In search of the unicorn bike.
It’s been a hard spring on the bikes. It seemed like just about every week something new failed or broke, and the cost to repair just kept getting higher and higher… new freehubs, derailleurs, a bottom bracket, and a whole new wheel for the MTB. Add to that the upkeep of HMC junior’s cyclocross bike, and it’s at times like this that N+1 seems like a very bad idea indeed.
Added to that, the way I ride has been changing. More and more I was turning to The Frankenbike, the battered old cyclocross bike bought for £150 off gumtree that I hack round the odd CX race on. Now the Frankenbike wasn’t going to win any beauty contests, but she was fleet of foot and allowed me to link road, bridleway, single track and gravel in one long, fast ride. Which was fun. And then the Frankenbike broke, too.
So, it was time for new wheels. And like many people out there, I hankered for something that could handle on and off road, which was fast enough to be fun but flexible enough for adventure. A gravel bike, you say? Maybe. But maybe not.
But could it be that there was one bike out there that could do it all well enough to be the only bike I would need? The mythical ‘quivver killer’, one arrow to rule them all, the white whale. A unicorn bike. I decided it was time to find out.
Now, this is not a new topic. Gravel bikes have bounded along in the past few years, with their sexy attitude, hairy-legged fun and devil-may-care promises of backwoods adventure. Just like MTBs promised the same thing back in the 90’s (the last time the bike industry hit upon a world-beating winning formula to get everyone to swap from one perfectly good bike to another).
And those gravel bikes, they sure do look cool. I want one. You probably want one. Research shows that everyone’s next bike is a gravel bike. Well done, bike industry. But this is also a product of the hostile environment that we all ride our road bikes in, where Mad Max of Maidstone feels entitled to run you off the road in his two-tonne-death-machine because, well, just because. Small wonder everyone wants to flee for the hills.
Cut and dried then? Well, no.
They look great. They ride great. But, whisper it, they are - and there’s no polite way of putting this - slightly portly by road bike standards. Ah yes, you say, that’s because they need to be strong enough to handle all that off road gravellyness. Ok, well they are also a little hefty by cyclocross standards, and I don’t see Matthieu van der Poel holding back on the rough stuff. Hell, gravel bikes are chunky even by XC MTB standards, and they can ride down cliffs. And so, outmoded weight-weenie dinosaur that I am, I had nagging doubts. Is a gravel bike really the solution, or am I just a sucker for a sales pitch?
As ever, it comes back to usage. So I made a list. My clever unicorn bike would need to:
- Be light enough, short enough and frisky enough to at least partially cover up my inadequacies on a cyclocross course
- Be comfortable enough to take on longer distance adventures with a lightly loaded backpacking rig (full on adventures are not forecast, no matter how much I close my eyes and wish for them)
- Be fast enough to keep up with my betters in group road rides, and generally not feel like riding through soup on the tarmac.
Fail any of these and I’d be reaching for one of the other, older, more tired rides in the shed. And then the quivver would start to fill up again.
As a start point, I thought I’d have a look at the bikes of the Dirty Kanza, as there’s not many faster, harder or longer races out there, so I figured these guys would be riding the cream of the gravel crop. But wait! What’s this? Turns out both the women’s and men’s winners in 2018, and a significant number of riders in 2019, were riding cyclocross bikes.
Then I checked out the amazing Lachlan Morton, who led EF Cycling’s attack on the alternative calendar last year. And lo, despite Cannondale featuring a dedicated gravel bike - the Topstone - in their range, Morton opted for the Super-X for Kanza and the Three Peaks (though he did ride the Topstone for the longer, self-supported GBduro). Looks like the faster - or shorter - the race, the more suited a CX bike is.
But what of the carbon XC bike? I’ve picked up cross country MTBs that are lighter than my road bike, and sure as hell are faster than just about anything when the track gets rough and the hills point down. I’ve got a Kinesis hardtail in the shed that comes alive as soon as it hits the dirt - but on the road, still feels like treacle. Really though, point yourself twenty miles in any direction from HMC headquarters and you can probably count the trails that really call for suspension on one hand, and try as I might, I just can’t imagine that the MTB option will ever cut it on the blacktop.
That was it - the MTB was out.
Still no wiser, I turned to a proper cycling guru, Gary Willis. Gary’s a man who knows a thing or two about bikes, having - among other things - organised the time trial at the London Olympics. I had last seen Gary on a bike as he sped past me going down Avoriaz… on a cyclocross bike with 38mm semi-slick tyres and a dropper post. Gary uses that bike to do everything in the Alps - up and down cols, on and off road. His sage counsel was to go for a CX bike, as the slackness of a gravel bike would mean I would always miss that CX speed and cornering. What’s good enough for Gary is good enough for me - a CX bike it will be.
As ever in life, making a decision is that hardest thing to do. This decision had the benefit of narrowing down the selection massively, for while every bike manufacturer in the world is throwing out new gravel bikes like nobody’s business, the humble CX bike has been left in the corner a little. Those that there are out there can be broadly put into two camps: old school, euro-style bikes with high bottom brackets, super steep frame angles and relatively small tyre clearance, or a slightly fresher take on the genre, with space for 40mm tyres and a slightly more relaxed front end - which fitted my bill.
And so here we are. After much agonising, the new CX-cum-gravel bike lands this week. A Forme Calver SLC - carbon, decent clearances, with a ‘slightly slacker than rowdy’ front end. It’s got race pedigree in spades, but also seems to have miracle bike potential. Forged in UK conditions, which should be shorthand for ‘mud clearance’.
Will it be our do-everything, go-everywhere forever-bike? We’ll see. In the meantime, we’re off riding…