This was supposed to be an angry story. A rant, even. I nailed down two or three drafts of this story late last year, but none of it really stuck at the time. So it sat there and lingered and, as time passed, so did my righteous indignation about the modern gravel bike. It was a particular bike that irked me - the Niner Magic Carpet. A full suspension gravel bike, complete with road geometry and travel from the 1990s. Now don't get me wrong, I still believe that the designer of that bike should have their thumbs lopped off to prevent future crimes against bicycling, but today that has more to do with me finding that sentence amusing than any kind of real anger. After all, if it gets people out and enjoying riding, why the f*ck should I care?
As part of that story I had an idea. A theory I wanted to test. You see, I think the modern gravel bike has a fatal flaw, a weakness that nobody is talking about in public. Quite simply, they suck going downhill. Nobody mentions this in their media campaigns or carefully curated Instagram feeds, but they hurt. On the fireroad behind my house a 38mm tyre does little to dampen the sensation that your eyeballs are being methodically shaken from your skull. And, for me, that undoes any of the good things about gravel bikes (and I think there are quite a few). I have Views on bicycles. Strong ones. I believe that when we get down to nut-cutting time, there is no point in any bicycle, whether on asphalt, gravel or dirt, that isn't fun on the way downhill.
After a few awkward attempts at gravelling, I started thinking that there must be something better. Working through what these bikes need to do I came down to three things - it has to be simple (that's where the Niner fails spectacularly), it has to be good at covering distance (so it's going to need big wheels) and it has to be comfortable, and the simplest form of comfort is bigger tyres. Those three criteria pointed me straight down one of those weird cul de sacs of bike design that I usually associate with people with long beards and ironic T-shirts: 29+. Surly's UK distributor very graciously popped their 29+ steel hardtail, the Krampus in the post for me to test this theory out on in the real world. And that's when something unexpected happened. I fell in love.
In my head the plan was to ride the bike for a couple of weeks, bask in my own magnificence at Being Right, send it back and crank out a few hundred words shitting all over much of what is happening with gravel bike development. But every time I went out on the bike I caught myself coming home with a giant grin on my face, because it did something I would never have imagined - it took me back to the simple joys of when you first start riding bikes. Don't get me wrong, I love the modern mountain bike (and ebike), they are wonders of engineering and design, but they get us caught up in a constant chase for more. Each evolutionary step opens new possibilities: we want to go further, faster, bigger, and it's not until you step away from that for a moment that you realise how much joy we have lost. I think we are losing the ability to find fun in the little things.
I grew up in a small village somewhere in the middle of England. You don't get much in the way of vertical around there, but just behind the village was a small hill running down towards the river called King's Mills. It's not a lot of hill, maybe 30m high, maybe less, but it was enough for us. In a small square of woodland we found our tracks - Everest, The Beast, The Corkscrew. If you went back there and stood atop them with a modern mountain bike you'd think the names were ridiculous, nothing more than short, moderately steep chutes with zero technical features. At 13 years old, astride a bike you'd grow into with shitty tyres and even shittier brakes they were challenges to be conquered. We even tried clearing a few corners. It didn't go well. Those woods were a whole world of adventure for us, a place to prove ourselves and laugh at each other when it all went wrong. Those days are what made me fall in love with bikes - they transformed that knot of trees perching above the River Trent into a wonderland of challenges, laughs and lost afternoons. They were the final days of the pure, white joy of childhood for me, the last truly innocent fun before I was clamouring to join the teenage world of cheap cider, dirty hash and girls who weren't interested in me.
The Krampus took me right back to those days in the woods, there's something innocent about the bike and how you ride it. If you were to review it as a mountain bike it would be a disaster - the 80mm stem (that I chose to fit) makes the steering terrifyingly vague on technical terrain, the brakes have nowhere near enough power to slow wheels that big and the tyres don't grip. At all. If you point it down anything remotely steep you can only hold on and pray. But at the same time, that is entirely the point. It's no fun drifting fireroad corners on my mountain bikes as the suspension and tyres work too well, while the almost treadless Maxxis Chronicles (that, again, I chose to fit) never bite and you come into each corner trying to work out just how fast you can get away with before you slide right off the road. The little chute as you drop into the fireroad doesn't warrant a second thought on a mountain bike, but on the Surly it becomes a test of bravery that leaves a grin on my face every time. The little traversing singletrack at the top of the climb from my house feels like I'm on a flatout blast at the very limit of what it possible. Every ride is a celebration of the little things that can bring so much childish joy, but that get numbed away by the modern mountain bike.
While I don't want to give up my space-age wonder bikes for this misfit, taking a break from them makes you that much more appreciative of just how good they are when you get back on them. And, when it came time to send the Krampus back, I did something I never did while I was reviewing bikes for Pinkbike - I cracked out my credit card and bought that bike there and then. As a friend asked me when I started over-enthusing about the Krampus, "Am I becoming one of them people?" Well if loving a steel 29+ hardtail with more piercings than an aging goth means that, then yes, yes I am, and I'm having more fun than I have had in a while. And I should probably apologies to Niner too (and if the engineer is reading this your thumbs are safe, sorry buddy), after all, I'd rather be out enjoying my bike than getting worked up over how someone else wants to have fun.