Remember when they came on the scene?
Suddenly, there's a class of bike that's suitable for your next attempt at Dirty Kanza or The Great Divide, or even The Dalles Mountain 60. Because when road racing got clogged with dopers and became uncool, people longed for the freedom of unsanctioned, gritty challenges agsain, and voila! Gravel Rides are now A Thing, and if you're gonna spend three to five grand on an official Gravel BikeTM, then by God you better be man enough to ride that shit the way it's meant to be ridden.
We all know what happens when the next great unsanctioned, free thing gets popular, right?
It becomes sanctioned and controlled and monetized.
Because the cycling industry never saw a dollar bill it didn't like.
So now it's apparently no longer cool to install drops on your early 90's mountain bike.
No, you have to go BUY an official Gravel BikeTM.
Just so we know why this is all utter crap, let's review how we got here.
Once upon a time, everybody basically rode the same kind of bicycle. It had two wheels, a chain-based drivetrain operated by pedaling your feet in circles, and one speed. ONE.
To go faster, you pedaled more. Back when everyone had basically the same kind of bikes, roads were terrible, mostly dirt and rocks and lots of cracks and un even terrain. So if you wanted to ride from one town to the nebxt, you were riding on dirt.
Today, with most roads being paved with cement or asphalt, we'd call that a kind of off-road riding. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
When bikes started adding multiple gears and ways to change between them, things got interesting, and later on they got competitive as different bike and parts makers tried to make their components and bikes more interesting than the next guy's. Along with manufacturers, bicycle racers got more competitive, as more money poured into the sport and sponsors sought more ways to make things interesting -- in order to make more money.
(Yes, I'm oversimplifying things a bit -- but if you've read up on the bicycle industry, you know it's not by a whole lot. Really. Because the history of the bicycle industry is a microcosm of the history of capitalist monetization of fun. More recently, this happened to singlespeed bicycling and racing. First, with the "World" SingleSpeed Mountain Bike Championships (a made-up, unsanctioned event), and then with the "World" SingleSpeed Cyclocross Championships (another made-up, unsanctioned event, hosted once by my fair city and a helluva lot of fun). In the case of the latter, USA Cycling decided SingleSpeed Cyclocross was too popular not to monetize, so with the help of the bike industry they took over the scene, turned it into an official Cyclocross Category, and ruined the fun for slowpoke Athenas* like me. But I digress. A little.)
So back to "Gravel" bikes.
Ten years ago when I was racing in my local Short-Track and Cyclocross scenes, the term "Gravel bike" did not exist. In fact, the whole idea of mega-mileage off-road racing was in its infancy, with only a couple of nationally known events (and by nationally known, perhaps 100 people showed up to race them at the time.)
At first, they showed up either on heavy-duty Cyclocross bikes with beefed-up wheels, or on older Mountain bikes with 26" wheels and drop bars. Either choice gave you a bike that could stand up to the demands of racing stupid-long distances until the bike broke or you collapsed. These were the first Gravel Bikes, and you could wrangle one together from stuff you already had.
But thrift and resourcefulness doesn't really sustain the bike industry, and so it wasn't too long after that when some wise guys in the industry decided to make them A Thing -- so you'd be enticed to buy them in order to keep up with their sales pitch and your hyped-up racing dreams.
Along the way, some other wise guys decided that fitting 11 or even 12 cogs into the same 135mm-wide spacing between your bike's rear dropouts -- meaning that every cog would have to be made much thinner to fit in the same space once taken up by 6 or 7 cogs -- and chains would have to be made narrower as well. Take away metal, and parts wear out faster -- which is ideal for an industry trying to make and sell more stuff. Planned Obsolescence has long been part of the playbook in the bicycle industry, just like everywhere else.
Look at the pictures of these two rear derailleurs:
1. Shimano Deore, circa 1980s. These graced many mountain bikes of the era. They weren't lightweight, but they were strong and smooth. I have one on my Bridgestone. Works like a charm.
2. Below: S-Ride, circa 2020 (scheduled for release November 2020). This rear derailleur is designed to be light in weight and highly responsive, intended for an 11-speed rear cassette and labeled "gravel specific." Notice how much less material is used in the newer derailleur's construction. Even if you're careful when you shift, there is no way this deraiulleur will last as long on a bicycle as the older Deore.
Sadly, while high performance is the point, it is only part of the point. The other part is planned obsolescence. Lighter, more responsive components wear out faster. There's no way around that, even with so-called "space age" materials like carbon fiber and titanium (and you know what? Carbon and Ti parts break, too).
I worked in the bike industry for over twenty years, and saw for myself just how much built-in planned obsolescence factors into bicycle design and production -- and contributes to unnecessary waste. It's one of the reasons I knew I could never become a serious racer, and one of the things I was glad to step away from when I retired from full-time bike work eight years ago.
Today, both of my bikes run pure friction shifters, which I can easily take apart and rebuild as needed; they work with almost any make and model of derailleurs and cause no compatibility issues.
So why not just transfer that ethos to off-road bikes? I did for all six of the years that I raced, and if I sucked at racing, it was never the bicycle that held me back. (I never had a single mechanical in a race, and not because I didn't push myself or my bike as hard as I could.)
I would suggest that all of the bikes I raced off-road could easily be considered "Gravel" bikes. All it took to change that was someone's desire to make more money by narrowing technical and style choices, and pitch ads that drove sales among those who wanted to look faster, whether the bike helped them get faster or not.
So yeah, I call bullshit on "Gravel" bikes.
And if our bicycling ancestors from the single speed era could see us now, they'd call bullshit on them -- and a whole lot of other current cycling fetishes and fantasies as well.
Go ride your bike, anywhere you want to. You don't need fancy gear, yu just need to ride your bike. Or, as we used to say when I was racing, "Run what ya brung. No excuses."
* Athena -- a sub-class of Cyclocross racing for women who weigh 160 or more pounds. For men weighing 200 or more pounds, there's the Clydesdale class. People who race in these categories do so only at the local level per the rules of their local racing orgnaization. These categories are not recognized or sanctioned by USA Cycling.
If you want to race off-road at the elite level, you have to be skinny, have a high strength-to-weight ratio and be able to ride really fast -- and then you have to agree to sell your ass to USA Cycling (and by extension, the UCI). eventually, you'll be poached by a second-tier European road team who will force you to give up 'cross and groom you into a Classics racer. Performance-enhancing drugs may not be far behind.
If you want to avoid all that, enjoy a double order of frites and beer after every race, and keep your day job. You'll thank me later.