3T Exploro: Aerodynamics and gravel

‘Go Nowhere Fast’ reads the closing credit on a 3T Exploro YouTube video. The mixed-su…

‘Go Nowhere Fast’ reads the closing credit on a 3T Exploro YouTube video. The mixed-surface machine, featuring the newly developed GravelPlus concept, blasts along single track and fire roads before swooping down a hairpin descent.

Words: Alex Malone

Photography: Trent van der Jagt and Bennett Rust/Echelon Sports

 

The pilot, wearing a skin tight jersey and bib shorts along with road helmet (sans visor) is clearly on a mission. The timing is sped up but you can tell he’s been instructed not to trundle along. The Exploro isn’t your all-in road racer but it’s clear that product developer Gerard Vroomen wants to showcase its claimed aero properties.

Much of the gravel scene, not just in Australia but more generally abroad, is portrayed as off-road touring. A way to discover the world at a slower pace, away from the hustle of the city and more importantly, traffic and motor vehicles. Handlebar bags, fork-mounted bidon cages and an assortment of kit-carrying devices litter the frame and attachment points. Heading off-piste demands the mother load of accessories and gravel riding is just the place to do it. The terrain already slows the rider due to increased rolling resistance not to mention uneven and unpredictable terrain, so there’s no need to rush.

Load up and head into the forest for an all-day or week-long adventure. Just don’t do it too quickly.

That’s the image too often projected but it’s fair to say not all dirt-minded riders are wanting to simply plod along. Road cyclists rejoice. The Exploro is designed and very much intended to go fast, much faster than you ever thought reasonable across mixed surfaces.

Gravelleuring

To put fact to feeling one needs to only cast back to the highly respected Dirty Kanza, a 200 mile gravel race (or ride) held amidst the Flint Hills, outside Kanzas. It’s a ride, race, event on the bucketlist for the team at Cyclist but more interesting is the equipment used by the winner.

This year’s edition was won by a guy named Mat Stephens – his name really isn’t important – but what is interesting is the name of his race-winning machine. The Exploro LTD.

Free from unnecessary baggage, Mat relied on the claimed aerodynamic properties of the Exploro along with a pair of short aerobars. With a winning average speed over 30km/h for 320-odd kilometres it’s fair to say energy-saving techniques, involving bike and rider, were very much key to victory.

Even at our very own Gravel Grit, featuring a approximately 20km of sealed roads, wind-cheating methods would and could have been employed to great effect – if it was actually a race. But as we know, there is far more at play in a victory like Mat’s than simply slicing through the wind and so the top-range LTD model in black (Team edition shown) comes in at a very respectable 950g for a medium size frameset. In the road world, this would be far impressive but this isn’t a roadie, despite feeling, looking and riding very much like one. The Exploro is a complex machine to classify.

Why Exploro

GravelPlus is the real buzzword surrounding the Exploro. This is the new category created by Vroomen and co to describe a frameset that is designed and tuned to run 700c or 650b/27.5″ wheels. Fitted with up to 40c gravel tyres (we’ve seen 45c) with a 700c wheelset or a 2.1” mountain bike tyre on the 650b hoops, the overall wheel diameter remains very similar. Of course, the ride characteristics differ when swapping between the two but that’s exactly what is intended.

The Exploro isn’t a One Bike to rule them all offering, despite the surface level box ticks. It’s designed specifically for the kind of rider who doesn’t want to be confined to traffic-laden streets. René Wiertz, CEO at 3T clearly believes in this niche but growing segment.

‘When he [Vroomen] joined 3T we started talking about the what the next big development would be, and we both agreed this kind of bike would be the most likely growth sector. The idea was to expand the “go anywhere” principle to “go anywhere faster”,’ says Wiertz.

It’s for those who would rather cut a skid and bash across a park, or switch direction and head along trail to get to their intended destination.

‘With 700c wheels and 28mm tyres the Exploro is an extremely fast and raceable bike,’ Vroomen told Cyclist. Now, it’s worth mentioning the Exploro is currently not UCI-approved. The road-directed Strada, to be ridden on the professional circuit by Team Aqua Blue Sport in 2018 is the bike of choice for those who want a single front chainring race machine. Interestingly, frame weights between the Strada and Exploro LTD are almost the same. What would differ of course, is the rest of the specification and final build weight.

The intended experience is more about versatility, according to Vroomen. ‘Switch the wheels for a 650b mountain bike set up with 2.1” tyres and you have a completely different ride. You get so much suspension from the big volume tyres you can take the bike on mountain bike trails no problem. The middle ground is to fit an off-road 700 x 40c treaded tyre, or something like a wider 45mm slick, which provides versatility across almost any terrain.’

Covered in mud, fitted with two water bottle cages and 40mm tyres might sound like your idea of a great day on the bike but 3T insist this kind of setup is still – relatively – faster than a equivalent road bike with 28mm tyres. The huge Sqaero (inspired by a previous project?) tubing is most notable on the downtube, along with wide-stance Luteus fork and is largely responsible for the reduced drag figures. Does this make it faster in the real world over a round-tube roadie? Not necessarily but as mentioned above regarding the Dirty Kanza, aerodynamics are very much a consideration even at lower speeds.

The ride

We tested the Exploro around the local Brisbane roads of Australian distributor Echelon Sports. Starting on 700c wheels and Challenge Strada 33c tyres, we rolled out of the city towards Mount Glorious.

I’ll admit to being sceptical of the hour and a half-long route to the base of Glorious. A ride of that distance, on sealed roads and aboard an adventure-style ensemble can be a slog but I was pleasantly surprised. With a gravel-minded approach to the day, the 35km commute at a touch under 24km/h passed with relative ease.

Having spent considerable hours aboard gravel machines, the larger volume rubber felt relatively natural while the more aggressive – compared to a conventional CX frameset – geometry exposed the Exploro’s versatility. Head across to the Exploro microsite for a full geometry briefing. The average speed was also on the higher side of what I’ve come to expect on these kids of rides. Then again, we were yet to hit the dirt.

Clearly slower on bitumen over traditional road setups, the Exploro didn’t feel like a slog. I was however, reminded on a few occasions of the additional weight incurred compared to a regular road disc setup. A number of steep descents required more braking than I would generally expect. Of course, the penalty for this extra load is returned when crossing over to the trail. Compatible with 160mm rotors as standard, it’s immediately apparent why these are chosen over the in vogue 140mm variety. With the larger option fitted, one can expect some very impressive braking on both sealed and unsealed surfaces.

The LTD frame may be sub-1,000g but you can still expect a complete, with either 700c or 650b/27.5” wheels to tip the scales between 8-9 kilograms. That’s far more than many road disc packages, which happily fall around the seven kilogram mark without pedals. None of these however, will fit 33c road slicks nor a 2.1” mountain bike tyre.

Goat Tracking

Having spent most of our early ride cutting through quieter streets, we soon turn onto Mount Glorious for the steady ascent to the top. We’d stop and have breakfast at Mount Glorious Cafe before making our way down via a predominantly off-road route back to Brisbane city. Barely a few kilometres later we turn off Mount Glorious Road and onto the affectionately known Goat Track. It is here where we get our first taste of the Exploro’s affinity with the dirt, albeit whilst still on our Challenge slicks.

The Goat Track takes a direct route across to Mount Nebo Road and later joins Glorious for the final stretch to the top. It’s unsealed but relatively smooth and there are plenty of road riders tackling the 3km ascent without concern. While stopping a few times on the way up, we spot an equal number of mountain bikers who stop to stare at our arguably confused setups.

The Exploro glides up the Goat Track just as a road bike would on hot mix but once on the sealed surface again, still heading upward, it becomes clear we’re really not on the most efficient machine for the job. But that’s not really the point. It hasn’t been designed to be the fastest out there, nor does it try to be. Rather, it’s one of the few to be truly capable of doing both. Where the Exploro will really come alive, says our 3T Exploro guide Michael Owen, is when we hit the trails.

Nearly 15km later, most of it uphill, we reach the cafe. We’ve been on the road for quite some time, the gentle pace taking its toll on the clock but today is really the second part of the route.

Neutral support

We roll away from the cafe and make our way steadily down Mt Nebo for approximately 10km. It’s here we’re gifted with the chance to swap across to the 2.1” Maxxis Pace wrapped around the 650b, 3T Discus 25 Pro wheelset.

The Echelon Sports van is on hand to allow a seamless transition to the dirt. Of course, this is not how any normal ride would go down but it proves highly efficient for our needs. Without it, we would most definitely spent more time off road and skipped the 60km on the road.

The swap is made with relative easy however, the loose-fitted derailleur hanger is a little finicky to refit. After a quick brake and gear tune we are promptly onto the South Boundary Road trail. As expected, the smaller wheel and wider tyre setup is very much at home on rougher terrain. The wider tyre allows for lower pressures too which is extremely welcome on a rigid setup. We take a rolling yet primarily downhill run through to the Gold Creek Reservoir before hitting the bitumen again.

 

Most of my ‘adventuring ‘ has been aboard 700c and 40mm tyres, just like those ridden by the gentleman in the Exploro video and I can’t help but feel held back by the smaller wheels. There is little doubt 650b soaks up the biggest hits but for a package designed specifically to go fast, my preference would be to run 700c wheels almost exclusively. The versatility of the Exploro, in my opinion, is best seen as a package allowing a rider to choose a preferred wheel size. Once selected, one simply stick with their choice. Spare wheels of differing sizes and tyre widths is a lovely idea but it’s not essential to have them sitting around in order to get the most of out the Exploro.

Once on the bitumen again, we snake our way back to the city, still on the 2.1″ knobbies and ride towards Mount Coot-tha for the final ascent of the day. While staying true to my earlier statements around the preference to 700c, I must admit to having a bit of fun on the way, jumping on and off small sections of dirt path without any hesitation. With 700c wheels fitted, I would have likely just kept the speed up and continued along the road until the next proper section of gravel was encountered.

Perhaps this is the difference between the two wheel sizes. The larger and skinnier option is for those who inherently want to go fast and the smaller and wider for those happier to push the limits of what you’re meant to do on a bike with drop bars, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

We reach the conclusion of the ride, nearly nine hours since leaving the hotel and I’m still unsure of how to truly classify the Exploro. Maybe that’s just what Vroomen and Wiertz intended when developing the GravelPlus concept. The Exploro doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed into a category because the rider determines it’s purpose. That might not be enough to convince some but with so many new adventure categories trickling onto the shop floor, the Exploro may have just found its own little place.

Pricing and availability

Team Exploro frameset, $4,199
LTD Exploro frameset, $5,899

Complete build pricing will vary depending on exact choice of components but the below provides a fair estimate of what you can expect to pay for the various groupset options. These are all specified with a SRAM single front chainring configuration.

3T Exploro Team options

Team Exploro with SRAM Rival 1 (includes 3T Discus c35 Pro 700c wheels), $6,299
Team Exploro with Rival 1 (includes 3T Discus Plus c30W Team 650b wheels), $6,649
Team Exploro with SRAM Force 1 (700c), $6,749
Team Exploro with Force 1 (650b), $7,099

In addition, each new bike purchase will come with one free decal kit as requested. Options include Jungle Camo, black, orange, blue, and green.

Full details including where to ride, head to Echelon Sports.

Do it yourself

Follow in our tracks. See the full ride and route on Strava.

 

Looking for something with a little more pace? Take a look at the 3T Strada, the first single chainring frameset to be ridden in the professional ranks.

Comments