Meet the world's fastest gravel bike
Last year, the Open U.P. was our bike of the year. No surprise, then, that the 3T Exploro is near the top of this year’s list, as it comes from the mind of the same engineer: ex-Cervélo mastermind Gerrard Vroomen. While the 3T shares the Open’s shapeshifting ability to take both 700c wheels with up to 40mm tires and 650b wheels with 2.1-inch tires, the bikes look dramatically different and have subtly different rides. By following up the one with the other, Vroomen demonstrates his belief in the plus-road and plus-gravel trend. After riding both bikes for extended periods, we’re inclined to say that he’s on to something.
The Good: God bless companies like 3T that are building bikes with more versatility rather than less. More specifically: the Exploro is just as fast (and beautiful) with deep-section rims and 28mm tires as it is with 650Bs and 2.1s, meaning this is two bikes in one. The detailing is impeccable, and considering the bike’s light weight (17.1 pounds with those 47mm WTB balloons), the SRAM Force 1x drivetrain at last felt like enough gears.
The Bad: Though the components, including the seatpost and stem/handlebar combo, are beautiful, we had issues with all three loosening over time, especially the saddle clamp. The only other complaint is the eye-watering price tag: frames start at $3,000, and our tester was $9,179 as built, so you’re going to have to really want it.
The Verdict: Aero gravel might sound like a ridiculous niche—until you’re out there in the wind by yourself and still blasting along. The marketing slogan says it all: “Go slow faster.” The 3T Exploro goes fast faster, too, courtesy of all that aero tubing. Of course, not all riders have a need for 2.1-inch tires on their road bikes. But if you’re someone who likes to pedal on asphalt and dirt in equal parts, it would be hard to find a swifter ride.
It might be a gravel bike, but the carbon Exploro is as refined and aggressive as any high-end road machine. The chunky aero tubing slices the wind like propeller blades, and the monstrous BB386 EVO bottom bracket was unflinching even under the weight of our meatiest testers. Compared with the Open U.P., the rear end is tighter (an impressive 415mm), the head angle steeper (72.5), the stack and reach longer and lower. All of this makes the Exploro lean more to the endurance road (long miles) side of the category than the adventure (rougher terrain) side like the U.P. Then again, with hulking tire clearance, this is a bike that can handle pretty much anything you throw at it.
As with all of Vroomen’s designs, the detailing is gorgeous. Case in point: the integrated seatpost clamp, which tightens by way of a tiny bolt that’s tucked away inside the main triangle. The design is ostensibly for aerodynamics, but it’s also dead classy. Same with the internal cable routings in the top tube that have zero rattling issues inside the carbon (unlike some other bikes we’ve tested). And just like a true connoisseur, Vroomen offers the frame in two versions: $3,000 for the standard layup Team version that weighs 1,150 grams, and $4,200 for the Ltd, which comes out of the same molds but is 200 grams lighter.
Like some other high-end builders, 3T sells the Exploro only as a frameset, allowing customers to curate exactly which parts best suit their needs. Having said that, the company selected our bits and pieces for us, and there’s nothing to not like about this ridiculously refined parts pick.
Perhaps our favorite bits on the whole bike—and the parts that most affected ride quality—were the WTB Horizon Plus tires, which are incredibly supple and add a huge amount of comfort and confidence. The 650B 3T Discus Plus C25 Pro wheels were a fine match, though for as much as this bike costs, we’d expect lighter carbon hoops. We also spent time on the bike aboard 700c Discus Plus C35 Ltd hoops mounted with 28mm rubber, which not only knocked nearly a pound off the bike weight but also felt quicker and stiffer. We loved 3T’s take on the gravel bars, the Ergonova, which have a nice flattened shape in the tops for hand comfort and a subtle flare that provides just enough control on dirt but doesn’t feel dangerously wide in groups.
We’ve not generally been fans of 1x configurations on road bikes—they often feel like they don’t have enough gear range. But the SRAM Force drivetrain, complete with a 50-tooth chainring, felt just fine here, likely because the bike is so light. That THM Clavicula crank is the stuff of road-geek dreams, coming in under 300 grams yet still iron-stiff. But at $1,200 alone, it’s a luxury bit that would be easy to forego to drop the bike price without sacrificing much performance. The Force hydraulic brakes were good, too, and we especially liked the tall profile of the hoods for control on dirt. Last but not least, the WTB SL8 saddle was darn comfy, even after hours of banging around in the dirt.
With such a tight rear end and aggressive geometry, the Exploro rode like a top-shelf road bike that just happens to be at home on seriously rough surfaces. It is a stiff bicycle, both in the front end and the bottom bracket area, and some testers found it a bit aggressive for their liking. Along those lines, the steep head angle means it’s not as forgiving as some adventure bikes when you start bashing steep, rough descents. More than once, I found myself picking my way down such hills rather than cruising them, though subbing in slightly knobby tires for the Horizon Plus slicks made a marked difference.
The trade-off, of course, is that the Exploro is bracingly fast and well-mannered as a straight roadie. With the C35 wheels and 28mm tires, it rolled along fine on the fastest group rides and didn’t feel sluggish or held back at all on steep, long pavement climbs.
The 3T’s clearest competition is the Open U.P., which is interesting because the Exploro could be seen as cannibalizing the U.P.’s sales. Most anyone could be happy on either bike, but they don’t overlap 100 percent. Riders with a strong road background or race orientation will likely appreciate the aggressive nature of the Exploro, while mountain bikers and gran fondo devotees will lean toward the U.P.
It’s tempting to compare the Exploro to the Specialized Sequoia or the Cannondale Slate, but that’s sort of like comparing a BMW rally car to a dune buggy. The Exploro delivers on the promise of those other two bikes in a machine that takes the biggest tires yet is as light and quick as the finest road bikes. But it also costs a fortune. For the rider with a more typical paycheck, the Diamondback Haanjo, and its newer sibling the Haanjo Carbon, provide most of the same benefits as the Exploro without the sticker shock.
I can already hear the sighs of exasperation and indignation over the price of the Exploro. And to be fair, with the Team frame and more sensible parts, you could build this bike up at half the cost. Either way, this is definitely a luxury item along the lines of a Ferrari or Lamborghini. But just as those supercars drive very differently from your Honda or Toyota, the 3T is a few tiers above most other bikes in this category. Kudos to the company for pushing the boundaries. So many brands are promising adventure bikes but delivering frames that only accept 32mm tires. The Exploro, on the other hand, is one of the most versatile bikes out there, bridging the gap between road and gravel without compromise at either extreme.