"Now you can call me Ray, or you can call me J, or you can call me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny..." Raymond J. Johnson Jr.
Cross bike. Gravel Bike. Adventure Bike. All Road Bike. X-Road bike. Mixed Surface Bike. I cannot recall a time when the marketing folks in the bicycle industry have struggled so hard to define a niche. And believe me, this industry LOVES 'niche'. Niche means you need yet another bike in your stable and this biz thrives on 'the next thing'. But I digress. Take a road bike, open it up for bigger tires, slacken the angles a bit, and tune it for comfort and stability and you have drawn a big circle around this new genre. Now I am not poo-pooing the idea. Far from it. I am very much enjoying the gravel bike I have in my garage (yes, the maker of the bike calls it a "GravelRace Bike". So, there!). But not everyone has such a clear vision of what they are selling. So what's in a name? This gravel thing was too good to stay in the rolling plains of the Mid West. It has spilled out across those borders and founds it's way into places like So Cal where I live. But we have no gravel, per se. We have dirt. And we have paved road - lots of that - that can be mixed with dirt. So the appeal is there for a bike that can cover all kinds of surfaces (although I think "Mixed Surface Bike" is the worst name of all...sounds like a Home Depot product..."mix well and wait 24 hours before use").
"Call me what you like, just don't call me late for dinner."
But what to call them, these new bikes that are not really cyclocross, not really road, and not really an MTB at all? No one seems to know. Heck, even I am not sure and I find myself using one of those terms listed above in a conversation and feeling awkward about it, like I called one of my kids by the wrong name. I mean, don't I KNOW what it's called? No. And neither does anyone else, it seems. At least not in the broader sense. Yet defining this in a marketing sense is important...got to get that term right so as to not exclude potential buyers. And no one wants to miss this gravel gravy train, so you are seeing most of the bike makers getting something out there that gets them in the game. So back to the list of name options (and I am sure as I write this, more are being thought up). Cross bike: In some cases it is accurate, like if I have a Specialized Crux. But I am not 'Crossing on it (as in cyclocross racing). Still it is a real 'cross bike, yet most new bikes coming to the market are certainly NOT a 'cross bike and calling them so would be wrong. Gravel Bike: Personally my favorite. Even if gravel is not the same everywhere, it is easy to say and folks 'get it', even if you do not have gravel to ride it on. It means (or should mean) that it is a bit lower, a bit slacker, more comfy, and bigger tires will fit compared to a typical 'cross bike. Or at least to me it does and that is where the gravel bike and 'cross bike begin to take separate paths. Adventure Bike: Really? Any bike is an adventure bike. And while you cannot deny that pretty much any bike can be ridden on a dirt or gravel road, not all of them will do it well. And adventures, or how you experience them, are quite different. There is road based touring, fat biking (snow or otherwise), century-type road stuff, bike packing, and ...gasp...dare we say it, having an adventure on any old regular MTB. All Road Bike: Interesting and maybe a contender. But is a Trek Domane with 32mm tires stuffed in there really a bike for all roads? There are some roads that would truly suck on that bike. Try the White Rim Trail in Utah. It's a road. Is this the Jack of all, master of none approach? Not sure. X-Road bike: I think Giant has this one in their corporate pocket. But I have no idea what it means. Can I cross the road on it or what? Mixed Surface Bike: Saw a Ti bike called that from a big builder in that frame material. Ick. See Home Depot comment above. So until something better comes along, I am sticking with Gravel Bike. At least I have some idea what I am saying at the time.
A sign that befits the quandry, courtesy of the 4077th MASH unit.
Remember that I had a Warbird on order? Well go over to ridinggravel.com and look for the Warbird article series. But I am very happy with what it has turned out to be. I am still fine tuning gearing and tires and such but I think that is about done for now, or at least until 1X road gets on the market and then I might go to Gearing Phase III.
Meanwhile....it is being used and enjoyed. It is surprising where that bike can go and not surprising where it cannot go.
Pulling back the curtains and peering out the window into the dimly lit darkness showed a foggy morning, the street lamps looking like little moons haloed by the moisture in the air. I had no idea how cold it was and was not sure I wanted to find out.
I sat in the dim light, not wanting to stir the entire household, pulling on a base layer under the bib knicker's straps, then a wool jersey over that, then finishing with a jacket rolled and tucked into the center pocket. Tires were checked and the sound of a "PSSSFFFttt!" from the presta valves as the Silca pump head was removed, worried the dog who looked a bit afraid that she was going to be invited on the ride. She got up, spun in a circle or two, then laid back down, turning away from me as if to put that idea to rest.
Shoes next…ratcheting straps ratcheted, wool head cover pulled on, then helmet, then gloves. The sounds of clacking cleats on the hard floor mixed with the click click click of the free hub as I duck walked to the front door, pulled on the handle and caught a full breath of cool, moist air.
A thought came to me. "I could be in a Rapha video right now".
Out into the morning, away from warmth and comfort, pedals turn and gears spin as muscles strain to wake up and perform. Maybe the dog was right.
I wonder how many times I have done this, this pedaling thing. No idea. I cannot even be sure how old I am at this moment…let's see…my inner abacus whirs and clicks along with the gear changes and a freshly oiled chain, but it's early and math is hard. It is certain that nearly 6 decades on their earth have gone by and I settle on one number or another as my age. Close enough. Until carbon 14 dating gets a bit more accurate or I die and they count the tree rings, that estimation will have to do. What's in a birth date anyway?
From birth till somewhere in our 20's we are on an upward swing, getting better and faster and holding a glass half full, our bodies and minds being an optimist. But around the mid 20s, it begins to tilt the other way and some guy comes along with that half empty glass and kicks the half full glass guy in the nuts and steals his glass. From there it's a desperate attempt to keep even status quo in sight.
No matter. The road turns up and into the fog as moisture from the air condenses on my helmet brim and mixes with sweat on my face. There are no glasses in sight, full or empty. Just the road and the tires and the pedals that require my full attention.
The road forks and I stay right, into smooth dirt that I can smell and feel under my tires more than see. Earthy and rich. Water drips from road side plants and I brush them in my hasty weaving, adding to the wetness I am becoming. Not cold anymore. Working harder now and man that feels good. So familiar. How do people live their lives and not do hard things like this? I have the half empty glass guy worried that I might be gaining on him just a bit.
And then I am there. The top. I cannot actually see that I am on any summit, as I am covered in clouds. But I know this road, and where it leads. On comes the jacket, fastened tightly for the descent to come. Ears are covered, gloves pulled tight. Somewhere down below there is a barrista who knows me, knows I am out here, and knows what to do about that. And with fast moving hands, jets of steam, and careful pouring of milk into steel cups, he or she is creating aromas that call to me. Click…clack. In the pedals and pushing away.
The wind tugs at me, flapping fabrics and pushing beads of water off my helmet in fast streams. Gravity vs. wind. The eternal cyclist battle. I bring in my knees to the top tube, reach for the drops, and lower my head. Things go quiet. I look up, craning my neck to see the next line, the next corner. A foot is dropped to the outside, weight is shifted, and then I am gone.