry. Nothing magic.
    For me, my GB makes the commute more enjoyable because I can cut out most of the tarmac and it’s ok for getting out on the local bridleways for a quickie. It is in no way a substitute for a MTB as anything lumpy and/or steep becomes a visit to Sketchville pretty quickly. And that is a real place.

    Ultimately it’s the tyres and to a lesser extent, the gearing that will dictate how off-roadable the bike is

    Premier Icon hardtailonly
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    Ultimately it’s the tyres and to a lesser extent, the gearing that will dictate how off-roadable the bike is

    Agree. But will also add in suspension and geometry.

    Nevertheless, I have a huge amount of fun on my gravel bike. ‘easier’ gravel/bridelpaths/fireroads become a flat out blast instead of a boring slog (on an MTB), smooth-ish/dry-ish Singletrack can be taken pretty competently actually. It’s just rocky/steep/tech stuff that is just quite painful to ride on a gravel bike.

    I guess for me it’s mixing it up. A gravel bike does most of my local trails (with varying degrees of competence) whilst travelling pretty efficiently over longer distances and without the road sections being a chore. I can get out further on the gravel bike than a MTB, so a 2-3 hour loop means a 45-70km ride as opposed to 30-45km, so means I can get to further-away trails.

    Premier Icon Bez
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    For me it’s this:

    Riding with drops is great if I’m knocking out time/distance, but sucks for keeping speed through rough stuff; riding with flats is great for working the bike through the rough bits but is misery for the long haul.

    So if I’m on drops I make sure I don’t tackle too much technical stuff, because it’ll be frustrating; and if I’m on flats I make sure I don’t stray too long from rough stuff, because it’ll be tedious.

    Once I’ve picked drops or flats (and 99% of the time these days it’s drops) it’s just a case of putting the most suitable tyres on.

    To be fair I don’t use suspension at all so it’s not like I miss that on a drop-barred bike.

    kerley
    Member

    Agree. Im my experience with a lot of different bikes and configurations all ridden on gravel the tyres and bars are the things that matter. That choice also dictates the riding I do.
    When running flat bars I also favour more technical and slower stuff whereas when I put on drops I tend to favour less technical and faster stuff and tend to keep my head down. That actually became a negative for me as riding easier terrain with head down was less fun so now I use solely flat bars as they are more fun for me.
    As for tyres I run a much narrower tyre than most at 29c although I did try up to 43c on bikes that would take them but they felt too much like a mountain bike.

    Premier Icon rOcKeTdOg
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    GCN boys have finally caught up

    Monstercross?

    Genesis Vagabond with 2.1s was probably the best ATB I ever had. With a nice lightish wheelset and hydros it would have been even better.

    Slower on the road than a road (or gravel) bike, slower on rocks and lump trails than even a rigid MTB, yet more explore-y and comfortable than either(IMO) and it completely owned through cracked and cratered back-lanes and access roads. Just flew. Great fire-road climber too. I like that stuff, am a bit weird probably. I’m more of ride-from-the-door/camp and explore kind of cyclist but like to unpack and hit trails also. Typical rides will be vastly mixed.

    Am now riding a rigid 29er with 2.2s and loop bars. Feels a little slower nearly everywhere than the Vagabond but can also tackle most trails as opposed to sweating it in the drops on the brakes. Picks up some when switched to (carbon) straights and stubby bar-ends.

    Which is ‘best’ for ‘do it all’? As said, everything is a compromise – but grant yourself the freedom from silly expectation along with the liberty of lived-with limitations. Sometimes it’s just the bike you enjoy riding the most, and then even the ‘limitations’ can make sense.

    For me, I like a mid-range cromo rigid ATB and reliable shifting. Easy upkeep and I get to stay in the 90s but now with disc-brakes and better geometry. Win-win.

    For others, it may be XC hardtail 29er, lockout air forks and fast rolling rubber. It’s entirely personal. I didn’t plan to choose a gravel bike or monster cross, I just bagged a demo on the off-chance and it felt great.

    Try out different bikes when you can.

    Premier Icon roverpig
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    The GCN video was a bit of fun, but did illustrate one point for me. Their case for gravel bikes seems to be based on the “fact” that your local trails don’t need a modern MTB (in fact they make it boring). But I live up in Scotland. There are plenty of trails up here that are still beyond my ability/nerve whatever bike I’m on. The problem is that, as I get older, I find I have less and less interest in even trying to ride these sections.

    kerley
    Member

    I live in a place where the trails could be described as very boring. If I was to find riding where I live boring it would be equally as boring on an MTB or a gravel bike.

    My choice of bike is based on my preference for a rigid and very light bike because it is nicer and faster to ride than a heavier MTB on the same terrain and it is faster uphill which is what I am interested in..

    But I live up in Scotland. There are plenty of trails up here that are still beyond my ability/nerve whatever bike I’m on. The problem is that, as I get older, I find I have less and less interest in even trying to ride these sections.

    Same here, but by going gravel I’ve now opened up glens and tracks (and roads, if they dead-end with a landrover track) that I’d never have explored before. This is a huge positive for me as I realise I get most of my motivation from exploring new areas, roads and tracks. The riding is still basically road bike riding for me, e.g. sustaining a smooth pedalling style at as a high a pace as I can for the distance involved.

    That being said, in Scotland even a lot of landrover tracks and ‘gravel’ tracks could benefit from F+R suspension, I catch myself looking at the Niner MCR more and more…

    Premier Icon Normal Man
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    @RP
    After my fleet went walkabouts it really made me think about the riding I do, not what I would like to do or used to do.

    My current ‘only’ bike is now suited to the road/bike paths/trails I use all the time. It is the geometry I feel comfortable with and the drops I feel more natural on. Yes, it is compromised for tackling big roots, mud, etc but puts a huge smile on my face.

    crosshair
    Member

    I started looking at aero road bikes the other day as I could get Ultegra Di2 and discs for a reasonable price.

    Then I realised that if I was splashing cash, I would prefer something with more tyre clearance to handle a different set of niches. Especially something I could race cross on if I wanted.

    So then I ended up day dreaming and looking at cross and gravel bikes. (Momentarily forgetting I sold my last cross bike because it was too heavy to be much fun).

    So then I get to looking at the ones that take 650b and wide mtb tyres. They are so sexy! I really do love the look.
    Thinking I can have two wheel sets- one with 28mm gp5000’s and one with Rocket Rons or similar. Running a 50/34 and 32/11 would mean almost total coverage of any riding I tend to do.

    But then I rode my Spark 920 on Sunday. 33 miles of mostly gravel on Salisbury Plain. And remembered that with a set of cheap clip-ons I can average 18.5mph for 50 miles on the road with it. (I have no idea what all this rolling resistance bollocks every one goes on about is- light XC tyres are not inherently slow on the road 🤷🏻‍♂️)

    So up yours gravel bikes and your sexy fat tyres! Nice try but my cash is staying where it is for now.

    crosshair
    Member

    That being said, in Scotland even a lot of landrover tracks and ‘gravel’ tracks could benefit from F+R suspension, I catch myself looking at the Niner MCR more and more…

    I love the idea of FS gravel too! But their implementation is a bit minging 🤢

    Premier Icon roverpig
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    That being said, in Scotland even a lot of landrover tracks and ‘gravel’ tracks could benefit from F+R suspension

    This is the rub for me. My riding is getting increasingly tame these days, but still mainly involves riding new trails in the mountains (more exploro than enduro). These are rarely “technical”, but can be steep, covered in rocks and I never know what’s round the corner. Maybe a HT is a better tool for the job, but I’ve tried those a few times and always end up back on the full-suss as it’s just more fun, more comfortable, safer and often faster. So, I think I’ll stick with my full-suss MTB for anything in the “mountains”. I may be over-biked 90% of the time, but I can live with that.

    Where I think a gravel/adventure/whatever bike might work for me is on the flatter bits of the North East of Scotland. All those miles of yellow roads on the OS map + the white ones that are often just farm tracks + well surfaced forest trails + wind farms + those long distance paths etc. Should be plenty there to keep me occupied for a while 🙂

    Premier Icon Old Jimbo
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    I demo’d a Bombtrack Hook gravel bike on Saturday past. First time I’ve been on a GB and was really impressed. Seriously thinking of investing in one, would be good for winter/keeping fit/alternative ride to my Hightower.
    It was totally at home on fire road and green lanes (as you’d expect) needs an adjustment in riding style (again, as you’d expect) but that’s not a bad thing, and fun learning.
    Rode approx. 30 miles off road and 8 miles on road and coped very well.

    Premier Icon ta11pau1
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    GCN have nailed it with that video, it’s the main reason I have a 150mm travel 29er FS MTB, and a 9.5kg gravel bike with 650b 47mm tyres.

    Decent MTB trails are 45 mins drive away for me, but right from my door I’m not far from enjoyable paths/forest roads etc that would be boring as hell on the MTB.

    As evidence, my brand spanking new YT Jeffsy 29 CF Pro Race has been on 2 rides since I built it 3 weeks ago, because I have no car at the moment. It’s OK on the mellow few trails local to me but I really need to take it to some actual MTB trails. Ok, I technically haven’t been out on the gravel bike either, but that’s because I’d need a boat rather than a bike…

    footflaps
    Member

    I’ve just bought a Specialized Diverge as my winter training bike, stuck 28mm GP4000s and mud guards on it, but still rides well off road on tracks.

    Its horses for courses. But for me one thing is for sure, My FS hasnt been out in months, whereas my gravel/adventure/whatever you want to call it bike is usually the one I go for everytime. Ive owned a few now along the years as well as Road bikes. Theyre just so great for exploring. I love the convenience of mixing road with paths and bridleways, and if im honest with getting older, I actually enjoy this style and pace of riding now too. They have been a welcome addition to me.

    Premier Icon mcnultycop
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    Mountain bikes look terrible with full length guards on but gravel bikes don’t, so mine gets used when I want a quick ride in mucky conditions but don’t want hours of cleaning.

    However, 32mm gravel bike tires on wet leaf descents yesterday were no fun at all. if I were to get a new one I’d definitely be looking at one that takes 650×45+ for a bit more off road capability.

    Premier Icon orangespyderman
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    Thanks all – I get that sketchy may not mean better, and I get that gravel paths are not as much “fun” as techy singletrack on an MTB inherently. A roadie friend of mine recently got a Rose Gravel bike and he’s been waxing lyrical about his since I mentioned I was curious, so that’s certainly also making me lust somewhat. I’ve used drops before (many years ago) on more touring oriented bikes, and I think I’ll be fine with them.

    Plenty of food for thought from all of the above though, and it seems quite a lot of people like them for the reasons I think I might (riding out the back door rather than a car to proper forest, like ta11pau1)…

    kerley
    Member

    stuck 28mm GP4000s and mud guards on it, but still rides well off road on tracks.

    It would do, 28 is fine for gravel. A large tyre really isn’t needed as much as most assume.
    Admittedly the larger tyre will give more comfort and feeling of security but I don’t find any grip issues. I am even happy riding a 23c on gravel as I don’t tend to be rooster tailing berms on this sort of bike!

    Couldn’t even dream of using a GP4000s where I live though as it would be punctured within 2 minutes.

    Premier Icon rOcKeTdOg
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    It would do, 28 is fine for gravel

    it all depends on your definition of gravel. around here we ride on the trails we would mtb on so mud and greasy roots as well as stoney paths. you would struggle to stay upright on 28mm CX type tyres and probably die on slicks.

    but dry towpaths, pea gravel and hardpack trails yes you’d be fine and i’ve ridden a lot of that type of stuff in the summer on a road bike. comfy over a long distance it is not though

    Premier Icon BadlyWiredDog
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    Thanks all – I get that sketchy may not mean better, and I get that gravel paths are not as much “fun” as techy singletrack on an MTB inherently.

    I don’t think it’s really about ‘sketchy’, that sounds out of control and random ‘riding on the ragged edge’ macho bollocks. The fun is in controlling the bike, not in not controlling it. It means that one some surfaces / trails you go slower, on others you go faster. If speed is your sole metric for measuring fun, you might be missing out elsewhere. All imo, YMMV

    Premier Icon roverpig
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    That’s part of the problem really. We (or at least I) don’t really have access to “proper” gravel. I’ve got farm tracks, forest paths, windfarms and (further afield) landrover tracks, but none of it is really gravel. The closest is probably some of the long distance paths.

    For example, I was out playing on this last week on my road bike.

    I’ve got plenty of this (farm tracks) from my doorstep but the surface is as variable as the attitude of the farmer to me riding my bike over it. That particular climb was fine on 23mm slicks (although the 39×24 bottom gear was a challenge) but if I rode back down I would need to go very slow to avoid punctures and just after that picture the track turned into a muddy mess and the last bit to reach the road was just down the side of a field (although marked as a track on the OS map). So, I think wide tyres are probably advisable if you want to go exploring, just because you never know what you might encounter.

    scotroutes
    Member

    So, I think wide tyres are probably advisable if you want to go exploring, just because you never know what you might encounter.

    Pretty much. There are many tracks I’ve passed on a road bike that I’d never be able to ride. Conversely, I’m unlikely to be spinning out for miles on a MTB on the road in order to discover or check these out. The #gradventourer lets me combine those two things. If I’m only doing a tarmac ride I might want to fit a road wheel/tyre but for most occassions it’ll be either the 650×47 Byways or the 700×40 Nanos.

    crosshair
    Member

    Ribble gravel

    😍😍 Must resist!!

    fasthaggis
    Member

    I think to get the most out of any CX/Gravel Bike/offroad tourers ,you need a healthy dose of ‘just getting on with it’* and adapt your riding to suit the surface.
    *This may depend on rider ability

    Premier Icon thisisnotaspoon
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    It would do, 28 is fine for gravel. A large tyre really isn’t needed as much as most assume.
    Admittedly the larger tyre will give more comfort and feeling of security but I don’t find any grip issues. I am even happy riding a 23c on gravel

    As mooted previously, it’s a broad church. You can mooch down cycle paths on a road bike just fine, if a little uncomfortable, risking punctures and taking it a little gingerly. If we were to have a willy waving competition I’ve attempted the Beast in the Peak on 700x21c tyres. The steerer tube snapped the next day though!

    Just swapped from a 32c slick on the rear to a 35c mud tyre for the winter (and a 40c mud on the front). Definitely slower on the road, but won’t spin on anything steeper than a 1in1000 wet grassy slope!

    Premier Icon roverpig
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    Must resist!!

    Should be easy; it’s ugly 🙂

    Kidding, of course, if you like it then it’s lovely and it looks to be good value too. What’s stopping you 🙂 Being weird I prefer the look of the steel version, but luckily for my wallet I’m wedded to the idea of a dropper and there doesn’t look to be stealth routing on either frame.

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