On the Gravel

Gravel grinders. Will they change the world of bicycle racing?

Every so often a movement arises in the bike world, based on the need for relief from serious competition. Road racing had been a seriously competitive sport for nearly a century when informal mountain bike races started in the 1980’s. Mountain bike racers were fun races. Little, if any prize money, but lots of fun on a Saturday in Colorado. As these races attracted attention, things got serious. Money poured in from all directions to where mountain bike racing is now a fully professional and Olympic sport.

The same thing happened in cyclocross in the US. It all started out for fun. It was a fun way for road riders to stay in shape long into the off-season with events they didn’t have to take so seriously. Even that world has professionalized, with athletes dedicating their lives to compete on the world stage.

Midwest Gravel Road

Perfect route on a perfect day for gravel grinding.

Now comes along a whole new kind of race – gravel grinding, where the prizes are fun, glory, and parties. The venues are hard to televise but a pleasure to ride. The latest technology isn’t necessarily the best technology. Most importantly, everybody who rides, wins.

The first big event to emerge is The Trans-Iowa, now enjoying it’s 10th anniversary. Run by Guitar Ted, it has helped shape the sport. Iowa, you say? Doesn’t everything start in California?

Iowa turns out to be ground-zero for gravel grinding. There are two big reasons: First, most of the roads in Iowa were never paved, like they would have been if they were in Wisconsin, Illinois or Minnesota. This means there are thousands of miles of routes that are relatively car-free, yet not technical like off-road trails.

The second big reason is that Iowa has a long tradition of participant cycling, starting with RAGBRAI, now in its 42nd year. With well over 12,000 participants, it’s the biggest week long tour in the country, if not the world.

By comparison, Trans Iowa should have about 500 riders this year. It started ten years ago with 50 riders trying out a new kind of adventure endurance sport for America’s Heartland.

It’s free, but they caution at every turn, “You are on your own!”. It’s an unsupported 300 mile ride on gravel, run day and night over two days. In fact, Trans Iowa is a great template for gravel grinding, whether in an event or even on your own. Their FAQ section gives good idea about how it works.

This year, Jay Barre of Wheel Werks in Barrington, IL., had a terrific ride, placing 2nd in the single speed category. Jay was one of only 19 riders to complete this year’s race. Read Jay’s Blog.

Cust CrossHairs at 2014 TransIowa
dirtykanzalogo More rides are coming on line every year. One big ride is Dirty Kanza, run in another gravel road-intensive state, Kansas. It’s Rider’s Bible not only provides event rules but includes a great checklist for what to carry on the ride. Here in Wisconsin, we have The Bear 100, a 100 mile one day ride – just about all of it on Northern Wisconsin gravel. Check out the growing number of events on the Gravel Grinder News Event Calendar. gravel-bear100logo-2014

What they don’t talk about are the bikes themselves. Indeed, gravel grinder participants use nearly every kind of bike, from full-suspension mountain bikes to full-on road racing machines. We’ve worked with lots of gravel grinding enthusiasts using different designs. Gunnar’s CrossHairs turns out to have the kind of qualities that make it ideal for the sport:

Gunnar CrossHairs Seat Tube in Pink Panther
  • You can mount tires from 700C x 23C to 700 x 40C. The 23C’s are too skinny for gravel, but 25-28C’s let you go fast if you have the handling skills and conditions are dry. For wet conditions or for people who want a softer, more stable ride, the bigger tires make more sense.
  • Why not disc brakes? We love disc brakes’ wet weather braking and the better mud clearance they offer, but the CrossHairs’ canty brakes work better in the dust and dirt.
  • This year we made a few minor tweaks to the CrossHairs, making it even better for gravel grinders: We dropped the bottom bracket 5mm to lower the center of gravity. This stabilizes the handling without affecting the steering. We also changed our chainstay configuration add a bit more tire clearance.

What makes the CrossHairs and especially good investment is that it works so well for all kinds of cycling, including cyclocross, commuting, off-season training, and even light touring. There probably isn’t a more versatile bike on the market today.

A lot of riders like bigger tires than can fit in the CrossHairs. For those people we offer the Gunnar Rock Tour. It comes in both 26″ and 29″ versions and fits tires up to 700 x 2.3″. Because the need for big tire clearance, we outfit the Rock Tour with chainstay mount disc brakes. This brake system lets you mount a rear rack, because you don’t necessarily want to carry everything on your back. With it’s relatively short top tube, it lets you create a drop-bar bike for the gravel. Gunnar Rock Tour at home in Utah

If you want disc brakes with the same versatility as the CrossHairs, Gunnar offers the Hyper-X. It’s the same fit and tire clearance but for disc brakes.

The beauty of gravel-oriented bikes is that they are good bikes for a wide range of riding, which makes them a better investment than a bike designed for only a limited range of use. And, of course, it’s as much about the fun as the win.