Gravel bikes are now a thing. But then again, gravel bikes have always been a thing, even before there was any other kind of bike. Once upon a time, all roads were gravel and bikes rode on gravel, so they were gravel bikes. But then again, those truly good old days were before the blight of cars. Now days, gravel roads are the last frontier of relative peace from the bogan car terrorists who are more dangerous to we cyclists than a swimming pool full of Taipan snakes all riled up and ready to strike. Which is why, I guess gravel bikes are once again, a thing. People love the idea of taking to ‘roads less travelled’ to reconnect to cycling with a minimum of swimming with tin-top-Taipans.
Not to worry, I am enjoying this latest attempt to repackage something we always had into something ‘new’ and ‘big’. This marketing push is, at last, delivering a great and growing supply of tyres and related bits that were otherwise always hard to get.
The first point to make about gravel grinding is that gravel grinding can be done with mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, touring bikes or even road bikes with bullet proof tyres. it has always been thus. However, riding gravel roads on cyclocross bikes (real ones, as in ready to race) is an exercise in dedicated fortitude and the heroic overlooking of pain. Just bounce down a 20km bumpy descent and you will soon know about wrist pain and Martini stomach (shaken, and stirred). It can be fun but it is rarely comfortable. But much more comfortable than trying the same on a road bike! At the other extreme, mountain biking on gravel roads is an exercise in overkill. Comfy for those declines but way too ponderously slow and heavy for all those sealed road bits that tend to interrupt just about all gravel road routes. Taking a mountain bike on a long gravel road ride is like touring in a truck. You can do it but it’s not a holiday. Riding a touring bike on gravel rides is the traditional approach and is just the thing if you want to carry bags; more sensible than riding a road bike and less obese than riding a mountain bike, but much more road bike than cyclocross. Touring bikes love long, slow trips on the tar.
Which brings us to the very definition of a gravel bike. I am definitely not going to evoke the word ‘hybrid’ here. Gravel bikes, by definition, are designed, ground up, for riding on gravel roads. Using a mountain bike on a gravel road is a hybrid activity. Riding a road bike on a gravel road is a hybrid activity. Gravel bikes have geometry that is definitively purpose-designed for gravel roads. The seat and head angles are a touch more relaxed than on a road bike, and a cyclocross bike, but no where near as relaxed as a mountain bike. Chain stay lengths are also longer than on most road bikes (but not as much as on a mountain bike). Bottom brackets are higher than on a road bike but closer to the ground than on a typical cyclocross bike. The closest bike to a gravel bike, geometry wise, is an endurance road bike, but with more endurance built-in. Depending on the gravel road we are riding, it’s probably reasonable to propose that a dedicated cyclocross bike will be faster than a gravel bike. My Giant TCX Advanced SL is a weapon on the dirt, but after a fast extended ride, you do need a rest. But if I put some heavy Gatorskin tyres on my Giant TCR, I’d still be riding sometime into next week on an otherwise two hour ride. And have broken wrists for the rest of the month. I can also ride my favourite gravel routes on my outrageously up-specced ultralight hardtail KTM mountain bike. That’s generally as fast as most gravel bikes but the ride feels … fat.
For years, and years, and for years some more, I have used either my Pinarello CX or my Giant TCX cyclocross bikes for gravel road rides. Its fun, satisfying and spectacularly free of cars and their often psychopathic drivers. Plus, by way of context, I should claim that I live in a place where gravel roads are the only option I have if I ever want to ride in nice big loops. Eighty per cent of my local roads are unsealed. I live in rural Australia on a sheep station where the closest town is an hour’s ride by the only sealed through-road I have access to.
About two years ago, we started hearing murmers about ‘gravel bikes’ from the US of A. That ‘thing’ has now become a ‘thing’ here in Australia, mostly since the start of 2016. Now we are hearing about gravel grinding everywhere. For the first time ever, we have had gravel grinder reviews in both of Australia’s main road bike magazines (Bicycling Australia and Ride). The US magazines are full of reviews of this kind. Even mountain bike magazines are starting to report on gravel grinder bikes – sometimes without apology. We are on a wave! At last.
Let me pick on a prime example of the new genre of gravel grinders now surfing this new marketing wave. The Niner RLT (available in an aluminium and in steel versions, with the heavier steel version commanding top spot in terms of price and prestige). This is a bike without pretensions to racing (but could be raced in cyclocross if you want), and is festooned with bottle cage mounts and places for bikepacking bags. I had the Niner steel RLT on order when it was released here in Australia, back in late November 2016. But I changed my mind at the 11th hour, as we shall see below.
Now every bike company has a gravel grinder in their catalogues. Even Wilier! Trek, Norco, Canondale, Ridley and Specialised all have grinders available right now. Giant has yet to jump, and no doubt will for the next (2018) model year. Some makers are pretty obscure but bespoke and dedicated to the cause: Curve cycles from Australia and Lightspeed offer models love-crafted from titanium, Salsa offers one in steel, as does Cube. Some makers are trying to get away with re-badging their cyclocross bikes to join the cause (Santa Cruz’s Stigmata is otherwise a pretty standard cyclocross bike and is, really, the Norco Search).
And then came Gerard Vroomen. On selling up Cervelo, this master of tri-bike design set up an intentionally small scale bike company called Open and launched the rather revolutionary UP (Unbeaten Path). This carbon bike was a step sidewards and even more purposefully forwards for riders who wanted to ride fast on gravel roads. Because, just as gravel grinding has become a ‘thing’ so too has gravel racing, as exemplified by the outstandingly high profile Dirty Kanza race in the USA. This bright orange Open UP is the bike to have if you want to win a gravel road race or just ride flat out, just because you can. The UP has been around for a year. But Vroomen was restless and also invested in the legacy Italian bike parts company, 3T. Like Open, 3T has never made a bike before (and that company has been around since the 1960’s, making, in my view, the world’s nicest racing bike handlebars, stems, and associated bits). Vroomen’s first swim in the 3T pool resulted in the Exploro, the world’s first aero gravel bike. (Aero is now, it seems, a ‘thing’ within the ‘thing’ of gravel bikes). Launched in Tuscany in mid 2016, the Exploro is unique, even against the Open UP, despite these two bikes sharing a common design heritage and template. The Exploro has set up camp at the epicentre of Gravel Racing; a remarkably high-key launch and statement from a company without a previous bike on its books, but nonetheless with a storied heritage in high end carbon master-crafting for the pro-end of road cycling. This is not exactly sneaking a new product onto the market place! This is launching a rocket from a place where no rocket has ever emerged before. Its a bit like Jamaica getting a manned mission to Mars before the USA, China and Russia even knew they were in the game.
While everyone is talking about the Exploro as the world’s first aero gravel bike, the more relevant conversation is to note that the Exploro is the first gravel bike designed to go really, really fast. In fact, 3T downplays the gravel bike association and up-plays the notion of ‘Gravel Plus’. While the massive ‘sqaero’ tubes are distinctive enough, its the intentionality of designing this bike to go fast on gravel roads that matters most; the squared off trailing edges of the Exploro’s down and seat tubes are Vroomen’s response to that design brief, along with the wonderfully massive, stiff, and versatile BB386 bottom bracket, as seen on such illustrious road racing bikes as the Wilier Zero.7 and Merida Scultura. The Exploro is the gravel bike a pathological roadie would want and that is where this design brief is pitched.
The 3T Exploro is a design pitched to roadies wanting to do fast loops but frustrated when gravel roads get in the way. This is the bike that allows roadies to keep on going when the sealed roads run out. Or to roadies, like me, who are sick and tired of tin top tossers intent on abusing us off their precious sealed roads. The Exploro is the world’s best-named bike. This is a bike for roadies wanting to explore at the faster pace they like best. It’s a bike that eliminates the traditional dichotomy of road bike geometry and gravel road capability. That is the essence of ‘Gravel Plus’. Unlike just about every other gravel bike (except its first cousin, the Open UP), the Exploro has the same geometry you’d find on a Giant TCR or a Wilier Zero.7. It rides like a high-end road bike. On the road. But it also rides like a bespoke gravel grinder on the dirt. How Vroomen pulled is off is evident when you take a look at the chain stays. The drive side stay is kind of bent! Way bent. Seriously, differently bent. Just like on the Open UP. By being so bent, it was possible to pull off the other major magic trick: to accommodate big fat tyres.
Gravel Plus is all about versatility in wheels and tyres. The frame is designed to accommodate both 700c and 650B wheelsets. The 700c (aka 29er) wheels can carry tyres up to 42mm wide (which is wider than most cyclocross bikes can fit). The 650B wheels can accommodate tyres up to 2.1inches. But here is the thing. A 700c wheelset with 40mm tyres will present the same geometry settings as the 650B wheels with those 2.1 inch mountain bike tyres. The bike feels like it was made for either or both. But the ride across both wheel/tryre options opens up a vastly wider horizon for places you can ride without feeling any kind of compromise.
As I was getting all excited about the Niner RLT, I found a launch report for the Exploro 3T ( http://granfondo-cycling.com/3t-exploro-first-ever-aero-gravel-bike/ ). On the day my new RLT was designed to ship, I changed my mind and ordered the 3T via the ever patient Mark Bullen of Armidale Bicycle Centre. Which does not suggest that I think less of the Niner, but reflects the hook the 3T presents to an obsessed roadie like me. If you don’t fancy remodelling your roadie habits of speed and taking your bike (and yourself) to the limit, the 3T is the design for just that kind of fix. I have tried hard over the years to adopt a more civilised leisurely pace for my rides. But Strava keeps calling and frustrations keep mounting whenever I try to enter the gentle nobility of touring speed. It’s not that I am fast; but I am habitually connected to road cycling via a thirty year habit that’s going to be hard to break. Thanks to the 3T Exploro, I don’t have to and my local Council’s eccentric notions of road maintenance can recede on my scale of things that cause me grief. The Exploro is the antidote to manically incompetent road maintenance and neglect. A cause our local council considers to be its grand crusade.
The Exploro is only available as a frameset. Which is a shame! Even more so considering that comes from master bike component maker, 3T. I can’t begin to imagine the logic behind this particular marketing plan. Especially considering the fact that 3T launched two wheelsets custom designed for the Exploro at the same time: the Discus 700c and 650B. Then there are the 3T Erganova bars and ARX stems. They even make a stunning line of handlebar tape! Indeed, it is possible to set up your Exploro frame with 3T parts for everything other than the drive train (and even then, they make what is probably the world’s best crankset, under their THM brand). But I guess Mr Vroomen wanted to maximise the options we might like to consider. Even if, like me, you’d rather the factory made the choices for us from the start. Not to worry, my Exploro is dressed in 3T from beginning to end (except for bottle cages, which look like they’d spill a bottle out on the road after the first bump; so I got some Scott Syncros cages instead). All of which did not remove the necessity to agonise over what kind of drive train to install or tyres to fit. At it’s launch in Tuscany, the Exploro was kitted out in just about everything; 2 by 11, 1 by 11, Shimano or SRAM. I chose SRAM 1 by 11 but with the more constrained but polite 11 to 36 rear cluster as opposed to the 10 – 42 I’ve got on all my mountain bikes. I figured the gaps would be too big when riding on fast roads with dinner plate gears installed. I also opted for SRAM Red levers rather than Force. My cranks are Force because there is no Red yet for one by cranks. And my derailleur is also a Force but mid cage for the tighter cluster I have installed (I figured I’d be hitting fewer rocks with a shorter derailleur cage). I also opted for the mid range carbon 700c Discus wheels and the aluminium only 650B Pro’s. For rubber, I went for the WTB Horizon 47’s that 3T is promoting by association in all its advertising and as per most of the reviews I have seen. A great choice! These are super special tyres (47mm fat slicks set up as tubeless; they float over bumps almost like a fully suspended mountain bike!). Here in Australia, rubber is going to be a real pain for a while. Almost no one carries 700 x 40mm gravel road-specific tyres (like the Maxis Nano). And no one carries or says they ever intend to carry the WTB Horizon 47’s. So it’s going to be internet ordering for a while until wheels like these take greater hold in our local market place. The other big choice is between the Exploro LTD or the Team. The white Team is the cheaper and heavier frame at 1200 grams. The LTD is in black and weights 950 grams via higher modulus carbon and a different layup. The Team frame costs a massive $4,000 here in Australia and the LTD an eye watering $6,000. Which translates to around $15,000 or a fully set up Exploro LTD and $13,000 for the Team. This is Wilier Zero.6/Pinarello Dogma F8 territory.
So how does it ride?
Like nothing else I have ever ridden. But you have to open your mind to a wider horizon than you might have ever considered before in order to appreciate a bike like this. Gravel Plus really is a Thing. To riding on the dirt, Gravel Plus is like Colour to Black and White. Together with a 60 inch wide-screen TV vs. watching an epic on your iPhone. For bumpy, poorly maintained gravel roads, the fat 650B wheels are akin to riding a mountain bike with speed-unlimited electric assist. These wheels float this bike over washboard and potholes akin to a fully suspended XC bike that managed to loose half its weight. My ultra exotic Scott Spark 900 SL weighs in at 9.5kg, so I have an interesting benchmark to compare. My 3T Exploro LTD is just a touch over 7kg! On our lousy local roads, this Exploro is an impossible cross between the dynamics of a seriously top end XC racing bike and the nimble perfections of a super light climber’s road bike. On roads with a greater mix between sealed and dirt, the 700c wheelset transforms this bike into something like a pro-level road bike wearing hard case Continental Gatorskin tyres. While the road-dressed Exploro will never match a pure climbing bike like the Giant TCR in the hills, it is very akin to the dynamics of, say, a Giant Propel but with a vastly more compliant ride.
On the dirt, a gravel road-dressed Exploro will never be as fast as a dedicated pro-level cyclocross bike (like the Giant TCX). But, once again, it is vastly more comfortable and almost as fast.
Which leads to the final dimension of the 3T Exploro to discuss. This next bit is, for me, the killer that makes it all totally the right bike for me. The 3T Exploro is, quite possibly, the world’s greatest fast bikepacking machine. And yes, bikepacking is also, now, a ‘thing’. Bikepacking is the new new of touring with your gear. Unlike touring around with unwieldy and heavy panniers, bike packing involves the insertion of bags within and on a frame. Packs are fitted under the seat, within the main frame and on your handlebars. The intention is for the accommodation of light weight gear and touring at a faster than traditional touring pace. Yes, there are also bike-packing races on the agenda these days! Like, for example, racing the US Great Divide (from Canada to Mexico along the Great Divide route). With its traditional large triangle frame, the 3T Exploro is ready for any bikepacking crusade. Now you can hope on your bike and fast pace your way from coast to coast, or simply to the coast via a few days camping out.
In terms of engineering and features, some highlights include the standard inclusion of a 15mm through axle at the front and a 12mm at the rear. The rear axle set up is very unusual. It’s a straight bolt that needs to be tightened with an allen key. The thread enters the rear drop out but that drop out comes off once you take the axle out; it’s intended to and takes the rear derailleur off along with it. This makes changing the wheel rather easy when the bike is upside down as it would be when fixing a flat on the road. But it is a fiddly mess if you are attempting to deal with the dangling derailleur when the bike is on a work stand. I have a suspicion that the frame mount for the hanger might get a touch rounded with lots of these hanger on-off antics over time. What do you do then? Replace the frame?
The seat post is, let us say, idiocentric. The seat post tightening bolt is accessed from underneath the top tube via a hole that requires a long allen key bit for your torque wrench. The bolt pulls two wedges together onto a third wedge in between them. That middle wedge pushes out onto the seat post the more you do up the bolt (to a recommended 9NM!!). The only problem here is that as you undo this seat post bolt, it tends to keep on going until it touches the inside of the top tube, getting tighter and tighter against that tube the more you undo the bolt. So, rather unusually, it’s possible to keep on loosening that bolt via ever higher torque until the frame cracks! Which my first frame did… If your torque wrench works both ways, you might be thinking you are doing up the bolt when in fact you are enroute to destroying your frame. 3T has picked up on this and now offers a warning sheet with the frame to recommend extreme caution when loosening the bolt. The post itself is a zero offset job with an infinite rotational adjustment at the top for your seat angle. This frame needs a zero offset post as the top tube is relatively longer than whatever is usually standard for each frame size, thus bringing your reach back under control. This all works really well. You are advised to select a frame via the reach and stack height specs you’d usually choose for your road bike. Mine is a L and has the same geometry as my M/L Giant TCR, Propel and size L Wilier Zero.7 frames. Riding the new Exploro feels like being at home.
Frame quality seems right up there which is reassuring because the whole thing is made in … Vietnam. It seems someone has built a world class carbon moulding plant in that country and is applying serious quality control. I do confess that seeing a ‘Made in Vietnam’ sticker on the bottom of the ultra weirdly shaped bottom bracket caused me some real anxieties considering the stratospheric cost of this frame.
My last observation is to wonder if there ever been a more versatile bike than this!!!??? It’s rides like a pro-racing road bike on the road and and like an unimaginably comfortable CX bike on the dirt. And it’s all set up for a ride around the globe, if that’s your thing.
And finally, according to that Australian 3T distributor, my Exploro is the first one sold in Australia which makes Armidale Bicycle Centre the first 3T bike retailer in the country! This also means that this review is the first for Australia as well. Here’s hoping all this bleeding edge pioneering stuff won’t backfire before the Exploro market inevitably takes hold. I cannot imagine a country more suited to a super fast gravel bike than this. Where else are there so many unsealed roads in such astoundingly poor condition, all primed for the retro-revelations of Gravel Grinding 2.0.