2020 BMC URS Three gravel bike review: Ground broken
It’s been nine months since BMC unveiled its somewhat radical take on what a gravel bike should be. The Unrestricted, or URS for short, was unlike any other gravel bike released at the time and I came away from the Swiss-based launch equally impressed and confused. Was this the future of gravel, or just a bad mountain bike?
Thankfully the inaugural CyclingTips Gravel Bike Field Test provided an opportunity to spend some quality time on this ride (well, the more affordable URS Three), and help to work out what this bike does well, and where it falls short.
Spoiler alert: both myself and CyclingTips’ global tech editor James Huang finished the testing period extremely impressed with this ride. It proved to be one of our favourite of the whole test and we both agreed that many design concepts of this bike will become commonplace in future gravel machines.
An intentional love child
- What it is: A comfortable mountain bike-inspired gravel bike.
- Frame features: Carbon fibre construction, elastomer soft-tail design, D-shaped seatpost, integrated cabling system, 700 x 45 mm tyre clearance, plenty of mounts, and protective frame bumpers.
- Weight: 1,050 g frame (medium-size, clear-coated, claimed); 9.12 kg (20.1 lb) as tested with Continental control tyres, without pedals.
- Price: US$4,299 / AU$5,499 / €3,999 / £3,999
- Size tested: Medium
- Highs: Progressive geometry that works, amazingly smooth ride quality, clean aesthetics, clever details throughout.
- Lows: More extensive maintence required, 1x gearing only, wanted even more tyre clearance, limited to four frame sizes, press-fit bottom bracket, high-end pricing.
If this is your first time reading about the URS or you simply want a refresher on the finer points, then jump back and check out of my deep-dive feature from the BMC Unrestricted launch. In this review, I’ll be glossing over some of those finer points and the design reasons behind this ride.
For those who just want a basic refresher, here it is. The URS is BMC’s first legitimate entry into the gravel world and is effectively the love-child of BMC’s Mountain Bike World Cup-winning hardtail, the Teamelite 01, and its do-everything road bike, the RoadMachine.
From the Teamelite the carbon-fibre URS earns BMC’s MTT elastomer softtail in the rear end, a design that relies on intended flex in the carbon fibre chainstays to aid with traction and taking the edge off bumps, too. Dubbed “Gravel+”, the geometry is rather progressive and borrows from BMC’s mountain bikes, too. The head angle is fairly slack at 70º, while most notably, the front-centre and toptube lengths on the URS are enormous, and as a result, the bikes are fitted with stems as short as 55 mm.
From the road, the URS uses BMC’s integrated cockpit which keeps the cables neatly retained by a covered stem, and then down the sides of the flattened fork steerer tube. Also in common with the Roadmachine is the D-shaped seatpost which aims to add further seated compliance.
The URS offers mounts for a toptube bag, and has stealthy mounts to handle specific racks and fenders, too. There are rubber frame protection bumpers at the downtube and fork dropouts.
The URS offers room for up to 700 x 45 mm tyres (or 650B x 47 mm) and does so while retaining short 425 mm chainstays. However, the trade-off is that it’s a 1x-only frame — front derailleurs are of no use here.
Geometry of the future
Longer and slacker. Two words that every modern mountain bike released over the past five years have in common. And BMC has brought those exact mountain bike-learnings over to the URS, giving it a significantly longer reach and a slacker head angle than the norm.
These concepts mean that the URS fits and feels different to the vast majority of gravel bikes that follow the old-school road and cyclocross bike design, and that’s not a bad thing. Those coming from the mountain bike world are likely to feel right at home here, with a fit that balances your weight between the wheels and a stem that sits just behind the axis of the wheel. Equally, those stepping off from a road bike will find themselves still able to get themselves into a familiar long and low position as BMC hasn’t actually changed the effective reach from the saddle to the hoods, but rather they’ve just overhauled how that length is achieved.
Nine months ago the URS was pushing the boundaries in what was considered a slack head angle for a drop-bar bike, but by comparison, the even newer Evil Chamois Hagar made the BMC’s angles look rather vanilla. And honestly, it took us riding the Evil to agree that while the BMC’s 70º head angle with a 50 mm fork offset may not be breaking new ground, it is in fact pretty close to where a progressive gravel bike ought to be.
Yes, the URS’ head angle could be a touch slacker (no more than a degree, please!) to really bring the mountain-bike ability out of this ride. And yes, the URS’ long-ish trail figure means it lacks the sprightly feel of more traditionally angled bikes. But it would seem the URS’ middle ground between ultimately fast and ultimately stable handling is a good one when tackling a variety of terrain, and where the Evil often just felt like it was lost and seeking a new path, the URS is one you can easily keep on track.
In this sense, the BMC manages to bring a little mountain bike flair while still feeling close to how a gravel bike should. With its short stem, the handling feels quicker than the 81 mm trail figure suggests and the bike seems equally happy going fast as it does meandering about. Equally, that long front-centre length really does add to the stability of the bike when the going gets rough, and puts you in a good position to have some fun with it.
James shared the testing duties of the URS and came away with a similar impression. “Love the handling,” he said. “You get the benefit of the long front-center like on the Evil, but without the ludicrously slack head tube angle. Great stability at higher speeds and on looser terrain, while still maintaining very good agility. It’s a smart use of MTB design philosophy.”
While my initial Swiss-based test on the small-size URS left me feeling a little cramped, the step up to a medium squashed such issues. Seemingly the URS’ longer front-centre combined with a shorter stem is the future of gravel bikes, even if it’s not pushed quite as far as what BMC has done. And in this sense, the actual frame reach, one that factors in recommended stem lengths, will likely become a more necessary consideration when shopping for newer gravel bikes.
Balanced and smooth, but it’s not for free
Stability in spades is great, but how the URS maintains traction and comfort when the going gets rough is really where this bike shines above others. Simply, the URS was the smoothest riding gravel bike at the Field Test (not including the full suspension Niner MCR).
Standing or seated, the URS does do an admirable job of taking the sting out of rougher trails, and is surprisingly well-balanced front to rear. Neither the D-shaped seatpost or MTT rear elastomer are gimmicks, and they truly work wonders to let you stay in the saddle over choppy terrain and keep consistent power through the pedals. Similarly standing up over rough terrain still reveals a ride that’s just a little more muted and a little more controlled than the other bikes tested.
James was equally impressed by the MTT system, stating that it “smoothed out the ride more than I expected, although, in hindsight, I maybe shouldn’t have been surprised given that I was a big fan of soft-tail mountain bikes back in the day. It’s also nice that it works when you’re both seated and standing, so you get both a comfort and traction benefit regardless of riding position.”
Most surprising though is how comfortable the front end feels despite having no mechanical device to absorb impacts like the rear end. While it may not be as cushy as the rear, it assists with keeping the front wheel planted and composed. Our guess is that the fork steerer – whittled away to work with BMC’s integrated cabling system – may offer more flex than more traditional steerer tubes. Either way, it feels good.
And despite such obvious comfort in the frameset, the URS remains perfectly stiff under power and when pinballing it through rocks. This is a bike that responds to being pushed, and there’s seemingly no loss of performance as a result of the greater comfort.
However, there is one obvious caveat from such comfort, and it’s one that many from the road side of cycling will be unwilling to pay the price for. Moving components are wear items, and while there may only be 10 mm of travel, BMC’s MTT system does indeed move. The elastomer-based system features two pins that slide on self-lubricated bushings. It’s not too different to how a suspension fork telescopes in its lower legs, and like a suspension fork, it needs maintenance.
Servicing the MTT system can be done at home and with simple tools. Semi-regular cleaning and re-greasing will prolong the life of the replaceable pins and bushings, but it is an extra maintenance step compared to a truly rigid frame. Ignore such maintenance for long enough and you’ll likely get a rougher ride, some noise and perhaps even a little unwanted movement.
From the highs, to the lows
Increased maintenance is certainly one negative of the URS, but there are also other areas to criticise. Now for the juicy parts.
The somewhat limited sizing is likely to be one of the biggest barriers here. BMC offers the URS in just four sizes, and they don’t go tiny or gigantic. Clearly BMC has targeted the average height range with these, but riders coming from the road who are hypersensitive to fit may find the somewhat limited size range, and the 15 mm sizing increments in stems, to be lacking.
For a bike seemingly capable of doing it all and going everywhere, it’s a shame that BMC hasn’t managed to find a way to squeeze a front derailleur mount into the mix. The Swiss company states that the front derailleur had to go in order to keep mud clearance for a 700×45 mm tyre while not resorting to any weird crank or wheel fitments (like what Cannondale has done). However, BMC could have left the choice to the end-user, and stipulated that front shifting can only be matched with a narrower tyre. After all, the Evil manages to handle front shifting matched with a 40 mm tyre, and that’s with the same 425 mm chainstay and standard component fitments as the URS.
Which then begs the question, if Evil has managed to squeeze a 700 x 50 mm tyre into its frame with a 1x configuration, why has BMC only managed space for a 45 mm? Both James and I discussed at length that we’d forgive the lack of a front derailleur mount if the tyre clearance was so obviously massive, or on the flipside, forgive the tyre clearance for front shifting. Alas, here we are.
That lack of front shifting may not be a bother to all. Single-ring drivetrains are forever getting better, and we’re probably not far off from having drivetrains that offer the right high and low gears without the jumps in between. Still, the current options are arguably at their best off-road, while those wanting to use the URS on the road will likely be hunting for a smoother cadence progression between shifts.
Harsh truth coming in three, two, one … We lost our blind faith in BMC (and many others in the industry) with the recent recall of failing forks on the 2018 and 2019 Teammachine SLR01s. Forks are one of those items you never, ever want to fail on you, and a few horror stories left James and I a little apprehensive as the URS uses the same flattened steerer design as the Teammachines. In the words of carbon expert Raoul Luescher, those failures were the result of a design error that made repeatably safe carbon layups an incredibly difficult mission.
Now, BMC state they solved the issue on their 2020 frames, and you can bet that same fix has been applied to the URS, but it still feels odd to be sticking our hand out so soon after the first bite.
Speaking of quality control issues, our test sample squawked like a pissed-off parrot. In this case it was the Shimano BB92 bottom bracket looking for attention (the only noisy one of many on test). Such noise is easily fixed, and thankfully there are a myriad of thread-together bottom bracket solutions to forever silence such noises, but it still cemented why we prefer threaded bottom brackets.
And while I’m piling on the hate, it’s worth noting that the URS does feature a number of proprietary components and unique maintenance needs. The MTT system is the obvious one, while the integrated cabling system upfront also requires a special stem, headset and fork. Servicing the headset — or worse, replacing bearings — is surely going to be a far more involved process than with a traditional external-cable bike. Similarly, the use of hidden rack mounts means compatible rack options are slim pickings (Tubus make one that works).
Thankfully not all the proprietary components are as bad as they seem. BMC has been rather genius to make the front radius of its D-shaped seatpost match that of a 27.2 mm round post, and so a simple shim is all that’s needed to fit any 27.2 mm seatpost (dropper or rigid) into this bike. Similarly, the ICS stem works with almost any 31.8 mm handlebar, and the cables can always be routed externally into the provided downtube cable ports if you so desire. The seatpost binder wedge on this bike holds onto the post like a hungry python, too, though it can need a purposeful knock in the event you want to change the saddle height.
Back to the rainbows and lollipops. BMC nailed the spec on our URS Three test sample, and apart from servicing that damn bottom bracket, there wasn’t anything we wanted to change with this US$4,299 machine.
The mixed 800-, 600- and 400-level Shimano GRX groupset worked as expected, with smooth shifting, quiet chain handling and easy setup. The 11-42T gearing range (with a 40T chainring) shows BMC’s intent for the URS to be an off-road-focussed gravel bike, and it offers enough range for tackling rolling gravel roads and trails. However, those looking to ride more varied terrain may want to consider an 11-46T cassette and a slightly larger chainring.
BMC borrows another trick from the MTB world in equipping a large 180 mm rotor on the front for extra power, and it’s a move that means little hand effort is required to keep your speed in check. Given that Shimano GRX brakes share the same smaller caliper and brake pads as the road groups, this larger rotor is something we’d like to see more of on aggressive gravel bikes.
As the only bike on test with Mavic wheels, the URS setup tubeless with less fuss than any other bike. In terms of weight (1,890 g claimed) and rim width (22 mm), the base-model AllRoad wheels are nothing too fancy on paper, but they’re a solid choice and offer a quality hub.
Also worthy of note is that BMC got the touchpoints right. The WTB SL8 saddle was comfortable to all who rode the bike, the Easton EA70 AX flared handlebars are a proven pick and are wrapped in a quality rubberised tape. Even the stock WTB Resolute 42 mm tyres are a fine item, too.
All told, this mid-spec bike tipped the scales at just 9.12 kg with our control Continental Terra Speed tyres. It’s a figure that’s surely helped by the frame that weights just north of 1 kg, and it’s a respectable number for a mid-range-spec bike with such a long list of features. That said, there’s clearly a huge amount of unique tech in the URS frame, and so while the build spec is all quality, it doesn’t scream value for money.
Winners don’t have to be perfect
With the combination of comfort and control, there’s plenty to love about the URS, and I’m convinced this is a groundbreaking bike in the gravel category.
Unlike Evil, BMC hasn’t pushed things too far. They’ve kept this a gravel bike that still feels great for riding gravel, all while adding more versatility, control and comfort into the mix. On the road and gravel, this bike remains more efficient than any mountain bike, and it sure can handle some fun under-biking when the trails call. This is a gravel bike that’s at its best off-road, and it’s made for ripping wherever the path takes you.
It’s not the bike I’d recommended for those looking to ditch their roadie in favour of a single drop-bar bike, but if you’re willing to accept the trade-offs, then you should really, really consider making this URS.