3T Exploro Review: Hyper-engineering.
The new 3T Exploro has a dozen built-in, proprietary technologies. Nameplates like ‘GravelPlus’, ‘Sqaero’, and ‘RealFast’ permeate its marketing. Such labels generally make our eyes gloss over. But considering the implications behind the bike’s name, as well as its tagline – Going Nowhere Fast – Logan just had to try it. Read on to find out if the Exploro lives up to both its aspirations and its tech cred…
Even though the Exploro won Gold at Eurobike, I was completely unaware of it — or 3T for that matter — until Interbike. Come to find out, 3T is an Italian company originally founded in 1961 as a steel tubing manufacturer (Turin Tube Technology). In 1984 3T made a name for itself with the Superleggero drop bar, at the time one of the lightest drop handlebars on the market. More recently 3T has focused on carbon components, including a variety of mountain and road handlebars and wheels. During their most recent chapter they brought in Dutch serial bike engineer Gerard Vroomen to design the Exploro. That name might ring a bell for a few readers; Gerard was an original founder of Cervélo, now one of the largest triathlon bike manufacturer in the world. Or more recently Gerard co-founded OPEN Cycle which introduced the O-1.0, the world’s first sub-900 gram hard tail, and the U.P. (Unbeaten Path) which combines performance-oriented road geometry with clearances for mountain bike tires. All this makes it no surprise that Gerard’s latest creation, the 3T Exploro, is an extremely lightweight carbon frame geometrically designed for speed… and off-tarmac exploration.
Aside from the name, we took interest in this bike — probably also why most of you clicked on this review — because the 3T Exploro looks like a high end road bike with beefy tires. 3T calls it the GravelPlus standard, which simply means that the Exploro was designed to accommodate hefty 700c road and cyclocross tires, as well as voluminous 27.5 mountain bike knobbies. For model year 2017 there are several bike companies making a similar claim. This is fair considering a 700c x 33mm tire and a 650b x 2.1” tire have virtually the same diameter and therefore the same predictable handling. Plus there are more and more people trying melding different types riding with a single bike. In essence, depending on how mixed you like your terrain, and how much tire floatation and bump absorption you are looking for, the Exploro can be adapted to fit. It’s also worth noting that Gerard Vroomen’s OPEN U.P. and now the Exploro are two of the first bikes to employ this approach with such aggressive road geometry.
For our demo bike, 3T gave us the option of either setup. Given what I knew about the bike, and the fact that I anticipated riding it mostly on road and gravel, we opted on the 700c config — with the bigger and somewhat aggressive tires keeping in mind that we’d likely end up in the mud somewhere along the way. 3T shipped it with a 45mm WTB Riddler up front and a 42mm Nano in the rear. These were pretty good choices in terms of traction and clearance. Both essentially maxxed out the allotted space with the rear suffering the most — as seen in the top left photo above, there is all but a few millimeters left between the seat tube and tire. The Nano performed well for traction, and the Riddler added a little fast cushion up front with decent side knobs for cornering.
In hindsight, I kick myself for not going with the 27.5×2.1 option. I ended up riding out of bounds a lot more than anticipated. During the few months I had the bike I took it on a ton of gravel day rides, but the bike begged to be ridden further, so I found myself jumping on singletrack connectors and exploring old logging roads that petered out into nothing. Bigger tires would have been ideal. Second, I had some significant toe overlap with the 700x45mm rubber. A little toe overlap is sometimes acceptable, although not ideal. But when it pushes a half inch or so it can impede technical riding. With the big 700c Riddler up front, I had well over a half inch of overlap and I often found myself in situations where this was quite annoying, particularly while methodically picking through rocky areas where there were often sharp turns of the handlebars. Fundamentally the Exploro is an incredibly short bike. My feeling is that this tire was simply too big for the bike. The 650b 2.1″ Nano would have been ideal I think, especially on singletrack and rough two-track where I spent a fair amount of time. For pure gravel enthusiasts running 700c, a set of 40mm Nanos or Clements would likely make a fine choice.
“Sqaero” and “RealFast”
Aero-gravel — I admittedly scoffed at the term when I first heard it. Yeah, it’s a really cool looking frame, but airfoil inspired tubes on a bike marketed for off-tar exploration? Such a precept might only be relevant to a handful diehard gravel racers wishing to attack headwinds in the midwestern US. However, after digging a little deeper, the Sqaero tubing design is kind of interesting. Vroomen set out to combine the wind resistance of the tapered airfoil design with the strength of square tubing to achieve the best of both worlds — so essentially the leading edge of the down tube, seat tube and others have a tapered shape while the rear is squared off. The design was developed to work with the airflow of big tires, bottles and mud splatter, according to Vroomen. This is where the RealFast monicker comes in. As such, 3T performed aerodynamics tests that do in fact show results. According to 3T, as shown in the graph here, “A muddy Exploro with 40mm knobby gravel tires and 2 water bottles is faster than the equivalent clean round tube bike is with 28mm slick road tires and without bottles (grey line).” Whether shaving off a few newtons during ride on National Forest roads is indeed palpable, is another question. The theory is that when on pavement the Exploro can match the performance of a good road bike. One thing is certain, the Exploro is fast. I’ve never been a road cyclist, nor do I wish such a fate, so I haven’t had much experience with that type of bike. But I will say that the Exploro is the fastest feeling bike I’ve tried to date. Tron is one metaphor that came to mind as I crushed miles hugging the bike with an arched back, even on long climbs.
By virtue of an incredibly short design via a steep head angle, short trail, and incredibly short 415mm chainstays, the 3T Exploro likely offers one of the most responsive and fast rides you’ll get with a bike in this class. On mellow to moderately steep gravel and pavement it handles and accelerates like no other gravel bike I’ve ridden. Conversely, as predicted, it suffers when riding downhill on rough terrain. The front end is easily knocked around and it generally doesn’t feel all too confident on steep and rugged descents. But then again, that’s likely not where this bike was intended.
There are a few other things to note about the frame and fork, which is the only way 3T sells the Exploro. We tested the LTD model — black — which weighs in at an incredibly svelte 950g. The design is punctuated by the large tapered down tube, the asymmetric swooping chain stay, 15mm front thru-axle and a 142mm rear with the odd Hang Loose derailleur hanger. The hanger contains the threads of the rear 12mm thru-axle, so when the rear axle is removed the rear derailleur and hanger slide out of the frame as the wheel is removed. Neither here nor there for me, but in practice it does allow a wheel change to be a little more fluid. Simply align the disk rotor, insert the wheel, slide the axle and finally place the derailleur back with the wheel already in place.
The D-shaped ‘Charlie SqAero’ seatpost is the most unique and interesting frame feature. There are essentially two parts to it, both proprietary. The most annoying of which — my biggest gripe with this bike — is the integrated internal wedge clamp, accessible from under the toptube with a 4mm allen key. Overall it does its job, but it’s particularly tricky to access with a mutitool for on the trail adjustment; and it’s not encouraged to use a ball-end hex at the risk of stripping the allen head at the required torque of about 7 or 8nm, which keeps the post from sliding. On the other hand, the head of the post is quite neat. The elastomer-dampening ring which surrounds the Round Rails insert doesn’t look like much in the flesh, but I was surprised how well it tuned out gravel chatter. The Round Rails seat clamp system is also kind of nice and allows for angular fine tuning without the annoyance of the typical two bolt slide clamp.
While Out Bikepacking.
With a name like Exploro, it was only a matter of time before someone would take one out on a multi-day trip. We saw a few decked out in Apidura bags at Interbike, and have gotten wind of a few people using them for weekend exploits. Overall, the 3T felt fine with a light load. On one overnighter it dropped down to 7°F at higher elevations, so I planned accordingly and brought plenty of heavier warm gear. Generally, the Exploro still feels fast even when loaded. Crazy. I will add that this is certainly not a bike for multi-week trips. It has a few faults when it comes to bikepacking. Namely there are only two bottle cages and they don’t play nicely. Typically I’ll use the frame space for a water bottle and a large cage for an Anything Bag. It won’t fit my favorite new cage (the King Manything) as the spacing is off and the loop hits the frame. 3T also left out fork mount bosses as well as under down tube cage mounts.
The Exploro also has full internal cable routing with a modular cap behind the headtube. This gives the bike a very clean look, but also makes mounting a typical top-tube bag a challenge. However, 3T added two bolts on the top tube for a cage or bolt-on bag.
Additionally, I found the frame triangle rather small for a gravel bike, due to the large aero down tube. It wouldn’t fit a Revelate Tangle in sizes medium or large. I used the Oveja Negra Super Wedgie, which is a great bag, but it didn’t quite fit either. A custom frame bag would be ideal, but this would leave you with zero bottle cages. That said, I think the only solution is wither a custom wedge style half frame pack with a single bottle at the seat tube, or a very small half frame pack.
I won’t spend much time on the build kit — or list it — considering that the 3t Exploro is sold as a frame/fork/seatpost combo only. I was impressed with the 1×11 gearing they sent as well as most of the carbon components, barring the non-tubless ready carbon rims.
- Size tested Large
- Weight (as ridden) 18 pounds (8.16kg)
- Claimed Weight (frame) 950g
- Price (Black LTD) $4,200 USD
- Contact exploro.3tcycling.com
- The geometry is dialed for responsive pedaling and insanely fast climbing.
- Unbelievably lightweight. The carbon frame design makes this one of the lightest gravel bikes on the market.
- The seatpost clamp’s vibration reduction ring does a noticeable job dampening the effects of long days on gravel.
- Speed. Did I mention how fast this bike feels?
- Toe Overlap, especially with the 700c/45mm tires; I assume this would be less impactful with a 27.5 setup.
- Standard framebags don’t really fit; both the otherwise universal medium Revelate Tangle didn’t fit and the Oveja Negra Super Wedgie was off due to the odd proportions of the triangle.
- Can’t fit a King Manything. Even with the three-pack bosses on the down tube my new favorite cage won’t fit.
- No under down tube or fork mount bosses provided for additional water.
- The seatpost clamp — although nice for tech — is non-standard and very difficult to adjust.
As noted above, I had a few grievances with the 3T Exploro. Adjusting the seatpost clamp was problematic. The lack of bottle cages are quite annoying, as is the smallish frame triangle. While the toe overlap was my biggest hinderance on singletrack, I would likely fit this bike with 27.5×2.1 tires and that would be a non-issue. And, it’s not cheap.
However, even with these complaints I was really sad to have to return this bike. It’s the fastest bike I’ve ridden, and it became quite addictive. Every time I took it out, I left my driveway like a bat out of hell and ended up doing twice the miles I’d planned. It pushed me to crank up long climbs with gusto and head down a few unknown roads just because I could. I want one just for these types of rides. If you are a gravel rider or racer, or are simply in the market for a fast bike for this type of riding — and the occasional overnight or weekend bikepack — the 3T Exploro might be worth considering. While I’ve never been even remotely tempted, if I were to participate in a big gravel race such as Dirty Kanza, and I could choose any bike for the job, this would likely be it.