Over the past several weeks, as people seek a healthy outlet from stay-at-home routines, the bicycling seen a surge of interest around the world. If you’re part of that trend and looking for some wheels to knock around town, your options are nearly endless. I know because I’ve tried just about every one. I’ve been living and riding in New York City for more than a decade and have sampled the gamut: road bikes, mountain bikes, folding bikes, e-bikes, cargo bikes, cruisers and fixies, not to mention all manner of hybrid combos. And I have to say that my favorite city bike lately hails from a segment you wouldn’t expect: gravel.
Which I realize probably sounds nuts. After all, gravel bikes are designed not for city streets but for rough-and-tumble off-road trails. The idea is to combine the adrenaline rush of mountain biking with the speed of road biking. And when ridden roughshod over dirt and sand and rocks and grass and, well, gravel, these bikes are loads of fun. But to my surprise, I’ve found that rides like Evil’s Chamois Hagar (pictured) and Ritte’s Satyr are actually kinda perfect for the urban jungle. Here are a few reasons why.
1. They’re Nimble
Quick history lesson: over the past decade or so, as dropper posts became more common on mountain bikes, manufacturers realized the handlebars were getting a little cluttered with controls. So many switched to 1x drivetrains, meaning all the gear shifting could happen on the right handlebar and leave the left free for a dropper post trigger. One happy byproduct: quickly shifting gears during ascents and descents got much easier.
A lot of modern gravel bikes have picked up on that cue, whether they have dropper posts or not. And this quality turns out to be hugely beneficial in cities, as you don’t have to calculate gear ratios while navigating a traffic-packed avenue, negotiating a gnarly turn or accelerating down a wide-open street. In concert with wide, bouncy tires, your road time becomes much more playful than precarious.
2. They’re Fast
Compared to most cargo, cruiser and commuter bikes, the best gravel bikes present a winning combo of weight and speed. Granted, you’re likely giving up the baskets, racks and panniers that these bikes often offer, but messenger bags and backpacks are cooler anyway.
Sure, they’re not as quick as an aero or roadie, but you won’t be quite as terrified to lock them up on the street when you meet your friends for a drink, either. And whether their frames are road-inspired and steel like the Satyr or mountain-oriented and carbon like the Chamois Hagar, I’ve found these bikes can move. Lord knows you don’t put drop bars on a ride meant for meandering — and who cares if you’re racking up as many miles on pavement as you are on rocks and dirt?
3. They’re Tough
Alright, those first couple factors have major merit, but the quality that’s really won me over is coming up right here. The past few years, I’ve been riding nearly every day, either to commute to work or for fun. I ride fairly aggressively, bombing down pothole-dotted streets, jumping curbs and even descending the occasional staircase. It translates to plenty of thrills… along with countless flats, shredded rim brakes, broken chains and other depressing and downright dangerous damage.
But because they’re designed to tackle off-road obstacles, a good gravel bike has no fear of city streets: beefy tires, durable disc brakes, a wiry frame and rugged construction ensure it. So I have a blast riding these things as roughly as possible from one tip of Manhattan to the other (much faster lately, thanks to pandemic-level traffic), with no thought of breakdowns on even the raggedest roads. I’ve also ridden deep into Brooklyn and Queens without concern about getting stranded. Heck, I’ve even taken the Chamois on urban mountain bike trails and emerged unscathed. (Well, the bike has anyway.)
Look, as someone who has evangelized bikes for years and years, I couldn’t be more stoked just seeing more people abandon four-wheeled motorized cages in favor of two-wheeled freedom machines. If you’re making that glorious switch, go for whatever type of bike makes you happy. But if my experience is any indication, the biggest smiles will happen in the saddle of one made for gravel.
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