If you attended this year’s Interbike trade show, you may have noticed that the bicycle industry has distanced itself from the gravel bike moniker and replaced it with a term with more sizzle–the adventure bike. From the start, the gravel bike name has always elicited mixed reactions. People hear the word gravel, and they immediately think of poorly maintained back roads where they can’t get cell phone reception. Mention the word adventure, however, and the mind conjures up an abundance of two-wheeled Walter Mitty-esque fantasies.
Regardless of whether you call them gravel or adventure bikes, the genre continues to grow in popularity. In the three days that I spent at Interbike, it was rare to find a manufacturer who didn’t have at least one bespoke
gravel adventure model in their lineup. While the interpretations and implementations may have varied, versatility proved to the common theme among all the bikes on display.
One positive side effect from the increased adoption of disc brakes (more on that later) is improved tire clearance. By removing close-reach brake calipers from the equation, designers can make room for fatter tires and/or fenders. It’s not just gravel rigs that are taking advantage of this new-found tire clearance, though. Several brands showed endurance road bikes with tire clearance that would have bested dedicated cross bikes from only a few years ago.
Riders who favor drop-style handlebars are no longer limited to mechanical disc brakes. Shimano and SRAM both offer several hydraulic disc brakes paired with integrated brake/shift levers. And if you’re not ready to ditch your cable-operated levers just yet, TRP’s HY/RD hydraulic calipers are compatible with conventional, cable-actuated brake levers. For those that favor the simplicity of mechanical disc brakes, Paul Component Engineering is upping the ante with their beautifully machined Klamper brake.
With disc brakes making the crossover from mountain bikes, it was only a matter of time before thru-axles made the jump to adventure and gravel bikes. Proponents of the larger thru-axles cite benefits such as increased rigidity and improved safety, while traditionalists argue that conventional quick release skewers are lighter and faster to operate. Both camps have their points, but it’s generally accepted that thru-axles all but eliminate the possibility of misalignment between disc brakes (rotors) and frames/forks.
Double-chainring setups continue to dominate gravel bike gearing. While the triple is by no means dead, expect to see more bikes spec’d with wide-range (compact) doubles now that SRAM’s 11-speed WiFLi technology has trickled down to the company’s Rival group (watch for our upcoming in-depth review). And if you don’t want–or need–multiple chainrings, the SRAM CX1 group combines a single-ring crank with an 11-speed cassette. Riders looking for an adventure bike equipped with an internally geared hub should check out Oregon’s Co-Motion Cycles, as they’re one of the few manufacturers offering Alfine- and Rohloff-equipped models.
Taking a cue from mountain bikes, wheels and tires for gravel and adventure bikes continue to grow in size. Leading the way are companies such as HED, Rolf Prima, Velocity, and WTB, who prove that wider doesn’t have to mean heavier. On the road tubeless front, most tire manufacturers continue to concentrate on 23mm-25mm widths. Thankfully, 28mm road tubeless tires are available from Hutchinson and Schwalbe, with IRC expected to release a 28mm model in the near future. If you’re looking for something more dirt/gravel-friendly, WTB will be offering a tubeless version of their popular 40C Nano tire.
Even with the aforementioned minor identity crisis, the gravel and adventure bike market appears to be moving in the right direction. More bikes and components means more options for you and me. In an industry that’s often driven–and limited–by racing (real or imagined), it’s refreshing to see attention paid to a type of riding that takes place outside the limelight of competitive cycling.