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The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.
There are no rules in gravel, I’m told. But I’m a person who at least appreciates guidelines. Like, drink a bottle an hour. Chamois cream first, then embrocation. Don’t be a jerkface. That kind of thing.
Also, readers often ask media types for advice, since we ride a bunch of stuff and ostensibly have an idea of what is going on. So again, guidelines can be helpful. Such as, invest time if not money in getting your fit dialed. Find a saddle you love. Don’t be a jerkface.
So what, then, are the general guidelines for gravel handlebars and gravel tires? Individually, yes, but also when considered in sum?
I’ve had a few fun chats on gravel gear with Evan Taubenfeld, head of A&R Crush Music and a veteran musician. (I called him a big deal; he calls himself a former medium deal. Point is, he knows music and the tools of the trade.)
Evan asked what the ideal flare is for gravel bars, and I gave a hedged answer — a longwinded version of it depends. As in, it depends on how and where you like to ride, and most importantly, what your preferences are.
Although I used to mountain bike quite a bit when a lived in Santa Fe nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been pretty much straight-roadie for some time. (The last mountain bike I owned had rim brakes, for reference.) That is to say, I default to narrow ‘n’ aero. So for gravel bars, anything more than a slight flare feels and just looks weird to me. But to a mountain biker, a broad flare would probably seem pretty tame. It depends.
Tires are another it depends scenario. Smooth, well-treated dirt roads and sharp, flinty gravel are two different things altogether and call for different widths and constructions if you want to really dial it in. And again, a roadie’s perspective on a great gravel tire and a mountain biker’s take may not line up. (I love the Schwalbe G-One All Round, and the plush Specialized Tracer Pro tires have me excited.)
As for a bar-flare-to-tire-width guideline, I would have said the wider the tire, then the wider the bar. As in, if you’re riding such chunky stuff that you want a beefy, toothy tire, then some extra leverage at the bars probably makes sense. But is that true?
I’ve recently been riding two gravel bikes with very different bar flares and tires, and in what I would consider upside-down configurations. 3T sent an Explore RaceMax built with 2.1in 650b tires and a 3T Supergo bar with 6 degrees of flare. Chapter 2 sent an AO with 36mm slicks and an expansive Whisky No. 9 bar with 24 degrees of flare.
After flipping back and forth between the two, I’ve decided I just like the milder flare on any gravel bike. I’ve certainly enjoyed playing on the RaceMax with its Vittoria tires with tread like horses’ teeth, but it’s not like I’m jumping table tops with the thing; I’m just appreciating the extra bite in the snow and suspension over the rough. I still love the fit and feel of the Supergo bar.
Also, for me, the super-wide in the drops thing just doesn’t make sense. I get that a wider stance can mean more stability and leverage, but when I’m in a tricky spot or needing leverage, I’m riding on the hoods, not in the drops. I use the drops to get low when riding in a group, or just to shift position. But maybe that’s just me. Another gravel rider might tell you 180 degrees the opposite. It depends.
After a bit of back and forth, Evan agreed that maybe there wasn’t just one answer.
“I’m learning bikes are like guitars,” he said. “There are 5,000 ways to overthink what makes you ‘better’ but the truth is you gotta just play.”
And that right there is another good guideline. Just get out there and play. See what works for you. And don’t be a jerkface.