This is probably the most pressing question I hear in the cycling world these days. The question comes in a lot of different ways. Do we need gravel bikes? What is a gravel bike? Can’t I just ride my road bike/MTB bike/CX bike…? Is a gravel bike for touring or is it for racing? What is gravel riding?
Because I am a simple person, I am interpreting all of these as the same question. In the end, it is do we NEED gravel bikes? In short, the answer is no, you do not NEED a gravel bike. Need implies that without one, you cannot participate in the great sport that we all love. This is the basic problem with the bicycle business as it sits today. Every time a slightly different use or a slightly different product comes along, there are so many companies that jump in trying to make their mark with that new product or category, the whole thing can become overblown really quickly. Think fat bikes, CX bikes, 27.5 vs 29, plus tire size bikes, aero road bikes, climbing road bikes, think trail bikes vs. technical trail bikes vs. enduro bikes, comfort bikes vs. hybrid bikes etc… It all starts to feel like marketing speak and company propaganda really fast. blah blah blah.
I for one, feel that the last thing the bicycle business needs is another niche category of road bikes. The bloom is off road bike sales and road bike riding for some time now. The market has seen sales falling in the road category for some time now. NPD numbers show that sales were down in road bikes very significantly in 2017. In spite of that, every large, and small company seems to have many categories of road bikes, coming in multiple colors and many many sizes. It has the makings of a nightmare for product development people, retailers and consumers alike.
But my real answer to the question about the need for gravel bikes is yes. Yes, you do need a gravel bike, because it isn’t about gravel it’s about adventure. Or, more specifically it is about cycling for people who do not care about racing (clue this bike business, that is most consumers). The mountain bike part of the bicycle world realized a long time ago that the majority of mountain bikers do not care about racing – at least in the traditional sense. They do not buy what is raced on Sunday in an XC race or a DH race. They buy based on what is going to give them the most enjoyment for the trails they ride the most. The best selling bike in almost every mountain bike companies lineup is the versatile trail bike that isn’t really ever raced by the companies XC or DH race efforts.
The non interest in traditional racing events in MTB land has spurred the growth of the Enduro format and other experience racing formats. The reality for all of the experience format races is that there are very few people who are showing up to beat others. Most participants are showing up for the experience of doing the event.
What does all of this have to do with the original question about NEEDING a gravel bike? Road bike riding is on the decline. It is declining for many reasons, not the least of which is the feeling that it just isn’t safe any more, because of so much distracted driving. But, it is also declining because the majority of people just are not served well on a traditional race inspired road bike. The reality is that most riders are never going to race their bicycles, and they just want a bicycle that can be ridden in many different environments. Those environments include dirt roads, paths, bike paths, roads, offroad trails. The gravel bike is the one bike quiver that will allow the rider to ride everything short of a snow covered trail or a really technical trail.
But, the name Gravel bike needs to be rethought. This isn’t a bike for riding just gravel, this is a bike for your adventure. Duh, it is about Adventure, who wouldn’t want an adventure? From here on in, let’s just agree that we are calling them Adventure Bikes. Hopefully, development of the category of Adventure Bikes will allow most bicycle companies to cut back on the number of different categories of road bikes, and retailers and riders can focus on the bike that does the most – Adventure Bikes! Bring it on.