This Year’s Most Exciting Gear for Gravel Biking
Ten stoke-inducing products for mixed-terrain cycling that came out in 2019
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If cycling for recreation were represented by a Venn diagram, with roadies on one side and mountain bikers on the other, gravel would be the happy place in the middle where the two camps meet—not to mention where an increasing number of riders are exclusively hanging out. And fall is the time of reconciliation. Cyclists come back together after long summers spent chasing goals as disparate as racing crits in parking lots versus hucking it in bike parks. We reconnect over chilled-out, exploration-based rambles on mixed terrain, and everyone has a bike with chubby tires and disc brakes. It’s a beautiful thing.
In short, whereas the cold and wet weather used to be a reason to hang up the bike come late fall, I’d argue that it’s now peak gravel season. So here are nine pieces of gear—most of them new this year, and a couple of reliable favorites—that will upgrade your rides.
Santa Cruz Stigmata and Juliana Quincy ($3,599 and Up)
The Stigmata used to be Santa Cruz’s carbon cyclocross race bike, but the brand’s product team realized that the subset of people who just like to explore dirt or gravel roads, bikepack, or rally around on easy mountain-bike trails (while giggling their asses off) far outnumbers the racing subset. So when it updated the bike for 2019, it moved away from the ’cross-focused design and created one of the most versatile gravel bikes I’ve ridden.
The updated Stigmata also comes in a women’s version, the Juliana Quincy (which has an identical frame but goes down to a 48-centimeter size), and clears up to a 700x45c or a 2.1-inch mountain-bike tire on 650b wheels, more than enough for riding the roughest unpaved surfaces. The bike has the remarkable ability to feel quick, lively, and sure on pavement, dirt roads, and even tame singletrack. In fact, with the 650b and 2.1-inch setup, the Stigmata rides like a mini fully rigid mountain bike on easy trails. It shines particularly on descents, where the bike feels stuck to the road in a way that will inspire confidence.
Pearl Izumi X-Alp Gravel Shoe ($150)
Yes, you can definitely just ride gravel in your cross-country mountain-bike shoes. (For the uninitiated: mountain-style pedals and shoes do a better job of clearing mud and are more walkable than road shoes.) But this purpose-built shoe combines the shape and fit of a road shoe—for more efficient pedaling and, according to Pearl Izumi, less pressure when you’re constantly spinning—with the walkability of a mountain-bike shoe. The treaded sole is inspired by the company’s X-Project mountain-bike shoes, but the lugs aren’t molded together with rubber, so they’re slightly less grippy. A spokesperson for Pearl Izumi says that they’re the same material used in most other lugged mountain-bike shoes on the market.
Pearl Izumi Blvd Merino Vest ($190)
The puffy part of the Blvd Merino vest is filled with merino-wool scraps recycled from factories. (The scraps are processed to be uniform in size.) “Therefore, by including wool batting, in addition to the wool knit that makes up the garment, we increase wool’s ability to buffer changes in humidity, insulate, and give off heat as it absorbs water vapor,” says Robert Pickels, the advanced-concepts project manager at Pearl Izumi. In other words: mo’ merino, mo’ betta. A bike-specific cut that’s longer in the rear ensures full coverage in the riding position, and a zippered back pocket holds credit cards, snacks, keys, and other essentials.
Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V Wheels ($1,299 per Pair)
It used to be that the standard price on carbon wheels was $2,000 or more, but in the past few years, more reasonably priced options have entered the market. Bontrager’s Aeolus carbon road wheels have been a favorite of mine for their value and ride quality. The Pro 3V, a gravel-specific version, launched in March. The carbon rims use Bontrager’s OCLV carbon, a step below its top-tier XXX carbon, so they’re a little heftier than the priciest hoops, but the claimed weight of 1,575 grams is respectable. And while there are lighter wheels out there, like Specialized’s brand-new Roval Terra CLX gravel carbon wheels (claimed weight: 1,300 grams a pair), those wheels are also much more expensive (the Roval Terra is nearly double the price, at $2,500).
The Aeolus Pro 3V’s have a 25-millimeter internal width (the actual material can vary in thickness, so internal width is the more meaningful measurement, as opposed to the external width more often quoted on product sites). For reference, that’s as wide as the previous generation of mountain-bike rims, before 30-millimeter-plus wide versions became more in vogue. This not only accommodates high-volume gravel tires specifically but plumps them up—so a 32-millimiter-wide tire, for example, could effectively measure 35 millimeters or so—and lets you run lower tire pressures for more traction and a smoother ride. The Aeolus Pro 3V’s also use the same Rapid Drive free hub as the road version, with an impressive 108 points of engagement (if you start a pedal stroke from a stop or from coasting, it’ll “catch” and start generating power every 3.3 degrees) that should make for a nearly seamless feel for power transfer. And the Bontragers come with a two-year warranty: if you break them, it’ll replace them, no questions asked.
Schwalbe G-One Allround, Addix Compound Tires ($56)
Schwalbe’s G-One Allround is easily my favorite gravel tire. Like a good gravel bike, versatility is its hallmark: the pebble tread rolls efficiently on pavement (you might almost forget you’re not on slicks) but provides enough texture, grip, and puncture resistance for everything from hammering rutted-out dirt roads to playing around on rock- and root-strewn singletrack. New for this year, the tires now come in Schwalbe’s Addix performance compound, which the company originally released in 2017 for its mountain-bike tires: it’s claimed to be more durable and faster rolling. The Addix version comes in 700x35c or 38c sizes, as well as a chubby 650b and 2.25-inch version (about as big as any 650b-compatible gravel bike will take). And for a less technical—but equally substantive—reason to be excited about these tires, the Addix versions come in a gumwall beige sidewall option, which is one of the quickest and easiest ways to make any bike look retro-stylish.
Ornot Handlebar Bag ($90)
This bag is not new, but there’s a reason it’s so damn popular: its burrito-roll shape makes the most of real estate in front of the handlebars (3.5 liters of volume), so you can stuff it with layers, snacks, tools, and a camera. External side pockets with elastic bungees keep your iPhone secure but easily accessible so you can capture ’grams on the go. Water-resistant Cordura buys your electronics some time in an unexpected downpour—though the zipper itself is not waterproof, so if the weather is sketchy, a Ziploc for electronics is a good idea. And in addition to the handlebar straps, it secures around your stem for three points of contact that tether the bag and prevent annoying flopping, even over rough terrain. It comes in a mini (one-liter) size, too.
Giro Privateer Lace Shoe ($140)
I love laces on cycling shoes. Critics will say you sacrifice the ability to make on-bike tension adjustments—the one downside—but I find them to be more reliable than Boa dials (which can break prematurely and be annoying to get out of) and more attractive and comfortable than plastic ratchet systems. I had a pair of Giro’s original, blingy ($300!), Empire VR90 lace-up mountain-bike shoes, and they were so comfortable and stylish that I rode them until the tread wore off. Giro’s Privateer mountain-bike shoe offers the benefits of laces in a more affordable package, with a grippy rubber tread and abrasion protection in the toe and heel. The laces are designed with cycling in mind: to stretch a bit and conform to swelling feet over longer rides, while maintaining tension well enough to hold a knot for hours and keep the shoe snug for pedaling efficiency.
SRAM Force eTap AXS Groupset ($1,250 to $2,000)
Do you need electronic shifting on your gravel bike? No. Will you smile like you just got away with something the first time you hit a steep muddy hill, drop three gears at once with a discrete, mercenary buzz, then spin up said hill in your 50-tooth cog while your companions’ mechanical derailleurs clank and slap around you? Yes. This spring, SRAM brought its top-of-the-line Red eTap wireless drivetrain down to a midtier price with its new Force eTap AXS group, offering both traditional two-ring drivetrain and single-ring drivetrain (a single chainring up front, no front derailleur) options. The ability to pair with SRAM’s Eagle 1×12 mountain-bike parts means AXS riders can get the same 500 percent gear range as the Eagle mountain-bike groups, which helps with spinning up steep, loose climbs. Like the original eTap wireless group, AXS is stupidly intuitive: simply press your right shifter to shift into a harder gear and your left shifter to switch into an easier gear (shifting in the same direction your chain moves, though you can also customize your settings and change that via an app). Recharging the battery, which SRAM claims will last 60 riding hours, is easy: it fits in your palm, snaps off the derailleur, and charges in its own tiny USB cradle. It’s essentially impossible to misshift, and you can say goodbye to issues with cable tension.
Blackburn Outpost Frame Bag ($60)
The Outpost is one of many top-tube-style frame bags on the market that still allows you to fit a bottle, making it suitable for carrying extra gear or food for big rides (as opposed to full-size frame bags that take up your entire front triangle, which are more suitable for bikepacking). But if you’re not ready to spring for a custom-made bag that fits your frame perfectly, it’s one of the few stock options from a major brand that comes in three sizes—small, medium, and large—allowing you to dial in a more precise fit. A bottom compartment unzips to expand for an extra liter of volume, and a hose port allows you to run a hydration bladder with a tube. Before the expansion, a small holds 2.5 liters, a medium holds 4.3 liters, and a large holds 5.25 liters.