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3T Exploro Ultra review

27 May 2022
Verdict:

The Exploro Ultra pushes the aero gravel concept to the extreme, but still pulls it off

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
Excellent capability off road, quick ride feel on road, increased 700C tyre clearance
Against 
Dropper post lever ergonomics, short stem

The 3T Exploro Ultra is a gravel bike launched earlier this year and is the third Exploro to be designed by Gerard Vroomen and made by 3T, although should more accurately be labelled as a counterpart to the 3T Exploro Racemax.

The Exploro Ultra uses a frameset design 3T says is aerodynamically optimised around 650B tyres in the 55-61mm range.

The 3T Exploro Ultra Crank Brothers edition costs £8,699 and sits at the top of a four bike range.

While the bike is an extreme example of trying to blend to apparently disparate riding genres, Vroomen has leveraged the transformative effect of tyres size and pressure brilliantly.

The Exploro Ultra marries extreme off-road capability with a fast ride on road to create a versatile and distinctive design, though one or two spec details on this model may be worth reconsidering.

3T Exploro Ultra development

The Exploro Ultra is technically the third iteration of 3T’s popular but controversial aero gravel bike, but it would be more accurate to say it is actually the other side of the second iteration’s coin rather than a dedicated third revision.

While both bikes have the same maximum tyre clearance of 61mm x 650B, 3T says that where the Exploro Racemax has a frameset aerodynamically optimised around 35mm-42mm 700C tyres, the Exploro Ultra has been shaped to work best with 650B tyres at the upper end of its clearance capacity, around 55mm-61mm.

Both bikes will sit alongside each other in 3T’s range, each aiming to cater for a specific but partially overlapping niches.

Since its inception the Exploro platform has never garnered universal approval, with some questioning the efficacy of focussing on aerodynamics in a gravel bike, potentially at the expense of other attributes like comfort.

Given that the Ultra’s remit is the most technical, slowest terrain a gravel bike can be reasonably asked to tackle, the argument of those in that camp is likely to be voiced louder than ever.

Gerard Vroomen, the Exploro’s designer, says that those people misunderstand the bike family’s concept.

‘They think of gravel as something separate, rather than connected to road. More often than not, gravel riders need to ride out of town to get to the woods, so to keep that part fun you need to do it fast.’

Therefore, Vroomen aims for the Exploro bikes’ aerodynamics to come into play on the road, not necessarily on gravel. He then relies on the capability of big tyres to override the framesets’ otherwise aggressive attributes once off-road.

The rationale is no different in the Ultra, it is just optimised around a setup that lets riders tackle the most extreme gravel terrain.

He thinks trying to maximise comfort with less drag-efficient frame design or the introduction of suspension devices creates such a penalty to speed without enough of an increase in capability that ultimately the rider is better off going down the route of the Ultra.

‘Adding suspension risks turning a gravel bike into a bad mountain bike. If the stuff you ride requires suspension, you may as well ride a good mountain bike. If it doesn’t, then just keep it fast, light and efficient,’ Vroomen says. For what it’s worth, that’s a sentiment I would stand behind.

3T Exploro Ultra frameset

With its low-profile fork crown and slender head tube but dramatically flared down tube, the Ultra’s counterpart, the Racemax, is quite radical as modern framesets go.

To help manage the airflow coming off its much wider tyres though, the Ultra makes the Racemax look comparatively vanilla. The design cues are still there, but their dimensions have been notably increased.

The Ultra has a new, wider-stance fork, and upper portion of the downtube has grown in width to 60mm, before flowing into a 75mm wide section designed to cleanly hide the bike’s water bottles from the air.

3T Exploro Ultra build

A key change on the Ultra pertains to its seat post compatibility. While the seat tube looks externally like the Racemax’s it can now house regular round posts instead of a proprietary aero one.

This creates the option of speccing many aftermarket choices, such as ones with extra flex or dropper posts.

Indeed, this Ultra build uses Crank Brothers’ new Highline 11 dropper post. It uses a carbon fibre quill (the part that slides down into the post itself) and head, as well as titanium hardware, to come in at a claimed 389g.

It is an impressive component both visually and in weight terms, but I believe most riders, even riders choosing the Exploro Ultra to take on extreme terrain, would be better served more or the time by choosing to use a comfort-boosting one instead.

What’s more, actuating the Crank Brothers’ Highline 11 was not an easy affair. The lever was stiff and where it was placed on the bars intruded onto my hand position in the drops, meaning I rubbed the skin off my thumb knuckle several times with the underside of the lever.

I think that on balance a dropper post doesn’t serve enough people enough of the time to be worth it.

Although I found the 100mm 3T Apto stem to be a little short for me (the reach has been brought back in the frame, so I’d prefer not to augment that further by using a shorter than usual stem), elsewhere the bike’s build is excellent. Most of it is also made by 3T, in fact.

The wide flare on the 3T Superghiaia bars afforded a nice sense of control over rough ground, while the 3T Discus i28 wheels seemed sturdy and felt like they were wide enough to support the 2.1” Vittoria Barzo tyres properly, for the bike handled confidently at supremely low tyre pressures.

The mullet drivetrain created by 3T’s sleek Torno 1x crankset and Sram’s Eagle XX1 AXS eTap derailleur and 10-50 Eagle cassette felt nicely chosen too, echoing the overarching remit of aero performance blended with rugged capability of the frameset in general.

3T Exploro Ultra geometry and sizing

Geometrically the Ultra has been tweaked compared to the Racemax. The 419mm chainstays, while still uncommonly short for such a capable bike, are 4mm longer than the Racemax’s.

This allows bigger 700C clearance (46mm versus 42mm on the Racemax) as well better mud clearance for the biggest 650B tyres.

Reach has been brought back by around 5mm, to move the rider position up and back and balance out the longer rear.

Riding the 3T Exploro Ultra

The Exploro Ultra is Vroomen’s most exaggerated example to date of how he can successfully squish together to drop-bar genres – aero and gravel – that are ordinarily so disparate.

In his designs for both 3T and Open, Vroomen leverages the transformative effect of tyre size and pressure perhaps better than anyone else in the industry.

As tyres have such an influential role on the ride behaviour of a bike, the Ultra switches personalities as extremely as it mixes genres.

Off-road, those chunky Vittoria tyres offset the inherent harshness of the bulky aero frame and allowed me to take on technical terrain easily.

Yet back on tarmac the attributes of the frame became more dominant. I’m not talking about the frameset’s claimed aerodynamic qualities per se, but the bike undoubtedly feels far more like a stiff, quick road bike than its off-road capability would otherwise suggest.

3T Exploro Ultra verdict

There were some small misses in the spec for me personally. The Ultra’s Crankbrothers Highline 11 carbon dropper post is a feat of engineering, but I think most riders would be better served more of the time swapping in a regular comfort-boosting carbon post.

Considering the reach decrease in the frame the short 3T Apto stem exacerbated a feeling of being sat up in the wind in a normal riding position too.

That said, on the whole I was as equally happy taking the Ultra on my local roads as I was using it to attempt white-knuckle singletrack.

I don’t think there are many other bikes I could say that about, which is a testament to Vroomen’s ingenuity and 3T’s execution.

Pick of the kit

Syncros G4 bottle, RRP £7.99

The humble water bottle is an often-overlooked bit of kit but one that can be a consistent annoyance on a ride if designed poorly.

Syncros’ G4 water bottle has an understated, clean design but does everything right. It has a 600ml capacity in a shape that fits securely in a bottle cage and it is easy to squeeze despite proving to be robust.

At the business end of things, its nozzle is comfortable to grip and allows a liberal flow rate for a given liquid. The closure design is simple too, so is easily cleaned. I’ll take two, please.

3T Exploro Ultra alternatives

3T Exploro Ultra Ekar 650B

The Exploro Ultra Ekar 650B build is £3,000 cheaper but still uses quality componentry. Campagnolo’s accomplished 13-speed Ekar gravel groupset offers a better solution to achieving both range and close gear steps than any other 1× groupset currently on the market.

3T Exploro Racemax Force AXS 1x

The Exploro Racemax Force AXS 1x is in the same lofty ballpark price wise as the Ultra at £6,999, but has been tuned for going fast on middling 700C tyres rather than wide 650B ones. It even uses 3T’s low-profile Torno 1x crankset to reduce drag.

3T Exploro Ultra spec

Price £8,699
Brand 3T
Frame Exploro Ultra
Fork Fango Ultra
Weight 8.44kg (size 56cm)
Sizes available 51, 54, 56, 58, 61
Levers Sram Force AXS eTap
Brakes Sram Force AXS eTap
Rear derailleur Sram Eagle XX1 AXS eTap
Crankset 3T Torno, 40t
Cassette Sram PG-1230 Eagle 11-50
Chain Sram GX Eagle
Wheels 3T Discus i28 LTD
Tyres Vittoria Barzo 27.5" x 2.1"
Bars 3T Superghiaia LTD
Stem 3T Apto
Seatpost Crankbrothers Highline 11
Saddle Fizik Tempo Argo X5

Image credits. Detail and riding shots: Lizzie Crabb; geometry chart and alternative bike images: 3T

Products reviewed by Cyclist are independently selected and tested by our editorial team. Cyclist may earn an affiliate commission if you make a purchase through a retailer link. Read our reviews policy.

Price: 
£8,699