At any given time in the cycling industry, or maybe actually in the cycling zeitgeist, there is a primary animating idea that gives the underlying industry its focus and motivation. For example, the animating idea in cycling in the ’90s was the first mountain bike boom. Then there was a swing back to road riding, road racing, and 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, but the gulf between pacelining and bike commuting proved too deep. 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, as long as there’s a new idea to take its place.
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. The roadies of the ’90s would hardly recognize the bikes stacking up at the red lights on their way out of town now.
We also, thankfully, broke the spell of the weight weenies, and got back to thinking about what makes a bike great, beyond a low total weight. Once folks accepted 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 the industry had been lying to them about weight for 30 years.
It seems 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.
This brings us to today, still in the bloom of the gravel revolution, but also watching the eBike find its place in the personal mobility paradigm. That so many eBikers are not what we, the cycling hobbyists, think of as bike riders makes the current moment sort of bittersweet. We have wanted more people on bikes, but we expected to have more in common with them than this. Bike shops are moving eBikes, but I’m not sure they’re seeing the same uplift in their fortunes that came from the advent of gravel, because many eBike riders aren’t regular bike shop visitors. They buy a bike and don’t come back.
I think about the future of what we do, for a hobby and also, in my case, as a business, and wonder where it all goes. Is the eBike the herald of a new phase of cycling, when those of us who were content to pedal ourselves around become overwhelmed by a general public reacting to climate change, traffic, and the high cost of living by creating a newer, larger cycling culture, one that is both electrified and much more practical, not besotted by the bike as a machine or riding as a way of life. Are we, devoted bike riders, reaching a new state of suspended animation, out of new ideas? And if so, is that even a bad thing, given what seems to be coming next?
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