Tech features Tech gallery: Working-class gravel bikes from the FoCo Fondo
Bikes look real different when the people riding them actually have to pay for them.
Bike publications – ourselves included – love to showcase the race rigs of various pro riders. Not surprisingly, those things are chock-full of the latest-and-greatest: top-end frames, cutting-edge carbon fiber wheels, fancy flagship electronic groupsets, custom paint, aero this, ultralight that, you name it.
But those riders almost never have to pay for those bikes out of pocket, and even if they do, it’s never at full retail.
So what do “regular” folks end up with when they’re on the hook for the bill themselves? What if they’re shopping the secondhand market and dealing with a limited supply? What motivates them to choose a particular bike, and what’s off the table?
I recently attended the
FoCo Fondo, a popular gravel event in Fort Collins, Colorado that currently attracts nearly 2,000 participants not only for the picturesque mixed-terrain routes on Sunday, but also for the variety of family-friendly activities the organizers line up for the entire weekend.
Instead of seeking out the shiniest and priciest machines in the field, I sought out a more random assortment of working-class rigs. I also asked folks why they bought what they bought, and why they got into gravel riding in the first place.
Perhaps none of this will surprise you, but maybe some of it will. But regardless, it’s a good reminder that most of us aren’t dropping US$10k+ on our bikes.
This was perhaps my favorite rider of the bunch. Mary Kay Engel lives in Denver, Colorado, and is an administrative assistant at a corporate real estate firm. She said this was her third crack at the 30-mile FoCo Fondo course, with previous attempts derailed by various mishaps. Mary Kay said she was a “big road cyclist, but then I just got disenchanted with riding with cars.” She found this Liv Invite at a bike shop eight years ago and fell in love with how the women-specific design could fit her (and the color!). It also helped that it was the same brand as her mountain bike, and the US$3k asking price was within her budget. She’s since done a bunch of three- and four-day bike tours on it.
Mary Kay can now add another line item to her list of accomplishments on this thing. I checked the results afterward: she finished this time. Congratulations, Mary Kay, third time’s the charm! Mary Kay added a stem riser to bring the bars higher up after a neck surgery. The top tube bag has a clear window for course maps and notes. There was a lot of stuff in this saddle pack, but it’s always good to be prepared. Tiagra is far from Shimano’s flashiest groupset, but it works reliably and offers good gearing range in this configuration. Nevertheless, Mary Kay said she’s ready for a new bike after eight years of faithful service with this one. The 32 mm-wide Panaracer GravelKing SK+ tires offer a versatile size and tread design for mixed conditions. Cheri Fine traveled from Ogden, Utah to do the 30-mile route of the FoCo Fondo for the first time.
“It looked like a fun event, and my whole family could come and enjoy.”
She said she’s been riding gravel for about five years “on and off”, moving to the discipline after her husband had been the victim of a couple of hit-and-runs and “almost getting hit by cars” a few too many times herself while riding on the road. Needless to say, Cheri’s Cannondale Topstone Carbon didn’t magically appear on the showroom floor like this. Also needless to say, purple is her favorite color. Purchase price was around US$5,500. The custom-built Atomic wheels add a little more visual flair with their white woven polymer spokes from Berd. Shimano 105 isn’t typically thought of as a gravel groupset, but aside from the lack of a pulley cage clutch, there’s plenty of range for most folks looking to ride off-pavement. The purple looks good, Cheri! Drew Hoffner is an accountant who lives in Fort Collins, so he conveniently didn’t have very far to travel for the Fondo. He was a mountain biker in high school, but said he “got away” from cycling for several years afterward. Cycling came back into his life right before the pandemic, and “got way more into it than I’d ever been before, because there was nothing else to do.”
He said he’s ridden on the road some, but it “never really clicked” for him. Drew said he’s always loved steel bikes, and had read good reviews about the Ritchey SwissCross so it was already on his short list. This particular frameset showed up on eBay for just US$1,100, and then he sourced the rest from there. Total estimated outlay was around US$3,000. It’s hard to go wrong with a Shimano GRX mechanical groupset. 38 mm-wide Rene Herse Steilacoom tires are mounted to Roval Terra C carbon fiber wheels. The Shimano Ultegra levers don’t match the GRX drivetrain bits, but they’re perfectly compatible so no harm done here. Drew said he also uses this bike to commute to work, and the bar-mounted bottle bag offers a convenient spot to hold his phone and other sundries. Judd Dew is the operations director at a manufacturing company in Fort Collins, and got more into riding bikes a couple of years ago mainly a way to hang out with friends: “mostly breweries, breakfasts, coffee rides, that kind of stuff.”
A year ago while at a brewery one day, they all decided on a whim to sign up for SBT GRVL, and as they say, the rest is history. Judd said gravel riding offers a new way for enjoy the outdoors, bridging the gap between mountain biking, camping, and hiking. Judd didn’t have high expectations searching on the used market for a titanium bike given his height, but he somewhat miraculously found this custom titanium Mosaic that fit him perfectly. Even better, the original owner had barely ridden it at all, and Judd was able to nab it for the comparatively bargain-basement price of US$5,400 for what was essentially a brand-new bike from a heralded niche local builder.
“It was like it was meant to be.” The original SRAM Force groupset was switched to a Force XPLR setup for more appropriate gearing. The high-volume 55 mm-wide Rene Herse Fleecer Ridge tires should provide plenty of capability for off-road exploring. The riser handlebar is a smart way to bring the grip height up without resorting to an even-taller head tube. Isaac (sorry, they didn’t provide their last name) is a student and part-time ski instructor who came to the FoCo Fondo all the way from New York City. Isaac was a road rider “from when [they] could walk” with cycling parents, and even just got “bored” with the road. After pushing road-width tires far more than they probably should, Isaac said they “wanted a new challenge” and eventually bought this aluminum Trek Crockett used from a local bike shop owner who was leaving NYC. Purchase price? US$2k. SRAM’s first-generation Force 1 hydraulic levers are hardly new, but they still work well and very capably get the job done. Versatile Hutchinson Touareg gravel tires are mounted to aluminum Bontrager Paradigm Elite wheels. The bike is mostly as Isaac bought it, with the exception of an upgraded cassette and rear derailleur. Isaac said they actually make regular use of the sliding dropouts, tweaking the handing for different events and even occasionally accommodating a singlespeed setup. Some might view the stickers as haphazard or even ugly, but it’s a way for Isaac to cover up the Trek logos and make the bike unquestionably theirs. The original owner added some “great upgrades”, such as the carbon fiber seatpost and handlebar, and the lightweight Bontrager Ajna saddle. James Scheurer is a brand manager for a pet food company in Boulder, Colorado. He started out only riding mountain bikes, but recently started riding gravel and has now expanded into road riding, too. He ended up at the FoCo Fondo last-minute after a friend offered him an entry he couldn’t use. “So on Wednesday, I decided to run 120 miles on Sunday – with no training.” (He finished.) The Fezzari Shafer ended up in James’s garage after a recommendation from a friend (and apparently my review). It was also a fantastic price for the build kit, costing around US$4,300 even after upgrades. Moar aero. The Orucase top tube bag has a super-clever magnetic zipper. Just shove your hand through the top and it magically closes itself afterward. The Specialized 3D-printed Power Mirror saddle was probably nice to have on such a long day. James said the Specialized Pathfinder Pro tires probably weren’t the best for the day (too wide, too slow-rolling), but despite the intense heat of the day, he still finished in a reasonable time. The SRAM Rival eTap XPLR electronic drivetrain offers the same performance as the higher-end Force and Red stuff, but at a lower price and with a bit more weight. Kalyani (who didn’t provide a last name) works in higher education and traveled to the FoCo Fondo all the way from Iowa as part of the event’s impressive DEI outreach program. They didn’t really get into cycling at all until 2019 – mostly as a way to get around town – and “didn’t like that there were cars on the road.” They started riding on gravel as a result, eventually got invited to do a gravel tour, and then was completely hooked. “I’m here for a good time, not a fast time.” They did that gravel tour on a Trek Multitrack and quickly decided afterward they needed a proper gravel bike. They started looking for something a little more entry-level, but came upon this aluminum Salsa in 2021, right at the height of the Covid-fueled cycling craze (and shortages). Although they were searching up to a four-hour radius away, this one happened to show up locally. The initial purchase price was US$800. Kalyani knew they were going to spend more money customizing whatever they bought, which was a big motivation to go used. Among the first things to get upgraded were the saddle and handlebar. Colorful bags were a common theme I noted at the FoCo Fondo. These meaty 27.5×2.1″ Teravail Sparwood tires may have been a bit much for the paved sections of the FoCo Fondo, but they were likely perfect for the sandy doubletrack segments that had many riders on narrower rubber walking. There’s a lot to be said for parts that just plain work well. Shimano has a well-earned reputation for excellence at these lower price points. Mark Fine (Cheri’s husband) showed up at the FoCo Fondo to “ride hard and smile.” He brought with him an unusual choice of bikes for a gravel event: a custom Squid steel bike with a fixed-gear drivetrain and a single front brake.
“There’s no other gear except for your legs.” This would certainly be a hard bike to miss in a crowd. Mark had a graffiti artist in New York City (his hometown) hand-paint Pink Panther graphics throughout the bike. Even the Bluetooth speaker was painted to match. I’d personally miss being able to rest my hands on the hoods, but one of the biggest appeals of gravel riding and gravel bikes is there is basically no “wrong” way to do it. Custom paint is always an excelelnt way to make a bike your own. Tracey Kennedy works for Zeal Optics in Boulder, Colorado, and only got into gravel riding a few months ago after many years of long-distance running. She was also a triathlete earlier in life, but moved away from that after growing uncomfortable with sharing space with cars. “I don’t feel like I have the technical skills to mountain bike – I’m kind of afraid of mountain biking – so gravel felt like a cool, happy medium where I can ride on roads without being with cars.” Tracey was looking for something used to fit her budget, and a friend of her boyfriend found this Cannondale SuperX for her while she was on a work trip. Purchase price? US$2,100. More Panaracers. SRAM DoubleTap levers may not be quite as intuitive to use as the company’s electronic eTap stuff, but it’s still just one lever to deal with instead of two. The SRAM Force 1 drivetrain and Cannondale Hollowgram cranks make for a very light setup. Not bad for just over US$2k. John Elliott works in marketing and advertising, and recently moved to Boulder, Colorado from upstate New York. He’s been a roadie for a few years, but was more of an ultra-runner before, and really only got into gravel while exploring the vast network of unpaved roads in Colorado. John ended up with this Santa Cruz Stigmata after his local shop sold him a Cannondale Topstone that was too big for him. This one was on consignment, practically new, and fit him perfectly, and because of the mistake, the shop cut him a fantastic deal: just US$3,000.
“It’s an absolute rocket ship.” This Stigmata served as John’s road bike for a while, too, with a second set of wheels and tires for easy switching. The 38 mm-wide Maxxis Rambler tires are mounted on wide Hunt carbon gravel wheels for a light-yet-capable combo. The SRAM Red 22 WiFli drivetrain is supplemented with Garmin Rally power meter pedals. The frame was actually repaired after a nasty high-speed crash that sent the bars “right through the top tube.” Aside from some mismatched paint, John said the bike is otherwise “as good as new.” Jonathan (who didn’t provide a last name) works in health care administration and has lived in Denver, Colorado for the last 18 years, originally hailing from Detroit, Michigan. He’s a long-time road rider who made the move to gravel mostly for safety reasons, but also as a way to explore a wider range of roads. This carbon fiber Obed came about from a “surprise savings account I didn’t know I had.” It was a good price given the consumer-direct distribution model (he paid about US$5,000), and it helps that the brand shares a corporate umbrella with Litespeed, who made his road bike. Jonathan said the taller bar height he wanted initially proved a bit challenging, but this Ritchey riser bar conveniently took care of that problem. Jonathan added a 4iiii dual-sided power meter to the Shimano GRX crankset. Panaracers were definitely a popular tire brand at the FoCo Fondo. What did you think of this story?
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