3T Exploro RaceMax Review - A Numbers Game
The original 3T Exploro, first released in 2016, not positioned the stalwart 3T as a nascent bike brand, but it also was the release of the first aero gravel bike. And amongst all the aerodynamics on a gravel bike talk, the fact of the matter is that the Exploro was a plain good bike. This leads us to the latest iteration of the 3T gravel bike, the 3T Exploro RaceMax, which doubles down on the original formula. Is the Exploro Racemax a good bike for all of its tech, or is it just a plain good bike?
The simple thought of an ‘aero gravel bike’ is an amalgamation of cycling buzz words so topical it might make your skin crawl, but the idea of incorporating aero principles is not new. The idea has particularly proliferated in the road bike scene, where bikes whose sole purpose was to be as light as possible now incorporate aerodynamics without compromising the low weight, handling, or ride quality that made them so good.
It is at this point that 3T reasons that aerodynamics make sense on the gravel bike. While your ground speed might be on the slower end of things, many gravel riders tend to be in open exposed areas where they might be fighting the wind. There, the wind working against you makes aerodynamics matter, and where the Exploro is improved over the Exploro. Further, most gravel riders tend to ride solo or in small groups, where they lose the aero advantage that comes from riding in a pack.
The original Exploro came with the claim that its aerodynamics were effective even with 3D-printed mud all over the bike. This latest Exploro RaceMax claims that its aerodynamics are 90% efficient even with a tire with a 61mm WAM.
Measuring Tires with WAM and RAM
No, WAM is not an 80’s English pop duo. Rather it belongs to a more precise way to measure tires than just relying on what the sidewall says and hoping for the best. WAM (width as measured) and RAM (radius as measured) are determined by taking actual measurements of loads of tires over diverse internal rim widths because a tire that says 700c x 40mm on the sidewall will measure differently on a 19mm internal width rim as it would on a 29mm internal width rim. In short, you can pick out the tire that best fits the measurements that fit not just the 3T Exploro RaceMax, but any bike on the market.
WAM and RAM make for solid assurance and it allows the Exploro to fit tires like a 27.5 x 2.25” Schwalbe G-One Allround TLE without a fuss.
Framing the Exploro RaceMax
3T’s nomenclature choice is a bit confusing. The frame is referred to as the Exploro RaceMax, while complete bikes are referred to as Exploro Race and Exploro Max. There are two dueling mindsets that playout in the RaceMax frame. Race is the mindset that riders will use either a 1x or 2x drivetrain with tighter-spaced gearing as well as tires with a 36 to 42mm WAM. Max is aimed at capability rather than outright speed, using 1x gearing and the widest tires that can fit in the frame.
There are a few tricks that 3T employed to fit those tires. The fork itself - with the same 370mm axle-to-crown measurement as the 3T Strada - utilizes an ultra-slim crown in the name of fitting a wide tire. Further the chainstays - at a scant 415mm - are dropped on both sides to fit a 2x drivetrain in this increasingly-tight bottom bracket area. These are numbers you’d find on a road bike much less a racey gravel bike. Impressive, 3T.
Most of the frame’s abrupt lines and curvaceous shapes come in the name of aerodynamics. The headtube and fork utilize a custom headset that fits the 1.5” fork crown in the space of a 1.25” area, thus improving frontal area aerodynamics. The downtube starts at a relatively narrow 46mm before bulging out to a wide 75mm around the water bottles and toward the bottom bracket. This width, according to 3T, is such that the top of the downtube catches airflow from the front wheel and directs it around the wider part of the downtube, smoothing airflow.
3T has imbued the Exploro with a couple of design bits from the first Exploro. The cable routing - with cables going just behind the stem - carries over, as does the aero carbon seatpost, albeit with an updated Ritchey saddle rail clamp. It also has the same three bottle cage mounts, top tube bag mount, and mounts for both a 1x and 2x drivetrain. A size 54cm Exploro RaceMax frame weighs in at 1050g, painted.
On the fit front, this latest 3T Exploro sees reach and stack measurements become a bit more progressive. Larger sizes feature a bit more stack height than before so riders hamstrung by the previous bike can now more easily find the fit they might need.
Further, there are six available sizes now, up from the prior four. Riders as short as 4’9” should find their ideal size, while riders above 6’3” should find similar comfort in the 61cm frame size. Each 3T Exploro RaceMax features a size-specific bottom bracket drop and two fork offsets - 54mm and 62mm - to keep trail numbers and therefore handling fairly consistent across all sizes. Trail figures themselves are a touch lower, making the bikes just a bit more agile than before.
Gerard Vroomen, the head designer and engineer behind the Exploro and Exploro Racemax, stated that this latest bike is designed around a road riding position, and whatever suspension is needed is taken care of by wider tires. Not everyone may agree with this mindset but the Exploro isn’t a bike for everyone. But for those who might enjoy this bike might find it to be a godsend.
Our riding experience largely lies in the Exploro Max setup, which utilizes a 1x drivetrain and 650b x 54mm. In this instance, the bike’s handling requires a bit of an adjustment when compared to a traditional road bike. Much of that seems to come from the wide tires which have a bit more vagueness upon initial turn in. In some ways, it feels even vaguer than a mountain bike tire, which has a much more stout sidewall that supports you better than most wide gravel tires that aim for suppleness. That said, the wide tire means more grip, so through the corner you kind of have to just push through the corner and trust that the tires will carry you through the corner.
The Exploro has a feeling of agility that most other gravel bikes lack, particularly ones with clearance for the tires this can fit. The wheelbase in a size 51cm bike comes in at a tight 1008mm, or about what you’d find from a road bike. Additionally, it's trail figure in this size of 62mm isn’t far off from a road bike, much less a race road bike like the Pinarello Dogma (~55mm). For all intents and purposes, you’ll find that you could ride this like a racey road bike if you wanted to without the sluggishness you'd find from other gravel bikes that play double duty.
In this sense, the Exploro gravel bike is like building a high-performance sports car and turning it into a rally car. You have most of the speed, just with a whole lot more forgiveness at the expense of some precision. It is par for the course for most gravel bikes, but the turn-in is agile enough here to feel different than most other gravel bikes.
All that said, the Exploro Max configuration feels at it's best off-road. The sprightly handling allows you to hop in, around, and through technical terrain; while you may not be going as fast through mildly technical singletrack as you would on an XC bike, it is no slouch in this regard and you can put the bike precisely where you want it.
To note, we’re fans of the 3T Aeroghiaia handlebars. The top of the hooks where your brakes clamp are at a near 90-degree angle like that of a road bike, not canted outward like most gravel handlebars. Even still, the hooks past the brake lever flare quite a bit in an attempt to offer some control over twisty or chunkier terrain. If you’ve preferred road bike handlebars for their more familiar positioning, then Aeroghiaia will likely make you happy.
There is no escaping that the Exploro RaceMax is fuelled by numbers. Its aero tubing is shaped by a desire for aero advantage as well as a desire to fit tires optimized by RAM and WAM. Even it's geometry is a triumph of capability with little to no compromises. And while many things in the world influenced by numbers tend to lack personality, the Exploro RaceMax is brimming with it.
The Exploro RaceMax won’t be the ideal gravel bike for everyone, but its lively and agile demeanor is unlike few bikes on the market. Aero advantages notwithstanding, the bike is one of the most fun gravel bikes on the market, and thanks to its low weight, road positioning, and handling, can fit the one-bike solution better than just about anything else. To our eyes, that makes this bike a straight-up good bike.
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