Gear Issue: Segmentation comes to gravel bicycles

The gravel bike category is becoming increasingly fragmented: race bikes, all-road bikes, bikepacking bikes, and others. Is this segmentation driven by marketing, or need?

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Do you want to do a gravel race? Don’t worry, there’s a purpose-built, aero-optimized bicycle just for that. Are you looking for a bike that can take on pavement, dirt, ups and downs, twists and turns? Have no fear, all-road is here. Would you rather pack your frame bag and hit the trails for a three-week adventure? Don’t fret, a bikepacking machine sits in a nearby shop.

In recent years, the “gravel” cycling market has become increasingly segmented, with bicycles built for a variety of riding situations. Is it necessary? We used to get by with a cyclocross or modified mountain bike for these riding conditions. Is gravel’s increasing segmentation just an industry ploy to sell more bicycles?

To be clear, nobody needs any of these bicycles. You could race a road bike at the hardest gravel event and just suffer the consequences. Of course, need and want are different motivations. Today’s gravel bikes now cater to a wide variety of our wants.

Niner Bikes, for example, firmly believes there should be specific horses for the many courses out there. According to the company’s marketing manager, Zack Vestal, segmentation is a good thing.

“It gives every rider exactly what they want, the right tool for the task at hand,” he says. “So, if it gets a die-hard roadie re-energized about racing, that’s great! If the idea of a mixed surface, credit-card bikepacking tour lights ups a recent college grad who has never pedaled past the campus boundary, great!”

Critics argue that, in part, what we’re seeing are brands creating new bikes whose differences are merely cosmetic, yet they’re calling them entirely new types of bikes.

“There’s really not that big of a difference between all of that stuff — ‘cross, gravel, and what we call road-plus,” says Adam Miller, founder of Why Cycles and Revel Bikes. “I might be shooting myself in the foot as a company owner trying to sell bikes, but I’m a little negative on the industry trend to create products to sell more bikes when it might not be needed.”

In Miller’s experience, most consumers don’t even know the difference between a cyclocross bike and a gravel bike. By contrast, he sees legitimate value in creating bikes that allow for different body positions. Some might desire a racy, aggressive position, while others need a more upright position, whether for reasons of flexibility, endurance, or preference.

“The typical cyclocross/gravel bike geometry is going to be awesome for 95 percent of the people out there,” Miller says. “But really, all we’re doing is selling high-end toys designed purely for fun. So, if there’s all this segmentation, who cares? If people want to buy it, and are stoked to ride it, that’s the best possible thing we could all be doing.”

For all the segmentation that has already taken place, who’s to say we’ve seen it all? While Vestal and Niner believe the segments are fairly well established, the brand isn’t finished pushing the space.

“We’re all about versatility, so we try to minimize the compartmentalization,” Vestal says. “Making bikes to suit the various needs of all types of riders is the ticket to making riding on dirt more fun, period.”

Ultimately, Vestal expects we’ll see increasing degrees of capability in gravel bikes, so they simply can do more than ever imagined.

Not long ago, critics argued that brands were merely mountain-bike-ifying road bikes, creating machines that, despite claims that they could do everything, in fact did nothing all that well. Not any longer. Once people rode the different types of gravel bikes for their intended purposes, the chatter quickly quieted.

“You’re not making any sacrifices with these bikes; I think you’re opening up a whole new style of riding,” Miller says. “If that allows you to ride some chunky dirt road that you wouldn’t otherwise, heck yeah, that’s something exciting.”

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