Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why is this so hard?

Well, posting has taken a biiig back seat to all the rest of my writing/testing duties and that is not likely to change soon soooo…..apologies, if you care.

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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

But I have no gravel!

And yet, here I am on the precipice of purchasing a 'gravel' bike…well, it is a cross bike really, but it will be a sweet gravel bike too.  Am I just a bandwagon jumpee?  Perhaps.  I tried the slack-in-front/short-in-back 29er hard tail deal and that was a bust.  I mean, you cannot pick up an industry mag without reading about either fat bikes or gravel bikes.  Am I chasing a fad?

I don't think so, and this is why.

I have already ridden three gravel events, one on a cross bike, one on a 29er hard tail, and one on a 29er FS (Epic) so I have an idea of how it feels to ride one.  As well, I really, really liked the format of the events.  They were long and non-technical, but challenging and scenic.  I really liked them and pedaling for miles in open spaces or along mountain roads does not bother me at all.

I have been doing a lot of summer road riding, so the body position and overall style of bike is working for me on the road.  It is not like I have never held onto drop bars before.


I got no gravel.  Nope.  None.  Not in the classic style, anyway.

Oh now, I have dirt roads…yessir…lots and lots and lots of those.  And I have miles of paved roads connecting them so there is the potential to make some big training loops by stitching together road and dirt sections.  And I plan on entering at least two gravel events for 2015, so while it is still a gamble, it is not a complete jump off a blind cliff.

If it all goes well and the stars align, etc…

Monday, December 15, 2014

On the road side….

Well, I am on my second road bike of the decade now.  After building up the steel Ritchey Logic bike, a project that really came out well, I decided that I was liking it well enough to dive in a bit deeper.  The Ritchey was built with SRAM Rival 10spd (love Doubletap), an FSA Mid Compact crank with 52/36 rings running into a 12-28 rear cassette, FSA brakes, stem, and seat post, Ritchey bars and tape, Ritchey pedals, and a Specialized saddle.  The wheels were American Classic tube-type Hurricane wheels with Conti 700x25 GP4000s.

It came in at 18.5 lbs with pedals and was really a fine bike.  It rode like a steel bike…smooth and silent... and that carbon fork kept the weight down.  I did a few centuries on it and some all around group rides, training rides, etc.  It was obvious that road riding was not a fad for me and I rode it more than anything else all summer.  But there were a couple of things I wanted to change a bit, so I began thinking about the next road bike.

The 59cm frame was just slightly long in the reach for me.  I was barely ok with a 10cm stem and that was a short as I feel is good for a road bike for someone my size.  It was a great handling bike all in all, but I was thinking I would like to back off the HT angle a bit from the 73.5° setup the Ritchey had.  I was also ready to try a good carbon frame and 11spd shifting.  What I was not ready for was disc brakes, thinking that the refinement is still happening on the road side.  Next bike, for sure, but not this one.

So I began looking around to see what was turning heads and setting the bar for endurance/sport bikes without costing me a fortune.  As much as I would have appreciated the higher end lay-ups in carbon frames like the S Works or Hi Mod type of stuff, I did not want to spend that much.  This was not going to be a 'super bike' build then, but just really, really good.  Working on a budget then, I looked at three bikes that were at the LBS:  The Specialized Roubaix SL4, the Cannondale Synapse Carbon, and the Giant Defy Advanced.  All were similar in spec and weight, and I only was able to ride them in the basic bike shop parking lot situation, hardly ideal.

Reading about the bikes as much as I can, I knew that the Giant Defy and Defy Advanced had set the bar for the endurance road bike market.  I had recently bought my wife the women's version of that bike, an Avail Advanced, and she absolutely loved it.  The Roubaix was where the modern endurance bike met the masses and it was loved by MAMILs everywhere.  But the Synapse had been re-done for 2014 and the new carbon layup, combined with a more sporting geometry than some others in its class, really had me intrigued.  Riding them, the Roubaix seemed a bit stodgy.  The Giant was likely the best of all and had a great, stable, yet fun feel to it.  The Synapse was the sportiest of the three and snapped up pretty well when asked to, but was as comfy as any of them.

In the end, the Synapse worked out the best for me as I was able to get it with a lower spec'd grouppo and work out my plan of replacing the parts and putting my own stuff on there.  So, since the frames/fork are all the same across the bottom few models, I bought a Shimano 105 bike and stripped it.  On went a complete SRAM Force 11 speed group and a compact crank in a 172.5mm length.  I was finding that the 175s that I run everywhere else…MTB, SS, etc, seemed to be a bit tiring to spin all day on a road ride.  I used the same model of Ritchey bars, added a Ritchey stem and tape, and the same model in a Specialized Ronin saddle.

The wheels were a pretty big step up.  A set of American Classic tubeless Argents with special graphics  shod with the same 700x25 Contis looked amazing and are darn light and stiff.  Tubeless ready, but not yet for me.

The end result was a bike that weighs 2 lbs less overall and accelerates and climbs better than the Ritchey, although the steel bike still out-smooves it.  I also got a better fit in the 58cm Synapse and even with a 110cm stem have a cockpit that is 1/2" closer at the brake hoods.  Perfect.  I also got a bit more stability in the overall vibe of the bike, something I notice on rough, fast corners and even on long straight sections of road, in the wind, etc.  Except for the slightly reduced comfort and the loss of some uniqueness, the Synapse has been total win.