Gravel’s Future

10 years from now?

Over-specialization to the point of market saturation and then a return to form.

High-trail/high-flop gravel bikes that are great for descending in a straight line aren’t much good for other things, especially with narrower tires. I don’t think gravel has the pull to get big groups of riders to drive to ride and massive portions of the US population do not have ride-accessible gravel loops.

Outside of enormous regional events, local events are much more weather dependent. A 50%+ chance of rain may see 30% of a road race field DNS, but the same for gravel is easily 60%+. Big Sugar sold out in 13 minutes, DK has a lottery. However, local legacy gravel events have less riders than 2-3 years ago and new events are not generating the attendance levels that can be self-sustaining.

Many riders are also finding that wider tires are slower than the hype, especially at and above 45mm. E-bike marketing and share are increasing, with a focus on road and MTB.

I think these and other factors conspire to limit the growth of gravel, which in turn limits the development of gravel specific technology. The GRX group and the Niner MCR are big developments but may signal the apex of popularity/R&D, instead of the rumblings of a groundswell.

I think 10 years from now has us see a highly compressed version of the first 35 years of MTB development. Big growth, big development, big attendance and then a big retraction to a norm.

Planning a gravel route

A recent Facebook post prompted me to write down some of the things I’ve learned about routing gravel rides over the past couple years.

1. Maps – Georgia is great in that the DOT has excellent county and city level maps that show different road surfaces as well as a ton of other detail. They can be found here: http://www.dot.ga.gov/DS/Maps. Pick your county and there’s the map, free online. What I like to do is give the map a cursory overview and get an idea of where the gravel roads go. Go do something else and come back a few hours later or the next day and start my route planning. Much of the gravel roads wind around the terrain and making a sensical route that is fun to ride is often as much a puzzle as anything else.

Map LegendMap Example

For states with less comprehensive mapping available there are options like GravelMap.com, which is ok but more of a high level overview than a consistent 100% correct gathering of gravel road data. Lots of the local gravel near me is over stated as it looks like the initial import include routes listed as “gravel” that are 50%+ pavement. A helpful resource nonetheless.

2. Pick the start – The most important things about the starting point are 1.) it’s a safe place to park and 2.) it’s not at the top of a big hill or over a ridgeline. I had a brutal ride that required riding over a ridgeline to get back to my car and it was terrible. Nowadays I pay close attention to the elevation as 100 feet a mile on gravel is much harder than the same on the road. For parking a good bet is that since most of the places you will start will be rural – look for city or county parks and rec areas. They can easily be seen on google maps as the little green areas. If you can’t find anything use satellite view to look for baseball fields, tennis courts or pools. These are often the public areas with safe parking. I have a post with a listing of places that I’ve found as well a few posts down. I don’t like parking at Churches as weekend days are often when landscaping and other non-service related events happen and it’s easy to end up having your car towed.

Parks RecParks Rec2

3. Know thyself – This is a concept that took me a while to understand. I love riding the mixed routes I was doing but they were so hard, it was only this year that I realized it was because I only like 3 hours max of riding alone. Once I get out into the country where it’s common to never see a car for 2-3 hours I want to see some evidence of civilization and have a store stop. I’ve done routes where I never saw another human for 9 hours and although interesting, it’s not something I like or am in a hurry to repeat. So be aware, if you’re not sure start with store stops or city visits every estimated 2 hours and then increase the time from there. Maybe you’re capable of many hours of riding alone and maybe not.

4. Have a point – The main prompt for this post was seeing a gravel route posted on Facebook that looked exactly like what I used to do. Route as much gravel as possible without any regard for the beauty of the route and the ride. Your ride should have a point, go somewhere to see something. We’re riding around interesting areas of the state with history and there are often little towns that are worth exploring – even as just a quick ride through. Don’t route yourself like you’re an RUSA organizer. Make it a beautiful route that goes somewhere. Especially in most areas of Georgia that become rural so fast you can ride into a small town or city, refill and look around and be back onto gravel or in the country in a couple miles.

yikes

This example route skips everything interesting. It’s boring and lacks a theme. A better route would be less gravel but more destinations. Hit those little towns and see what’s out there instead of staring at gravel and trees for five hours.

5. Prepare for adversity – There are essentially no current up to date gravel maps. Every single non-organized gravel ride I’ve done has had a road closed, a bridge out, a public road taken private or something else requiring a reroute. Prepare to reroute as needed, pay attention to the sun as you may not have a cellphone signal and be ready to backtrack or take unexpected turns to get where you’re going. Don’t hesitate to ask directions from anyone you see, people in rural areas are nice and often love to talk about the roads and where they go.

6. Never take “road closed” at face value – I’ve seen several variations of road closed areas that are perfectly fine on a bike. Sometimes it’s a washout that has a tiny ribbon of good road, sometimes it’s a bridge that isn’t strong enough for cars but fine for bikes and sometimes it’s no bridge but a perfectly easy water crossing. Until you see an impassible barrier be it water, or a ravine or something – keep riding.

This bridge was at the end of a “road closed 1 mile” sign – bridge intact and perfectly rideable, but impassable for cars and trucks.

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7. Dogs, there’s always dogs.

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Geometry Primer

Tight cornering and turning is based much more around trail, handlebar width and individual rider skill than wheelbase, IME/O.

I think this is partially due to mis-attribution due to a lack of understanding how small changes in the first two variables have more outsize effects on the feel of a bike much more so than wheelbase. Especially during high speed and aggressive movement of the bike/rider. Something like ~7mm of trail and corresponding ~2-3mm of flop can have a very large effect on how a bike feels as it begins to lean over. Conversely, when riding blind I’ve found most riders have a hard time differentiating less than 20-40mm of wheelbase change, especially if it’s balanced on both the front and rear end.

Looking at the bikes that finish DK is interesting but most people do not understand geometry well enough to have had it be a defining factor in what bike they choose to purchase/ride in comparison to all the other variables involved. It takes quite a bit of $$$/experience to really suss out the small changes and their effects.

I will also say that the terms relaxed and aggressive are poor descriptors and do not describe how a bike rides. It would be better to describe bikes along a spectrum as:

Use steering to turn or maintain a straight course, leaning and body english produce much less reaction and are much less necessary. Also has less stability at the front end as the speed increases.

or

Use leaning the bike at an angle, counter-steering (push handlebars inside of the turn) and body english to turn or maintain a straight course, steering with the handlebars produces much less reaction and is much less necessary. Also has more stability at the front end as the speed increases.

Low Trail 35mm
Steering, less stable at speed

Mid Trail 55mm
Balanced steer/lean, stable at speed

High Trail 70mm
Leaning/countersteer, very stable at speed

Note: larger tires, more aggressive tread and lower pressure all increase trail for a given geometry. Wider handlebars provide more leverage and increase feedback on low trail, too wide creates a nervous descending bike that is overly sensitive to small corrections – oversteer condition. Narrower handlebars do not have enough leverage and decrease feedback for high trail, the bike is hard to maneuver during descending and resists cornering – understeer condition.

Personally I find high trail bikes extremely hard to corner with handlebars less than 52cm wide. Even then they require a significant amount of leaning and benefit from very aggressive side knobs to prevent sliding at lower speeds than lower trail bikes. Conversely I find low trail to be much too nervous descending – compared to mid/high trail, smaller rocks and road features tend to wrench the front end around requiring significant focus to make corrections to track the preferred line. Mid trail is my preferred front end geometry as it has a good balance of steering/leaning and although it lacks the stability of high trail on rough descents at very high speed it is still acceptable for the additional ease of cornering.

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Why ride gravel?

I found it humorous that was posted in the fixed gear forum. If anyone understands doing something just because it’s fun it should be posters there.

Anyway; compared to gravel, road riding is intensely boring. The depth of gravel is a huge pull. Learning to ride different surfaces in different conditions, at speed is a satisfying skill to learn and develop. Nothing on pavement can compare to winding down a twisty gravel descent at the edge of traction, deep in the woods alone as the winter wind rattles the bare forest around you. The more technical and deeper into gravel you go the more serene pavement seems. Pavement is the bright suburban grocery store to hunting your dinner in the woods with a knife on gravel.

Hyperbolic to the extreme? Of course, but that’s how it feels.

Often I’ll spend 2 hours riding a flat, straight, paved rail trail to some gravel. The more I’m on the trail the more my bike seems to bog down and my legs get heavier and heavier. Once I get off the trail and gravel starts crunching under my tires the bike seems to come alive, my legs feel light and efforts come easy as I rumble along in the dust. It’s a wonderful feeling and I find it sad some people haven’t felt the pull and don’t know what they’re missing.

Banditing short sections of hiking trail in a tiny city park surrounded by urban sprawl is nothing. Fast food for a soul that needs full nourishment.

All this is to say nothing of the technical aspects. Compare two road slicks, are they different? Who cares, they’ll both get you down the road and around the corner just fine.

Ah now compare two gravel tires. Are you riding in the wet? Is the course muddy or dry? Hardpack or loose railroad ballast? How much climbing do you expect? Do these knobs give enough traction while leaning to go down that switchback at the speed you need? Does having a front tire more aggressive than the rear give you more capability of just the ability to outride your skill level?

How are you handlebars? Flared? How much? What width?

Stem length? Too long and you’re over the front end on any descent and getting squirrely over the bars. Too short and that rock you didn’t see is wrenching the bars from your hands and tossing you to the ground.

There’s a ton of things to learn and observe. As they say the core loop is enjoyable, it reinforces continuing the activity in a way that road riding does not once there’s a taste of the chalky dust in the air.