It’s not new news to anyone that gravel bikes bear a passing resemblance to mountain bikes from the early 1990s. Yes, they’re rigid and, yes, they have big tires and smaller rims, and yes, they suck on technical trails compared to modern mountain bikes. But aside from the aesthetic similarities, gravel bikes are a genuinely huge step forward. Sure, they aren’t as capable as today’s full suspension trail bikes, but they’re a lot more versatile, easier to maintain, and often more affordable. A gravel bike with 35mm-wide tires and a single front chainring is a great first road bike, it’s a great commuter bike, and it isn’t a bad first mountain bike or bikepacking rig either.
The thing that I love about gravel bikes is that they rekindle what I felt when I rode those ’90s mountain bikes. Yes, gravel bikes aren’t very capable on gnarly trails, but that is what makes them fun. I can ride local trails that are boring on my trail bike, and feel excited on my gravel bike. I can ride for three hours, go 30 miles, and not give a damn about training or wattage because I am too busy railing berms and hopping logs. And I don’t have to get into a car to do it.
As de-rigueur as it has become to mock the inclusion of mountain bike technology in gravel bikes, I am a fan. At its core, off-road innovation helps gravel bikes be better at what they are best at, which is fun and versatility. Suspension I can take or leave, I am not convinced that two-centimeters of suspension travel does much more than a good tire and well-designed frame, but it certainly adds more maintenance. Dropper posts are, to me, a more welcome arrival on the gravel scene. I have droppers on all my flat bar bikes because they make riding those bikes a hell of a lot more fun. But it wasn’t until recently that I was finally able to get my hands on a Thesis OB1 with a dropper and realized the joys of riding a drop-bar bike off-road with a dropper post.
You’re scoffing, aren’t you? I get it, dropper posts are heavy(ish), and they don’t feel the way a standard post does, but they also let me do things that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. I run a rather large (11cm) saddle-to-bar drop and a wide (155mm) saddle; this often makes it pretty hard to get my weight far enough back on a gravel bike when riding steeper trails. So, I have a choice of either not riding fun trails, lifting my bars, lowering my saddle, or installing a dropper. Raising my bars hurts my back and makes the bike feel weird for the rest of the ride, dropping the saddle hurts my knees, and not riding fun trails is, well it’s not as much fun. The dropper post is the obvious winner. I can ride with the correct bike fit, and not feel like I’m about to perform half of a front flip every time things get steep.
Does a dropper weigh more? Yes, about half a pound, but if you’re concerned about that trivial weight addition to your gravel bike, then you’re doing it wrong. Aside from races like Crusher in the Tushar, most gravel riding isn’t about thousands of feet of climbing so much as it is about making cycling fun again and forgetting about the world of watts, weight, and wind tunnels. What better way to remind you that you’re out for a fun ride than slamming that saddle down and bouncing down a rock garden past confused mountain bikers who will repeatedly ask about your “hybrid” bike once you wait for them at the bottom of the hill. If you’ve yet to try a dropper post, you probably don’t realize quite how much difference this makes, but for me, a dropper post combined with 650b rims and 47mm tires made a huge difference in the amount of fun I was having off-road.
Is this something I can weigh, measure, and quantify? No. But when I set up the bike that way, I realized I was riding more, covering less ground, and having a lot more fun. And given how few of us get paid to race bikes, we are all really doing this for fun. I guess what I am saying is that picking enjoyment over efficiency is what gravel should be about.
But droppers aren’t just fun; they’re practical as well. One consequence of high-volume tires is increased saddle distance from the ground and higher standover height, which can make riding a little intimidating for beginners. Being able to drop the saddle to the top tube and stand on both feet at a stoplight is really a big deal for riders starting out on clipless pedals. Add this to more forgiving tires, more upright geometry, and the simplicity of single chainring drivetrains, and it might not shock you to hear that gravel bikes are the only drop-bar segment experiencing sales growth. Before you dismiss this as something you needn’t concern yourself with, try bikepacking for a few weeks on trails and tell me that dropping the saddle doesn’t make it easier to get onto a fully-laden adventure rig (or off one when things get bouncy).
If you’re still so stuck in the road racing mentality that you can’t possibly imagine adding a half-pound of weight on your bike to allow you to have more fun in the dirt, then I guess you might be persuaded by the fact that a dropper also lets you more safely ride in the ridiculous supertuck position that seems to have made an unwelcome leap from the pro peloton to the Saturday club ride. But I am not here to advocate for anyone riding their bike as fast as they can with no access to the brakes whilst twerking, so that’s on you.
You might still be scoffing, and that’s OK. Dropper posts are not for everyone. But they should be at the very core of gravel bikes. With single chainring setups, they are easily actuated by the left lever, leaving a simple and uncluttered bar setup.
And sure, one of your smart-ass friends might think your bike looks dorky or ask why you don’t just get a hardtail, but you know what really looks dorky? Someone who spent several thousands of dollars on an off-road bike walking it downhill, or someone who spent $150 on mountain bike tires riding them on the road. Gravel bikes are, to me, not about looking good or going fast, they are about making cycling fun and from the most jaded former roadie to the chainring grease-marked beginner, dropper posts make bikes more fun.