Bike & New Groupset Review: 3T Exploro RaceMax With Campagnolo EKAR
Launched in 2016, the 3T Exploro filled a void the vast majority of us didn’t even know existed. Described as a ‘Gravel Plus’ platform, the premise was to add aero efficiencies to the humble gravel bike and to ‘go slow faster’.
This was primarily achieved through frame design, most noticeably the unconventional ‘Squaro’ down tube with an upper width of 50mm. The chunky box section had an exaggerated curve on the underside to help pick up airflow from wider front rims and tyres.
With spacious, aero optimised forks, along with oodles of room within the rear triangle, there was space for at least 50mm of rubber and the option to run 650b wheels.
Cabling was integrated, up front being neatly fed into the top tube just behind the stem, the seat post had an aero lead edge and kamm-tail style flat rear surface, and the bike had an aggressive stance with direct, almost twitchy, steering. And yes, it was fast.
Why describe the previous incarnation of the Exploro when reviewing the latest? Because the vast majority of these go-fast attributes have been retained and indeed refined.
The second incarnation of the Exploro came in 2020 with the news the bike would be available in two configurations. Known as ‘the RaceMax’, the bike can be ordered in ‘Race’ build with 35c tyres and more road-oriented gearing. There’s also the ‘Max’ version, with tyre sizes of 54-61mm available. Both versions use the identical frame, the only differences being the wheels, tyres and gearing.
What we are testing today is a 54cm RaceMax, a bike factory fitted with Campagnolo’s recently released Ekar 13-speed groupset in 1x configuration.
Having owned, ridden and been a big fan of the original Exploro, the pre-Christmas arrival of the RaceMax was definitely the highlight of 2020. As with the majority of bikes we receive for review here at Bicycling Australia, the new 3T was partially assembled. It had been shipped direct from the factory in Bergamo, Italy, and arrived unscathed via DHL.
Putting the bike together was simple and straightforward with the only the wheels, saddle / seat post combo and handlebars requiring fitting, adjustment and correct tensioning. A minor disappointment was the bar tape not being factory fitted - for anyone ordering a bike direct via the 3T website I’d recommend requesting the tape be professionally fitted (unless you particularly enjoy the tricky task).
The bike complete, it was fascinating to put it alongside the original Exploro and compare the similarities and subtle improvements.
Ch, Ch, Changes
The major and most noticeable changes with the RaceMax are:
- A higher, more comfort-oriented geometry and particularly the higher head tube / top tube angle.
- The prominent rear wheel cut out (similar to the Cervelo S3 and 3T Strada), that aides the bike’s aero attributes.
- Dropped chainstays on both sides (as opposed to just the drive side on the original model) to help stiffen the lower frame and lower the centre of gravity.
- An even wider down tube. At a whopping 75mm, this boosts the aero attributes and shields a water bottle from front wheel airflow.
- The inclusion of a rear derailleur hanger (as opposed to the dubious ‘hang loose’ RD system on the original model.
- A new front fork incorporating flat mount disc brake mounts, fender mounts and an updated Thru-axle.
- A simplified and more reliable saddle clamp.
- Revised colour way options and subtle, more refined styling.
Much more than a gravel bike, the original Exploro was surprisingly sprightly on the road. The one problem I found was the older bike’s level of comfort. It felt fine over 50 to 60km road loops, and sensational on 30 to 40km gravel rides, but anything more and it really wasn’t the ideal choice for endurance.
With that in mind, and with thousands of kilometres logged on that tired MK1 bike, it was time for the first ride on the new machine. A shakedown cruise was planned with the rough idea of 40 to 50km’s over a mix of road and gravel.
First observations were a more upright, more relaxed and far more comfortable riding position. With 35mm Schwalbe G-One tyres fitted to tubed, Fulcrum Rapid Red wheels, the ride was silky smooth and far more forgiving than the older Exploro. Where the OG model felt like a lightweight, rigid rally car, the RaceMax exhibited a buttery, far more refined ride. While it didn’t necessarily feel as fast as the original bike, Strava stats showed very similar times over local segments.
Comparing the attributes of both bikes I couldn’t help think of the old ‘young bull and the old bull’ adage. The new Exploro really did feel like a bike that would happily tick along all day, a platform that would easily accumulate the kilometres and go on to amass some big totals.
Finishing that first ride at the pre-planned 40 or 50km’s would have been an injustice to this bike.
...it was fascinating to put it alongside the original Exploro and compare the similarities and subtle improvements….
The Wahoo Roam ticked past 50, 60, 70, and 80 kilometres and the bike just wanted to keep on going. So did I, for that matter, with an impressive level of comfort provided through the refined frame, 3T’s Superleggero carbon bars and factory fitted Fizik Argo Tempo power-style saddle.
Clearing the 100km mark and it was tempting to turn around and take the long way back home, a further 50km’s. But the sun was high, the temperature nudged 30 degrees, and the ride was supposed to be an easy shakedown. I turned off the main road and onto the 4km gravel ‘driveway’ home.
Onto the rougher surface and again not-so-subtle refinements were clearly obvious. The bike felt more grounded, more secure, smoother and faster on the local fire trail. Steering felt more responsive, the chassis less jumpy, and overall the RaceMax soaked up the uneven surface far more maturely than it’s predecessor.
The Exploro is somewhat of a cult bike. It’s certainly not for everyone, you definitely won’t see too many around, and at around $8500 (as tested) there are far better buys around. But this is a unique, almost bespoke bike, a rare beast that will eat up the road, the gravel, and just about anything you throw at it. And the memories it leaves will be priceless.
Campagnolo's Ekar 13-Speed
Released just weeks after the updated Exploro, Campagnolo posted news of their first gravel-specific groupset in September 2020.
Known as Ekar (pronounced ‘Eck-ar’) and named after a mountain near Campag’s Italian HQ, the new groupo came with a number of headline features, the most notable being the 13-speed factor. Thir ... teen ... gears!? Yes, you read that right.
Purely 1x only and purely mechanical (at least for now), Ekar shares a small number of similarities with its siblings but is 90% all-new.
Starting with the levers and hoods, and first up there’s the familiar left tap on the right lever to change up and thumb press to change down. A major difference with Ekar is a curved and hooked lever on the thumb actuator to give more control, particularly when off-road. The lever is ergonomic, comfortable, positive, and direct. It works well and is effortless to use when both riding up on the hoods or down in the drops.
One personal annoyance was a slight variation of height between the lever body and the bar. Over time this has caused slight palm pain and redness around the base of the thumb. Lowering the levers could remedy the issue, depending upon the bars you are using, as could building up the bar tape where the hoods join the bar.
Braking is exemplary, the hydraulic discs providing some of the smoothest, most reassuring stopping power experienced. This is particularly important when coupled to an adventure bike such as the Exploro - loaded up with saddle, frame and bar bags, along with lightweight camping gear and supplies, and we are talking considerable weight.
To shifting and I was expecting the typical Campagnolo ‘agricultural’ feel of old, after all this is an off-road focussed groupo not designed for the refinements of racing and road. Instead, I was very surprised by the quiet, no-nonsense gear changes through the ultra-wide ranging cassette. There’s no grinding and certainly no need for personal reassurance in the form of the old ‘Campy wears in, others wear out’ saying.
The test bike was fitted with an expansive range of 42T down to 9. A 9-36T and 11-44T are also available. Chainring wise, the test bike featured 38T with 40, 42 and 44 also being available. For those wanting to vary range, the front chainrings can be easily swapped out via 4x hollow hex bolts.
The crankset is finished in naked carbon with Ekar stylishly embossed in the gloss outer. A thoughtful inclusion are protective rubber boots on the end of each crank, these can be clipped off should they be not required or in need of replacement.
Getting Used To The Gearing
Testing out the bike on the flats, I took off in the 42T first to get a feel of the gearing. Initial thoughts were “this will always be a bailout and hardly ever used.” But the super low gearing has proven itself handy, both on steep gravel inclines and when feeling the need to spin up smooth road climbs.
To the 9T and on downhill runs I have found it comfortable to spin to around 60kp/h - not bad considering the 1x factor.
With 13 options an appropriate gear can always be found, and the gearing has been engineered to cover the full 2x range. Like riding any completely new groupset or ratios, over the first few months I’ve become used to an accustomed with the options available. 1x certainly simplifies the riding experience and once you get to know and understand which gear is best suited to specific terrain you’ll never look back. At least I won’t, not with this combination.
Cramming 13 cogs into the same amount of space we’d usually see 10 or 11 means something has got to give. The drivetrain features a new Campagnolo freehub known as ‘N3W’ with major wheel manufacturers expected to start offering adaptors. There’s also a new narrower ‘C13’ chain that weighs in at 242gm.
So far the Ekar has proven itself as smooth, capable, and rock-solid on both road and gravel. It was surprisingly smooth from the outset with decisive shifts, no clunks or unexpected bumps, and is well thought out with very usable gear spacing. Complimenting the Italian pedigree and 60-year history of 3T, the latest from Campagnolo is ‘a casa’ on the Exploro.
Frame: Exploro RaceMax. Unidirectional pre-preg carbon, High-modulus/high-strength performance blend layup
Fork: Fango RaceMax w/ compact crown
Headset: 3T MinMax custom by Cane Creek IS42/28.6 + IS 47/38
Handlebar: 3T Superergo LTD carbon (XXS: 38cm - 51: 40cm - 54&56:
42cm - 58&61: 44cm)
Stem: 3T Apto Stealth (XXS: 70mm - 51: 80mm - 54: 90mm - 56: 100mm - 58: 110mm - 61: 120mm)
Groupset: Campagnolo EKAR 1x13
Brakes: Campagnolo EKAR hydraulic disc w/ 160mm Campagnolo rotor
Cranks: Campagnolo EKAR carbon, 38T chainring (to match 9T smallest cog) (XXS: 165mm - 51: 170mm - 54&56: 172,5mm - 58&61: 175mm)
Rear cassette: Campagnolo EKAR 13-speed, 9-42T
Wheels: Fulcrum Rapid Red 900, 700c, 22mm internal width, tubeless ready
Seatpost: New 3T Charlie Sqaero Team w/ Ritchey WCS Clamp
Saddle: Fizik Argo Tempo R5
Weight as tested: 9.1kg
Price: Around $8,500 depending upon the exchange rate.
Total weight 2385gm
Levers: 420g per pair
Rear derailleur: 275g
Cassette: 340g (9-36) / 390g (9-42) / 410g (10-44)
Crankset: 615gm (172.5mm, 38t)
Bottom bracket: 50gm
Brake callipers: 110gm front / 95g rear
Brake rotors: 157gm (160mm) / 123g (140mm)
More info: www.campagnolo.com