After spending three days perusing booths at the 2019 Sea Otter Classic, I can say without hesitation that it’s a very good time to be a (gravel) tire nerd. Nearly every tire manufacturer–both big and small–now offers (or will be offering) dedicated gravel tires. But it’s not just tire companies that are sliding into the gravel space. Rim and wheel vendors are responding to gravel riders’ needs with dedicated models designed for mixed-surface use.
California’s Sea Otter Classic (SOC) has long been a major source of new product announcements (at least for North America). But with the demise of the Interbike trade show, Sea Otter can now claim the crown for the premiere cycling event in the United States. In previous years, the gravel segment was represented by a relatively small group of companies. This year’s event, however, saw a major increase in gravel offerings. And as gravel matures, we’re seeing more diversification in the types of bikes being offered. The traditional, road-inspired gravel bike continues to dominate, but specialized models such as dedicated gravel racing machines and bikepacking-influenced rigs are gaining traction.
Is there such a thing as a truly do-it-all bicycle? Gravel bikes–which are often praised for their versatility–come pretty darn close. Despite their flexibility, however, gravel rigs still share many of the design traits and limitations associated with conventional road bikes. Last summer those limitations became abundantly clear when I began including more technical off-road sections in my mixed-terrain rides. Despite the gravel bike’s wider tires and lower gears, its road-based design placed more emphasis on aerodynamics and smooth surface efficiency than off-road capabilities.
Around the time of my existential off-road crisis, a press release from Oregon-based bike wizard Jeff Jones found its way into my inbox. The press release announced that Jones was now offering a carbon version of his popular Loop handlebar. Having previously tested—and liked–the aluminum Loop bar, I figured the new carbon version might be just what I needed to improve my gravel bike’s off-road capabilities. After a series of email exchanges, Jeff suggested that I give him a call.
In the first installment of GRAVELBIKE’s absoluteBLACK (aB) review, I covered aB’s 28T oval MTB chainring. Since then, the company began shipping their new oval CX chainrings. Available in conventional and direct-mount versions, absoluteBLACK’s CX rings feature the company’s Patent Pending narrow-wide tooth design. Because the conventional 5-bolt CX ring isn’t compatible with SRAM cranksets that have a hidden 5th bolt, I opted to test the direct-mount version. Over the past few weeks, I’ve logged 300-350 miles with the company’s 40T oval CX chainring on my Salsa Vaya gravel/commuter rig.
Despite a recent resurgence in popularity, oval chainrings are not new technology. Dating as far back as 1890, non-round chainrings have made numerous appearances in the marketplace, with the most in/famous being Shimano’s Biopace. More recently, oval rings enjoyed a boost in popularity when professional road racers Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins used non-round rings in their quests for Tour de France victories. And now, oval chainrings such as those offered by absoluteBLACK are seeing more use among off-road riders.