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True grit: gravel bikes ride test

News
1 Mar 2018
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Where does road end and off road begin? It’s not always clear-cut. Some roads are deeply cracked and scarred, with surfaces disintegrated practically to rubble, while some forest trails are almost as smooth as the boards of a velodrome.

But herein lies the attraction of gravel bikes – they are versatile enough that you don’t need to care much either way.

‘Gravel bike’ has become the catch-all term used to describe them, but its definition is as loose as the terrain you may encounter while riding one. They retain the drop handlebars of road bikes, but beyond that the options are varied.

Some brands have pushed the boundaries of this category more towards the spec of a mountain bike, including suspension and smaller 650b wheels to facilitate the use of significantly wider knobbly tyres.

Other manufacturers have been more conservative, and in many cases only a few geometry tweaks and some slightly fatter tyres stand a gravel bike apart from the modern crop of disc brake road bikes.

The three bikes locked to the railings outside Rockets and Rascals cafe in Lilliput, Poole, where we are enjoying a pre-ride coffee, are all examples of the latter. There are no active suspension systems and all three roll on 700c wheels.

But that’s not going to stop us from getting fairly adventurous today on a route that includes everything from pristine tarmac to muddy trails and rock-strewn singletracks.

Cyclist editorial assistant Sam, whose coffee has gone cold because he’s too busy changing the Boa dials on his shoes to match his kit to actually drink it, will be piloting the Orbea Terra.

Local mile-muncher and early gravel adopter Paul is joining Cyclist for today’s escapade, and will be aboard the Scott Addict Gravel. That leaves me with the GT Grade, and

I have no complaints whatsoever. The Grade was a pioneering bike in the gravel sector and has received rave reviews, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s capable of.

With coffee cups drained and Sam’s fashion concerns addressed, we set out into a fresh but decidedly bracing sea breeze on this October morning, invigorated by caffeine and the promise of an exciting day ahead. 

Home sweet home

Cyclist has travelled far afield for our series of multi-bike tests. We’ve ridden aero bikes in Abu Dhabi, vintage steel steeds in Tuscany and cobble-slayers on the fabled stones of the Arenberg Trench.

For this test, though, we decided to stay closer to home. Dorset is criss-crossed by a network of bridleways and byways, and in particular the Jurassic Coast around Studland, Swanage and the Purbeck Hills promises to be the perfect playground for assessing gravel bikes.

It also happens to be where I grew up, so we’ll not be needing a guide or even a map today.

Plus, and perhaps most importantly, I know where all the best pubs and cafes are.

Technically we’re still taking the bikes overseas, though, because we’re catching the Studland chain ferry to cross the narrow stretch of water at the entrance to Poole Harbour.

Now our ride begins in earnest and almost immediately we leave the tarmac behind and look to discover how far we can push the grip of our tyres on loose sand and gravel as we whip through heathland trails.

Sam is having a baptism of fire today. This is his first ever off-road ride, and he’s bleeding already. Not from a crash, but rather an altercation with a gorse bush that stood its ground firmly against his intrusion.

His right shin now resembles a pin cushion, peppered with bloody spots. It has done nothing to curb his enthusiasm, however, and whenever I look back I can see a grin spread wide across his face.

We’ve been blessed with superb trail conditions. It’s as firm and dry today as I would expect in the summer months, despite the leaves already being well on their way to golden, and on the wider forestry trails to Rempstone we’re soon zipping along at ‘road bike’ speeds.

‘I think this is an important point to make,’ says Paul when we stop momentarily at a road junction. ‘For me this is why these bikes make so much more sense than mountain bikes.

‘They roll so much better and cover ground so much faster, which ultimately means you can explore more in a ride.’

Back to the grind

He makes a good point, although we’re all reduced back to a grind soon after, battling a steep and rocky ascent, each switching our lines continuously in the hunt for rear-wheel traction as we make our way up the side of the imposing ridgeline of Nine Barrow Down.

The elevation of this chalky escarpment is only 199m at its highest point, but it makes us work hard for every single metre of ascent. The gradient nudges 25% in parts and if conditions were a little wetter I fear our tyres would struggle for grip and we’d probably be walking to the top.

With some determined pedalling, and aided by the lower gear ratios that are the norm for gravel bikes, we’re able to make it – just.

It’s confirmation that the 1x drivetrains fitted to both my GT and Paul’s Scott have plenty of range, and testament to their ability to adapt to different situations, because only minutes earlier we were barrelling along at 40kmh on the flat.

The 1x set-ups are also a big part of why these two are considerably lighter than the Orbea Sam is riding.

It’s really thanks to disc brakes that gravel bikes can exist at all, as they free up space in the fork crown and stays to allow the room for fatter tyres. I’m thankful for their predictable braking too, because I only manage to pull up with millimetres to spare at a gate halfway down the next descent.

I can hear the steel rotors pinging like the chiming of a miniature triangle as they begin to cool, indicating just how intensely I applied them after whizzing down the bumpy grass track at full tilt.

All three bikes seem to take speeding over the uneven ground in their stride, but Sam’s delayed arrival at the same point with oil-streaked hands indicates he’s had chain issues along the way. It’s another win for the 1x groupsets, as neither Paul nor I have had even the slightest concern over chain drop.

On the final part of the descent to Corfe Castle our bike-handling skills are tested to the max. The GT Grade starts to feel a little out of its depth as the rock-strewn surface pummels my arms.

I’m running the WTB tyres tubeless, but at only 32mm wide they lack a little of the cushioning the others are afforded by their 40mm Schwalbe G-Ones.

That said, the look Paul shoots me as we swing back onto tarmac at the bottom says he too was on the limit of both his and the Scott’s capabilities. We look back up the hill but there’s no sign of Sam. Eventually he appears, cursing, having suffered another unshipped chain.

Going coastal

Dramatic landscapes reveal themselves as our route takes us south to the coast. We even opt to dismount for a short stretch of the coastal path (cycling is not permitted) just to soak in the views of this World Heritage Site.

The fresh sea air is revitalising, and the only sounds are the crashing of waves against the cliffs below and the rumbling coming from my stomach. It must be time for a bite to eat.

Fortunately we’re only a stone’s throw from the Square and Compass pub, where we can continue to enjoy the coastal views while eating a pasty each and comparing notes on the bikes.

Sam cites the extra weight of the Orbea, which is nearly 2kg heavier than the Scott and 1.5kg more than the GT, as holding it back on the climbs. Plus, of course, there have been those chain drop issues.

Paul is really enjoying the Scott and has only praise for it so far, although he’s not keen on the splayed drop bars. My only gripe with the GT is levelled at its tyres.

At 32mm they’re a little too narrow and also a little too slick at times to provide the grip I’d want on a route like this, with such varied trails.

But as with Paul’s bars, tyres can easily be swapped, so it’s a negligible concern although it is worth noting that the Grade fits 35mm tyres max, compared to 40mm-plus on the other two.

We continue in the direction of Swanage on the Priest’s Way, so named because it was the path a medieval priest walked between his two churches. It’s the kind of track these bikes thrive on.

Although the surface is stony, it has been smoothed by a steady flow of walkers and cyclists over the years, which allows us to zip along it at a decent speed.

Patches of damp chalk keep us wary, as they can be as slick as ice, and I struggle to keep up with Paul’s agile negotiation of a final narrow passage where rocks lie hidden in the tall grass, waiting like booby traps to flick our wheels off line.

The last hill

Our final challenge is the climb to the obelisk atop Ballard Down. Once again, it’s not particularly high but it is steep, and I’m forced to churn my cranks round at a pitiful cadence, using my lowest gear and moving at what is probably less than walking pace.

Glancing to my right I can see Sam hunched over his handlebars, trying to balance grip at the rear tyre while keeping the front wheel from lifting.

The noise of my own breathing fills my ears, but underneath my lumbering body the GT feels steadfast in its delivery of my power to the rear wheel, for which I am grateful.

Mercifully the summit arrives and we begin a descent I’ve been waiting for all day. With shadows lengthening it’s time for a high-speed finish, so we hurtle down the grassy trails and around the headland to Old Harry Rocks.

At times we’re only a few metres from the cliff edge, with a sheer 40m drop to the English Channel below, so some deft handling is required to ensure we don’t end up with a Thelma And Louise-style finale.

‘I’m done,’ announces Sam, as we skid to a halt and sit astride our top tubes to savour the panorama. ‘I feel like I’ve been working on a building site all day.’

I can’t decide if his implication is the Orbea was tough on him, or he’s just not accustomed to this style of riding. ‘I thought we’d be on the road mostly with maybe just the odd gravel track here and there,’ he says with a laugh.

It occurs to me that today’s ride has consisted mostly of routes I used to do back in the 1990s on a mountain bike. They are no longer challenging enough to tax the capabilities of modern mountain bikes and as such have lost their appeal, but they are perfect for the new breed of gravel bikes. Today has been an absolute blast.

I think I’m finally understanding gravel bikes. When they first appeared a few years ago, I was initially sceptical as to how well suited they were to riding in Britain, as we don’t have a network of dirt roads like in the US, where the concept was invented.

Not now. Now I realise that you don’t need dirt roads, you just need to pick up an OS map of wherever you live in the UK and discover the hundreds of miles of alternative routes that are available to bicycles, which opens up a new world of possibilities far beyond the confines of roads.

Today, we have certainly spent a good deal more time off road than on but, as if to reassert that these bikes are still capable road machines, the final few tarmac kilometres back to the ferry port turn into a full-on race. Last one back buys the beers.

 

The bikes

GT Grade Carbon Pro

Launched back in 2014, the original GT Grade was a pioneering bike of this category, but is it still a leader by design?

Model: GT Grade Carbon Pro
Groupset: Sram Force 1
Gearing: 40t chainring, 10-42t cassette
Wheels: Stans No Tubes Grail Tubeless
Tyres: WTB Exposure tubeless, 700x32c
Finishing kit: GT Droptune RS handlebars, GT alloy stem, GT carbon seatpost, WTB SL8 Pro saddle
Weight: 7.85kg (55cm)
Price: £2,900
Contact: cyclingsportsgroup.co.uk

Stu's summary: 

GT was ahead of its time when it produced the Grade more than three years ago, when barely anyone had heard of gravel bikes. Its age only really shows in the fact that it has slightly less tyre clearance than the current crop (35mm maximum).

Its off-road potential is arguably diminished as a result, but if you’re not keen to get too muddy then that won’t hold you back. What appeals about the design is that it can hold its own against similarly priced road bikes on the tarmac, while still demonstrating prowess off-road.

I feel like I found its limits, but they were a good deal further along from what I was expecting.

The Stans No Tubes Grail wheelset is a good addition, light enough to accelerate and climb efficiently yet sturdy enough to be ridden aggressively off road.

I didn’t experience any punctures but the tyres felt a touch flimsy, so would be the first component I’d swap. The rest of the spec is well considered and I can see the Grade becoming a chosen partner for a good number of riding adventures.

 

Scott Addict Gravel 10


The most expensive option by a factor of two, so can the Scott shine twice as bright on the trails?

Model: Scott Addict Gravel 10
Groupset: Sram Force 1
Gearing: 42t chainring, 10-42t cassette
Wheels: DT Swiss PRC 1400 Spline 35
Tyres: Schwalbe G-One, 700x40c
Finishing kit: Syncros Creston SL Flare carbon bars, Syncros RR1.5 stem, Syncros Carbon FL1.0 seatpost, Syncros FL1.0 saddle
Weight: 7.46kg
Price: £5,999
Contact: scott-sports.com

Paul's summary: 

The Scott has more in common with a road bike than I was expecting in terms of its handling and ride quality. It’s super-responsive in the way it both accelerates and changes direction

on the smoother trails. The weight, or should I say lack of it, also puts it pretty much on a par with my road bike. I can only assume Scott is targeting a customer who likes to go fast, rather than someone who wants a lot of ‘comfort features’.

If my regular riding was on relatively smooth and hilly terrain, such as the gravel trails around Colorado, I would wholeheartedly want the Scott. But as my riding favours all sorts of varied trails, I’d go for something more capable over rocky or bumpy ground. Sram’s Force 1x11 groupset is very good indeed and to my mind

a 1x set-up is a must for anyone riding gravel, as is a tubeless tyre set-up. The Scott has certainly got a lot going for it, but proves that not all gravel is equal. It will bring you big smiles on fast, flowing terrain, but is probably not best suited to a deeper excursion into the wilderness.

 

Orbea Terra M30-D


Can the performance of the Basque brand’s entry level gravel machine match its striking looks?

Model: Orbea Terra M30-D
Groupset: Shimano Ultegra 6800 RS685
Gearing: 48/32t, 11-32t cassette
Wheels: Mavic Aksium Disc
Tyres: Schwalbe G-One, 700x40c
Finishing kit: FSA Gossamer Compact bars, FSA Gossamer Pro stem, FSA SL-K SB20 seatpost, Prologo Evo Nago Pas saddle
Weight: 9.24kg
Price: £2,399
Contact: orbea.com

Sam's summary: 

As someone new to gravel riding, the Terra, with its 40mm tyres, was reassuring to ride. It took a lot to knock the bike off its line on Purbeck’s many rutted tracks and bridleways.

Its lengthy wheelbase and slack head angle left the handling a little tardy, if predictable, but I would imagine more advanced riders might prefer something a little snappier.

The Terra’s weight may have made it feel planted on the downhills but riding up the short, sharp climbs was harder than it needed to be. Some sensible upgrades, most notably replacing the chunky Aksium wheelset, would drop the weight and do wonders for performance.

The drivetrain also convinced me that a double chainring is totally unnecessary for gravel riding. Stu and Paul’s 1x gearing had more than enough range and trying to shift between rings on rough ground meant my chain dropped a number of times.

Plus, the chain slap from Shimano’s clutchless rear derailleur chipped the paint in several places along the driveside chainstay, which was a shame because I thought the paintjob was stunning. 

Kit picks


 

Sportful Giara jersey | £75, c3products.com

Paul says: ‘I particularly like the understated aesthetic of this jersey because it’s something of a departure from Sportful’s typical road apparel. The fit is more relaxed, cut a little longer in the torso and wider across the shoulders so you’ll feel less self-conscious ordering that mid-ride pint.’

 

 

Specialized S-Works 6 XC shoes | £310, specialized.com

Sam says: ‘I reckon Specialized’s S-Works 6 road shoes are among the very best on the market, so I was keen to try out the XC version.

‘Like the road shoes, they are light and stiff with the same vice-like heel cup, but they also have added scuff protection around the toe and a decent tread on the sole to help if you have to dismount.’

 


 

Giro DND glove | £29.99, zyro-fisher.co.uk

Stu says: ‘Lightweight gloves are a good idea on a gravel ride as they can protect against blisters on the bumpy terrain and offer a layer of protection in the event of a tumble.

‘The thin palm retains a good bar feel, and there’s ample dexterity. I barely knew I was wearing them, which is exactly what you want.’

 

Thanks 

Our special thanks go to Marie de Bussy at FJB Hotels and the Sandbanks Hotel, Poole, for providing our accommodation for this trip.

A better view to wake up to would be hard to find, literally within touching distance of the beach, and the sumptuous breakfast buffet made certain our bellies were well fuelled for an adventurous day in the saddle.

Also thanks to Clive Gosling of the Cycling Sports Group for the loan of the Cannondale Moterra e-bike, which allowed our photographer with his camera pack to keep up with us on the off-road trails.