If a mountain bike allows a rider to take the road not traveled, the gravel bike is designed to let riders take the road that's . . . only sort of a road.
The bike industry has a long history of hyping new niche machines. Remember when fat tire bikes were all the rage? Gravel bikes are just the latest example. They're durable enough to handle modest terrain - gravel trails, fire roads, etc. - while remaining light and nimble enough to efficiently cruise on pavement as well.
At first glance, a gravel bike looks like, well, a bike. There are the classic drop bars, shifters, and the 700cc rims of a road or cyclocross bike. But there are small tweaks and upgrades sprinkled throughout that help the bike handle rougher conditions. It has a slightly lower bottom bracket, and a longer wheelbase, which makes it more stable over uneven terrain at higher speeds. The wheels are wrapped in bigger tires, usually 32mm or 35mm wide, that do not require tubes. This lets riders run lower tire pressures for a better grip in a variety of surface conditions. Flat-mounted disc brakes offer greater modulation and stopping power than the rim brakes usually found on road bikes.
"Gravel has just exploded in the past year or two," said Mike Smith, co-owner of No. 22 Bicycles, which makes titanium bicycles in Johnstown, N.Y. The seven-person company didn't even make a gravel-specific model until just over a year ago. So many customers demanded gravel-friendly tweaks to its existing products that Smith eventually caved in to the pressure.
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The enthusiasm comes from a swelling interest in gravel events themselves. Rides such as the Dirty Kanza, which challenges riders over 200 miles in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the Trans Iowa, and the Farmer's Daughter in New York have been attracting increasing crowds over the past few years. Enthusiasts of such events congregate on sites such as ridinggravel.com.
I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I asked Smith to lend me a Drifter, his company's gravel machine, and registered for the Cross Mountain Crusher. The event, organized by William Dentner, owner of Overlook Mountain Bicycles in Woodstock, New York, scales nearly 5,000 feet over 55 miles in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
I rode a $6,699 Drifter with an Ice Blue anodized frame, Shimano Ultegra components, flat mount hydraulic disc brakes, Reynolds carbon fiber wheels, and a 3T cockpit. A similar mix of components can be found on bikes costing half that amount from larger companies. But that's not the point.
A custom titanium frame is all about the details, and the No. 22 has them in spades. The head tube badge, for instance, is CNC-machined out of a solid piece of titanium. The ice blue detailing is tastefully applied not only to the frame, but to the titanium bottle cages as well. It's not even paint; the color is achieved by anodizing the frame with an electric current. Even the seatstay bridge is tastefully anodized.
The welds are impossibly clean. I stared at the headtube for a full 10 minutes trying to find even a hint of a bad weld, a tiny deviation in the bead, an ugly lump or some discoloration. The employees at No. 22 have more than 10 years experience making titanium frames on average, Smith said. It shows.
The most impressive engineering is even less obvious to the eye. The smallest details, such as the dropouts where the rear wheel and derailleur are attached to the frame, get the most thought. No. 22 licenses a design from German manufacturer Syntace. The rear derailleur hanger is rigid to aid shift quality and attached to the bike with a hollow bolt. If you crash, the $6 bolt snaps off, whereas on most bikes, a flimsier hanger made of soft aluminum bends or breaks.
Music was blasting across the parking lot when I arrived at the Catskill Recreation Center in Arkville, New York, for the start of the ride. The space was full of cyclists anxiously fiddling with gear, drinking coffee and sizing each other up. The Cross Mountain Crusher, like many other gravel events, is not technically a race. This does not stop people from treating it as such.
After registering, I told the neutral support mechanic I had no idea what I was doing and asked for some help with my tire pressures. He laughed and talked me through it. Too high, and I wouldn't have enough traction to keep the rear wheel connected on the steep, loosely packed gravel climbs. Too low, and I'd be wasting power during the paved sections of the ride. Eventually, I settled on running 45 PSI rear/40 PSI front.
The participants were a mix of amateur racers, weekend warriors, and those just out to have a good time. The vast majority of people were on gravel or cyclocross bikes. A large chunk were on mountain bikes. I saw nobody foolish enough to tackle the event on a road bike.
After the rolling start, I quickly settled into a tempo with a group of local racers up the first major obstacle of the day, the namesake Cross Mountain Road climb. Unfamiliar with the route and finding myself nearing my threshold already, I backed off a bit and watched the pack and their gloriously shaved calves churn up the road.
It was one of the most grueling experiences I've ever been through on a bicycle. Cross Mountain Road soars 1,197 feet over 2.6 miles of hard-packed dirt, with an average gradient of more than 9 percent, according to Strava. Long sections of the grade are more than 20 percent. Making matters worse on this particular morning were the swarms of black flies. I swallowed several during the ride. At the summit, I felt like vomiting but was too tired to bother.
This is the terrain the Drifter is built for - dirt ascents, off camber corners with surprise patches of sand, and the occasional hop over a large rock. It's not the lightest bike I've ever ridden. "Solid" is the first adjective I reach for when I try to describe it. That's not an insult for a bike meant to take a beating. The ride quality is outstanding. Paired with the 35mm Schwalbe tires, I felt like I was floating over all but the gnarliest terrain.
Rolling over the finish line a little over three hours later, I grinned at Dentner. After wiping the dirt and black flies from my face, I made up my mind. "I'm coming back next year," I told him.
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The Drifter is fun because - even if the company calls it a gravel bike - it is Just A Bike. It is good at Being A Bike. You can use it for anything.
As someone lacking easy access to miles of pristine wilderness, I spend most of my time riding around Manhattan and northern New Jersey. The Drifter was a perfect daily rider, I learned. It's nimble enough to weave around honking cabbies. If a car tries to run you off the road, it'll happily hop a curb to keep you out of trouble. You can throw a rack on it to handle such things as groceries. (If you want, No. 22 will even make one for you, anodized to match the frame.) With a set of Shimano's latest road pedals and shoes, the Drifter is stiff and responsive enough to keep pace on road rides.
There are other bikes as versatile as the Drifter that come without the nearly $7,000 price tag. Niner's RLT can be had with a similar mix of components for just $3,900, or a few hundred dollars more than the Drifter frame and fork. This isn't quite a fair comparison.
If you're buying a Drifter, or any other bike from No. 22, you're investing in a titanium bike built in Upstate New York just for you. It's a rolling statement of taste. I was stopped at least once every ride by someone who wanted to admire the frame. I felt special, I will admit. Unique. Other cyclists notice when you're riding something that isn't mass produced - and we care about such trivial matters.
Acknowledging that such a bike is an extravagance, Smith says that the No. 22 Drifter is "usually one of a few bikes people have in the garage." Still, he adds, "We want to be the bike they're going to reach for most."