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by Caley Fretz
April 16, 2018
Photography by Caley Fretz and Jeremie Reuiller
To our left: A narrow irrigation canal dug into the hillside, flowing bright and clear out of the mountains and into farmland closer to the Mediterranean coast. To our right: A spring-green valley crisscrossed by farm fencing, then the white peaks of the Pyrenees. We’re on a narrow strip of packed earth, overhung by trees, wiggling away at the sort of perfect grade only found when paralleling flowing water.
This isn’t quite mountain biking, and it certainly isn’t road riding, even though my handlebars have drops on them. We’re on the last stretch of a 75km day that will take five hours in the saddle. A 15km per hour average. A day that includes pavement, dirt roads, singletrack descents, tiny canal paths, and a two-hour lunch stop for local beer, blood sausage, and calçots, whole onions charred over a wood fire then dipped in garlic and tomato sauce and eaten whole.
If this is cycling now, I’m not complaining.
We’re at the edge of the Pyrenees, outside Perpignan, to ride on and in Mavic’s new Allroad line. It includes wheels and tires, of course, but also clothing, a helmet, and shoes. Every item in the line is like a sedimentary stone — attributes from various types of cycling cleaved off, chopped up, thrown in a bucket, and smushed together into a single being. The shoes have SPD cleats but very little tread; the helmet has a visor, but it’s a tiny one; the baggy shorts aren’t that baggy at all; the jersey uses performance fabrics but also Merino wool and has a collar; the aluminum wheels use technology from the Ksyrium but are designed for the 40mm tires we’re riding, which are grippy and tough enough to slide down stony singletrack, but smooth enough to inspire a bit of racing on the final paved climb of the day.
You can call it whatever you want: Gravel, groad, alt-road, or allroad, as Mavic does. But at the end of the day, it’s just a return to cycling’s origins. It’s riding bikes. On any surface, at any speed. Wearing whatever you want.
For years, most riders into this sort of thing got creative with gear selection. Clothing was cherry-picked from mountain bike lines and commuter lines, equipment was borrowed from cyclocross. Other brands tried to push the envelope — remember Giro New Road? It’s all but dead now, a line launched ahead of its time. But now gravel is the fastest growing category in the cycling industry. So, of course, that industry is responding.
Some may decry the arrival of big brands like Mavic into this purest of two-wheeled pursuits, or despair at the co-opting of what has been a largely bottom-up evolution, running ahead of the industry itself, but I don’t see it that way. Gear designed to blur the boundaries between types of riding can only be a good thing as those boundaries continue to break down naturally. The industry should react to the way we use bikes these days. That’s exactly what Mavic has done.
So let’s take a look at it all:
For all the ingenuity in Mavic’s Allroad line, the company very much decided against, ahem, reinventing the wheel. There’s no carbon and no whiz-bang tech; just solid and hopefully reliable builds that utilize details from the company’s existing road and mountain lines.
Allroad Pro UST (US$1,000 / £859 / €1,000, 1,610g)
The top-of-the-line option uses much of the tech from Mavic’s venerable Ksyrium road wheel, including Zicral aluminum spokes, ISM4D rim machining, FORE drilling, and other acronyms. This is the wheel we rode in Perpignan.
Aluminum road frames are seeing a bit of a resurgence at the moment as folks realize that the cost/benefit ratio of carbon is often out of whack. There are good arguments for a similar embrace of aluminum in the gravel wheel world.
Aerodynamics are key on the road, and to build an aero wheel it needs to be carbon. There’s simply too much material, and the shapes are too finicky, to make them out of aluminum. In mountain biking, the stresses put on wheels can be enormous, so the stiffness and strength of a carbon rim, while maintaining low weight, is desirable. For both, carbon makes sense.
Gravel has neither of these problems. This type of riding has neither stresses of mountain biking nor the aerodynamic needs of road riding. So a simple aluminum wheel can check all the boxes. In fact, they’re often better than some of the off-brand or house-brand carbon stuff out there, all for less money.
Mavic is hyper-focused on inertia, and on low rim weights in particular. There’s some math out there (I try to avoid it) that suggests that inertia in a wheel isn’t really that important for going fast, or for accelerating quickly. But it is important for having fun.
Anyone who has ridden heavy wheels and tires knows they take more effort to flick around and can make an otherwise light bike feel slow. Getting out of the saddle and swinging the bike back and forth feels different. In gravel riding, there are lots of small movements to avoid obstacles, trace a new line, etc. A light wheel just feels good in these circumstances. More specifically, a low-inertia wheel feels good. It feels fun and energetic.
This is a roundabout way of saying I was pleased with how the Allroad Pro felt. Even with a relatively large tire, they flicked about admirably. First impressions were good. I’ve been relatively unimpressed with the performance-per-dollar ratio of most carbon gravel wheels; the ratio for the Allroad is much better. They felt light and nimble, but should be plenty durable.
Allroad Elite UST (US$800 / £659 /€749, 1,720g)
This wheelset uses the same rim and hub as the Pro, but with steel spokes. Available with a machined rim brake surface or Center Lock disc hub.
Allroad Elite Road+ (US$800 / £629 / €700, 1,740g)
650b version of the Allroad Elite. 25mm internal rim width, UST compatible, steel spokes. This rim doesn’t use Mavic’s FORE drilling, which leaves the rim bed intact. Instead, it uses standard drilling, meaning there are holes in the rim bed. Mavic says this increases vertical compliance slightly, which is supposedly necessary given the smaller diameter.
Allroad UST (US$300 / £225 / €250, 1,890g)
The entry-level model retains the 22mm rim width of the other 700c models, but little else. It uses sleeve-joint rim construction instead of welded seams, steel spokes, and traditional rim drilling, but the same ID360 hub.
Yksion Allroad XL tires (US$79 / £52 / €59, 450g)
I tend to think of these sort of tires along a sliding scale of surfaces. 10 is all pavement, or super smooth dirt, 0 is me looking for a mountain bike. A big, fat slick is an 8. A Donnelly Strada USH 700×32 is about a 6.5 or 7. Those new Goodyear 40mm tires are a 4.5, thanks to a supple casing and minimal tread. The Allroad XL is a 3, but could go up to a 5 if you put a bit of extra pressure in. It’s at home in the rough stuff, but with that smooth, grooved tread, it still rolls well.
The XL is an interesting tire. It’s what we rode at the launch in Perpignan, and uses a tread pattern that is more grooves than knobs — think car tire. The result is a heck of a lot of rubber between the ground and you. It is unquestionably a dirt tire, designed to handle pretty much anything you can throw at it. We rode rocky singletrack, fast and rocky fireroads, and bumpy 4×4 roads. Everywhere we went, the grip was astoundingly good and the flat protection impressive. With 20-something bike journalists rolling around for two full days, riding like you do on a borrowed bike (like idiots), we had fewer than five flats.
They are also a bit heavy. A Donnelly MSO 700×40, which is similarly capable off-road, sits just under 400 grams. But it doesn’t have the thick tread Mavic used, making it more likely to puncture. So it’s a tradeoff.
There is something to the grooves vs. tread idea. The top of the tire is nicely rounded and grip is consistent across its entirety. That makes it very predictable in corners.
The XL wasn’t terrible on the road, either, comparable to other 40mm gravel tires I’ve been on recently. Gravel tire side knobs tend to squirm under load, making cornering on pavement an interesting experience. The Allroad XL doesn’t really have knobs, so there’s no squirming. Confidence on pavement is improved.
The downside of this design is relatively poor mud shedding. It’s not terrible, but we did have quite a lot of mud on our second day of riding and the tires packed up a bit. That said, any tire that rolls decently well on the road (and I do think that’s a requirement) is going to fare poorly in the mud.
Color me impressed.
Yksion Allroad UST tires (US$79 / £52 / €59, 330g/395g)
The non-XL version of the tire is available in 30mm and 35mm widths, with a much lighter tread pattern relative to the 40mm XL. The tires are also built thinner and more supple, and they’re lighter as a result.
The 35mm version will be available in a dark-ish tanwall. Both versions ship in July.
We didn’t ride them, so I have no idea if they’re any good.
Baggies are a state of mind.
I’m convinced of this. Putting on baggy shorts is like flicking a switch, from go-fast mode to let’s-see-what-the-day-brings.
On the second day outside Perpignan, we dropped down on a dirt road thickened by overnight rain from the little gîte we’d stayed in halfway up some Pyrenean foothill. It was a mess, with sloppy, sandy mud that clogged drivetrains and tore our disc-brake pads to pieces. It was so bad we stopped at the bottom and spent 20 minutes filling our water bottles at a spring next to a cemetery and spraying the gunk away from moving.
We rolled on, riding through a tiny stone town and up onto the other side of the valley. The climb was perhaps 20 minutes, all paved. Streams ran across the road, run-off from the night before, and road spray soaked us through. We stopped for a snack near a stream crossing. Tim Johnson threw a pear at someone. It had been nearly three hours since we left at this point, and we’d only ridden 30 kilometers. It was a rate of movement that would continue until we reached the hotel that night, in the dark, with only tiny commuter lights to guide us along foot-wide paths next to one of Perpignan’s canals.
We raced down fire roads, debated the imminence of a visible rainstorm across the valley, stopped for sheep traffic, and retraced our steps because a section of road had chest-deep rushing water on it.
It was awesome. Because baggies, my friends, are a state of mind.
It’s not that companies don’t already make clothing for this type of riding. In fact, quite by definition, just about any clothing will work. At home, my favorite groad gear is a pair of Giro New Road (rest in peace) shorts over the top of a good pair of bibs, a fanny pack or handlebar bag to put all my stuff in, and a Merino T-shirt from Vulpine. It’s comfortable, casual, and meets the needs of this type of riding. Aerodynamics don’t matter when you’re romping through the woods, and I’m a fan of clothing that allows me to pass as a marginally normal-looking person away from my bike.
That’s basically what Mavic made with Allroad. Mostly.
The line includes four major pieces: The Allroad Jersey (€150), Allroad Thermal Longsleeve (€190), Allroad Fitted Baggy Short (€120), and Allroad Insulated Vest (€160), plus some shoes coming this fall.
It’s like my favorite Merino T-shirt, but far more clever. Most of the Allroad jersey is indeed wool, but it’s matched with a woven poly fabric up top for a bit more breathability. It also has a series of snap buttons that allow the jersey to be opened down to your sternum. That’s key — my only real problem with my wool T-shirt is that it can get a bit clammy. A collar sets the tone for styling. Racing jerseys had collars on them for decades, and I think it’s a nice, classic look. Colors are all muted greys, except for a few splashes of reflective orange striping on the back and arms. The fit is relaxed. It flaps around. That’s fine; we’re clearly not going anywhere quickly.
Three pockets out back can be stuffed full, but it’ll leave the jersey sagging. The most I could fit before the sagging started was a light jacket and my phone. Not terrible, but it means that you’ll probably want some other sort of storage (fanny pack/bum bag/handlebar bag) for longer rides.
The Allroad jersey looks a lot like a cross-country mountain biking jersey, except that mountain bikes have gone a bit enduro-garish lately. The subtle grays are less conspicuous.
Allroad Thermal Longsleeve
The long-sleeve uses a thicker, more luxurious Merino fabric. A full zip allows the jersey to be opened up completely, while a pair of snaps around the collar adds a bit of urban (I hate that word as an adjective for clothing, but can’t think of another) styling. Reflective stripes on the tail and wrists aid in visibility but aren’t obnoxious.
Of the two jerseys, this is the one least likely to get you weird looks at a bar or coffee shop after your ride. It honestly looks like something you might wear out away from the bike.
A couple things contribute to this, and I’m pleased Mavic got them right. First, the tail is not ridiculously long. Yes, it’s important that it be long enough not to ride up when you sit on the bike, but many brands go overboard, and it makes the pieces scream, “I’m a bike person!” Second, there’s only one big pocket on the back. Three pockets also scream, “I’m a bike person!” This is an okay thing to scream if you want to scream it but if you don’t want to scream it it’s nice to have that option, too. Non-cyclists do not have pockets on the backs of their shirts, as a rule. And three, there are no other weird bike-specific pockets or “features.” Mavic kept it simple, and that’s good.
Allroad Insulated Vest
If the long-sleeve is the strongest piece stylistically, the insulated vest delivers performance. It’s warm. Super warm. Too warm to hammer around in. This is no thin, windproof roadie vest. It’s for tootling around in the cold, stopping for coffee, or throwing on for a long descent. It uses Primaloft compressible insulation, so it’s very packable — fits easily in a pocket. It’s reversible, one side bright orange and the other muted grey. It’s going to see regular use in our Colorado shoulder seasons.
Allroad Fitted Baggy Short
A baggy short for drop-bar riding is the hardest piece to get right. Length, tailoring, stretch, pockets, it all has to be perfect. The Allroad short is very, very close.
Pockets — Good. They’re deep enough to hold a phone without worrying about it falling out. A zippered side pocket is there if you want extra security.
Stretch — Just right. A few companies have tried to do some sort of weird hybrid baggie/spandex thing. No. This is not okay. We wear baggies because we want to look like normal human beings, and when our rear ends are made of spandex and our thighs flap like ship sails, that is not possible. Baggy cycling shorts shouldn’t look like some esoteric oddity from a Parisian runway. Mavic did a normal short with a tiny bit of stretch so it conforms when you’re in the saddle.
Fit — Quite slim and tailored looking, with minimal flapping on the bike. Leg openings are the right size and don’t catch wind or inflate the shorts.
Length — This one is all personal preference, but I prefer a slightly shorter short, something that is closer to where my bib shorts end. This is mostly for tanline purposes, because there is still a roadie inside me somewhere, screaming about “aero” and attempting to escape. But it’s also because a shorter short flaps less and is less likely to catch wind like a windsock. Mavic’s shorts have mostly solved both problems thanks to their trim leg opening, but it’s not completely gone.
Allroad Pro Shoes
These will be available in September, and I didn’t get to try them yet. A few of Mavic’s staff were wearing them, though.
The target was a mix between a road and a mountain bike shoe. The tread is simple, just two big blocks of rubber, and the sole takes a standard two-bolt cleat. The upper uses a material called Matryx, which is sort of like Kevlar. It’s exceptionally tear-resistant but quite supple. It looks almost knitted, but apparently, it isn’t. It’s also treated with a DWR waterproof coating.
The idea was to create a shoe that is easy to get off and walk around in — without the clickety-clacking of a traditional road shoe — but that maintains performance on the bike and doesn’t look chunky and out of place like a mountain bike shoe. The shoes are really a perfect analogy for the entire line.
Other bits and bobs
The Allroad line also includes arm warmers, knee warmers, and short-finger gloves, all made from Merino wool. There isn’t much to say about the warmers other than they never fell down on me (which is kind of their only job), and are nice and soft to the touch. Obviously, because they’re wool, they don’t shed water. But they’re Merino, so even when wet, they still retain heat.
The Merino gloves are exceptional. I never wear short-finger gloves, but may actually bust these out on occasion. The palm material is thin with no excessive padding, and the backs of the hands are a soft, thin, breathable Merino. Five stars for these.
This stuff isn’t for everyone. Where Giro New Road went wrong, I think, was believing that roadies would embrace baggy clothing. They (we) won’t. I usually throw on normal lycra when my tires are less than 30mm wide. So if you don’t ride off pavement, Mavic Allroad is unlikely to appeal.
That’s because lycra makes sense on the road. It’s form fitting, fast, comfortable; it’s designed for a purpose. Gravel’s technical requirements are different. Temperature control, wicking, and comfort all matter. Aerodynamic drag does not.
Road riding is also very much defined by a look and an identity. When one cruises around in public in superhero pants, embracing those superhero pants is something of a psychological necessity. There are unwritten rules about sock height, about tan lines, about shaving, rules that have no basis in anything other than showing other riders that you’re part of the crew. There is something powerful in this, in conforming to an aesthetic because it makes you feel good, or feel fast, or feel pro. I think everyone clicking on this site enjoys that feeling to some extent.
But gravel, if that’s what you want to call it, is defined by a lack of a strict identity. At least for now. It’s wear-what-you-want, ride-what-you-want, be-what-you-want freedom. It’s Merino t-shirts and baggies or bibs and a jersey. It’s a ‘cross bike or a road bike with 28s or a dedicated gravel bike; confused bikes that aren’t great at anything but are somehow fun almost everywhere.
This is all makes gravel a tricky space for big brands to jump into. It has to be done right, but who knows what right is? There is no right because so many things can be right. This is a segment of cycling that is still defining itself. It’s almost impossible to pin down precisely what riders need and want because they don’t always know themselves.
A shorts-and-jersey combination from Mavic will set you back 270 euros. That’s a hefty price tag for what is essentially a more technically proficient version of gym shorts and a T-shirt. Road kit can demand such prices because it’s performance wear. But will gravel, where performance, in the traditional sense, is less important, follow suit? Can Mavic, or any other brand, convince us to pay cycling kit prices for clothing designed not to look like cycling kit?
The Allroad wheels and tires are technical successes, at least from my brief time on them. They work. The clothing is excellent, comfortable and casual. I will wear it, happily, mixing-and-matching with shorts from Kitsbow and that T-shirt from Vulpine and whatever else I feel like pulling out of the closet.
It’s risky to attempt to define a type of cycling that is still seeking its identity. So, kudos to Mavic. For a company that hasn’t always been on the forefront in recent years, risk is a good look.