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How to choose a bike for gravel: The three ‘Cs’

Spencer Powlison shares some thoughts on gravel events and what your bike setup should be.

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It used to be simple. If you were doing a mountain bike race, you rode your mountain bike. If it was a road race, a road bike was the choice. Lots of gravel events are blurring the lines and making bike selection tricky. Having just returned from one of these dirty events — Grinduro in Quincy, California — I started musing about bike choice.

To begin with, here’s my quick video primer on what Grinduro is.

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I also raced Crusher in the Tushar and Barry Roubaix this year and can say that Grinduro is the most unconventional gravel event I’ve done. However, I saw an interesting blend of mountain, cyclocross, gravel, and even road bikes in all three races.

Here are the three “Cs” to picking the right (ish) bike and gear for these wacky events.

1. Comfort

Most of the gravel races I’ve done have been around four to five hours. I wouldn’t recommend sacrificing comfort for the sake of speed. In particular, at Crusher I wore some superlight MTB race shoes, and by the end, my anklebones were killing me. I was especially happy with my bike at Grinduro. Enigma, a British framebuilder, sent VeloNews a steel 650b bike that really took the edge off the route’s rough terrain between the more compliant frame and 42mm-wide WTB Resolute tires.

2. Confidence

I grew up racing mountain bikes and have done more cyclocross races than I care to remember. For me, a drop-bar bike is no problem, even on Grinduro’s wild final descent, which is essentially a mountain bike trail. However, if you’re not as comfortable on loose terrain, there’s no shame in riding a mountain bike. Carl Decker rode a 29er hardtail mountain bike to victory at Grinduro. I saw some guys who were absolutely crushing it at Barry Roubaix on mountain bikes. Don’t get hung up on aesthetics or groupthink about what a gravel bike “should” be.

3. Capability

The two key components in mind here are gears and tires. Sure, other components play a role, but hey, we don’t have all day here. When it comes to shifting, having a very easy bail-out gear is essential at events like Crusher and Grinduro. Barry Roubaix’s hills are steep but not too long. Still, at all three, I went with a single-ring crankset and a 10-42 SRAM cassette. A 42-tooth chainring is usually right for most riders. Naturally, if you need an easier gear, a 40t ring would help you spin on the steep stuff.

As for tires, tubeless with tire sealant is practically essential for rough, rocky days like Crusher and Grinduro. Go wide, make sure you have some treads (like those WTB Resolutes I mentioned). Don’t sweat a slight loss in rolling resistance. I got a flat tire halfway through Crusher — trust me, it’ll slow you down more than a few extra knobs.

I took a few photos of some notable bikes at Grinduro. I’ll cop to being a mediocre photographer and fairly exhausted from a long day of riding, but perhaps you’ll be inspired when you build up your gravel rig.