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When does a road bike stop being a road bike?

Frank Strack
26 Jun 2019

The Velominati’s Frank Strack bemoans the degradation of the modern road bike

Dear Frank

These days road bikes come with disc brakes, wide tyres, even suspension units. At what point does it cease to be a road bike?

Alan, via email

Dear Alan

My brother sent me a photo of him proudly riding his new gravel bike. It has a Lefty suspension fork, big tyre clearance, a tall riding position and a 1x drivetrain. In other words, it’s idiotic.

Don’t get me wrong, I love riding gravel. I’ve been doing it for something like forever. I love riding on the road too. It’s my daily redemption – how I feed the good wolf, so to speak. The rhythm in my legs and breathing of my lungs coax me into a restorative meditation as I hover just above the ground like a bird in flight.

But unless you’re lucky enough to live in the country and can ride on deserted roads, traffic and intersections are a constant interruption stirring you from the harmony of the ride.

Mountain biking takes you away from the roads and into the seclusion of the wilderness, but the off-road nature of riding over rocks and roots robs the sport of the rhythm we find on the road.

Harmony

Which is where gravel riding finds its niche – it combines the harmony of road riding with the serenity of mountain biking. Combined with the rise in distracted driving, it’s no small wonder people are starting to turn to deserted gravel roads to enjoy cycling.

I’ve ridden some rough roads on my road bike. The cobblestones of northern France and Belgium come to mind, as does the Mount Tamalpais gravel climb in Marin County, California.

The pavé of France is particularly brutal, to the point where it hurts to pee after you finish the route of Paris-Roubaix. In the 60s and 70s, the pros raced these roads on 23mm tyres. It was only in the most recent millennium that they began to experiment with wider tyres. I rode them in ‘comfort’ on 25mm tubulars.

Some friends of mine did ‘The Cowboy Ride’ across Western Washington state this past August. This is a ride across the Eastern Washington desert into the Western Washington rain forest – epic to say the least.

The roads and trails are largely unmaintained and pass through remote regions far from the reaches of a phone tower. People ‘bike pack’ the trail on mountain bikes and fat bikes. My friends did it on road bikes whose only concession to the rough roads was to fit some 27mm clincher tyres.

The point is, a road bike can handle much rougher terrain than we give it credit for.

And, if you’ve managed to develop some bike handling skills along the way and you can manoeuvre around a pothole or two and over a few rocks, you’d be amazed where a set of skinny tyres can take you.

There are limits

Road tyres do start to show their limits in a few specialised applications, however. Sand and mud are particular weaknesses – the sort of conditions in which cyclocross races are held. Which is why a cyclocross bike tuned to a road position is everything anyone should ever need when riding gravel.

Yet an entire industry has been built around the concept of a ‘gravel’ bike. These bikes frequently have suspension, wide tyres and 1x drivetrains. 1x drivetrains. Don’t get me started. A cyclist should always seek a fluid pedal stroke, and a fluid pedal stroke comes by fine-tuning your gear selection to account for the conditions.

The cyclist considers the weather and topography of the ride and chooses a cassette whose gearing is clustered as closely together as possible to offer as many gear choices as possible within the minimum required range.

A 1x drivetrain by definition does the opposite. It provides the widest possible range with minimum clustering. By necessity, the gears are spaced further away from each other so as to accommodate a wider range of gear ratios.

I think we can all agree we’re not talking about road bikes anymore. A road bike doesn’t have wide tyres and it doesn’t have suspension. It might have disc brakes, although I don’t see the necessity for them.

I’m not exactly sure at exactly which point a road bike stops being a road bike, but I am sure about this: a road bike is an elegant machine from a more civilised time.