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I’ve always had an appreciation for alloy or steel frames. Recently I’ve even come around on the merits of titanium after getting to play with a hand-built Caminade gravel bike. Borrowing a Specialized Allez built with Shimano’s mid-range 105 groupset got me more excited than many of the superbikes I’ve played on in recent times. But I’ve always had a hard time getting overly excited by carbon fibre bikes.
That combination of fibre and resin is perceived as the material of choice for the pinnacle of racing machines. Light, stiff, comfortable, blah de blah. For a price, you can apparently have it all with carbon. All but one factor: unique character.
Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of bikes I’ve tested in the past year that have impressed. The new Cervelo S5 impressed with its speed; the Scott Addict RS impressed with its ride quality, and the Wilier Zero SLR with its Italian racing poise.
One of the reasons I love metal bikes — alloy, steel and recently titanium — is there’s always a compromise to them. Those compromises throw up characteristics that make you read the bike differently out on the open road.
So, the simple question is: is there a bike made of the black stuff that possesses that certain “je ne sais quoi”; that sparkle that stirs something inside? I won’t spoil the ending, but a trip to the Italian Riviera may very well have held the answer for me.
BACK WHEN I WAS YOUNG
Roughly 25 years ago, when I was 13, I had a wardrobe of hand-me-down kit (mainly from the UK-based Ambrosia team), Joli shoes and Hally Hensen baselayers. It was at that time that I got my first and only custom-built frame.
Now, I hear you say, “What the hell does a 13-year-old need a custom bike for?” But stick with me before you make any snap opinions about my upbringing. I have a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Christmas for bike shops in the north-west of England during the early ’90s wasn’t typically a busy period. Unsurprisingly, wet, cold and grey weather didn’t bring cyclists out in any significant numbers (and still doesn’t). So finding the time to light up the torch and build a bike wasn’t difficult. Plus if your dad’s a proprietor of a small bike shop, a frame builder, and wants to treat his son for Christmas, then I guess finding the time, spare tubes, and effort isn’t a chore.
I have very fond memories of that black and yellow Brevatto my dad built, from my first competitive outing (a 10-mile time trial) to the many French sportives where I’d unofficially-officially be the 15 years of age that the event deemed appropriate to start. I still miss that bike. I’ve had nicer bikes since, flashier bikes since, and tested superbikes that 13-year-old me could only dream of. But few have left a mark like that Brevatto.
I put it down to what was a clear dose of passion poured into the bike. I’ve ridden a few handmade bikes since — nothing custom — but they’ve all had something that stand out about them. The French-made Caminade gravel bike I mentioned was part of a fleet of test bikes at a recent launch — the thing was an absolute hoot out on the trails and rode like no other gravel bike I’ve swung a leg over.
I’m not saying today’s mass-produced bikes don’t have this passion poured into them, they certainly do. I’ve met many engineers, designers and sales staff who blatantly love what they do and the product they deliver. But somewhere along the production line, somewhere amongst the turning cogs of a large brand, amongst the noise of a factory, that evidence of passion can be chipped away, smoothed out, and diluted.
It’s understandable though, and we wouldn’t have such a vibrant market if these bikes weren’t available. But there’s something to be said for small builders; small businesses where you can buy a round of coffee for everyone who’s involved in the product yet still have change from a 10 euro note, which is precisely what I did when I visited Italy’s Exept Bikes.
Character and passion, now there’s a melange of perfection.
Finale Ligure is just one of the many towns that the Italian spring classic Milan-San Remo passes through. The ancient town sits on the coastline of the Italian Riviera. Old redbrick buildings with narrow alleyways that open up to huge courtyards draw the tourists. On the outskirts of the town, nestled in a small industrial estate, is where Italian frame manufacture Exept has based itself. The area is perfect for testing the new breed of custom bikes the brand has been working on seriously since 2017.
Exept claims to be Italy’s only entirely locally manufactured carbon bike producer, and they mean all of the bike. From the main triangle right down to the alloy bits and bobs that hold parts in place. They’ve even recently sourced handmade Italian saddles, and if you go for a Campagnolo groupset, it’s 100% red, white and green in origin.
But that’s not the big claim coming from the guys at Exept. The most intriguing application is how these bikes are produced.
Exept’s backstory is that of an idea that was secretly worked upon from 2015 onwards, when the founders were still at their previous jobs. The three co-founders worked not just in the cycling industry at 3T but also in the automotive and carbon industry at Continental brakes and Rossocarbon.
Quietly, late at night and at weekends, the three friends would use their employers’ computer power to thrash out ideas. They were working on what they hoped would be a frame manufacturing process that would allow them to make custom monocoque frames. Wolfgang Turainsky, Alessio Rebagliati and Alessandro Giusto would quickly and bravely leave their respected jobs to plough their energies, savings and time in to what would eventually become Exept.
Custom carbon frames aren’t anything new, nor is monocoque manufacturing, but custom monocoque is. As you may know, monocoque manufacturing is generally reserved for mass-market frames with each size requiring a different and highly expensive mould. Moulds generally cost at least $10,000 — not exactly a price many would be willing to pay for the starting procedure of a new bike frame. Exept, though, has developed a modular monocoque system.
The patented system allows the junctions of each frame to be manipulated to the required angles and sizes. The tubing of the front triangle is pre-produced but not cured. This enables the manufacturer to cut the tubing to size, lay it in the moulds and join the structure with carbon on the inside and outside of the junction. The pre-produced rear triangle, of which three sizes are available (enough to cover rider of all sizes, according to Turainsky), is attached once the front triangle is cured in an autoclave.
Exept’s manufacturing facility is off-site, away from the showroom and design offices, roughly 200 km northeast in Veneto, Italy. The vendor they work with creates products typically for F1, supercars, the aerospace industry and the military. An autoclave is used over the more commonly used heat-press as it allows the full front triangle plus vacuum mould to be placed in as one piece. It also allows Exept’s partner to more accurately monitor the pressure and heat that the frame cures at.
Unlike standard monocoque frames, the carbon layup isn’t custom to each bike. Instead, the team has developed two layups that they feel meet the ride characteristics they were aiming at. This method also allows the bikes to meet ISO safety standards — something that, generally speaking, custom bikes aren’t able to achieve due to their one-off nature.
FLOPPY FRAMES AND EX-PROS
To reach today’s finished product the team has had to overcome several hurdles, the big one being having enough investment to take the time to bring the bike to fruition.
Early on in the development, they needed a product to show investors in the Milan area, to prove that their concept would work. In a quick turnaround, they knocked up two large frames and a small frame, showcasing the manufacturing process. Carbon layup, ride quality and stiffness were all bypassed. The bikes were basic prototypes of the monocoque system.
With investors tentatively interested they needed to get a name to vouch for the bike. Luckily their contacts within the pro peloton secured them the fearful pleasure of a test ride by a very well known ex-pro (I’m not allowed to name him, but he’s had some very big wins).
After throwing the bike down a mountainside with three co-founders fearful for the rider and bike (remember this was purely a manufacturing prototype) the rider wasn’t impressed with the ride quality but loved where the guys were coming from and what they had to offer. With investment secured, the guys could work on what would be a final product.
To achieve the ride quality and characteristics that the team wanted, they turned to the Zedler Institute. Here bikes are tested for the usual attributes you’d expect: stiffness, comfort and weight. Delving into 803 of the top-performing bikes they aimed to have a product that would be in the top 25%. This wasn’t the only information they used though — they also looked at 27 bike models and analysed 18 dimensions from these bikes intending to generate a firm idea of what constituted average modern geometries.
All this work, along with CAD development on carbon layups, tube shapes and cross-sections, would lead to a total of 87 different variations before they came to the final product. That final product was a frame containing 200 pieces of carbon and that weighs, on average, 887 grams. That frame’s numbers would have theoretically have landed it at number 10 on the Zedler list.
JUST FOR YOU
Custom builds obviously need a custom geometry. And for Exept, when it comes to ascertaining a rider’s preferred geometry, there are a few different avenues they’re happy to take. Their preferred route is a bike fit with their partners at Bikefitting.com. You can also send data from a fit you’ve previously had and are happy with, or you can use an online fitting guide.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with the guys on the road where they personally took my measurements as if I was using the online fitting measurements guide. It’s nothing too technical — you just need to make sure you hit the right points on your body to get exact measurements.
Letting the team know your previous bikes of choice is a must. I let them know I’ve long been a fan of Cannondale’s standard road bike geometries and handling, with BMC’s Teammachine also getting a nod too. Oddly enough, after co-founder Alessandro Giusto took a more in-depth look at the two bikes, he noticed that they were pretty much identical.
Lastly, there’s the online configurator, the part of the process which, if you’re not careful, can certainly eat into your day. Hours will be whiled away tinkering with the sort of setup you want.
Currently, Exept offers one platform: the Allroad (There is an aero model landing in March, which they showcased at Eurobike). The Allroad comes in both an endurance or road flavour. These are both customizable to either an integrated or classic version. The integrated version offers bars that flow nicely into the headtube, and a seat tube/seat post that is slightly aero. If you ask nicely, they’ll even do a mix ‘n’ match of the two.
The rest of the configurator is dedicated to spec-ing your bike just how you want it and, of course, to the final touches: the paint scheme.
All this information and data is then plotted into Exept’s own algorithm. For this review, I had the bike built to precisely the dimensions they thought best. I trusted in their knowledge. This resulted in a few changes from the norm. The top tube was 15 mm longer than the standard 53 cm frameset, but with a shorter stem — 100 mm vs my usual 120 mm. This meant the bike would still have a race-like quality: snappy and responsive.
Whenever I head to a new bike launch, there’s always the preliminary emails. Brands ask for your measurements, what stem/crank/bar widths you prefer — all the stuff you’d expect. Once at the launch, you always go through the inevitable fiddling session. Allen keys are twiddled, and at some point, you get to thinking “that’s close enough, I’m sure I can manage 100 km or so without screwing up my back or undercarriage”. Sometimes you get it right, others, not so much.
All the Exept pre-ride tinkering involved was putting my pedals on. The guys were confident — very confident — that they’d nailed my fit and position.
From the first pedal strokes, the bike felt familiar. The only noticeable thing was a shorter stem and bars that were a touch wider than I’ve been using. This made the steering slightly snappier, but there was no need for a vast adaptation time. By the time we rolled out of town and warmed the legs up, the characteristics of the bike felt predictable and natural. Which was lucky because all at Exept are far from unfit.
REVIEW: OUT ON THE OPEN ROAD
Let me start by saying that this write-up has taken me much longer than usual to type up. Not because I’ve been in two minds about the performance of the bike but quite simply because I’ve been reluctant to hand it back. I’ve cheekily postponed and then postponed again the day I had to return it. That should tell you all you need to know about how I feel about this bike.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the price. At €12,100 it’s in the upper echelons of what a bike can cost today. It’s crazy money for the majority of us. But as an industry, bicycles seem to have reached a point where spending upwards of €10,000 on a top-tier bike isn’t out of the norm. Far from it — Wilier, BMC, Scott, Specialized, Trek and Orbea all offer something that hits this or close to this price point, and all come with similar equipment specs and promises.
So yes, it’s expensive, but that’s not unusual. Now we have that out of the way, let’s get on with the things that matter.
Living in the Alps, a bike that climbs well is a must. Sure this is an Allroad model, but all the roads I tackle seem to head upwards. No matter the day, be it a good legs day (not very often) or a bad legs day (more often) this thing wanted to climb. Under me, it felt light, with a smooth flow to it. It wanted to be pushed — whether with tired or fresh legs it never felt a sluggish ride when the road tilted upwards.
The same can be said for riding the flatter roads around here. The thing is, it’s not what I’d call a super lightweight build. Including my Shimano Ultegra pedals and two bottle cages, it weighed in at 7.3kg. That’s 100 grams heavier than my personal bike, a Cannondale CAAD10 with SRAM Red mechanical. It’s light but not threatening the UCI minimum weight rule, nor is it as light as some of the ultra flash bikes I’ve used this year.
We’ve seen many lightweight disc-equipped bikes launched this year, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play on a few of them. But the Exept has been among the best to climb on. Though not a winner on the scales it’s a winner uphill. It’s responsive, wanting to be pushed, and has that floaty smoothness that some more race-oriented bikes seem to lack due to their overly stiff builds.
As for the way it looks, well, its silhouette isn’t anything wild or out of the ordinary. That said it did have me changing my tune on how I feel about modern ugly road bikes with discs. Yes, this thing even had me reevaluating ‘modern bike’ aesthetics. It’s clean, unfussy and modern.
What I can tell you is that it has had many, many admiring glances thrown its way while perched out the front of cafes I’ve sat in. That minimalistic paint scheme helps it stand out. The green glistens and is uncannily close to the same colour as my mum’s second custom-built bike she had back in the 90s, but that’s by-the-by.
As for the bits I didn’t like, well, those were few and far between. Choosing SRAM’s Red eTap as the groupset of choice threw up what could have been a possible future problem if I’d had kept the bike. Choosing wireless shifting can save you weight by eliminating the routing and all the holes that go with a wired or cable-operated groupset. But what this also does is limit you for any future changes you may want to make to the bike.
Once on a wireless system, you’re stuck with it. I’m sure if you have these sorts of reservations, the guys at Exept will be more than happy to mould all the necessary holes and routing for you to chop and change your mind at a later date.
The only other real niggles I had were with the components I chose. The 3T seatpost, though simplistic in design, did want to slip at the head — I had to play with it on numerous occasions during the time I had the bike. It would be one item I’d swap out straight away.
The same goes for the bars and stem, the stem for its awkward faceplate bolt placement. As for the bars they never really struck a chord with me. I wasn’t a fan of the thin-feeling flattened top or the drop. Beyond that, though, I’d be hard-pushed to find characteristics or problems with the package. Sure the original SRAM Red eTap wasn’t all that great, but hey: AXS is out now, so that’s not a concern anymore.
Today’s drop-bar cycling climate is changing. Road bike sales are on the decline, with major brands ploughing development and marketing into more versatile bikes. The Allroad skitters into this more versatile market in an exciting manner. You know how and where you want to ride, and for the most part (as long as you don’t want a dedicated gravel bike) Exept will build a bike around all the roads you tackle. They did this for me.
I’m generally a road man. Here in the Alps the surfaces are pretty good — the winter can break some surfaces up but the French seem good at looking after the tarmac. It’s not silky smooth, but far from rough most of the time.
Like many others, I like to venture away from the smooth stuff too. Sidetracks and hard-packed gravel — nothing too extreme. More extreme surfaces would be better left to a dedicated gravel bike. But the Allroad offers enough to get away from the busy roads and investigate some of the lesser-travelled back roads that lead to spectacular views. The 28 mm Pirelli tires handled everything I threw at them.
With my previous and now-distant racing background, I’m a fan of the low-slung and race-orientated geometry my Allroad had. The team delivered a ride that was reminiscent of bikes I’ve loved in the past but with a fresh and unique feel out on the road. I wasn’t breaking my back on long rides but I wasn’t sitting high up — I was somewhere between comfortable and (looking) fast.
Are the guys crazy? Sure, the road market isn’t exactly a healthy place to be at the moment (especially if your bike doesn’t come with an ‘e” before it). But that bit of crazy and a dash of bravery to try and offer something new has created a product that’s stuck with me.
I’m a sucker for people who have a passion in life, especially if they make it a contagious passion. This sort of passion is on show at Exept, and I feel it bleeds through into the company’s bikes, undiluted. The Allroad has been a blast to play on; it showed me that carbon can have character. A character that didn’t need to grow on me.
From that first day in Italy, on the famed coastal roads of Milan-San Reno, it made me smile. It let me read the road in a natural and friendly way, made me feel like I was fit again, and pushed me when I didn’t think I’d want to be. It’s just a lovely bike. It’s also a bike that gives me a new benchmark — a benchmark that will be pretty tough to beat.