3T Exploro Aero Gravel Bike Ride Impressions
In addition to our piece on the 3T Exploro aero gravel bike earlier this week, the Internet has been alight the past few days with news…and plenty of comments…about this bike that blends two seemingly distant facets of cycling: aerodynamics and gravel riding. While I must admit I had never used those two words in a sentence before last week, we shouldn’t rush judgment or make too many comments, good or bad.
The Quick Skinny
Before I get into my initial ride impressions, let’s review what the 3T Exploro is, exactly. As the title of this post suggests, the bike is indeed an ‘aero gravel’ bike. Gerard Vroomen recently became one of the two major stakeholders in the 3T company, which had been a component-only company until this bike was unveiled. Vroomen has worked magic with Cervelo, and more recently he’s been involved with the drool-worthy Open bike brand. The man knows a thing or two about product development, especially aerodynamic bikes.
Before unveiling the bike, Vroomen was sure to mention that ‘gravel riding’ has been around for generations. In fact, all cycling was on gravel roads during its infancy…before the advent of paved roads. He even referred to this new love affair with gravel riding as “Gravel 2.0”. While that may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, he more seriously explained how such a discipline is more about connecting people with freedom by offering a bike that can help them better explore their surroundings.
And for all the haters out there, when it comes to the gravel discipline, no…you can’t go too far from the tarmac with your 23mm tires. With their much wider and knobbed tires, gravel-oriented bikes allow you to ride on the road, and veer off whenever you desire. Yes, please.
Anyway…Vroomen was interested in seeing how low-speed aerodynamics would work when it comes to gravel riding and racing. Though lots of wind-tunnel testing and research, he and his team figured out the tube shapes, water bottle placement and wheel/tire combo on the Exploro would indeed add some aerodynamic benefits. They might not be much, but if you’re riding ultra-endurance races like the 200km Dirty Reiver, those little aerodynamic benefits will add up over the long time it takes most of us to ride those events.
There’s no doubt that I didn’t really feel, or even benefit from, the aerodynamic-ness of the Exploro on my three hour ride this past Saturday, but maybe it’d have been a different story had I been racing for sixteen hours. Tough to say, for me, since I don’t ever plan to push things that hard for that long.
Aside from that, I found the bike to be plenty capable on the varying terrain we were treated to in the Tuscan countryside. For starters, the chainstays on this bike are quite short at 415mm. Thus, the bike climbed quite well, which was needed on some of the stupid-steep paved climbs we were hit with in some of those little Tuscan villages. However, those short stays did not leave tons of room when running the bike with the WTB Nano 40c tires on the 700c wheels. (see more about the tire/wheel combo info below). I have serious worries about really mucky rides and small stones getting caught in there…it’s going to take some finish right off the frame. But (again, see below), there are other wheel and tire options that will leave more space in there.
The short chainstays are also part of the “aggressive, yet comfortable” geometry of the bike, which 3T refers to as, “performance gravel geometry.” The angles are a bit aggressive with a 71.1/72.5 head/seat tube angle combo for the medium size I rode. This made the bike nice and nimble in the singletrack, which we did ride. It was also rather stable on the tarmac and the not-too-crazy gravel roads we rode.
3T coined the term “Sqaero” for the shape of the tubing used on the carbon fiber frame: an aero leading edge of the tubes, while the trailing edge is wide and squared off. This mullet design of the bicycle world is designed to add the desired aerodynamics, but also offer some much needed stiffness and efficiency. While I didn’t notice any aerodynamic advantage during my ride, I can definitely attest to the fact that the bike is rigid and goes when I stomp on the pedals. Some of the roads were quite rough, and I was shaken quite a bit. However, as you can imagine, this has a lot to do with the tires, wheels and air pressure.
Speaking of the hoops, the wheels and tires are a big part of the lure and design of the Exploro.
Before Vroomen took the cover off the bikes, he explained and launched a 650b version of 3T’s Discus line of wheels. During his talk on this subject he mentioned how fatter tire sizes often mean the geometry of a bike needs to change to fit those bigger tire dimensions, and this effects how the bike handles. By running a smaller wheel size, riders are able to install really fat tires (at least by road standards), while keeping the geometry where it’s meant to be.
For example, the 650b size with something like a 2.1 mountain bike tire…which is plenty fat for most purposes…will measure out to about the same as a 700c wheel with a cyclocross tire. This opens up something like the Exploro for lots of interpretation. It’s also one of the most exciting features on the bike, since it will run the 650b generation of tires like WTB’s recently-announced Gravel Plus tires, as well as 700c wheels with tires up to 40mm.
As I mentioned, my bike was handed to me with 700c wheels and the WTB Nano 40c tires. These tires are one of my favorites right now, but I wish they would have been set up as tubeless on this bike. The nice and stiff frame is good for responsiveness, but it does get a bit…bouncey…with air pressure in the tires. A little less would have taken the edge of lots of that rough stuff.
But keep in mind the journalists on this launch ride were handed a variety of tires While I had the Nano 40c’s, some guys were riding the aforementioned 2.1 mountain bike tires on the 650b wheels, while others had the really fat 47c gum-walled Horizon tires on the smaller wheels. Those things look like a blast to ride, and I heard reports they were much more forgiving than my pumped-up tires, and…as intended…they didn’t impact the geometry of the bike.
As all good bike companies do, this adaptability of different wheel and tire sizes in the frame has a special name. 3T is calling it GravelPlus.
If there’s anything to take away from all of the unique and special designs and concepts on the Exploro, I’d say it’s not the aerodynamicness of it, but rather that the bike welcomes different wheel and tire combinations, which truly means the bike can be ridden in many different scenarios and surfaces.
We expect to get the bike for a true long-term test in the near future, and such a test will give us the time and experience on it to give a more thorough experience report.
So stay tuned.