BMC Unrestricted URS 2020 first-ride review: Gravel bike or MTB?
It wasn’t long ago that we thought of gravel as a fringe discipline of road cycling, a discipline where niche brands like Salsa Cycles had a near monopoly. Now you’ll be hard pressed to find a single global bike brand that doesn’t have a bike dedicated to gravel.
BMC only recently dipped its toes into the murky, gravelly water with the Roadmachine X, a road-bike-like “gravel bike” that offered barely enough room for cyclocross tyres. That all changes for 2020.
With deep roots in mountain biking, the Swiss bike company has seemingly taken its MTB World Cup-winning hardtail and morphed it into a new-age gravel bike that balances on a Swiss-army-knife’s edge of where gravel is and where it is seemingly headed.
This is the “Unrestricted”, or URS for short. And even if you don’t care for a premium carbon fibre gravel bike, the URS is one to pay attention to. It offers a modern approach to geometry that’s borrowed straight out of a mountain biking handbook and merges it with BMC’s unique take on the softtail concept. Add in a semi-integrated cockpit, and a long shopping list of features, and this is one of the more interesting gravel bikes we’ve laid our eyes on in recent years.
The day after riding the new Roadmachine, I was out testing the URS across a mix of silky tarmac bends, stem-chewing climbs, gravel-laden dairy farms, and just a little technical singletrack too. This in-depth article details the many features of the new bike, and offers some early hands-on ride impressions.
Long reach, long wheelbase, stubby stem
- BMC URS Unrestricted gravel bike
- Model year: 2020
- What: BMC’s first dedicated carbon fibre gravel bike.
- Key features: Mountain-bike-like geometry, softtail frame design, integrated cockpit, 1x drivetrain-specific, room for 700x45c tyres.
- Weight: 1,050g frame (medium-size, clear-coated), complete bikes from 8.5kg (URS ONE as tested, without pedals).
- Price: Starting from US$3,299 / AU$4,199 / €2,999, up to US$9,499 / AU$11,499 / €8,999 as tested.
- Availability: Not until December!
- Highs: Progressive geometry, softtail system, lovely clean cable integration, frame protection and attention to the small details.
- Lows: Limited size options, 1x drivetrains only, makes you question the tipping point for where a gravel bike is best.
Gravel+. That’s what BMC is calling its approach to the URS’ geometry, and in many ways, it’s exactly the same thinking we’ve seen evolve on mountain bikes in recent years. To achieve this, BMC threw the UCI’s road and cyclocross restrictions on front-centre length out the window. Yes the URS is designed for performance riding, but specifically on gravel.
The head angle is slackened (70 degrees) and the reach is noticeably longer than most, both designed to be paired with a short stem to bring the fit back in line and keep the handling fast. In turn, your weight distribution is better centered between the wheels and further behind the front axle, making the bike more stable on steep descents and easier to loft its front wheel over obstacles, too.
All frame sizes combine that consistent 70-degree head angle with a somewhat short 45mm fork rake, producing a long-for-gravel 77mm trail figure. Compare that to the trail figures of gravel bikes that handle similarly to road bikes, such as the Specialized Diverge (56-64mm) and Trek Checkpoint (59-66mm), and it’s certainly long, but it’s not too far past the likes of the Giant Revolt Advanced (71-74mm), and it’s an exact match to the Rodeo Labs Flaanimal 4.1.
With just four sizes on offer, ranging from small to extra-large, the URS’ size range is more akin to what you see in mountain bikes, too. That’s a stark change from BMC’s usual six road frame size options; not only are gaps between sizes greater, but riders well under 163cm are simply uncatered for.
The Roadmachine’s launch boasted about BMC now offering 55 and 70mm ISC stems in a 0-degree angle and the option for a straight offset seatpost, but in reality, all of these parts were actually created for the URS, and as a side perk, expand the sizing options for BMC’s endurance road bike, too.
As has been seen with slack and long-trail mountain bikes, the seat tube angle is typically brought forward to get the rider’s weight forward for easier climbing. And of course, BMC has taken this approach on the URS, equipping a 74-degree seattube and straight post to achieve just this.
Both the small- and medium-size bikes will be equipped with an unexpectedly stubby 55mm stem, while the two larger sizes are equipped with a still-short 70mm. To put that into perspective, my medium-sized 130mm-travel trail bike came stock with a 60mm stem, and looking down at a 55mm stem fitted to dropbars was a strange sight. However, it all makes sense when you look at the URS’ toptube lengths and associated reach figures.
Generally speaking, the URS’ toptube lengths are 20-30mm longer than what you’d be used to seeing. For example, I’d typically choose a gravel bike with a 380mm reach and a 90-100mm stem. While the small URS I rode combines a 403mm reach with a 55mm stem. That’s still approximately 10mm shorter in effective reach than what I’m used to, but I’ll come back to this.
As has been seen with many new mountain bikes and the likes of the Grove R.A.D gravel bike, removing the front derailleur and going 1x-drivetrain-specific opens up freedoms for a combination of short chainstays and wide tyre clearance, all without the need for a special bottom bracket or wheel offset interpretations (such as those found on the Cannondale Topstone Carbon). In the case of the URS, the chainstays are a relatively short 425mm and there’s room for up to 700x45c tyres, although the geometry is optimised for and based on 40c rubber.
Micro Travel explained
On top of the attention-grabbing mountain-bike-inspired geometry, the URS also borrows the softtail-ish “Micro Travel Technology” (MTT) from BMC’s World-Cup-winning Teamelite 01 hardtail.
Built in place of the seatstay bridge, BMC’s MTT was first introduced in 2015. It was a fresh take on the old softtail concept, and for BMC, it was designed to assist with traction and a touch of comfort without compromising performance at the very highest level of racing.
Retaining frame stiffness was a key design criteria for BMC and so the single-strut softtail design of old wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, the MTT is built around two aluminium shafts which slide on self-lubricating bushings similar to what’s found in the eye of a mountain bike rear shock. Flex in the chainstays acts as the pivot for the system to move under load.
An elastomer rubber covers the moving components and acts as the system dampener, too. Stefan Christ, the overseer of all new creations at BMC, doesn’t like calling it an elastomer due to the negative connotations associated with such materials being used through the 90s with underwhelming results. Rather, the elastomer-like material used is from the automotive industry, and Christ claims (and who could argue?) they’ve had no issues related to temperate or UV in the past four years of real-world use.
Those aluminium shafts are threaded in place from the front of the seattube. The whole system can be disassembled and serviced within 10-15 minutes and with basic tools. BMC’s professional mountain bike race team apparently services the system of its athletes once a season, although they likely open it up for cleaning and greasing more than that. Still, such frequency is extremely minimal in a sport that typically sees full suspension frames fully rebuilt on a fortnightly basis, and suspension forks more frequently again.
All told, the MTT accounts for 80g of the frame’s 1,050g figure (medium-size, clear-coated). In many ways, the MTT found on the URS is identical to that found on the Teamelite, although it’s somewhat simplified. Where the hardtail offers 15mm of travel and the choice between three densities of the elastomer damper, the URS offers just 10mm of travel from a single compound option.
Road and adventure influence
Beyond the obvious dropbar, the road influence is most noticeable with BMC’s Integrated Cockpit System featuring on the higher-end URS 01 models — the same concept that’s used on the Roadmachine and Timemachine.
This sees the cables routed through a cover beneath the stem, and directly into the headtube, with the brake hoses and Di2 wires running down the side of a squared-off steerer tube. From the outside, you can see the brake hoses poke out from where the bartape ends, and then quickly disappear into the stem.
Add in the same compliance-inducing D-Shape seatpost of the Roadmachine and a competitively lightweight carbon fibre frame construction, and the URS is clearly a collaborative effort from BMC’s road and off-road divisions.
Gravel is segmenting, and while some brands offer multiple models to cover the spectrum, others try to build that versatility into a single bike. And whether it’s smooth single track exploring, gravel racing or multi-day backpacking, the URS seems to be designed to handle it.
The frame offers room for up to 700x45c or 650x47mm tyres, although the geometry is optimised around a 700x40c size. The bike offers fender and rack compatibility, front hub dynamo wire routing, provisions for a toptube bag, and space for three water bottles. Rock chips are unlikely with integrated rubber protection bumpers at the chainstay, downtube and somewhat uniquely, fork dropouts, too. And as stock, BMC then covers the rest of the downtube’s lower side with protective tape.
In addition to fitting regular fenders, BMC’s new seatpost-mounted DFender (looks like an Ass saver) – the same as that mentioned with the new Roadmachine – is also provided with the URS. And despite the proprietary seatpost, BMC has designed it such that a regular 27.2mm dropper (or seatpost of your choosing) can be fitted with the aid of a small shim.
And if mention of a dropper post or 55mm stem didn’t scream mountain biking, the URS is also designed to handle a gravel-specific suspension fork, such as the 40mm-travel FOX AX, although this will raise the front end by approximately 20mm. BMC has specifically prepared for such a modification and will supply the bikes with an optional headset topcap to stop the fork crown from contacting the frame.
Models, components and pricing
It’s become increasingly common for new bikes to be ready or nearly ready for purchase when they’re revealed to the public. However, that’s simply not the case for the URS — stock isn’t expected to land until December this year.
The URS will (eventually) be available in four complete builds, each featuring the same “Premium” carbon fibre frame. At the top-tier, the URS ONE and TWO feature the integrated cockpit and matching fork, while the two bottom models move to a round-steerer fork and traditional stem.
All four models come stock with WTB Resolute 700x42mm tyres and are ready for tubeless setup (parts provided). BMC specs a larger 180mm brake rotor on the front, and a 160mm on the rear – another common tactic from the mountain bike world.
URS. A common Swiss name, but not a common bike
The team at BMC did a stellar job of cramming an incredible variety of terrain into a half day of testing. The Swiss countryside proved to be an ideal testing ground for a bike that aims to be capable across such a broad spectrum of terrain.
The ride started with picturesque rolling gravel roads, with the only locals being nervous-looking cows. The top-tier URS felt immediately comfortable and controlled in this environment, with its relatively low-weight rolling stock and insanely low gearing from the 50T cog making a great first impression.
The first few pedal strokes reveal a fun, lively and poppy sensation. The short chainstays, stubby stem, and long front-centre all work to make the URS feel like a mountain biker’s dropbar bike. It’s a bike that seemingly rewards reckless behaviour.
However, even on the early rolling terrain, the bike felt on the short side, especially when riding on the tops of the handlebars. Reaching out to the hoods or drops helps with the issue, but I was still noticeably more upright than what I’m used to. When playing with the bike this felt great, but I was wanting to be more spread out on faster pedaling sections, and the 55mm stem just felt too short here.
Somewhat offsetting this is a relatively low stack that stopped the front end from feeling too light. With a 0-degree stem fitted, the bars are brought a touch higher than what the printed number alludes to. As a result, I suspect this will be a bike that many run with few headset spacers.
After a lunch that overlooked the north face of the Eiger mountain, we started to tackle a mixture of tooth-loosening descents and singletrack. The mountain bike marathon-esque trails quickly overcame the 42mm-wide tyre’s capability to handle the roughness, and the handlebars were ringing with vibration. Between the short rigid stem, tapered steerer, and oversized carbon bars, there wasn’t much flex to the front end, and this all distracted from what was happening at the rear of the bike. In such terrain I was out of the saddle, and the benefit of the MTT wasn’t immediately obvious.
While the ability to hold onto the handlebars was seemingly the limitation, the URS’ handling remained impressively composed. Even on my small sample, the wheelbase is in excess of a metre and combined with the slack head angle and short stem, there was never a sense of sketchiness. The somewhat rearward bias also made it a breeze to pop the front wheel over unexpected rocks and roots. Add in the short-feeling reach, and on rough terrain it felt more like a mediocre mountain bike than a gravel bike – and I mean that as a compliment.
With the smell of burning disc brakes and limbs sore with arm pump, a gruellingly steep and long gravel climb awaited. I’m certainly lacking more than a little fitness, and I was soon making good use of that 50T cog out back. It’s amazing how in certain situations low gearing is never low enough.
It was amidst this climb that I had plenty of time to ponder the bike I was creeping along on. Here I truly desired a longer stem to spread me out and to chew on, and to put more weight over the front wheel that was beginning to wander as I tired.
Similarly, my embarrassingly slow speed was revealing a sense of wheel flop from the long trail figure, and I was having to focus to keep the bike tracking inline. The sensation wasn’t as extreme as on something like the old Giant ToughRoad, but it was here that I became most aware of the compromises made in order to make this bike descend as well as it did.
Although the terrain was typically too steep to climb out of the saddle, trying to would only exaggerate how cramped the bike was, and I’d have to adjust my position to not knock my knees on the bars. Clearly, the bike was on the short side for me, and while a longer stem would remedy the issue, it also highlights the limitations in only offering four frame sizes.
With the taste of stem still in my mouth, it was back on to rolling terrain. A high-speed corrugated dirt road revealed the brilliance of the MTT system and D-shaped post. I was able to stay seated and pedal comfortably over a surface that I’d expected to force me from the saddle. In this scenario, I could feel the front wheel skipping ever so slightly, while the rear wheel remained grounded and with traction unbroken.
Repeatable situations like this will be dependant on where you ride, but it’s clear that BMC’s MTT system is more than a gimmick. More importantly, that was one of the first situations where I’d become aware of the MTT, and not once did it present itself as a negative.
From there, the road turned smooth and fast, and the URS behaved perfectly at high speeds. Keeping speed up is made easy with no wasted energy from the stiff frame and the bike’s lightweight feel, however, the limitations of the 1x gearing became obvious when attempting to pedal on the downward sloping tarmac.
And before the ride dropped us onto the shores of Lake Biel, we had a final taste of tight and technical singletrack. This again reminded me that the typical slow handling of the long-trail figure was offset by the short stem, and that the more rearward position made the bike capable on trails beyond where a gravel bike should belong. However, it was also apparent that wider rubber wouldn’t go astray when trying to get the most from the MTB-style geometry, and for that, there are space limits for just how big you can go.
I tend not to comment on the graphic design of test bikes, but BMC has taken a bold (and appreciated) move and provided little branding to reveal who the URS is from. All models are in gloss paint for easy cleaning – which shows careful consideration from a brand that has long used matte and satin finishes. However, the contrasting block colouring on the fork legs ruins the look for me, even if it’s for visibility.
The tipping point of gravel
The URS is certainly comparable to a Swiss-army knife, but it’s most like one of the bigger and more expensive models that has so many features its everyday purpose is no longer obvious.
When a pocket knife gets too big, it’s sometimes better just to use the real tool. There’s a lot, a real lot, to love about this fun-riding bike, but just like carrying around an oversized Swiss Army knife, I couldn’t help but feel that where the URS was at its best, a lightweight cross country mountain bike would be better.
Perhaps that opinion is clouded by the marathon mountain bike-style trails we rode, and I’m keen to see if my first impressions hold once I’m able to spend more time on the URS. I’ll just have to wait until 2020 for that to happen.