Our partner in podcasting, The Gravel Ride Podcast, got together recently with Randall Jacobs from Thesis Bike, with the goal of breaking down some of the considerations for purchasing a gravel bike.
Gravel Cyclist caught up with Randall in person at 2019 NAHBS, you can check that out here.
Thesis Bike Website – Thesis Bike Instagram
You can also find The Gravel Ride on iTunes and Spotify.
Automatic Transcription by The Gravel Ride (please excuse all errors)
Good day everyone and welcome to the gravel ride podcast. I’m your host, Craig Dalton. This week’s episode of the podcast is brought to you by our friends at Cycle Oregon. I introduced you to them last week talking about their exciting gravel weekend they had planted in may and wouldn’t you know it. Boom pandemic. The guys up at Cycle Oregon are super bummed, but they’re delaying this event until October, which is definitely the right thing to do. I know all event organizers all over the world, they’re struggling with what to do and where to get some time slots. Fortunately as you guys know, Oregon is such a great place to ride in the fall. October is going to be a real neat time there in the Ti Valley and I’m looking forward to the event. So go check out www.CycleOregon.com and if you’re interested in information, make sure to put TGR in your registration.
I believe there’s a team field or otherwise and note field where you can put TGR just to let them know that you heard about it first here at the gravel ride and definitely support them and all the other event organizers who are rejiggering their calendar to make sure that when it’s safe to go out, when it’s safe to congregate in groups. We have awesome events to go look forward to. I don’t know about you guys, but this pandemic has forced me to really think about what my calendar is going to look like. A lot of great events in the first half of the year have been postponed and perhaps they’ll come back later in the year, but it’s definitely gonna be a fun filled fall. I’m super optimistic and looking forward to it. I know like me, everybody’s struggling through this hard time, so let’s just band together.
Let’s do what we can. Let’s be kind to one another. Let’s reach out to each other online. Let’s keep those solo rides going so we can stay fit and you know, we’ll be back. Everybody’s going to be back. So keep in mind that I record these podcasts maybe a couple of months in advance, so if any of the content seems to be inappropriate like me calling for a group ride or anything like that, just keep in mind that the intros are more present, but the body of the recording is done typically a month or so in arrears, so again, forgive any gaps from that perspective. I’m super stoked on this episode it has with most episodes. I really wanted to revisit our gravel bike one Oh one episode we did early on in the podcast because I think it’s just a great starting point for a new riders as well as riders who have been around for a while and are thinking about their equipment in different ways as they’ve learned how to ride and chosen the terrain that they fallen in love with.
I’ve asked my friend Randall, cofounder of thesis bikes out of San Francisco to join the podcasts and he actually had me over again. This was before the, so I was over at thesis world headquarters over there in San Francisco and just enjoyed the conversation. It was a lot of fun to catch up with a buddy that I’ve been riding with now for for a year. Plus. The thesis bike is available at thesis’ dot bike. They’ve got some deals going over there right now, so hop on over and check out what they’re doing and said Randall and the team and note they definitely like to interact with the community. So feel free to reach out with any questions about their bike and anything that’s come up in relation to this podcast and the gravel bike or one-on-one. I’m here for you as always. But I’m sure Randall would be game to answer any questions over social media or directly over email. So apologies for the long intro. Thanks again to our sponsor cycle Oregon for stepping up for this episode and a few others. We look forward to seeing you in the fall with some of your great events. And with that, let’s dive right in to gravel bike one Oh one all right, Randall. Okay.
Come to the show. Thank you very much. It’s nice to be back. I appreciate you having me in your home and where you work a lot for thesis. It’s a joy to be here.
This is a global headquarters yet virtual company.
Yeah, exactly. So for awhile, I know on our bike rides I’ve been talking to you about my desire to kind of take a step back and do another gravel bike one Oh one episode. I did one back in 2018 with the goal of, you know, if you were thinking about getting into the sport, what do you need to think about? And I realized I was in a bike shop. We kind of probably stepped head of where we should have even started because a lot of people will stumble upon this podcast and just be asking themselves the question is gravel cycling for me? So I thought it’d be great to just have a conversation about that today.
Sure. And, and I think the answer to that question really depends on where you’re coming from. Right? So some of us are coming, you know, I was a former mountain biker, you know, racer. I did, you know, it trained a lot on the road. So I’m already kind of a dyed in the wool cyclist. You know, this is, this is my, what I do, it’s my tribe. But then you have other people who are like getting into this. Maybe this is like their first serious bike, right? They, maybe they had a bike in college, maybe they have like a, you know, a, a commuter or something like that and they see their friends having fun. And so I think in terms of like how to think about a gravel bike, well for the people who already have a stable, maybe they’re thinking about this as their and as an Mplus plus one machine.
And by that I mean like the optimal bikes for S for cyclist is often said to be N plus one, I need one more. I’m not an adherent to that philosophy but, but it’s the idea of like having a dedicated machine for going out on these long rambling rides on a mix of road and dirt and, and so on, being able to get lost and have adventures. The other philosophy, which is kind of my, my jam is, you know, N minus one or maybe even N minus two or in minus three, if you have that stable. So think of a bike and gravel riding is like, you have a bike that can do all the things right? It’s a, it’s a really good say, endurance road bike. If you put some slicks on it you put some fat six 50 B’s, it’s a borderline mountain bike.
You put a dropper and a flair bar on there. Like you’re, you’re, you have a better mountain bike then, you know, the people who invented mountain biking, not, not far from here. So you know, this idea of like having a machine where you can go out on a ride and on the road and be like, huh, I wonder where that trail goes. And then just dive into it and explore or somebody is, is hosting, you know, a mixed terrain ride and you just, you have the right machine for a variety of different experiences. The last one being like adventure. It was like, like travel, bike packing, touring these bikes generally have, you know, oftentimes have accommodations for, you know, you put bag systems on and things like this and you can really get out there.
So I’m going to take a step back from my sister who’s constantly asking me like, what the heck is this that you do? She knows mountain bikes and she knows the tour de France. And so what I’ve said to her is it’s a, a drop handlebars bike that you can ride off road. So it kind of looks like a road bike to many people, but it’s actually capable and has a lot of design features that we can get into later that allow it to go anywhere on road or off road.
It can. Yeah. And there’s kind of, there’s a spectrum, right? You have machines that are, you know, almost like cross bikes in terms of like more limited tire clearance. And maybe the, the geo is, is a little bit more aggressive or something. And then you have others that are essentially drop our mountain bikes. Right? And so the former is not going to be as capable on dirt. The the ladder is going to be kind of a pig on the road. And it’s, it the, the steering will be a bit slower and they’re great for that dedicated purpose. But yeah, in terms of like being able to go out and have this wide variety of adventures, you know, you want to be kind of mindful of, of getting a machine that’ll cover, cover all the bases. And I think that that’s a gravel bike at its best is one that can do all the things.
Yeah. And I mean I think that’s an interesting part of this exploding sector of the cycling industry is that people are trying to figure out, well what’s my entry point? Is it a bike that can do all these things? Or is it a bike that does one end of spectrum better than others? And you know, I often talk about road plus bikes as being sort of the basic entry part. If you have, you know, if you’re on the roadie side of the market, you’re like, okay, now I can run a 30 to see tire in addition to my 25 or my 28 when I’m on the road and when I’m running that 32, see, I can go on a dirt road and feel comfortable.
Well, this really gets down to like, you know, let’s get down to the brass tacks of like, what is, what is the difference between all these different bikes? You have like rode bikes and you have, you know, climbing road bikes and arrow road bikes and endurance road bikes. You have cross bikes and you have gravel bikes, you have a, you know, a bike packing and touring rigs and so on. And you know, there’s this idea that like, every one of these is kind of purpose built for that experience. But we’ve had some key enabling technologies of late one of which being like tubeless tires, right? Run on wide rims. Another being, you know, dropper posts you know, the trend towards slightly flared bars and then materials like carbon fiber. Make it so that you can have a machine that’s lightweight.
You can have a machine that is, you know, very capable off road cause Oh the last one being disc brakes of course. You know, you can swap between wheel sets to have like a road or a dirt experience if you want to go to the extremes. And then with something like a dropper, you know, you, you’re getting into mountain bike territory with our suspension because you’re, you’re able to shift your weight back and keep your front wheel light, let it roll and kind of sail over train and your, your butts off the back and the bikes dancing out, you know, underneath you as your legs are acting as suspension, like the capability of something like that is well into cross country territory.
Yeah. Yeah. So let me, I’m going to, I’m going to step back from my sister’s benefit again and say, why do we have tubeless tires? Okay. We used to have tubes and tires and we still do on plenty of bikes, but tubes required us to run higher air pressure to avoid pinch flats. Yep. And probably many other reasons that I won’t drill into. And now we have just the tire with some sealant inside that we pump up and we can run lower type or higher pressure, which gives us, we can talk about what it will do off road, but at, at, at sort of a simple level, it allows us to have a more comfortably comfortable riding tire,
Even better rolling resistance and similar or potentially even slightly lighter system weight. It’s actually benefits all around. The, you know, there’s so tubeless tires you get, one of the big risks that you have, especially as you go off road is pinch flats. So basically, you know, you hit a bump, pinches the two between the ground and the rim and you get a little sneak bike, sneak bait sort of a pattern on the tube. That goes away with tubeless. The, you know, the manufacturing tolerances available within the bike industry have improved significantly and you know, tire construction, all that stuff that makes it so that you can get the tight tolerances needed for a tubeless system. The advent of like sealants. And so on, make it so that not only do you like seal the casing properly, but if you get a little puncture, there’s a good chance it’s going to hold up.
And so there’s just, it’s all benefit. Like the only downside may be road, some people will say like, Oh, like tubeless road, it’s, it’s a pain in the buck. It’s it, you know, the industry hasn’t properly settled on standards and so on. That is actually mostly a problem with narrow rims and tires. And if you run wide rims and a 28 plus road tire, your pressures are low enough where a lot of the problems associated with high pressure systems goes away. So if you’re thinking tubeless, like tubeless is an essential enabling technology of these experiences go tubeless, you’ll, you won’t look back. And that, that’s all.
And when you walk into the bike shop or you’re shopping online, it’s not going to look any different. It’s just a wheel with a tire on it. If you’re in the, I’m buying my first bike or my first gravel bikes, I don’t stress about that. But when someone says tubeless, two thumbs up from everybody here, it’s super important to your enjoyment for a lot of different reasons. The second thing you mentioned that may be different looking than somebody’s previous shopping experience with bikes are these disc brakes. And the only thing really you need to know about this brakes is they stop a hell of a lot better than caliper brakes or anything that proceeded it. And they’re really a must have for going off road.
Yeah. And, and of course like people often as you cited there will cite the power of a disc brake as the primary benefit, a good caliber brake and the dry has plenty of braking force. Right. but it’s the, the consistency of breaking like in the wet, in the dirt and so on. You know, grinding down your rims, the rims are going to hold up. It changes rim construction as well, so you can have the lighter, stiffer, stronger and not have to dissipate heat. But then also modulation. So like the little like, especially on dirt, you know, the difference between breaking traction and not breaking traction can be a tiny amount of forest at the lever. And so being able to like trends, you know, at the end of the day, like a human on a bike is a cyborg, right? And you’re trying to create this, this melding of, of human and machine such that, you know, it’s an extension of, of, of the animal on, on the machine.
And so like that, that modulation I think is, is actually arguably one of the greatest benefits. The last one being, and this one’s quite critical for gravel, is you’re no longer dependent on your rim and tie tire combo like your room and tire combo don’t affect your your brake caliper clearance cause you’re not squeezing at the rim, you’re doing it at, at the rotor. And so you can swap wheels, you can have, you know, a road set with, with a skinny tire, skinny, slick, and you can have a big fat mountain bike tire on your other set and it’s gonna grab at the same point. And so that, that is where you see like six 50 bees come in. You’re not gonna find a caliber that breaks well at the rim that can fit around a 40 mil tire anyways. Like, you know, cross bikes and notoriously they squeal and so on. So that that other component of like being able to fit a variety of different wheel tire packages too is kind of another key component that I think was essential in this big shift. Right? Yup.
Yeah, exactly. So when you go in the bike shop, you’re going to see something drop handlebars a little bit, Navi your tire, then potentially you’ve seen on our bike, in your past shopping experience, you’re also going to see a wide variety of frame materials. So anybody who’s shopping for a bike, like every other sector of the sport, you’ve got steel bikes, you’ve got aluminum bikes, you’ve got titanium bikes. And you’ve got carbon fiber bikes and we don’t need to drill into the minutia around these different materials cause that’s probably another podcast. Don’t want to go deep nerd on this. Don’t want to go deep on it, but let’s just put it out there that these, you know, in general camps, these materials are going to have different fields, different weights in different attributes. Right? Yeah. Is that, it’s interesting. I actually just did a whole project researching
You know, titanium and got deep in the weeds. And you know, I was at specialized when they are doing smart well with the aluminum. There’s some ideas, there’s some misconceptions around say aluminum being really stiff. That was the case back in the day when I’m probably going in. The weeds aren’t I think of it this way if as far as a material that gives you really impressive stiffness to weight that’s highly tuneable for, you know, damping and various other characteristics that you want on the bike. You just can’t be carbon. Like it is just a superior material. And I know that, you know Ty and, and steel had their acolytes and I think that those bikes are beautiful. They have their merits. It’s great for custom because you can just MITRE tubes and, and, and take them together pretty easily. But as far as like if you are, if you’re in the kind of like three K plus range you know, a carbon frame has a lot of benefits, especially for this experience where, you know, the you, you otherwise might end well, there’s like it’s kinda, maybe we cut this part out because I’m kind of going into the weeds already.
Yeah, no, that’s okay. Randall, you know, we’re, we’re gonna, I think we’re gonna we’re going to go in the weeds and we’re going to pull back, I think at a high level. Again, if you’re a new athlete shopping for a bike, if this is your, your sort of first proper adventure bicycle, you’re going to have some sort of basic things that you’re going to get in front of.
So, so here’s maybe a good way to frame this. If you’re on a budget, right, and you know, your budgets like 1500 bucks, if there’s a $1,500 gravel bike out there, it probably is not going to have the best components because a lot of the money went into the frame and you can think while it’s upgradable and so on. Well, by the time you upgrade all those components, it’s like turn, you know, getting a civic and boosting it, and then you fix the suspension and you’ve all of a sudden spent Porsche money, but you still have a civic. But if you, if you, if you’re just getting into it, you’re on a budget, steel and aluminum, really hard to beat. You can find really well thought out steel and aluminum frames and chassies that will perform well and kind of get you into the sport. And some of the better aluminum ones in particular at a rather high level. Again, using like, you know, the Cannondale aluminum road bikes and the specialized you know, smart well bikes as an example of aluminum that performs like carbon but at, at the top of the heap carbon for sure.
Yeah. And I know we’ll get some emails and some texts about titanium, which I’m a big fan of. I love the material. It’s a different ballpark and I think when you’re ready for titanium, you will have gone through that thought process if it’s ultimately the material that makes sense for you.
Well, what it comes down to is titanium specifically. You just can’t accomplish the bottom bracket stiffness with titanium that you can with carbon fiber or even aluminum. Just because of the way the, the limitations on tube shaping and you know, how much space you have to weld things at the bottom bracket, juncture and so on. So that’s probably the biggest compromise that you have with titanium is that bottom bracket stiffness. But otherwise, like, yeah, they’re beautiful and you can, you can have a beautiful machine with that material.
The other thing that I learned personally was that, you know, it’s hard to make the right choice right when you get into this sport. So I, I was riding a Niner aluminum Niner, which was my first gravel bike, which is fully capable, but it had cable actually weighted breaks and I think it could max out at about a 36 or 38 and it turned out for me, you know, how I ride, like it just wasn’t matching the aggression, if you, if you will, of my, my descending that I wanted to explore with the gravel bike. And I think that’s, that is, you know, one of those things that I do encourage people to really think about is what tires will your bicycle run because it can be limiting and you need to think about what your strengths are, what your concerns are as you’re coming into the sport. I think our group ride this last weekend was illustrative cause I was talking to some women from the Santa Rosa area who were incredible athletes, great climbers and a lot of fun to ride with. But when we got on the hairball descents, you know, they had the narrower tires and I feel like it was holding them back a little bit. Although to their credit, they powered through every section we threw at them.
Oh, they were crushing it. Yeah. but yeah, it’s, I mean, there’s really no reason at this point if you’re buying a new bike to buy something that doesn’t take six 50 B’s. Like, I just think that’s if you, even if you’re thinking that you’re going to be riding it more kind of endurance road or more, say like a, a Belgium waffle ride, people show up on, you know, 32 mil slicks. Right? Even if that’s going to be more your jam, you’re going to reach your point where you want to hit something a little bit gnarlier and you’re going to be tire limited. And you know, I’ve written 700 by 40. There are people who say like 700 by forties, you know, faster or 700 season going to be faster. They’re thinking about, you know, TuneIn or mountain and so on. But inevitably you have compromises with that.
Well, one, it’s not necessarily faster because if the train is undulating and you have lots of bumps and so on, that’s all you know horizontal energy that you put in by pedaling, that’s getting tr dissipated as vertical energy. Basically you’re getting bounced around on the bike and so a big fat tire will address that. But then also like you, you just have so much more ability to go in. Like, you know, I wonder if I can ride that right. Big fat tire you’re gonna have a much better chance of riding it and you’re going to have less issues with, you know, cracking rims and things like this cause you get, you know, you’re under biked on terrain that really demands a, a more capable machine.
Yeah. I’m a broken record, obviously [inaudible] six 50 being wide tires, but that’s my jam. I think I could be wrong, but I suspect that most bikes out there get specked with 700 seat wheels. What’s your sense on that?
I think it’s, I think it’s great to have a 700 set so that you can put your road slicks on them. And as long as the frame fits six 50 B, you’ll still be able to go out and have properly rowdy fund.
But don’t you, don’t you get the sense that most shops you see, most bikes you see in a bike shop are advertised start with 700 see as a starting a lot of them. Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s just a sense. I haven’t, and to your point, like you know, we’ve both written 700 C wheels, plenty around here and Miranda and I do spend a fair amount of time on 700 by 40 but I remember going out to SBT gravel this year and the guys at Panorai sir, were like, Oh, you should ride it like a 32 and I was like, Oh my God, I can’t even imagine putting that on my gravel bike. That said, for that particular course, it would have been fine for me. But with the forties I did find as usual, I was just rolling by people on the dissents. Having the wider tire and even on the small road sections on that course, the actual paved road sections, I didn’t really feel like 40 was holding me back in any way.
Well, the, so, so my take on this is that, you know, the folks who are trying to like run the minimal tire on the course, you know, if we’re talking racers that whole mindset is going to go the way of, you know, the 700 by 23 roadie, you know, mindset where it’s like, I need a tire that feels, you know, that’s as hard as possible. I’m going to, I’m going to do 700 by 23 I’m going to run into a 120 PSI and I’m gonna feel everything and that’s gonna make me feel fast. And that probably means I’m actually going faster. Well, no, you’re, the rolling resistance is higher. There’s no aerodynamic benefit. Obviously it’s, the tire shape is the same. You’re literally just wasting energy and beating the hell out of your body. So I think that the gravel scene is going to migrate much more towards fat, six 50 bees. Unless you’re doing like hard packed dirt fire roads you know, the fatter six 50 bees are the way to go. And you can just, you know, again, you’re out on that dirt fire road. Where does that single track go that that is a wonderful part of this experience.
Yeah. And I know we won’t probably won’t drill too far into the notion of suspension and the many ways in which that gets into a bike, but tire volume is suspension. Don’t get it wrong, don’t get it twisted people.
Well, and it’s, it’s suspension that is extremely efficient, right? It’s not sapping energy. And if you, you know, what’s beautiful too is like, you know, let’s say you’re a Trailhead is an hour away. Like I ride up, you know, from San Francisco to Fairfax and do Tamar Rancho, right? And it’s probably mountain bike trail. Well, I’ll run a few, few PSA higher PSI higher on the way there and then drop it a little bit. And then you know, getting shredded on the single track and it’s a great time,
Highly tuneable suspension, one knob tuning, right, right from your tire bow. Okay. So there’s, I mean there’s a few things for people to think about. We’re getting people stoked on gravel. We encourage you to kind of look at whatever your bike budget is, look at a bike that can run both 706 50 B wheelsets if you have the option of starting out with six 50 [inaudible], I think it gives you this one all the benefits we’ve just been talking about, but then a margin of safety as a newer rider and a margin of comfort that you’re not going to get in 700 sea wheel sets. That, that said, you know, if you fall in love with a 700 w C wheelset bike, go for it. Like hopefully it can go at least out to a 40, as Randall said, I think the evidence is clear that tire manufacturers are going bigger and bigger even on the 700 seat size at the end of the day.
But these are, you know, those are a couple things to think about around these bikes. The other big thing to think about I think is just where you live. And you know, my bias always comes through being someone who rides what are considered more mountain bikey type terrain with my bike. So my set up tens that way, but I always tried to take a step back and think, well, people in the Midwest or on the East coast, they’re talking about plenty of different terrain and the mountain States, again, different terrain that’s gonna play a role in what bike’s gonna make sense for you?
Well, I would say to a degree I think it actually has more to do with like what re wheel tire package makes the most sense for your specific terrain. But in terms of the bike itself the basic principle of like, make sure it fits six 50 B’s so that you always have that ability. I, I don’t, there’s really no downside to that. Doesn’t affect geometry. There’s no negative aspect of accommodating that tire. And you know, I’ve written all over the country. I’m from the Boston area. And you know, if with my setup like the tires, you know, I get a byway way in the front and adventure in the rear, so like a file, a semi slick in the rear. And in a file tread up front, I’m efficient on the road on Boston. Like I would road ride to a local mountain bike group ride and it was fast on the road and then I could ride with those, those folks. And you know, I was a little bit underbite I had a great time and then I can ride back and, and you know, this really like the rolling efficiency is there with these tires in the tire construction and so on. So I still think like getting a machine that is more capable than you think you need it to be. Because you’ll be bummed out when there are rides that you can’t do cause your machine is just not up to it.
Yeah. I’ve been surprised with my gravel bikes. Just the, the idea that as you said, you can roll up to a group ride on the road and hang in there in a way that you maybe wouldn’t think. You’re like, I’ve got this sort of burly machine. But the reality is it’s not. These are, these are kissing cousins from the road bikes. They’re not that far off.
Well, let’s, let’s talk about the actual differences. Right? So I mean, with the advent of hydraulic disc brakes for drop our bikes, right? So the breaking, you know, breaking systems are the same. You know, the geometries you can have, there are some gravel bikes that are, you know, really long and they’re and, and more biased towards stability. Some of them are even borderline drop our mountain bikes, but you can get a gravel bike that has an endurance road geo. Like there’s this overlapping point between, you know, endurance road and cyclocross and, you know, shrady gravel riding. There’s that sweet spot where you have a machine that depending on the tires you put on it and how you, you know, maybe maybe how aggressively you set up your handlebar, you can have different experiences.
Yeah. And that’s, I mean, that’s the beauty of these things. I mean, we’ve talked online on a number of us are offline on a number of occasions just about how put the road wheel set on this. Things that are road sled, you can kit the group ride. It’s all good. Put a sort of tire setup that you just described. You can ride 20 miles of pavement, go hit a mountain bike trail system and ride home, get a NABI or set up. You can get pretty extreme with these bikes, strap some bags on. All of a sudden it’s this overnight rig. And I think that’s, it’s incredible. The versatility of these bikes. Well,
It’s essentially, so my, my thinking is like, you know, if we could have one bike that really does everything, that would be the ideal. I think given the current state of the art, you know, a gravel bike with two wheel sets or a road, and then like a six 50 P dirt covers everything from performance road riding to bore, you know, borderline cross country bike packing like touring and so on cyclocross. And then if you, if you’re into like, hardcore trails, get a dual suspension, tread sled, like that is a different experience. These bikes are not going to be the most fun when it gets properly Chandry and you’re doing, you know, 20% gradients and, and, and what have you. But honestly, I used to be a mountain biker. I don’t have the time. I don’t own a car. You know, I, I don’t want to like load up a big machine and drive out to the trails. I want to ride the trails that I have out my door. And you know, fortunately here we have some really good ones. And the truth is like, most people have some good trails, trails near where they live. They know where to look, especially if you can connect them with all these little road sections that are still fun to ride because your, your bike is still fun on, on those roads.
Yeah. I think for us, you know, in, in Marin do to kind of trail access issues, we’ve got to get a bunch further North before you get into some real fun mountain biking. So these types of bikes, like if you’re living in San Francisco, being able to ride across the golden gate bridge efficiently, then hit the dirt and the headlines. Yeah, it’s just really nice. I mean, I did that for years on a hardtail 20 Niner, which was fine, but it really wasn’t scratching the mountain bike itch. You know, cause I would just wasn’t getting into the technical terrain. Then all of a sudden I started riding drop bars and some of those fire road dissents are really fun because you can sort of push the limits of technology and technique to try to ride them fast as if you’re on a mountain bike, but without the sort of safety net of a suspension fork.
So, so should should we get on a soapbox about dropper posts? I, I’m always game to get on that soapbox. I think I occupy, my name’s on it next years. Yeah. So so for the listener, so a dropper post is simply, it’s a telescoping seatpost that can be actuated by a lever. It can sink down and get out of the way. So if you’ve, if you’re a road cyclist, you’ve never probably experienced this to this date, you’re, you sort of set up your saddle height at your ideal peddling sort of leg length and, and you’re good to go with a dropper post. You’ve got any number of different adjustments you can make from totally slammed out of the way to your perfect peddling position.
Well, and here’s, you know, there’s this, this is actually, I believe you know, after disc brakes and tubeless tires on wide rims, like this is an essential enabling technology. And I think that dropper posts will be pretty ubiquitous before too long on this type of bike. You add, you know, 0.7 pounds, right? You know, Ooh, the weight we need in the group in the crowd might not like that. But here’s what you get. You now is set up your saddle at the optimum position for power output, right? Because you don’t have to compromise it to be able to scoot your butt off the back. And then when you get your butt off the back, your, your saddle is dropped down. So you really have like a lot of travel in your legs. The bike can be dancing underneath you going up and down and side to side and using all this body English to, to navigate the terrain. And, and you know, the bike is, is doing all this stuff in your body is taking a relatively smooth line through space. And so you can think of this as like, it’s suspension without the slop, right? It’s not, you don’t get this big lumbering beast on the road where you know, it’s bobbing underneath you. But when you want it, like it’s there and, and as you develop the skill around it, it just radically extends the capability of machine.
Yeah. And for him. It’s interesting, you know it, I think it’s often occupied the space of like, Oh a more advanced or experienced athlete comes to getting a dropper posts. But the reality is it’s so good for beginner riders, for even riding on the road for God’s sake. It’s a good, it’s a good thing because when you get up on those steeps, the last, particularly with the drop bar bikes, you, you sort of, when you’re steeply descending, you just feel like you’re getting thrown over the handlebars cause you are, because that seat is pitching you over the bars. But with the dropper posts, the saddle sinks right out of the way. You can, you have such a large pocket underneath your under carriage to kind of maneuver the bike around. So if, if you’re going over a little over a little rock or something and there’s a little bit of a drop off, you just have that room.
Yeah. I think, and this is actually worth diving into. So cause this, this is really where like we get into cross country territory. So essentially the dropper with the dropper, you can shift your hips back. So you kind of like exaggeratedly you know point your by your, your butt off the back of the bike saddle ends up somewhere like around your, your tummy there. You’re in the drops up front, which are more accessible because your, your body’s lower right and those drops give you more leverage, especially if they’re flared. You’re because you have more mass over the rear, you can use your rear for speed control cause you have way more braking force cause the mass is there. And then you know, your front wheel is not being asked to both steer and brake and so it can just roll.
You can keep it light. Your upper body stays nice and lightened the front just kind of rolls over stuff and the bike is kinda rocking back and forth, going over rough terrain. Your legs are absorbing it. And you know, if, if you, if you come up to a rudder, you come up to like something sketchy, you’re not going to pitch over the front because your center of mass is so far back and you’re, you don’t, you’re not breaking so much with the front that just the physics of it are such that you’re, you’re not going to be lawn darting, you’re not going to be hot, you know, high siding over the front of the bike. Worst case scenario, your rear slides, that’s controllable. In fact, when you start really becoming one with the bike, that’s fun. You drift it. Like that’s part of the technique.
Yeah. I feel like, I feel like it’s exponentially enhancing the safety and performance experience. And I see it time and time again. I ride with people who have the same sort of relative skill level as I do, but I can see they’re constrained by being pitched up and over whenever we hit anything technical.
Well, and, and another component of this is like you mentioned on the road, this being a game changer. There’s something really delightful about being in like a bullet tuck with a dropper down with six 50 B’s all covered in mud and ripping past somebody peddling down on a road bike or on a narrow road bike. But another element is a mobility actually. So you have, you know, we I talked to a lot of riders cause we do like our bikes are all custom and it’s like, you know, I have trouble getting on and off the bike, like a dropper post makes it easier to get on and off the bike. And you know, that that is significance. That is, that is a meaningful improvement in accessibility.
I think a lot of people like w when they think about a dropper, it’s like, Oh, it’s either high or low. But the interesting thing is once you get used to it, it’s infinite. So I, you know, I was, I was riding with, with someone who was out on a demo ride on one of your bikes the other weekend. And I was like, Oh, you did, did you drop your posts? You know, a centimeter or an inch for this little traverse we were doing. He’s like, no, I didn’t, didn’t think about it. I was like, well, you should because look what happens. Like I can now corner with a little bit more ease because I just, I have the ability to throw the bike around. We’re not, we’re not in a max power peddling situation, so it’s not required that I have it at that perfect height. So I might as well have that room so I can throw the bike around and make it more playful.
I mean, the, the way we, that this used to be done in the past and you know, the battle days before mountain, before a dropper posts is you know, we used to drop the saddle on our mountain bikes, three quarters of an inch so that we’d have a little bit more maneuverability. Now you can just, you know, do a little micro adjust and then when you hit the flat section, you hit the road, you pop it back up and you’re in pure power production mode. So absolutely.
I’m going to be sharing with some listeners my age a little bit here by saying like, I actually rocked the height right back in the day, which was this spring system that attached to your your seatpost. So you could throw your quick-release, slam it down and then theoretically it would pop back up. The problem with that is it never popped back up straight. Like today’s dropper posts, which your saddle is always going to remain in the exact right position for you.
We live in a golden age of, of equipment. The fact that you can go out and ride like we did the other day and stuff just works and it fun on all the different terrain. Like that’s magical. So,
Yeah. Yeah. No, I hope, I hope our shared enthusiasm for the sport is coming through in this podcast because anybody listening like these bikes for me, they have just given me the ability to, to ride wherever and whenever I want. I still do have that full suspension sled that gets written. Rarely if I’m, you know, doing a trip to Thai or someplace where I’m going to hit some real nice mountain bike terrain, which I still completely love. But having a gravel bike in my life has just been reinvigorating for my passion and love of the sport.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean this gets down to, you know, let’s get philosophical for a moment. Like why do we do this? Like what, what is the purpose? We are adults, right? Spending money on this equipment so we can go out and ride in a giant circle. And you know, like what is the point of this activity? And, and for me it comes down to like connection, right? You’re on, you know, on a machine, you’re connecting with the machine. You’re connecting with your body, right? You know that, that sinking of your, your breathing, your heart rate, your cadence, like you, you get in, you can get into a flow state, you can you know, you can focus, you connect with yourself, you connect with the environments, you connect with community. Like you, we had, you know, how many people come out the other day and they were just stoked to be there and, and to meet each other and go on and have this experience.
And like there were some writers who were really strong and there are some writers who it was their first big gravel group ride. And everybody got what they wanted out of that experience. And I think that that’s something that’s quite powerful about this particular type of writing. And, and if we take a bigger step back, like this is, this is not just, this isn’t just about cycling, this is about like a life well lived, right? For me that this is the reason why I personally and so resonant with this experience and why I care so much and why I try to share it is because there’s just so much there. In terms of like you know, having an outlet for adults to play, like children to interact without all the hierarchies and all the way, all the things that we have you know, to kind of all the identities that we have off the bike. What matters on the bike is that you’re on the bike and you’re friendly and you know, maybe if you’re strong, you get a little bit of credit. Really. Generally people don’t care that much. It’s about having an adventure.
Yeah. But I mean, that resonates with me. I’ve found over the course of my life, I’ve got this sort of adventure bucket, and if I’m not filling it on a weekly basis, I tend to get depressed. Yeah. And you know, I found that as much as I love cycling and as many great road riding experiences that I’ve had, it’s a smaller part of those road rides that filled my adventure bucket. But when I get off road particularly, I mean, we’re so blessed here in the Bay area that we can go out of our door and we can see no one we can get on these trails. Even though there’s a huge population around here, you can have days and mornings where you do a loop and you see virtually no one.
I mean if you live in New York city, you can find this. It’s harder, but you can find that section of park at the right time of day that, that, you know, you get your, your peace, you get your tranquility.
Yeah. Same in Washington DC where I started started my cycling back there. We just had these neighborhood trails that you have to know where the next entrance was, but you could just get out there amongst, you know, the traffic was just there around the corner, but all of a sudden you found this pocket of adventure. And another thing you were talking about that I think is, is unique to gravel riding that is maybe shared with our mountain bike brother. And it’s just this idea of like riding a section and then grouping up afterwards and wanting to high five people. Yeah. It’s just, it’s fun as a grown ass man, grown ass woman to giggle and high five your friends.
Yeah. Well I think that there, the fact that this is not the norm that like day to day joy and connection is not something that we’ve built into our now. We’re now we’re getting way into the philosophical realm. But like what is the point of all of this stuff that we’re doing, right? We, you know, are we our jobs, are we our families? Are we our, our, our gender or race or something or we like something greater than that. And is there more to life than I mean of course like there is the struggle and we are in a a privileged position to have the time and the resources to buy a machine like this and to be able to steal away. I would like to see those types of experiences be accessible to more people because it really is like there’s, there’s there’s being, there’s living and then there’s like being alive and that’s where I think that these experiences come in.
Yeah, it’s important to remember. Yeah. So circling back off our philosophical bandwagon, but I mean, I think we, it, this should resonate with listeners. Anybody who’s written off road, I think when they really think about it, they’re going to think and remember like it is really filling something inside them. So I guess going back to where we started with gravel bike one Oh one one get a gravel bike, it’s going to be great for you when you’re looking for a gravel bike. Obviously price points are gonna be a concern. Get into the sport where you can afford it. Go out there and ride it. We’re not, we’re not sitting here saying go buy expensive equipment. It’s the only way to ride gravel by no means. And I think gravel of any sector of the sport has shown that. It’s like welcome all comers. If you want to go out ride trails, have a good time, smile, everybody’s welcome in this sport.
And we’ve, we’ve covered a lot of kind of the, you know, what to look for in equipment. One other one I think it’s important to, to throw out there is gearing. I’m a huge fan of one by drive trains and I’m a big fan of having way more low end than you think you need. So like a big old pie plate in the rear so that, you know, when you hit that steep pitch you’re going to be able to get up or when you get in over your head and you do that 60 mile group ride and you’re completely kicked and you have that last pitch to get up, you can spin up it. Yeah. So for the listener. So,
And let’s talk about you’ve, you’ve generally got an option of two chain rings upfront and a cassette in the back or one chain ring up front and the cassette in the back. And I grappled with this with my, my first two gravel bikes. And ultimately I originally decided on a two I set up because I was sort of swayed with this idea that Oh, on the road I wasn’t gonna have the nuances and the subtleties between the gears. But after spending a couple of years in the sport, I was lusting after one buy and I’m my present thesis, I’m on a one by setup and I couldn’t be happier because I don’t, I don’t personally miss any of those subtleties that were purported to exist.
Yeah. And you want like, you know just to throw out some numbers, like a 10 42 in the rear, 1146 in the rear and you can get all the range that you get with the two by with that big old cassette people will talk about the jumps, which is what you were alluding to and yeah, the jumps are bigger. I mean, that’s just math, but the fact is like a two by 11 is really like a 14 speed, right? A lot of the gears overlap. And so a one by 11 is not going to be twice as big of a jump. The second thing is that if you’re fit properly to the bike with the right crank length proportional to your inseam and like you’re able to spin smoothly because you’re dialed to the machine you, you’re going to be fine at, you know, you know, in one gear in the other in terms of changing the cadence.
And then the last thing is on gravel. The terrain is changing so much that you generally be grabbing two or three gears anyways. And so you know, it actually makes that easier. But the last thing here is just, there’s nothing to think about, right? If you think about like the experience that you want, the bike is not the center of the action. Like it’s, it’s, you want the bike to disappear. And so if you’re thinking about cross chaining, you’re thinking about chain drops and this other stuff this is going to get in the way of you. You, you know, flowing in the environment.
Yeah. I think I was dabbling with one by demo bikes. What I found right away was that it was just quieter, you know, with the clutch rear derailer, no sh no Chainer no. A derailer up front. The chain can be tighter. Everything seemed to just be quieter and, and felt more together.
Yeah. The, I mean you, there are good to buy drive trains now with clutches fortunately. And if you go electronic, it takes away some of the cross chain and you can have it auto change the front and so on. But still like don’t complicate things. Like one buy is super simple. It just works. It’s cheaper upfront, cheaper to maintain. It’s easier to meet. Like just get a one buy. And if you, if it’s not the right gearing, you change the chain ring. Like, you know, 50 bucks. You can always dial it to what you need.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, I think this is all good stuff. Are there any kind of key takeaways that you would leave the listener with? Thinking, thinking from the mentality of, okay, someone considering jumping in the sport, they’ve learned a little bit from us today. What are the things you want them to walk away with?
I would say that I would, I would target this, this response to the people who are really like, they’re really interested in, in not just adding gravel to their repertoire. They’re already cyclists. Cause you know, those of us who are already cyclists, we’re already getting you know, our group rides or are our on the mountain bike or whatever. But you know, especially for, for the newbie like this is, this is an experience that’s accessible. Find people in your community who are organizing group rides, who can give you some guidance on, on now, where to ride and, and equipment choices and so on. And, you know, don’t be intimidated by you know, some of the train you go on, go out and have adventures, push yourself connect with people. And you will find as I have, and I think a lot of us have had that this is really an experience that’s part of a life well lived.
You know, everything from, from of course the, the basics of like just being fit and, and feeling healthy, but more importantly, just mental health, right? You talk about, you know, being depressed when you don’t ride. This is therapy. Like this is, this is a way of, of, of self care. So, you know, find the people who have, who’ve you know, learned how to get the most out of this and get their, their guidance on, on how to join because it’s a very accessible style of cycling you get into. Yeah, I think those are all great. Great.
Parting thoughts and I would just add sort of, don’t be afraid of gravel. We’re not talking about bringing you to crank works up at Whistler and send you off, sending you off a a 40 foot jump. Dirt roads have been written since the Dawn of the bicycle time and, and it’s, you know, it’s the simplest incarnation. You don’t need anything special. You can ride a, a tiny road bike tire off road and be enjoying gravel. As we’ve talked about earlier as, as you sort of make the right equipment choices and you’d develop the skills you can go explore further and further. One of the things that I’ve personally enjoyed around here, and I sort of encouraged newer athletes is ride uphill off road and ride downhill on the road. You don’t have to do it all. You can, you can sort of go where your comfort level lies and you will get some of those rewards in the Bay area. That strategy is useful because descending, even at a casual pace, you’re going faster than most of the cars. And you sort of forgive yourself, needing to know a lot of the sort of technical skills to go down Hill that you’ll learn over time.
Well, and the thing is by simple virtue of having what we’re calling a gravel bike, this marketing term of gravel bike, these all purpose machines just write it how you want to ride it. Like that is, that is exactly the point. Like you can do all the things and you know, get the bike, do some exploring, find out what your jam is and then do more of that. And you know that that’s a, like, that’s what’s beautiful about this is you can find, you can find your, your terrain, the stuff that you enjoy and in the community around that type of writing that you can join up, which is arguably one of the, one of the best parts about this is the, the people you meet alone.
Yeah. And that’s, you know, I’ve obviously talked to a lot of event organizers on the podcast and I think almost uniformly they are looking at creating distances and you know, different categories of events so that you can do a 25 miles starter gravel event. Because these experiences as Randal alluded to in terms of the community, it just, it’s great to travel to do these things because they’re just fun days out. Whether you’re doing the 25 mile version or the a hundred mile version, you’re all going to coalesce afterwards with a little bit of dirt on your bike and your body and you’re going to enjoy a shared meal and maybe a beer together. And it’s just great to get out there and do,
It’s a th there’s a term is a term that’s been coined in the Bay area. I th I think it’s attributable to Murphy Mac of the super pro series, but the idea of like a, a mullet ride, it’s like business in the front party in the back. So like show up, you start, everyone starts together. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a festival atmosphere. It’s a party atmosphere. And if you want to go out and race, go throw down. If you just want to like go and you know, slog through, you know, 60 miles and feel that sense of accomplishment and meet people along the way, that experience is there too. And that’s kind of the general vibe around this. It’s not like, you know, winter take all crit racing on the weekends or something. This is like, let’s go have an adventure together and enjoy each other’s company.
Yeah, no, that’s perfect. I think those are great closing thoughts Randall, so I appreciate you having me over. I appreciate the conversation. I hope everybody listening is getting a little bit out of it and at minimum of guarantee they’re getting your enthusiasm and my enthusiasm for the sport.
Yeah. Hopefully if anyone is in the Bay area, I’ll come join us for a ride and I’ll be around the country later this year. We’d love to a ride with some of you folks. Right on. Right.
So thanks again to Randall from thesis for the time and the conversation. As I mentioned in the intro, obviously calling out group rides and things like that is not something we’re condoning at this point, but definitely Randall and I love to get groups of people together here in the Bay area as I’m sure many of do you do around the country, so let’s keep looking forward to better times and getting together soon. In the meantime, I forgot to mention all the great feedback I got about bringing on board a sponsor and advertisers to the podcast. I really appreciated the kind words and the thumbs up you guys were giving me to say, Hey, it’s okay if you want to offset some of your costs. We know you’re a volunteer effectively in doing this, so thanks so much. I also did set up a buy me a coffee account at www.buymeacoffee.com/thegravelride where you can simply buy me a cup of Joe if you like what I’m doing. So anyway guys, stay safe, stay healthy during this pandemic. As always, I appreciate your feedback. Feel free to shoot me a note at Craig at the gravel ride dot bike, or hit me up on Facebook or Instagram. Until next time, here’s to finding some dirt under your wheels.
7 comments on “Podcast: Gravel Bike 101 – What you should consider in your next Gravel Bike!”
This was nice. They missed one of my primary considerations for a next bike though – no press-fit bottom bracket! creak-creak-creak, ugh
Ron, I’ve found some of the PF BBs that screw together at the centre, aren’t as troublesome.
Checkout the OB1 no press-fit there. https://thesis.bike/products/the-ob1-original#specs
It’s still press-fit, but at least it’s the BB386EVO standard, which allows you lots of room for thread-together options and also 30mm spindles, unlike BB86… creak, creak, creak.
Thanks for all the feedback everyone!
It is true that traditional press-fit BBs are an absolute nightmare. It is also true that I could have chosen threaded BSA or T47 for the OB1 and saved a bit of money on our bill of materials, and indeed would have were the OB1 a metal frame.
For carbon however, I feel that an aluminum 2-piece thread-together unit is superior for a variety of reasons. Primary amongst them are:
– Eliminates the risk of galvanic corrosion causing a bonded-in aluminum shell to de-bond.
– Increases control over bearing support (i.e. the rigidity of the assembly connecting the bearings) and alignment tolerances, as a single manufacturer makes the entire assembly (there is no frame in the middle).
– There is only a single threaded interface vs. two for T47 or BSA, further reducing tolerance stacking issues.
– Reduces sensitivity to the looser tolerances that are inherent in machining carbon vs. aluminum. We carefully check every frame, any out of spec frame can be easily reworked (sanded or epoxied) to bring it within spec
– Our 2-piece aluminum BB shells have a slightly tapered surface where they interface with the frame to take up any slack and ensure an extremely snug, creak-free fit.
– Assuming it’s done right as I’ve laid out here, there is essentially zero risk of creaking between the thread-together shell and the frame.
I hope you all find this summary useful. I’ll be following this thread, so feel welcome to leave me additional feedback or questions.
Agree on the threaded PF30 replacement BBs. I used one of these on an S-Works XC MTB –which was creaking a lot– and it’s been perfectly quiet ever since:
Should be fine for gravel frames as well.(?)
Yes, though keep in mind that there is nothing special about a gravel frame when it comes to bearing alignment and support, as those are attributes you want in a BB assembly regardless of discipline. Same goes for bearing size and spacing, with bigger and wider being better.
As for gravel-specific considerations, environmental attributes like stainless races and tight, high-quality seals are desirable in any bearing cartridge and matter that much more for a bike that’s designed to get written long miles in conditions ranging from clean and dry to muddy and wet.
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