Back to the Dirt

It’s all going that way. The animating idea in cycling, after the mountain bike boom of the ’90s, was a swing back to road riding, road racing, everything on pavement. A certain bike company sold us on skinny tires with the help of the cyclist who must not be named, riders in their droves suddenly experts on the Tour de France.

As a cycling evangelist, I thought we were witnessing the U.S.’s conversion to a Dutch-style pedaling utopia. Of course, once the blood doping controversies of the ’00s ramped up to fever pitch, all of that momentum bled away again, and we needed a new idea.

These “animating ideas” bring new riders to the party, so the end of one idea isn’t a problem. It’s just part of the process.

As a tool for freedom, the bike should never be dogmatic, and cycling ought never be exclusive (although things did get awfully white and suburban during the ’90s). Since then, we’ve been on our way back to the dirt. In fact, the idea of getting off the pavement is so compelling that mountain bike technologies like disc brakes and wider tires have wormed their way into the road market, so that the roadies of the ’90s would hardly recognize the bikes stacking up at the red lights on their way out of town.

We also, thankfully, broke the spell of the weight weenies, and got back to thinking about what makes a bike great, other than a low total weight. Once folks accept that disc brakes were better than rim calipers, they immediately added a full pound to their bikes and realized it wasn’t a real problem. We’ll just glide past the implication that they industry had been lying to them about weight for 30 years.

It seems very odd to me that the key to unlocking this whole trend has been the “gravel” bike. First of all, gravel describes a very, very small amount of the surfaces these bikes are ridden on. They’re dirt bikes. They’re unpavement bikes. They’re not-road bikes, although the magic trick they perform is, wait for it, you can also ride them on roads, and that’s probably, despite the misnomer, what’s most compelling about gravel bikes. They’re versatile. They give riders MORE freedom than either a road bike or a mountain bike, and honor the fact that few people are either very serious roadies or very serious mountain bikers.

We’re all hobbyists. Some people build ships inside glass bottles. Some knit sweaters. We pedal around in circles. It’s ok. It doesn’t mean you don’t look cool in your leotard and your tap shoes (don’t think about that too much).

I’ve talked to hundreds of people buying their first gravel or mountain bike in the last five years. They gave me two reasons for wanting to take their cycling in that direction. First, they were just so tired of dealing with cars. Even as America’s drivers came to accept cyclists more generally, the distracted driving of people on cellphones made the whole enterprise more stressful than any hobby should be. Second, they wanted to be able to ride in more places, on more surfaces. It’s funny how many of them felt it important to tell me they would still mostly be riding pavement, but just wanted to maybe try, just a little bit, to ride on unpaved bike trails and dirt roads.

I didn’t tell them that a road bike would still do those things. I made a living selling bikes, and anyway, a gravel bike is much more fun to ride on dirt than a skinny tired road bike. I like helping people find the woods. No one ever called me to say it didn’t work out for them.

People love the freedom cycling gives them. Getting back to the dirt is just an expression of that idea that recognizes how riders don’t feel free on roads they have to share with cars.

Join the conversation
  1. TominAlbany says

    I love having the outdoors right outside my door!

  2. khal spencer says

    Did we need “gravel bikes” when we already had cyclecross bikes? Don’t ask me; I just bought a gravel bike to go with my cross bike. Did I need to? Probably not, but I’ll never admit that to my wife. After all, the proper number of bicycles one needs is n+1, where n is the number you have now.

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