Who's to blame for gravel bikes?

The meteoric rise of gravel is a story that goes right back to the very first bicycles.

Clock09:00, Tuesday 25th July 2023

When gravel bikes first entered the market about a decade ago, a lot of us were angry. This was a marketing ploy, a dastardly scheme to sell us all another bike we didn’t need. We had road bikes for the road, we had mountain bikes for off-road. And we had cyclo-cross bikes for those five weirdos in Belgium who wanted to ride drop bar bikes around muddy fields. The idea of having another type of bike was all wrong.

But after a couple of years, we calmed down about gravel bikes. Then we started to see how good they were. More and more of us were coming around to gravel riding: gravel events were selling out around the world, gravel bikes were flying off the shelves – the world of gravel was growing, and fast.

Within just a few short years, gravel went from an oddity to world dominance. Looking back, it really did drop into the world of cycling like a match into a tinderbox, lighting within cyclists a latent desire to head off the beaten path, to explore, and, quite simply, to have fun.

As far as we can tell, the success of gravel bikes and gravel riding is due to the increasingly specialised approach to bike design. As road bikes became more fragile, and mountain bikes got slower and heavier, these new bikes, capable off-road but fast to pedal, were exactly what most riders needed. They took us back to what cycling used to be.

Let’s dig into the history of gravel to find out where it came from as a discipline, and to uncover what led to its meteoric rise from obscure and niche to an important segment of the cycling world.

Before gravel: the evolution of bicycles

To understand the gravel boom, we need to go way back, to the days before we had electronic gears, carbon bikes and aero everything.

The first bikes were generalists

Welcome to the 1880s. Men wear top hats, women wear huge dresses and petticoats, and the roads are filled with horses and carts. Bikes have just been invented, and are starting to replace the ever-popular penny farthing. Tarmac, meanwhile, has not been invented. Roads are either cobbled, or kind of… gravelly.

Back then, bikes were bikes. They had one gear, they were made of steel, and they weighed a tonne. Some were labelled as ‘regular’ bikes, and some as ‘racers’, but the difference between the two was essentially that the handlebars were about three inches lower down on racers. The first bike races were on unsealed roads. When the first edition of Paris-Roubaix took place in 1896, it must have looked suspiciously similar to a modern day gravel race: the bikes had chunky tyres for the rough roads, but dropped handlebars for a low, more aero position. Granted, the start line probably wasn’t skinsuit-central back then, but the terrain was very similar.

Bikes became categorised

By the mid-20th century, most roads were no longer made of cobbles and gravel, but elementary tarmac instead. As a result, racing bikes became lighter, less comfortable and more agile. On smoother surfaces, they could have skinnier tyres, higher gears and more aerodynamic riding positions, making them faster. In the late 1980s, carbon fibre was introduced, and within a few years, it took over. With this new, delicate material, everyone now treated their road bikes like Fabergé eggs. Road bike tyres were incredibly skinny, and road frames were so specialised that it was impossible to load them up or take them off the beaten track.

Since 1902, some road cyclists had been taking their road bikes into muddy fields in the winter to do cyclo-cross races, but the bikes were so poorly equipped that riders spent most of the race pushing or carrying their bikes. Have a look at this footage of cyclo-cross riders struggling in the mud from the 1960s.

In the 1960s, the first specialist cyclo-cross bikes were created: they had lots of mud clearance, lower gear ratios, and frames that were easy to carry over riders’ shoulders. But these cyclo-cross bikes were honed to the needs of racing, not leisure riding. They had unusual gearing, unstable handling, and lacked mounting points for racks, bottles or luggage.

Outside of the world of racing, cycle touring was popular. On the face of it, touring bikes seemed like generalists: they were sturdy, they had slick tyres, they were versatile and comfortable. But as the decades wore on, they specialised too. Touring cyclists resisted modern technology, favouring reliability and ‘bodgability’ – they wanted their bikes to be fixable using basic tools and a welder. That meant that, while road bikes were getting lighter and lighter, tourers remained heavy, with steel frames, durable components and old-fashioned gearing and construction. They had long wheelbases, relaxed geometry and wacky butterfly handlebars. For most riders, they were just too slow for everyday riding.

Meanwhile, in America, mountain biking was developing at a rapid pace. What began in the 1970s as some homemade adaptations to cruiser bikes was spawning a new breed of bike. With every year, the tyres got chunkier, the suspension got bigger, and the geometry got slacker. By the millennium, mountain bikes were built to take on anything, but they were sluggish to pedal.

By the start of the 21st century, the gap between all the different disciplines of cycling was so broad, you could host a short prologue in it. Cyclists talked endlessly about the ‘n+1 rule’ – that the correct amount of bikes to own is the amount you own, plus one. Any discerning cyclist would need at least two bikes, ideally three. Four or five if they were particularly keen. It was all getting a bit ridiculous.

Gravel bikes were born

The US has thousands of miles of forest access roads and farm tracks. Many of these roads are beautiful, and almost all of them are car-free. And the surface of the roads was… gravel! Can you see where this is going? A few people started riding their cyclocross, touring and mountain bikes on these gravel roads, and eventually, one or two races popped up. In 1994, the Paris-Ancaster race in Canada took place for the first time, claiming the title as the original gravel race. The gun sounded for the inaugural Unbound Gravel (previously known as Dirty Kanza) race in 2006, with just 34 riders on the start line. It has since grown to the biggest and most famous race in the gravel calendar.

It wasn’t just the terrain that set these races apart from other cycling events. Gravel riders were less concerned with performance, KoMs and power data, and more interested in the experience of cycling. To knock the competitive edge off Unbound Gravel, the biggest race in the calendar, Salsa Cycles placed a chaise longue in the middle of the course, a little gimmick that saw even the pointy end of the race stop for a selfie. Even as the competition grew, gravel riders maintained their laid-back and fun-first approach.

Predictably, within a few years of the first gravel races, someone started producing a specialist bike that was made for the job. Salsa Cycles released the first bike to call itself a gravel bike in 2010, and the whole world rolled their eyes: another type of bike?

But for US cyclists with access to miles and miles of gravel roads, these bikes made perfect sense. They rolled fast, they evened out the rough roads, and they were stable enough for long days in the saddle. It would have been safe to assume that these new-fangled gravel bikes were going to remain tied to that unique terrain that they were designed for.

Gravel bikes go worldwide

Of course, that’s not how things went down. Gravel bikes struck a tone with cyclists worldwide. It seemed like, at long last, manufacturers were designing true all-rounders, just like they did with those first bikes way back in the 1800s. They were designed to roll quickly on various terrain, and they were versatile enough for different uses. They were strong enough for off-roading, and light enough for climbing. Not only that, but the ethos of gravel connected with cyclists. The gravel mindset was being exported worldwide, along with the knobbly tyres.

Gravel bikes weren’t amazing at any one thing. They weren’t mega capable off-road like modern mountain bikes. They weren’t super light and aerodynamic, like modern road bikes. They weren’t bombproof like touring bikes. And unlike cyclocross bikes, they weren’t designed for the niche requirements of short, twisty races. But they were pretty good at a lot of things, from road riding to single track.

There was a lot of pushback, but more and more bike brands started producing gravel bikes, and more and more people started buying them.

The gravel bike diverges, in its own way

Gravel became a byword for versatility, but this was the bike industry. We weren’t allowed to have one bike for everything. Besides, people needed different kinds of gravel bikes for different types of terrain. Some people were looking to go fast on smooth tracks, whereas some people were looking to explore on rougher terrain.

Gravel began to diverge into different types, just like bikes had always done. But this was the 21st century. Absolute, binary-style bike categories were so 1990. Instead of hard-and-fast categories, gravel bikes placed themselves along a spectrum. Yep, this was a truly modern type of cycling.

At one end of the spectrum we’ve got light and fast gravel bikes. These are pretty much road bikes, but with room for wider tyres. They have road geometry, and are aimed at road and gravel crossover riders, or the new breed of serious gravel racers. In 2016, 3T took this approach to new extremes with the Exploro, the first-ever aero-optimised gravel bike. This bike had been wind tunnel tested with knobbly tyres, and was designed for riding fast off road.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got gravel bikes that look an awful lot like mountain bikes. In fact, a lot of them are made by mountain bike manufacturers like Whyte and Nukeproof. These bikes have big tyre clearance, loads of mounts for bags and luggage, and slack, stable geometry. The best example of this extreme end of the gravel bike spectrum is the Niner MCR. This controversial gravel bike has full suspension – 50mm of squish front and rear – and clearance for hefty two inch tyres.

Gravel truly has gone from zero to hero since Salsa released the first-ever gravel bike in 2010. Along the broad spectrum of gravel bikes that’s out there today, there’s a bike for every kind of rider, and every kind of terrain. They may have ruffled feathers, but gravel succeeded because these new bikes offered us a machine versatile enough for the range of riding normal cyclists cover. Not only that, gravel bikes brought with them a new approach to cycling. It was an approach that was less about stats, data and performance, and more about having fun, getting outdoors and exploring. Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that a movement like that caught on as quickly as it did.

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