The Death of Road Riding
The Spandex-clad "roadus velocipedus" species is being subsumed by the "adventure bike" category. Has the sun finally set on road riding?
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Shrinking USA Cycling membership numbers, rapidly expanding tire widths, “adventure” bikes, and gravel everything…
Sometimes it can seem like good old-fashioned road riding is, like, totally over.
Oh sure, the species roadus velocipedus hardly belongs on the endangered-species list: the Walton brothers wouldn't have just paid eleventy billion dollars for Rapha if it did. Nevertheless, the composition of cycling is rapidly changing, and while they may gather in large herds (sorry, “Gran Fondos”) and stampede across the countryside, traditional roadies are no longer the dominant form of cycling fauna.
As with any cultural shift, there are many factors at play here. No single one in isolation can account for the change, but when taken together, there's a sort of synergistic effect that's conspiring against your garden variety stretchy-clothed road warrior. These factors include but are not limited to:
Road Riding Is Not Family-Friendly
There are lots of things you can say to get the kids fired up for a family outing, but Who wants to go to a road race? is not one of them. I'm not talking about painting your faces and cheering on the riders at the Tour of California or something, which might actually be fun. I'm talking about making your kids stand around so they can get a glimpse of mommy whizzing by once every hour and a half and then sit in the back seat for another 45 minutes while she does a cool-down on the trainer.
This is why cyclocross is waxing as road riding is waning. Not only is cyclocross more fun, but it does a much better job at including everybody else in the fun. It's vastly more entertaining to watch mommy ride around for 45 minutes and fall face-first in a mud puddle to the sound of cowbells and trombones.
Also, there's beer.
The Roads Are Getting Worse…
Maybe it's just the abundance of caution that comes with age, but if you've been riding a long time it's hard not to feel as though the roads are more dangerous than ever. Not only does the number of registered motor vehicles in the United States increase annually, but distracted driving is an epidemic. According to the NHTSA, it kills over 3,000 people a year. Sure, it was never uncommon to see a driver scarfing a bag of McDonald's while driving with their knees, but now that same driver is also engrossed in a Twitter flame war and playing Pokemon Go at the same time.
Don't get me wrong: As a dedicated cyclist, I would never advocate ceding even an inch of our public roadways or yielding to the Automotive Industrial Complex. At the same time, when it's been a hard week and you need a few hours of contemplative saddle time to find your spiritual center, the last thing you need is a run-in with a phone-addled suburban SUV pilot or a pickup-driving coal-rolling alt-whatever doing his part to to Make America Great Again by asphyxiating cyclists.
Given this, seeking out and riding car-free trails becomes an increasingly attractive alternative.
…But the Bikes Are Getting Better
When the whole gravel bike craze started taking off, many long-time cyclists harrumphed. (Harrumphing is what long-time cyclists do best.) After all, plenty of riders had been fitting wider tires and taking lengthy off-road detours for years. Now all of a sudden you need a dedicated “gravel bike” with a two-millimeter difference in bottom bracket drop and a one-degree difference in head-tube angle to do the same thing?
Even so, there's no getting around the power of marketing, and making a bike specifically for a certain kind of riding means more people are going to do it. Not only that, but modern bicycle manufacturing techniques mean companies can react to trends almost immediately, and new bike concepts can go from the marketing department to the bike shop floor with unprecedented speed.
It was decades before most bike companies offered a stock cyclocross bike, whereas the gravel bike arrived seemingly overnight, sprung fully from the head of Zeus.
And while most standard road bikes could fit a pair of 28mm tires and handle dirt trails just fine, that never occurred to the typical roadie, whereas today's “adventure” bikes make it a no-brainer.
Let's be honest: Roadies especially have never been good at thinking for themselves.
More People Are Coming to Cycling from Commuting
With bike commuting up in cities all across the country, “urban cycling” is serving as a point of entry for more and more riders. It makes sense then that younger people venturing out of town by bike on the weekends and embarking on longer rides would prefer to pack a bag and seek out some trails rather than slot into a pace line and take pulls at regular intervals.
Indeed, there's really not too much difference between a typical office environment and a paceline, right down to the bossy older person yelling at you.
So Is This a Good Thing?
If you think riding a bike should be an enjoyable activity then yes, the diminished influence of traditional roadieism and the concomitant dirtification of cycling is a good thing. But let's not forget the indispensible roles road cycling continues to play.
Firstly, it teaches fundamentals. You really only learn the dynamics of drafting, crosswinds, and tactics (not to mention how to ride close to people without crashing) from classical road riding. Also, without putting in some solid road miles you'll never get that cyclocross fitness in the first place.
Secondly, it's accessible. Depending on where you live getting to trails or gravel can be difficult or even impossible, but unless you live in the wilderness and printed this out during your biannual trip into town odds are you live somewhere near a paved road.
Finally, it preserves tradition. Roadies are like the Amish or Hasidic Jews. Sure, most of us don't live like that, but without them, who would keep track of all those arcane rules pertaining to sunglass temple placement and sock height?
Hey, someone's got to preserve all this stuff in amber.