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Buying a gravel bike in 2019 is somewhat like shopping for laundry detergents: there’s way too much choice, there’s a weird amount of differentiation for what seems like a single purpose, and there’s far too much promise that the product will clean everything in its path.
Taking a leap of faith into the crowded gravel market, Grove Bike Co is a fresh name on a growing list of consumer-direct brands. And unlike many small start-up bike brands, Grove has invested in a product entirely of its own design – there’s no Alibaba shopping or open mould sourcing here – no small feat for a sole-owner bike brand.
An introduction to Grove
Dave Musgrove is a lifelong bike geek from Sydney’s Northern Beaches and the key person behind Grove Bike Co. Now in his 30s, Musgrove worked within the bike industry from his early teenage years — first as a shop rat, then progressing through the ranks to manage the workshop at one of Sydney’s top shops, and more recently, designing entire bike lineups for Australian bike companies.
Somewhere along the way he picked up a Bachelors degree in materials science engineering, with a thesis on carbon nanotubes. And yet, it’s been aluminium bikes that Musgrove has been the most hands-on with in recent years.
- What is it: Do-it-all gravel bike with a performance edge from a new Australian brand.
- Frame features: 6069 triple-butted aluminium custom shaped tubes, 1x-specific, CNC chainstay yoke, replaceable rear dropouts, 12mm thru-axles, flat mount disc mounts, full carbon tapered fork, fender mounts, 3x bidon mounts and bolts for toptube bag.
- Weight: 8.35kg with AlexRims All-Road wheel option (excluding pedals), 1.55kg medium painted frame weight.
- Prices: Starting from AU$2,599.
- Highs: Dialled geometry that’s fast and fun; generous tyre clearance without silly components; quality build kits; boxing and build quality.
- Lows: Just four sizes; geometry best suits smaller wheel diameters; fussy tubeless setup.
While now defunct, there was a time when Australian brand Cell Bikes transitioned from a low-quality, generic product, consumer-direct brand to one of impressively good value and thoughtfully designed bikes. I myself tested a number of them for another publication and was consistently impressed. Behind that rebirth was Musgrove, and while bikes like the Omeo and Akuna road bikes used a hybrid of open moulds, the Brunswick cyclocross bike and Awaba hardtail were his own ground-up designs.
Musgrove’s riding background is in the cool-to-watch side of cycling – trials, dirt jumping and even slopestyle. But it was through commuting that he eventually found drop bar life: “I was commuting five days a week, 300km a week, to the point I became a roadie.”
Having designed the Cell Brunswick cyclocross bike as a result of trashing road bikes and wanting to seek trails, Musgrove found himself rarely touching the road bike. “I found myself exploring on the cross bike,” he said. “And all of a sudden, this thing I was doing was given a name – gravel. In 2017 I did the Thunderbolt, 228km and 5,000m of ascending – that was a turning point for me, in my riding and the desire to have my own brand.
“I wanted a bike that could do it all, and create something that was truly capable of doing big and long rides over whatever terrain, but do it relatively quickly. Grove grew from that, with the desire to start with a gravel bike.”
With a decade’s experience visiting suppliers and factories in Taiwan, Musgrove undoubtedly had a clear idea of how to bring a bike to market, the mistakes to avoid, and more importantly, what he wanted the bike to look like.
Enter the R.A.D
Sold consumer-direct within Australia, the Grove R.A.D is pitched as a multi-surface do-it-all drop bar bike. In reality, the Grove RAD has a character more comparable to a cyclocross race bike, but with mounting points for carrying things and plenty of tyre clearance (up to 700x43c or 27.5/650Bx2.1in). Over the past few months that I’ve tested the R.A.D, it has often reminded me of what I liked about the Cannondale SuperX SE, but just without the funky proprietary part fitments.
Manufactured in Taiwan, the frame features high-end 6069-T6 triple-butted and custom shaped tubing; a premium alloy that’s commonly disguised behind brand-specific marketing labels. With better strength and fatigue life compared to the more common 6061; the tube butting can be more aggressive which leads to a lighter and better riding frame.
There are a few tricky things being used here to allow such large rubber to fit within the limitations of standard components and pleasingly short 420mm chainstays (even Cannondale’s SuperX SE’s sit at 422mm, and they used proprietary components to pull it off). For instance, the frame was designed for single chainring use only (a 46T fits with plenty of clearance), a growing trend among gravel bikes that’s come across from mountain bikes.
Bridgeless seat and chainstays also help with clearance, while a closer look at the driveside chainstay reveals a CNC machined yoke that segments the tube. “With the tyre clearance and crankset clearances, there’s only 8mm width between them. The alternative [to a yoke] was a dropped stay – but I went with the yoke and straight stay for the visual appearance which is more traditional, but also just for balance and stiffness of the bike by not having one tube much longer than the other,” explained Musgrove.
The desired combination of tyre clearance, stiffness and short chainstays brought upon an additional and potentially polarising aspect – a press-fit bottom bracket shell. As Musgrove explained, “[the PF86 press fit shell] provides 18.5mm extra width compared to a regular road threaded shell.
“I have experienced creaking press-fit bottom brackets in my life. That’s typically due to improper assembly and/or tolerances. The concept of pressing bearings direct into a frame is silly in my mind, the concept of a cup that deforms slightly is good.”
When pushed about tolerance issues, Musgrove elaborated. “Tolerances are really important here. For this, the frame is welded, then put through T4 heat treatment, a final alignment of the frame (most important) is done, and then it goes into T6 heat treatment. After that, the bores are CNC machined, including the bottom bracket. Additionally, the standard factory assembly process is to put press fit cups in dry. I’ve requested the build be done with grease.”
Another example of where the R.A.D’s design overcomes common shortcomings is seen at the dropouts. The dropout and seatstay closely overhang inward and over the cassette. “This allows me to address the heel-rub issues associated with adopting mountain bike wheel standards while keeping road crank widths,” Musgrove said. “The dropouts are super narrow for this reason. Bending all of that area and getting the right shape was a heap of investment.”
Those dropouts are also replaceable. “Main thing is future-proofing because in terms of thread pitches and non-drive-side head interface – I just wanted that design to be future-proof so I can modify it in future if needed. Currently, it’s using Shimano’s rear road standard axle sizing, which is quite narrow.”
Up front sits a full carbon fork using a 1 1/8 to 1 1/2in taper steerer. 12mm thru-axles feature front and rear, as do flat mount disc brakes. Both frame and fork offer mounting points for fenders. A rear pannier rack can also be fitted, and there are bolts provided for a small toptube bag. Finally, frames can carry three bidons (two inside the main triangle, one underneath the downtube), with a third bolt provided on the downtube cage placement for options in cage mounting or fitting of suitable accessories.
The R.A.D is competitive, although not class-leading in terms of weight. It tips the scales at a claimed 1.55kg for a painted medium frame. My complete R.A.D Force LTD weighed 8.35kg with the AlexRims All-Road wheel option, and 8.63kg with the Hunt Carbon 650B wheels fitted with 48c off-road rubber – both excluding pedals.
Ride style choice and considered packaging
A big part of the R.A.D’s do-it-all claim is it’s specifically designed around using multiple wheelsets. Regardless of whether you pick the R.A.D Rival (starting from AU$2,599, black only) or the R.A.D Force LTD (tested, starting from AU$3,599, pictured “snowgum green” only), there’s a number of wheel setups to choose from, and as many as ten options if looking at the R.A.D Force.
This is comprised of four different wheelsets: 700c or 650B alloy wheels from AlexRims; or 700c or 650B carbon wheels from Hunt (only available with the R.A.D Force). The latter carbon wheel options come at a premium, adding AU$900 to R.A.D Force.
From there, different tyre options and even cassette sizes combine to make up the ten choices. The use of tubeless-ready Panaracer tyres remains consistent across all options, and all but the cyclocross wheel choice (11-36T) feature a well functioning wide-range 11-42T Sunrace RX8 cassette. Grove’s website offers great detail on what each setup offers.
I chose to test the bike with the base 700x32c “All-Road” aluminium AlexRims Boondocks 3 wheels (21mm internal width) fitted with Panaracer GravelKing tyres, and the 650Bx48c “Carbon Gravel Plus” option featuring Hunt Adventure Carbon wheels (24mm internal width) and Panaracer GravelKing SK rubber. If you’re keen on multiple wheels like I tested, there is a discount for buying the second set with the bike. For the moment, get in touch with the brand if you’re interested.
Once you’ve made the selection, the bike is unboxed, fitted with the necessary wheel choice, checked for build quality and sent with a courier. It’s the boxing that impressed me most, with a minimalist and reusable packaging system to a level I’ve only previously seen from Canyon.
Building the bike is straightforward, and if you’ve built an Ikea Billy bookcase, you can surely do this. All the parts are held snugly with clever velcro strapped foam blocks (Sorry Mr Musgrove, they’re mine now) and unlike most boxed bikes, there’s very little packaging waste. And much like Canyon’s BikeGuard system, Grove intends for this box and packaging to be reused – even the carry holes are reinforced.
As an added perk, basic tools – including a preset torque wrench – are provided for assembly and are neatly wrapped in a supplied tool roll. The bike’s build quality is similarly sorted, with the gears, brakes and even headset tightness proving spot-on straight out of the box. And even the finest of details, such as foam insulation tubing covering the internally-routed cables, are sorted – no rattles here!
Perhaps the only element not entirely taken care of is the optional tubeless setup. Regardless of your wheel choice, the rims and tyres are tubeless-ready and with the correct tape installed. Grove provides the tubeless valves in the tool roll, but the supply of tubeless sealant and the labor is your own.
The Panaracer tyres don’t provide the easiest tubeless setup experience, and you’ll likely need more than a regular floor pump to get the beads to seat. On the bright side, the tyres are not painfully tight to get on and off the rims.
And while nitpicking, the cable housing and brake hoses are on the longer side and bow outward from the headtube. Musgrove explained that this was done to allow more freedom in changing bars and stems without needing new brake lines. It makes sense given it’s always easier to remove than add length. To solve the issue without cutting the housing, I simply affixed the rear brake hose and gear housing together in front of the headtube to keep them narrow.
Lastly, the disc spacing of the AlexRims and Hunt wheels differed on my samples. This meant I had to readjust the disc calipers when swapping between wheels. Of course this is only an issue for those looking to buy a second set of wheels, and Musgrove assures me he’ll be solving this for double-wheel purchases by shimming the rotors appropriately.
Hitting the Groad with the Grove
Remember how I said the R.A.D reminded me of the Cannondale SuperX SE? That’s a compliment, and a big one at that. I loved the quick and lively handling of the Cannondale that remained poised when things got a little hairy – something the Grove mimicks closely.
From the outset, it was clear the Grove was built with going fast in mind. The handling at the front is fast, and little input is needed to change direction. Likewise, the shorter than usual chainstays (for a gravel bike) aid in the ability to adjust your line, keep your weight on the rear tyre when tackling loose climbs, or when lifting the front wheel over things in your path.
Overall, the R.A.D’s numbers are fairly regular, and perhaps more similar to a taller-perched CX racing bike than the gravel trend of slack head angles and low bottom brackets. Musgrove’s initial prototype had a slacker head angle, but he steepened it up after experiencing wheel flop in corners (a feeling like the bike is trying to tip you off – something I experienced with the Giant ToughRoad).
As a result, all four size options feature the same 52mm offset fork, which with the 72-degree head angle provides a road bike-like 57mm trail figure (using 650Bx47c rubber; trail is 61mm with a 700x40c tyre). I can’t speak for larger frame sizes, but these figures work well on my medium sample.
The bottom bracket height is also higher than current gravel trends, and as a result, allows easier pedaling through corners and greater ground clearance. Musgrove explained, “I feel what happens to be the perfect BB drop for CX racing (700x33c), also works perfectly for 650Bx48c gravel setup.” His reasoning is that if you’re riding off-road trails that are rough enough to justify needing wide 650B rubber, then you’ll likely want the added ground clearance.
It’s a sentiment I agree with, especially around Sydney’s rocky trails where pedal strikes can be a common occurrence when bottom bracket heights are dropped too far. However, that higher bottom bracket height is a key contributor to why the R.A.D can at times feel a little too fast in its steering. It’s most noticeable on the road when rolling “skinnier” 700x32c rubber, where the bike is seemingly more eager to tip into corners than a fast road bike. Putting on the 650B setup with its wider tyre contact patch tames the feeling, while running big diameter rubber such as 700x42c will go in an unwanted direction with forcing a higher center of gravity.
Geometry is directly impacted by wheel diameter, and while the R.A.D can fit big diameter rubber, it’s best suited to running slightly smaller choices – like those provided with my test sample. On this note, my 650Bx48mm wheels fitted with rubber measured in at an actual 683mm height, while the 700x32c “All-road” setup measured a taller 694mm. While totally subjective, I’d say the handling compromises will arise once you start using larger than 700x35c rubber.
I commonly experience toe overlap on road and cross bikes in my size, but I very rarely experienced it on the R.A.D. In fact, it was only present with the larger 700c wheel setup, while there was zero issue when running the wider treaded, albeit shorter 650Bs. It’s another example of where the R.A.D will become compromised if you do decide to fit large (over 38c) 700c rubber.
The stack and reach figures are closely in line with a race bike too, with enough room to stretch out and feel balanced between the wheels. The stack height is on the lower side, without being too aggressive to rule out the non-racers. Musgrove balanced this lower stack with a somewhat unusual handlebar choice – the Ritchey ErgoMax WCS. This quality aluminium handlebar offers a small amount of rise from its clamped position, a compact bend and moderate flare to the drops. As a result, using the drops doesn’t put you super low, which gives a comfortable position for more technical trails.
If you want an ultimately low position, then the R.A.D won’t limit you; you’ll just want to ditch that riser dropbar and a few steerer spacers.
Regardless of whether you’re pushing the front wheel into a bermed corner or sprinting on tarmac, there’s no wiggle felt in the frame. The front end is extremely stiff, and the front wheel will go wherever your bars are pointed.
Unfortunately, the flip side of that is there’s only a little shock relief from what your front tyre is hitting. As is common with many performance-oriented bikes, the R.A.D’s stiff front end leads to more shock transmission than what’s felt out back. The thinned and subtly bowed seatstays flex somewhat, while the selected 27.2mm seatpost is a Ritchey WCS Carbon Link FlexLogic with intended deflection. And if you’re riding terrain so rough that you’re regretting leaving the mountain bike at home, then wide 650B rubber setup tubeless and run below 30psi does an impressive job of keeping you in control. But regardless of your tyre choice, the Grove is by no means a bone-rattling experience.
Looking to more specific applications and those eager to take part in the skinsuit-wearing, blood-in-the-mouth shenanigans of cyclocross will find the wide half-moon shaped top tube ideal for shouldering and just as easy for toptube grabs.
At the complete opposite end of the scale, the quick handling works ideally with a handlebar bag. That extra weight on the front wheel simply calms the R.A.D’s quick handling, but not enough to make it feel heavy to react. On a similar note, the relatively square frame affords plenty of room for a frame bag.
With one bike claiming to do so much, the single ring gearing choice may prove to be the biggest area of contention. The stock 42T chainring and 11-42T cassette gave me nearly all the range I wanted when riding mixed terrain, but I wished for even lower gearing when taking the R.A.D where mountain bikes best belong. At the opposite end, you may wish to size up your chainring if you’re planning some group road rides or live in flatter terrain, especially given that SRAM’s usual 10T cog isn’t provided here.
The mountain biker’s “other” bike
The Grove R.A.D is an impressively well-thought-out bike. Perhaps most impressive is the clear attention given to the smallest of details that even the largest companies sometimes overlook – all from a small start-up bike company on its introductory product.
For me, that fine attention to detail and selection of proven parts forgives the pricing that may not seem as sharp as what an aluminium consumer-direct bike should be. With carbon framed options such as the Giant Revolt Advanced or Canyon Grail sneaking in at a similar price (albeit with lesser parts), the decision is likely to be murky.
With a fast and relatively stiff ride, the R.A.D is best suited to someone who appreciates the ability to take control and throw a bike around. Regardless of frame material, this is a great riding bike with compromise-free component choices.
However, you don’t have to be a racer to enjoy what the R.A.D has to offer. It’s an extremely versatile drop-bar bike, and one that is easily transformed with a swap of wheels or even tyres. There is a compromise in that, and I felt far happier rolling along the pavement with the 700x32c rubber than I did dragging along the 650B knobby treads on smooth surfaces. Likewise, the 650B mountain bike rubber offers clear benefits to control and ride comfort when the ground becomes unkempt.
Like many good gravel bikes, the R.A.D is capable of replacing a number of other drop bar bikes in your stable, but you’ll likely want some choice in the shoes it wears.
Click through for more info at Grove Bike Co.