Aero Is Coming To Gravel - And It’s Coming Fast Contributed By Joe Laverick

Aero is coming to gravel - and it’s coming fast. I think we’re going to look back on this weekend at Unbound as the turning point for this rapidly growing discipline. Gravel is getting fast. 

Unbound was won in a record breaking time, and that’s been a theme across the States this season. The start-lists are getting higher, the riders are getting stronger, and equipment is becoming more optimised.

The purist will shake their head and say it’s against the spirit of gravel. Similar mutterings were probably heard before LeMond’s 1989 Tour de France TT. 

Evolve or die.

I’m excited about these developments. Gravel still has a long way to go in the aerodynamic and optimisation world. As we start to see the sport grow, brands investing and athletes testing new stuff, the speeds will continue to rise. Budgets will get bigger, athletes will get better. It’s how sport works.

Unbound Gravel is the biggest gravel race in the world. If you win the Unbound, you achieve gravel immortality. It has the biggest exposure, the most media, and the fattest sponsorship cheques. Athletes go ‘all in’ for this 200-mile race around the Flint Hills of Kansas.

There is no better example of the importance of aerodynamics than Unbound. It’s a 9hr+ effort. Winning is a cocktail of fitness, tactics, luck, equipment and crucially, saving energy.

I’ve had the pleasure (displeasure?) of racing Unbound twice. The first time, 2023, came with the now infamous mud. The second year, this past month in 2024, I punctured multiple times and was out of the race. 

This raises another important point around gravel aerodynamics - the equipment has to be durable. Your new tyre might be a couple of watts faster, but if the sidewall slashes with ease, then it’s a waste of time.

Aero meets Gravel

We’re seeing more and more aero come into the gravel world. The fact that Unbound was won by Lachlan Morton, the coolest of cool riders, is incredible. It was one for the good guys. The fact that Lachlan was running Poc’s latest aero-helmet with a visor, and a skinsuit too, shows which way gravel is going.

If Lachie can wear aero stuff, then anybody can.

We’re seeing brands bring out items of kit which favour aero: enter Castelli, Rule28 and Rapha with their built in hydration vests. Wider tyres are becoming more popular too. Yes, there will be an aero penalty here, but the lower rolling resistance and opportunity to run lower pressures brings gains elsewhere.

Then there are simple little things like a SoProCycling number mount which allows you to have your race number flush against the bars, thus improving aero.

However, gravel isn’t as simple as lowering your CdA. It’s about finding the optimal balance for the demands of the course. Speed is important, durability is importanter.

This year’s Unbound opened up my eyes to gravel aero. I’m currently running super-wide 42mm handlebars, favouring comfort instead of aero. Those things are coming off as soon as I can get into a bike shop, instead favouring my narrower road bars. 

We’re already seeing aero-frames creeping onto the market, wheels too…

At Unbound, I rode one of the first sets of Parcours prototypes in existence. My first reaction was simple: wow, they’re wide. Sitting at a 40mm external width, they both look and feel significantly wider to most other rims on the market. A few years ago, you’d argue that these were MTB rims, the sport has changed.

While my new wheels are aero focussed, they don’t neglect that ever important durability. You can make the lightest, most aerodynamic wheels in the world, if the rims aren’t durable then it’s a long walk home.

How far is too far? 

Is there a point that’s too far in gravel aero? Probably. 

The jury is still out with how far you can push the boundaries. You only have to look at the triathlon to see that aero doesn’t always look cool. With the lack of solid governing body in gravel, it’s going to be interesting to see how the developments roll out.

The Unbound organisers outlawed aero-bars a couple of years ago. At the time, it seemed outrageous they’d be banned, these days it seems outrageous that they’d be allowed. It’s going to take time. Developments will come, somebody will push them too far and they’ll be banned. There’ll be loopholes, new products and who knows what more.

The gravel world in 2024 is a little like a teenager going through puberty -  it’s getting influences from all directions. The cool friends in the MTB world are saying one thing, the roadie friends are saying another, and then its parents don’t want it to grow up at all.

Gravel, like any teenager, will eventually find its own path. There’ll just be plenty of mistakes along the way.

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