Can Gravel Bikes Really Do It All?

Can Gravel Bikes Really Do It All?


– [Simon] The new breed of gravel bikes promise to do it all. But can they really? I mean can they be fast and fun on-road, and fast and fun off-road? It seems like a tall order, but we’re going to try and find out. To do so, SRAM have kindly supplied their new Force Group set, and 3T, a frame that I’m going to race, in both on-road and off-road events. And I’ll also talk you through, just what you need to look out for, from a do-it-all bike. (dramatic music) Oh my god! Nerves going through the roof right now. My first road race, in
six-and-a half years. – [Voice On Phone] Just
don’t attack at the start, save your energy. – Okay, don’t attack at the start, right. This is the Battle on the Beach. And I’ve been wanting to do it for ages. Part mountain bike race, part beach race. You start on sand, tearing down one of
Wales’ longest beaches, before then looping back to the start, through the forest behind, on like a mixture of double
track and single track. No one seems to know what the best type of bike
for this race actually is. A lot of 29er mountain bikes here, a fair few cyclocross bikes, and a couple of fat bikes. So this seems like
quite a good first test. (atmospheric music) Let me give you a quick
overview of my bike, we’ll go into more detail in the tech a little bit later on. But my start time is rapidly
approaching, but anyway. This is my do-it-all bike. SRAM have very kindly supplied their new Force eTap AXS group set, so that’s wireless member. Also got a chain management system, built in to this rear derailleur. Plus, I’m running it two-by
as well, as you can see. Now it’s hung on a 3T Exploro frame set. That kind of made the
headlines when it was launched, for being the first aero-gravel bike. But it’s fair to say, it’s won
a lot of praise since then, for actually just being a great frame. Now, crucially, in the GCN show, we asked you whether one
bike still counts as one bike if it has two sets of wheels? And you said, resoundingly, yes it does. So, here is wheelset number one. It’s an aluminum set of Zipp
30 Courses, set up tubeless. And you got 40-millimeter-wide
tire on there. That’s the fattest I
can get into this bike. Hopefully, it’s going
to be enough to keep up with the mountain bikes
through the forest. But we will see, I got to
get my skates on now though, ’cause I definitely don’t
want to miss my gridding. (ominous music) I’ve managed to get myself
gridded, which is great news, because there’s a hundred
of us on this start line and there’s another 900 people
about to come and join us. A little bit of pressure
on to get a decent start. (air horn) Oh my god! Nerves going through the roof right now. It’s the first time
I’ve had a number board on the front of my bike
for about 10 years. Not used to being on a
mountain bike start line again, but anyway, so tight. (percussive drone music) (air horn) (electronic percussive music) – [Male Voice] Well done, dude. – Thanks, Greg. That was bloody good fun, that. That was awesome! So much fun! I wished I’d done this years ago. In terms of my bike, I think I pretty much nailed it! I think, maybe, a 29er mountain bike might have been a little
bit quicker in the woods, but that’s not really surprising, is it? ‘Cause a mountain bike is probably faster on mountain bike trails. But the key thing was, I definitely didn’t feel
like I was at disadvantage. Had I had better legs I
definitely would have gone faster. It was a lot of fun riding smooth, single-track on drop bars. And then when we got to the beach, I was able to absolutely wang it in that massive top gear. For the first lap anyway, and after that my legs gave out. I did finish 16th in the end, which I’ll take that these
days, to be quite frank. Not we got to head back to GCN HQ while I get the bike
cleaned up and prepped for what’s going to be my
first road race in seven years. And then we can also delve
into a little bit more about the tech behind why I think now we have got to the point where you can have a
genuine do-it-all bike. The 3T that I’ve just been racing is one such example of a do-it-all bike. And this is another. It’s an Orbea Terra. And during this halftime show I’m going to use it to
talk through the tech that give a drop-bar bike the versatility that you might be looking out for. You don’t need the latest and greatest kit to have a do-it-all bike but that said there is tech on here that I think is really important, actually, in helping to close that performance gap between bikes like this and
those that are more specialist, both on the road side
of things and off-road. The frame and forks is a
logical starting point. Firstly, tire clearance. You need plenty of it. To really venture off-road
you’re going to want at least 40-millimeter-wide
tires, probably more. As you can see, I’ve got clearance to fit bigger ones up front here. Then, when it comes to bike handling, I think you still want a
bike relatively nimble, so that you get that thrill
when you’re riding on-road. But not at the expense of
leaving you utterly terrified when you hit dirt. So things that I look out
for are chainstay length. Shorter makes a bike a
little bit more agile. Lower bottom bracket height actually makes a bike more
stable but also more fun, both on tarmac and on dirt. And then I’d also want to make sure the head angle isn’t too slack. Some gravel bikes can be a
little bit slow in the steering. So something that’s nicely balanced with the rest of the bike. And the other thing, I’m afraid to say it, it’s got to have disc brakes. It does, it’s got to have disc brakes. It is of course more nuanced than that. There is a lot to separate a
good frame from a great frame. But let’s also not overlook
those less obvious, but equally significant, performance gains that you can get from your group set. Now I will start with
that hydraulic damper, I mentioned it earlier. You can, of course, use
a standard road group set for riding off-road. But it’s not ideal. The chain can be a bit noisy, flapping around, bouncing
off your paint work, as well as potentially
coming off entirely. Whereas, when you’ve got
a damper like this one, then it keeps the chain
under close control when going over bumps. Previous generation Force one-by has a different type of clutch in there, which is equally effective. But SRAM only recommended
it for use one-by, because it makes shifting
between chain rings feel quite laborious. Whereas, as you can see,
this one can be run one-by and also two-by as well. When running that two-by option, you can also run closer
ratio gears at the back. And I know this is really
important to some of you, because you told me. That extra 12th sprocket at
the back also doesn’t hurt. So it means that you then
got a wide range of gears, in this case 10-33 at the
back, and a 33-46 up front, but with those smaller
jumps in between them. Which is something that a lot
of dyed-in-the-wool roadies will be very thankful for
when riding fast on tarmac. Two important points there. Then it’s about opening up tire options. Because previously tire choice
has also been restricted by the use of front derailleurs. So not just limited by your frame set. The solution being, therefore,
to run one-by but now, with new generations, actually the design of the front derailleur has been tweaked to allow you to comfortably fit a 40-millimeter-wide tire in there. And actually, if you are
using smaller 650B wheels, then you can use a 47 in there. Now different wheel sizes
and different tire sizes, you can’t do that without
disc brakes either. So although that is now new, new tech, to my mind that has probably
been the most instrumental thing of all in giving drop-bar bikes the versatility to take them off-road. Because cantilever brakes, they kind of just sucked
a bit, didn’t they? Some of these differences
might sound subtle and, to some extent, some of them are. But they definitely add
up to help close that gap between do-all bikes and
more specialist bikes. Right, halftime is over. I’ve got a bike to clean and a race to get ready for. (ominous music) Okay. Right. Let’s optimize this for the road race. Like I said, my first road
race in six-and-a half years. That didn’t take too long, did it? Now just one final touch to get it race ready. Oh yes. (electronic drum music) I’ll be honest, because I’ve been out of
the game for that long, I feel like I need some kind of pep talk. Maybe just some tactics,
some words of advice. So I’m going to phone up the
best, highest performing, most talented cyclist that
I’ve got in my phone book. Just to see whether or not they can help make the difference. (phone dialing) I hope they pick up. I need it. – [Dan] Helloo! – Hi Dan, you all right mate? – [Dan] Yeah, so are you? – Yeah, I’m all right, mate. Not too bad. Mate, you know I’m doing this race? – [Dan] Yeah. – Do you mind, I just need a bit of like, just some tactics, just some advice, mate. I’m so nervous. I’ll be honest, I’m (beep) a bit. – [Dan] I don’t think you
need to worry about tactics. You been out of the
game for a little while. Just got to try and hang on, man. – Hang on. Okay. – [Dan] Yeah, just hang on. However, if I could give
you one piece of advice: just don’t attack at the start. But also remember the fact
that you just can’t sprint, so try attack the sort of finish. – Okay. All right, mate. Thanks, that makes sense. – [Dan] Are you nervous? – Yeah. Really nervous. – [Dan] Put a bog roll in
your kit bag before you went. So if you need it, then. – Ah, thanks mate. All right, bud. Where are you, by the way? – [Dan] Good luck, mate. Down at the pub. – You are, you’re at the pub? – [Dan] Yeah. – Okay. – [Dan] I’ll be thinking of you. Have a good one. – Thanks, buddy. Cheers mate, see you in a bit. – [Dan] Bye. – Don’t attack at the start. Don’t wait for a sprint. Try and survive. Got it. Well, quite a bit of time has elapsed since the Battle on the Beach. You might have noticed
that this is also the bike that I took up to ride the
Northcoast 500 in Scotland. And, funnily enough, after
doing 500 miles in three days, I then had to have
three weeks off the bike due to an Achilles tendonitis. So I’ve been away from road
racing for six-and-a half years, and now I also have less
fitness than I was banking on. So I’m a little bit worried. I’m not actually worried about
the bike in the slightest. I know there is absolutely
nothing about it that is going to hamper
my performance tonight. I’m just worried that
I’m not going to be able to do it justice. Feels like there’s quite
a lot banking on this. So yeah, I’ll be keeping
my fingers firmly crossed. Now the proving ground is this, which is the Thursday
Night World Championships at Castle Combe. It’s a race series, a classic race series, local to GCN’s HQ. I could have enter the third
and fourth category race, but I accidentally entered
the elite race instead. My pen slipped when I was signing on. (droning music) Now you notice that
preparing for this race, in terms of the bike, was
a pretty quick process. Swapping the wheels out. But that does mean that I am still using my mountain bike pedals and, therefore, my mountain bike shoes. Which complete with a
little bit of mud left over from the cross season. Now, performer stubs, I don’t
think I’m going to lose out here. I did it partly because I wanted to change as little as possible and by changing my pedals and my shoes I then thought I might
have to start having to faff around with my seat height. And that’s not what you want to do every time you want to
swap from road to off-road. So I’m going for mountain bike pedals and I’m just going to have
to put up with the fact that this feels all kinds of wrong. (driving orchestra and synth music) – [Crowd] Good race! Nice one, mate! – Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve forgotten how much I
love racing on the road. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Six-and-a half years away. (beep)-ing my pants. No actually, that was brilliant. Such good fun. Even had a go in the sprint! Lloydy’ll be impressed. Finished solidly mid-pack. (laughs) Oh man. Ah, That was so cool! Well, now that the dust has settled and I’m getting my
breath back a little bit. Where does this leave us in answering our original question
about do-it-all bikes? Well, I guess the answer
is: Yes, they kind of can. I’ve had a great time
racing exactly the same bike off-road and on. And I think that is fantastic news. Because not everyone can
have, or wants to have, multiple different bikes
for different disciplines. So the rise of this new breed of super-versatile gravel bikes I think can only be a good thing. Where then does it
leave people like myself that like having different bikes
from different disciplines? Is that going to be a thing of the past? Well no, if I’m completely
honest, I don’t think it is. Because I don’t think a gravel bike is ever going to be able to do
what a mountain bike can do. They’re just more limited. And then, when it comes to
the road side of things, well clearly they’re not
limited in the same way, because a gravel bike can go everywhere that a road bike can. But they just feel so different. We’ve seen time and time again that you can measure the difference in speed at the same effort between a gravel bike
and also a road bike. And while the difference
might seem small on paper, in my experience, the
human body is pretty good at being able to perceive these small differences out on the road. And so even a fraction
of a second can translate into an increased feeling
of exhilaration that you get when riding an out-and-out road bike. And there’s also a couple of other bits that I’ve been thinking about. Firstly, having a pristine
road bike is a joy to have. Whereas when you ride a bike in the dirt, it can get thrashed pretty quick. And so if you do have a do-all bike and you regularly swap
between disciplines, I think you’ll probably spend
half your life cleaning it. Which is definitely a bit
of a negative, in my book. And the last one is that I think, once you’ve made that initial investment in multiple different bikes, keeping them on the road
is probably actually the same price as just
having one do-it-all bike. Because, bear with me,
you can only ever ride one bike at once. Which means, if you
got three, for example, each one will only get a third of the use. Now that might sound a bit random. But let me know in the comments section what you think about this do-it-all bike. I am going to have a well-earned beer. If you want a little bit more info about that SRAM Force eTap AXS Group set, then you can click through
to that video on screen now. Otherwise, give us a big thumbs up!