why gravel?

Word and photos by Michele Minessi

Gravel is not a fad, and even if it were, it’s not a fad for me. Who am I? A lover of outdoor activities and, in particular, biking in all its forms. 

“Come to town by bike and have a beer?” “ok!”… ” Shall we go off the top of a mountain on trails?” “ok”… “Shall we go on a lot of alpine passes this we?” “ok” “Loaded bikes and go on vacation?” “ok!”… 

My life has always been like that since I started pedaling, and it’s still going on now… however, discovering the gravel has immediately filled that sense of incompleteness of hundreds of kilometers of alpine passes on roads that have become more and more dangerous, or mtb rides to reach a peak a few kilometers from where I started. 

All very nice and rewarding, of course, I will continue to do these things, but a gravel bike for me is the charm of a ride studied on the maps, it’s road but it is also off-road, it’s about climbing a beautiful alpine road at a pace and efforts similar to a racing bike and, once at the top, a plunge into old dirt roads at high altitude and then down into a new valley, it’s hanging three bags to go on vacation, it’s the discovery of the territory that slowly tints that dark mental map of forests, roads, villages and small and insignificant but beautiful details that I always ignored and never would have discovered and that now I proudly collect, I take friends there or advise anyone who asks me. 

In addition, it’s the sense of freedom, it’s touching nature not just from the roadside, it’s moving fast in the urban jungle, it’s its natural aptitude to clock up the miles, it’s the reliability of the solid and essential tool, a frame, large tires and very efficient brakes. It’s about being able to ride on roads, b-roads and forests in total safety and, last but not least, it’s the sense of strain and satisfaction of bringing the body to a tiredness that I love to look for. 

This is what I love about this bike, it’s not for everyone but this is what has connected me to this tool. 

Will it be a fad? Maybe … I welcome any fad that improves the experience and the sense of well-being that gives me, and then let’s face it … a gravel bike is really beautiful. Since I was a child, I have loved the racing bike, its shapes and its essentiality and, many times, I tried to mount the biggest tires possible because hell yes, it was beautiful to go crazy but it had technical limitations; however, someone has created it for me now and really did a great job!

There will always be someone who tells me “I used to do those things with just one bike and I didn’t call it a gravel bike, mtb or racing bike”…probably, what they lack is everything I’ve told you, gravel is just a tool. 

Enough words… let’s get out, stay outdoors, pedal, plan, sweat, have fun and enjoy!

Best gravel wheels for the Tuscany Trail

After talking about gravel tires, it is natural to talk about the best gravel wheels to tackle the Tuscany Trail or similar routes. So let's see the features and how to choose the right wheels for our bike.

If initially cyclocross or mtb-derived wheels were used with the evolution of the gravel sector, there are more and more proposals for specific wheels, for all tastes and for all budgets. In this large amount of proposals there are valid wheels and others less valid, wheels suitable for our use and others not suitable, many standards and very different choices by manufacturers. In this article we try to clarify, examine the features, standards and useful upgrades, assuming that there is no perfect wheel for everyone, but there is the right wheel for everyone.

Current standards

As we saw in the article on gravel tires, the current dimensions of gravel wheels are essentially two: 650b and 700c. These dimensions vary from the bike model and offer different qualities, a 700c wheel will be, in general, faster and less comfortable, vice versa a 650b wheel. This is mainly due to the difference in the tire section mounted. There is no better size than the other, they simply offer different strengths and weaknesses. Many bikes today can mount both sizes.

In any case, even on 700c wheels, the trend is to mount increasingly voluminous tires, so as to lower operating pressures and increase grip and comfort. For this, as we will see shortly, wheels designed to accommodate wider tires are needed.

Virtually all gravel bikes have hubs in the measure of 142×12 (standard also used in mtb) at the rear and 100×12 at the front. This allows you to use hubs designed for off-road use and very resistant. The through axle in wheels with disc brakes is essential, both to guarantee the rigidity of the assembly and to ensure correct flatness between the disc and the brake caliper.

Width of the internal channel

However, to mount bulky tires it is necessary to have the right width of the inner rim channel. In fact, if initially road or cyclocross wheels with 17-21mm internal channel were used, it was quickly realized that a rim with these dimensions is not suitable for use tires of 34-35mm and up. In fact, a “mushroom” shape of the tire is created which, once cornering, tends to fold on itself and not have the right support, thus losing precision and often grip.

Currently the gravel rims are being directed to widths of about 24-25mm, which thus allow to give a large support to the rubber shoulder and guarantee grip and driving precision. Increasing the section of the rim also further increases the overall volume of air inside the tire, thus increasing comfort for the same tire size.

Some wheels have even greater widths, which however risk distorting the profile of the tires and therefore affect their performance. Current tires are in fact optimized for this size. Unless you want to fit mtb tires with tires over 2.20 “, provided they have enough space in the frame.

Assembled wheels or integrated system

The difference between wheels assembled with various components and wheels made with components designed to work together is great. The wheels are in fact a complex system in which every single component must work in harmony with the others and in a balanced way to bring out the best in each one. It is a balance of spokes, hubs, rims and nipples and each component must be suitable for all the others.

Here we see the difference between good wheels and very good wheels. Companies that spend years designing a wheel system rather than taking parts here and there and assembling wheels get much better products, both in terms of performance and reliability.

The wheels are in fact among the most stressed components of our bicycles and, if in this system, everything is not balanced, it takes very little to make them break, ruining the ride or maybe even the trip.

In fact, a wheel system designed as a whole requires that every single component is made to work in a uniform way, whether pedaling, braking or cornering, therefore with very different stresses. Spoking is the basis for the transmission of forces to the rim and consequently to the tire and the ground, and a rim with a non-optimized spoking is more unbalanced in terms of tension, just think that a normal rear wheel has a transmission side tension of about 110 kgf and disc side of about 60 kgf, but which must work well both when braking and when pedaling. In fact, guess which side is the most frequent breakage of the spokes? The exact left. In the wheel systems conceived as a whole, in fact, we find distinct spokes for each side of the wheels, according to the task it has to perform and the forces to which it is subjected, this allows to increase reliability and performance.

Tubeless or non-tubeless?

The advantages of tubeless tires are undoubted: protection from punctures, lower inflation pressure with consequent comfort, better rolling (both on asphalt and dirt), weight savings and all this would already be enough to make you change your mind. Fortunately, most wheels at the moment can accommodate both tubeless and inner tubes. Most of these come already taped and including tubeless valves for easy and immediate conversion if desired. Unfortunately some wheels are not tubeless ready and you need to be careful when buying if you want to use this configuration, not all non-tubeless wheels are convertible, this largely depends on how the rim is built. Therefore it is always better to rely on openly tubeless ready wheels so as to be sure of being able to use both systems.

The weight of the wheels

The weight of the wheels is an important factor, even if on a gravel bike it has to go hand in hand with resistance and reliability more than on the road bike. It is therefore a question of finding the right compromise. Here the difference between assembled wheels and an integrated wheel system is relevant again, in the second case in fact the various components are also optimized in relation to weight: what is needed is there and what is not needed is removed. There are therefore rims with different profiles to increase the resistance near the nipples, optimized spokes, balancing of the rim in relation to the welding point etc.

Obviously the point of the wheel where the weight is felt most is that of the rim, so on the hubs you can go to bring more material where it is needed and to use larger ones to better optimize the load.

So remember to look for wheels that are light but that are light in the right places. 1700/1800 g aluminum gravel wheels are great and will get us to the bottom of every trip.

Carbon deserves a separate discussion, which is probably intended only as an excellent material for weight saving. In reality, in addition to weight savings, carbon wheels have other characteristics, first of all the greater rigidity compared to an aluminum wheel. The increased stiffness does not necessarily mean an improvement and indeed on a gravel bike it could even be counterproductive. Not all carbon wheels are the same and luckily many manufacturers have realized the need for other characteristics than stiffness, in fact, if used correctly, carbon helps to dampen vibrations a lot and this is undoubtedly a feature to look for in a gravel wheel. So if you want to buy carbon wheels, do it from manufacturers who know what they do and who have in mind the features necessary for a gravel wheel, such as reliability and vibration damping.

Our tip for the Tuscany Trail

Thanks to Fulcrum we were able to test their wheels for the gravel segment and the one that struck us most was undoubtedly the Rapid Red 3, both in 700c and 650b configurations.

Fulcrum Rapid Red 3

Format: 700c; 650b

Material: aluminum

Hubs: 12×100; 12×142

Options: HG11; XDR; N3W

Internal width: 24mm

Weight: 1740gr (700c)

Tubeless ready: Yes

see more on the site: Fulcrum wheels

We liked them because they are born as an integrated system, they are wheels optimized in every respect. They are available with Shimano 11sp body, Sram XDR and the new Campagnolo N3w standard to mount the Ekar group at 13s. The bearings are the classic cones and balls, very reliable and easy to adjust and maintain. They are tubeless ready, already taped and equipped with a tubeless valve. The mounting of the tires was quick and easy, as was the trailing, done with a simple workshop pump.

The thing we liked the most was undoubtedly the sensation of smoothness and support that the wheels give in every situation. They are not a featherweight but once assembled they do not make themselves felt and they spin smoothly. They are always precise and predictable even on rough terrain and when cornering on dirt. The particular 2: 1 spoking gives these wheels a nice feeling both when pushing on the pedals and when braking hard. In short, reliable wheels with an excellent quality / price ratio that give great pleasure once in the saddle!

Why travel by bike

Words and images by Sara Ischia

With a bike, you grow up! 

We all remember our first bike, almost certainly a second-hand one, maybe some cousin’s, I remember mine to be red and a bit rusty, with wheels. The bike is and will always be present in our lives, it accompanies us in our growth and I’m not just talking about height, it follows our progress and our changes. Without realizing it, we have learned a lot from it, for example that from above we have a better view and that after the climb there is the descent. Since we were very young, we had to deal with effort, we learned to know ourselves better, our strength, mind and ability to adapt. However, cycling is not just effort; it is speed, it is running downhill with the wind in your face, it is happiness. It’s about going out wearing short sleeves and trying to reach the snow, finding other temperatures, other vegetation, another climate, another silence. The longer the journey, the more differences we will encounter, other languages, cultures, architectures and landscapes.

I use a bike that bears the name of a tree, and I cross cities, towns, and forests with it, I reach the tops of mountains and run along the banks. To do this and travel safely, I have chosen durable Pirelli Cinturato tires, which are smooth and safe on all types of terrain, whether dry or wet, with a high level of protection against punctures. I cycle and when I am tired or the roads become too steep, I push, sometimes it happens that I load it on trains and ferries, for me this is travelling by bike as well!

The wonderful thing is to realize that this object, which has always been with us and was a simple toy when we were children, when seen through the eyes of an adult, becomes a real vehicle that takes us everywhere, whether it’s an appointment in the city or an outing in the woods. It’s our first real means of transport to escape from everyday life and travel, reach the sea, an alpine pass or any other destination; so, buy it, give it as a gift and start cycling! Because on a bike, you travel at the right speed, you learn about history, geography, borders, names of rivers, you discover new places and make meetings that enrich your life. We observe landscapes, old towns, we listen and learn to recognize the cries of animals, the scents, the smells of plants and flowers that grow wild along the paths we travel, so traveling by bike becomes a sensory explosion.

You can start with an idea of a route and change it on the way because of bad weather or some unforeseen event, you can follow tracks studied by professionals or participate in organized events; they are all ways to travel intensely to really know a territory. The Tuscany Trail is just that: it’s about discovering Tuscany in its best season, spring, in a region rich in charm and culture with unique landscapes. Cycling from the mountains to the sea, crossing cities rich in history, palaces, gardens and parks, traveling loaded with bags but remaining light, with no thoughts, aware that traveling by bike is not only good for your body but also for your mood. 

When you leave, the only sure things are the point of departure and the point of arrival, everything in between is a surprise that is called Adventure! That’s why when we ride our bike, that we have chosen and customized, every trip becomes extraordinary!