A ROADIE AND A GRAVEL CYCLIST
A roadie and a gravel cyclist walk into a bar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Actually, they walk under a big outdoor tent toward a row of tapped kegs after a long ride.
The server says to the gravel cyclist, “I know you from somewhere. Except, you’re somehow different than I remember you.”
The gravel cyclist looks at the roadie and then back to the server and says “Yeah, I was him last year and he’ll be me next year.”
MEET RUSSELL THE ROADIE
The story is a metaphor for the experience my fellow enthusiast Russell and I have gone through over the last couple of years.
Russell, for as long as I’ve known him has always been a serious roadie. By his recollection, he began riding about 16-17 years ago to get fit. He soon started doing an annual cancer fundraiser with a multiday, 200-mile long ride at its core, and quickly found that road cycling had become part of his lifestyle.
While he started riding mostly on his own, riding with others became a cornerstone of his life.
When we sat down for a beer and some grub he told me “Socially, riding has always been very important for me. My best friends, by far, are my cycling friends. It’s not even close. I am very good friends with 10-15 people I know from riding.”
Russell built these relationships over years riding with a couple of different cycling groups where he quickly advanced to averaging 20 mph and up. Soon, he settled in with a group of 8-15 fast fellow road riders that got out together a couple of days a week. “And I knew almost all of them,” he told me.
“But that changed [recently] when the club got more popular. More people were riding. I’d show up at the weekly group rides and I didn’t feel like I knew anyone anymore. The groups got too large. It wasn’t as much fun or safe.”
Russell and his group of close friends started doing more events away from the big group rides. They’d go out for rides on their own or stay together within whatever sized riding event they did.
CHECKING OUT GRAVEL
While Russell was aware of the growing buzz around gravel and some of the more popular rides in the Northeast US where he lives, he didn’t pay much attention to it.
Then, when a couple of his friends said they were going up to do the Tour de Heifer, a mostly dirt road ride in southern Vermont with plenty of hills and some true technical gravel sections, he figured he’d join them. It was more because he really enjoyed riding with his friends than due to any great interest in checking out the gravel scene.
Russell didn’t have a gravel bike but, crazy as it sounds, he did have a tandem. He bought a set of gravel tires and a big range cassette and rode on the back (Happy Stoker) while one of his good friends who had a lot of experience riding tandems drove the front (Happy Captain).
His reaction: “It was SO MUCH FUN. It was a great, great day. I came back from that ride and told my wife, ‘I am totally hooked [on gravel riding].’ I wanted to figure out how to do more of this.”
“It took me a while to buy a bike, but she was supportive. I hadn’t bought a new bike in 8 years and she was ok with me getting a new one. I started to look around.”
“I went to the hand-built bicycle show and started to realize what I wanted was an all-around bike. Basically, I wanted a bike that I would ride on the road 90% of the time but that had more room when I rode on gravel. A little more stretched out, disc brakes, and space for wider rims and tires.”
Russell ended up getting an Allied Alfa Allroad with a SRAM Red eTap groupset after considering but deciding against bikes that were more gravel oriented or those from better-known brand names made outside the US.
For much the same reasoning, after getting a credit for the “stock” Zipp wheels that came with the Allroad he bought a Boyd mid-depth carbon road disc wheelset that was wide enough to also support gravel tires. Russell also tested out a set of ENVE G23 700C carbon gravel wheels for me (more on this below).
He later bought a set of lower price-point, Boyd alloy wheels designed specifically for gravel riding. As you can see, he’s a fan of Boyd wheels.
RUSSELL, THE GRAVEL CYCLIST
In 2018, Russell’s first year riding gravel with his new bike and gear, he recalls doing two or three dedicated gravel events. By 2019, he rode twice as many starting with the early-season, cold and wet Rasputitsa, a Vermont favorite with 860 finishers.
In our discussion, he contrasted his gravel and road cycling experiences. The first thing he mentioned is at the heart of gravel’s attraction to many roadies.
“It is so enjoyable to go out into the country and not deal with cars.”
That distinct difference cleared a space to observe more nuanced contrasts that other fast road cycling enthusiasts can also appreciate.
“I think there is a certain element about not riding a paceline. On a gravel ride, you aren’t drafting much. You can if you are racing. But, for the most part, people aren’t drafting. You are almost always riding next to someone. The experience of where you are is much more palpable. The stress level comes down dramatically.”
Russell is what I’ll call a bi-cyclecal. He still loves road riding and now has a new love of gravel cycling.
“I still really enjoy riding in a paceline. You’ve got to be freakin’ focused. It’s a very different kind of thing. When you are riding 6″ from someone’s wheel and going 24 mph, there’s only one thing you are thinking about. I don’t want to be 3″ or 9″ away.”
“There’s a lot going on mentally to stay in the pack of people who are comparable or better riders. Some times its ‘Holy crap, I’m struggling today; I need to spend more time at the back and get back there gracefully.’ Or it’s ‘I feel pretty strong today. I can show a little more leadership and spend a little more time at the front.'”
“More time at the front by 2 or 3 people or more time at the back by 2 or 3 people. Constantly working that dynamic is one of the most enjoyable things about road cycling.”
“A lot of that goes away on a gravel ride. You’re riding next to people. There’s a lot of chit chat. You ride as hard as you want to ride. You are enjoying the moment. Group rides (on the road) are a lot of work and take a lot more concentration.”
STEVE, A ROADIE AND EMERGING GRAVEL CYCLIST
In 2019, I experienced much of what Russell went through in his first gravel year. I tasted the freedom and did three long, late-season gravel events including a 100K+ route on the D2R2, one of the first organized gravel rides that started in 2005.
I bought a dedicated gravel bike, began testing different gravel tires and wheels and put a half dozen gravel events on my 2020 calendar.
While my first love is still road cycling, like Russell I really enjoy the change of pace and the spirit of riding on dirt and gravel in different surroundings. The adrenaline is still there but it’s triggered by different sensations than what gets my juices flowing riding on the road. Charging down a steep grade at high speed on a mixed surface is a different kind of thrill than riding in a high-speed paceline, but it’s still a huge thrill in its own right.
I can easily see going back and forth between road and gravel cycling. They are complementary mentally and physically. Neither demands dedicated allegiance and each offers great ways to build fitness, friendships, and collegial competition.
ENVE G23 700C GRAVEL WHEELS
You do need some added gear to get the most out of gravel cycling. A bike that has a more relaxed geometry than most road bikes, room for 40mm wide or so tires and wheels that can support them at low pressures, mountain bike pedals and shoes, even more functionally suited bibs and jerseys to carry more gear and food.
ENVE made a commitment to gravel earlier than most wheelset makers. They started selling the carbon SES 4.5 AR disc brake wheelset for on and off-road riding before most roadies even knew that gravel cycling was a thing. The tubeless wheelset has rims that are 50mm+ deep for aero road riding and measure 25mm wide internally and 30mm+ externally for wider than normal road tires. This wheelset came out at a time when there were few road wheels wider than 19mm internally and we were all fixated on 25C tires as the big breakthrough in comfortable riding.
The 4.5 AR is everything you’d ever want in a road disc wheelset (see my review here) and versatile enough to ride aerodynamically with “narrow” tires in the 28C to 32C range. ENVE has more recently introduced a 40mm+ deep 3.4 AR with rim width dimensions similar to the 4.5 AR and about 150 grams lighter (review here).
The ENVE G23 700C, on the other hand, is a dedicated gravel wheelset. While it has roughly the same external width as the ARs and is 2mm narrower internally, the rim is designed to support tubeless tires between 32mm and 45mm wide. ENVE also created a G27 650B wheelset for 42mm to 60mm wide gravel tires.
These two wheelsets, only 25mm deep, weigh a ridiculously light 1250-1300 grams depending on the model and hub choice.
Russell rode the G23 700C on his gravel rides over the course of a month or so. During the same period, he also rode his mid-depth Boyd carbon wheels both on and off the road.
What did he think about the G23s?
First, I should say that while Russell likes to ride new cycling gear as much as any of us do, he’s not as nerdy about taking note of every little thing like I and my regular testers like Nate, Miles, and Moose are.
Second, as Russell pointed out to me, it’s a lot more difficult differentiating between wheels ridden on gravel vs. those on the road. The gravel surface is clearly more variable than normal paved roads. Gravel tires – their widths, treads, and inflation pressures – also differ far more from one to the next than road tires do.
Together, the wider range of gravel surfaces and tires make it harder to isolate the role the wheels play in judging some of the performance aspects we normally associate with road wheels like handling, stiffness, acceleration, aerodynamics, and comfort.
That said, Russell noted the wider track enabled by the G23’s gravel width rims and the lower pressures he could run them at. This made for a comfortable ride on a typically jarring surface. He also recognized how relatively light the wheels were, something that comes in handy getting up the short steep sections you find on many gravel courses.
Russell also remarked on how smooth and quiet the DT Swiss 240 hubs on the G23s were. ENVE now offers a similarly quiet and smooth ENVE Alloy hub instead of and at a price point below the DT Swiss hubs. They also give you the option of equipping the wheels with more expensive, faster-engaging, and louder i9 Torch and Chris King R45 hubs for the current G23s.
While he only rode them a few hundred miles, Russell didn’t flat and the wheels looked as good as new when he finished with them. ENVE made these wheels with a hookless rim design intended to greatly reduce the chance of pinch flats, especially when riding at gravel riding tire pressures in the low 20 psi range.
At $2550 and up, ENVE’s dedicated gravel and “all-road” AR wheels are some of the more expensive options. I’ve ranked the 4.5 AR the best and most versatile road disc wheels. The G23s look to be a great option if you want a dedicated gravel wheelset and have the money for these.
You can buy them using these links to Competitive Cyclist (4.5 AR and 3.4 AR and G23 and G27 gravel) and Merlin (AR and gravel), Tredz (AR and gravel) 10% off with exclusive code ITKTDZ10, and Tweeks (AR and gravel), stores I recommend for their low prices and high customer satisfaction ratings. You can also get them here at the ENVE online store.
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IS GRAVEL IN YOUR FUTURE?
There is certainly a far wider range of carbon and alloy wheels and tires designed for gravel riding available now than a year ago when Russell first tested out the ENVE G23 700C wheelset. I’ve begun testing some of these and developing some gravel-specific performance measures and protocols to give me the ability to compare gravel gear similar to what we do with road gear.
Are reviews and coverage of gravel cycling gear and riding something you’d be interested in seeing in addition to our road cycling In The Know Cycling reviews? Let me know below and take a minute to tick your preferences to help me focus our review plans for the coming year. Thanks.
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