CX / Gravel Bike Review

Splatter Paint

Retrobike Rider
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Since the massive uptake and current promotion of CX bikes and 'gravel' bikes of late, I'd thought I'd write a review for those of you considering one, having just bought one myself:

Why?
Well, to be blunt, I saw one and liked the look of it! Of this ilk of bike, the more CX-focused bikes were something I fancied riding. I don't really have any desire to own a lardy gravel bike. Frankly at my price point, these are just re-badged commuter bikes with a lot of mud clearance. I don't need to tour or commute on it, I have a bike for that - hence the CX focus. However, knowing I'm rubbish at short-duration sprint events I'll probably only have a dabble at CX just for the fun of it, rather than outright completion, so I don't really need a race bike either. In short, I went for a drop-bar bike with off-road capability.

Where all these bikes come into their own of course is multi-terrain use, with more off-road capability than a hybrid so you can take to a bridleway, not just the odd track and towpath. Also, the state of the roads is shocking at the moment and riding on the road - even with 25c tyres the bike takes a proper pounding. I did a few winter sportives last year and my bike spent a lot of time covered in grit and grime and frankly it got under my skin! My mtbs are fine off road, but linking the odd bridleway with miles of road is tedious on 2.1" nobblies - hence the desire to try CX.

What?
Right, first off, the money, I had a limited budget to buy and modify a bike to suit. Obviously this meant second-hand was the way to go, I was buying a bike to ride in the grit and s*** so I saw little point in spending a lot of money on something that I knew was to get trashed anyway. I knew I was going to struggle to get anything half-decent at my price point, so it has taken ~9 months of eBay watching to get something. I really wanted something with discs, which meant a newer bike. A few ~10 year old Kona Jakes appeared for around £250 - £300 but they're rim-brake at this age and having been commuting by bike for 7 years I know you can get through rims at quite a rate. I fancied a Boardman Team CX, but these generally go for £450+. However an eBay alert popped up with one with a reasonable BIN and reading the description the seller claimed it had only done 150 miles and was happy to take PayPal. I promptly hit the button, relying on PayPal to bail me out. I had bought a bike!

The bike: Boardman Team CX 2014 spec.
My purchase was a 2014 spec Boardman Team in the large 55.5cm size. I'm right at the lower end of the size range for my height but I reasoned a taller head-tube was the way to go for comfort. Upon collection it was clear the seller had done very, very few miles on the bike - 150 miles could well be true. Also, he had the purchase receipt to show for it and the shop stickers and bar-codes were still on the bike, lending more weight to the statement. Once I got it home though, the assembly (not build) quality was shocking. The spanner monkeys had done a terrible job. I won't bore you with the details, but one by one I ironed them out over a week of evenings and swapped the following components out. Here's what & why:

Saddle: Boardman E4P > Fizik Aliante (comfort)
Stem: Boardman E4P > Easton EA70 (15mm shorter)
Seat post: Boardman E4P > Easton EA70 (10mm less lay-back)
Handlebars: Boardman E4P > Easton EA70 (20mm narrower)

The original Boardman kit seems to be pretty good quality, I only swapped it for personal preferences to suit my physique. All of it was used condition on eBay - I saw no sense it fitting new bits to a winter bike. One important addition was a home made dirt guard for the headset. The standard one has NO seals between the outside and the bearings. I have since bought a 51 x 2mm o-ring to fit and provide even more protection and had an external washable fabric sleeve made. As it was the fleece with tape to hold in place worked a treat.

The ride.
Setting off down the road from home I was immediately struck by how spritely the bike was. For a 'road' bike it is pretty lardy at over 10kg, but actually zips along pretty quickly. In fact the Rapid Robs are quite amazing for a knobbly. I rode a few km on the road, then set off on a dirt track - straight away it was clear I was going quicker than an mtb and didn't back off the speed from the on to off road transition. A quick haul on the brakes (Avid BB5) showed that they had more than enough power to overwhelm the tyre so my talent is the limiting factor. With that in mind I backed off at bit and tried to concentrate on avoiding the bigger pot holes.

After a quick foray down the side of the canal to get to the hills, I was in my stride. The compact chainset is hampered by the Microshift front mech, which feels heavy at the lever and despite repeated adjustment continues to drag at the upper end of the range. Thus I spent all the off-road bits spinning in the inner ring and on-road in the outer. This was a pain and was so frustrating I ordered a discounted SRAM one from Chain Reaction Cycles when I got home - I did have another half-hour go at adjusting the front mech first though!

Onto some sandy soil, the tyres had plenty of grip and momentum could be easily maintained with a high cadence with the bike ploughing on through pretty much everything. The only downside is roots, where an mtb tyre with more volume would be more comfortable and offer more grip. Spinning furiously keeps it going though sand and it didn't bog down at all. This being my first go on a 29er I did notice it rolls better than a 26" rigid with less wheel stalling and stuttering.

After the sand came a quagmire. The 4x4 boys love to get their machines up to the axles here and the broken tow straps left behind is indicative of the times they get stuck. The Boardman had no worries though, dropping to the smallest ratios and trickling into the gunge I had it up to the axles in mud and water. Taking a softly-softly approach it plodded through without issue, though the chainstay bridge did collect a fair amount of mud. Out the other side the transmission sounded awful with grit in all crevices, however, there were no missed shifts or engagement problems. Given this is a 10 speed set-up with skinny chain I was really impressed with this - there was no chain suck either.
Following the mud-fest I had a few more kms on the road, plenty of transmission grinding and the occasional brake rub to add to the noise but no performance issues. I was joined on the road by many, many Surrey cyclists all grim-faced and grubby. I had a little chuckle to myself as I chugged on behind them, as we became a bunch I spotted a bridleway sign and promptly left the crowd behind - weee! The next two hours was much of the same really, on my own in the dirt and with company on the road.

The Verdict.
The Boardman CX fared beautifully, aside from the front mech issues and inadequate headset sealing, it's a beaut. It is tolerable on the road, a gentle buzz from the tyres reminding you you're on knobblies but at the same time those tyres give a nice, comfy ride. In fact it is as soft as my Dawes Super Galaxy and lighter to boot.

Off-road, it is a bit of a revelation. It is every bit as quick as a rigid mtb in many situations and probably quicker on less bumpy surfaces. The real benefit is being able to stitch all the bridleways, tracks and BOATs together without the normal doldrums you get on the road with an mtb. Frankly if you live somewhere where the terrain is less than inspiring for mountain biking, the CX bike could open up a whole lot of fun close to your doorstep whereas you may have jumped in the car and driven somewhere else.

From my personal perspective, this was an relatively inexpensive way of having fun. It was cheap to buy and modify and keeps my good bikes under wraps until the sun comes out. It is probably fine for a short-ish sportive with the tyres pumped up and as mentioned pretty capable off-road with the tyres let down to minimum. If you can find one cheap then give it a go, but I'd be less keen as the price climbs to closer to RRP unless you use it all the time. For example, with slicks on you could commute or use it as a winter road bike no problem.

I'll keep you updated as I get more acquainted with it.

SP
 

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Splatter Paint

Retrobike Rider
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Original Spec: http://www.halfords.com/cycling/bikes/r ... -bike-2014

Spec Now:

Brake Type: Mechanical Disc Brakes
Forks: Full Uni-directional Carbon Fibre - Tapered Steerer
Frame Material: Alloy
Cassette: SRAM PG1030 - 11-32t
Chainset: FSA Gossamer Compact 50/34t - PF30 - 175mm
Front Brake: Avid BB5 Road Mechanical Disc Brake - 160mm
Front Hub: 9mm QR - 32 Hole
Front Mech: SRAM Rival 10 speed
Gear Shifters: SRAM Apex - Double Tap
Handlebars: Easton EA70 420mm
Headset: FSA Orbit C-40 ACB/Industrial 1.1/8" to 1.1/2" Tapered - Integrated
Pedals: Boardman
Rear Brake: Avid BB5 Road Mechanical Disc Brake - 160mm
Rear Hub: 9mm QR - 32 Hole
Rear Mech: SRAM Apex - 10 Speed
Rims: Mavic XM319 - 32 Hole
Saddle: Fizik Aliante Ti
Seatpost: Easton EA70 31.6mm
Stem: Easton EA70 100mm
Tyres: Schwalbe Rapid Rob Kevlar Guard 700c x 35c

Approximate Weight (KG): 10.34kg
 

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godders

Retrobike Rider
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Very interesting ;) been thinking of going along these lines for a while, lack of funds is the only draw back at the mo! Nice to get a "subjective" review from someone other than a magazine or interweb, look forward to any updates as they come along :)

Mick
 

Splatter Paint

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Thanks :D The first gravel-cross event I've booked is this one: http://www.trailbreak.co.uk/shackleford-trail-ride/ on the 7th of January and I'll probably give the Bucks Offroad Sportive a go to in May: http://buckssportive.co.uk/index-3.html that's a fairly major 125km offroad, but is bloody good fun. I did it on a 1990 Kona a few years back. The route maps can be found here: http://buckssportive.co.uk/Downloads/Ro ... ors125.pdf

Other events in the southeast:

http://www.cxsportive.com/
https://www.evanscycles.com/training-en ... -ride_type
http://www.trailbreak.co.uk/events-calendar/

SP
 

NeilM

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Nice write up and great to get your impression of a UK gravel bike, as opposed to the American version which is often used in very different conditions to those we have here.

I had a go at this a couple of years ago with a Rourke MTB frame but it was a bit too much of a compromise. I now have a King cx frame, made in the Netherlands by a guy called Mark Lemstra. I have all the bits ready to start building and have just been waiting for the weather and Christmas holidays to get it built. I will report back.
 

Splatter Paint

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Well my SRAM Rival front mech arrived today and I've fitted it... I'm not happy. The finish and overall feel of quality is nowhere near as good as Shimano, in fact the finish on the Microshift unit it replaced was actually better. :evil:

The SRAM derailleur has a stronger spring than the Microshift one, so the lever feel is actually heavier! On top of that, as I was fiddling with the set-up the lever - SRAM Apex double-tap, got heavier and heavier and more difficult to shift down. I silicone lubed all the pivot points on the mech (plastic bushes hence silicone) and the cable as it enters the cable outer and the under bottom bracket guide. I finally peeled back the hoods, silicone-lubed the plastic bits, put a tiny smear of LM grease on the moving steel parts I could see and two small drips of Finish Line Wet Lube on the moving metal parts I couldn't reach with the grease. After a few minutes to work themselves in, the lubes collectively improved the situation, but it is nowhere near as smooth as my 2009 Shimano 105 shifters that have been used in all weathers with no maintenance whatsoever. In short, my SRAM set-up is a disappointment. :(

Aside from the heavy leaver feel, the shifting is much better than the Microshift. It shifts up much, much quicker, and I can use all but the two low-high gears combinations (cross-chaining). It only just rubs on high-high 50-11 under load, which is way better than before where at least four of the highest gears rubbed the cage.

To cap all that off, the lever sweep to engage each gear is further than Shimano equivalents, so if you're reading this and have small hands, be warned you may find SRAM shifting more difficult than Shimano. :x

Back to the trails on Sunday I hope.

SP
 

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Woz

Old School Grand Master
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Nice write up, I'm kind of in to this and flirt with MTB drop bar builds.

Interesting why you went for a narrower bar though, or was it something to do with the hook shape too?

Otherwise, that spoke protector really does need to come off.
 

Splatter Paint

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I have my other road bike with a 42cm bar and I know this is comfy for hours so I've ordered the Easton 42cm to replace the Boardman 44cm. The hoods do feel a long way out - I think this is partly the shape of the bars and partly not being used to SRAM levers. The nose of the saddle to centre of the handlebars measurement is actually 1cm shorter on the Boardman than my Giant, but I still feels a stretch which I put down to the aforementioned reasons and I hope can be addressed with the new bars.

I love spoke protectors! There's nothing like the clack clack of it rubbing on the back of the cassette as the wheel turns ;)

SP
 

Splatter Paint

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I've done a bit more riding on the Boardman... I still love it, but I'm finding its limits. For example, it is only as good as a rigid MTB for vibration but with grip tape not rubber/foam grips, so if you ride is mostly off-road, you might as well take an mtb! The current Schwalbe Rapid Rob tyres are not confidence inspiring on wet tarmac when lent over and having ridden with some Schwalbe G-Ones https://www.schwalbe.com/gb/road-reader ... round.html on a mate's bike it is clear things could be improved on-road at the expense of off-road grip. These may be a future purchase, although they are not cheap so I'll sell some garage clutter first.

I rode ~4 hours with a mate on a Charge Plug 5 http://www.wiggle.co.uk/charge-plug-5-2015/ in Tange Prestige steel with SRAM Rival hydraulic brakes. I rode the Plug as well as the Boardman, and the Boardman is definitely more 'racy' in terms of feel with a more aggressive riding position. The SRAM Rival gears were no different from my Apex bits and unbelievably the hydraulic brakes were actually worse than my Avid BB5s. I had to tell my mate to go easy on my bike having ridden his as my brakes had way more initial bike - easily demonstrated by my mate still locking the back wheel at junctions despite the warning!

We rode on an off road, the Charge being better on (tyres have a part in this) and the Boardman better off. Heading to Peaslake the Plug got a puncture and being tubless, said mate wasn't carrying a tube :facepalm: I lent him one and we stopped in Peaslake's Pedal and Spoke store for sealant - which was unsuccessful as the tyre wouldn't seat, and then some tubes. Heading onto the trails, the Boardman felt much better suited to more technical off-road and we even took in an mtb trail or two, albeit very slowly :LOL:

Riding home on the Plug I concluded I liked my Boardman better and although the bars are still too big (the Easton ones I bought were the wrong width) and the riding position not quite right yet, I reckon with some slicks I could probably do a light tour on it. I don't like my Dawes Galaxy to ride any distance so I've listed that on eBay and will use the Boardman instead as I have a rack that'll fit. I have purchased some 42cm Boardman bars on eBay for £5 (!) so when they arrive we'll try again.

SP
 

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