Salsa recently mailed out their September newsletter, in which they talked about the Midwest as the birth of gravel racing. Their line of new bikes, predominantly including the Warbird as a dedicated gravel racer, focuses some significant effort on this growing genre.
By no means is gravel racing new. Trans-Iowa has been occurring for nearly a decade, and other rides even longer. That said, it is undeniable that there has been an explosion of interest over the past couple/few years.
Part of what intrigues me about the growth of gravel racing is defining what the genre is and isn’t. There are some obvious contrasts/conflicts in the way that gravel racing is viewed, and what the best tool for the job is. Guitar Ted, purveyor of the Trans-Iowa, has spoken about his views that suggest that bikes which fail to offer clearance for 40c tires are not optimal for gravel racing. The aforementioned Warbird, with clearance for 38c tires, falls into the category of sub-40s. For events like Trans-Iowa, which customarily features a death-slog across muddy, soft, unstable roads, that is a completely valid point to make, and one which I completely understand. (From my perspective, as a lightweight at about 145#, I’ll stick with my lightweight 35c tires, thankyouverymuch).
On the other hand, the 150 mile Gravel Worlds race, conducted predominantly on dry roads in Nebraska, was won on a lightweight Trek Domane, sporting 25c tires. For that matter, there were a number of riders at this year’s Gravel Metric running skinnies, and at least a few on 23c tires. Here’s a pic from Adventure Monkey’s great blog (the Domane is second in line):
So it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Perhaps the most versatile gravel racer would have clearance for 40c tires. But that “most versatile” bike would likely not be the fastest on a hard, dry course like Gravel Worlds. I tend to think that gravel race events will develop more towards the drier-type events, and less towards the brutality of Trans Iowa. I also suspect this means that the guys going for the fastest results will continue looking for lighter, faster bikes. That means skinnier tires.
But as we move forward and this genre gets further defined, it seems to me that gravel races should perhaps be divided into different categories. Just as road has crits, time trials, fondos, etc., “gravel racing” isn’t one all-encompassing, all-similar type of riding. There are events that lean more towards fast and skinny, and events that lean more towards wet and fat. (I mean tires…not riders. Well…not necessarily riders, at least). I’ll be curious to see if the verbiage of gravel racing grows to more precisely define what different races constitute, and if the growing niche of gravel racing bikes becomes even more specialized towards the edges of the niche. Just as there are bikes designed for Paris-Roubaix, there may be bikes more oriented towards the fast, gravel duster events, and bikes more oriented towards the greasy slogfests.