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How Moots Cycles embraced gravel racing

Over a five-year span, Colorado's Moots Cycles shifted its focus onto the nascent gravel market with a series of innovative racing bikes

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Nobody remembers the exact moment when the idea was hatched, when the proverbial lightbulb flicked on. Like many decisions at Moots Cycles—the Colorado bicycle manufacturer known for its custom titanium racing bikes—the decision to build a gravel bicycle came after years of tinkering, months of conversations, and countless rides on dirt.

What we do know is by the middle of 2014 Moots had jumped headfirst into the nascent gravel market with its Routt gravel bicycle. In the ensuing years, the company’s follow-up bikes—Routt 45, Routt 45 RSL, and Baxter29—completely shifted the 35-year-old company’s trajectory. Once known for its flashy mountain bikes and high-end road racing bikes, the Moots brand is now firmly planted in gravel. Moots produces approximately 1,200 bicycles a year, and nearly 65 percent of its total output in 2018 came from gravel bicycles.

Perhaps more importantly, gravel riding has become a daily obsession for the company’s 23 employees.

“It’s become a really big part of what we do,” says Jon Cariveau, Moots’s longtime marketing director. “The internal [development] process was pretty friendly, but at some point, a few of us who had been riding cyclocross bikes for 25 years turned to everyone in the room, and were like, ‘I told you so.’”

Off-road company culture

A familiar debate about the viability and necessity of gravel bicycles has echoed through bike industry circles over the past decade. You may have heard people arguing about this on your local group ride, or at your neighborhood bike shop.

Are gravel bikes really necessary? Riding on gravel is a fad, right?

There was no such debate within the halls at Moots, where gravel riding has been a core part of the company’s DNA for decades. Moots sits atop a hill in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a world-class ski town with its roots in ranching. Rolling farmland stretches south of town for nearly 100 miles, and the county is crisscrossed by a network of old farming roads.

Many of the town’s organized group rides include both pavement and gravel sections.

Nate Bradley, Moot’s chief frame designer, says the local rides on mixed surfaces pushed the company’s designers to constantly tinker with prototype bikes that blended the line between cyclocross and road.

“We were always riding road bikes and jamming the biggest tires we could in them,” Bradley says. “There was a brotherhood within the building that drove us to build bikes that we called all-road bikes because you don’t want to go on the Tuesday night ride and miss the last 20 miles on dirt.”

Yet these all-road prototypes never made it into Moots’s catalogue. The company’s first real move toward gravel occurred in 2013, when Moots’s builders began to modify the company’s flagship cyclocross racing bike, the PsychloX. The company wanted a bike for casual cyclocross racers who also wanted a bike for weekend adventures. The engineers welded a PsychloX frame with a lower bottom bracket; they also slackened the bike’s steep headtube and adjusted the seat tube for a more upright riding angle. They called the new bike the Routt, named for the Colorado county where the company is based.

From a performance standpoint, the Routt was a bit too slack for racing cyclocross, but it was perfect for all-day rides on the bumpy gravel roads. Yet Moots faced marketing challenges around the Routt’s overall concept.

“It was the bike you could ride cyclocross on, and maybe it was also your year-round bike,” Bradley says. “We had it for three or four months and realized it was going to be too hard to explain that to everyone.”

A breakthrough in functionality

A breakthrough came later that year when Bradley ordered a set of pre-production 40-millimeter slick tires from a small brand in the Midwest. He mounted the prototype tires on the Routt and was amazed by the transformation. Suddenly, the too-slack cyclocross bike blossomed into something else: a bike that floated over the sandy, bumpy dirt roads. But the new tires caused additional headaches that forced Bradley and his team back to the design. They widened the clearance for 42-millimeter tires (eventually for 45-millimeter tires) and moved the chainstays to accommodate a compact crankset. The final touches created an entirely new bike that, in their eyes, was ready for the marketplace. The new bike was called the Routt 45.

“When we had the tire in hand and were making measurements to go around it, that’s probably the closest thing to a lightbulb moment,” Bradley says. “It was more like, this is what we’ve always wanted for our all-around bike.”

This February, Moots launched its fifth gravel bike, the Routt 45 YBB. The bike represents the latest product to stem from the 2013 tinkering that birthed the original Routt. The Routt 45 YBB is built around the Routt platform; however, it includes Moots’s famed YBB suspension design in the bike’s rear triangle. It also accommodates a wide variety of wheel sizes, including 650b. The bike is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the company’s past and present—1980’s suspension technology added to a modern bike.

“One thing we can control is how to isolate vibrations and fatiguing factors of gravel,” Bradley says.

The pathway from the original Routt to the newest bike included plenty of tinkering and adjustments to changing technology and taste. Subsequent models of the Routt 45 were built for bikepacking, complete with mounts for panniers and fenders. Then, in early 2017, Moots debuted its Routt RSL, a stiffer and more aggressively designed bike built for races. While the many Routt models share the same name, each bike in the lineup has a distinct geometry and intended purpose.

“That was really aimed at the [racer] who wants to do Crusher in the Tushar and Dirty Kanza and these popular gravel events,” Bradley says. “The bike was really dictated by those events.”

Moots’s rapid adoption of gravel bikes came at an integral moment for the company. Over the decades, Moots had surfed several surges in the bike market, most notably the early adoption of custom mountain bikes in the 1990s, and the demand for high-end “forever” titanium bicycles in the early 2000s. Custom builders like Moots often have the flexibility to react to industry trends faster than bigger brands. Yet by 2010 the company was searching for another movement to take the brand into a new era.

“We had come out of the Lance Armstrong era, which drove a ton of road bike sales across the industry, and it was like, ‘What’s next?’” Cariveau says. “It’s not like we were dead in the water. There was just this void there.”

The company’s headfirst dive into gravel has produced challenges. Cariveau says the company now spends ample time talking its customers through the various variations and options within the gravel line. Customers have a bevy of questions about the bikes and their purposes. What’s the biggest tire they can mount on the bike? Can they put flat handlebars on the bike?

“For some, what they want resembles a drop-bar mountain bike,” Cariveau says.

Instead of arguing over specifications, Cariveau says Moots’s sales staff often takes a step back and then asks the customer about what and how they ride: Where do they plan to ride the bike, and what experience do they want to have along the route, be it on tarmac, trail, or gravel?

“You decipher where they’re going to take the thing. These aren’t hardcore bike nerds like us,” Cariveau says. “It starts to make sense after that.”