Gravel. It’s very American-sounding, isn’t it? Are us Brits comfortable with it, yet? In one sense it’s sounds passé – like a fashion. Older types (myself included) tend to kick back against new fashions.
But I don’t really like the word, to be honest, in the concept of a bike. No matter … either way there’s a genre of bikes selling – the world over – like hot cakes, and they don’t really have a settled name other than Gravel bikes.
The thing is this: All types of bikes are built to do a different job. The Gravel (come to think of it, I think I might prefer the term Adventure bike – it ticks a lot of boxes in one bike) is there to ride on the road… to attach mudguards or racks to… to tour on… on mud, on tarmac, on grass, trails, mountains, deserts, and for leisure… for fun… for speed… and to race.
Yes. I tried it. Park those opinions… I just tried it, and I liked it.
Dare to be different
I’m getting used to the 2015-16 ‘cross season on Viner Bikes’ dedicated ‘cross bike the Super Prestige. This is no gravel bike. Slick lines, internal cables, high bottom-bracket and a steep seat angle make this an unapologetic race bike.
When Planet X suggested I should try an experiment racing on Viner’s Strada Bianca dolled up in exactly the same finishing kit and wheels, I will admit thinking it would be a bit daft. Surely it’s a bike for other stuff… it’s not a race-ready bike, is it?
Sure enough, it turned out to be just that, and a very impressive ride. The tube profiles of the Strada Bianca are quite different to the Super Prestige. It has a much more rounded feel to the Toray T800 carbon rubes to its cousin the Super Prestige. It also has clearance like few other bikes in its class. Fitting 40mm tyres is easily possible on this gravel bike, meaning that, in races, a rider could also benefit from better clearance from mud and leaves with more standard 33mm tyres.
The externally mounted rear brake cable isn’t as racey as the internal cables on the Super Prestige, and could catch crud, but as this isn’t aimed wholly at the race market, that shouldn’t be a problem. Looking at the geometry, the two test bikes are also very similar but for one significant difference, and this is the thing that will help you decide whether you can handle it or not as a race bike: The bottom bracket on the Strada Bianca sits a chunky (if not whopping) 15mm lower. The 70mm drop (vs 55mm) on the 56cm bikes tested and compared made this much more of a road bike feel. I was sitting more in the bike than on it – and to be honest, as a tall guy, that’s pretty welcome. Giving away only 5mm more wheelbase length, it had all of the sprint-out-of-corner benefits with no discernible disadvantage
B of the Bang
On the start line at round 6 of the North West Cyclocross series, and after only the shortest of test-rides on the Strada Bianca , I was twitching to put this non-race bike through a race test. You will start on the sound of the whistle in the next fifteen seconds. It didn’t disappoint – straight out of the blocks I was onto the front of the race and stayed there. A gap grew on lap one with a pretty fast move over a set of double-planks – bunny-hopped with no problem – with the 33mm WTB tubeless tyres I’d chosen giving a lovely squelch as they rimmed-out under the bounce. The second set were annoyingly too close together. Dang. But it was all going beautifully – something had to go wrong. The bike was perfect, but as I strayed tight into a corner near the end of lap 2, a trailing bit of course-marking tape got consumed by my hungry rear cassette. A 15 second lead and first place slipped away. I managed to find a very low gear I could twiddle to the pits but on the fast, flat grass, my legs span out and I was down to 6th place in a few more hundred metres. Come on, pits. This bike needs changing. Where are you, pits?
Well… as it worked out, I got a very direct and unplanned comparison then and there between the Strada Bianca and the Super Prestige. I was handed my Super Prestige then off I shot. Caught the chasing group. Rested. Passed the chasing group… closing in on the leader. One lap to go – 20 second gap. Could I?? Alas, by the finish, I’d got it down to 11 seconds but had to settle for second. But it was a remarkable fight and I couldn’t have expected such a way to compare the two bikes so directly. But you know what? I’d very happily race on either. Fast, rigid, well-finished and fun. And no gravel in sight.