Sunday, March 15, 2020

Gravel Bike Shopping

Last post was 29 April 2019.  If I get this in I can kill another hour of coronavirus down-time and beat the year mark.

Don't be Grevil.

And last new bike was the Focus Paralane, more than 18 months ago now.  That may be a record for me.  (Last new bike if you don't count the Litespeed, which I built with a gifted frameset (thanks, Sam) and Di2 group from the original Focus Cayo Evo.

The collection

With some of the collection sold off and other parts donated, although there is still an obnoxiously large number of bikes in my basement, I am down to the following near-daily riders:
  • Focus Izalco Max Disc.  This has proved to be the perfect smooth-surface road bike and even handles packed gravel with aplomb.  Best recent ride is 180 miles in from Cumberland on the towpath, though that was a while ago now.
  • Focus Paralane.  This was supposed to be a gravel bike but has become the favored daily driver.  It rides really nicely and handles 35mm tires, perfect for the urban commute.  
  • Salsa Colossal Ti.  This was my first crack at an all-road bike.  With 30mm tire clearance, it is not up to par for modern expectations, but it does ride really nicely on varied surfaces and lets me run 75 pounds of pressure.  I have wanted to sell, but there isn't the market for a lovely titanium frameset that I think there should be - Lynsky's constant sales surely aren't helping! - so I keep it as a backup.  This may take up residence in Sam's garage if he'll permit it.
  • Specialized Fatboy.  Can't believe we never blogged these, but one day while window-shopping in Durango CO I came across a "end of quick release" sale on fatbikes and bought three.  Sam has one, P__ and I have the others.  It's loads of fun for winter commuting.  I still want to rebuild it with drop bars.
  • The Gitane.  This is a Bianchi brand now, and just a cheap steel frameset with horizontal ends for the rear wheel.  I have it built with a single speed, cantilever brakes, front basket, Brooks saddle, and those funky bars Velo-Orange sells. I don't love it but it does work for groceries and c. and it reliably gets nods of approvals riding around town.  I think it looks kind of Euro, et je pense que c'est bien.
  • The Litespeed.  This is the C1R built with a hodge-podge of Ultegra Di2 parts and a Force 1x crank, for 1x11 speed gearing.  Well, I haven't actually ridden this yet, but I mean to soon.*
*Litespeed: It was a storied titanium bike.  Then it went all in on aero carbon.  Now all it sells is titanium.  There's a leopard analogy in here somewhere. 

Before you criticize, note that I don't really drive a car.  So na-na-na.  Though I am the one who noted a while back that n+1 may actually NOT be the right number of bikes.

The search

Anyway, I'm looking for a new bike.  A full on gravel bike.  This is what both the Salsa and the Paralane were intended to be, but at 30mm and 35mm tires respectively, neither clearing 650b at much larger, neither of those fits the bill for truly loose dirt, mud, or single-track riding.

Full on gravel has a few sub-segments:
  • Nutty over-the top bike-packing with braze-ons for 5 or more cages (or other things).  Like this one from Mason Bikes (UK).  Somebody, maybe Mason, coined the name "Continent Crusher" for these bikes.  Sounds cool.  Maybe one day I will crush a continent.  That will have to be n+2 for me, however.
That mudguard is structural, which helps for supporting a saggy load.
  • Steel or perhaps titanium heavy duty rigs.  These are the kind of bikes Surly produces, which nobody would mistake for lightweight or fast but which can be thrown (literally) in the back of a pickup and look none the worse for it.  The picture is the Surly StragglerMarin's Nicasio and All City's Gorilla Monsoon fit here too.  These are of the hard-tail-mountain-frameset-with-drop-bars-variety.  What I love about these is that they can credibly claim to have been doing gravel long before anybody thought the thing was cool.
One of the cooler tag-lines in the market: "Crushing gravel since 1976."

I have admired the aggressive road geometry wide tire sub-segment the most.  That segment is increasingly competitive, with the original - the 3T Exploro; the OPEN line-up; some small local brands - e.g., Rodeo Labs; as well as offerings from an increasing number of the grand tour brands.

One thing this road geometry crowd offers is a fit that matches the Focus Izalco in my collection (stack - 584, reach - 405, currently 2cm of spacers).  It is rare to find an off-road capable bike with a reach dimension greater than 400mm, but all of the below have it, and though stack is a little greater than a pure road machine one can slam the stem and get an aggressive sit.

3T Exploro

3T created this sub-segment with the Exploro.

This is the Team Force 1 eTap offering with a mountain RD and 11-50 cassette.
3T has some relationship with Gerard Vroomen, the guy who designed Cervelos back in the day and invented that teardrop bar shape that revolutionized aero-bikes.  (Maybe he owns the company?) I have a soft spot for Vroomen creations - my most competitive riding was on a Cervelo P2 - and like the look of that 3T.  In addition to the Exploro, 3T's Strada - an aero road bike made for comfortable tire sizes - is one of the cooler bikes on the market.

Despite its category leader status, the 3T Exploro prices in the range of not insane at the top end.  The eTap 1x12 build, which includes a massive range cassette (11-50) and a Sram Eagle XX1 RD, lists at $5800.  It also clears larger tires than most, up to 54mm.

Cervelo Aspero

Cervelo landed with this offering in 2019. 
Love that olive paint scheme.

It follows in the 3T Exploro tradition of a go-fast bike that happens to handle rough roads.  Reports are that it may be a touch harsh on the backside - but isn't that what 50mm tires are for?  Like every major brand offering, Cervelo offers a number of build options, but unlike Burger King you get what they offer and not what you want.  So if you want 650b wheels, you buy Sram eTap or Shimano GRX, but if you want GRX 2x11 or Sram Apex you get 700c wheels. 

To Cervelo's credit the top end - Force AXS eTap - comes in at $6000.  Not cheap in anybody's book, but for a top spec gravel bike it's in the range of fair, even if it outprices 3T.  (I suppose you could run Red AXS eTap, if you were silly.)

This bike is hot.  Cervelo dealers are out of two things:
  • The most attractive model (eTap), and 
  • the better colors (Burgandy, Olive).  
This one is possible at a cool $4200 plus sales tax.  Not sure anybody not Italian should be selling off-green paint schemes, however.

GRX-1 build with 650b wheelset.  Also carbon bars and dropper post.


I've never thought of myself as a Pinarello guy any more than I see myself driving a Ferrari.

OTOH, if everybody else is riding a Cervelo, wouldn't this make me unique?

Tagline:  "All roads are rideable - and also, quickly."  Continent crusher my ass.

Sam and I have had a debate running for years whether it is economical to buy parts and build a bike (rather than buying fully built).  The intuition is that builders get lower prices on groups and finishing kit than we do.  The data has frequently seemed to suggest that maybe the intuition is right - it is generally easy to find a carbon frame, Ultegra build, for $2500, when the frame itself is $1500 and the parts another $1500 (including wheels, post, saddle, cockpit - and group). 

But pricing this out here I find the following at Merlin. 
Add in $500 for wheels and tires from Hunt, a saddle, and bar tape.  $4000 for a top-spec build?
I haven't looked carefully, but $10 says for another thousand - so $5K total - I could build the Grevil running with Sram AXS eTap.

Not going to lie - I'm tempted.  If I get another post up within the next year I can say what I ended up with.  If anything at all, that is. 



sam said...

You've got to get 4,000 miles in before I'm allowed to let you buy that Pinarello! I gotta say that's a tempting price though. On the other hand you could pick up that Merlin Malt-G1X for only $311!

For some reason I can't put my finger on, it makes me think of the GT Grade.

I'm seeing the Exploro Pro Rival for $3700. That seems compelling. Not a premium build.

You're right, this space has gotten very busy.

Max said...

The Exploro is the Grade analog. That triangle at the seat post insert looks like the three-triangle design GT can't let go of. Pinarello reminds me of a bad bat-mobile prototype. But maybe bad in a good way?

I'm with you on the Rival 1 build as a credible alternative. That just seems a little steep considering that it will be less than a year before I am trying to upgrade. There is also the problem that the Rival build is a 700c wheelset offering. Odd note about the Rival 1 option - Merlin is selling that at a price premium, for $4020. With Merlin a UK retailer and 3T from Canada, I wonder if this is a question of tariffs on bikes from North America?

Since I'm at Merlin, there's an Eddy Merckx offering at Merlin with *Force 1* for just over $2000. It's more of a classic gravel sit, though, with a shorter 388mm reach in XL.

What's eating me is that I'm pretty sure I'll rue anything I buy with an eye to future improvement. Which argues for scraping together the nearly $6K for the Cervelo or 3T (or another, though Trek and Specialized bore me).

Max said...
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