Sunday, May 10, 2020

Exploro 3T - A Second Take

Among reviews worth reading at the Huffman Bicycle Club, Max' take on the 3T Exploro is surely near the top. As usual I'm a day (or ten) late and a dollar (or a bunch of dollars) short. Regardless I'm here now.

Max and I have long been in search of the perfect bicycle. Ride fast, do everything, go everywhere, carry anything. Oh, and cost, well, not too much. That particular white whale has seen both of us spend too much money on bikes that don't quite achieve the desired aims.

Is the 3T Exploro the culmination of this quest? Or just another rung on the ladder?

In this review I'll be talking largely about the bike as delivered, understanding that the owner can (and should!) tailor it to their needs.

First Impressions

My first couple rides on the Exploro have been a mix of pavement, chip-seal, and gravel/dirt.

The WTB Venture tires are quiet and roll on their center tread very nicely. 2" of rubber smooth out the rough roads quite well. On a sharp corner you can feel the side knobs a bit. Not the end of the world, but definitely not as confidence inspiring as a road oriented tire. But then it's not a road oriented tire.

Hit the gravel and the bike is great. The tires track well and traction is plentiful. I have no complaints. If the Focus Paralane was a 95% road bike and 50% gravel bike, I'd say the 3T matches it on the road but comes darn close to a great gravel bike. I say that having never ridden a great gravel bike, so...

Is it perfect? No. On gravel the bike suffers for lack of a dropper post on steeper gravel descents. Lowering the center of gravity a bit and allowing the rider to get behind the saddle can make a big difference in descending confidence. On pavement the cornering issue on stock tires detracts from perfection, as does gearing that has the rider spinning out way too early.

In short? Bike good. Not perfect.


3T markets the Exploro as:

Exploro: The world's only full-aero gravel bike
I'm far from an expert here, but I have been watching this space for years. I'm inclined to believe that the 3T Exploro has taken the idea of aero gravel a bit further than other gravel bikes. It has also taken wins at a number of prominent gravel races, so that alone speaks highly of its abilities.

In my rides thus far, comparing it to my other bikes, I feel like I'm giving up very little in terms of speed. This contrasts with, for example, my Pinnacle Arkose which rides nicely but subjectively feels sluggish. Whether that's down to the "Sqaero" tubing, the tires, or a sense of obligation to make the investment a good one is unknown at this time.

Fat Tires?

For years we were limited to 700x25 due to traditional road bike restrictions. 700x28 only if you were lucky and could find tires that ran a little small. To go bigger than that required compromises like cantilever brakes and tires more suitable to a mountain bike than a road bike.

No longer. Disc brakes, 650B wheels, and an emphasis on tire sidewalls have allowed us to have big, fast tires. Thankfully the Exploro's geometry has been designed with this in mind. Mine arrived with 700x2.0 WTB Venture front and rear. 3T claim that they can fit 54mm. I see no need to go larger than what came on the bike.

I do think that a set of Rene Herse 650x48 Switchback Hills are in my future.

Single Ring?

In the old days of 2 chainrings and 9 cogs, realistically you might have 12 or 13 gears considering the overlap. We've now got 12-speed drivetrains with a single chainring. Amazing.

The 3T Exploro is available with a front derailleur but it's also available without. Max' and my bikes are of the latter variety, with a 44T chainring and a comical 11-50 tooth cog.
44T chainring and 11-50T cassette
This is an interesting combination. For "gravel grinding" it's probably great. For road riding, not so much. The cogs are spaced at 11,13,15,17,19,22,25,28,32,36,42,50. Bikecalc did the math:

My preferred cadence is closer to 70RPM, which puts me around 22.5MPH for a maximum comfortable speed. I'm not going to claim that I ride at that speed everywhere I go, but it is a bit limiting to feel like you've spun out in the low 20s. Not to mention at this end of the cassette it's a big jump from 11T to 13T. A reasonable cruising speed of 21MPH requires an uncomfortable cadence whether I'm on the 11T or the 13T. In rides thus far I've found myself hunting quite a bit for the 12T, but no matter how hard I try I can't find it.

For road use a 48T chainring in conjunction with a tighter range cassette is likely in order. To that end I've acquired an XG-1270 cassette with a 10-33 range to put on a 700c with a 40mm tire. I'll try that first, and then if necessary bump up to a 48T chainring. The bikecalc results are shown below.

So single ring? Yes. Perfect gearing? Definitely no, not out of the box. But I think this can be remedied.

Electric Shift?

I'm a fan of electric shifting. To be more specific, I really like the eTap system. I'm not a huge fan of Di2 just because the installation is a pain.

The advantages of eTap are myriad, not least of which is the quickly swappable batteries. Anyway, this bike has electric shifting, which is awesome, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

What's Missing?

Dropper Post

For what 3T charges for this bike, it should be a no-compromises perfect bike. As a recreational mountain biker, I think the Exploro should include a dropper post. A well implemented dropper post on this bike would blow the segment wide open.

Here in the Pacific Northwest our "gravel rides" are logging roads that go up and over mountain passes, and then down. Very, very quickly. I've ridden gravel roads on the Focus Paralane that exceeded 25%. On a road bike geometry there is a very real risk of going over the bars. Braking goes hand-in-hand with praying to your deity of choice.

A dropper post would go a long way toward resolving this. Decades ago hard core mountain bikers derided dropper posts, but now all but the cheapest mountain bikes come with one standard. I probably adjust my dropper more than I shift gears. It's not as critical on a gravel bike, but it would really set the Exploro aside from the competition.


This is undoubtedly subjective, but to my eyes the 3T Exploro is garish. I have a peculiar sense of what the perfect bike looks like, and it looks an awful lot like my original Titanium Habanero "Century Special".

Small-diameter tubing, level top-tube. 32- or 36-spoke Open Pro rims. Treadless avocet Fasgrip tires. Double crank, ideally in 53/42 and a corn-cob cassette. To my eyes that styling is the Datsun 240z of bikes.
If the Century Special is a 240z, the 3T Exploro is a Civic Type R. Lots of go-fast bits. A gauche paint job. Some ... bulbous ... design cues. But without question the superior machine.
It's no Habanero
It's no Datsun 240z
Interestingly the 3T Exploro reminds me of another of my obnoxious bikes, the Litespeed Ci2.
Separated at birth?
I like both. But beautiful they are not.


It's hardly fair to compare the 3T Exploro with it's massive tires to my more svelte bikes. But configured as shown below the Exploro weighs in at a rather portly 21 pounds, 6 oz.

This makes it a fair sight heavier than the 19 pound Focus Paralane, the 18 pound 12 oz. Litespeed or the 18 pound 15 oz. TiCycles. All in "ready to ride" livery. That said, there's weight savings all over the place on this bike.


So this happened.

For once this wasn't my fault. Tightening the seatpost clamp as required chipped the paint. I'll have to get some fingernail polish to keep this from chipping further. It's disappointing on a $6000 bicycle.

Also disappointing is that this was necessary at all; the seatpost mechanism is unnecessarily fiddly; somehow every other manufacturer makes do with one or two bolts on the seat-tube, but 3T found it necessary to add a complicated four-piece fastener. Why?

Fiddly too is the rear derailleur. It's held on by the rear axle, which means when you change wheels the rear derailleur falls off. Easy to put back on, not a huge problem, but I've never seen it before and it strikes me as an odd choice.

The Exploro has two mounting spots for bottles or other, and mounting atop the top tube for a bag. That's pretty great, but there's not a particularly good way to mount any frame bags or fenders. For touring purposes one will have to turn to Revelate Designs.

It's not shown in the pictures, but for an aero bike the bars don't have great mounting options for aero-bars. I suspect there's a solution here, but it may require some creativity.


This has been a meandering review. For that I apologize, but there's a lot to cover.

In my opinion the 3T Exploro is an outstanding bike with a few flaws. For fast riding on all surfaces, it excels. For touring it leaves a bit to be desired. It will take a few changes to the gearing to make it a great road bike, but that's a reasonable compromise given the differing needs of gravel and road.

I can see this bike as a long-term member of my fleet. I'll keep the Litespeed as my "poor man's Venge Lunch Race". The Pinnacle Arkose stays for rainy day duty. If I ever ride another brevet, the Habanero touring bike is the likely choice for that. But for long weekend adventure rides, the 3T Exploro should be just right.

The 3T Exploro is not, for me, a one-bike quiver. But it does fill out the four-bike road quiver quite nicely.


Max said...

Nice review. I think you hit the pluses and minuses quite well. Interesting that I think I'm more sold on the bike all around - I'm even tempted to keep *three* sets of wheels and unload other bikes.

The chip just sucks. I had another one (in addition to the fork crown) at the rear derailler mount. So I am prepared to assess: paint job is too delicate. Not exactly cutting edge tech to get paint to hold.

Seatpost: there are dropper options in this segment. Both Rodeo Labs and Cervelo are offering them. Serious question - could we commission one? Get a precise measure of the specs on this post, have some aluminum metal rods made to those specs from Alibaba, buy some used droppers to investigate the innards, and try to replicate them for the particular profile on the imported rods. Would it work?

Weight: this is odd to me, and a little frustrating. Our "Team" frameset and this build have more carbon than you can shake a stick at. The 1230 cassette is unconscionably heavy - you will cut a full pound when you change to the 1270. According to Fulcrum, the wheelset is 1670 gms., not exactly heavy (though still 150-200 gms higher than a carbon set from Hunt). If you swap those tires as you indicated, you are saving nearly 200gms *per* - another full pound. So without much effort you are riding a sub-19 pound bike. All for the bargain price of $6000 plus another $500 aftermarket!

Mount options: this is very much the fundamental question of whether you want a single day go-fast bike or a multi-day rig, I think. One could replace the fork with the Rodeo Labs Spork 3.0 (another $500+ after market!). But this is still designed for a bikepacking loading style, not a front rack.

sam said...

My hunch is the economics of making a dropper for a non-standard seatpost just aren't there. There's already a serious decrease in reliability and increase in price as you move from 31.6 to 30.9 down to 27.2, and that's from name-brand manufacturers. I gather part of the issue is just not enough air volume/pressure.

Really for a gravel bike you're looking to adjust the height a half dozen times on a ride, not 50+ on a typical mountain bike ride. For that a traditional quick release would work well enough and would weigh a fraction of what a dropper weighs. But when you look at the width of the seatpost on the 3T, and then imagine the width of a tube sliding within that tube, that's just too narrow to be workable.

You're right on the weight saving opportunities. It's definitely unfair to compare a bike in full gravel dress to a road bike. Heck from a quick check even the tubes it comes with are stout. I'd guess another 100G from going tubeless. The 3T Discus claims to be 1630 and for real road work a set of C24s with 700x35s is getting downright svelte. I'll be curious to compare to a road configuration on 700c wheels.

I definitely think the bike is a keeper Half the problem is just that it's a better bike than I am a rider!