How Do You Choose a Bike? (Gravel Edition)

I haven’t gotten a new bike in about 4 years and I don’t intend to get a new bike any time soon. I’m not what you’d call overly frugal; I’m just very happy with what I’m riding. I feel no need to “upgrade” and I write that in quotes because I don’t know that a lot of what I might buy as a replacement would be an upgrade.

There are 4 installments to this series because I own 4 bikes. The theme of what I’m writing is not the bike, nor am I endorsing any of these bikes. It’s the decision process that led to each bike. What drove the purchase? (And, yes, each of these bikes were purchased.)

Let’s talk about my gravel bike and I’m starting with this now because there’s a kind of special “event” surrounding this bike that I’ll write about at the bottom.

I don’t know that OPEN Cycles is most known for the WI.DE. They have whimsical model names, all plays on the brand name. The OPEN WI.DE, OPEN U.P, OPEN U.P.(P.E.R.), OPEN MIN.D. I think the U.P. and U.P.P.E.R. are probably the best sellers, but I chose the WI.DE because of where I live and what gravel means to me, which is, lots of granite decomposed to sand, creek crossings, dry washes, steep pitches. These are some of the prevailing features in the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Los Angeles, where I live.

What this means is: tire width. My first gravel bike, back in 2011 or so, came with 40mm tires. My second came with 38mm tires, which I narrowed to 36mm. I figured the better I got as a gravel rider the narrower I could go in tire width. My reasoning was flawed. I did not hit on proper equipment until I realized that tire width is your friend, not your enemy (up to the point where extra width is of no further value). In fact, this idea has survived gravel and spilled over into every cycling specialty in which I participate: gravel, bikepacking, road and tri. (We’ll talk more about tire width in road disciplines when I write about those bikes.)

Here, then, is the thing I discovered about myself: Tire width is the first driver of any bike I buy or, to put it another way, the lack of tire clearance is the first disqualifier of any bike I might buy. I decide the width of the tire I’m going to ride – road or gravel – and then I disqualify bikes that won’t allow me – or that don’t optimize – that tire width. I disqualify bike models and wheel models. The tire drives the decision first. The OPEN WI.DE made the cut because I just decided to go full monty on the tire width and I’ve been riding 53mm tires for several years now.

After tire width the decision rests largely on whether I can hit my fit coordinates. About that. I respect other’s opinions but I like my gravel coordinates to pretty closely match those on my road bike and by “coordinates” I mean saddle height and set back (these are exact matches), and handlebar placement in front of and above the bottom bracket. My bars (where my hoods sit in space) are about 1cm back toward the BB, and perhaps 1cm taller, on my gravel bike than they are on my road bike (depending on which road bike, which I’ll get to in the future).

For me, this means a frame with a reach of about 385mm to 395mm, and a stack of 585mm to 600mm. The stack has some range to it because I can compensate or normalize for frame stack with stem pitch: I’m willing to ride a stem that has anywhere from -6° to -17° pitch. This of course means that I must be able to place a stem on the bike! Not always a given nowadays. Because hitting my precise fit coordinates is such an imperative to me, here’s where I know am in my list of purchase drivers:

1. Must be able to accommodate a 53mm (2.1”) tire width;
2. Must have a frame stack and reach that allows me to easily hit my fit coordinates;
3. Must have a stem I can change;
4. Must allow me to run hydraulic lines adjacent to the handlebars and not inside the stem.

That final list point is not a requirement, but it is for practical considerations. I just don’t want to have to fiddle with internally routed hydraulic lines when I’m changing stems, and I’m bound do to this on a new bike. Yes, I can get a bike to within 1cm up/down and back/forth via a typical dynamic fit process. But those last few mms you just never know until you’re aboard a bike and riding.

To recap, I’ve chosen a bike because I’ve first chosen a tire width, and then further narrowed down to the OPEN WI.DE because its geometry fits me and because for that final few mms I can micro-adjust to the cockpit because I can place a stem on the bike (and do so easily because the hydraulic lines aren’t required to pass through the stem). Now what?

Next comes the wheel radius. I wrote about this previously and won’t be repetitious except to say this: Every bike designer ought to have a wheel diameter in mind or in this case a tire diameter: what is the radius (or circumference) of the inflated tire. When I ask bike designers, 9 in 10 don’t know what I’m talking about, or why I’m asking the question. When I asked the designer of the OPEN WI.DE, Cervelo founder Gerard Vroomen, he said, “345mm.” Short, sweet, to the point. Which is the wheel radius of, say, a 700c wheel with a 35mm tire. It’s also the radius of a 650b wheel with a 55mm tire. This is important, because the bike will handle badly and you’ll have a lot of shoe overlap if you just slap a big tire on a 700c wheel (unless the frame is designed for that, as most mountain bikes are). So, tire width is not just a driver of the bike model, it’s a driver of the wheel size on that bike.

Then came the groupset and after having ridden a lot of 1x and 2x, what I settled on for my purpose is what SRAM calls its Mullet Config, which is MTB behind the cranks (rear derailleur, chain, cassette) and road from the crank forward (crank, BB, shifters, brakes). It’s all hydraulic and all electronic. For me, RED is jewelry, Force is all-function no-bling. So, it was SRAM Eagle behind the BB and SRAM Force AXS on the road components. Yes, SRAM makes a fully integrated 1x AXS groupset, called XPLR, but I find that this is more a road or tri groupset, because Eagle gets me that 10-50 cassette and that’s killer if you’re riding up 20 percent pitches (which often occurs where I live) and I’m in my 42x50 whenever I’m riding anything steeper than 12%.

And that’s it! That’s how I chose the gravel bike I now ride and have been riding for the past 4 or 5 years. I planned for this to be 3rd in my 4-part series on how I chose the bikes I own, but I moved this to #1 because I am an OPEN Ambassador by virtue of this bike I ride and Ambassadors got an offer I’m going to pass on to you, in case the bike I’m riding is a bike you think might work for you. This was about an $8,500 bike when I bought it, with the ENVE G27 wheelset (I bought the frame and the parts). Pretty much the bike I now ride, built complete, for OPEN Ambassadors is just under $4,500 with this discount ($3,750 with a DT wheelset). OPEN is treating Slowtwitchers as Ambassadors, pricewise, until these builds are sold out. They’ll come with either 700c or 650b wheels, your choice, but just remember that (according to me) you’ll want to match the wheel size to the tire diameter (probably 650b for tires 47mm and up, 700c for tires 43mm and down). OPEN made Slowtwitchers their own discount code and page. This won’t work if you live in California so, if this is your situation email Andy at OPEN Cycle (and the address is just that) and the discount will be honored. You’ll see some other builds offered in addition to the groupset that I ride.

In this rare case on today's internet, we are not getting an affiliate commission. OPEN is not a Slowtwitch partner. We get zippo (which I find refreshing). And that’s it! Next up is a road bike I’m now riding quite a bit these days and I’ll describe how I made that purchase.