Gravel Milestones: Cycling’s Crush Keeps Growing

Gravel cycling has passed through its adolescence and continues to mature into a strong category all its own. Bike industry manufacturers have proof of its legitimacy, and new events give gravel fanatics a reason to travel. We’re here to check in with makers, product knowledge experts, and riders who can’t get enough of everything gravel.

In a recent article published January of this year in Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, a Bicycle Product Suppliers Association report shared that “the overall value of bikes shipped last year fell by $15 million, a one percent drop in business compared with 2016.” Six cycling categories did post growth, however, one of which was, you guessed it, gravel. All other categories declined. “The increase in gravel bike sales added $26.9 million in new business.” For the brands that are embracing this relatively young category, it’s an exciting time to be a maker and distributor to a very engaged and enthusiastic audience.

Trends   Products   Riders

New Trends and Goals in Design

Perhaps within the whole spectrum of the gravel category, product makers may be having the most fun. As riders take their wares into the real world, revelations about what works perfectly and where there’s potential lead these engineers and designers back to the lab for review, revamps, or rejoicing. What’s influencing their work these days?

Peter Hall – Design Engineer, Salsa Cycles

“Gravel bikes have to be more and more capable on a wider variety of terrain, from gravel roads so smooth they are nicer than pavement to green level singletrack. More tire clearance, wider range of gears from road to mountain gears, geometry that further departs from road centric, dropper seat posts, suspension. My challenge is how to fit that all into one package.”

Joe Meiser – Product Manager, Salsa Cycles

“Riders are coming from all experiences in cycling when it comes to gravel, so we are looking to have more accessibility and flexibility in our bikes. From price point to features these are some of the most versatile bikes available. The ability to run a wide range of tire sizes and carry gear in a wide range of ways makes these bikes great. There is no one bike to do it all and there isn’t just one rider to serve.”

Amy Kippley – Product Manager, Surly Bikes

“We’re keeping an eye on drivetrain/brake compatibilities and maxing out tire clearance while making sure fenders play nicely for those looking to minimize their mud stripes. We’re looking at what gear folks are prioritizing, what elements they’re riding through, and how we can better balance loads without sacrificing ride feel.

As with most categories, we’re seeing gravel divide into sub categories with more people of different age groups/backgrounds line up at the start. Creating sizes that work well and handle nicely for a wide variety of bodies is always a goal, as is pairing a selection of parts that won’t need to immediately be replaced after one event.”

Charlie Denis – Design Engineer, Teravail

“As gravel and ‘adventure’ grow, people are wanting more options built into a single offering. To me that means that they want one tire that can get them through Landrun 100 type mud, Tour Divide distances with durability, and asphalt-like packed gravel with the best rolling efficiency. That demands that we make more well-rounded tire designs (think Teravail’s Cannonball) that can tackle all these things.”

Sean Mailen – Design Engineer, Salsa Cycles

“Recently I attended the Mob Gravel event out in Ojai, CA. It was a whole new experience compared to the gravel I’ve been a part of — I’ve realized that gravel has become a thing all across the country and now the whole is beginning to define what gravel is, not just the Midwest. The variety of terrain, topography, and varying lengths pushes riders to need more choice and customization per event. Because of this it drives riders to different configurations to help them best complete their mission. This is why it’s so cool to see all the different bike setups riders are using at different gravel races.”

We’ve Got the Goods

Want to add some squish when you crush? Suspension has found its way into gravel. How about electronic shifting or carbon off-road drop bars? QBP is bringing in those sorts of things as well, and we’re pleased to be at the forefront of offering new product from our premier gravel category vendor partners. Our purchasing experts are, too.

Michael Pederson – QBP Category Manager

“The most buzzworthy thing for gravel tires is the 650 size in wider widths. This is gaining popularity with bike brands and builders. It provides more air volume (comfort) and a larger contact patch (control), plus a smaller diameter wheel (more durable).

For tires it seems to be here to stay, vendors are bringing us more options each season, they are expanding their selection. It seems like gravel tires lead to road plus sizing. People who have access to gravel will look toward that type of riding for several factors including adventure, safety, solitude.”

Tyler Denniston — Distribution Product Manager, QBP

  1. Riders want comfort
  2. Riders want durability
  3. Riders are trying to dip their toe in, so they may look for options on how to change out a part or two on their road or CX bike, prior to ponying up for a dedicated gravel bike purchase

Here are some buzzworthy products being added to QBP’s catalog:

The Riders and Daydreamers 

While the engineers, designers, and brands are busy creating the bikes and gear that push the sport forward, there’s no denying that riders are reaping the rewards. For riders that have been part of the scene from the start to the ones just getting their crunch on, what do they think about their gravel experiences so far, and the potential ones to come?

Renee Hoffmann – Copywriter, QBP

“The biggest change I’ve noticed is that gravel is that it is its own bike category now. Even two years ago, most of my friends and I were just riding our cyclocross bikes for gravel rides. Now we have gravel-specific bikes with longer wheelbases, more tire clearance, disc brakes, and endurance geometry.

Race-wise, I think there’s a big opportunity for someone to create a really well-designed and intuitive way for gravel cyclists to mount cue sheets. It seems like everyone has their own homemade DIY approach and if a company came up with a clever solution, we’d all start using it. Right now, I just bring electrical tape and tape the cue sheet to my top tube. I’d also love to see bike companies release budget-friendly aluminum gravel bikes with mechanical disc brakes and Tiagra or 105-level groupsets so that more people can try it out.

One of the most appealing aspects of gravel racing, to me, is that it’s a totally equal playing field. I’ve done road races that are less than half the length of the men’s race, competed against cat 2 women in crits because they combine all the women’s fields (while the men only compete against people who are actually in their category), and done road races, crit races, and cyclocross races alongside juniors because they combine the women’s field with them. With gravel, they shoot the gun, and everyone just does the distance they signed up for. If gravel events were to be sanctioned and run how many sanctioned events are currently run, I’d probably do fewer gravel races.”

Jade Ptacek – Project Manager, Salsa Cycles

“This will be my first year riding gravel. I’d like to see more options of ride lengths and group gravel training rides (maybe even training rides specific to beginners).”

Ryan Horkey – Product Manager

“I’ve done about 10 years riding gravel. The category is no longer a niche group typically made up of mountain bikers looking for a place to ride when the trails are closed – it’s now a defined category where gravel is all people ride.

I am a social being, so I like riding with a group or partner. I like the concept of ‘team races’ where the finishing time is taken from the last person on the team, encouraging people to work together.”

Laura Heraldson – Project Manager, Salsa Cycles

“First and foremost, bibs that can open up for women to pee without getting all sloppy and without compromising the chamois. Seriously, an affordable option here would be mind-blowing. Also, I’m very interested in easy-access feed bags, whether that be a toptube set-up or something else. Easy access while I am in the saddle is the goal. Also, anything and everything that can be added to the cockpit for things like cue sheets, digital map finders, cell phones, battery packs, all that have the ability to fit together.

What draws me to gravel is the terrain, both the challenge of a new thing (distance, course, elevation) but also the ability to connect with nature in a new way. Being Midwest born-and-bred, there’s something cathartic and pastoral to me about breathing in air from the manure-rich fields in spring … I’m sure that doesn’t transcend to all riders. The more family-friendly these events get, the better for the future of gravel.”

Ethan Frey – Brand Ambassador, Salsa Cycles

“Wider tires, gravel specific bikes and geometry, along with better understanding of how comfort and fit lead to speed has totally changed the way I ride and race gravel. The races themselves haven’t changed all that much but the equipment and preparation for them sure has.

Increased comfort has by far had the most impact on my ability to enjoy and ride more gravel. This is everything from gravel specific touch points like saddles, bars, seatpost, pedals and shoes; to bikes with features that aim to keep the rider as isolated form the vibrations of gravel as possible; to components that address and meet the conditions that gravel riders encounter frequently like mud, sharp rocks, steep hills, and varied terrain. It’s an exciting world of new opportunity for product and I know there will be lots of great stuff coming down the pipe.

What makes gravel most exciting is the places where it exists and the remoteness it can lead to. Events and rides that take you further from your front door to explore new places are what really speak to me about riding gravel. I know it’s cliche but getting off the beaten path and experiencing places that few others do is just more exhilarating.”

Kim Marek – Vendor Sales

“This year will be my third year riding gravel and I can’t get enough of it! I just picked up a Salsa Cutthroat and am planning to tackle Dirty Kanza 200. I’ve noticed the increase in interest as people are switching over from the highly competitive road scene to longer distance gravel crusher races that evoke more of a community/family vibe. Gravel to me is the distance cyclocross scene where friends, families and a couple of beers come together to enjoy the outdoors, compete a little and ultimately test yourself mentally and physically.

I’d like a device that is useful for getting mud quickly off your bike. Having an extra water bottle helps, but sometimes the mud can get so thick and tacky that once it clings to your derailleur, it’s game over.”

Joel Swenson – Copywriter, Surly Bikes

“I’ve been pretty content just adapting things from road and CX for use on gravel roads, but I’ve enjoyed the influx of gravel tire options. I’d say the amount of ‘gravel-specific’ products are getting out of hand. I was just reading about gravel-specific shoes the other day!”

Pavement Ends Ahead

The Gravel Movement has legs, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. If the category continues to receive the attention and support it’s presently enjoying, dusty and lonesome roads around the world will only remain dusty. For cyclists and innovators that relish opportunities to help shape trends, now is a great time to ride.

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