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A Case For ... Not giving up on road

By Spencer Powlison

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About 10 years ago, I probably couldn’t distinguish a gravel bike from a Kawasaki Ninja. It was all about the road bike back then. I abused my beautiful custom steel Mosaic RS-1, rim brakes and all, on every kind of dirt road and trail I could find.

And then, around 2015, along with most of my riding buddies, I discovered gravel bikes. How could I possibly have spent so many years suffering through rough rides on 26mm road tires!? Astride bikes that had 42mm tires, compliance features (even, gasp, suspension!), wider gear range, and more comfortable bars, we took on every gravel adventure we could find. I fell hard for gravel. I raced The Mid South, Unbound Gravel, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, and Grinduro. I rode from Boulder to Kansas. I basically gave up my road bike. In fact, I sold the Mosaic.

But you know what? That was wrong. That’s why I’m going to make a case for not giving up on road riding.
Mosaic road bike
Oh how I miss my Mosaic RS-1.

First, you might be wondering: How did I come full-circle, especially after selling my one and only road bike? A couple months ago, I made an impulse buy. There it was in The Pro’s Closet’s inventory, a stunning scandium frame made by legendary Italian builder Dario Pegoretti, may he rest in peace.

I bought it. I built it up, took it out for a few rides, and I was stunned. How did I grow so accustomed to gravel bikes? They’re so … SLOW.

Since gravel bikes burst onto the scene, they’ve been the yin to road bikes’ yang. On gravel bikes, you explore untravelled paths, see new things, and experiment with so many different handlebar- and frame-mounted bags. The gravel vibe is the antithesis to road cycling’s type-A need for speed. I get that, and I often appreciate gravel bikes for dialing back the intensity a bit. However, if we didn’t care at all about speed, we’d just be walking around with hiking poles and binoculars. On any bike, speed matters, and from my experience, more of it is almost always better.

Riding a pure road bike on paved roads is undeniably faster. When you go faster, you travel farther. Mileage isn’t usually my top criterion for a good ride, but after years of riding gravel bikes, sometimes it’s a little dull to ride only 12 miles or so on a lunch spin. Getting out for a 20-mile blast on the road bike is a welcome contrast to plodding along on slow tires, especially when there’s pavement in the mix.

And naturally, when you travel farther, you see more with less effort. The math is simple. On your gravel bike, you might only average 10mph and complete 40 miles in four hours. On a road bike, if you’re still aiming for four hours and clipping along at a 15mph average, you’ve expanded your range by 50%.
Pyrenees cycling
On the right terrain and surface, road cycling is sublime.

Beyond speed and distance, there’s something else that road bikes have on gravel bikes. It is difficult to articulate, but if I had to try, I’d say it’s like the difference between rollerblades and roller skates. Similar experiences, nearly the same physical motion, but the sensation of one is profoundly smoother and more satisfying than the other. By design, rollerblades let you go faster, corner more gracefully. As such, they lend themselves to competitive pursuits like speed skating and roller hockey. At the risk of getting my ass kicked by some roller derby heavies, I’ll say that roller skating isn’t quite so serious and performance-oriented. And from an outsider’s perspective, it seems to share a dash of that cool-kid irony that makes its way into most gravel scenes.

Obviously, on bikes you can chalk the super-serious roadie vibe up to more than a century of European racing tradition. A road bike’s quantitative performance advantage mostly comes down to tires. There are other factors too: frame stiffness, geometry, shoe/pedal interface, and aerodynamics. So long as you’re on some nice pavement, the sensation of riding a fast and efficient road bike is peerless.

Ah but there’s the rub. Road bikes are only as good as the roads you can find. Gravel bikes are far more capable of improvisation, thanks to their versatility.
Pegoretti road bike
Meet my new Italian friend, a Pegoretti Love #3.

A paved road ride around Emporia, Kansas might be a bit lackluster, but when you turn off onto those flint gravel roads, you quickly understand why this little town is home to the world’s biggest gravel cycling event. That said, if I had a magic teleporter to drop me into the Pyrenees, Alps, or Dolomites (and boy do I wish that were possible these days), you better believe I’d bring a pure road bike for those endless ribbons of mountain roads.

All I’m trying to say is, slow your roll gravel bikes, because road bikes are still fun.

If you ride a lot like I do, it’s worth it to split your time between a gravel bike and a road bike. When you feel like getting wild, the gravel bike can take you across rugged terrain with more efficiency than a mountain bike. And when it’s time to stretch your legs, the road bike is great for blasting around on the pavement.

But if you can’t justify two drop-bar bikes, don’t get either a gravel bike or a pure road bike. That’s right … PLOT TWIST! You should get what we in the biz like to call an “all-road bike.” I can hear you groaning, but trust me, it’s more than just fancy marketing speak.

Technology that was first adopted by gravel bikes, such as disc brakes, wider tires, and better gearing options, has allowed engineers to expand the range of road bikes, resulting in the concept of an all-road bike. A bike like a Factor Vista, Trek Domane, or a Cannondale Synapse combines much of the speed and efficiency of a road bike with almost all the tire clearance of a gravel bike.

Maybe someday I’ll get all Marie Kondo and simply ride an all-road bike, but for now, I’m quite happy with my Lauf True Grit and Pegoretti Love #3, even if I do miss my old Mosaic from time to time.

 

“A case for…” is a place for unpopular opinions, weird ideas, and unloved bikes and components. For every cyclist who rides to the beat of their own drum, there’s a case for you. Have you abandoned road bikes? Or does pavement spark joy? Let us know in the comments!
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1 comment


  • For sure, the greatest appeal of road cycling— and why it will always persist— is the allure of pure human-powered speed. But re: “There are other factors too…” :

    I would also argue that, for some, one of those other factors used to be the inherent simplicity of a road bike— no goofy suspension systems, no complex braking or shifting systems, easy to understand parts/fasteners. Now the industry has basically ruined that aspect of road cycling with unnecessary complexities like hydraulic disc brakes, electronic shifting systems, a billion kinds of “BB standards”, Formula One carbon fiber goo-gaws that require “specialty tools”, tires that require goop to be poured in them, etc. Road bikes also used to be a lot more adaptable. Now everyone has to have a purpose-specific bike— one for road, one for gravel, one for mountain biking, etc. and that just makes things even more complex and intimidating for newcomers to the sport. (Ok, Luddite semi-rant over…time to go for a ride!)

    Hoogle Da Boogle on


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