2022 BMC URS LT gravel bike review: Ups and downs of integrated suspension
20 mm of integrated front suspension meets an already progressive gravel bike.
20 mm of integrated front suspension meets an already progressive gravel bike.
Some say every bike is a gravel bike. And while that may be true, the reality is that no one bike will be perfectly optimised for all conditions.
BMC’s Unrestricted, aka URS, is a perfect example of just this. Released in 2019, the URS introduced a mountain bike-like take on what most consider a gravel bike to be. It was designed to match the mixed terrain and high mountain riding that the staff of the Swiss company often found themselves doing. Meanwhile, in the eyes of many others, it was a bike that only further blurred the lines between a gravel bike and a cross-country mountain bike.
And if those lines weren’t blurry enough, let me introduce you to the new BMC URS LT, aka, Unrestricted Long Travel. This new model for 2022 adds an integrated suspension fork to the otherwise unchanged original URS platform. And this one change provides a whole lot to discuss.
This written review is a deep dive into the details of the bike and my ride experiences. Those who prefer videos can check out the less-detailed BMC URS LT video review over on YouTube. Please consider subscribing to the CyclingTips YouTube channel (for free) while you’re over there.
Based closely on BMC’s Team Elite cross country hardtail, the carbon fibre URS introduced modern off-road geometry concepts with a longer front centre combined with a short stem, a taller fork height, and a slacker head angle.
And while it wasn’t the first bike to do so, the URS offered comfort and traction-benefiting features in the rear by way of the company’s MTT elastomer-sprung softtail design which provides 10 mm of physical movement to the rear axle. BMC then furthered that comfort with a flexible D-shaped carbon seatpost.
And let’s not forget that the URS was one of the first 1x-only geared gravel bikes. BMC did away with the ability to run a front derailleur in an effort to achieve a short chainstay length and reasonable tyre clearance, but in doing so they were banking on the fact that SRAM’s Eagle AXS Mullet groupset would be met with similar wide-range options from competitors. It’s a design choice that remains polarising two years later.
Overall the original URS remains a super interesting bike and one we like quite a lot for off-road-centric gravel riding. This review will predominately focus on what’s new with the URS LT. For detailed information pertaining to the finer features of the URS LT frame (which remains unchanged from the original URS), then be sure to check out the review of the BMC URS from our inaugural gravel bike Field Test.
The new 2022 BMC URS LT is quite simply the BMC URS you’ve ridden, seen, or at least read about before, but now with an integrated 20 mm of damped front suspension travel. And where the original URS had all the comfort features in the back and a rigid carbon fork on the front, the new MTT fork on the URS LT aims to create a more balanced, controlled and smooth ride.
BMC designed the original URS with a taller rigid fork to keep it open to adding a short travel suspension fork. At the time Fox had its slimmed-down mountain bike fork on the market, and RockShox had its in the works (the Rudy XPLR fork has since been released). But the engineers at BMC felt that suspension on a gravel bike needs to be locked out regularly, and that it should feel like a rigid fork when it is. Reaching down to a crown-mounted lockout dial or adding an extra lever to the bars wasn’t what the company wanted.
“Having a fork with 40-50 mm of travel that works in the frequency range needed for gravel automatically means it will pump (aka bob) a lot when you work out of the saddle,” said BMC’s head of product, Stefan Christ. “We didn’t see how this issue would go away and therefore in the early days of the URS we were already thinking about a solution with less travel, knowing as well that we will do something that is integrated with carbon forks.”
And so that led BMC to discussions with Italian firm Hi-Ride for the design of an integrated fork that can be easily turned on or off from the stem top cap. Hi-Ride is a name we’ve seen and covered before and is perhaps best known as the company that makes the tiny shock absorbers found on Ineos’s Pinarello Paris-Roubaix bikes. The BMC MTT fork is Hi-Ride’s entry into gravel-specific suspension.
Those that have been around the block a few times will certainly be thinking this new fork design looks a whole lot like a Cannondale Headshock or an even older Action-Tec. While there are more than a few similarities, the exact execution is different.
Placed beneath the head tube, this integrated front suspension fork hides many of the moving components within the steerer tube. And the design fits into the existing URS frame with comparable looks and no change to the original geometry. In many ways, the MTT fork offers similar functionality to Specialized’s FutureShock 2.0, but unlike that below-stem shock absorber, BMC’s chosen placement allows the suspension to aid in traction and control, in addition to comfort, too.
The 20 mm of travel isn’t a lot, but BMC and Hi-Ride designed it to be sensitive and active across the high-speed chatter that gravel bikes often experience while still offering enough support from larger impacts that would typically cause gravel tyres to bottom out (i.e. rim strike). And BMC wanted it to be durable. In the end, the company settled on a design that uses a simple steel coil spring combined with a small sealed hydraulic damper.
“The first iterations from Hi-Ride were elastomer-based and without hydraulic dampening,” explained Stefano Gennaioli, BMC’s product marketing manager. “We liked the concept, but the function lacked sensitivity for gravel. It was mainly the damping where we realised an elastomer was not a solution.
“The second prototype had an air spring and we realised we lacked the (small bump) sensitivity. It was only absorbing the bumps that were really big and edgy. There was no other choice [but] to go to a steel spring to further reduce the stiction in the system.”
Overall I’d summarise the construction of the MTT system as overbuilt for what you’d expect of a 20 mm shock absorber sitting between a gravel carbon fibre frame and carbon fibre fork blades.
The telescoping internals and steerer feature a mix of steel and aluminium to remove unwanted flex or weakness. The fork slides with an internal cartridge needle bearing that keeps things free of play. And the whole thing, including the carbon fibre fork blades, passes international mountain bike test standards. It may look like a Cannondale Headshock, but it’s effectively an industrial version that’s been made with a reduced frequency of required servicing in mind.
Of course, such an overbuilt product carries mass. All up the fork weighs roughly 1,250 grams and adds around 800 grams compared to URS’s original rigid fork. That is a decent chunk added for just 20 mm of travel. However, BMC has said that increasing the travel wouldn’t have greatly increased the weight and that the short amount of travel chosen was based on matching the purpose, rather than grams saved.
As tested, the top-of-the range URS LT One weighs 9.35 kg without pedals (medium size), a figure that is indeed not light and in fact pushing into the territory of a top-level cross country hardtail mountain bike (although most at this price will still be over 10 kg).
Adding complexity to a bike inevitably also adds to the price. And the bike tested sells for US$7,999 / €7,999 (the lower-spec URS LT Two is also offered at €5,999). The comparably equipped URS 01 Two with a rigid fork is €500 less.
Personally, that €500 figure seems like a surprisingly small difference for the addition of a suspension fork, but it’s worth noting that the original rigid-forked URS also features concealed cable routing where the brake hoses and electronic gears are hidden beneath the stem and run through the head tube. By contrast, the MTT fork of URS LT offers no room for such internally run cables and instead routes them into the frame at the down tube port.
Like the URS’s rigid fork, the MTT suspension fork can still fit a fender and internally route the wire of a dynamo front hub.
Official tyre clearance of the MTT fork sits at 45 mm (based on ISO 6 mm surrounding clearance) which is slightly more than the rigid fork can handle. Meanwhile, the rear tyre clearance remains unchanged at 42 mm (although confusingly BMC used to claim it was 45 mm. I suspect they’ve simply changed from allowing 4 mm clearance to 6 mm).
You can get an indication of available tyre clearance from the side-by-side photos above which show measured 40 mm tyres. Either way, these are numbers that are probably fine for most, but are also starting to sound quite narrow by today’s standards for a progressive geometry gravel bike that can’t take a front derailleur.
Unlike most suspension forks, the MTT fork offers little in the way of user adjustment. There’s of course the centrally placed lockout dial to turn the suspension on or off, but there are none of the usual options for adjusting rebound (how quickly the suspension returns after being compressed) or externally controlling the spring preload (firmness).
BMC offers three different weight coil springs and three different thicknesses of preload inserts to provide control over the spring preload. The MTT fork is designed to run with approximately 5 mm of sag (25%), and so the company expects this to be somewhat of a set-and-forget decision and one that will be based on your weight and desired riding style/terrain (rougher terrain or more aggressive riders will likely require more preload).
Set-and-forget it may be, but trialling different spring preloads to get a feel for what’s best is not the simplest task as it requires a couple of specialist tools that are only being made available to BMC dealers. Currently, if you want to adjust the firmness of the suspension, you’ll need to enlist the shop you bought the bike from to make such changes.
There are other closed-off elements in owning this fork that raise major red flags for me, something I’ll cover a bit later. On the bright side, the closed design makes other, more common tasks, far more accessible.
For example, changing the stem height on the steerer or dropping the fork out of the frame to service the headset bearings isn’t all that different to working on a regular bike and only requires a couple of common-sized hex keys.
To house the suspension parts the steerer features a larger 1 ¼” diameter which is the same as what the likes of Giant and Canyon use on a number of their drop-bar bikes. And while this was once a pain for sourcing replacement stems, it’s now far less of an issue with the likes of Ritchey and Zipp supporting the size.
BMC provides a generous 40 mm of headset spacers with each bike size, and you’re free to place the stem anywhere in this range. Those wanting a cleaner look can also have up to 40 mm of the steerer tube cut, but again, BMC only suggests this be done by a qualified dealer.
Much like what Giant does with its OD2 system, BMC has squeezed that larger 1 ¼” steerer into a regular head tube by using a smaller top bearing (MR136, same as Giant). The system works fine, but my long-term experience with Giants is that the smaller ball bearings don’t last quite as long. Thankfully it’s relatively easy to gain access to these bearings to keep them clean and well-greased, and replacement is just as simple if required.
And for those already with an existing URS and wanting to know if they can upgrade their bike to an LT, the answer is both yes and no. Yes the new MTT suspension fork will fit in your frame with the only “modification” required being to use a bearing-retaining compound to hold the lower protective shroud into the frame and perhaps swap out the top headset assembly. But also no, because currently BMC and Hi-Ride are maxed out on production demand and so don’t have the capacity to offer standalone forks at this time.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time on the original BMC URS and can say that depending on where you take it, it can either feel class-leading or somewhat of a slouch.
Get the URS onto any rough, steep, or high-speed terrain and that progressive geometry comes into its own. The bike is amazingly stable and confident and inspires you to get playful with it in ways that you wouldn’t expect to do on a gravel bike. The URS shines where more road-like gravel bikes often become skittish and have you slowing down. And while the position of your hands is obviously different, the URS can occasionally fool you into thinking it’s almost a cross country mountain bike.
Equally the combination of that elastomer-damped rear end and the flexible carbon D-shaped seatpost (which doesn’t slip one bit!) works wonders to take the edge off while also helping to keep that rear tyre in better traction over seated power efforts. Sure it’s nothing like a linkage-based rear suspension setup, but for something that’s not all that much heavier than a rigid frame it does bring benefit.
However while that rear end takes the sting away, it always felt a little unbalanced with the very-rigid rigid fork up front. The URS LT’s MTT fork solves this. That 20 mm of travel is noticeably more squishy and active than the rear, but when flying along a rough gravel section it feels impressively balanced. Here the bike gives an obvious sense that it’s keeping you isolated from the vibrations and energy-sapping bumps.
If you hit something square-edged or of notable size then you’ll surely still feel it, but both ends of the bike do a good job of taking the worst of the impact away. Just don’t expect the 20 mm of travel to save you from hammering through a rock garden – its purpose is to smooth out the high-frequency vibrations and hits common in gravel riding, not to let you comfortably take a drop-bar bike down a gravity mountain bike trail.
Speaking of gravity MTB trails, the URS LT may be strong enough to handle some serious under-biking, but I found on heavy compressions (OK, they were actually drop-offs on a mountain bike trail) the MTT fork would bottom out and in turn cause my weight to pitch forward more than if a rigid fork were up front. And that’s not such a surprise when you consider the head angle is approximately a degree steeper at full bottom and that your weight is more front biased with the effective shorter fork length.
The suspension certainly has benefits on small to medium bumps, but overwhelm the intention of the product and the negatives will arise.
The factory settings on the fork do the job and it’s unlikely that many will be missing the lack of adjustment dials to control the damper. Over consecutive hits, the damper can feel like it’s holding the fork down into the travel, but realistically this is still a better attribute than a fork that was rebounding too quickly from consecutive hits.
Overall the MTT suspension does what it needs to. The damper and roller bearings doing their thing may sound like a DJ scratching discs when in a quiet room (see the video review at 7:50), but you won’t hear it against the rumble of the treaded tyres. Perhaps my favourite element is that there is no weird play or movement in the suspension that gives the feeling of loose headset bearings or similar – it’s stiff and tracks straight. Meanwhile twisting the lockout dial is simple and truly transforms the fork into a rigid one.
However, for all the things the MTT fork does right, there are still some signs that it’s a first-generation product. The most notable example of this is the feeling of the suspension gently topping out in sync with my body while climbing – it’s not something that makes noise, but I could feel it through my hands. It’s a subtly annoying issue that is only present with the suspension open and is perhaps a reminder that I need to work on my core strength to better isolate my legs.
That topping out becomes less subtle and far more annoying when unweighting the front wheel to lift it over an obstacle. Here, the fork can make an obvious knocking sound as the suspension spring pushes the system to its full length. I believe a revised or softer top-out bumper would help alleviate this issue.
It’s also important to note that all my praise for how smoothly the suspension rides was for when I had it set up with the lightest spring and lightest preload insert, which is slightly under-sprung from what BMC recommends for my 70 kg weight. I tried the suspension with a thicker preload spacer (which adds more preload to the coil spring), which made the bike more capable of handling bigger hits, but in turn, it removed the suspension’s suggested 5 mm of sag and the ability for it to mute the small bumps when riding quickly over inconsistent flat or false-flat terrain. With this firmer setting the bike no longer fluidly floated along buzzy terrain, and the harshness of spring top-out only got worse.
And that raises an important note about the URS LT: riders under 60 kg are likely to find all available spring configurations too firm and not great at isolating out the smaller, high-frequency bumps, while riders over 100 kg are likely to find it too soft and mushy.
Catering to the centre of the bell curve isn’t uncommon, and it’s no problem as long as you’re within it. However, the bigger hurdle for me remains with the long-term maintenance and serviceability that the MTT introduces – something I’ll cover in the next section.
I mentioned earlier that the URS can feel like a bit of a slouch and that’s purely in comparison to situations where more road-like gravel bikes shine. The URS takes more effort to tip through tight corners and also requires a little more mental thought to keep on track when inclines get stupidly steep.
And while BMC has lengthened the stem lengths on the small and medium sizes since the original URS release to make the bike feel a little roomier, the fit positively remains a little more all-day comfort and less go-fast focussed. This more upright riding position and the increased weight of the URS LT just don’t feel as fast or reactive when stomping out of the saddle in pursuit of your friends who’ve sprinted up the road. I can’t say the increased weight of the fork itself bothered me much, but the combined weight of the whole bike does undo some of the fun that lighter and more reactive gravel bikes offer.
And it’s worth noting that the bike is rather heavy despite already having carbon wheels (which you’re paying a premium for) and fairly light 40 mm tyres. Those carbon wheels offer a deepish 40 mm depth and aren’t particularly light at an actual 1,700 grams, and nor are they the most compliant things around. While I don’t think they’re the perfect match for the bike, they at least offer a modern 23 mm internal width, a secure-holding hooked design, and a fairly fat rim bead that won’t slice tyres if your pressures are low.
There are two ways to approach tyre selection given the suspension, and I keep swaying back and forth on the matter. On one hand the URS’s suspension means you don’t need to solely rely on fat tyres for comfort and control, and you can get away with running a slightly narrower and faster rolling tread. On the other hand, a bike with such progressive geometry and suspension is somewhat begging to be smashed through things, and at that point you may want to run as much tyre as possible – and keep in mind that the URS won’t fit more than a 45 mm.
If I owned this bike and wanted to get the most from it for my local steep and rocky Sydney riding mixed with long sections of road, then I’d be looking to run a lighter wheelset matched with a faster-rolling tread pattern. I’d then seek to regain some traction through the use of tyre inserts that allow super low pressures. Combine that with the URS’s suspension and you have one superbly compliant machine. And given I’d be changing the wheels, I’d probably save costs by starting off with the cheaper URS LT Two.
As a final note on the spec, the URS LT’s wide-range AXS Eagle Mullet 1x gearing is great for up and down off-road terrain and the larger gaps between each shift are absolutely beneficial there, but on the road it can leave you hunting for a smoother cadence or a gear that’s just a bit bigger. And yep, the crank remains captured by a BB86 press-fit bottom bracket (that remained creak-free the entire time).
The simple fact of suspension is that it adds complexity to a bike, and there’s more to consider than just the price and weight.
The URS’s elastomer rear end already requires some level of basic maintenance to keep the bushings sliding smoothly and play-free, but the fork adds a whole other level of upkeep. The open design was done on purpose as BMC felt a sealing cover would trap dirt and moisture, but it means you need to treat like URS’s MTT fork as you would a mountain bike suspension fork.
Flossing out the exposed stanchion with a rag will go a long way to preserving the functionality and reducing wear. Furthermore, it would be a good idea to occasionally drop the fork out of the frame to clean the nooks and crannies that aren’t so easily accessed – and doing so gives a good opportunity to clean the lower headset bearing which sits directly above. Thankfully the suspension is effectively an upside-down design and so at least gravity isn’t working to put grit inside of the system.
That said, eventually, all moving parts need intervention. Hi-Ride officially suggests you should get it serviced every two years of use. According to BMC, that’s a conservative figure. While it’s an oranges to apples comparison, the likes of RockShox and Fox officially recommend servicing every 50-100 hours of use.
However while a traditional telescoping mountain-bike-style fork likely needs more regular servicing, it can at least be stripped down and serviced by any capable mechanic. Meanwhile, the MTT fork currently needs to be sent back to Hi-Ride for service of the damper – and that could spell time without a bike.
It’s still very early days in terms of long-term testing these forks that are said to go two years without service, and it seems BMC is still figuring out exactly what that process looks like for when the need arises. I personally still have some big questions over the specific costs and logistics of getting a service, especially for those located outside of Europe. BMC has hinted that it will soon have a trade-in program for complete steerer units to ease downtime, but there are significant logistical barriers to that when you consider steerer lengths are effectively cut for each frame size.
Similarly, the open but shrouded design of the fork almost reminds me of those rotating open-mouthed clown games at carnival fairs. While you’d need to have a whole lot of bad luck, I suspect at some point someone will manage to get a perfectly sized pebble stuck in there. And sadly you won’t be awarded a prized teddy bear when that happens.
Being a somewhat proprietary suspension unit, the long-term availability of spare parts also remains an important thing to consider. BMC claims to offer spare parts support for a decade after production, which is quite a bit longer than some other big names in the bike industry. Still, it’s worth considering if you expect this not-so-cheap bike to be with you for a long time.
Providing confidence to even the most nervous of roadies and encouraging the more experienced to open it all the way up on descents, the URS LT makes up ground when ridden fast over rough gravel or on light mountain bike trails, and it’ll leave you with a little more energy to keep up when the terrain is smoother.
Whether it offers a novel advantage or whether the 20 mm of front suspension is simply a novelty will depend on where and how you plan to ride it.
If your idea of gravel riding is linking well-kept dirt roads with sections of tarmac then this is simply not the bike for you. Likewise, you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting the 20 mm of front travel to remove all vibrations while still feeling supportive when under-biking – it seems you can have one or the other. But that said if you’re seeking a bike that’ll go into the backcountry where a cross-country mountain bike may excel, but do so with various hand positions and then be better on the road or fast dirt roads, well, the BMC URS LT is intriguing.
And if that sounds like you, then you still need to fall into the ideal weight range for the suspension, be willing to accept that you can’t neglect this bike as if it’s a fully rigid one, and of course, you still need to be able to afford it. That’s certainly a lot of stipulations, but hitting a rough section of gravel at speed and not feeling my fillings rattle out sure makes me think the compromises can be worth it. In those situations, the URS LT is a whole lot more fun than a hardtail mountain bike which simply feels dull or overkill on such bumpy but not technical terrain.