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2021 Road & Gravel Bikes: Future Predictions

2021 Predictions for Drop Bar Bicycles

Like every category, 2021 will pose some major hurdles for road & gravel bike availability. And while that may make it harder to find your next dream bike, we won’t be surprised to see these two categories continue to evolve in a number of ways. Here are our predictions on what we’ll see for drop bar bicycles in 2021…

More Tire Clearance

I think we say this every year – for a reason. With most bikes designed at least 2-3 years prior to their release, it can be hard to pinpoint where standards like tire clearance will land by the time the bike is released. At the time of their last design, a 40mm gravel tire may seem huge, only to be dwarfed by 45mm and larger tires that are growing in popularity. The same goes for road bikes – years ago, many riders couldn’t imagine ever riding larger than 25mm slicks. Now, 28mm is close to becoming the standard, with clearance for 30 and even 32mm rubber fairly common. The proliferation of wider rims, which can make tires run larger than their specifications suggest, means the need for frames and forks that will clear bigger tires – especially if mud clearance is a requirement.

Which means less 650B

You can get many gravel bikes, like this Niner RLT, with 650B wheels, but most build options feature 700c wheels. For the same reasons we expect more tire clearance on gravel bikes, we suspect there’ll be fewer 650B bikes and builds. Over the past two years, we’ve seen fewer and fewer gravel bikes designed around 650B, even for smaller frame sizes and shorter riders. And many of those are sold as 700c builds with the option to run 650B wheels and tires. If you can run a 700×50 tire, which measures ~2″ wide, and get the improved rolling speed and rollover smoothness, why would you want a 650B setup just to gain 0.1″ of tire width? For the shortest riders, some brands will likely always offer a 650B option for road bikes, where tighter geometry can incur toe overlap penalties. But on gravel, our bets are on most bikes being 700c going forward.

More 1x drivetrains (sort of)

The rise of the mullet drivetrain, pairing drop bar shifters with wide range MTB cassette gearing, may finally seal the deal for 1x drivetrains on gravel bikes. Even with the wider range gearing, the large steps between gears will still probably make it a tough sell for road bikes. But if the Classified hub system, with internal 2-speed wireless gearing that effectively replaces a front double chainring and derailleur, catches on, we could see more bikes ditch the front derailleurs in favor of a “2x” system with the “front shifting” packaged into the rear hub. The new wide-range Campagnolo Ekar group could also be a nudge toward 1x for road. It’s lightweight, provides plenty of range, and offers tighter gear steps than moving all the way up to an ultra-wide mountain bike cassette. Along those lines, could this finally be the year that SRAM answers everyone’s request for a mid-range 12-speed cassette that falls somewhere between Eagle and their current 11-36 options. Sadly, the only 11-42 option left in the line is their low-level PG1130 cassette. And the splashy introduction around 2×12 Force Wider Gearing probably means chances are low that we’ll see a 12-speed 10-42 cassette, but we can hope, can’t we?

Cyclo-what?

If you had to guess how many stories we published this year with the word “cyclocross” in the title, what would you think? The answer is Three. And only one of those was about a new bike. The others were for cyclocross tire inserts, and some gravel wheels that can also work for cyclocross. Barring those, there was virtually no real development in the CX category. And we don’t see that changing much for 2021, despite the racing having continued through COVID. We love ‘cross as much as anyone, it’s just that everyone’s more interested in gravel now.

New road groups?

Perhaps the surest prediction we’ll make is that we’ll see a new Shimano Dura-Ace group. It’s time, but it’s also Shimano’s 100th Anniversary. Unfortunately, COVID concerns (especially in Japan at the moment) mean we may not get a celebratory blowout launch party, but the group itself will almost certainly make a debut. The questions we have are around the gearing and tech…will they go 12 or 13 speed? Will there be a wide wide range option, or will it stick to traditional road numbers and leave GRX to cover the rest? And will Di2 go wireless? Regardless of those things, we’re pretty sure the design and technology will be every bit as impressive as what they pulled off with XTR. SRAM went 12 speed a while ago, but there’s still no mechanical version for road or gravel bikes. Jumping back to SRAM, another thing we’d all love to see them launch is a freakin’ 12-speed mechanical group. The AXS wireless shifting is amazing, but they are no doubt losing OEM placements and more cost-conscious consumers at this point by not offering a high end, mechanically actuated group. They’ve proven they can make a great shifting, really light mechanical group, so it’s a shame they keep leaving us wanting on this. Here’s hoping 2021 is the year they finally give the people what they want. Unless they bring wireless to the Apex level…because at that point, who needs cables?

Wider bars & shorter stems

We saw this happen with mountain bikes, and now we’re seeing it for the dropbar crowd. Given that narrower bars and longer stems are still proving to be more aerodynamic, we expect more of a split between the performance road segment looking for every speed advantage, and the gravel/all-road segment who is willing to make small sacrifices in aerodynamics for increased control and comfort. It would make sense for the bikepacking crowd to stay at the wider end of this trend as fully loaded bikes tend to be slower anyway, and the wider bars make it easier to load up and and control the heavy front ends. We’re also thinking that some component brands might start putting a little flare on their road handlebars. It’s nearly a standard thing now for gravel, but by pushing the drops out a bit wider than the hoods, it offers more wrist clearance and better comfort when you’re tucking low. Which, we think, is probably something you’re doing more on your road bike than your gravel bike anyway, so, um, yeah.

More integration

Love it or lump it, cable and wire integration is going to continue to spread. It’s an easy aerodynamic gain, and most of us appreciate the cleaner aesthetic. If we’re being honest, most riders rarely need to change a brake hose, and full length internal cable routing is now nearly ubiquitous, so the maintenance downsides are few. Integrated bar and stem options are giving more brands off-the-shelf cable management solutions that hide everything. It used to be that integrated designs would add a bit of weight compared to tiny cable stops and less housing. But that problem has basically gone away, with marginal aero gains becoming more important, and better layup and designs mitigating any weight penalty. Need examples? Just look at the latest BH Ultralight and Trek Emonda as proof.

Lighter bikes…maybe?

This one’s our most speculative of the predictions. Specialized kinda surprised everyone with the 585g Aethos by eschewing the aerodynamic upgrades and crazy integrations that have become more and more popular. And then they launched almost-as-light Pro and Expert level versions. And they ride amazing. In doing so, they’ve set the bar pretty, um, low for achieving “lightest bike in the world” status. Well, full production bikes, that is. With normal parts and standards. Surely this raised alarms at Cannondale, who recently revised their SystemSix EVO and who…

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