2018 Sea Otter Classic — The State of Gravel

“All about that personality crisis, you got it while it was hot” — New York Dolls

Who would have thought that a line from a 45-year-old song by a bunch of gender-bending glam rockers would so eloquently capture the state of gravel and adventure bikes in 2018? Gravel–and now, adventure–bikes have historically been difficult to define. Only a few short years ago, many gravel bikes were simply re-badged cyclocross rigs fitted with marginally wider tires and lower gears. While some companies did take chances and design their gravel/adventure bikes from the tires up, many were merely derivatives of someone else’s opinion of what a gravel bike was supposed to look like.

The evolution of the gravel bike is not unlike the early mountain bikes. Perhaps not from a technological standpoint, but rather, in terms of geographical and semantic influences. Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee Joe Breeze certainly knows a thing or two about those early days of mountain biking. I spent some time at the recent Sea Otter Classic chatting with Joe about gravel and adventure bikes. Upon learning that I was from the Boulder area, Joe immediately asked, “Do you have gravel roads in Boulder?” “Not really,” I sheepishly replied. “Most of it is just hardpacked dirt (roads).” The conversation eventually drifted to the differences between gravel and adventure bikes, and how the industry struggles to keep the two genres separate, but not too far apart. “One day rides are gravel, and more than one day is (an) adventure,” quipped Breeze jokingly.

Strolling past the various exhibitors’ booths, I noticed some interesting trends. Gravel-specific tires are nothing new, but for many years, 700C was the preferred size for mixed-surface riding. That appears to be changing, though. Based on casual observation, the 650B (aka, 27.5) platform is where more and more tire companies are directing their resources for gravel/adventure. That’s not to say that the 700C size is headed for the same fate as the 26″ wheel. No, far from it. For narrower tires–such as 40 mm–the 700C format remains the preferred size. When you start getting into wider tires (e.g. 43-55 mm), however, 650B begins to make more sense. This is not a new concept, though, randonneurs have espoused the virtues of 650B wheels for decades. Plus-size 700C (aka, 29er) wheels are good for certain use cases, but designing a production bike around 650B wheels doesn’t require as many compromises in order to maintain the necessary clearance, handling, bottom bracket height, and steering geometry. It also doesn’t hurt that the 27.5 format is so firmly entrenched in the MTB market, making rim and other wheel components easily available.

How many chainrings should a gravel bike have? Three? Two? One? As usual, the answer is, “it depends.” Factors such as physical ability and terrain greatly affect one’s gearing choice. But do riders really have a choice when it comes to gearing? Many frames are designed to only accommodate single-ring cranks. You can still find triple cranks on some all-road bikes, but usually with ratios designed for traditional road riding. Gravel riders looking for a suitable 2x crankset often find themselves in no man’s land, stuck somewhere between the ratios of MTB and road doubles. Sure, you could retrofit one of those expensive boutique doubles, but finding an affordable sub-compact crankset has been almost impossible. Now, thanks to open-minded component manufacturers and product managers, we’re seeing more double cranks with gearing suited to gravel bikes’ larger tires. And for 1x fans, expect to see wider-range cassettes as original equipment and aftermarket items.

Gravel bikes have experienced massive growth in the seven years since I launched the GRAVELBIKE site. Technology that was considered to be on the bleeding edge a couple of years ago is now standard equipment on even the most basic models. More importantly, the formerly weird not-quite-road, not-quite-mountain segment continues to attract riders looking for ways to escape the traffic and sterility of paved roads. And ultimately, getting more people on bikes what it’s all about.

One thought on “2018 Sea Otter Classic — The State of Gravel

  1. I’m still confused with gravel bike designs. I’m 5’5″ and personally ride 27.5 on my MTB, but 29er (700c) is all the rage right now in MTB. 29er is already wheel size of choice for XC, and is quickly emerging in a new range of Enduro and downhill MTB as well.

    I’m curious if gravel bike manufacturers (and riders) are shifting to 650B just to squeeze the largest tire width possible – without the need to redesign their frame geometries. I reckon, much like in the MTB world, once manufacturers are willing to invest in new frame geometries (and fork designs with more clearance) – 700C might reemerge as the tire size of choice.

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