But this gravel bike thing…oh man has this been a journey. I have never found it so hard to get just what I want - price, geometry, features, construction, etc. I could get really close, but having all the things I wanted in the right combo simply does not exist as far as I can see.
So this is what I was looking for, based on what I know and what others that I trust know:
- Geometry: A low BB of AT LEAST 70mms of drop. 75mms would be better. A head tube angle that will not be too scary at speed on the dirt. What is that for sure? Dunno', but over 72° is not it. Lower stand-over, in that I mean a sloping TT so the seat tube length is NOT taller than my road bikes fer cryin out loud! I am not shouldering this thing and running up steps and I do not care at all about your bias, speaking to the bike frame builders here, the bias that says a level top tube looks 'classic'. So do steel forks and gum wall tires.
- Features: Big room for big tires. At least 40s with mud room. I can always run a smaller tire if I want to. Multiple WB mounts would be good. Fenders or rack mounts? Don't care.
- Construction: A decently compliant ride, regardless of the material used. Most bikes I looked at were over-built for gravel use. Has to have a carbon fork for weight savings and vibration canceling.
- Price: I'm not rich and this not my main ride for life, so a custom frame is not in the cards. Frame/fork for a grand or so would be fine.
One of the issues here, maybe the BIG issue here, is the muddy mess that this gravel/all-road/any-road/dirt road niche has become. Even the riders who are doing it cannot agree on what is good or bad for bike set-up. The manufacturers are trying to figure out if the trend is worth the cost of all the R&D to jump in for real. Or they are trying to say that the cross bike they have is a great dirt road bike too.
Despite all this, and working within the compromises in the market place, I nearly had the following bikes in my garage:
- Ritchey Swiss Cross disc - Nice steel, not heavy Surly-type steel. Carbon fork, NOT overbuilt. Will ride very nicely, I bet, based on the time on my steel Ritchey road frame. Only room for a 38C tire and a BB drop of 63mm plus a semi steep HT angle had it on the iffy list, but I would have pulled the trigger except production delays had me passing on this one.
- Raleigh Williard - Tics all the right boxes and is lighter than the all steel Tamland. Big tire room, long and low. Tons of BB drop. Slacker angles. The alu frame ride quality is a complete unknown though and I would have had to buy a complete bike (no frame option) and strip it. Still, this was a contender and I think Raleigh at least 'gets it' regarding gravel bikes.
- Specialized Crux - Expensive in carbon, better $$ in alu and with a frame only option. Maybe room for bigger than 38s. Decent geo specs, but still a cross bike approach. And besides that, they were out of stock, but I had ridden the carbon version and I liked it.
- Niner RLT - Every professional review I read on this bike mentioned the rough ride. Overbuilt for its intended use. High BB too, but big tire room and slacker HT angle is nice. Good price too. Pity.
- Ibis Hakkalugi - I actually had a great deal on a demo bike and had it in my house when the deal was just not quite right for me. Still, the geo is very good, low and slack, and the frame is known for a smooth ride. Only room for 38s or so, but this one was very close to ideal. In the end, the $$ level of the deal was just not right.
- Salsa Warbird - Too much money in Ti and the alu one had a rep for a stiff ride. Tire size is sort-of ok, and it could be lower and slacker too.
- Others like All City cycles, Black Mtn Cycles, Surly, and a Ti frame that cannot be named…either they were too heavy, too tall, too high, too something.
Then Frost Bike 2015 happened and the clouds parted a bit. The new Salsa Warbird was announced and my ears perked up. It was a bit lower at the BB. It was more compliant than before, and even the alu model was better in that regard than the old Ti version. It had tons of tire room. It still was a bit steep in front, but the new fork was redesigned for gravel use, not 'cross use, so it looks like it is NOT overbuilt for miles of tiny bumps. It was not too tall at the ST and it was tall enough at the HT for this old guy.
And, best of all, the alu one was available as a frame set at a just under one grand cost with a carbon fork. Oh my. Unless I want to wait for the next year for something else that may never come, this was very, very close to ideal.
And it's on order.