Interbike ’13: “Gravel Nation”?
Interbike ’13: “Gravel Nation”? -by Guitar Ted
Gravel Grinder News has arrived back from Interbike ’13 and it is quite apparent that the gravel road segment is “a thing” these days. Dedicated bicycles, dedicated tires, wheels, and there is talk of other accessory items for this specific niche. What is more, it is being seen as something beyond the gravel road scene as most of us understand it. To illustrate just what that might mean in the broader scheme of things, Gravel Grinder News spoke with a couple of well known industry players and they have given us some answers to whether or not the “gravel road scene” is about to go big, or stay in the shadows of cycling.
An Unlikely Champion: When you stop to consider HED Wheels, the general picture one might conjure up is one of triathlons, time trials, and aero road wheels for the higher performance market. It is true that several triathlon champions and Pro road riders have won with Steve Hed’s wheels on their bicycles. The company certainly has a strong history in this sort of riding. However; it may surprise you to learn that Steve Hed is a big fan of gravel road riding. “I grew up riding these roads and my uncle was a county maintainer.” The company founder told me. His roots go way back to riding in rural areas and also in touring. “I really am a touring cyclist. That’s where I started. I was attracted to the Iron Man thing initially because I looked at it as an adventure.”, Steve explains, “Later on it became all about racing, and then the aero thing…” Of course, the rest is a well known story.
Last year I was a bit surprised to find out HED was going to produce a “gravel road” wheel set, the HED Ardennes + , and that level of surprise was surpassed by finding a beautiful brown and black accented steel bike in HED’s Interbike booth this year. Steve wanted to have a platform to showcase his gravel road product on, and naturally had a steel frame designed for his own use as long as they were at it. Steve chose to enlist the help of fellow Minnesotan, Eric Noren of Peacock Groove to do the construction of the frame and fork.
The first frame did not quite satisfy them, so another was made, which you see here, and may or may not be named “Black & Tan”. It is still a work in progress, says Steve, and he already has a few refinements in mind for a possible revision. His goal was to a have a bike with modern handling and components but that also could be a randonneur with a swap to 650B wheels and tires. It also could still be a fast road ride with a switch to lighter, more road oriented tires as well.
There is some consideration for making this available to the public at some point, but for now it is officially Steve’s personal quest for his vision of an “all arounder” that could tackle any road. He explains it by adding that he feels the gravel and dirt roads of America could be the place where cyclists find out riding can be fun again, and safer. He points out that since gravel roads tend to have little to no traffic and cars and trucks are easy to hear and spot well in advance, riders can focus on what makes bicycles attractive- Fun and adventure.
The “Next Thing”?: The gravel road scene as a cure for what ails cycling these days? Steve Hed and others were saying as much at Interbike this year. Several people have remarked how getting away from the stress of road riding, with the attendant conflicts with motorists, is a driving factor behind the increase in gravel road racing attendance, but Steve feels it could go even further. Folks could be doing the recreation road rides on such bikes as the “Black & Tan”, with stops for food, or to just go out and enjoy peace and quiet in a setting unlike any most find on their typical road group rides.
While Steve Hed and others are seeing the gravel road specific bicycles as a gateway to pulling in more cycling participation, others are looking at it as the most fun way to enjoy cycling anytime, anywhere. That’s where an unlikely player in the gravel road scheme of things comes up- Niner Bikes.
Rider Driven: Niner Bikes, founded in 2005, is a bicycle company that heretofore had only produced 29 inch wheeled bicycles. In fact, the company byline is “Big Wheeled Revolution”. So, just how does that work now with this drop bar gravel bike? We stopped by Niner’s booth and spoke with Carla Huckee, Niner’s global marketing manager, and she explained it thusly: “When we looked at the company employee’s bike hangar, it was filled with Niners converted to drop bars and skinnier tires. It’s a bike we all wanted to ride.”
Subsequently, the employees sat over a product meeting and asked why they couldn’t build the sort of bike many of them really wanted to commute on and ride all over the rural areas they had available to them. A plan was hatched and what you see here is the result: Niner’s newest bicycle, the RLT 9. (Which in typical Niner acronym style means “Road Less Traveled”.)
The bike had to meet Niner’s standards for toughness and reliability, so Niner took a lot of what they had learned from designing their carbon mountain forks and aluminum frame sets and put that to use in designing a rough and ready drop bar bike that actually passes mountain bike CEN standard tests. Not only that, but Niner built in versatility by utilizing its newest eccentric bottom bracket design dubbed the Biocentric 2. This allows riders to set up the frame as a clean looking single speed since the cables are internally routed.
Niner’s Carla Huckee stated that this was the bike that was most asked for internally by Niner employees, and they figure that with the burgeoning gravel road scene, the time is ripe to give riders another choice in a bike made to not only handle the gravel, but to go anywhere, (short of full on mountain biking), and be a bike that can be trusted to survive. Niner expects to start seeing availability of the RLT 9 late in 2013 and it will be offered in a couple of different complete builds as well as in a frame and fork package.
Where Is The Next Turn?: While it is certainly too soon to say that gravel road specific bikes will be “the next big thing” in cycling, it stands to reason that it has that potential. Going riding in a rural setting that is mostly devoid of traffic might be reason enough to believe that could happen, but obviously the increasing level of interest in gravel road events keeps the fires stoked for now. People like Steve Hed and Carla Huckee see it as a distinct possibility, and they are not the only ones in the industry thinking along these lines. In the following posts on Interbike ’13, Gravel Grinder News will explore the options being presented at Interbike and give you some more insight from folks in the cycling industry regarding the possibility of growth in this category. I will also be doing an editorial on just what a “gravel bike” is and what makes it different from a cyclo cross bike.