(dirt) Road Bikes

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Dirt, road, bikes.  Rock ‘n Road.  Dirt roads are much the way they sound– they are roads composed of local sediments, sometimes groomed and graded and maintained, sometimes abandoned and rugged.  But the variety of dirt roads is greater than the variety of paved routes, which partly explains the great variety of bikes in use for these kinds of rides.  Still, the emergent genre of dirt road riding is finally landing on some common themes– not quite standards– but commonalities in tire size and tread, handlebar concepts, and in some cases, luggage.  Of course, riding on unpaved roads is ancient as far as bicycles are concerned.  But today, greater accommodation of comfort and efficiency on unpaved surfaces is afforded through new equipment.  Specifically, a vast array of lightweight large-volume 700c/29″ tires are perfectly tuned for dirt, road, riding.

Some dirt road rides are self-supported races over many thousand miles.  Others are actually half on pavement to connect the dots of featured dirt segments, and still others are about the pursuit of adventure and reaching remote destinations by the only means available– a dirt road.  We are not talking about mountain biking, which is an exclusive search for dirt trails and tracks and rough terrain.  We are not talking about a brief segment of unpaved rail-trail– yes, I know you can ride it on your road bike.  We are talking about road riding, potentially at a brisk pace, on dirt roads.  Dirt, road, riding.  Common themes include medium to large volume 700c tires, powerful brakes, a range of gears; drop bars, aero bars or multi-posiiton handlebars; and lightweight frames, in reference to true mountain bikes or touring bikes.  The following are a sample of modern concepts from NAHBS:


Ellis Strada Fango

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29×2.0″ Schwalbe Furious Fred tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes

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Retrotec Half

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, Paul Racer brakes to brazed pivots

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Soulcraft Dirtbomb

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires. Paul Mini-Moto brakes (linear-pull brake, compatible with road levers)

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Steve Potts, w/Type II fork (1987)

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26×1.95″ Specialized Ground Control tires, WTB Roller Cam brakes, and WTB Dirt Drop bars.  One of only two 26″ wheeled bikes in this collection, back when large-volume 700c tires were unavailable.  Several years earlier, a few Marin builders had gotten their hands on some 700x47mm Nokian Hakkepelita tires for use off-pavement, although supply issues forced the concept out of existence.  A year after this Potts frame was built, Bruce Gordon released his 43mm Rock ‘n Road tire.  This bike would have been considered a true mountain bike at the time, but has since informed the kinds of bikes that are popularly ridden on dirt roads, such as the Salsa Fargo.  Marin County is home to many historic fire roads.

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29×2.20″ Kenda Karma tires. Avid BB7 brakes

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Moots Farrhoots

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29×2.2″ Geax AKA tires, mechanical disc brakes (Shimano CX-75?)

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Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road

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700cx43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, and custom Bruce Gordon cantilever brakes.  This design and the accompanying tire celebrates 25 years in existence.

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Rob English Black Rainbow Custom

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Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, Avid BB7 brakes

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Rick Hunter Super Scrambler

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Continental RaceKing tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes and vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars.  Check out this thorough post on the Super Scrambler.

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Twenty2 Cycles Custom 650b/700c

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650B Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires, Avid BB7 brakes.  Fits large volume 650b tires or cross-type 700c tires.

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Ellis Inox Rando

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Kenda Happy Medium tire, Paul Racer brakes, dynamo lighting and mini-rack.  This is the narrowest tire of the bunch, but represents what many people consider to be an appropriate tire for unpaved surfaces. This size is fine for graded, hardpacked surfaces without a load.
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Littleford Expedition Tourer

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26″ Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires, Paul Touring cantilever brakes, dynamo lighting, and expedition-grade racks.  In this instance, 26″ wheels are selected for durability and the ability to source wheels parts all over the globe.

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A brief history and tribute

Credit to Bruce Gordon for pushing the first large volume 700c tire through to the American market, and building a bike to fit it.  And to the 700x45mm Panaracer Fire Cross XC.  Credit to mountain bikes and all-terrain bikes and down-home dirt roads everywhere, and the people who ride them.  Credit to the Surly LHT which is a “real touring bike”, but fits bigger tires and is a gateway bike to dirt roads for many; and the Cross-Check, the monstercross bike of the people; and the Salsa Fargo, which has reintroduced the idea of knobby tires and drop bars to a lot of people.  Surely, credit is also due elsewhere: Grant Peterson and Rivendell (and the drop-bar Bridgestone MB-1), cross bikes, Jan Heine and ultra-plush 650b tires, Charlie Cunningham and the WTB drop bar, Wes Williams, Chris Skogen, Mike Varley and the Black Mountain Cycles Cross frame; Divide racers, gravel grinders, Hemistour riders, the BLM, and the most prolific builder of dirt roads in the world, the United States Forest Service.

Bruce Gordon’s influence is immeasurable.  If you ask Bruce, he started it all.  Note: the BG Rock ‘n Road tire was actually designed by Joe Murray, and borrowed heavily from the Nokian Hakkapelita.

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Does your bike happily ride on dirt roads? rough dirt roads?

The United States National Forest Road System consists of more than 380,000 miles of roads. The types of roads range from permanent, double-lane, paved highways to single-lane, low-standard roads intended only for use by high-clearance vehicles, such as pickup trucks. At this time, a significant portion of this system is closed or use-restricted to protect resources. (USFS website)

Further, 1.3 million miles, or more than one-third of all road miles in the U.S. are still unpaved gravel or dirt roads. (ARTBA website)


13 thoughts on “(dirt) Road Bikes

  1. Your posts are always so FUN! I didn’t notice the odd rear brake cable routing on the Twenty
    2 while at the show. Patti was chatting away with Bruce while she didn’t have a clue who he was. 🙂 Did you see the sticker he gave her? BTW, Gates was really pushing their belt system to builders before the show, I’m guessing that’s why they were so prolific. The feedback on their durability in the next couple of years will be interesting

    • The rear brake cable routing is very strange on the Twenty2, especially as the Rohloff cable runs low along the chainstay. I was told that the bike will eventually be wearing some hydro brakes, so no issues with cables and housing.

      I didn’t see the sticker. What was it? BG was quite animated at the evening show, trying to sell a pair of tires to everyone who came through the door.

      The belt drive will only improve. It will be interesting to see where it goes. More importantly, the future of belt drives is necessarily tied to IGH hubs. More, cheaper, efficient options will solidify the future of IGH hubs and belt systems.

      • The sticker is in Madarin. Bruce told Patti it says something like “loud, big nosed Jew from Chicago”. Apparently it’s a play on the TT sticker that’s on the BLT. It’s good to know he does have a sense of humor.

  2. The paint is pretty, and some of the frames seem really innovative. Of course any kind of suspension beyond a hard frame is a step up in comfort. I have been riding gravel/dirt roads and two track since the 60’s when I took the fenders off of my 26 inch frame that Dad got from Montgomery Wards, I broke that bike in two pieces doing jumps across the bar ditch and had it welded back together. Ha! Basically when you go off pavement and onto the “fire roads” you can ride anything with tires big enough to stay above the surface tension and bounce from rock to rock. Be the bike!

    • Yes, it doesn’t take much to get off-pavement, or even off-road. Certainly, a big tire is the simplest way to get out there, while suspension can go further to improve comfort. Part of my discussion here focuses on bikes that are designed for fast “road” riding on dirt roads, sharing many of the features of a road bike (handlebars, riding position), with those of a mountain bike (disc brakes and larger tires). While suspension is not necessarily excluded from this category, I think that a rigid frame and a high-quality lightweight tire with a voluminous casing can achieve both comfort and efficiency over rough surfaces at speed. not speaking of the roughest roads, but an average of the many dirt roads I have ridden.

  3. If I remember correctly, Geoff Apps was the man who got the 700x47mm Nokian Hakkepelita tires in the hands of the Marin crew. He also got 650B Hakkepelitas too, but because of the unreliability in the supply chain, everyone basically was forced into using “standard” 26 inch (559 mm) tires, as Nokia(n) was the ONLY source for knobbies in those two sizes. (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)

    • Correct. I am always happy to discuss the (dis)advantages of wheels sizes, but I maintain that tire volume is more important than outside wheel diameter. Those Marin riders needed a big tire, and there was only one way to get it.

  4. My CrossCheck needs new tires this spring and I’ve been having a hard time not springing for the Rock and Roads.
    Keep telling myself I’ll be plenty happy with the Schwalbe Marathon Cross, but the Rock and Roads are just awesome.

  5. I know there are a multitude of 700c tires out there for gravel. I’m wondering if anyone has any pointers about suitable tires available for 27″ (630) wheels? I’ve found a few ‘cross tires, but any advice would be welcome.

  6. This post is awesome. I am at a point where I want a new bike but I couldn’t quite describe what I wanted. Then I stumbled across this post (I follow your blog but wasn’t yet when you posted this) and realised that you have described exactly the bike I want – a road bike for dirt roads … Something I can ride anywhere with the right tyres 🙂

    • It is all about the tires!

      Andrew, the space between road bikes and mountain bikes has become densely populated with diverse concepts, seen in the range of bikes above. I often say that tire clearance does little to detract from a bicycle; rather, one gains the capacity to select an appropriate tire for the intended kind of riding. As such, I prefer bikes in this category that accept tires in excess of 2.0″/50mm. There are smooth gravel roads, dirt roads, and rough doubletracks in the range of conditions between paved road riding and mountain biking, and a healthy 2.0″ tire just about nails the center of that range. With a load, something a little bit bigger might be the ‘sweet spot’, as for a larger rider as well. Of course, choosing a tire for southcentral Wisconsin will be different than choosing a tire for the western slope of Colorado, which is where that extra clearance becomes valuable. Sometimes, the location doesn’t change, but our riding style does.

      I really like the the feel of 700c/29″ wheels for this application, including bikes such as the Salsa Fargo, several of the Singular models (Swift, Peregrine, Gryphon), the Surly Ogre and Karate Monkey, and an upcoming model from Velo Orange called the Camargue.

      • Yeah that’s what I noticed. That I need to find a bike that will allow me to run the tyres I want. Unfortunately, here in Australia the options are limited and many US companies won’t ship here. But your post has helped me more clearly identify what I’m looking for … something that will allow me to run tyres that eat gravel 🙂

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