(The Gear Loop) - Some bikes are like surgical scalpels, incredibly honed with a single purpose. Whether that be to deliver its rider to the top of a mountain via endless switchbacks with every watt contributing to forwards motion, or to plummet back down the mountain over rocks, roots and all manner of other bumpy terrain.
These bikes are great when there is a sole aim in mind, such as winning the Tour de France or a round of the World Cup XC series, but what happens when the road bike gets a whiff of the trails or the mountain bike likes the look of the smooth asphalt?
This is where the Exploro RaceMax from 3T enters the frame. On first inspection, it’s a whacky hybrid of an aero road bike and an XC mountain bike. The huge, meticulously profiled downtube gives way to skinny but knobbly tyres that look far too narrow for the package.
The narrow head tube and rear wheel cut-out offer even more clues as to the RaceMax’s intentions. Having spent some time looking over the slightly madcap machine, the question begins to dawn… is this an aero gravel bike?
Yes, yes it is.
We’ve never ridden a bike that has the same spirit as the RaceMax. It ignited our sense of adventure and gave us a taste of fun and a thirst for fast gravel riding. Admittedly, for longer bike packing expeditions, you’d probably want something a bit more comfort orientated, but if blasting around at full tilt for a couple of hours is more your thing, then the RaceMax is a worthy contender.
3T Exploro RaceMax
- Huge fun on all terrain
- Head turning looks
- Blisteringly quick
- Compliant but engaging ride
- Wheels could be better
- Campagnolo Ekar shifting is a let down
- Fiddly cable routing
- Gets overwhelmed on really tough terrain
In the Loop
All you need to know about the 3T Exploro RaceMax in handy bite-sized chunks:
- Aero Gravel bike with profiled downtube and skinny headtube
- Carbon frame and fork
- Road bike speed both on and off
- 13 Speed Campagnolo Ekar Groupset
- Fulcrum Rapid Red 900 wheels
- Campag and Sram variants available
- 23-42mm tyre width variation
- 3T Finishing kit with carbon bars
Born from experience
Arguably the father of aero race bikes, Gerrard Vroomen, has applied his philosophy to the rough stuff and has teamed up with Italian manufacturer 3T to bring his aero insights to the world of gravel machines.
The Exploro range from 3T encompasses the entire gravelly spectrum, from the really rough stuff to mildly bumpy, as well as those models for riders that want to travel really fast over mildly rough stuff.
The RaceMax, as the name might imply, is designed to get you from A to B as quickly as possible across a variety of terrain. It uses narrower tyres than its burlier cousin the UltraMax and the frame is optimised for skinnier rubber but aside from this, the models are quite similar.
Here, the RaceMax is optimised for 23-42mm WAM tyres but wider one can be fitted at a small aero penalty if the terrain demands it. 3T says this model is for those who crave road bike speed both on and off road, which is a mighty statement considering how many niches and sub niches there are under the 'road bike' umbrella these days.
Our test bike came equipped with the new gravel-specific 13 speed Ekar groupset from Campagnolo and the Italian theme continued throughout the rest of the components: Fulcrum Rapid Red 900 wheels shod with Pirelli rubber, for example. 3T dealt with the cockpit and seating arrangement, courtesy of their Superergo LTD carbon bars and an alloy stem to round out the key touchpoints. All round, it’s a beautiful looking bike and the pearlescent red and white paintjob looked stunning in the sun. It caught a few admiring eyes outside the café, too.
One lesson we did learn is not to take apart the seat clamps of bikes that we’ve just unboxed. Especially in the garden. We tried to adjust the position of the saddle and managed to lose bits of the clamp under the mower.
Having spent 30 minutes retrieving said parts of seat clamp, we then spent another 30 minutes trying to put it back together. Fortunately, our friendly local bike shop managed to do their magic and got it all back together in 20 seconds flat. It feels like an overly complex solution to a simple thing, but that could just be the Italian coming out in this bike.
With the majority of the machine fashioned from carbon, aside from the stem and wheels, the RaceMax was no heavyweight, which was ideal given we spent a couple of weeks thrashing it around the Chiltern Hills which as the name suggests, is hilly.
SRAM and Shimano have had a stranglehold on the gravel sector with their gravel specific groupsets but not to be outdone, the Italians have brought their own to the party.
Ekar is Campagnolo’s first foray into gravel and we think it’s a great start, but there’s a lot more development that needs to happen before they’re on the same level as the big players.
Let’s start with the positives; it looks great. The polished carbon cranks and alloy levers give it a really premium feel and the levers feel great in the hands, offering a comfortable and natural place to rest, both in the drops and hoods, and provides security that your fingers wont bounce off on bumpy descents. The tips of the levers are also textured to provide more grip in wet conditions.
Ekar also holds the crown of being the lightest gravel-specific groupset on the market, as well as offering 13 speeds, which is frankly an engineering marvel. We remember when nine speed was at the cutting edge of tech.
Alas, it's not perfect. The feel at the shifter is heavy and laboured when moving up the gears and it took some encouragement to get it to actually drop into a gear. We though the culprit of this could just be a sticky cable that needs replacing, but talking to our local bike shop, they had experienced similar symptoms as a result of the cable routing on the RaceMax, which forces the derailleur cable over the bottom bracket shell.
The inclusion of an inline barrel adjuster around the cockpit would at least have allowed us to tweak the shifting on the move. Luckily, the RaceMax is available with a host of other builds from SRAM or Shimano if you’d rather not fiddle about with gears every ride.
We’ve never ridden a bike that seems to dare you to dart off the tarmac and down tiny tracks that shoot off into the woods. The vertically compliant frame, coupled with rock steady handling, meant that we would happily ditch the tarmac in favour of the dirt every time.
Smooth fire roads and well-trodden tracks are the perfect environment for the RaceMax, allowing you to get the power down and really zip along in comfort. When the terrain gets more mountain bike suitable, the set-up can get overwhelmed, especially on roots and off camber sections, but that's more down to having skinnier tyres than anything else.
Fine tuning the tyre pressures would have made a big difference, but our bike was using inner tubes rather than the ubiquitous tubeless setup so we were more inclined to run higher pressures to avoid pinch flats, which likely sacrificed all-out grip.
The handling felt composed most of the time, allowing us to build confidence to push harder both on and off road, but we encountered a few loose rocky descents that pushed the RaceMax beyond it’s comfort zone. These kinds of descents are probably best left to wider-tyred relatives and no bike is ever really going to do it all.
Overall, the frame proved stiff and purposeful, without being jarring to ride over a long distance. We took the RaceMax on a couple of 50km plus jaunts and didn’t find ourselves crippled at the end - the vertical compliance, particularly at the rear, helped to stave off that feeling of being beaten up by your own bike.
The flat-topped aero handlebars also offered a comfortable place to rest our hands on longer climbs and while smashing over really rough stuff at speed. Out of the saddle, efforts were rewarded as the bike surged forward with what fells like very little flex from the bottom bracket area.
And when it came time to scrub off speed, the Campagnolo Ekar hydraulic discs did a far better job of stopping than the groupset did of encouraging smooth forward motion. The levers offered heaps of modulation and power, but we never felt close to locking a wheel. In another design quirk, the front brake caliper bolts through the fork from the front, rather than from the rear. This didn’t seem to have any impact on its adjustability or performance, but presumably is just aero gains addition.
The frameset is optimised for a 1x groupset, but there is a mount for a front mech. However, due to cabling routing issues, it is only compatible with electronic groupsets, which is something to bear in mind if you’re planning on building a bike up from scratch.
That said, the RaceMax is a hugely versatile bike. Throw on a pair of deep section carbon wheels and it’d be just at home bombing along on the open roads as it would be weaving through trees on fire tracks.
If you’re looking for one bike to do it all, the RaceMax could be that kryptonite. Remarkably swift both on and off it, the aero design rewards hard riding with oodles of speed wrapped up in a compliant package. The finishing kit is suitably premium, while carbon bars and integrated routing make for a very tidy looking bike. The 13-speed Campagnolo groupset is unfortunately the weakest part of the build - braking performance is stellar but the shifting needs some attention.