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Dear Frank: Gravel bikes

Bike buying choices
Frank Strack
26 Nov 2015

Is a gravel bike an affront to the Rules? Frank Strack offers his verdict.

Dear Frank

I’m thinking of buying a ‘gravel’ bike but worry that it is a step too far from being a road bike. Should I reconsider?

Liam, by email

Dear Liam

Rule #12 is very clear on this. To paraphrase, you should always get another bike unless it would cause you to separate from your partner. Truth be told however, relationships are two-way streets and if he or she is willing to split up with you over a simple material possession, maybe they’re too shallow a person to spend your life with and you’d be better off with the bike anyway. Rule #11 (family does not come first, the bike does) rounds this out nicely. 

As an aside, here’s a simple strategy: hook up with another cyclist and all your troubles will be solved, apart from anything relating to finances. My strategy is to always ensure my partner has a slightly better bike than mine, which subtly justifies an ongoing stream of upgrades. It works brilliantly, assuming you don’t want to have kids or open a savings account.

So we all agree you should buy another bike, but the question appears to be: is a gravel bike a worthy investment? 

Let me start by stating I don’t understand the need for a separate class of bike designated as a ‘gravel’ bike. A ride over the cobbles of northern Europe will educate you quickly on the abuses a road bike is equipped to handle. And for even rougher terrain, the geniuses behind ‘the bicycle’ have already come up with an excellent solution: the cyclocross bike. Cyclocross is basically the miniature golf of cycling: dirt, sand traps and water obstacles except combined with anaerobic exercise and possibly alcohol. It’s genius, when you break it down to those very basic necessities of life.

Tune a cyclocross bike to represent your typical road position (most cross bikes have a higher riding style for better handling) and you have yourself an incredibly versatile machine that can gobble up tarmac, cobbles, gravel and singletrack equally. Which is a long way of saying that I don’t see a need for a ‘gravel’ bike, although the powers that be (wanting to sell more bikes) apparently feel differently. 

All that said, I’m finally coming around to answering your question, which is – as I interpret it – is it worth owning a bike that isn’t dedicated to the road? Eddy Merckx, who is a cyclist of some repute, said, ‘Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.’

I’ve always ridden off-road. My first mountain bike was an awkward thing from the mid-80s I bought somewhere in Colorado. It was horrible to ride, but it allowed me to explore areas by bike that were previously inaccessible. 

Mountain biking technology advanced quickly and only a few years later I was riding Bridgestones over root and rock-infested singletrack at high speed, probably with my tongue hanging out like a crazed Labrador. 

Being in the wilderness offers a freedom from cars and other artefacts of society that can kill you, and is possibly the most liberating experience a human being can have. Mountain biking gave that to me, while still allowing me the delight of pedalling over the monotony of hiking. Not to mention giving me great bike handling skills. I recommend it for any cyclist. 

Riding on the road is a remarkable study in rhythm and harmony, which is something mountain biking lacks and is why I’ve always preferred the road. On the other hand, riding off-road allows us to escape from the commotion of traffic and submit to the beauty of nature. Riding gravel roads is perhaps the perfect balance between the rhythmic harmony of riding on the road and the liberty from the constraints of traffic and other nutcases that might harm you. As Emperor Palpatine said, ‘To understand the Great Mystery, one must study all its aspects.’ I suggest that straying from the road and exploring the gravel and dirt is probably the best thing you can do to enhance your love for cycling.

Again, remember the Merckx mantra. ‘Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.’

Frank Strack is the creator, and curator, of The Rules. For futher illumination see velominati.com and find a copy of his book The Rules in all good bookshops. You can email your questions for Frank to cyclist@dennis.co.uk

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