Impressions of some recent gravel bike goodies

Brian Doll
5 min readOct 13, 2021

I recently upgraded my gravel bike and each decision added a lot more joy to my riding. I wanted to share some quick thoughts on various components for those considering these upgrades.

Note, this post is not sponsored in any way, and no links have referral codes, just sharing my honest thoughts here.

My BlackHeart Ti Gravel Bike with Endless Love and Impressive Speed

BlackHeart Titanium Frameset

Just a quick shoutout to the BlackHeart Bike Company for making what has already become the greatest bike I’ve ever owned. (More pics here) I don’t know what it is about the frame, from the tight welds, the gorgeous carbon fork, the “all road” geometry — it just feels exactly right. As they say, it “RAILS on road and RIPS off road.” Yes. Yes it does.

Enve carbon handlebars and stem

On a previous Titanium gravel bike, I had an aluminum handlebar and stem. The bars were too narrow for me though, and the steering was too twitchy. I wanted wider bars for sure, and thought that carbon bars might be a nice bonus. I’d always ridden carbon bars on my mountain bikes, and I know how helpful they are at reducing vibrations. I literally rode into my local bike shop after a particularly harsh descent and upgraded to the Enve carbon bars and stem (their road, but not aero offering, and yes, I was very lucky they were in stock!). The difference was incredible. I had almost ignored the harsh feeling in my hands and painful vibrations, thinking that like this is what gravel bikes feel like, right?

Carbon is the way. I think upgrading to carbon bars and stem is one of the best upgrades you can have on a gravel bike for comfort and ride feel. If you’re on the fence, let me help push you over — go for it! It’s worth it.

Shimano GRX Di2 drivetrain

I was a skeptic and wow was I wrong. Di2 is electronic shifting, but it’s not wireless. It isn’t much lighter, if at all, compared to traditional drivetrains, so what’s the big deal? Well, have you ever driven a fast electric car? Where you push the pedal down, and the car just GOES, 0–60, faster than ever, with no lurching, no shifting, just… goes faster? That’s exactly what Di2 feels like. You push a button, and you’re in another gear. Not a single moment of energy or thought is wasted thinking about or executing a gear shift. You just think about it and it happens. I’d highly recommend a 1x Di2 setup so it’s as effortless as possible. I can’t believe I wanted this long.

OH! And the hoods! I honestly never would have thought to even compare hood shape and design between drivetrains but the GRX brifters (a very lame term meaning “both shifters and break levers”) are fantastic. The texture helps keep you in position on bumpy routes, the hoods are taller, giving you more to hold onto, and the break levers are flattened a bit toward the top, making it WAY easier to break while in the hoods. These are the most ergonomic hoods for gravel by far.

Enve G23 carbon rims on DT-Swiss 240

Holy shit nice wheels are worth it. I have carbon rims on my mountain bike, but have never had carbon wheels on a gravel bike. I wanted something super strong, but I also wanted some compliance… that funny bike term for “don’t make me hurt, please.” Tire pressure is important, tires themselves are important, but yes, you absolutely can feel the sweet subtle beauty of fast, light, sturdy-yet-compliant carbon rims.

Having only ridden these carbon rims on a gravel bike, I can’t compare them to others, but I will say the ride quality of the Enve G23s are everything I’ve wanted out of a set of wheels. They are an absolute dream. The DT-Swiss 240s are incredibly fast, super smooth, and way quiet. I do tend to prefer a noisy hub — I have Industry Nine hubs on my mountain bike — but I’m delighted by the drag-free whoosh that faintly follows these fast rollers.

Wolftooth Oval Chainring (38t)

The best thing I can say about oval (Wolftooth calls them Elliptical) chainrings is that I don’t notice that it’s oval at all, and yet I’m pushing faster than I’d expect to, given the gearing. I have the 38t, which equates to a 40t. It feels like a 38, and I’m traveling faster as if its a 40. It feels like magic, it’s not any more expensive than a round ring, sooooo, get one?

Panaracer GravelKing SK tires

Legendary tires for good reason. They sell a limited edition colorway every year and this year they sold two — a pink and a purple. I bought one of each for my previous bike and was lucky enough to find two pink ones in a midwest bike shop long after they’d sold out for this build. They are a true 38mm tire on these 23mm rims, and I run them with CushCore. They won’t win you any races on pristine tarmac, but many of the paved routes here in Northern California are pretty crap, so the extra cushion and traction is appreciated even on rides with more road sections. I’m incredibly impressed with the cut resistance of these tires too, having bombed down Mt. Tam on them many times, encountering lots of sharp rocks following questionable line choices.

Aftershokz Aeropex

I spotted a few local riders wearing these recently and had to find out what they were. Aftershokz are “bone-conducting” headphones. They play audio by vibrating your temples, basically. They are silent to those riding with you, and your ears are fully open to hear all the sounds around you. But you still get to hear some tunes or a podcast (or take a cheeky phone call) while you’re out on the bike. I read a ton of reviews and some said that folks feel an odd sensation with bass-heavy music or get sore ears after long exposure. I haven’t had any of those issues. I adore my AirPod Pros but they easily slip out when I’m active, are a pain to clean after they get sweaty, the ear-hook attachments for them are all terrible, and even with Transparency Mode on, still block too much ambient sound for use on a bike.

If you want to play some tunes while you ride, while still paying attention to what’s happening around you so you can avoid bad things happening, these are pretty great. They hold in place incredibly well, they sound pretty good, and are easy enough to adjust with gloves on (volume up knobs are easy to operate once you get the hang of them). I love ‘em.

Thanks for reading. Let’s ride!



Brian Doll

I’m a story-driven marketer, a technology-infused strategist, and an entrepreneurial executive.