Chapter2 AO gravel frameset review: Sporty, comfy and adventure-y

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New Zealand-based Chapter2 is a company still in its relative infancy and best known for its performance carbon road bikes, such as the Tere and Rere. The brand’s creator, Michael Pryde, might be a familiar name — he is the son of Neil Pryde, whose name adorned a series of high-performance carbon bikes. Hence the new brand, Chapter2.

Chapter2 has a somewhat unique place in the market. The company specialises in high-end carbon framesets, predominantly sold consumer-direct. It doesn’t offer complete bikes, and while Chapter2 does have a dealer network of supporting bike stores, finding a demo bike at your local store is likely to prove almost impossible.

The AO marks the company’s entry into the gravel world. The AO — the name means “earth” in Maori — is a bike that really embodies the all-round, go-almost-anywhere versatility of a good gravel bike. It offers plenty of performance through its light, stiff and comfortable carbon chassis, while clever features throughout add versatility.

I’ve had the AO for review for a few months now, long enough to play with various wheelsets, hidden frame features, and to generally get to know this Kiwi-fruit-coloured bike well.

An intro to the AO

Story Highlights

  • What: A high-end and well-rounded carbon gravel bike that’s available as a frameset only.
  • Key features: Versatile frame with adjustable chainstay length, multiple mounting points and modular cable routing. 1x or 2x compatible, threaded bottom bracket, room for 700×42 mm tyres.
  • Weight: Frame only: 1,180 g (medium, painted, claimed). Complete: 8.3 kg as tested (without pedals)
  • Price: US$2,699 / AU$3,849, frameset including seatpost and stem (landed price including DHL shipping).
  • Highs: Proven geometry with a modern tweak, ride quality, construction, versatile ride, almost free of toe overlap, easy to service.
  • Lows: Small quirks with the modular small parts, unprotected and vulnerable down tube, unsealed lower headset bearing.

It doesn’t take long to realise the AO is indeed a bike with a unique design that takes advantage of the composite material. Almost every frame tube offers a different shape, profile or curvature, while the asymmetric and dropped chainstays are quite striking in themselves.

The top tube features a thin rectangular profile and is bowed along its length, while the down tube is closer to a semicircle in shape and offers far more girth, using all the available width at both the head tube and bottom bracket. Meanwhile out back, the oversized seat tube is sculpted for tyre clearance, and the wide-set seatstays bow out from there.

However, in many ways, it’s the AO’s smaller details that separate it further. There’s a regular 68 mm English threaded bottom bracket, something that’s surrounded by material that expands wider than that. With such a drastically dropped chainstay, Chapter2 offers room for up to 700 x 42 or 650B x 47 mm rubber (but certainly not wider), and that’s while offering short chainstays and compatibility with a front derailleur.

Plenty of details to take note of.

Those short chainstays offer three length settings via clever modular chips. The standard length is 420 mm, and you can go 7.5 mm in either direction from there. The front fork also offers replaceable modular chips, although these don’t offer any adjustment. And the AO offers plenty other modular elements, too.

Perhaps most apparent are the modular cable routing guides and covers, allowing for various mechanical and electronic gearing setups, whether they’re 1x or 2x. It’s also ready to host a dropper post, and the selected — and unexpectedly large — 31.6 mm seat tube is to keep such seatpost options wide open. Dropper posts and internal Di2 batteries typically don’t play nicely, and so Chapter2 has given Di2 users a place to install the battery underneath the bottle cage mount instead of the more common seatpost placement.

Those various opening points to the frame offer a clear view inside, and all I could see and feel was pure smoothness. The frame walls are clearly quite thin, but there isn’t a wrinkle, crease or piece of material out of place. The build quality of this frame is seemingly very good.

There are multiple modular pieces spread across the frame. The down tube cable entry port is one example.

Those wanting to forego a front derailleur will find an integrated chain catcher (which replaces the braze-on tab) included, and likewise, compatibility with a rear rack is achieved in a similar way with a bolt-on seatstay bridge.

Fender mounts are left accessible, as are cage mounts on the fork blades, on the toptube and beneath the down tube. The relatively tall toptube leaves plenty of room for frame bags, and there’s a three-position mount on the down tube, too.

While the frame is covered in small cable ports and replaceable dropout chips unique to Chapter2, all the big components are as standard as they come and are easy to service. There’s an English threaded bottom bracket shell, the bike uses a regular round seatpost and an external round seatpost clamp, and while my sample features Chapter2’s Mana carbon integrated bar and stem, really any handlebar and stem can be used.

My test sample featured Chapter2’s Mana handlebar and stem combo. It’s not included with the frameset.

Not unlike Canyon, Chapter2’s direct-to-consumer business model allows them to hit price points that aren’t as outrageously high as you might assume for a small boutique carbon fibre frame company. The AO frame will set you back US$2,699 / AU$3,849 — not small money, but more than competitive when put against the likes of a 3T, Open, S-Works or similar. And this price includes the frame, fork, carbon seatpost, alloy stem, headset and all the various mounting hardware pieces. The price is also the landed cost, including local taxes and DHL express shipping.

True.

My test sample (pictured) is the limited edition green and orange version, while a beautifully detailed black version is available, too. A medium painted frame is claimed to weigh 1,180 g, with the matching fork at 479 g.

Geometry

With the company’s owner coming from a mountain bike background, it’s not too surprising to see the AO taking on what I’d call a modern approach to gravel bike geometry. Here, the bike’s fit remains close to what you’d expect of an endurance road bike, while the frame angles scooch over to what was the norm in mountain bikes of a decade ago.

With five frame sizes to choose from, the geometry offers stack and reach figures that follow a nice curve with each size up. The reach figures are fairly average, if not ever so slightly on the shorter side, while the stack is on the taller side without getting into the realm of the Specialized Diverge or Evil Chamois Hagar.

Chapter2 employs two different fork offsets across the size range, with a long 55 mm version used on the three smaller sizes, and a more common 50 mm on the large and X-Large sizes. My medium sample features a 71º head angle and when combined with that 55 mm offset fork gives a middle-ground 64 mm trail figure. By comparison, a bike like the Giant Revolt Advanced offers a similar head tube angle, but carries a slower trail figure in the 70-80 mm range.

And despite the toptube lengths that are intended to be matched with road-like stem lengths, that longer fork offset results in a front centre length that is almost void of toe overlap: a surprisingly rare feat. My medium sample fitted with 700 x 40 mm rubber has just enough overlap that my EU43 shoes can get scuffed but can’t stop the wheel.

The rest of the numbers follow a similar trend of being modern for bigger rubber but not radically different. The bottom bracket drop is 74 mm — lowish, but there are many lower — while the seat tube angles are pretty normal, too.

Perhaps the one exception is the 420 mm chainstays, which can be reduced to an I-can’t-believe-it 412.5 mm figure. Clearance for wider rubber will certainly become an issue at that length, but it does open up the possibility of slapping a skinny tyre on and changing the bike’s characteristics. However, as I’ll come back to, the system for making that swap isn’t so seamless.

Riding the AO

With big blocky tubes and a 31.6 mm seatpost, I wasn’t surprised to find the AO responsive to my inputs, but I was shocked to find that it offers a rather smooth ride. The material layup and subtle frame shaping combine for a bike that hums, rather than hammers, along.

I’d liken it in seated comfort to something like the Giant Revolt Advanced, a bike that’s not quite in the same comfort league as a BMC URS, but noticeably more compliant than the likes of a Cervelo Aspero. And that’s saying something: the Revolt Advanced gets most of its comfort from a flexible D-Shaped seatpost, whereas I was feeling cushioned on the AO with a notoriously stiff Thomson aluminium seatpost fitted – something that suggests this bike will remain well-mannered even with a dropper post fitted.

The handlebar has some vertical give to it which helps to keep the front feeling balanced with the rear.

The compliance front to rear felt nicely balanced, and I’d attribute much of that to Chapter2’s upgraded Mana handlebar and stem. I didn’t get along with the general shaping of this bar, notably the dip before the hoods, and the lack of flare means it’s arguably best kept for their road frames. Still, that flattened top section does provide some noticeable give, whereas a more traditional bar and stem combo wouldn’t be so forgiving.

I certainly appreciate comfort in a rigid bike that’s designed to go off-road, but how that bike handles is even more crucial. I tested the AO with both 700 and 650B wheels, and quickly came to the conclusion that there was almost no situation in which I preferred the bike with smaller, but chunkier, rubber.

Pictured is a 700×40 mm tyre. The AO has room for slightly larger, but not quite the 45 mm widths that some of the very latest bikes offer.

For me the AO was at its very best with 700 x 40 mm rubber, where it’s road-like performance could shine on smoother surfaces, and its well-mannered ride quality and stable-enough handling could tick the boxes when things got rough.

The AO most certainly feels like a bike intended for going off-road and its handling is ever so slightly subdued when stepping off a road bike or quicker-handling gravel machine. But that’s hardly a bad thing, and the AO is lively enough to carve whatever line you choose on the tarmac, while allowing you to relax a little in unforgiving terrain. Overall, and as cliched as it is, the handling finds a balance that’s somewhere between agility and stability. Or in other words, I immediately felt at home and in control.

This Goldilocks-like ride reminded me of the Santa Cruz Stigmata I rode recently at our first Field Test, but subtle tweaks to the numbers had me preferring Chapter2’s approach. It’s an approach that, through a tightened rear end and a quicker trail figure, offers the AO a drop of extra quickness in the handling, while an ever-so-slightly longer front centre ensures that such quickness doesn’t come at the expense of stability. No doubt, these two are closely comparable bikes.

Running 650B is totally an option, but I just felt the bike behaved better with a larger hoop and 40ish-width tyre.

By contrast, the handling with the 650B wheels made the bike feel almost too low to the ground and sped up the steering. Adding to that, my 650×47 mm Hunt and Panaracer Gravel King control wheel combo only just cleared the seatstays, and a muddy ride would have resulted in some paint wear. Thankfully this isn’t an issue with the larger-diameter tyre.

Regardless of wheel size, the road-like 73º seat tube angle had me wanting a straight post as opposed to the 15 mm setback version supplied. It’s a change I made early on and one you’ll likely need to factor in if you prefer a more forward riding position.

Lacking in K.I.S.S

No doubt there’s lots to like here, and Chapter2 has done an amazing job on its entry into gravel, but in being so clever with everything — including the tiniest of details — they’ve also opened themselves up to a few points of nit-picking.

I’ll start with the adjustable chainstay length. To adjust this you need to undo the rear dropout chips, and swap them for the included offset chips. However, the rear brake caliper acts as a support for this system, and so you’ll need to redo your brake alignment once the small pieces are in place. And that brake does involve a somewhat fiddly washer under one of the bolt heads where care must be used to ensure it’s positioned correctly.

The brake mount is a seperate component and so in theory it should be pretty easy to have the brake perfectly parallel.

That rear brake mount was also ever so slightly out of alignment on my sample and required a quick couple of minutes with my friendly neighbour superhero, the Park Tool DT 5.2 disc tab facing tool. Yes, this is fairly common with flat mount frames. No, it shouldn’t be.

Given just how well the bike rides with the 420 mm stays, I think two positions — this and a longer option for more endurance-type riding — would have sufficed. In doing so, Chapter2 could have simplified the dropout shaping and made a flippable dropout insert rather than having multiple small pieces to keep track of. Still, the current system does work, it’s lighter than more traditional sliding dropout systems (like what more expensive models of the Trek Checkpoint employ), and it remained creak-free during my test period.

The pieces of the rear dropout. The frame offers a snug fit for them ensuring what proved to be a creak-free ride for me.

Speaking of hardware, I had mixed feelings over the various small button head aluminium fasteners found throughout the bike. They’re light and look good, but the quality leaves a little to be desired and you’ll want to be sure to use high-quality tools to prevent any rounded bolt heads.

I was also slightly puzzled by Chapter2’s decisions around the modular cable ports. The design, in theory, is brilliant, but Chapter2 has stopped short of offering port covers for SRAM eTap, or even mechanical 1x users who don’t wish to run a dropper post. Instead, the cleanest setup I could get on my sample was with a port cover that left two open and empty holes. As it stands, far simpler frame designs allow a greater chance for a clean look.

That cable routing also needs attention when building the bike as there’s little to stop cables rattling inside that large and thin down tube. Some foam insulation piping is my suggestion, but the multiple large access points into that tube would let you cable tie them together, too.

Rattling cables are easily fixed (or prevented if the bike is built right from the start), but the nausea-inducing sound of a rock hitting that massively wide and square-faced paper-thin down tube was something else altogether. There’s an increasing number of gravel bikes borrowing the integrated frame protection solutions that have become commonplace in mountain bikes, but the AO lacks any of that. It needs it.

If you get an AO and you’re not best friends with someone in carbon repair, then please spend the time and money on an adhesive frame guard for the bottom side of that down tube. Or better yet, Chapter2, just install such a thing for future frames – that sound is horrid.

I found the lower headset bearing got dirty real quick.

And finally, the Chapter2’s fork features an integrated crown race for the lower bearing to sit onto, and unfortunately, the only sealing is that in the cartridge headset bearing itself. Riding in sandy conditions saw the headset bearing on my sample go crunchy within weeks. And as the crown race is integrated, there is no great fix for this. There are bearings with better sealing, and there are headsets that you may be able to butcher a seal from, but the real solution would be a supplied seal that stops the grit from entering the head tube in the first place.

With my whinging over, none of these complaints are deal-breakers, especially given many of them are fixable or preventable by the end-user. And as far as the big and truly important things go, the AO gave me little to fault.

The end

Chapter2 has done a really impressive job with the AO in how they’ve slightly tweaked some well-proven geometry numbers and produced a bike that truly does serve as one of the more well-rounded gravel bike offerings. A real quiver-killer, if you will.

The AO is a sporty and efficient ride, and it’s not lacking in the fun department, either. Those short chainstays, general lack of toe overlap and slightly slackened angles make a bike that loves a little back wheel action and is better suited to riding off-road than something like the Cervelo Aspero.

Those seeking an ultra-low stack or room for more than 700 x 42 mm rubber will want to look elsewhere. Likewise, if you’re seeking the value for money that only a complete bike can offer, then a Chapter2 probably isn’t for you. Otherwise, they’ve just about nailed the brief for what makes a good sporty gravel bike that can do a little – or a whole lot – of everything. Fast and fun-riding bikes are not mutually exclusive.

www.chapter2bikes.com

A message from Chapter2’s founder, Michael Pryde: “The company is currently looking for investment partners to establish a foothold and headquarters in the US as part of its ongoing growth strategy.”

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