Yes, that’s right, we’re talking about gravel. Before you spray your cup of tea all over the screen, railing against the shadowy capitalist conspiracy that is clearly responsible for bringing you yet another buzzword and category of bike on which to splurge your hard-fought earnings, hear me out – if not for my sake then for the sake of the laptop or phone that you’re about to drown with lukewarm tea. This is partly a bike review, and partly an evaluation of this whole ‘gravel’ thing that is evidently cool in ‘Murica right now, and which we’d probably best start paying attention to as well now that we’ve stuck our noses up at Europe, and they’ll probably have banned us from playing at their cyclocross game by next summer.
I was certainly a bit sceptical when the phrase ‘gravel bike’ first hit my ears. It made me wonder if the hair-splitting that is common in mountain bike categories – ‘short-travel trail’, ‘enduro’, ‘all mountain’ – had arrived in tarmac land, and whether we really were just playing along with a marketing exercise. When I lived among the grassy lanes and bridleways of Fife, I enjoyed the mix of tarmac and muddy off-road that a ‘cross bike makes possible, but defining a whole genre of bike as ‘gravel’ oriented seemed one bit of compartmentalisation too far. ‘All-road’, the other term being bandied about, went the other way and sounded vague, even clichéd.
Perhaps the problem is that ‘gravel’ doesn’t really mean all that much to a Brit. We don’t have the huge and sprawling network of gravel-surfaced backroads that exist in the Americas or even European countries like Iceland. Our fireroads tend to wiggle and weave through a plantation forest rather than offering practical routes from A to B. Behind the naming and hype, though, lies a very simple combination of two previously existing ways of putting together a skinny-tyred bike.
A gravel bike, in essence, is the endurance and comfort-minded geometry of a sportive bike matched with the tyre clearance of a cyclocross bike. Add some disc brakes to give all-weather stopping power and voilà! You have a new niche, although I’m sure the poor souls who sweated out the finer points of the designs involved would argue that it’s all much more complicated than that, and perhaps it is. It’s a simple enough idea at any rate, but it’s only fairly recently that such a bike has existed (and been sold as such) on the mass market.
Cue Scott’s Addict gravel! Scott UK were kind enough to loan me this ‘assessment grey’ number a couple of months ago, and I’ve been riding it in and around the Cairngorms ever since. The Addict frame is well established as a road and cyclocross platform, known for being light, stiff, and with Scott’s trademark focus on racing performance. The Addict Gravel has been tweaked a bit to suit the demands endurance riding, but the lightweight carbon frame with its enormous bottom bracket junction, and long, low cockpit make it unmistakably a Scott.
The build kit is mostly solid, no-nonsense stuff, and I was keen to get a first opportunity to ride Shimano’s hydraulic road brakes. They and the Ultegra 22 groupset felt slick from the outset – I know it’s a small point, but on a few recent rides on frosty autumn mornings I’ve really appreciated the fact that carbon lever blades make great insulators! The 32-tooth cassette was also welcome on steeper climbs for my spinny mountain bike legs. The Syncros wheels have been seen but not heard so far, with no hiccups to report, and while the 18mm internal width of the rim might not be particularly wide, they do form part of the overall leaning towards the lighter, faster side of things is consistent with the fast Schwalbe G-One tyres at 35mm, and the 110mm stem. The only component I didn’t get on with was the layback Syncros seat post, which had my little arms stretching a little too far to reach the controls. A shorter stem would have been one option, but I ended up substituting in an inline Thomson post instead.
So what about riding the thing? Well, after a couple of shorter exploratory rides to set up the cockpit and tyre pressures, I found myself looking at the map with new eyes while looking for rides. Strathspey, being in the Highlands, isn’t blessed with all that many roads from which to make a nice loop. However, what roads we do have tend to be quiet and pretty. Once you start considering the network of gravelled cycle paths forest roads and even mellow singletrack, the options become quite interesting…
The overwhelming impression was one of speed: speed regardless of what surface you’re on, and whether you planned to go out on a blast or a mellow pootle. Sure, it might not be as fast as a TT bike on the tarmac, but the Schwalbe tyres feel far from slow with a bit of extra pressure in them. Transition off the road and onto a forest track, and only the smallest dent is made in your rolling speed. The ability to ride at consistently efficient speeds on a whole range of surfaces made exploratory riding a heap of fun, and multiplied exponentially the amount of local routes available to me. Rougher back lanes? No problem. Cycle paths? Yup, of course. Woodsy singletrack to pop you back out on to the road home? Why not? Everything’s fair game. Fans of cyclocross bike will think this is old news, but the difference is that the Addict’s slightly more upright position and clearance for larger tyres than a true ‘cross bike made it comfy even on long rides of well over 100 miles, or extended periods riding on rougher tracks. Chunkier landrover tracks into the hills push heavily on the bikes outer margins of rideability, which is fair enough, but the 35mm tyres can be run at pressures down to around 30 psi to soak up the chatter of coarse gravel and small roots. The hydraulic discs took some time to get used to, but the added mountain bike level of braking control complemented the assured stability of the bike nicely.
The frame does have clearance for a slightly wider tyre (I haven’t tested how big a tyre it can accept), which would increase its performance offroad, but the beauty of the bike for me has been how well it straddles the middle ground between gravel and tarmac. Few if any of the rides I’ve used it for have been solely offroad, and a more comfortable setup would sacrifice some of the efficiency of those connecting tarmac miles in between. Talking of tarmac, it might not have escaped your attention that the majority of British roads, let alone the singletrack lanes of the Highlands, aren’t quite in the same condition as those black ribbons that festoon the hills of Europe. Ours have holes, and lumps, and weird patches of gravel that appear from nowhere. They have character, but that character is perhaps not best experienced through the medium of a 23mm road tyre and a stiff-as-anything frame. Leaving ‘gravel riding’ entirely out of the equation, I found that the Addict was a very welcome change on the tarmac, with enough cushion even at higher pressures to smooth out road chatter. If I’m more comfortable over 100 miles of crappy roads, then I’m probably going to be faster, too.
Any bike designer has to make compromises, and Scott seem to have followed their tradition of race-ready bikes with the Addict Gravel: I’ve already mentioned the fast, narrow-ish tyres and stretched cockpit. While I would usually say that comments on stiffness aren’t very useful without hard numbers, I would suggest that the Addict seems to favour power transfer and acceleration over comfort; an observation rather than a criticism. With a set of 28mm slicks on the DT rims, the Addict would become an endurance road bike with nothing but its larger tyre clearance to suggest that it was ever anything else. For the riding here in Strathspey that seems like a useful trait, as it’s likely usage is always going to be a healthy mix of surfaces.
If I was going to go for a dirt road tour abroad, perhaps the roads of Iceland, I would be swapping that stem for something shorter, and shoehorning the biggest possible tyres onto those rims. But the Addict is unashamedly about going fast, I would suggest, at the expense of touring-style comfort. While I have ridden it loaded, the low front end and tallish gearing never felt quite at home in that situation, like a fast car being made to tow a caravan. On the flip side, I can’t imagine a heavier, steel, touring-biased bike is going to feel anything like as snappy when unhindered by baggage and shown an open (gravel) road.
So, rather than being one in the ever-growing list of bike categories, this whole gravel thing might well blow a whole load of categories out of the water; perhaps their time has come if what I’m told is true and we now live in a post-genre world..? At any rate, if you’re thinking about replacing that road bike, and you’re not necessarily planning on racing (although I wouldn’t have thought that’s a deal-breaker), then ignore the nomenclature and have a peruse of the gravel bike category. With road tyres you have a road bike, but with something toothier you have so much more… or perhaps you just have a ‘bike’, albeit one that will happily take you to a wide, wide range of places quickly and comfortably. I’m already adding and adding to the list of ‘maybe’ routes, where the solitude of the hills and the lure of big distances might add up to some wonderfully new adventures in future!