3T Exploro RaceMax review: A one-bike solution with one big downside
For all the talk about tire clearance, this bike really could use more of it.
For all the talk about tire clearance, this bike really could use more of it.
3T pioneered the concept of aero gravel bikes with the introduction of the original Exploro in 2016, and with the debut of the Exploro RaceMax just a few months ago, company founder Gerard Vroomen — of Cervelo fame — is continuing to push the boundaries of what a gravel bike can, or should, be. Should it be light and fast like a road bike? Or should it be nearly as capable off-road as a mountain bike?
Why can’t it be both, and without the usual compromises?
That’s the argument the new Exploro RaceMax puts forth, combining a more radically aerodynamic carbon fiber frame shape with clearance for knobby tires up to 650×2.1″. It’s surprisingly successful at being both a fast road bike for keeping up with the bunch as well as a highly adept off-road machine for hitting the trails, but where it falls short is the more important middle ground where the meat of the bell curve lies.
I already covered the detailed nuts and bolts about the Exploro RaceMax in the intro piece I wrote about it back in June, so I won’t go into too much depth rehashing all of that here.
In summary, though, what you get with the newer Exploro RaceMax relative to the previous Exploro is, well, more of just about everything.
Claimed tire clearance creeps up a smidgeon to 700×42 mm or 650×61 mm, but the chainstay length is unusually compact at just 415 mm. The more radically shaped frame is supposedly more aerodynamic than the original Exploro (especially when wider tires are fitted) and the front-end handling has grown a little quicker (63 mm vs. 67 mm of trail) to make the RaceMax more amenable to fast road riding, but yet the fit has also grown a little taller for a more appropriately upright position when venturing off-road.
The bottom bracket is also a little lower, there are plenty of mounts for most types of riding (including for three bottles, a top tube feed bag, and front and rear fenders), and although the internal cable routing port location is rather unusual — lines enter the frame at the top tube, behind the stem — the convertible setup can handle just about any drivetrain or brake configuration you can throw at it. Of course, the proprietary aero-profile carbon seatpost eliminates the possibility of a dropper post. Speaking of which, 3T has adopted a Ritchey one-bolt head in place of the convoluted splined setup of the original Exploro, and the seat tube angle is a touch slacker so as to put most riders on a zero-offset head.
Claimed frame weight is essentially unchanged from the original Exploro Team at 1,050 to 1,150 grams, depending on size, of which six are available. However, seeing as how there was also a lighter Exploro LTD for a time, the door is clearly left open for a more premium Exploro RaceMax LTD in the future.
Perhaps the biggest difference is visual: whereas the original Exploro was only somewhat radical in its shaping, the Exploro RaceMax is positively wild what with that massive step-down and boat-shaped down tube, the double dropped chainstays, the dropped seatstays, and the dramatically flat-backed tube profiles used throughout. Function clearly dictated the form here, and whether you find it aesthetically pleasing will certainly be a matter of personal preference.
Retail price for the frameset is set at US$3,200 / €3,200, and complete builds start at US$4,200 / €4,200. Three different colors are on tap, as well as a “Ready to Paint” version that comes sanded and primed in preparation for a custom finish.
My test sample arrived in true one-bike-solution form, built with a SRAM Force eTap AXS 1x groupset, 3T finishing kit (naturally), and two sets of 3T wheels. The 700c set — “Race” mode — consisted of 3T Discus C45 LTD carbon clinchers wrapped with 35c Pirelli Cinturato tubeless tires and fitted with a SRAM XG-1270 10-33T cassette. The 650b configuration — “Max” mode — included a pair of 3T DiscusPlus C25 carbon clinchers with 2.1″-wide Vittoria Barzo tubeless mountain bike tires and a SRAM XG-1295 10-50T cassette. 3T also provided separate SRAM Force eTap AXS and Eagle XX1 AXS wireless rear derailleurs to match, along with pre-sized chains to ease the changeover.
Actual weight for my 54 cm sample in 700c form was 8.09 kg (17.84 lb) and 8.82 kg (19.44 lb) in 650b, both without pedals or accessories.
Bikes that aim to fulfill multiple purposes invariably come with compromises at the extremes, but the Exploro RaceMax is impressively adept exactly where you’d expect it to have the most downsides.
Set up in 700c mode with those fast-rolling 35c Pirellis, the Exploro RaceMax seems to live for gobbling up long stretches of tarmac. That cartoonishly oversized main frame is as rigid as you’d expect, and while I don’t have rigorous data to support this notion, all of that aero tube shaping, combined with those medium-depth aero wheels, sure feels like it helps the bike maintain speed higher speeds more easily. And while the front end is rather tall, even that isn’t a huge issue. I just found myself spending extra time in the drops and bending my elbows a bit more.
As always, that generous amount of chassis stiffness pays dividends when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle, too, with a nicely efficient-feeling power transfer.
Good as it may be in road guise, I’d be lying if I said the Exploro Max would be my first choice for road racing. It’s not as light as a proper race bike, of course, nor is the handling as nimble. However, most non-competitive amateurs will find the Exploro RaceMax to be more than enough if you just want to smash out a few weekend centuries or keep up with the local bunch ride (at least with suitable wheels and tires fitted, of course).
At the other end of the spectrum, slapping on those 650×2.1″-wide Vittoria Barzo knobbies make the Exploro RaceMax laughably capable. Sure, you can’t go as fast as you could on a fully suspended mountain bike with the same tires, but that’s not the point. Traction off-road with these tires is as plentiful as you’d expect, it’s comfortable enough (provided you’re not going silly fast), and the setup isn’t all that terrible to ride on tarmac, either, which is particularly nice if you’ve got a healthy stretch of road to travel before getting to the good stuff — and I dare say that the sub-9 kg weight in this configuration is lighter than the majority of mountain bikes out there.
In this setup, I regularly found myself hitting some nearby gravel paths to get out of town, making my way toward some mild (but very rocky) singletrack to rip a couple of hot laps before eventually taking some dirt roads back home.
I’ve done that exact loop on more traditional gravel bikes as well as short-travel full-suspension and hardtail mountain bikes, and I have to admit that the full loop was most fun on the Exploro RaceMax — at least when things are dry, that is.
As compared to some other, and more typical, gravel bikes I’ve ridden — the Devinci Hatchet Carbon comes to mind — this Exploro RaceMax is both faster on-road and more capable off-road, just as intended.
Kudos to 3T, too, for addressing some of the shortcomings of the original Exploro.
For example, the new Ritchey seatpost head is a monumental improvement over the Rube Goldberg contraption that 3T used to use (and it’s thankfully compatible with older Exploros), and the rear derailleur hanger is no longer exclusively held in place by the thru-axle, meaning that the derailleur doesn’t just fall off when you remove the rear wheel.
All is not perfect, however. Far from it, in fact.
Although the Exploro RaceMax is enviably competent at those extremes of the spectrum, it’d be a stretch to say it excels at either one.
On the road, the bike may be plenty capable of attaining and maintaining higher speeds, however, it doesn’t necessarily feel very good doing it. The frame is stiff in terms of pedaling efficiency, but also in terms of ride quality, and so the bike is particularly reliant on the tires for any semblance of ride comfort. There’s not much give in those massive carbon main tubes, nor in that aero-profile carbon fiber seatpost, and the overall sensation is a little dull and lifeless — appealing to the head, but not necessarily the heart. At least to me, it comes across like a tool for a job, rather than something to enjoy and have fun on.
On climbs, there’s also no hiding the fact that the Explore RaceMax frame is heavier than a similarly priced road bike that’s more purpose-built for the task, and while those 35c Pirellis offer up plenty of volume for dealing with ugly tarmac and smoother unpaved surfaces, it’s hard to hide their nearly 400 g per-piece weight. Steady-state climbing really isn’t a big deal at all (weight doesn’t matter on climbs as much as you might think), but the extra mass is nevertheless noticeable when it comes time to accelerate.
In case you’re thinking you might just outfit the Exploro RaceMax with some super-speedy 28c race rubber to help offset that, it’s worth pointing out that the narrowest 700c tires the company includes in its list of favored rubber for this bike is 35 mm. Smaller-volume tires better suited to pure road riding will physically fit, of course, but the handling starts to get a little weird, which is notable since the handling is already a little weird with the 35c Pirellis.
The bike’s relatively long wheelbase and low bottom bracket suggest a stable and confidence-inspiring personality at high speed. However, I actually found it to feel oddly twitchy immediately off-center, and then reluctant to smoothly continue initiating the turn — almost as if the bike didn’t really want to go straight, but didn’t really want to cut a tight corner, either.
As is the case more often these days, 3T has combined a rather slack head tube angle with lots of fork offset that offers both a nimbler steering feel and a longer front center that adds stability. In theory, this provides an agile personality when you want it, but also the stability and confidence you get from a longer front center. However, you also get more wheel flop relative to a bike that achieves a similar trail dimension with a steeper head tube angle and less fork offset.
In my opinion, the way 3T has gone here works well for the Exploro RaceMax in that so-called “Max” mode with those meaty 650 knobbies, helping to offset the inherent sluggishness of that ultra-wide and grippy tire footprint. The bike intuitively initiates turns and nimbly snakes its way through tight-and-fast singletrack, just as you’d want it to. With that much air volume beneath you, the stiff-riding frame and fork also become less of an issue, particularly when running tubeless with very low, MTB-like pressure.
But while those knobby Vittorias might technically fit without too much fear of rubbing, but there’s minimal room for error, especially given the tight confines of that seat tube cutout — buyers might consider lining that area with clear vinyl tape to prevent scuffing from dirt and small rocks that might get caught up in the tire tread. Granted, the potential for issues will depend a lot on the type of dirt you have in your particular area. If your ground type consists mostly of decomposed organic matter, you’ll likely be just fine. But my local “dirt” is made more of decomposed granite that has a nasty tendency to turn into thick peanut butter when it gets wet. Worse yet, it’s the crunchy variety with lots of embedded pebbles — the peanuts, if you will — and then it dries like concrete. It doesn’t take much of that for the rear wheel to seize up completely, and while having the down tube in such close proximity to the front wheel might very well be good for aerodynamics, I can’t recall another bike where I was worried about mud building up there.
Aesthetically, the Exploro RaceMax is unquestionably a polarizing design, what with those massive squared-off main tubes, the double dropped chainstays, and those super widely-set seatstays. However, some of the functional features might give potential buyers pause as well.
The location for the internal cable routing port is apparently a by-product of 3T head Gerard Vroomen’s days at Cervelo, and while it actually works quite well, it’s not without its downsides. It’s visually awkward, for one, but it also pushes top tube feed bags well aft of where they would normally be.
3T goes its own way with how the brake calipers are installed. Instead of sticking with wholly standard flat-mount interfaces, the Exploro RaceMax is purpose-built for 160 mm-diameter rotors with no additional adapters required. Moreover, the front caliper attaches with bolts that feed from the front of the fork and go straight through the leg into the caliper body itself. The arrangement — front and rear — is admittedly cleaner (and a little lighter) than the norm, but it’s non-standard nonetheless.
The slacker seat tube angle might be more problematic, however, at least if you prefer a more forward saddle position (as I do). While it’s true that a slacker seat tube angle and zero-offset seatpost is technically lighter, I’d argue that it needlessly limits sizing options. And in this case, I’d argue that a steeper seat tube angle would have more easily allowed for a little more tire clearance back there, too. Either way, as mentioned earlier, this is a proprietary seatpost and 3T doesn’t offer any offset variants; it’s zero or nothing. If it works for you, great. But if not, tough luck.
Finally, there’s that BB386EVO press-fit bottom bracket shell. I still prefer threads over press-fit, but in fairness to 3T, the extra-wide and oversized BB386EVO setup is one of the less problematic press-fit formats on the market, and 3T at least has the wherewithal to spec thread-together bottom bracket cups. My test bike stayed quiet throughout the review period, and I suspect most buyers would be fine in that respect, too.
Much of my conversation about this bike to this point has revolved around the extremes of the bike’s expected usage — fast-rolling road slicks and big, fat knobbies — and in fairness, the Exploro RaceMax handles both of those situations far better than the vast majority of conventional gravel bikes out there. However, I also expect that a minority of people buying this bike are going to go through the hassle of completely reconfiguring everything to suit a particular ride. Granted, I could do the complete changeover in less than ten minutes (the wireless nature of the SRAM AXS components helps a ton), but that’s still ten minutes I’d personally rather spend riding.
More likely, I anticipate people looking at this bike would choose a single set of gravel tires hovering around the 700×40 mm mark and call it good. A decently light and aero gravel bike that’ll let me rip on dirt almost as fast as on tarmac? Sign me up.
However, as much as 3T talks about the Exploro RaceMax’s tire clearance, the unfortunate reality is that it isn’t actually very good by conventional standards — or, at least, not as accommodating as you might be led to believe.
By the numbers, the 700c tire clearance on the Exploro RaceMax is identical to the Cervelo Aspero, which also aims to be a go-fast gravel bike and features its own profiled seat tube cutout. However, the arc on the Aspero’s cutout doesn’t follow as much of the rear wheel as the one on the Exploro RaceMax, and there’s obviously more space between the tire and seat tube on the Aspero with the same wheel-and-tire setup, too.
I tested this bike with the two sets of wheels and tires provided, as well as my reference gravel setup comprising DT Swiss GR 1600 Spline 25 aluminum clinchers and 40c Continental Terra Speed tires, set up tubeless. Despite what it says on the hot stamp, the measured width on those Terra Speeds is barely 38 mm (on a 24 mm-wide rim, no less), and its mini-knob tread pattern reduces the total outer diameter and width even more.
Even with those undersized 40s, though, there’s not nearly as much room around the tires as I think should be appropriate for a gravel bike. And perhaps tellingly, 3T’s list of recommended 700c tires includes nothing over 40 mm.
My favorite WTB Riddler 45s? Too big. Those super versatile 700x40c Maxxis Ramblers? Borderline as best. An aero gravel bike like this seems like it’d be perfect for an ultra-endurance event like the 200 miles of Unbound Gravel (formerly known as Dirty Kanza), but those lovely Donnelly EMP 45s that were named after the race’s start town won’t work.
3T made the philosophical choice of forcing Exploro RaceMax riders to use a certain wheel size. If you want to go fast on smoother surfaces, it’s 700c. But if you want to tackle bumpier stuff, you have little choice but to go 650b. Whether that’s the right way to go is neither here nor there; the fact of the matter is that for a bike that professes to provide its rider with so many choices, it’s disappointingly limited in the one that has the biggest effect on its performance.
That the Exploro RaceMax isn’t simultaneously a super-fast road racing bike and an ultra-capable adventure machine all in one is perfectly acceptable; the “one bike solution” is somewhat of a fantasy, after all, and any bike that tries to be everything is inherently saddled with compromises.
But the fact the Exploro RaceMax is so adept at the extremes of its intended usage while simultaneously missing the mark on the middle of the bell curve strikes me as harder to accept. Perhaps 3T really does strongly believe that gravel riders really should be on extra-high-volume 650b tires instead of 700c ones, and maybe the company is right about that.
But that’s a decision I’d prefer to make for myself.
For more information about the 3T Exploro RaceMax, visit www.3t.bike.