By Adam Mills, Source Endurance Coaching
Photo: Jake Orness
Cycling is a gear-oriented sport, full stop. The most popular articles read about the sport deal with equipment. Cyclocross fans spend an insane amount of time talking about tire tread. Road riders talk far too much about aerodynamics and weight. Gravel riding is particular because we need durable equipment that is diverse enough to handle everything from single-track to fast mountain descents. Finding this sweet spot involves a fair bit of research, testing, trying, and breaking of all types of parts and clothes.
Because I’m not on a gravel program complete with sponsors and supporters, I have the luxury of finding the equipment I like. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to be able to forge a partnership with a brand but, for the most part, I just buy it. In general, when you start spending your own money then buy whatever you want because making a retail purchase means you don’t owe anyone anything. To keep it in perspective I certainly don’t “give a huge shoutout” to my internet provider for “hooking me up” with a loyalty discount of 10-20%.
Equipment: There’s lots of good stuff out there. It’s so good that you’d have a tough time differentiating between an S-Works or Trek Madone based on ride quality alone. The same goes for lots of equipment in that the good stuff is good across the board. I try and choose good products that also have great people at the helm.
Pricing: Most expensive doesn’t always equate to the best. Take something like a ceramic BB. Kogel charges $200 for a ceramic BB but the steel SRAM version is $38. Sure, the ceramic one might… MIGHT be a touch less drag and last longer. But on a gravel bike that forages into sand, dust, creeks, and rivers frequently, is that ceramic BB going to last 5 times as long as the SRAM steel BB? That’s a joke. You can laugh because the answer is absolutely not. Also, power washing a dirty gravel bike can save you hours over the lifetime of those bottom brackets. What’s your time worth?
I try and draw that line between price and ride quality and reliability. Always, ALWAYS buy name brand. That cheap unbranded stuff is cheap and unbranded for a reason and it’s not to save you money. It’s probably the same reason a professional athlete had been on the free-agent market for years because they’re simply not good enough to get picked up for the big show.
Let’s start with the money maker. Easy now… it’s your brain. When choosing a helmet, for a paltry upsell you can put your money maker in the best technology in existence for preventing and minimizing traumatic brain injury (TBI). These MIPS enhanced helmets earn 5/5 stars in the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings. I will never put my brain in a helmet without MIPS.
Beyond the MIPS requirement, I prefer the Lazer G1 helmet. I’ve ridden Lazer helmets nearly exclusively since 2009 in my KCCX days and they’re comfortable light and up to date. Also, the people at Lazer that I’ve worked with directly over the years have always been great to work with.
Photo: Jake Orness for BWR
Being able to see is probably more important than all the fitness in the world. If you can’t see because your contacts fell out then the ability to pedal or steer a bike is immaterial. Riding behind someone on gravel typically results in being sprayed with rocks from the tires in front of you (side note: I wonder what tread pattern can minimize that). When I finished the 2019 DK200 my brand-new eyewear was pitted from little and not-so-little flint rocks trying in vain to gouge out my eyes.
I prefer large coverage sunglasses made by 100%. I was a little late to the game on the large coverage glasses but ever since my first pair of 100%, I’ve been converted to the windshield-like optics. I have a good friend that works at 100% and the company is based about 3 miles from my home so it’s easier to justify. I do have some recommendations like hydrophobic lenses and tear-off film for those dirty days. Something tells me my ideas aren’t very innovative though.
To date, Castelli is far and away the best clothing I’ve ever worn. They have everything from sweatpants to summer jerseys and bib shorts to rain jackets to luggage. The clothing really hits that target of exceptional quality that’s more affordable than Rapha or Assos (high-end bib-shorts: Castelli $200, Rapha $280, Assos $380 respectively). And that Progetto X2 chamois is divine! Also of note: my master's road team is going to sport Eliel in 2021 which I’ve heard good things about but have yet to wear.
Spoiler: I sneaked a peek at the Castelli 2021 catalog and they have seamless arm/ knee/ leg warmers coming. What?! This is exciting indeed for all you clothing geeks like me that have always wondered why it has been impossible to execute. It’s basically a long sock, right?
Saddles have come a long since we had “race saddles” and “non-race” saddles. Selle Italia is another brand headquartered in San Diego. Their ID Match system helps anyone figure out what type of saddle is best suited to their body. Contact points are the places to spend the money and get the best equipment for you. Start here.
I’ve paid special attention to wheels since I began racing full time way back when… It was a long time ago. Wheels are definitely where you can buy performance and Enve wheels are the crème de la crème. From schematic to layup to decals, they’re made in the USA in Ogden, Utah (just outside of Salt Lake City). The folks I’ve met from Enve have always been helpful and they legitimately care that their work is perfect.
But that’s not really enough in the modern world.Consumers demand high-quality products and at Enve prices that demand should be expected and met. Enve does this and more. Their product testing is second to none but what really sets them apart from everyone else is their Incident Protection program. When you’re on gravel, the amount of dangers lurking in the shadows is unnumerable. If I were riding an expensive wheelset that I couldn’t afford to replace or didn’t want to replace, it makes sense to invest in a product that will have your back. That’s what elevates Enve a very large step better than other manufacturers.
IRC Tire jumped on the tubeless bandwagon before it was even a wagon. They’ve built their entire US presence on tubeless and with the release of the DoubleCross tire my hope is that everyone will see how amazing tubeless tires have become. They make awesome road tires too so don’t think they’re exclusively bound to knobby tread patterns.
I wrote an entire article about why you shouldn’t need to compromise on your gravel bike. A year+ later this same article holds true. Many gravel bikes share many geometries and handling characteristics with the classic road bikes of yesteryear. That was before they got tighter “crit” geometry that make them feel snappy at slow speeds and anxious at high speeds. I think that gravel bikes are just going to become bikes soon enough with riders swapping road and gravel wheels for different adventures. At least, that’s my plan. An extra wheelset is probably cheaper than an extra bike.
If the UCI is looking for low-hanging fruit to pick in the name of rider safety then regulating water bottle cages is an easy one. Certainly, much easier than sock height or the super tuck position. Dozens of crashes happen every year in professional races due to bottle ejections. Arundel Bando bottle cages are the best if you want your bottles to stay where you want them.
The SRAM AXS group appears to be the most versatile in the name of bikes. Durable, wireless, and very customizable for your needs. The Shimano GRX group is also a solid choice. They’re both name brands so it’s tough to wrong with either of these.
There are seemingly infinite amount foot sizes and shapes and some folks will never be able to wear some brands as long as the designs stay the same. I found Shimano RX-8 and S-Phyre MTB shoes are great for me and I don’t plan on changing any time soon. This is another contact point so spend the extra and get the good shoes. They can ultimately allow you to ride more days per year and improve your enjoyment of riding.
Photo: Steve Driscoll for Pure Gravel
It’s a gravel road bike, not a mountain bike or a cyclocross bike. As such you shouldn’t be getting off or on very frequently. Therefore, the need for quick clip-ins is minimized. With that in mind consider the Shimano PD-ES600 pedals. Think of them like a single-sided XTR pedal but less $80 and 10% of the weight. Honestly, I don’t know why Shimano doesn’t just change the graphics on the box, paste a GRX logo on them and bump the price by $50. I’d still buy them. If you work at Shimano and are reading this thinking it’s a good idea, you’re welcome.
I raced against the owners of Orucase for years before we all stepped out of the Pro-Am circuit. It was only then that I realized that they bring the same tenacity from the race to their products and desire to be the best. Also, the stuff on their R&D board is phenomenal and will be game-changing. Added bonus, they’re right here in San Diego.
Beers are always a moving target. First, I try and pick something local. Most races are usually warm and warm days call for cold and light beers usually. Sometimes an IPA but rarely a stout. In San Diego, I go between Lost Abbey and Rouleur Brewing Company. Back in Kansas, I’m a big fan of Free State Brewery.
At the end of the day, you should ride what you want to ride based on your needs on the road or trails. I hope that by reading this article you’re better equipped to evaluate what those needs are and then to ponder what the best equipment choices are for you. Thanks for reading.
Adam Mills has raced at the elite level since 2002 and graduated with a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kansas in 2005. His true talent comes with his ability to combine his vast experience with his knowledge of sport. He is indeed a student of science, sport, athletic performance, strategy, and tactics. He continuously educates himself by keeping up to date with current research trends and methods in sport and his clients have reaped the benefits from this work with over 17 national championships in 11 disciplines on two continents. Adam is able to incorporate these attributes on a daily basis to help his clients reach and exceed their goals whether they are a beginner or a seasoned professional.Learn more about Adam and Source Endurance here.
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