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2020 is all about gravel and e-bikes and smart-bikes and materials and versatility

Versatility is the name of the game, and dirt is the playing field. The players are battery-operated, too.

This story appeared in the January/February print issue of VeloNews Magazine.

The future is filthy. It’s sloppy and proudly uncouth. Forget about the mods; the future belongs to the rockers. They’re hanging out on dirt roads and rocky trails. Some of them tote carefully hidden contraband that powers the lawlessness. (Batteries hiding in down tubes instead of cigarettes rolled up in shirt sleeves.) All of them have shrugged off the established routines of previous generations, and they want to burn your bike stable to the ground.

That’s bicycles for you: always evolving, even though the thrill stays the same. In a sense, 2020 continues a return to cycling’s origins: the dirt, where gravel riders of today are rediscovering the treacherous terrain that preceded the luxury of pavement. As that blacktop becomes more dangerous and less welcoming to cyclists, riders have fallen in love with gravel. It’s the trend driving most of the development that your favorite brands are focusing on in 2020, which means every bike they produce has to push the limits of versatility. Five bikes in the garage? No way; just one, that does it all.

Gravel is the new “road”.
Photo: Brad Kaminski

Gravel is road, road is gravel
Road bikes aren’t dead, but they are evolving. We know that much already, as gravel’s explosive growth has indicated. “From my seat,” says Trek’s road product marketing manager Anders Ahlberg, “the biggest trend I’m seeing, which I don’t believe will be too controversial, is that road bikes are getting more versatile. Our Domane launched this year got aero and added significant tire clearance. This lets a rider take a bike they mainly considered for endurance road riding, and ride it elsewhere — maybe gravel or a road race. Our Madone takes a way bigger tire than it needs to be the ultimate race bike. This lets someone like me take my Madone to a gravel race, which I have done. Not saying that the Madone is even close to a good gravel bike, but just that having bikes that do more than exactly what they were made for is pretty appealing.”

Along with making road bikes more gravel-friendly, gravel bikes too are evolving into faster, race-oriented machines that can still haul a bag or two. In order to accommodate such versatility, wheels and tires have changed significantly. Since gravel riding requires some tread for cornering, and width for stability, wheels have had to change along with that trend. “Within this segment, rims are getting slightly wider, offering much of the same advantages that wider MTB rims and tires experienced over the past few years,” says Ken Avery, vice president of marketing and product at Vittoria Tires.

Those advantages aren’t limited to stability and cornering. Handling, too, can improve with wider tires, and brands like Cushcore aim to improve that handling even further with its foam tire liners. (They are designed to prevent pinch flats, but they also support your sidewalls while cornering, so you can push harder into corners while maintaining traction. Cushcore has been a presence in the mountain bike world for several years but only recently offered a gravel-specific tire liner.) And, of course, a wider tire helps improve rolling resistance, as past VeloNews testing has shown.

The BMC Grael. Photo: Brad Kaminski

Gravel provides a new entry point into cycling for riders who may be intimidated by the road, or simply want a capital B Bicycle, one that does everything they think they might want to try. “With the popularity of the Gravel and Trail categories, I think people are getting back to the simple fun of it all,” Avery says. “Yeah sure, the competitive spirit will always be there, but Gravel and Trail (mountain bikes) are two places where I see less hurdles with getting new riders into the sport. Both encompass the free spirit of how I remember riding as a kid. This focus on appealing to new riders could be a trend in itself.”

E-Bikes
2020 is all about entry points into cycling. More butts on bikes, in other words, has taken many forms, not just the shape of a gravel bike. Bikes with batteries and motors have quickly morphed from sideshow curiosities to mainstream bike celebrity. With that fame comes controversy, and lots of it. But if 2019 was the introduction-and-resistance phase, 2020 is likely to become the evolution-and-acceptance phase.

Specialized Creo. Photo: Courtesy Specialized

E-bikes are growing like crazy and bringing more people into cycling,” says Chris Yu, leader of innovation and engineering at Specialized Bicycles. “We’re doubling down on our investment in Turbo as the only brand that develops our own motor, battery, electronics, and controller systems.”

And perhaps this is the year that the masses embrace e-bikes as part of the bicycle community. Until now, controversy has followed them steadily enough that significant resistance remains. But as companies both inside and outside of the bike industry embrace e-bikes as a chance to broaden cycling’s reach in the world — largely to replace cars, not to replace bicycles without motors — that resistance could be short-lived, or at least reduced to the minority. “An e-bike is still a bike,” says Yu, “so we innovate on the technology systems just like we go deep on R&D in frames, suspension and everything else that defines how a ride feels. We’ll see tighter integration and more seamless and personalized Turbo experiences in the coming years.”

Materials: how the sausage is made
Some of the other trends are under the hood, so to speak. Materials and ride dynamics could take center stage as engineers attempt to make the best even better. And when the intersection of aerodynamics and light weight plateau — as it seems they have — then the best bike may come back, once again, to versatility.

“We’re butting up against some pretty fundamental physical limits within the constraints of cycling,” says Trek’s Ahlberg. “Few make a frame lighter than the first Émonda we released in 2013, and we’re still taking competitor bikes to the wind tunnel that are significantly slower than the Speed Concept we introduced in 2014. If the biggest gains in weight and aero are harder and harder to come by, as an industry, we need to make a bike that’s a more well rounded as a better value proposition to riders.”

But Specialized’s Yu thinks 2020 will play host to more significant gains, perhaps exponentially so. And it won’t all come down to versatility. “Across traditional methods of make, like composite layups and alloy forming and joining, as well as new ones like 3D printing, we’ll see some incredible advances in frame and equipment structures,” Yu says. “Improvements throughout the process, from design optimization to scale manufacturing, mean that we’ll see much larger performance improvements than the typical year-to-year gains. For example, with our Mirror technology, enabled by advanced digital design and 3D printing, we’re able to control compliance on a saddle across thousands of lattice points vs. just a handful of zones with traditional foams.”

Ride Dynamics
The way you move with your bike, and the way it reacts to you is a design consideration not too far disconnected from the materials advances. Bicycles present a unique challenge for engineers because the engine is the rider — and that engine moves, a lot. That will affect the ride quality, the materials used in construction, and how those materials are used. All of those considerations are unique to bicycle design, so they can’t simply be borrowed from other industries like motorcycles or automobiles.

“Whether it’s for a road race bike, a gravel bike, a trail MTB, or anything else, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time and R&D resource into deeply understanding the underlying ride dynamics of each experience,” Yu says. “The simple translation of that is ‘what does the rider feel and what does the bike do when the rider does something?’ Everything that you’ll see from us in 2020 and beyond will have a clear ride dynamics benefit, explained in a simple way. Ride dynamics is the intersection of 2-wheeled vehicle dynamics, suspension kinematics, human perception and control, and more.”

“Zwifting” has become synonymous with indoor cycling. Other brands—like Garmin, who bought indoor trainer-maker Tacx—want to change that.

Indoor Cycling
Zwift has largely become metonymic for indoor cycling, but there are plenty of brands who want to be as closely associated with riding indoors as possible. It’s easy to see why, as anecdotal evidence points to a rapid adoption of indoor riding technology.

On the hardware side, Wahoo has made a name for itself with its suite of indoor cycling products such as the Kickr trainer, the Headwind, and the Kickr Climb, all of which work together to create a simulated riding experience akin to riding outdoors. But it has company now: Garmin recently acquired Tacx, lining the GPS giant up for an integrated suite of products of its own. And more recently, several companies — Wahoo and Stages, to name a few — joined the likes of Peloton and Wattbike with the launch of indoor cycling machines so you don’t have to put your expensive carbon bike on a trainer.

The Wahoo Kickr smartbike. Photo: Courtesy Wahoo

What’s even more striking about the indoor cycling craze is its growth into racing. Only a few years ago it seemed laughable that riders would embrace indoor racing as a legitimate sport, yet here we are, watching the explosion of Zwift racing. According to VeloNews editor in chief Fred Dreier’s reporting, Zwift “will hold 15 national championships, plus continental championship races in North America and Europe. And the company will hold a UCI-approved UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, to crown a men’s and women’s world champion.”

The line between outdoor racing and indoor racing has already blurred; look for it to become even more fully integrated in 2020 as a tool for training and for breeding new talent.