Bike test: gravel bikes

Whyte Friston
Whyte Friston
Whyte Friston

Bike test: gravel bikes

Jacks of all trades or masters of none? Cycle magazine editor Dan Joyce tested two British designed models, the Sonder Camino Ti and Whyte Friston.

Go anywhere, do anything: that’s the gist of gravel bikes. It’s an exaggeration. These cyclocross-inspired bikes aren’t quite as versatile as they’re made out to be; see my take on one-bike-for-everything. Yet they’re undeniably more versatile than skinny-tyred carbon road bikes, which MAMILs have gravitated towards until now.

And there is something appealing and practical about a lightweight, general-purpose road bike with wider tyres that will happily tackle dirt roads as well as club riding, commuting, bikepacking, and light touring. It won’t always be the best bike for any given job, but it’ll never be the worst.

Most bike companies have one or more gravel bikes in their range. The two on test are both designed in Britain. Sonder is the bike range of outdoor clothing and equipment company, Alpkit. The Camino Ti is a keenly priced titanium bike that exists in a range of builds or can be bought as a frame and fork for £1,199. For those with shallower pockets, there’s an aluminium version, the Camino Al, with builds starting at £829 and the frame and fork just £300.

Whyte’s background is in mountain bikes and this shows in the Friston, not just in the disc brakes that all Whyte’s drop-bar bikes have, but also in the geometry: long reach, short stem, wide handlebar, shallower head angle. These features signify real off-road intent – although not so obviously as the dropper seatpost fitted to the Friston’s £300-dearer stablemate, the Gisburn.

Sonder Camino Ti

Frame & Fork

As titanium frames go, the Sonder Camino Ti is inexpensive. It doesn’t look or feel cheap. The TIG-welding is tidy, and its 44mm-internal head tube neatly accommodates a tapered steerer, courtesy of an external lower headset bearing. Because the head tube is long, the riding position is fairly relaxed even though the top tube length is about average for the frame size.

I was pleased to see a threaded bottom bracket (perhaps creaky press-fits have finally had their day?), and there are ample frame fittings. Cables are fully covered and, aside form the front brake, are routed externally, which simplifies replacement. The dropouts are old-school quick release ones, which is good news if you’re building up a frame on a budget as you may have some old touring or 29er wheels to reuse.

Alternatively you might fit 650B wheels, for the Sonder will take those too. Tyres up to 40mm will fit in 700C, up to 47 or 48mm in smaller-diameter 650B. There’s a good case for the latter. The bottom bracket height would drop using 650B (by ~12mm with those tyre sizes), but wouldn’t be excessively low. There would be more clearance under the fork crown, currently a miserly 6mm. You’d gain more rough-road comfort and control. And for me it would mean no toe overlap; as it was, my size 8 winter SPD boots grazed the front tyre. I could live with it but wouldn’t fit a full-length front mudguard.

That would be difficult with the existing fork anyway, as there’s no hole in the fork crown and no eyelets on the fork legs. If you want those features, you’ll need to ask Alpkit to fit the fork from the aluminium Camino instead. As well as having fittings, it saves you £50 because it has an alloy steerer.

If you want to stick with 700C wheels and don’t want toe overlap, there are a couple of options. One is to buy the next size up, assuming you can stand over it. A size L is 20mm longer than the M, which you could offset with a correspondingly shorter stem. Alternatively, Alpkit offer bespoke Camino Ti frames. You’ll typically pay an extra £250 for one of those.

I was pleased to see threaded bottom brackets – perhaps creaky press-fits have finally had their day?

The Whyte’s aluminium frame is long. It feels even longer, because the wide handlebar splays your arms. Also, while the seat tube is an average of 74 degrees over its length, it’s bent; the seatpost exits at 72 degrees, so there’s slightly more saddle-to-bar distance than you might guess from the quoted reach figure. (‘Reach’ is the horizontal distance between the bottom bracket and the head tube.)

A relatively short (80mm) stem reins things in but I felt it was still rather long, despite me being bang in the middle of the recommended height range for a 54cm size. I’d fit a 50 or 60mm stem, or more likely get the 52cm size instead. Fortunately, the head tube is tall, so the 54’s handlebar wasn’t an impossible stretch for me.

Like the Sonder, the Whyte will also take 650B wheels with 47mm tyres. The seatstays and chainstays S-bend outwards to make room for fatter tyres on smaller diameter rims. A word of caution: the bottom bracket would then be ~263mm – or lower if you used thinner 650Bs. That’s okay on road but will result in more pedal strikes off-road.

The other thing that’s striking about the Whyte, apart from that vivid orange, is its neatness. The derailleur cable and both brake hoses run internally. I’m less bothered by hoses being hidden away; they’re unlikely to be touched. (The hose junction on the rear brake, incidentally, makes it easier to set up the right lever to work the rear brake for customers outside the UK.) Even the seatpost clamp is internal.

Like the Sonder, the Whyte has a threaded bottom bracket. Rather than QR hub