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Gravel Gear

First ride review: SRAM XPLR RockShox suspension, Zipp wheels, and 1x drivetrain

Lots of positives and some negatives in this broad spectrum of gravel components.

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‘Gravel-specific’ can be both a legitimate and a laughable thing. Gravel tires? Legit. Gravel socks? Ummm…. So where does the new XPLR product fall? SRAM’s new suite of gravel-specific components is built largely from a foundation of mountain bike product, and tuned for drop-bar riding. I like most of it, with a few caveats, but the dropper post remains a head scratcher for me.

The new SRAM XPLR collection consists of:

  • 3 1x derailleurs (Red, Force, Rival) designed for a 10-44 cassette
  • 2 cassettes (Red and Force; 10-44t)
  • RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR fork (30mm and 40mm travel options)
  • RockShox Reverb AXS XPLR dropper post (50mm and 75mm options, both 27.2mm)
  • Zipp 101 XLPR wheels (15mm rim height; 1,665g claimed; 27mm internal width)
  • Zipp G40 XPLR tires (40mm)
  • Zipp Service Course XPLR handlebars
Photo: Ben Delaney

I’ve done three rides on a Lauf True Grit bike built with Red eTap AXS XPLR, a 30mm RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR, a 75mm Reverb AXS XPLR, and Zipp 101 XPLR wheels with 40mm XPLR tires. Since the drivetrain experience is quite similar to the existing offerings, I’ll focus mostly on the new-new stuff here.

Gravel RockShox

Photo: Ben Delaney

Full-on suspension for gravel bikes is rare. Fox, Cannondale, and MRP are the only other players with gravel suspension forks. And gravel bikes coming stock with front suspension is quite rare, like the Cannondale Topstone or the Niner MCR. Is this because these brands are ahead of the curve, or because no one is asking for a gravel suspension fork? Well, that depends on who you ask. I’ll tell you how they ride, though.

So, suspension works. It’s a thing. Just ask your car. Also, it adds weight. That’s the story of the $799 RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR gravel suspension fork in a nutshell.

The Rudy XPLR smooths out small bumps from the front end of the bike. The air fork is tunable for rebound, and has a lockout. I can’t tell you how the lockout feels, because the aluminum dial broke off before I got the bike out of the garage. I assume it feels like a rigid fork.

Photo: Ben Delaney

The 30mm of travel isn’t much. When you hit big rocks and holes you still feel them. So it’s not magic. But it does make a very noticeable and frankly very welcome difference when riding in the saddle on bumpy dirt. Small bumps are muted, as is hand and arm fatigue.

When out of the saddle, the forks bobs unless you’re careful to balance your weight. Bobbing always feels less than efficient, but I can’t quantify that at all.

I would be curious to see modeling on how much faster or slower a rider would be with and without front suspension on various gravel course.

Oopsies. Photo: Ben Delaney

Another thing I can’t quantify or back up: Cornering on choppy surfaces feels a touch more secure, as the fork does its job in mediating the forces between the road surface and the rider.

All in all, going from rigid gravel to shallow-suspension gravel feels like going from a road tire to a gravel tire. It’s not an enormous difference, but it is absolutely noticeable, in a mostly pleasant way.

Is it worth the weight? Or just the added visual and mechanical complexity? I’m on the fence. For racing, I’d say no. For general riding, it could be an upgrade for taking the edge off.

I’m going to try riding the same bumpy stretches on this bike, a bike with a Redshift suspension stem, and a rigid bike. Stay tuned for more on that.

Photo: Ben Delaney

The $600 RockShox Reverb AXS XPLR dropper post is an interesting proposition. SRAM sent the bike configured so that pressing both eTap levers activates the post. When sitting on it and pressing the levers, it drops. When you unweight it and press the levers, it pops back up. To adjust the height, you can use your butt to partially lower it or control its rise. When not fully extended, the post has a small amount of air-sprung suspension to it.

While the concept of a suspension post seems cool, I don’t like how it works.

To activate the suspension, you have to lower the post slightly. So if you’re pedaling in this setting, you’re pedaling at a less-than-ideal saddle height. Personally, if the going gets rough I’m standing; and if I’m pedaling I want my bike to fit properly.

It’s cool that the battery is swappable with the derailleur. Lord knows I’ve ended up with a dead SRAM battery more times than I care to admit. But the placement behind the post hampers the storage options for a saddle bag.

Photo: Ben Delaney

As with all dropper posts, there is a small amount of play in the Reverb AXS XPLR, but it’s noticeably less than Easton’s AX70 gravel dropper, and frankly I didn’t notice it while on the bike.

So, do you need a gravel dropper post at all? I have a hard time making a case for one. If the terrain is such that you regularly need to get your weight way back and down, what are you doing on a gravel bike? I can think of exactly one time where I would have used a gravel dropper, and that was when Spencer Powlison was dropping me on a trail-connector section of The Mid South (then Land Run), and I got spooked rolling over a little drop-off without having my weight adequately back. But that was just user error; no rider in front of me had a dropper post.

Now, having some compliance in a gravel seatpost is something I heartily endorse. The Canyon VCLS carbon post is an excellent option, as it flexes without changing the saddle angle, and only adds minimal weight. For more travel you have options like Redshift and Cane Creek suspension posts. But while this AXS Reverb functions well enough to add some cush when lowered slightly, it doesn’t offer suspension at all when in the fully extended position, which in my mind is where is would make sense to have it.

So, this piece is a hard sell for me.

Zipp 101 XPLR wheel, G40 XPLR tires, Service Course SL 70 XPLR bar

Photo: Ben Delaney

Zipp’s first gravel-specific wheelset, the $1,800 101 XPLR, is a riff on the company’s MOTO MTB design, where the rim is constructed of a single layer instead of a box section. The idea is that the rim can move laterally a tiny bit on the spokes for compliance.

Testing the wheels on a bike with a suspension fork made sensing a difference a challenge! Similarly, it’s difficult to tease out wheel differences with a plump and supple tire, which the G40 XPLR seems to be.

I can say that riding tall, aero wheels on gravel vs shallower wheels is a difference that many riders can notice. And Enve made a point of building compliance into its top-shelf G23, which I raced at the 2018 Dirty Kanza and believe to be an excellent gravel wheelset. That to say, I don’t think Zipp is off the mark in prioritizing comfort.

Photo: Ben Delaney

The 27mm internal width is robust, and wider than many modern gravel wheels. At 1,665g, they aren’t heavy, but they aren’t the lightest. Enve’s G23, for contrast, has a 23mm internal width, a 1,330g weight — and a much steeper $2,800 pricetag.

Like many of you, I want to have my cake and eat it too. With wheels, I’d love a light, comfortable wheelset that still has aero benefits. I think of HED’s Jet wheels, which feature a carbon fairing over a shallow alloy rim. While I initially found the fairing concept cheesy, it’s actually brilliant at delivering that comfy-and-aero double whammy. Perhaps something similar might be down the road with Zipp.

In any event, I can conclusively say that this test bike — built with suspension fork, and 40mm tires ad ~34psi — did not feel anything resembling harsh.

Photo: Ben Delaney

The $65 G40 XPLR tire is a 480g tubeless, hookless-compatible tire with a thick, semi-slick center and knobbier shoulders. It’s just a name change from what was the Zipp G40 Tangente Course. It seems like a good all-around tire at first blush.

The Zipp Service Course SL-70 XPLR bar was actually the first product to get the XPLR designation when it launched in 2019. The shallow (115mm) drop bar has a 5-degree flare up top and 11 degrees in the drops. I like that this design allows for the levers to stay straight, but I know some prefer more of an angle.

Photo: Ben Delaney

There is also a bit of backsweep to the slightly ovalized tops. I am a fan of thick tops like these; dispersing pressure on the palms is a good thing. The backsweep feels good in the hand, but looks a little weird to my old-school eyes. Also, the angle means that my Garmin sits slightly at an angle, which inflames my OCD. Your results may vary.

SRAM Red XPLR eTap AXS

Photo: Ben Delaney

The new SRAM pieces work just like the existing eTap AXS components — you just have a 10-44 cassette and a dedicated rear derailleur for it. The only new-to-me change was being able to activate the Reverb post with the shift levers (by pressing both at once the way you actuate a front-derailleur shift on a 2x set-up).

I tested a bike with a 40t ring, and found the 10-44 to be adequate for the few rides I did. I have been riding SRAM’s so-called mullet set-up with a 10-50 cassette on a BMC and a Mosaic, and I use both ends of that thing on the regular. So I’m not convinced that a 10-44 is the solution for me. But that’s kinda the beauty of SRAM’s AXS system: you have a wide range of cassette options to suit your local terrain and preferences.

The new XPLR rings are direct-mount, but function just like current models.

Stay tuned for more in-depth reviews on each piece as I spend more time on them. I’ll be racing the XPLR groupset at SBT GRVL this weekend, for instance.

Photo: Ben Delaney