Tested: Grove Bike Co R.A.D. Force LTD
What is gravel riding?
Gravel riding, gravel grinding or whatever you want to call it, is a segment of cycling that’s on the rise. It’s about seeking out less-travelled roads that lie beyond city fringes, preferably unsealed and preferably with a café or brewery along the way. Rides tend to be longer, relaxed in pace and with just the right amount of adventure thrown in. It’s what cycling was about when we were kids – freedom.
Its growth has been fuelled by road riders looking for refuge from the traffic and a safer and more social way to ride, and mountain bikers looking for a sense of speed and exploration that’s hard to capture on knobby tyres.
While there are plenty of people out there riding gravel on their road bikes with fatter tyres squeezed in, there are now dozens of specialist gravel bikes from which to choose. While the presence of drop bars might cast them as a road bike at first glance, they’re quite different: larger volume tyres, long wheelbases for stability, mounting points for multiple bottle cages, racks or storage bags, and more of an emphasis on sturdy comfort than speed.
Grove Bike Co R.A.D Force LTD
After many years of slogging it out on roads, we’ve spent the past three years spreading our gravel riding wings, exploring the nearly endless options for all-day rides throughout the Hunter, Hawkesbury and Watagans regions just outside Sydney. It has been magic – like discovering a whole new world of riding after 20 years in the saddle.
But this is the first time we’ve had a dedicated bike for the job. Previously our gravel bikes have been modified cyclocross machines, into which we’d sandwiched the biggest tyres we could manage. The Grove Bike Co R.A.D (Road and Dirt) is a different kettle of crumpets, a silent snow gum green fun machine that has taken our confidence and comfort on the gravel to a new level.
What attracted us to the brand? Grove Bike Co is a Sydney-based Australian company. While Australia has a healthy cohort of boutique and custom frame manufacturers, there are precious few locally owned brands offering complete bikes at sensible prices.
Grove Bike Co isn’t trying do it all, with just a two-bike range. Or really one bike with two build options: there’s a $2599 model in black with SRAM Apex components, or our lovely sea-foam green bike, which, at $3599, comes dressed in SRAM Force and some carbon Ritchey gear.
We like the simplicity of the offering, and we appreciate the affordable pricing, which puts these bikes on par with most of the big brands, thanks to a direct-to-consumer sales model. The brand resonated with us environmentally too, with minimal packaging used.
But most importantly, we really clicked with the design of the bikes. They’re built around a single chain ring drivetrain, which is our preference for this kind of riding, with room for substantial tyres (more on that later). And we like the geometry, which seems very much inspired by modern mountain bike design, with a slack head angle for stability and confidence paired with a shorter rear end to keep the ride lively and responsive. The fact that the frames have been tested to mountain bike standards, as well as road bike standards, is appealing too, given our background in mountain biking and proclivity for jumping water bars.
Versatility through wheel options
Grove offers a variety of wheelsets, so you can tweak the bike to your needs. You’ve got a choice of two different wheel diameters (conventional 700c ‘road’ diameter, or 650B, a size normally found on MTBs) with a host of different tyre options. There are configurations for everything from road to cyclocross racing to serious gravel work.
We wanted this bike primarily for the dirt, so opted for the ‘gravel plus’ format; a 650B wheel with a 48mm-wide tyre. With such a big tyre, you can run low pressures for more traction and comfort. Because the outer diameter of the tyre is close to a conventional road wheel, the handling is preserved, and it’ll still hum along nicely on the tarmac.
For an extra $900, you can bling things out with a set of carbon wheels from UK brand Hunt Wheels. We couldn’t resist; with the Hunts fitted, our bike weighs in at 8.5kg, impressive for an aluminium-framed bike with big tyres.
On the gravel
We’ve been riding this bike for three months and there are a few standout aspects. Firstly, this wheel format is a revelation. While there is a small penalty in rolling speed with the 650B wheels, as soon as the road surface gets loose, the 48mm tyres come into their own. You’ve got more grip climbing, better braking traction, more cushion on hard impacts, and they’re more playful on singletrack.
It’s also a reassuringly composed bike. Despite the low weight, when you begin hitting corrugations on a descent at 60km/h, it feels sturdy and just plain safe. There are a few elements at play here. Firstly, it’s deadly quiet, by far the quietest bike in the category that we’ve ridden. Secondly, you feel very much ‘in’ the bike rather than perched atop it; the Ritchey bars flare outwards so when you’re down in the drops on a descent, you’ve got more stability and a lower centre of gravity. And that slack head angle removes any twitchiness when steering – look ahead and the bike will carve predictably through the sandiest corners.
From a practicality standpoint, we’re sold. Three water bottle mounts mean we have to ride with a backpack less often, plus there’s ample room inside the front triangle for a frame bag and mounts for a small top-tube bag.
It’s rare for us to ride a bike for so long without making any tweaks but, so far, the only temptation to fiddle is to fit a slightly smaller chain ring. We’ve got a two-day ride with 5000m of climbing coming up, so we may experiment with a 40-tooth ring to save our toothpick legs.
It’s exciting to see a small brand come out of nowhere and deliver a bike like this. The Grove Bike Co R.A.D doesn’t just compete on price; it nails the performance too, with a level of attention to detail and refinement that’s extremely impressive for a first-generation bike. Check it out at Grove Bikes.