[Evil]ution of the Gravel Bike has been more grass-roots, than science. Creation, even of a monster like Frankenstein was more grunge than grace. I'm not sure what your last set of stitches looked like, But I'm sure if I'd re-attached a limb, it would be crude; (stitched-together body-parts, some glue perhaps, and then an epic flashy moment of lightening!) Both beings and bikes are evolutive appendages of what preceded them. In fact this may have been your mom's 1997 'Trek Hybrid'. We used to call them all 'Cross bikes', which is in part true. Whether called 'Hybrid' or 'Cross', they were merely stepping stones to where we have now arrived. Soon the world will be subsumed with more "Gravel Bikes", and there will be one for everybody at many price points. Today, most Gravel Bikes are yet elitist early forays. Like first-gen full suspensions from 1993; These are sometimes lovely, while also awkward, and perhaps unrefined Franken-bikes. Some are unusual & exciting, even threatening... but not so new, are they ?
This week I wandered down one of those long Forum rabbit-holes which like any politic today seem to digress as a square to their post count; bringing out the worst in some or all of the contributors. The initial "article" was an advertorial (of sorts) for a new gravel-esque bike design from the growing Evil brand. At first blush the bike looked new and, well... Interesting. Sloped top tube, slack angles, mountain short stem, arched stays, decent stand-over, dual dropped chain-stays, and nary enough room in the front triangle for three bottles, let alone touted frame packs. It comes with seven promised Bottle mounts. It is a bike, which it's reviewer admitted to enjoy, as well as to own, and hence the bike was well reviewed. The photos were impeccably lit as shadows caressed the forms. These mad-scientist embers ignite the un-initiated with a real desire to check it out... But it also evokes the "which came first question". Is this just a Mountain Bike with a drop bar? I'm not really sure. Just the same, if that reviewer owned the bike then they could certainly speak from experience. What followed the review, was first gentle cajoling, and then things slid like a melting popsicle down a hot asphalt driveway. Some comments were disparagement for a "Me-too" category of franken-bikes, which were taunted to be nothing more than Mountain Hard-tails with a Drop bar. So, let's address this part first... Is this a Me-too Mountain bike with a drop bar? Is this a fledgeling sojourn out of the nest for first flight? Will it take off, or crash and burn? Man! who knows?
Bastardization (evolution) is Natural:
Since the 1920's people have been hybriding bikes in more cross pollinated permutations than Dutch Tulips. To invent a new category requires experimentation, which without a torch, means dropping a different Bar, Stem, Fork or wheel on a bike, until it does what you like. Ill prepared to accept the elective surgery, some ideas just fizzle toward the waste-bin. When we were kids we used to saw fork blades from a bent up ten-speed, and hammer them onto an existing fork to lengthen and hence create a "Chopper". Some always broke a drop-out or cracked a head-tube weld jumping a creek, and needed to find a welder to tack it back together. Once chummy with the welder, requests which should have remained tucked away in the brain, would unfurl into a new design, giving rise to some of the Burning Man shite we see in a parade route Critical Mass today. Tall Seussian bikes with many gears, more than one chain, and perhaps proportions which risked significant injury to tame are progressive failures, perhaps enroute toward something special. Is the New evil Special? It does however, take progressive experimentation to create something new, such as the Salsa Warbird, and it's demon seed, the Cutthroat.
The New "Gravel" category has seen this new renaissance, and while some trendy brands will "me-too" right away, Instantly filling out a few catalog pages. Some may giants may wait, watch, and later mimic, established trends. When someone throws another GMO abomination into the velo gene pool, the resultant comments from an opera-box of muppets with nothing better to do, come as hard and fast as mickey d's to our "president's" cherubic mouth.
I'm glad that before Trek leaped into the Gravel, they simply sat out the category for years. Tooling is costly, and to market at scale, requires a level of surety which can even cause a giant to drag their feet. When Specialized high-fived this category, they decided (as they always seem to do) to have a cooler gimmick, Future Shock. When I first saw that, I thought of Steve Jobs revealing the iPod, or the iPad for that Matter, and saw thousands of hangers-on, cringe when they recited that odd name in their heads, conjuring menstruation, and Just what the Fuck does the "i" stand for anyway?.. So now that all the big brands have caught up to Salsa, and Open, where is this steam-punk ship headed?, and Why?
First where is it headed? It could be easily defended that the Gravel Bike is not a new category, nor life-style, but just a market correction of the 80's Hybrid bike, (albeit more spendy) inviting more folks to buy something that they perceive as more versatile. Each Bona fide rider, will know at least a dozen people who saw them riding,, and half mockingly looked down at their lycra, and then passed the same ritual comments... How do you ride those skinny tires? How do you balance on that", doesn't that seat hurt?, and lastly?, What if you hit a pot-hole?...
And so it happens that a face only a mother could love would still be loved by someone. We should never shame someone for their choices, nor for their experiments. Clearly unless you actually buy the kool aid, you cannot complain of the taste. But in so many interweb dialog digressions, polarizing points of view seem to be the demon seed of the WWW. As markets typically predict the products that feed them, Jumping the Shark with an oddly masculine Gravel bike, or as appears, a hard-tail Mountain Bike in sheep's clothing, it makes sense to predict that if the public doesn't want it, the mold will rust on the shelf next year, and Evil will have to come up with their next Gremlin. When Hybrid bikes granted the public's wish for a more upright ten-speed, with seemingly more capable rubber, the over thirty public devoured them. Everyone below the bar bought a mountain bike, because they were cooler. So it would follow that thousands of Hybrid bikes made many more smile as they passed along from family companion, to deflated garage relic, to craigslist, to the scrap heap. A bike is a symbol of freedom, and 'they' were on to something when the venerable ten-speed shape-shifted into the above hybrid 720 contraption, (sans the bar-ends of course) -- But then, alas fast on it's heels came the mountain bike craze, and that basically blew out the walls of the Barn. Literally Trek and others who built bikes in barns could no longer keep up with demand, and would need to move all production off-shore, to meet the demand for cheap, fat tire bikes, which were decidedly not your mother's ten-speed. Stop-gap allowed them to buy up Fisher and Klein just to get their hands on good tech. I would humbly state that of the 40,000+ bikes I wrenched, the majority would be Hybrids, and "Mountain Bikes". While occasionally in my youth I felt the temptation to mock the accessorized monster-fat saddle, every single "gel accessory", and of course tall stems, and reversed bar-ends. I soon learned to be less fearful, and (like Dr. Strangelove), I learned to love the bike whatever it's whimsical perturbation. We use "Quotes" around "mountain bike" here... because stylistically that was the delivered product, but practically speaking most were not destined nor designed to see the 'mountains'. Surely some were advanced; Tomacs, Klein Rascals, and even Y-Bikes, but the majority were hedged like bond traders to (oh please god!!!) never venture beyond the Asphalt Ribbon, because we didn't test for that. Your "Mountain Bike" looked the part, but "parts" is what they'd soon become as they hit single-track, and zinc spokes collapsed under well fed mid-westerners. So it happened, that just like your Rav4, nobody was ever 'supposed' to ride that thang off-road... It "said so" right there in the manual, right after the section showing 'proper use of a Quick release'. And so it now makes sense that following the Mountain Bike Boom of the nineties, what would follow is the High-end trend ticking upward the "Status-Bike" Craze. What better to drop $5-10 large on, than a new Road Bike? Post Boom, when Mountain Bike markets were absolutely fully saturated, like a choking goose with with fat-tires, and shocks, and wacky suspension designs, crammed down it's gullet, a Post-feast bulimia would need to follow. 'Light weight' was the next craze, (as predicted). And with the new economic bubble, people were struggling to find things to spend their tax refund on. Too little for a Car, but not too much that a New Road Bike could not sate the craving for something flashy. Status could now be purchased in the form of Road Bike Jewelry. Once again the Bike industry reacted, retooling for the New Road Bike boom. The average Top Tier bike price accelerated like fake mortgage backed securities, and just as Lehman, and Goldman got rich shorting the system, Prices nearly quadrupled for the Top-tier road bike overnight. In 1996 a Full Record Klein sold for around $3k, and by 2006, you could get that price up to $8 or 9K. By 2016 $11-12. Same Diamond Frame, lust-worthy parts, and magically shrinking gross vehicle weight. If you had to blame someone, you could blame Lance, and LeMond for bringing French trophies home to the US. But as with all messy historic nuance, this was not any one's fault, rather a perfect storm of available exotic materials, rocket science, and the cross-pollination of defense industry technology bleeding into all sorts of sporting goods.
The same is true for Skis, boards, boats, cars, motorcycles, and every region that could be chemically augmented. Carbon my friend coursed through the bloodline first infecting bikes with aluminum lugs, then forks, then frames, then parts like stems, posts, rims, and cetera.
Now for the Why part of the gravel trove. Some part is a "me-too" movement, whereby new entrants make what other's make because shop owners selling brand "X" get tired of saying, "no we don't have one of those". But that's a demand economy right? So the full story is that the Gravel bike is the new Hardtail (period). During our current bubble of cheap goods from China, and unsustainable economic prosperity, 1 in five cars on my street seem to be a Benz, Range, or Tesla. Never have we seen so many people living out their dreams with cheap money, and communal tastes. If your internet influences eats vanilla or does steam treatments down-under, then you need to do that as well... If you don't have one of these you simply wont fit in. If everyone is wearing ripped jeans again, then get some... So go out and get yourself a new bike, before the bubble pops.
My brother refuses to grow-up, and much like myself, lord knows he could afford to... But if he wants to continue to log miles on his 28 year old Klein Attitude, 'on' and 'off' road, then he may be the truest allegiant to the sport. For me, I have to get new shit all the time, to fuel this maniacal machine. The Machine needs me to buy more, and get the latest as soon as it's pressed. Early adopters move the bar. So it follows that Evil will make a bold strike at a new die of Plus-sized Gravel bikes, which will either cement their ingenuity as cutting edge, or their jumping this shark, will cost them dearly. Why are "Gravel" and "Gravel Plus" bikes everywhere? Because, when we run out of Vanilla, it's time to change flavors. While you are at it, add some nutz.
Gravel is intent to bring more people back into their Nostalgic romance with the outdoors. The new hybrid is a hybrid of a Mountain Bike Craze, The Super Lux Road bike Craze, and elegiac feelings of fording rivers, and summiting mountains under human power. What we all missed, except for an astute few, is that while Evil dabs a toe in the me-too gravel plus camp, and others sharpen their designs, Specialized is putting a motor in that shit, and making it light enough to not resent.
Gravel is so last year. The next Gravel-travel is Lithium-Ion Gravel. Not Gravel Plus, but as a nod to the DC voltage it is Gravel+/-
Embrace the Change because you cant stop progress. Don't shame earnest innovation, and above all Enjoy the ride.
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Age and Treachery will overcome youth and skill.