What is this thing called “Gravel”? Why are so many people talking about it? Where do you do “Gravel”? There are so many questions that could be posed as it relates to “Gravel”, that it could take up an entire website just to touch on all of the topics. For purposes of this article, we are going to talk about which is the right SAGE Gravel bike for you and how you can make a decision that will best suit your needs now and for the future.
“Gravel” has been around a lot longer than you think. Some say it could be traced back to the early days of Mountain Biking history as the original fat tire bikes were the precursors to the gravel bikes we know and love today. Others would say that gravel bikes go back even further to the earliest days of the Tour de France as there were few paved roads during the early days of the Tour and many of the stages were ridden on dirt sectors that would rival anything we are racing on today. Those early riders usually had one or two speeds, tubular tires, and bikes that weighed over 30lbs. Today’s gravel bikes have anywhere from 13 to 24 gears and weigh less than 20lbs. Not to mention better brakes, wheels/ tires, and overall comfort. While there are many similarities between today’s bikes and yesterday’s bikes, they are most certainly not the same bikes.
One of the first questions that inevitably comes up with a new client is: “I saw your gravel bike offerings, but how do I know which is the right one for me?” The response that is usually given is something along the lines of “Tell me about the riding you currently do and the riding you want to do.” This in turn leads to a discussion about the rider’s cycling history and what they envision their future to be. It’s a legitimate question to ponder as it will help inform you about what your priorities will be. Do you see you yourself racing? Bikepacking? Are you coming from a road inspired background or more of a MTB type background? Answering these types of questions will help you decide what is important for you and the type of riding you will do in the future.
In terms of gravel itself, there is no one type of gravel. In the Pacific NW, we have very different gravel than Southern California. Our gravel can get pretty rocky, but packs down really well in the rain. It drains nicely too, so fast rolling tires are an advantage. However, in Southern California, they have a fair amount of sand and the conditions are always dry. Fast rolling is great, but you also want to be conscious of the sand and the loss of traction that can happen if you get squirrelly. Florida gravel is most likely different than Michigan gravel which is different than Colorado or Utah gravel. In short, there is no one type of gravel to be found. Instead, focus on your local gravel scene and the types of riding you will most likely be doing when you are home. That’s not to say you can’t travel to other states or countries for gravel adventures, but if the majority of your time will be on flat roads with crushed pea gravel as opposed to full on rock gardens and jeep trails that require some serious technical skills, then you should be aware of that terrain and have a bike that is capable for that type of riding. Of course, you can always get a 2nd bike, but the first one should be the one you will ride most of the time as this will be your introduction to the sport.
At Sage Titanium, we have two main offerings for our gravel bikes: Barlow and Storm King. We also have the Storm King GP but for purposes of this conversation, we will focus on the first two bikes in the queue.
The Barlow was our first gravel bike and aside from a few functional changes to the design, the geometry has remained nearly identical to when it was first introduced. The concept of the Barlow was that you could ride from your house on the pavement to where the gravel sectors were, ride the gravel, then ride the pavement back home. The Barlow definitely took inspiration from our Skyline road bike, but had more of the technical manners of our PDXCX Cyclocross bike.
The Storm King on the other hand was an evolution of the Barlow after one of our Pro racers came back from the Unbound gravel race and said he needed something “bigger”. That ended up meaning larger tire clearance and a slightly more upright position on the bike. When your race is over 200 miles long, comfort is king and being hunched over like you are on a road race bike while riding for over 12 hours on gravel roads is not exactly the most comfortable situation. It was here that the Storm King was born.
When trying to figure out which bike is right for you, the easiest way to look at it is based on tire clearance. The Barlow can clear up to a 700×40 tires (technically the fork clears a 700×38 but we have successfully run a 700×40 tire in the fork with only the consideration for muddy conditions packing up the fork as a potential issue, while the frame does clear a 700×40 with no problem) and the Storm King can clear up to a 700×50 tire. If the terrain you are going to be riding on does not require anything bigger than a 700×40, then the Barlow will most likely be the correct bike for you. If the terrain you are going to be on requires anything bigger than a 700×40, then the Storm King is the way to go.
The Barlow’s road inspired background makes it ideal for long days of multi surface events where a more traditional road position on the bike will be beneficial overall. The Storm King’s slightly more upright nature lends itself to MTB style singletrack where being nimble through the corners is more important than straight line speed. Both bikes are excellent in the gravel. It’s just that the Barlow excels on the road while the Storm King excels in the pure dirt and more rough and tumble sections of the gravel world.
Both bikes have many similarities in terms of multiple bottle mounts and fender mounts. Both bikes can run compact drivetrains all the way down to 1X gravel drivetrains (the Barlow can run a 52×36 front chainring if you want to do more road oriented riding, but the majority of clients these days don’t go bigger than a compact 50×34 setup).
Technically speaking, there is no “wrong choice” here. It’s just a matter of figuring out what your priorities will be for the type of riding you are doing. We are always happy to chat with you to work through any questions you might have. These decisions take some time, and making a well informed decision is the sign of a true Sage…