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by Iain Treloar
October 17, 2019
The rise of the gravel bike has had a number of consequences, including coaxing road riders off-road and expanding personal bike collections around the world. But there’s been another consequence that the industry maybe didn’t foresee – it’s led plenty of riders to wonder whether a gravel bike, maybe with a spare set of wheels, could be a one-bike solution.
We decided to test that hypothesis, for a year.
Since March 2019, I’ve been putting an idea to the test – whether it was possible to live with one bike for an entire year. It was, in part, an exercise in minimalism – removing the drawn-out decision between a number of bikes down to a single simple choice. Subtraction, not addition. Removing the ‘what’ to ride; replacing it with just ‘when’.
But it also gave a good opportunity to dig into something that seems to come up all the time in gravel bike reviews and in the comment threads beneath them. And that was this: is there such a thing as a quiver-killer? Can a bike truly straddle both road and gravel, with little compromise in either world?
Into the garage came a Parlee Chebacco and a spare wheelset. Out (or at least, gathering dust for a while): my road bike, my hardtail MTB, and a couple of gravel-ish bikes.
I approached the experiment with a sense of rigour – no colouring outside the lines, if I could possibly avoid it. I wanted to find out, from hard-won experience, where the compromises began and ended; what I could live with, and more to the point, what I could live without.
So, half a year in, has it worked?
Yes. And no.
Some bikes were easier to say goodbye to.
I’m most comfortable on drop bars, on terrain that’s rugged for a gravel bike but tame for a mountain bike, and so I genuinely haven’t missed riding the hardtail once. One bike down.
But the reduction got a bit more complicated when trying to wrap my head around a distinct road bike and a distinct gravel bike being substituted out for one jack-of-all-trades.
That’s not a slight on the Chebacco. It works as both a road bike and a gravel bike, and it does so very well. Where I ride, it’s hilly enough and I’m slow enough that I’d choose the same low, wide gear ratios regardless of surface.
But I’m so time-poor (or lazy, or both) that I find it enough of a barrier swapping wheels across that I tend to just leave the gravel wheels on, shod with a set of quick-rolling 700x38mm or so tyres. There are certainly efficiencies to be gained in this area – I was only supplied with one cassette and one set of rotors, so wheel swaps are currently a 15-minute process – and I’m in the process of organising the parts to make it an easier changeover. We’ll see how dramatically that changes my mentality next time I check in.
The rise of 700c/650b cross-compatibility has seen the advent of an ever-growing range of bikes designed to accommodate both wheel sizes, with 3T’s Exploro as one such example. The Chebacco doesn’t support 650b wheels, but with two pairs of wheels, it can handle a range of surfaces with aplomb. Picture: Matt Wikstrom
So far, having spent most of my time on 700x38mm tyres hasn’t bothered me much – but as you might notice, at that point it’s not really a gravel bike that doubles as a road bike anymore; it’s just riding a gravel bike on the road. Most of the time, I’m fine with that. You might not be.
But even then, does that one bike do enough to cover all bases for a year?
Early on, it became necessary to introduce some caveats to my ‘one bike for one year’ rule. For starters, a high-end gravel bike couldn’t possibly overlap with our family cargo trike – so that was back in. I also considered it a bit risky to lock five figures of someone else’s bike up out the front of the pub if I went out – so back in came my old commuter, a venerable Cannondale cross bike with (gasp) rim brakes.
Things got even blurrier whenever the Chebacco had to be taken off the road due to mechanical issues of one form or another. This has happened intermittently throughout the experiment – most recently for a couple of weeks, when persistent tubeless dramas left it deflated and leaking sealant in the garage, testing the limits of my patience. In such moments, I’ve pulled out my CAADX and been very grateful to have had it on hand – even if it’s not following the experiment to the letter.
Three bikes, one year. Not as catchy, right?
This far into the experiment, I find it possible to live with one bike – most of the time. Wearing its road wheels, the Chebacco doesn’t hold me back as a road bike – indeed, it’s lighter and better specced than my Ritchey Road Logic, although the handling’s a bit quicker than I’d prefer. With fatter rubber, it does pretty much everything I would want of it as a go-fast gravel bike, although a bit more compliance, clearance and a few more places to mount things wouldn’t hurt.
In displacing my gravel bike and my road bike, the Chebacco has consolidated a number of bikes into one. Depending on the levels of performance you demand out of a bike and your willingness to accept compromise away from the ideal tool for the task, your results may vary. At the very least, there’s some merit from a financial perspective in throwing more money at one nice bike rather than splitting it between two less-nice ones.
But there’s also something to be said for having bikes with distinct purposes – whether that’s a backup bike that you don’t mind getting stolen, a bike to ride with your family, or a gravel bike that does pretty much everything outside of that.