First Ride: BMC refines gravel with the URS
SOLOTHURN, Switzerland (VN) — In 1993, Prince changed his name to…something completely unpronounceable. It was a symbol, and there was a good reason for the change. But do you remember what that reason was?
Of course you don’t. The name mattered to the audience only to the extent that it became the story. Prince became “The artist formerly known as Prince”, which certainly doesn’t have the same ring.
His symbol was left up to interpretation. But Prince had reasons for his name change. Such is the case with the Gravel category, which most of us curmudgeons recognize as mid-90s XC hardtail mountain bikes. The name matters less than the bike’s intention, yet it’s the name that often gets the most attention.
So we can bicker all day long about what gravel really is or isn’t. But while we’re arguing, bike brands are interpreting. BMC’s interpretation takes the form of the new URS, which snags a few key letters from the word that drove BMC’s design process: Unrestricted.
The name encapsulates everything the gravel category attempts to achieve: free reign to ride wherever the rider wants, on whatever terrain. It’s a lofty goal that was marginally achieved back in the 1990s (and earlier) with hardtail mountain bikes. So it should come as no surprise that as the gravel category grows up, the bikes start to look more and more like those throwback hardtails.
The URS touches on all the points you expect from a gravel bike: It has clearance for 45mm tires, it can be set up tubeless, there are mounting options galore, and there’s even an integrated fender option. The URS looks a lot sleeker than most gravel bikes too, with internal routing, an integrated cockpit, and a D-shaped seatpost for compliance.
BMC even added its Micro Travel Technology (MCC), an elastomer-based suspension system that adds 10mm of travel to take the edge off. MCC has been featured on BMC bikes before, specifically — You guessed it — the hardtail mountain bike category.
In another nod to XC bikes of yesteryear, the URS is compatible with Fox’s 32 SC AX gravel suspension fork.
But we’re also fortunate enough to see the gravel category grow to a point where the bikes are starting to know what they are, so to speak. The URS, for example, is designed to achieve specific goals: a balance of stability and snappy handling, for example, that sets it apart from mountain bikes of yore.
To accomplish this, BMC offers what it calls Gravel+ geometry: a slack head angle (70 degrees on the size medium I rode) with a long reach (415mm, size medium), all tied together with a super-short stem. The URS I rode has a 70-degree head tube angle, and I rode with a 55mm stem. That’s combined with a long, 1,064mm wheelbase.
The URS is designed specifically for 1X drivetrains, yet another aspect borrowed from mountain bike elements. It’s dropper post-compatible, and it has three water bottle mounts, top tube mounts, and routing for a hub dynamo. BMC never forgets the extras.
In an effort to prove the Unrestricted point, BMC representatives took us on a ride that touched all surfaces: pavement, gravel, and even singletrack. The terrain around Solothurn, Switzerland proved a worthy testing ground not only for its varied terrain, but also for its elevation gain. I worked hard on this ride.
And for that effort, I got to know the URS pretty well. So I know it can handle a lot of different surface conditions as promised, but it truly excels on gravel.
In fact, it was on those gravel roads where I felt like this bike was damn near perfect. The MCC gobbles up chatter, the front end handles confidently while maintaining stability, and man, it just feels fast. It was perhaps the first time I’ve ridden a gravel bike and thought, “Oh, I get what all the fuss is about.” I’ll chalk some of that up to BMC’s geometry tweaks; The bike feels stable and controllable, but quick line changes and tight switchbacks still don’t take a whole lot of rider input to execute perfectly.
But once we hit singletrack, it was clear the URS was overmatched. I fully expected that, because any gravel bike is the wrong tool for the job on such trails. Sure, you can get through it — I did, without any dabs or sketchy moments.
But I kept asking myself if I would be having more fun on a mountain bike. Yes, of course I would. But this was only one part of a long ride. The URS got me there on gravel and pavement, where it performs quite well, and it survived the singletrack. That’s impressive, even if a gravel bike isn’t the right tool for the job. So for a wide-ranging ride, the URS ended up being a jack of all trades, master of, well, one. But it was at least competent and capable on everything else.
Before we hit that singletrack, we stopped for lunch, overlooking the verdant Swiss hillsides and ubiquitous cows as they clanged their bells. My test bike was leaning against a stone wall and it occurred to me that this was one of the sleekest, coolest-looking gravel bikes I have seen so far. BMC prides itself on Swiss engineering and attention to detail, and that was certainly on display here. Clean lines and smart features make for a bike I wouldn’t mind being seen on.
Of course, more integration and sleeker lines come with trade-offs, and as I took a mid-ride nap in the grass, I wondered what it might be like to be stuck in the backcountry trying to make a repair. It wouldn’t be easy, but then again, my bike came equipped with SRAM’s eTap Force AXS, so really, there wouldn’t be a whole lot to fix in the first place. But with anything cable-actuated, you might end up spending a bit more time enjoying the scenery during the repair process.
After just one ride, it’s hard to say if the URS lives up to its ‘Unrestricted’ standards. It certainly got me through all sorts of terrain, with varying results on the fun scale. Still, as far as gravel bikes go, this one is up there among the sleekest, most thoughtfully designed. I don’t know if Prince would ride a gravel bike, but if he did, he might ride this one…in purple.