Fun, fun, fun

Reviewed: Sven Cycles Pathfinder

I’ll be honest here. When I received the Sven Cycles Pathfinder, it was with a bit of trepidation that I started the testing process. The bike had been dropped off by its designer and builder, Darron, after driving all the way to Leeds from Dorset. He’s a lovely bloke and spoke with such passion about his creation… what if, what if I didn’t like it?

My concerns didn’t last long. If you’ve read our First Look, you may recall I took Darron out for a spin on grit.cx’s local trails. By the end of that ride, I was already beginning to realise that the Pathfinder might be a bit special.

Shiny, shiny

Sven Cycles

Lets back things up a little, though hey? Who are Sven Cycles? Well, it is a small scale frame builder, based in Dorset. Darron has grown the company to a small team of three. Starting as a bespoke builder in 2012, Sven now offers semi-custom builds, as well as full bespoke. “What does semi-custom mean?” I hear you ask. Well, the bikes are still handmade by Sven, but come in a range of standard sizes. Componentry and finishing touches (from additional bottle bosses to pannier mounts) can be tailored to your preferences.

Gosh

The Pathfinder

I won’t repeat everything covered in detail during our first look, but lets recap on the important details. At the heart of the Pathfinder is a steel frame and forks. Not just any steel, but Reynolds 921 stainless. Yes, that shiny finish isn’t chrome or paint, but just a bit of elbow grease and polish. Darron specifically selected 921 over the commonly spotted 953 as the thicker gauge tubing allowed for smaller diameter tubing and therefore better ride characteristics. The raw steel finish isn’t necessarily for everyone, and it is definitely pretty ‘bling’. There are some long term aesthetic benefits to the finish though. Cleaning is easy and the high-polish surface definitely doesn’t attracted mud in the same quantities that matt paint/carbon finishes can. More importantly, this frame will look as good as day one in many, many years time; no paint chips or scratches to worry about. Rust is not a worry either, of course.

Internal routing in the main frame and some tidy welds

And external at the rear

The thin tubing also makes a refreshing change in a world oversize downtubes – regardless of material. There is definitely a classic look to the bike, and one that is no coincidence. Sven was keen to replicate that joyful steel ride that many of us remember from XC bikes of the 90s – some give, flexibility and liveliness. This of course needs to be balanced with stiffness under power and accurate tracking over rough ground. The Pathfinder runs bolt-thru axles front and rear, which should counteract any noodle-like tendencies that skinny steel can sometimes have.

Bolt-thru rear

I’ve got a fair few paragraphs in now and haven’t mentioned wheel size. The Pathfinder is part of a select group of gravel bikes to use 650b/27.5in wheels rather than 700c. This is by no means unique – we’ve ridden the Cannondale Slate, Kinesis Tripster AT, Cotic Escapade, Bombtrack Hook EXT and a few others. The proliferation of 27.5in in mountain biking has definitely meant that there are more tyre and wheel options readily available. The Pathfinder does also have clearance to run 700c should you wish – I could imagine having an off-road wheelset and a slicked up 700c wheelset for road use.

Smaller wheels, bigger tyres

The Pathfinder is available as a frame and forks package for £1600, allowing you to build it up as you wish. Our specific build is available of the shelf for £3000. Sven also sell a 2×11 version with White Industries cranks and a few other choice parts for £4000. Other options and upgrades are available via the Sven website (want SRAM Force1 hydro, that’ll be £650 extra).

Our build

One of the things I was impressed with when I received the Pathfinder was the attention to detail that Sven Cycles has put into the stock build. Sure, there is an element of building to a price point, but equally the components selected are largely renowned for their durability and, to my eye at least, complement the frame nicely.

Thomson and Hope components

Stop and go duties are carried out by SRAM’s Apex groupset. This is the lowest price point hydraulically braked groupo currently available from the American company. I’m a fan. It has brought the key benefits of the higher end Rival and Force 1x offerings, with little compromise other than a cheaper looking crankset, a bit of weight and a slightly more plastic-y feeling shift. I would much rather see a 1x groupset on this kind of build, but there is the flexibility to run a 2x should you wish – possibly a good option if you intend to use the Pathfinder as an off-road tourer.

Big clearance

The wheelset uses Hope PRO4 hubs at its heart. They may not be the absolute lightest, but they are incredibly reliable and replacement parts are both good value and easy to get hold of, in the UK at least. It’s also good to see 32 J-bend spokes on each wheel. Again, easy to source should anything go wrong. The DT Swiss X392 rims are not ones that I’ve used before, but were perfectly functional. It would certainly be possible to build a lighter wheelset, but for the kind of duties that the Pathfinder is capable of, a bit of reliability is worthwhile.

Hope hubs and that big 42t cassette

Hope also provide the headset and seat clamp, while other finishing components are supplied by the ever understated, but recognisable Thomson. Flared Salsa Cowchippers suit this build, although I prefer something with a touch less flare normally. A nice touch is the brass ‘Sven Cycles’ stem top cap, made by Bentley Components.

The ride

Let’s cut right to the chase. On challenging off-road trails – the kind that are at the limit of a rigid, drop-barred bike, the Pathfinder is one of, if not the, most capable drop-barred bike I have ridden. I quickly reassessed what was possible as I got to know the Sven. Trails that I usually save for my mountain bike were hit with increasing confidence. In fact, if I were to give a one line description of the Pathfinder, I would describe it as a drop-barred mountain bike. Lets take a couple of steps back though. What made it so good?

Fun, fun, fun

As gravel bikes evolve, we are seeing a divergence in their design philosophy… or maybe it is just a convergence as road biking and mountain biking meet in the middle? I reckon it’s possible to draw a spectrum of gravel bikes. Something like the Specialized Diverge is a clear evolution of an “any” road bike with clearance for tyres that makes it a genuine option for off-roading. Everything about the Sven shouts mountain bike evolution. There is of course the obvious – the wheels and tyres (our bike came with Schwalbe Thunderburts as stock). But, the geometry also mirrors its mountain bike roots. On my first ride I noticed that I was able to power through rockier sections that I’d been catching pedals on a few days earlier on the Diverge. Again, this was beyond your average gravel bike terrain, but the kind of stuff that living in my little Yorkshire you have little choice to ride should you wish to piece together a longer off road route. The combination of a tall head tube and the low drop of the flared drops gives an upright riding position – my hand were a couple of inches higher in the drops than my usual riding position.  This leads to more time in those drops, better stability and a solid position for steep descending.

On more chilled out tracks and trails, the Pathfinder retains the liveliness and responsiveness that a gravel bike brings versus a mountain bike. The Thunderburts are fast rollers and give away little to 700c gravel tyres. That’s not to say that they are quite as fast rolling, but I felt the compromise was rarely an issue. Running higher volume tyres at a lower pressure also meant that the ride was supremely comfortable. Some of that ride comfort certainly came the frame. It is easy to fall into tired cliches about how ‘steel is real’. I’ve ridden some sublime steel bikes and some pigs. Equally, I love the ride qualities of carbon, but have had the displeasure of a few duds. Where did the Pathfinder sit?

Climbing a punchy, rough tarmac climb I could feel that slight spring that a good steel frame brings. It as though the rear end coils and pushes you forwards. Too much off this and the backend can feel waggly, vague and inefficient. Just the right and it feels like a bit of turbo lag in the best way. You know what is coming next. Luckily the combination of Sven’s framebuilding knowledge and those bolt-thru axles keep things in shape. Off road, and the same applies. The magic three way combo of ride position, tyres and frame delivered a dreamy ride, comfortable for long days off-road in the saddle. The fork is precise without being overly harsh. Sven Cycles have spent a long time working with Reynolds to develop the fork tubing, and it showed.

Tight singletrack was a pleasure to ride. The Pathfinder seems to have found the magic balance between stability at speed and over rough ground, but maintaining the lively and nimble handling that I look for and think is fundamental in a drop-barred bike that is going to be used for day-to-day fun as well as touring.

The 24lb weight rarely made itself known. There are certainly lighter options out there, but not once did I find myself wishing cursing that heft. The Pathfinder is by no means a ‘cross bike, however. I wouldn’t want to drag the extra lbs around a flat-out race for an hour, and I’d rather the steeper angles and skinny tyres a traditional CX bike brings. That’s not to say it won’t cope with the occasional foray between the tapes, but I don’t think many would have got this far in the review if they were looking for an out-and-out race bike. The Pathfinder would make a superb race bike for something like the Grinduro, however.

Roadfinder?

We could quite happily have closed out the review there. I loved the bike as a plaything on local trails and for longer off-road exploring. It was the bike two visitors begged to ride out of the current test fleet when they joined me on. Their views echoed mine.

Road ready?

The great thing about gravel bikes is their flexibility though. Darron was keen that we tried the Pathfinder as an all-road explorer, shod with Compass Switchback Hill 48c tyres. These are lightweight, slick 650b tyres. Throwing them on the Pathfinder I took to the roads, hunting out the worst potholes my local backroads had to offer. The ride is incredibly comfortable compared to a traditional road bike. No surprise there. Equally, the bike felt sluggish in comparison to most other road bikes I’ve ridden. Shock horror. Once I’d accepted that my average speed wasn’t going to be quite as high as normal I settled back and enjoyed the comfortable ride. The tyres are amazingly inspiring on descents and beg you to lean the bike over further and further and further – indeed, I challenge you not to make motorbike noises while riding these tyres.

It was inevitable that I’d end up wandering off-road on the Switchback Hills. Here’s a few brief notes. Mud: don’t. Dry trails: great fun until you need to stop quickly. For towpath exploring and relaxed rides on dry ground, the Switchback Hills are great.

After we returned the bike to Sven, Darron brazed on rack and guard mounts before sending it out to a Times journalist to push into super-commuter duties. If you’ve got somewhere secure to lock up your bikes, I can’t think of a nicer, more stylish way to travel into the office.

Super commuter

Darron also sent us this – spot the S+S couplings for easy travel packing!

 

How did the build perform?

I have deliberately spent most of this review looking at the frame and forks. It is the unique part of the package the Sven is offering. No one will be buying the Pathfinder purely for the Apex gearing; the components are in important part of the package though. They have the potential to enhance a great frameset, or equally, detract from an otherwise excellent ride.

Fortunately everything behaved nicely on the Pathfinder. The Apex groupset is excellent when new. By the end of the test period, there was a little more play in the rear mech than I would expect. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this on Apex. It didn’t effect performance, but is likely to mean premature vague shifting in the longer run. Other than this, it is hard to justify spending more on a higher priced groupset. The brakes have all the power of their more expensive siblings – which is well appreciated when you are riding a bike that encourages you to take a few more risks than you may otherwise choose to.

In fact, the whole build package was cohesive and worked well together. A pleasing case of a bike becoming more than a sum of its (very good) parts.

Three Things that Could be Improved

  • The Pathfinder doesn’t match some 700c gravel/cross bikes for out and out speed over smooth terrain
  • Steel will never build into the lightest bike possible
  • Be prepared to be stopped and asked about the bike on a regular basis

Three Things we loved

  • The Pathfinder’s trail riding capability
  • We think that frame is a work of art
  • A unique bike-build for a price that is comparable to many off-the shelf offerings

Overall

You can probably tell I liked this bike, quite a lot. In fact, everyone who rode it came back with a beaming smile and tight grip on the frame. It won’t be the perfect frame for all. If you are looking for a gravel bike that will cover non-technical terrain as quickly as possible, or can be ‘cross raced regularly there are definitely better options around.

If you are a looking for a bike that will bring back interest to local trails versus a mountain bike and prioritises fun over out and out pace, then the Pathfinder is a worthy choice. Add to that the stand-out looks and reasonable value, and Sven have got a true modern day classic on their hands.

Sven Pathfinder 11 Speed Specifications (as tested)

  • Frame // Sven Pathfinder, Reynolds 921
  • Fork // Sven Pathfinder unicrown, Reynolds 921
  • Wheels // 650b, Hope Pro 4 hubs, DT Swiss X392 rims
  • Tyres // Schwalbe Thunderburt
  • Chainset // SRAM Apex 42t
  • Front Mech // N/A
  • Rear Mech // SRAM Apex 11 speed
  • Shifters // SRAM Apex Hydro
  • Cassette // SRAM 11-42
  • Brakes // SRAM Apex Hydro
  • Stem // Thomson, 90mm 10º
  • Bars // Salsa Cowchipper
  • Seatpost // Thomson layback, 27.2mm
  • Saddle // Selle Italia Flite Titanium
  • Size Tested // Large
  • Sizes available // Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large

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1 Response

  1. skyway says:

    I took one of these for a test ride in the New Forest a couple of weeks ago and I pretty much concur with your sentiments. Amazing bike! Mine had the same spec, but I like the idea of the super-compact 2×11 geared model Sven does – gives better gear range for on and off road. I’d also like to try with some skinnier 700c tyres on road, although the bike shop (The Woods Cyclery) made a point of saying it was designed specifically for 650b. Currently saving! Rob

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