A titanium dream bike…
This review will be slightly different because the bike in question is my own build that is based on a titanium frame. Everything that I put into this bike is a result of over 12 months of my testing and reviewing different bike parts. So naturally, it has to be good. But how good it really is? Let’s find out!
The main part of my bike is obviously the titanium frame. I have read many reviews and opinions about the superiority of titanium frames. But honestly, I did not believe that in reality, they are indeed that good. I thought that it has more to do with the exclusivity than the material properties. Yet, when I finally build my titanium bike, I was blown away by the ride characteristic. Titanium is like steel on steroids. Better in every single way. First, the titanium frame is lighter. Much lighter than steel (my frame size 54 weighs 1550 g without the fork) yet, still not as light as a carbon frame. Then, there is the power transfer efficacy. My previous steel bike was flexing a lot when accelerating hard. I did not like that because I felt that my bike is not working with me towards the same goal. Titanium is different. Of course, I have to keep in mind that material is not the whole story and the way you construct the frame is very crucial in terms of power efficacy (and comfort, which I will talk in a second) but titanium Enigma Escape frame, which I have chosen for my benchmark bike, is very similar in terms of geometry to my previous steel Jamis Renegade Bike. So I think I can draw some conclusions based on this comparison (yet keeping in mind that Enigma Escape has a wider seat tube that can increase the frame stiffness). From my perspective titanium is stiffer, meatier in feel. But at the same time still very lively and agile. Accelerating on my bike feels very satisfactory. Of course, it is not as quick as on the best carbon gravel bikes, but more than enough to feel good and be quick in every situation. Yet, the most interesting thing for me is that this additional stiffness and power efficiency does not come at the cost of compliance. Enigma Escape feels super smooth. Many carbon gravel bikes can achieve the same feat but no carbon frame will offer this level of comfort and liveliness at the same time (this is the real benefit of having a titanium frame in my opinion). And finally, there is this timeless look of titanium. I really enjoy looking at my bike and to be honest, this is a thing that should not be overlooked. Your bike needs to look good, especially to you and especially if it costs a lot. There is no denying the fact that titanium is very expensive. But carbon frames can be also very expensive…
I have already expressed my feelings about the titanium ride. But the material itself is not the whole picture. The geometry is also very important. And, maybe because it is very similar to my previous bike, I really like the geometry of this bike. I ride size 54 because I like a more aggressive riding position. The smaller bike feels, in general, more agile and sporty and this frame delivers that. Handling is spot on for me. I combined the rather slack 71 degrees head angle with a very good OPEN U-Turn GravelPlus fork (395 mm length and 50 mm rake). The head tube is quite tall so I do not use any spacers below the stem and the stem itself (100 mm Redshift ShockStop) is at negative angle. It works great for me because not only it lowers the handlebar, but also Redshift stem is more effective when you put more weight onto it. Yet the real magic comes from the rear. I like bikes that are balanced in terms of weight distribution because it makes the bike more flickable. You can use the brakes to make the rear of the bike slide which gives a lot of fun when riding hard on twisty forest roads. I can only think about two more bikes that gave me a similar level of fun and enjoyment when riding (Argon 18 Dark Matter and, to a lesser extent, Specialized Diverge 2021). Overall, I think that I have found the handling sweet spot with this bike and this makes it a true benchmark bike in terms of future comparisons.
The riding comfort
Titanium offers at least the same level of comfort as good steel so there is no surprise in telling that this bike offers a great level of suppleness. But this is not only because of the titanium itself. At the front, I am using a 100 mm suspension stem (with a harsh set of elastomers to maintain the ride feel and control of the bike in demanding situations). The stem is attached to a great carbon Coefficient Wave AR handlebar that adds another layer of suppleness to this bike. At the rear, I wanted to use the Redshift suspension seatpost but unfortunately, after a couple of rides, I had to go back to Ergon CF3 / Canyon VCLS 2.0 flexing seatpost. Why? I certainly enjoyed the unprecedented level of comfort but at the same time, my frame is quite short and I needed more setback to feel comfortable. Canyon VCLS 2.0 gives me that and to be honest, combined with titanium, it still offers a great level of comfort. Especially because I put the saddle as further back as possible and the seatpost itself (due to the short seat tube) is very well exposed which promotes a lot of desired flex. I supplemented the seatpost with a great SQ Lab 612 Active saddle so overall I am very pleased with both front and the rear comfort of my bike.
Of course, comfort comes not only from the stems and setpost. I improved it also by using a Spinergy GX wheels. They use a unique fiber PBO spokes that flexes a lot providing an additional level of suppleness. But the most beneficial for the overall comfort are the tires. I use Rene Herse tires (Snoqualmie Pass at the front: 42 mm for better traction and comfort, and Barlow Pass 39 mm at the rear for better rolling resistance). I set up them tubeless so small punctures are no problem for me. And there are no inner tubes that can sometimes increase the level of overall vibrations. Of course, if you still want more suspension then you can go wider (up to 45 mm with 700c wheels or 50 mm tire with 650b wheels).
The full GRX groupset (almost…)
For me, comfort comes not only from the low level of vibrations but also from the convenience of everyday riding. And this convenience is highly connected with the groupset you are using and especially, the gearing that you decided to have on your bike. After testing many different bikes with various different groupset I come to the conclusion that for a gravel bike, and for me the best solution is 2x. At the front, I use a 48/31 GRX crankset. At the rear, I needed more gears so I use a Shimano Deore XT 11-40 cassette that I paired with a Shimano 105 7000 long cage derailleur. Overall I am very happy with the gear range that I got from that combination. I am also very satisfied with the hydraulic brakes and GRX levers. They work great and feel very secure no matter the situation (which is a great improvement compared to my previous TRP Hy/Rd brakes and smaller Shimano 105 levers). The only complaint that I have is that after using an electronic shifters (Shimano Di2 or SRAM eTap) I wish the mechanical shifting would be more precise and did not need the adjusting from time to time. Yes, I know… But the truth is that people are lazy and once you taste something better, it is not easy to go back to the previous, less convenient solution.
Threaded bottom bracket. Very convenient and still quite effective in terms of power transfer. Then there are externally routed cables which I value greatly, especially after losing quite some time to put the cables internally into the fork and carbon handlebar…
12 mm thru-axle front and rear for the increased stiffness and for an easy wheel swap (which is very important when you test and review many different bikes and bike parts).
The 31,6 seatpost was a controversial thing for me at the start because I have learned that 27,2 is better for comfort, but now I don’t see any problem with that. I just use a great 100 mm CaneCreek shim and enjoy the increased stiffness at the bottom bracket area and a great level of comfort from 27,2 Canyon VCLS 2.0 flexing seatpost at the same time.
And finally, the titanium frame allowed me to install a rear rack and on this rack, a great Hamax Caress suspension child seat (a review is coming soon). So now I can ride fast and have fun with my son on the rear. This is a very important thing for me and only few carbon frames allow that (and at the cost of compliance, whereas titanium provided both compliance and necessary stiffness).
Is this a perfect bike?
Like I said many times before, there is nothing perfect out there. The top tube (due to the 74 degree of seat tube angle) is a little to short for my linking and prevents me from using on a daily basis a suspension seastpost with a short or none setback. Also externally routed cables mean that they rob against the head tube and leaves marks there (of course, at least in theory, it can be brushed off, because it is titanium after all but nevertheless, this slightly annoys me). I would also like to have a fully integrated headset because what I have now makes the head tube even taller (and this forces me to use no spacers and a negative stem angle). Also wider, the integrated head tube just looks cooler.
But all of those things are trivial when compared to the overall level of comfort and fun of riding that this bike provides. On every occasion. This is a truly universal bike and this is making it also the best gravel bike out there. You can ride fast on the road (thanks to a stiff, quite effective frame, fast-rolling tires and overall still quite low bike weight), you can hammer through twisty forest roads (thanks to suspension stem, suspension seastpost, carbon handlebar, springy Spinergy wheels and lively handling) and you can pedal as hard as you can on fast gravel due to quite a sporty riding position (that I achieved) and suppleness of Rene Herse tires set up tubeless and run at something like 30 psi air pressure (tires on fast gravel are the most crucial thing that can improve your riding comfort). This bike is so good at any of those things that it is hard for me not to recommend it and award the best in my gravel bike field test. A truly fantastic bike I have…
To find out more about how this bike performed in my comfort measuring tests just read this gravel bikes field test introductory article.