Moots Routt RSL long-term review: The titanium gravel forever bike, perfected

by James Huang


There are a lot of good bikes out there these days, and heaps of great ones, too. Truly superb ones, however, are much more rare. One bike that inarguably fits into that latter category is the Moots Routt RSL, the flagship titanium gravel “forever” bike from the legendary Colorado small-batch builder.

The Routt RSL is anything but inexpensive, though, and numbers-obsessive buyers may struggle to find its appeal next to high-performance carbon fiber machines. But titanium devotees will need no convincing of the Routt RSL’s worth, and when you ride it — oh, how this bike rides — it all becomes clear. Had I room in the family budget, I wouldn’t be shipping this bike back to Steamboat Springs; instead, it’d take up permanent residence in my garage.


Story Highlights

  • What it is: Flagship titanium gravel bike from American frame builder Moots
  • Frame features: Butted titanium main tubes, 3D-printed dropouts, standard fender mounts, stock or custom geometry, optional fittings and anodized finishes
  • Weight: 1,400g (claimed, frame only, size 54cm); 475g (claimed, fork only); 7.99kg (17.61lb), 52cm size, without pedals
  • Price: US$5,519 / AU$8,888 (frameset only, with headset); US$10,845 / AU$TBC (as tested)
  • Highs: Stiff yet supple ride quality, brilliant handling, legendary Moots build quality
  • Lows: Painfully expensive, only one fork rake for all sizes

The Moots approach to high-end titanium

Moots is one of the best-known and most highly respected titanium frame builders on earth, but founder Kent Eriksen spent his first decade at the torch welding together tubes made of steel. In the early 1990s, Eriksen came up with the YBB (Why Be Beat) rear suspension system for mountain bikes, which relied on chainstay flex and a small steel coil spring inside a telescoping section of a seatstay wishbone to provide about 20mm of wheel travel.

Eriksen was rightfully concerned with how the chainstays would hold up over time. Steel work hardens with repeated bending, meaning it gradually becomes more brittle and loses its elasticity. Just like a paper clip that is bent over and over again, even the best steel tube will start to crack — but exactly when was the question Eriksen was looking to answer.

I vacillate between wanting titanium bikes to have color vs. leaving their natural beauty to shine unadorned. But regardless of how you dress it up, the Moots Routt RSL delivers an undeniably vivid personality.

He turned to the engineering gurus at the Colorado School of Mines for help, and they rigged up a data acquisition system to a steel YBB frame to determine just how much stress and strain it experienced during a ride. The conclusion? Steel wouldn’t cut it. But titanium would, thanks to its far superior fatigue life, and just like that, Moots switched to that mysterious wonder metal practically overnight.

Today, Moots’ total production volume hovers around 1,000 frames per year. Custom geometry is still offered, but there are definitely advantages to the small-batch approach. That sort of volume allows Moots to invest more in product development than many other titanium outfits, and it shows in the top-end RSL variants offered for the company’s road, ‘cross, gravel, and mountain bikes.

The Routt RSL can handle dirt and gravel roads, paved roads, and even moderate singletrack with ease and grace. It’s a quiet performer that simply goes about its business.

In the case of the Routt RSL here, that means oversized and custom butted 3/2.5 titanium main tubes with size-specific tubing diameters and butting profiles, sleek wishbone-style seatstays, and an oversized 44mm-diameter head tube. All of the tubing is sourced from well-known suppliers Sandvik, Haynes, and Reynolds, depending on the application.

“The larger the frame and weight of the rider, the longer the butt length and greater the diameter of the tube,” explained Moots marketing man Jon Cariveau. “Butt lengths are biased to stress areas in the frame, such as the head tube. The goal is to maximize diameter for strength in intersecting points of the frame, and the butts were developed with the goal of having an adequate amount of material for strength for high-stress zones. The butts and tapers were dictated by two things: ride quality characteristics and durability/manufacturability. Yes, [the RSL frames] could be lighter, but they would not ride as good and would probably not be as durable.”

The tube profiles are round throughout, but yet the ride and performance are truly sublime.

Perhaps the neatest thing about the Routt RSL frame, however, is its ultra-trick 3D-printed titanium rear dropouts. First offered in 2016, Moots developed these as a way to more consistently manufacture frames with flat-mount disc brake tabs. Unlike the post-mount tabs that were the norm up until them, flat-mount tabs are located further away from the centerline of the chainstay (or seatstay), and create a greater concentration of heat in a relatively small area. As a result, it’s much more difficult to keep heat-related warping at bay, and the rear end properly aligned.

But by forming the brake tabs with the rest of the dropout as a single piece, that sub-assembly could then be welded to the end of the tube in a more uniform fashion. Fender mounts can be easily and cleanly added in, too (and are standard-issue on the Routt RSL). According to Moots, the 3D-printed parts themselves are far more expensive to produce than conventional titanium dropouts, but what’s saved in terms of time and frame quality easily justifies the investment — and they look awfully cool, too.

Although those fancy dropouts are manufactured elsewhere, Moots machines most of the smaller titanium and aluminum fittings in-house, and also does its own anodized frame graphics as well.

The 3D-printed dropouts are brilliant pieces of engineering. Flat-mount brake tabs are typically quite problematic for welded titanium frames, but since the mounts are incorporated directly into the printed part, heat-induced warping becomes a non-issue.

Cariveau says that the RSL frames could be lighter, but the Routt RSL is already quite light as is, with a claimed weight of 1,400g in a 54cm size, with the matching Moots carbon fork adding another 475g. Seven stock sizes are offered, ranging from 50-60cm, and custom geometry is available if one of those seven doesn’t suit your proportions. Whether a customer goes with stock or custom geometry, there are a wealth of options available, including a variety of different routing styles for mechanical, hydraulic, wired electronic, or wireless electronic transmissions, and a 1cm head tube extension, all of which are included in the purchase price.

For additional fees, customers can also opt for internal rear brake hose routing (through the down tube only), a third water bottle mount (all of which are welded in place), a chain hanger, or an engraved head tube in place of the standard badge. If you insisted upon it, Moots would probably incorporate some sort of press-fit bottom bracket shell for you, too — but thankfully, a standard English-threaded one is the standard configuration.

Geometry-wise, the Routt RSL is a hybrid between the company’s more cyclocross racing-focused PsychloX and the more casual standard Routt gravel model, essentially pairing the more aggressive positioning of the former with most of the stability of the latter, all while leaving ample room for 40mm-wide tires on 700c rims. Some 650b setups may technically fit, but Moots doesn’t recommend it.

The 71mm of bottom bracket drop is shared with the Routt to provide similar high-speed confidence on loose surfaces, but the dartier 72-degree head tube is borrowed from the Psychlo X, and a full degree steeper for more responsive steering. Interestingly, the Routt RSL’s 430mm chainstays are 7mm longer than what Moots uses on both the Psychlo X and the standard Routt. Either way, the same 47mm fork rake is used throughout the size range — the only disappointment I have on paper. Moots uses two different rakes for its in-house carbon road forks, but couldn’t justify investing in additional molds for the Routt range just yet.

You want perfect welds? Feast your eyes.

Fit-wise, the Routt RSL is closer to the Psychlo X, with my 52cm Routt RSL sample’s 567mm stack and 369mm reach within a few millimeters of that dedicated ‘cross racer — a major departure from the standard Routt’s much more upright 582mm stack and 361mm reach figures.

Retail price is pretty much as you’d expect. The standard Routt RSL frameset (which includes the Moots carbon fork and a Chris King I7 headset) sells for US$5,519 / AU$8,888, or US$10,845 / €12,577 as pictured here, built with a SRAM Red eTap HRD groupset, Chris King R45/HED Belgium+ aluminum tubeless clincher wheels, a Chris King bottom bracket, a Moots titanium stem and seatpost, an Enve carbon handlebar, a PRO saddle, and the optional internal rear brake routing.

Other build kits and configurations are obviously available as well, but no matter how you slice it, the Routt RSL is no bargain machine.

Actual weight for my complete bike (sans pedals) is 7.99kg (17.61lb).

Magic on the road — and off of it, too

One of the benefits of having a child is having a perfectly valid excuse to see a wealth of movies you otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead watching before. One that came to mind while I was trying to figure out why this Moots was so good was Ratatouille — a tale about a Parisian mouse named Remy, who just happened to be a masterful chef and general connoisseur of fine cuisine.

In one scene, Remy does his best to describe to his older brother, Emile, how certain foods are more than just the sum of their parts. Rather, it’s the way the different flavors combine and complement each other that makes dishes particularly special.

While this may seem like a strange analogy, that’s exactly what I found with the Moots Routt RSL. On paper, it maybe doesn’t seem like it should be all that special (nor did I necessarily expect it to be so before I rode it). But this magical combination of a perfectly tuned frame and fork, fantastic geometry, and a smart blend of componentry truly does make for a magical experience.

Titanium holds a curious appeal to devotees, who will often wax lyrical about how mysterious metal’s performance transcends definition. However, it’s how a frame is engineered and designed that determines if it fully realizes the potential of the material from which it’s made — and titanium is no less immune to feeling noodly, dead, harsh, etc.

The Routt RSL strikes a very conventional profile, with lots of straight lines and a modestly sloping top tube.

But with this Routt RSL, Moots has seemingly left nothing on the table, and any Routt RSL owner will clearly benefit from the effort put forth in its design and development.

I often find smaller-tubed titanium bikes to be a little lackluster dynamically, but the Routt RSL is a veritable spitfire, always eager for more. The oversized tubing responds just as you’d expect, with ample “snap” and rigidity when you put down the power, and a front triangle that feels stout in your hands when you throw the bike side-to-side in out-of-saddle climbs and sprints. The wishbone-style rear end tracks true when charging through rough corners, too, with nary a hint of wag.

But yet that stoutness is also accompanied by that springiness and resilience often associated with top-shelf titanium frames. I’ve no doubt that the Routt RSL wouldn’t post bench test stiffness numbers that can match the best carbon fiber frames out there — the Scott Addict Gravel and Allied Alfa Allroad immediately come to mind — but there’s an odd sense of symbiosis here nevertheless. Regular listeners of the CyclingTips podcast will recall a conversation I had with Jan Heine. Heine believes that the flex characteristics of certain bikes sometimes have a way of working perfectly with their riders, feeling like they amplify, rather than dull, their efforts. A scientific explanation of such a concept still eludes me, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t feeling something akin to what Heine was describing.

The chainstays follow a subtle S-bend as they make their way from the bottom bracket to the dropouts.

There’s also an undeniable creaminess in how the Routt RSL rides, despite the oversized 30.9mm-diameter titanium seatpost. The ride quality is firm and communicative, but yet also smooth and coddling. For sure, the 35mm-wide Schwalbe G-One Allround tires play a role here, but having also ridden a number of other wheel-and-tire combinations on the Routt RSL, I’m comfortable assigning a fair bit of credit directly to the frameset.

Frame geometry feels spot-on to me as well, at least when using the larger-volume tires that are ideally suited for the Routt RSL’s intended purpose. Much like the Trek Checkpoint, the Routt RSL pairs a more responsive steering geometry with a low bottom bracket and a comparatively long rear end. On the road — or trail — this makes the Routt RSL eager to change direction, but it also lends heaps of confidence if you end up in a pile of marbles mid-corner.

Having spent ample time on the standard version of the Routt, I have to say that the RSL version’s more aggressive fit is far more in keeping with what I prefer for this genre of bike, too. Upright positioning may be just what the doctor ordered for many riders looking to venture off the tarmac, but I still strongly believe there are handling benefits to having a more balanced weight distribution. More weight on the front tire means more traction, after all, and I generally prefer my bikes to go where I ask them to, not plow through the outside of a turn.

The matching Moots Cinch seatpost is a pricey add-on, but when you’re already spending an obscene amount on the frame, what’s another few hundred dollars, right?

One of the appeals of something like the Routt RSL is the idea that it could serve as both a gravel machine and a standard road bike, provided you’ve got two sets of wheels and tires on hand. Thankfully, all of the frame’s positive attributes carry over to the tarmac: that incredibly lustful ride quality, the responsiveness, the promise of lifetime durability. With a set of deeper-section aero wheels and 25mm-wide slicks, the bike definitely feels more like a standard road bike in terms of overall speed and rolling resistance.

However, the smaller total wheel-and-tire diameter also makes for slightly floppier handling. I didn’t find it enough to be overly objectionable, but I’d still recommend that anyone looking to the Routt RSL to serve double duty that they stick to slicks of at least 30mm or so in width.

Just as that wise rodent, Remy, surmises, the overall performance of any bike isn’t solely due to a single factor, and I’d be remiss if I credited everything I’ve enjoyed about this Routt RSL tester to the frameset. But this particular combination is oh-so-good.

Moots frames can obviously be built as you like, but this HED Belgium+/Chris King R45 wheelset and Schwalbe G-One tire combination is simply sublime: light, snappy, and with a stiffness profile that seems perfectly matched to the frame.

The wheel-and-tire package complements the frame’s spring and snap especially well. Moots sent my loaner out with handbuilt HED Belgium+/Chris King R45 wheels, wrapped with 35mm-wide Schwalbe G-One Allround tubeless clinchers. The wheels are admirably light, but also well-matched in terms of flex characteristics, and as I’ve stated on numerous times in the past, the G-Ones roll remarkably quickly on tarmac, but yet also provide surprisingly sure traction on dirt. It’s a winning combination that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

I also ran a set of Industry Nine Ultralite CX 235 TRA wheels and 40mm-wide Maxxis Rambler tires to check out the Routt RSL’s ability to handle burlier terrain. As promised, the bike handled mild singletrack and poorly maintained jeep roads with aplomb, but that wheelset was also noticeably stiffer, and lost some of the original spec’s magic, in my opinion.

Perhaps also contributing to the sum total are the Moots TIG-welded titanium stem and seatpost, both of which also not only likely add to the frame’s unique feel, but also yield a more visually cohesive total package.

If you’re going to bother with the Moots seatpost, then the stem is a must as well. It obviously adds to the visual cohesiveness, but it also seems to contribute to the bike’s ride quality, too.

Otherwise, there’s not much else that needs to be said about the SRAM Red eTap groupset or Enve carbon fiber bar. The latter is one of my favorites, and SRAM’s flagship component package continues to be a stalwart performer with outstanding ergonomics, best-in-class overall braking performance, and the most intuitive shifting of any drivetrain — electronic or otherwise. The fact that there are no stops or ports required for housing or wiring is a nice visual bonus, too.

Where’s my credit card?

Bikes are functional machines, designed on computers and created by engineering minds. But they’re also highly emotive objects, and our bicycle-related decisions aren’t always solely rooted in logic.

I first threw a leg over this Routt RSL when I attended the Moots Ranch Rally, an 80km (50-mile) non-competitive event in Steamboat Springs held almost entirely on idyllic dirt and gravel farming and ranch roads. I remember being surprised at how sporty the bike felt, and amazed at how comfortable it was. I rolled back into Moots HQ at the end of that ride feeling nearly as fresh as when I started, and it was honestly one of the best days I’d ever had on a bike.

If I had the money, I would own this bike right now.

Somehow, I’ve experienced little snippets of that day’s sensation almost every time I’ve ridden this bike since then — that feeling of gliding effortlessly across washboarded dirt, the glee of sliding through slippery turns, that weird way the bike just rockets forward when I will it to do so. What has most often come to mind when I’ve ridden this bike is not what the bike does, but how it makes me feel, and I’m not sure there’s a higher praise I can give.

The Moots Routt RSL is anything but cheap, but I’d argue that it’s far from a bad value. It’s among the best-riding and performing gravel bikes I’ve ridden, it should be laughably durable, and it’s impeccably constructed. Everything on it — from the bottom bracket threads to the rear brake tabs to the dropout alignment — is utterly perfect. It’s a forever bike in the truest sense, and amortized over that kind of time, even this bike’s asking price suddenly seems almost reasonable.

Unfortunately, the reality is that a bike like this is still well outside of my reach, and the months-long dream has just recently ended, as the bike is now on its way back to Moots HQ. But as with all of our fondest dreams, the memories of this one will stay with me for a long while.

Farewell, Routt RSL. I’ll miss you dearly.

www.moots.com

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