TCI Friday

TCI Friday works best when you weigh in. This is a discussion topic, not a manifesto.

Last weekend Emporia KS staged the Unbound Gravel race, an event that has become the biggest on the gravel calendar. The news there is that there is a gravel calendar. There are races. There is prize money. There are athletes focusing on the discipline and traveling to compete. Drug tests are happening. This seems a long way from riding 28s in the woods on road bikes, which I was still doing 10 years ago.

I have this pet theory that, at any one time in the cycling industry, there is a single animating idea. For example, in the ’90s the Tour de France and pro racing captivated formerly casual riders and turned them into mile-counting, watt-obsessed roadies. In the ’00s, somehow, messenger culture and fixed gear bikes swept the board. Now, those trends didn’t prevent other categories from growing. It’s just that shops bet their inventory on the animating idea to make their daily bread.

A word from our sponsors

Retail needs this kind of focus so they’re not just hucking all the spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. To be sure, most shops sell kids bikes and fitness hybrids and entry-level road and mountain bikes all the time. That’s the background radiation in the cycloverse. But the animating idea is the one that makes or breaks the season. Gravel is currently that idea.

You know a category has truly arrived, has fully come to fruition, when people begin to wring their hands over what’s right and wrong. If the first few years of “gravel boom” were occupied with arguments about whether gravel bikes were any different from cyclocross bikes and what the right tire size was for general off-road fun, we are now actively wondering if we even think this thing should be competitive.

Spoiler alert: Some do. Some don’t.

What I think is this: People are gonna do what they’re gonna do. I can’t sweat any of it too hard. I’m not that interested in racing myself, but I’m also content going to a race, riding around in whatever way makes sense to me, and then crossing the finish line just like everyone else. In other words: Honey badger ain’t care.

But this week’s TCI Friday ask YOU, do you think gravel is heading in the right/wrong direction? Is it all just of a piece with how humans do things? Do you want to race? Or are you still riding your road bike around wondering what all the fuss is even about it?

As much as we appreciate our sponsors, we also need folks to subscribe to TCI to keep this wreck on the road. There’s a subscription for every budget. For the price of a Dunkin latte you can keep a cycling writer in Dunkin lattes. Be a part of the solution, eh?

Join the conversation
  1. bart says

    I can see why these big events are going this direction. Personally, I don’t really care. I also won’t be going to watch or participate at these big events any time soon, or obsess over results of those competing for the podium and prizes. I’d rather do the smaller local events that are still pretty low key. I find plenty of challenge in them and if I’m feeling like “racing” that day there are always enough other people in that mindset to provide great competition. So, I guess my response is best described as – meh.

    My favorite rides are still the ones I do on my “everything bike” that leave from my garage and end at my garage, mix in all sorts of surfaces including paved/gravel/dirt and often have friends in the mix along the way. This big events exist in a different universe from where I’m at in life.

  2. Dan Murphy says

    Like Bart, I like being able to head out from my house and do a ride with a little bit of everything. Equipment-wise, I like that I can have a bike with 40mm tires, low gearing (30×36), disc brakes and slightly different geometry that makes these rides possible and enjoyable. I don’t care that you used to ride 25mm tires on trails/roads, it’s much more enjoyable with modern gear. I haven’t touched my mtb in years because I ride most of the stuff on my gravel bike and I don’t drive to the trail.

    Regarding events, I don’t race, so I have no personal interest in racing. Events are a great way to motivate yourself to train and a way to go somewhere different and enjoy a new area. If I don’t make an event, I’ll get the route and ride it some other time. New places to ride always gets the juices going.

    Events like Unbound are a bit out of my wheelhouse, but look at Patria’s race report for her 200-mile ride. You gotta love it.

  3. Jeff vdD says

    Gravel is heading in the right direction.

    My core cycling philosophy is that more is better. Want to ride a road bike with your eyeglass temple pieces inside your helmet straps? Great, because you want to ride. Want to ride your mountain bike in skintight lycra? Great, because you want to ride. Want to ride your ebike to keep up with your friends? Great, because you want to ride.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t think that gravel is ruinable. Because I don’t think that any of the disciplines are ruinable. Sure, individuals and individual events can go wrong, but as a whole, those wrongs will self-correct.

    I lead local gravel (mixed terrain) rides here in New England. Sometimes the group size is one, often four or five, sometimes closing on ten. I love this kind of gravel. I ride larger semi-organized gravel rides of the sort that Ride Headquarters (congrats on Unbound, Patria!) puts on … anywhere from twenty to forty rides, sometimes even more. I love this kind of gravel. And I ride big organized gravel races/events including Rasputitsa, VT Monster, JAM Fund Grand Fundo, D2R2, and VT Overland. Rasputitsa was close to 2,000 racers this year. I love this kind of gravel. If I can figure out how to get in, I’m targeting Unbound 200 for 2025 when I turn 60. I hope I love that kind of gravel!

    I’m Cat 4 For Life, so I’m not competing at the pointy end of any of these events. But I love that the big names in our sport are up there creating the pointy end. I love that there are arguments about aerobars and domestiques and doping and USAC and UCI and whether the whiskey at the aid station is maple-infused or not.

    I found gravel ten years ago, more or less. Or maybe it found me. It’s what I was looking for since I was a kid even though I didn’t know I was looking for anything. I’m so glad we’re together and I can’t wait to see where we go together.

  4. alanm9 says

    The gravel fad frustrates me deeply; its been pushed by industry purely to sell more bikes. Most people in the east don’t have easy access to gravel roads so they drive farther to find them. They think gravel is safer so fewer riders on regular roads makes cycling more dangerous for me. The wide flat gravel fire and farm roads pushed by industry ads are an illusion for most people. In the meantime what gravel roads exist in the east are steadily being paved as the population grows. RIP Gravel.

    1. tommilani says

      Come to Loudoun County, Virginia. Some 200 miles of gravel roads. I do a group ride out of Plumb Grove Cyclery, and riding where there are fewer cars certainly feels safer to me. And the wider tires I ride are nice on the potholed and constantly-under-construction roads we have in Northern Virginia. So I don’t think gravel is dead yet.
      Tom in Alexandria, VA

  5. Wyatt says

    I fricking love my gravel bike and the cool rides I get to do on it. I suppose I will say the same for my MTB and road bike but neither is able to conquer the variety of terrains I routinely put together for the GB. I rode 55 mi yesterday with 6ish miles of single track and 20ish of dirt road mixed in throughout. Ive jumped in a few organized gravel rides and its been fun but mostly I just love the amazing versatility that modern fat tire road bikes offer. This sport will continuously evolve and I will like or dislike the direction it goes but its going nonetheless so Im along for the ride(s).

  6. billwhite.envirolaw says

    Hard to go wrong riding any bike you have anywhere you can ride it. “Gravel” as an identified activity has arrived in my neck of the woods. I have gone on a few such rides and have noticed that people tend to bring bikes with fatter tires to them. I’ve ridden every route that doesn’t involve singletrack on a steel mid-80’s road bike that will just allow 28cms to fit. It works fine. I have done one organized event, maybe 70-80 riders, which was fun but marred by a bad fall at the start. So we are really just talking about having the same experiences nearly all of the time. If it’s rideable, you can ride it on any of your bikes.

  7. Heath Oates says

    This is my 4th season on the bike again. I’m a west Missouri school administrator in my late 40s. I ride gravel because we have gravel roads around here. The tarmac roads don’t have shoulders and the motorists don’t care about your life. On gravel and dirt roads, people drive slower and are used to horse traffic and it’s just friendlier for everyone. I have been captivated by Unbound Gravel for 4 years now. I’ve only got in once and I cracked a rib and took a DNF at mile 150 a year ago. Next year, I’ll try again. The pointy end of the race isn’t for me except to view as a casual fan. I just hope I can still do epic rides long after the fast kids are done. Here’s to gravel and dirt! The safest and most accessible kind of riding in my part of the country!

  8. Balky says

    Although I have absolutely no interest in racing, I think the explosion in gravel biking and the increased popularity in gravel racing is a great thing. If you compare gravel biking to road cycling or even to mountain biking to a certain extent, I think gravel bikes significantly lower the barriers to entry for cycling. The range of places you can ride on one bike is far greater, the level of anal retentive unwritten rule adherence is lower, the types of clothing deemed acceptable while riding is far broader and the amount of stuff you can carry with you to make your day easier is far greater to name just a few. I think all these things help attract more people from more walks of life to riding bikes and I think that’s the most important thing. I was going to write “…to the sport of cycling…” for a moment there but I don’t think that’s correct because what I’m really hoping for is that people are taken up by the cycling lifestyle and not just as a sport to be done in their leisure time. I think gravel bikes are a pretty good “gateway drug” for achieving that and opening people’s minds to other riding experiences and more bikes. What matters is that we’re closer to bikes being so ubiquitous that it’s no longer noteworthy that, for example, Mrs Smith down at number fifty-six rides her bike to the shop to get bread and coffee every morning and that the word cyclist is used about the same amount and way as the word motorist because pretty much everybody is one at some point in the average week.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More