If you’re still riding rural fence lines on your rusty Stumpjumper, and on the fence about the irrepressible rise of the gravel bike, it might be time to put assumptions like the image of the upstanding, Spandex-clad roadie aside. A gravel bike may not seem like a necessary addition to your two-wheeled toolset, but it may be the multi-tool that replaces half the outmoded machinery gathering dust in your garage.
“This is quite possibly the most versatile series of bikes that ever existed,” touts Mojo Cyclery owner Morgan Johnson. “There are no holdbacks or drawbacks . . ..”
“You can actually own just one bike,” agrees a shop regular overhearing our conversation on the explosive growth in gravel bike sales.
The Mojo shop is notably community centered and enthusiasts gather for themed rides throughout the week. On a still-hot summer evening, 18 local gravel converts—all but two of us on light, fast, wide-tired dirt road speedsters—left from the Mojo shop in Spokane Valley, rode trails up Beacon Hill, then flew down its paved, winding backside. We wound back along the Spokane river on Hobo Lane, a segment of well-worn urban trail connecting some of the 50+ miles of gravel road in the city limits, most of them on the east side.
Spokane County encompasses around 1,000 miles of gravel or seasonal-use roads, according to their website. With abundant connectivity to the city-wide spiderweb of singletrack trails, this may be the perfect place to test the flexibility of these new hybrid cycles, composites of road, cyclocross, touring, and mountain bikes.
Gravel bikes incorporate a long wheelbase and low bottom bracket for stability with wider chainstays and forks for voluminous tires. Many braze-on options accommodate the plethora of racks, attachments, and bags built for the burgeoning bike-packing industry, whose meteoric rise mirrors that of gravel riding. The bike’s geometry facilitates a more-upright-than-road riding position, as scenery supersedes speed in riders’ priorities, allowing them to withstand long miles of chunky washboards in relative comfort. If that all sounds a bit like your touring bike, it is—on a diet that would be disconcerting if the bike was human.
While e-bikes comprise an ever-increasing share of annual bicycle sales, an accompanying surge in gravel bikes has kept their purely people-powered counterparts competitive. Nationwide, gravel-ready bike sales nearly tripled between 2017 and 2018, according to Bicycle Retailer. Locally, Mojo is smartly riding this wave.
“We see our groups growing and growing. We see them becoming more diverse, which I love. It’s neat to see the people that are like, ‘I want to try it out,’ and come back with a smile on their face,” Johnson beams. At the end of almost 20 miles of multi-surface summer fun, beer in hand, there was certainly one on mine.
“ . . . I enjoy it because it gets me off paved roads,” contends Justin Montgomery from the Coeur D’Alene Trek Store. “We have some amazing paved roads around here, but we also have the Coeur d’Alene National Forest in our backyard, with endless Forest Service roads, so having something I can do both with just makes more financial and comfort sense.”
During a second organized gravel ride called Ride the Passes, on back roads from Wallace over Lookout and Moon passes, lugging my leaden touring bike through the billowing dust clouds of dedicated gravel grinders, I was in total agreement. You may be able to ride many kinds of bikes on gravel, but you won’t be able to ride many miles comfortably or quickly. If you want to keep up with the growing gravel industry and its long-ride frontrunners, or to follow fellow cyclists off of busy, dangerous pavement into more scenic, serene surroundings, you’ll need the machine this very magazine called “one ride to rule them all.”