My own introduction to gravel largely started in Southern California with an old Trek 1200 road bike on 25c tires. The bike was primarily used for commuting on the occasional weekday, a 30 mile round trip from Carlsbad to La Jolla. My true riding interests took me off-road, exploring local open spaces and linking together trail systems on a hardtail mountain bike. As my knowledge of rideable dirt grew, so did my curiosity on what was possible with the road bike on evening commutes. With good reasons to escape my drivers seat and traffic-heavy roads, the interest in exploring only grew. What failed to grow in parallel was the suppleness of my Trek, ultimately limiting the potential for adventures I knew were there. My first gravel bike in 2015 would change all that.
Since then e-bikes have had their own surge in popularity. Here in the densely populated coastal region of North County San Diego, pedal assist bikes are understandably an attractive alternative to the car, and overall a positive for those individuals who ride them and their community.
My own interest in testing a gravel e-bike was rooted in this context. A project to explore the potential of leveraging this technology for good, while seeing if it could deliver the same gravel commute experience that brought me here in the first place.
The Gain All Road
No other electric bike captured my interest like the Orbea Gain All Road. Widely seen as having a ground-breaking design for an e-bike, the Gain has done well with this being its very first model year. For testing I had the D31 model, size medium in Orange/Black gloss. And while the carbon version of the Gain was certainly an attractive option, I selected this aluminum Gain primarily from a price point perspective. At just under $3300 the Gain is an attainable pedal assist bike for many, while looking nothing like one. At its core the bike is designed with a small hub-drive motor in the rear and a concealed battery in the down tube. Look up close and you will notice a minimal LED button on the top tube and charge port behind the chainring.
The D31 model was equipped with a few key features that give it the All Road designation, most notably the SRAM Rival 1 drivetrain, hydraulic disc brakes and Schwalbe G-One 40c tires that take full advantage of the Gain’s clearance.
While the minimal design compared to other e-bikes is certainly appreciated, I found it to have some impact on the ride experience. The Gain’s four power modes (clear, green, orange and red) are controlled and indicated with the LED button alone. Being slightly color challenged, and wanting to keep my eyes on the trail, I would most often set the power mode based on feel in the pedal stroke (off to full power assist) rather than what I assume the industrial designer behind the Ebikemotion system was aiming for. This was largely not an issue, although it would have been nice to somehow confirm mode selection on the fly.
Charging the bike was easy, simply plug in the power adaptor and connect to the charge port via a small flap above the bottom bracket. It was recommended to download a smartphone app for added control and useful features, most of which I didn’t explore with the exception of checking battery life.
The pedal assist system on the Gain is very responsive, engaging power even with the slightest forward rotation of the crank. This was certainly welcome at the occasional intersection, allowing for quick acceleration from a complete stop. I couldn’t sense any unnecessary drag when the motor was off, and when turned on pedaling had a natural feel. Breaking power and shifting was excellent and everything one would expect from the durable SRAM Rival equipment.
Ultimately while the e-bike experience was positive, the limitations as a gravel bike were real. The biggest challenge for me lies in the weight of the bike. While the carbon version of the Gain comes in at a manageable 25 pounds, my aluminum version (including pedals) was just over 30 pounds. With much of the weight focused in the rear hub motor, the back end had a sluggish feel, especially when pedaling up out of the saddle. Although the bike did have 40c tires, the ride couldn’t be described as especially supple, giving me hesitation on anything more demanding than light gravel paths or the occasional section of smooth singletrack.
It is entirely possible that the lighter, carbon version of the Gain could bring back some of the stoke. Less weight could also improve battery life, as I found myself needed to charge the Gain after the first leg of my commute (typically 15-20 miles with over 1000 feet of climbing) on full power mode.
North St Bags Panniers
North St is no stranger to making durable and attractive bags for cyclists. Based in Portland, OR, the company has been designing and manufacturing bike bags, backpacks and other gear in the Pacific Northwest since 2009. You know your supporting a small company when every bag is handmade to order, making any additional wait time feel well worth it.
Looking for a clean, compact set of bags for the rear rack I opted for the new North St. Micro Pannier. The bags are lightweight at 13.5 oz, yet durable with a waterproof X-PAC construction. The Micro Panniers ended up being a perfect commuter bike solution for carrying around all my essentials including a laptop, chargers, snacks and extra clothing. I also appreciated the external zipper pocket for easy access to smaller items. In retrospect, mounting the bags on the front of the bike would have been a better choice, allowing for more even weight distribution.
For maximum functionality and visibility, two new lights from NiteRider were selected for the front and rear of the bike. The NiteRider Lumina OLED 1200 is packed with useful design features and performs at the level I’ve come to expect from a company dedicated to the craft of bicycle lights. Providing generous lighting for both on and off road, the Lumina is easy to install and swap between bikes. Unique to this model, the OLED part of the name is in reference to the multifunctional display screen that provides information on current light mode and run times, an incredibly useful feature that would now be difficult to live without.
In the back I opted for the NiteRider Sentry Aero 260, a lightweight tail light featuring unique dual LED light strips with an inner and outer lens design. The effect is impressive as you cycle through the various modes to deliver 260 lumens of daylight visible red light. Given its shape the light can be seen from nearly any angle, while not seeming overly bulky. I also like the seatpost strap mount design, and it even includes 2 strap sizes for a variety of seatpost diameters. According to NiteRider, run times are in the range of 4.5 to 30 hours for the Sentry Aero 260.
As a bonus I also included some tire inserts that Tannus sent over, a product they call Tannus Armour. The unique product sits somewhere in between tubeless and airless in the world of bike tire technology. Although a bit skeptical, the idea of skipping a tubeless setup while potentially offering the same tire protection was worth a try. A variety of Armour sizes are available for the appropriate corresponding tire size you are running. In my case I went with the (35-40)-622 given the 700x40c G-ONEs equipped. In addition, a tube also needs to be inserted under the Armour’s curved opening and inflated as you normally would once installed. The installation is a bit more involved than a standard tube setup, but no more challenging than going tubeless. Running the Tannus Armour for several weeks on a variety of conditions I never once had an issue or flat. I often forgot the product was even there, and was able to run tire pressures as if I was running tubeless. Overall the Tannus Armour is an attractive option for pedal assist bikes and potentially other applications where durable, hassle-free solutions are desired.
The Orbea Gain is certainly an impressive step forward for gravel hunting commuters with its well integrated pedal assist interfaces and sleek design. My hope for the experience was to commute more often in less time than I would on a regular bike. Fortunately these expectations were well met with the Gain. What I found a bit lacking however was the freedom and feel of the gravel commuting experience I had grown to love.
If you’re aiming to replace your gravel bike, you might try looking elsewhere. If you’re interested in trading your drivers seat for some light gravel exploring, the Gain is definitely worth a look.