So You Want a Gravel Bike …

nobody asked me for my opinion but you’re getting it anyway

Hey Laura, I’m interested in getting a gravel bike. What do you think I should get?
Well … what do you want to do with that gravel bike?

I spent a lot of time reading about gravel bikes before pulling the trigger and getting one: various frame materials, geometries, gearing, and tires. It’s a lot. But it all comes down to what you are looking to do with your gravel bike.

Are you racing? Don’t buy a bike made for bikepacking.
Prefer smoother hardpack to logging roads? You probably don’t need tire clearance for 2″+ tires. 38mm might be just fine.
Want to load up your bike and disappear for a while? You need a bike that is in it for the long-haul too.

There’s other searches you can do to learn more about gravel specific bikes but here’s my recommendations based on my own research. Think about what’s important to you now and what you think you might want to try and get yourself a bike that will meet those needs and aspirations.

A word about bike brands: You will not see a Big Three bike on this list nor will you see Lynskey. Lots of people ride and love them. I have no beef with them (cue my girlfriends laughing hilariously about a certain brand I believe rides dead). If you have one and love it, keep riding it. More important than anything is the bike works for YOU and you WANT to ride it.

I prefer the “boutique” brands that cater to specific types of riders. All of the brands below are one I’ve ridden and loved because the bikes are spunky and fun. They WANT to be ridden and make it fun to explore. I subscribe to the Salsa ethos of Adventure by Bike and it remains my #1 brand.


Think about … Drivetrain (1x or 2x)

It’s a tradeoff – do you want lower gears or higher gears?

1x are good for general gravel riding and racing and yes, they do provide a similar range of gears as a compact road setup. If that works well for you, amazing. Get yourself a 1x set up. Enjoy!

For my purposes, DON’T BELIEVE THE 1x HYPE. Yes it’s lower maintenance and yes, it’s a cleaner aesthetic, but if you plan to do any bikepacking or major climbing, do yourself a favor and get a 2x and the biggest cassette you can MacGuyver onto your bike. You’ll thank me when you spin up steep hills like it’s Sunday morning while your riding pals grind it out and are ready for the post-ride beer well before you’re legs start complaining.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER? Read more about Gear Ratios here


Talk about … Tires

In the early days of my gravel riding, I mounted 26mm Panaracer GravelKing SKs to my titanium road bike and hit the dirt. This is the only gravel-specific tire I’ve found that comes in sub-30mm widths. GravelKing SKs are my go-to gravel tire for the low rolling resistance on pavement and just enough bite to handle most hardpack and light gravel roads in the Northeast. I like them so much I bought 38mm GK SKs for everyday gravel uses.

For bikepacking and mixed terrain that includes trails, I’ve been using the stock 2.2″ Teravail Sparwood that came with my gravel bike. When riding unladen, the wider tires are smooth rolling and P L U S H. Like riding in a La-Z-Boy down the road. When laden, the extra width provides stability, traction, and additional support as terrain changes.

In terms of width, wider tires generally have more rolling resistance so if you aren’t looking to ride in a place where width makes the ride safer and more comfortable, you don’t need the widest tires out there. Everyone has their preference for width, but generally 35-38mm works for a wide variety of situations. If you want the extra traction and stability in uneven terrain, look for clearance for 50mm or more.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER? Tires can be swapped to reflect the ride you’re doing or your preferences – but tire clearance on the bike can’t be changed.

When I took my Cutthroat out for the first few rides, I kept the stock 2.2″ tires on. The bike felt incredible on flats and descents – but sluggish as I pushed through the extra rubber on the ground when ascending. I started to question if I even liked the bike because I had done so much research but wasn’t able to test ride and omg what if I made a really expensive bad decision …..

Then I put on some 38mm GravelKing SKs and the entire ride feel changed. The bike was no longer sluggish on the uphill and I still felt confident screaming down descents, something I never did on my road bike with the narrow SKs. Swapping the tires aligned my lived experience with my research and the Cutthroat is now my favorite bike to ride.


My Recommendations

Salsa Cutthroat

link: https://salsacycles.com/bikes/cutthroat/2020_cutthroat_grx_600

Best for: mountain bikers, anyone looking for a swiss army bike that can tackle anything you throw at it, bikepackers

Pros: Confidence and stability come standard. The GRX hoods are much (thicker? wider?) than road hoods but that comes in handy when bombing down a chunky descent and you want something that helps you feel in control.

Cons: Overkill if you only ride manicured dirt roads and have zero interest in bikepacking. It looks like a mountain bike too so if you want that clean road-bike look, this isn’t for you.

Comments: This is what I ride. I bought this bike because I wanted to keep riding gnarly logging roads – just not with narrow tires. I also wanted to do more bikepacking (which I also started doing on my road bike) so a bike that can take me and my stuff anywhere I wanted to go was vital. I wanted ultra-low gears so I can climb every mountain and not get obliterated by the grind so I swapped in an 11-40 cassette. Paired with the subcompact 30-46 up front, my gear-inches are as low as 20. (calculate your gear-inches here – bikepacking/touring should be sub-23 with preference for sub 20)


Salsa Warbird

Link: https://salsacycles.com/bikes/warbird/2020_warbird_grx_600

Best for: roadies looking to go fast on dirt, gravel originalists, anyone looking for a sexy bike to take on dirty adventures

Pros: Look at this sexy bike! The first bike designed for riding on gnarly Midwest gravel roads before gravel riding was cool. The Warbird is a perennial favorite for good reason- it’s an awesome bike that will get you stoked on riding all kinds of dirt.

Cons: Definitely more road-end of the gravel bike spectrum although it looks like with the 2020 models Salsa updated the spec to be more bikepacking friendly (30-46 subcompact up front, 11-34 in the back).


Santa Cruz Stigmata / Juliana Quincy

Link: https://www.santacruzbicycles.com/en-US/bikes/stigmata

Link: https://www.julianabicycles.com/en-US/bikes/quincy

Best for: Anyone looking for a really lightweight machine that crushes dirt and gravel for breakfast

Pros: Santa Cruz makes bikes that are just really stupid fun to ride. The Stigmata is no exception. Built around their deep background in mountain biking, the Stigmata and sister bike Quincy are for those who are looking for a lightweight bike that rips.

Cons: Only fits up to 47mm for a standard 700c. You can squeeze in a 2.1 if you get a new 650b wheelset … so not a pick for seriously-loaded bikepacking.

Stigmata
Quincy

Kona Sutra LTD

Link: https://konaworld.com/platform_sutra.cfm

Best for: multi surface touring and those looking for a more traditional road bike aesthetic. To quote their marketing materials, it’s as if a mountain bike and a road bike got together …

Pros: STEEL IS REAL. and bombproof. This bike is going to take you places and still love you when it accidentally get dented by a wayward flying rock. 2″ tires are standard, which will make for a plush ride feel.

Cons: The standard gearing really only gets you down to 24 gear-inches, which is nowhere close to what a touring machine should come with. But it does split the difference of speed vs climbing. Steel can be heavier than carbon, if you care about that.


Hope this helps! If not, there’s plenty of publications that have Best Gravel Bike of <Year> on the web. You can also comment and I’ll do my best to help you figure out what to take a look at.

See you out there!

Shortest Day of the Longest Year

real talk from a really long year

2020, am I right?

This year has been cray on top of the previous three years of political cray here in the US. At this point I’m pretty sure the Hadron Collider shuttled us into an alternate reality that we’re only now able to escape.

I’m sitting here two weeks from starting a new job, enjoying a few days off before becoming the New Kid At Work again. But wait, didn’t you just start a new job right as the pandemic unfolded? Yes, yes I did. Life is too short to waste time trying to please those who won’t appreciate it.

Despite the cray, it was still a pretty decent year. Instead of my usual bike pics, I’m going to share some of my favorite memes from the year because WHY NOT. For bike pics, check my Instagram.

January

We started the New Year back home in Colorado with family and friends. I continue to cherish spending the time together before the world seemed to fall apart. I celebrated Chinese New Year with my coworkers at a local Chinese restaurant. Laura, are you sure you want to go to a Chinese restaurant? You aren’t worried about coronavirus? Yes, I’m sure. I’m confident it won’t be an issue. I started a “training” series for those who wanted to ride my latest bike event brainchild, The Frozen Apple.

February

February involved more gravel riding, my youngest kid being featured in the school district art show, and a questionably-advised brewery and distillery trip with friends. Swag for the Frozen Apple arrived and I spent a lot of time ironing out details and getting volunteers.

March

March saw our world upended. I still can’t believe my goodbye happy hour was at a bar and we all hung out inside, laughing and talking and hugging multiple times. The simple joys of The Before Times. I then started a new job just across the bridge from NYC and 4 days later was advised to work from home for the foreseeable future. Westchester and NYS shut down. It was really scary to live in the epicenter county of a viral outbreak. So much panic buying at the grocery store. Then came the deep paycuts, reconfiguring our budget, and spending hours on hold trying to talk to a rep about mortgage payment relief. Finally see my GI doc. My youngest kid got to have the first Quarantine Birthday.

We end up canceling the Frozen Apple due to the president declaring a National Emergency.

April

April brought warmer weather and solo bike rides to help manage the stress and anxiety of Pandemic Times. Mask mandates begin and thing start to feel safer – but the grocery stores are still broadcasting an odd mix of 80s pop music and “During these trying times ….” messages. Feeling thankful we bought a huge set of toilet paper and paper towels when they were plentiful.

May

More solo gravel rides and I’m hitting my stride – seeing a big jump in speed and endurance. All signs point to an amazing bike year and I’m averaging over 100 feet of climbing per mile ridden. I buy myself a smartwatch to monitor my body metrics because it sounds interesting. My girlfriends and I lament not being able to have a Girls Bike Camping Weekend. I start to incorporate one other person on bike rides, and only mountain biking rides because it’s much easier to stay socially distant in the woods.

I’m also apparently in need of my gallbladder to be removed. So I bow out of a redux of Taste the Catskills.

June

June is a big pile of nothing. Elective surgeries had just started resuming within the last week or so so I’m thankful for the timing of having my gallbladder removed. I should write a post about that experience because there’s a lot that I thought I understood but really didn’t. Main take-away: Laparoscopic surgery is still major surgery. Next time, maybe take more than 3 days off work to recover. I rest, read, and walk the dogs. Celebrated another Quarantine Birthday for my oldest kid.

July

Ah yes, Birthday Month! Technically I’m allowed to bike again, but I keep it mellow and stop when my insides start to feel Not Great. I discover I still need to stay on a reduced fat diet (I decided to aim for 50g of fat per day because that felt ok) and add in digestive enzymes, which help tremendously. My oldest comes over for a long weekend visit. I turn 43.

August

Decide I’m officially IN for the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, a bikepacking trip my friend and I had been planning all year to do. A tropical storm knocks out our power so I have to go into the office to work for a day. It’s the weirdest feeling even though only a few others are there and the whole office has been rearranged to be socially distant and masks required when not at your desk. Work stress on top of everyday stress and anxiety are building up and my usual mechanisms aren’t working. I end up having an anxiety attack, signing up for therapy, and talking to my doctor about a low dose of SSRI.

I get my life back with therapy and Lexapro.

September

Training rides and bikepacking prep. Finally get a Girls Bike Weekend in the Berkshires and it’s everything we needed it to be. We booked adjacent campsites and brought all our own stuff (no sharing anything). We rode gravel and had campfires and talked. It felt magically to spend time with friends I love.

Green Mountain Gravel Growler pushed me to my limits and even though I had to push myself to the very end of my physical abilities, I have zero regrets and look forward to another week-long trip next year. I learned some valuable lessons and have some amazing stories to tell.

October

October started great – I recovered from my deep glycogen deficit and did some low-key rides with one or two others. I’m driving home one evening from running errands and notice a kitten in the road that looks like it may have been clipped by a car. So I stop and move it to the side of the road … and it bites me.

Cue a massively infected finger, several calls with the Dept of Health, and a mandate to go get a rabies vaccine. PEAK 2020: Potential for Death by Kitten.

I decide I don’t want to be working in the dining room anymore so we convert my middle kid’s room to an office. I redecorate with bike-themed posters. Pete and I celebrate 23 years of marriage. I decide my bike goal for this year is to average 100 feet of climbing per mile ridden.

November

I’m no political junkie but hot damn, this election was a roller coaster and I’m pleased with the outcome. I’m ready to get back to hating my elected officials a normal amount.

A rare warm November day meant I could meet up with my best bike girlfriends for a mixed terrain gravel ride upstate. I went solo camping with my senior beagle and had to cut it short because it was too cold for him. I rode bikes as much as I could.

December

As the year comes to a close, the long sleeve thermal jerseys come out, the days are too short, and it feels like time has been a raging river and slow as molasses. January and February feel so far away. But I have hope that with the covid vaccines being rolled out, we will have a shot to get back to mostly normal by this time next year.

I say mostly normal because this year has allowed space to refocus on what’s important. Suspending the things we distract ourselves with forces us to reckon with who we are, what we believe, and what we stand for.

My 70 year old dad got covid this month. He’s still not out of the woods yet but we are thankful he’s been able to ride it out at home so far.

A seemingly minor mountain biking injury blows up into a chronic knee issue so I have to abort my climbing-per-mile goal at an average of 99.4 feet of climbing per mile ridden. I’m not disappointed – this year is teaching me to be at peace with Good Enough (or Close Enough).

As I unwind myself from my current work obligations and prepare to engage in learning a new corporate culture and team, I am thankful for many things:

* Front-line employees and first responders
* The privilege to work from home
* My family
* Friends who also take the virus very seriously
* that this year is almost over

I’m still thinking of my bike goals for next year. To be sure they involve more bikepacking trips and hopefully time with friends and family again. And my middle kid will be celebrating his Quarantine Birthday later this month.

Until next year, keep the rubber side down and see you out there.