Cervelo Aspero first-ride review: The go-fast gravel bike

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Gravel bikes these days fall somewhere on a spectrum that ranges from ultra-capable and adventure-ready, to pared-down and race-ready, and Cervelo is being very clear where its new Aspero gravel machine falls on that spectrum. The generous tire clearance and multi-diameter wheel compatibility are obvious nods to versatility, but whichever wheel and tire setup you decide on, the Aspero is meant for one thing: going fast.


A clear direction

Let’s get a few things out of the way first: Yep, the new Aspero is pretty light, just as you’d expect from anything that wears the Cervelo logo on the down tube. Claimed weight for a painted 56cm frame with hardware is 1,110g, plus 450g for the matching fork — both in carbon fiber, of course. And yes, of course, the frame is designed to be highly efficient under power.

Down below is Cervelo’s now-trademark BBright press-fit bottom bracket shell, with its oversized diameter and generous 79mm width, and similarly proportioned adjoining tubes that are all clearly designed with bending and torsional stiffness in mind. If you look closely, you even see some hints of aerodynamic design in the flat-backed down tube and seat tube.

The frame is admirably elegant, stripped down of needless adornment and free of any “gimmicky” moving parts.

Tire-wise, Cervelo has built into the Aspero all the clearances you’d expect from a modern gravel machine, with room for 700c tires up to 42mm-wide, or 650b ones up to 49mm. And many of the boxes for expected features are checked. Flexibility for 1x or 2x drivetrains? Yep. Internal cable routing that will accommodate both mechanical and electronic setups? Of course. A burly guard to protect the underside of the down tube? Naturally. Disc brakes, 12mm thru-axles, and a tapered steerer tube? Duh. And dropped seatstays? I don’t even need to answer that last one. This is 2019, after all.

But what you won’t find is anything weird. There are no pivots, no engineered flex points or crazy seatpost designs, and no proprietary integrated carbon fiber “cockpits”. Heck, the round seatpost even measures a totally normal 27.2mm in diameter, and is held in place with an actual external seatpost collar.

“We didn’t get into any of the gimmicky stuff,” said Cervelo’s director of product management, Maria Benson. “It was a focus on being fast.”

Dropped chainstays and a 79mm-wide bottom bracket shell help keep the rear end to a very compact 420mm while still providing generous tire clearance.

That focus on fast does come with a sacrifice in versatility, however. For one, there are three bottle mounts in total, plus a feed bag mount up atop the top tube, but that’s all. Fenders? Not fast. So-called “anything” mounts on the fork blades? Go faster so you can make it to the next aid station before you die of dehydration.

It’s all so wonderfully clean and sleek, and exactly what you’d expect from Cervelo’s first real foray off the tarmac.

It’s all about trail

All of this discussion on frame features and design is overshadowed by what truly distinguishes the Aspero from other high-end gravel machines: the frame geometry. And what Cervelo has done here is legitimately clever.

According to Cervelo engineering director Graham Shrive, there are two extremes of gravel riding the Aspero is meant to address: one being Dirty Kanza, and the other being the Grinduro series. Moderate-width 700c wheel-and-tire setups are more common at the former, but the latter tends to favor burlier setups with more air volume and tread.

Cervelo could easily have built sufficient clearance into the Aspero frame and fork to allow users to run either choice, but doing so would have introduced undesirable consequences.

“Trail really dictates the way the bike handles and the way the bike interacts with your body,” he said. And the problem with bikes that are designed to accommodate both 650b and 700c wheel-and-tire setups is that the steering geometry has to either be optimized around one or the other, or made to be a compromise on both.

“When you look at a rider for Dirty Kanza using a 33 or 35, and a rider for Grinduro using a 43, or even bigger, you get profound changes in trail, and the way that the bike turns, and the amount of force that you put into the bike as you corner, based on the outside diameter of that tire. The easy reaction as a bike manufacturer is to, say, put on a 43mm tire, that’ll be our spec, and it’ll handle with this trail, job’s done, and off we go. But then some poor bugger puts a 33 or 35 on there, and the bike is like a total hot rod, and [offers] a sub-optimal experience.”

To deal with this, every Aspero fork has a set of aluminum “flip chips” in the dropouts — officially referred to as “TrailMixer” — that change the rake by 5mm. The rearward position is generally used for smaller-diameter setups, while the forward position is used for larger-diameter ones. Both are designed to produce the intended trail of 62mm.

Dropped chainstays and a 79mm-wide bottom bracket shell help keep the rear end to a very compact 420mm while still providing generous tire clearance.

Cervelo is so committed to its concept of optimal steering geometry that there are even three distinct forks for just six total Aspero frame sizes (52/57mm, 49/54mm, and 46/51mm) so that everyone enjoys similar handling characteristics, regardless of rider height.

“We wanted to focus on making the head tube angle as steep as possible while maintaining the trail that we wanted,” Shrive explained. “It’s a little bit of a different approach than what a lot of mountain bike companies are taking right now.”

For the sake of comparison, the recently revamped Santa Cruz Stigmata (and geometrically identical Juliana Quincy) has the same 72° head tube angle in a 56cm size as the Aspero. But whereas the Stigmata and Quincy have a 45mm fork rake in that size, the stock rake on the Aspero is a substantially quicker 51mm.

Keep in mind, too, that the TrailMixer concept means you’re not necessarily locked into Cervelo’s philosophy on quick-and-agile handling when it comes to gravel, depending on your wheel and tire choices. For example, if you still want to run the stock 700x40c tires, but want to slow things down, you can just switch to the rearward position on the flip chips to yield more forgiving handling traits.

Changing the setting is a little easier said than done, however. While physically turning the dropout inserts is simple enough, doing so also requires changing to a different disc brake caliper mount, so it’s not exactly a trailside process.

Cervelo may not have wanted to subscribe to the lower-longer-slacker approach that currently engulfs the world of mountain bike frame geometry today, but it still borrows one page from that playbook to keep the Aspero from feeling too twitchy on the dirt.

Although the steering geometry is conducive to quick changes in direction and a light feel at the bars in tight quarters, Cervelo stretched the top tube and lengthened the reach substantially. This increases the distance between the bottom bracket and front axle, and also lengthens the wheelbase. What you get as a result is additional confidence on steeper and/or more technical descents, and more stability on loose surfaces where a longer bike is more apt to hold its attitude through a corner. That longer top tube is then paired with a shorter stem so as to maintain the desired fit characteristics.

As a bonus, the longer front-center minimizes toe overlap issues on smaller frame sizes, too.

The Donnelly X’Plor MSO tires are well suited to the Aspero frameset — fast-rolling, reasonably light, and more than capable in the right hands.

Other aspects of the Aspero geometry further the stated goal of effectively creating a two-wheeled rally car.

Given the generous tire clearances, the chainstay length is quite tidy at 420mm. That’s 5mm shorter than the Trek Checkpoint, which is only approved for a 700x40c tire (and won’t officially accept wider 650b tires at all). Meanwhile, the 73.5-78.5mm of bottom bracket drop is at the lower end of what you’ll find in many other modern gravel bikes for additional cornering prowess.

Rider positioning is clearly on the more sporting end of the spectrum. Compared to the Stigmata, the reach on a 56cm Aspero is 9mm longer, while the stack is 16mm lower. In fact, the stack and reach aren’t all that far off a Specialized Tarmac. A comparably sized Aspero is 5-18mm higher, depending on size, but the reach is only 5-8mm shorter.

In other words, if you’re specifically looking for a new gravel bike with casual upright positioning, you should probably look elsewhere; this is not the gravel bike you’re looking for.

Models, prices, and availability

Cervelo will offer the Aspero in three complete builds to start, along with a frameset option for DIYers.

The top-end model comes with a SRAM Force eTap AXS wireless electronic groupset with a single 36T chainring and 10-33T cassette, 700c DT Swiss GRC 1650 Disc carbon gravel wheels wrapped in 40mm-wide Donnelly X’Plor MSO tubeless tires, a Prologo Dimension snub-nosed saddle, an Easton aluminum handlebar and stem, and an Easton carbon fiber seatpost.

Retail price is US$6,000 / AU$7,900 / £5,300 / €6,000.

The top model is well equipped, as it should be for the asking price. Photo: Cervelo.

Sitting in the second spot is the Aspero GRX, which comes equipped with Shimano’s new gravel-specific GRX groupset, an Easton EA90 47/32T crankset, Easton EA70 AX aluminum tubeless gravel wheels with Donnelly X’Plor MSO tires, and Easton EA50 aluminum finishing kit.

Retail price is US$4,000 / AU$5,300 / £3,600 / €4,000.

The SRAM Force eTap AXS build is the most expensive on offer, but anyone looking for more gearing range will likely want to check out the GRX build. Between the 47/32T chainrings on the Easton EA90 crankset and the 11-34T Shimano HG800 cassette, there’s more than enough range for most gravel adventures. Photo: Cervelo.

Exclusive to the North American market is the Aspero Disc Ultegra RX, built with a Shimano Ultegra mechanical groupset (upgraded with the Ultegra RX clutched rear derailleur), an Easton EA90 47/32T crankset, Easton EA70 AX aluminum gravel wheels and the same Donnelly tires as the flagship model, and an Easton EA50 aluminum handlebar, stem, and seatpost, topped with another Prologo Dimension saddle.

Retail price is US$4,000.

If you want a two-chainring drivetrain, you’ll have to go with one of the Shimano builds. Both of the SRAM setups are only offered in 1x configurations. Photo: Cervelo.

Rounding out the trio is the Aspero Apex 1, built with SRAM’s value-oriented Apex 1 single-ring groupset and 40×11-42T gearing, a more generic Alexrims Boondocks 7-D aluminum tubeless clincher wheelset (again, with the same Donnelly tires), a house-brand Cervelo saddle, and Easton EA50 aluminum cockpit components.

Retail price is US$2,800 / AU$3,900 / £2,700 / €3,000.

The Aspero SRAM Apex 1 is only US$300 more expensive than the bare frameset, which makes it the easy value choice of the bunch. Pictured is the Burgundy/Dark Orange color option. Photo: Cervelo.

The frameset is offered in three colors, and comes with a headset and Cervelo carbon fiber seatpost for US$2,500 / AU$3,300 / £2,330 / €2,500 (which certainly makes the Apex 1 model look like the value proposition here).

Cervelo will offer the bare frameset in three different colors. Shown here is the Dark Teal/Light Teal option, which looks fantastic in bright sunlight. Photo: Cervelo.

All of the Aspero models should be available at Cervelo retailers immediately, albeit in limited quantities to start.

Checking out the local scene on the Aspero

Cervelo perhaps could have just shipped a test sample my way prior to launch, but flying me out to Scotland for a day (well, it was originally supposed to be two) somehow seemed to make more sense to them. As ludicrous as spending roughly three days in transit for a few hours of riding seems, I have to say that the gravel riding there far exceeded my modest expectations, and provided more than ample opportunity for some solid first impressions.

As promised, the Aspero is certainly not a casual cruiser of a gravel machine. It feels fast and efficient, with a clear focus on covering ground quickly. The way it responds to pedal pressure is indeed road bike-like, and, as it turns out, the positioning is more along the lines of what I prefer, anyway (ignore the headset spacers in the images; I didn’t have time to mess around with the bike too much before heading out).

I shouldn’t be smiling in this picture; instead, I should be concentrating on going fast. But you know what? Riding gravel is fun, and riding fast is also fun. So there. Photo: Gruber Images.

For riders coming off of more traditional road bikes, the quicker handling should feel quite natural. In fact, overall, the Aspero’s handling reminds me of the Allied Alfa All-Road, a bike that I specifically noted for its road bike-like handling when I reviewed it last year. Looking at the dimensions, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although that bike has a one-degree steeper head tube angle, the 48mm fork rake (and typical 35mm tire width) yields a trail dimension that differs by just a single millimeter.

You might have noticed that I haven’t said anything at all regarding ride quality on the Aspero, and to be perfectly frank, Cervelo doesn’t talk much about it either. Clearly, boosting rider comfort wasn’t as important during the bike’s development as nailing the desired fit, handling, and efficiency goals. As a result, the Aspero is no magic carpet like the Trek Checkpoint or Cannondale Topstone, and it relies more on its tires for any measure of bump isolation.

Nevertheless, I didn’t find the Aspero to be unusually harsh or jarring over the highly varied mix of terrain I encountered in Scotland, but then again, running meaty 700x40c rubber at low pressures obviously helps a lot in that department.

That’s more like it. Serious face. Photo: Gruber Images.

Feature-wise, it’s a bit of a bummer that Cervelo pared things down so much. The top tube bag mount is nice to see (and although the hole spacing is standard, there’s a dedicated bag that will be available), but would have killed the Aspero’s designers to include some fender mounts?

Generally speaking, I expect the Aspero to be one of the more polarizing gravel bikes on the market, and again, Cervelo makes no apologies for what it intends this bike to be. Clearly, the safe middle ground wasn’t the goal here.

That’s just fine, though. No bike is going to satisfy everyone, and if anything, I applaud Cervelo for not only taking a different approach, but totally owning it, too.

In all seriousness, the Cervelo Aspero is one hell of a fast gravel bike, but whether it satisfies your expectations for what a gravel bike should actually be is a question only you can answer. Photo: Gruber Images.

By the time you read this, my long-term tester will have been in my hands for all of a single day. Will the Aspero win me over once I’ve had more of a chance to thrash it on some local singletrack? What about if I toss some road wheels and tires on it so it’ll serve double-duty as a proper road bike? How much flip-chipping are people likely to actually do?

All of those questions, and more, will be answered in due time.

www.cervelo.com

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