Gravel, Dirt, or Pavement... the Song Remains the Same
Communicating this concept in one snappy phrase has proved challenging for lovers of such machines - myself included. Nevertheless, as I ride my own bike of this un-named type, I realise just how crucial of a role the whole concept has played in my own cycling experience over the years.
In the late 2000's, both the Rivendell and the Bicycle Quarterly folks introduced (their own takes on) the idea of the 650B fat tyre roadbike. And in 2009, as a fledgeling cyclist who had only recently mastered riding an upright city bike without veering into traffic, I was immediately attracted.
At the time, all the chatter about tubing and geometry was pure gibberish to me. What attracted me was how accessible and friendly such a bicycle seemed. I wanted to try road cycling and dreamt of flying along country roads on a speedy bike with drop bars. But the roadbikes then-available in shops, with their racing-oriented fit and razor-thin tyres felt impossibly scary. The fat tyres, I thought, would help me with balance, enabling me to master the drop bar position. I also liked the idea of fenders, light luggage, and dynamo lighting that went hand in hand with such bicycles. And so when Rivendell introduced its reasonably priced Sam Hillborne model, I snapped one up - in the beautiful metallic pea-green colour.
In the course of owning and constantly riding this bicycle, I made some unexpected discoveries: For example, that I liked modern drivetrain components, that I disliked loaded touring, and, finally, that the more I cycled the more I came to prefer a fairly aggressive position, feeling compelled to set my handlebars lower and lower, until finally they "wouldn't go any lower" considering the frame size. It was this that led to my decision to sell the Rivendell. It was an excellent bicycle for the purpose it had been designed for. But with its 57cm virtual top tube, the frame was simply too big for the fit I had ultimately settled on (I now ride 53cm frames). And its relaxed, load-optimised geometry and tubing were wasted on me, since I seldom loaded it with anything heavier than a change of clothes, a camera, a snack, and a book.
At this time I was still living in Boston and was friendly with Mike Flanigan of ANT, who had just started offering framebuilding classes. A fan of the fat tyre roadbike concept, Mike encouraged me to replace my Rivendell with a bike I would build myself. And that was exactly what I decided to do. However, as I had an inkling that this process might, from start to finish, take a bit longer than planned, in the interim I replaced the Rivendell with the Rawland Nordavinden - an exciting new model with lightweight tubing and low-trail geometry that had just come out at that time.
When I started riding the Nordavinden, I felt it was really everything that I had wanted - except still a bit too big for me (they did not offer sizes any smaller). In fact I liked that bike so much, that I basically built my own frame to be its replica - only half a size smaller and with a few modifications, such as a slightly lower bottom bracket and shorter chainstays. To the extent of my ability, I also tried a few tricks to reduce the overall weight of the frameset, such as thinning out the dropouts and lugs.
And that it did. It was rewarding to discover that whatever subtle tweaks I'd made in sizing and geometry translated into (equally subtle, but nonetheless noticeable) improvements in performance and comfort. I brought the DIY bicycle ("Alice") with me to Ireland and it is now my second year of riding it here.
And I'll be honest: Even with my "optimised" design and best attempts at lightweightness - I cannot eek out quite the same performance out of this bike as I can out of my skinny-tyre roadbike with titanium frame, carbon fork and racing wheels. Were it my intent to take part in competitive unpaved rides, I might opt for a pared-down machine made with more contemporary materials. Happily, I have no such plans at the moment and use this bicycle for what I would describe as "spirited sight-seeing": Long-ish distance rides over paved and unpaved terrain, with my camera in tow. And for that purpose it is pretty much perfect - transporting me, and my camera equipment, wherever we might wish to go speedily and comfortably.
I have been riding a gravel bike, all-roads bike, mixed terrain roadbike, or whatever we might want to call it, for exactly 6 years now. And while the machine has changed twice, in a sense it really hasn't. When I ride the bike whose frame I built with my own hands to my own spec, I still see and feel the "ghost" of the Rivendell Sam Hillborne, and the tremendous influence it had on my development as a cyclist. It is a kindly ghost, neighing and smiling in the knowledge that I've found my own path.