The Gravel Boom Could Save Road Biking’s Soul
As biking (and racing) on unpaved roads explodes in popularity, gear has changed in a way that's affecting the whole cycling industry—for the better
Last June, on a stormy morning before sunrise, 2,750 cyclists clogged block after city block of main street Emporia for the opportunity to pedal bikes 200 miles over the steamy, sharp, grueling, gravel back roads of eastern Kansas.
The first time I joined the lineup for this race, the Dirty Kanza, in 2014, I swore that I’d never do it again—once was enough to spend 12 hours and 26 minutes blasting around this Midwest swelter. But five editions later, with the toil of that memory softened by time, I again entered the shoulder-to-shoulder Lycra scrum. Ostensibly, I had come for work, to assess the growth and trends in cycling’s fastest-growing segment: gravel. But if I’m honest, I also relished the experience so much the first time that I couldn’t resist trying again.
Gravel riding—or all-road, or mixed terrain, or even (dreadfully) groad—is basically drop-bar cycling for anyone who doesn’t discriminate between pavement and dirt. And it is growing fast. In 2017, while the number of bikes shipped in the United States fell by 4 percent from the previous year, including losses for traditional mountain and road models, shipments of gravel bikes continued to grow, adding $26.9 million of new business—more than any other category. Scores of new mixed-terrain events are cropping up around the country, and manufacturers continue to expand their gravel bike and gear offerings. “Gravel has been growing for years,” says Nick Legan, author of Gravel Cycling, the first authoritative book on the subject. “But I would say that now, this year, is the watershed moment.”
It certainly felt that way at the Dirty Kanza, which, since its inception in 2006 with just 34 riders, has become the bellwether for the gravel industry. More than double the number of riders were on the start line in 2018 compared to when I first attended in 2014, and demand has become so high that this year the race instituted a lottery system for admission. Organizers also added a concurrent race in 2018, a 350-mile self-supported ride called the DKXL, and they have expanded the brand to several other fun rides, training camps, and bikepacking tours throughout the year. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it could get this big,” says Jim Cummins, co-founder of the event. “And we don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”
A convergence of factors has fueled gravel’s growing popularity. For one, interest in road riding is waning, some say partly because of disillusionment after the drug scandals of the Armstrong era, but also because paved roads are becoming increasingly dangerous for cycling. “I think there’s this growing feeling that riding on highways is not worth the risk,” Legan says. “And with over a quarter of the roads in the U.S. unpaved, it becomes a question of approachability, availability.”
Thanks to its grassroots heritage, the gravel scene also serves as an antidote to the high-tech, supercompetitive mentality of road riding. Most of today’s popular gravel grinders, including the Dirty Kanza, started out as small-scale events with no entry fees. And despite their growth, they’ve tried to maintain their low-key attitude. “The scene has been good at creating both competitive as well as noncompetitive experiences,” Legan says. “Those just starting out and people who don’t want to race aren’t second-class citizens.”
Gear has improved exponentially in response to the gravel boom. On my first visit to the Dirty Kanza, four years ago, bikes were a hodgepodge, from steep carbon road racers with 30c tires shoehorned into a frame with poor clearance to 20-year-old mountain bikes with clip-on aero bars. “Part of the appeal of the scene has always been that you can run what you brung,” Cummins says. But as demand has grown, manufacturers have stepped up with optimized gear. At this year’s event, almost everyone was riding a purpose-built gravel bike.
The Salsa Warbird exemplifies gravel’s advance. The original titanium version of this bike, which I raced on in 2014, was the first commercially available dedicated gravel bike, and it was created specifically for the Dirty Kanza. It was ahead of its time back then, and the third generation (due out in September) that I raced at this year’s event is the most refined drop-bar bike the company has ever built. The nitty-gritty of the improvements—built from carbon with a super-compliant rear end, has longer and lower geometry for stable tracking, comes in two wheel sizes and grows tire clearance to more than 2.1 inches, and has mounts for six water bottles—add up to a bike that kept me feeling fresh and comfy, even after a hard crash at mile 47 left me with a bum knee, stiff back, and bloodied side.
Bikes aren’t the only products getting upgraded. At this year’s Dirty Kanza, Enve released two new wheelsets dedicated to gravel: the G23 (700c) and G27 (650b), with wide internals to accommodate higher-volume tires and a rounded rim profile aimed at blunting the ride and eliminating flats. (In the weeks of training leading up to the event, as well as during the 206-mile race, I was astounded at the wheel’s compliance and the fact that it never flatted—an accomplishment on the glass-sharp rock of the Flint Hills.) Maxxis showed off its bigger, tougher 40c Rambler tire that was tailor-made for a harsh course like the Dirty Kanza. Shimano launched a clutch version of its Ultegra rear derailleur, intended to reduce chain slap when riding off pavement. Many riders were on gravel-savvy gear like the Redshift Shockstop Stem and the Lauf Grit leaf spring fork.
Compared to the stiff, steep, brutal bikes modeled on pro peloton race machines that manufacturers have been selling for years, today’s gravel bikes are simply more enjoyable to ride. And the tech changes—wide tires, more stable rides, and easier-going positions—are creeping into regular road bikes. Ten years ago, the standard for road tires was 23c; these days, 28c is common. More road bikes are getting built with disc brakes instead of rim brakes, even top-end road machines like the new Trek Madone and Specialized Venge.
We’re even seeing new bikes that are capable as both roadies and gravel grinders. The Salsa Warbird is a prime example, as are the Allied All Road, 3T Exploro, and All City Cosmic Stallion. “These bikes are better tools for the majority of people,” says Mike Riemer, Salsa’s marketing guru. “I think they change the way people ride and lead to a better riding experience.”
That was certainly the case for me at the Dirty Kanza, but not only because of the gear. After crashing, I slowed down, milked the recoveries at aid stations, visited with other riders, and even stopped to chat with local farmers who turned out to cheer and pass out cold water. It was a reminder that gravel riding is about a lot more than just the road surface. Where road riding has for so long been marketed around speed, racing, and fitness, gravel is more about the experience, the journey, and the environment. “You’re always going to have the inspirational side, the guys who are going really fast, and that’s great,” Riemer says. “But gravel is also just about the fun and the personal challenge. And it usually takes you to prettier places.”