Looking back at the evolution of road bike technology, it’s no surprise that aerodynamic gains are the headline points on the latest gravel offerings from Euro brands Ridley and Bianchi. The Belgian brand Ridley has a proven track record for fast bikes with the current hour record holder, Victor Campenaerts, using their Arena frame. Bianchi’s legacy (not only as a jewel of Italian cycling, but, literally, as the world’s oldest bike brand) needs little introduction with their most recent success coming from Primoz Roglic riding the Oltre XR4 aero road bike to victory at the 2020 Vuelta a Espana.
How does all that Euro tradition rest in the very American soul of gravel technology? That’s what we wanted to know, and, luckily, we were able to get our hands on these latest dual-purpose entries (our Bianchi test bike being one of only three in the country at the time of testing).
Using their vast experience on the road, both these legacy Euro marques have launched top-tier carbon gravel bikes for 2021. The Ridley Kanzo Fast and Bianchi Arcadex are heralded as aero-inspired gravel bikes, but their aero qualities allow for much more versatility than the straight-line, time-trial-like road bikes that started the speed-centric gravel trend. Tech originally designed for aero gains like internally routed cables, dropped seat stays and 1x drivetrains have been repurposed for the unique advantages they offer for multi-surface riding.
Beyond Eddy Merckx, the cobbles of Flanders and rabid cycling fans, Belgium is also known for the “other” homegrown bike brand, Ridley. Ridley’s flagship Noah Fast aero bike is currently used in the WorldTour by the Lotto-Soudal squad. Unlike their original X-Trail gravel entry from 2015 (see page 59), Ridley’s newest plunge into the gravel sector came with the tube shapes of the Tour de France-proven Noah Fast. And after comparing the two bikes, the similarities are obvious. In fact, the Kanzo’s (claimed) 1190-gram frame is nearly identical shape-wise to the road racing bike.
Upon closer inspection, the 490-gram fork is spread to accommodate 700x42mm tires, there is no front derailleur mount, and the rear triangle features extra-low seat stays. The internally routed hydraulic lines and shift wire allow maximum benefit to the wind-cutting, semi-truncated, airfoil D-shapes used throughout the frame.
Designed with speed and stability in mind, Ridley combined a 102.6cm wheelbase with a 71.5-degree head tube angle. Further differing from the fast handling required for road racing is the higher stack and reach than the Noah Fast at 58.7cm and 38.5cm respectively. Focused on gravel racing, the Kanzo Fast has space for three bottle cages and mudguards.
Call us old-fashioned, but no matter the choice of colors in the world, we still prefer any Bianchi that has the iconic Celeste hue made famous by Italian road greats like Fausto Coppi and Marco Pantani. The Arcadex has a contemporary look with Celeste patches paired with a gloss navy blue splitting the front and rear end of the carbon frame at a 45-degree angle from the seatpost to the fork. The Arcadex is the first all-carbon frame to be added to Bianchi’s gravel line that previously showcased the all-road alloy Impulso.
A relatively traditional gravel geometry is attained with a 102.4cm wheelbase paired with a slack 71-degree head tube angle. Stack and reach on the Arcadex measure at 59.5cm and 37.4cm. Max tire clearance on the Arcadex is slim at 700x42cm.
At first glance, the busy lines of the Arcadex were reminiscent of BMC’s Urs gravel bike. The curvy head tube, heptagonal downtube, overbuilt seat tube junctions and shapely rear end were a lot to digest for some drop-bar fans. But, Bianchi assured us the frame is intended to smother vibrations while remaining nimble and wind-cheating. The oversized, PF41 bottom bracket is engineered to enhance responsiveness.
In addition to aero watt savings, Bianchi says the dropped seat-stay design provides a more important aspect for gravel riding, which is increased compliance. Of the two seat-stay designs, the Bianchi’s is higher and wider than the Ridley’s.
One thing that can’t be missed is that the Arcadex’s fork is massive. The angular, aero-styled fork has a claimed weight of 410 grams and stretches from 4.2cm at its narrowest to 7.5cm near the crown. Mounts for mudguards, as well as three bottle cages and a top tube bag, are included.
The one part of the frame that initiated plenty of questions but few answers was the rubber cap covering what looked like the plug-in socket for a future e-bike version. Wrong. Although we were told very little, it was explained to us that the port is indeed intended for an electronic asset—only not in the form of a motor, but an electronically controlled suspension fork with 20mm of travel that is due later in the year.
Given that speed is the goal for the Kanzo Fast, so is Shimano’s top-of-the-line GRX 800 Di2 1x drivetrain. A 42-tooth Rotor chainring is paired with an 11-speed, 11-40t cassette; however, Ridley claims the latest production build will feature an 11-42t cassette for some more versatility on extreme gravel. Mechanical builds from Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano are available, too.
“Ridley’s newest plunge into the gravel sector came with the tube shapes of the Tour de France-proven Noah Fast.”
Hiding the hydraulic lines so well is Ridley’s in-house, carbon one-piece handlebar and stem, along with the gated headset spacers. Ridley’s in-house Forza provides the Levanto DB wheels for an aero edge. The Levantos meet the ETRTO standard with their 19mm internal rim width and are tubeless-ready. At 38mm, the Levantos are one of the deepest wheelsets that are spec’d on any 2021 gravel bike. The 700×40 WTB Venture tires are relatively aggressive with a low-profile center and knobby edges.
Reflecting the lower price, Bianchi opted for the mechanical version of the Shimano GRX 800 drivetrain. In fact, for anyone looking to save additional lunch money, they could consider the GRX 600 build model for $200 less. The drivetrain is where a majority of the cost savings compared to the electronic-shifting Ridley can be found. An 11-speed, 11-42 cassette and a 40t Shimano chainring pair for flexible gearing that can tackle steep off-road conditions much more capably than the race-focused Kanzo.
More pocketbook savings can be found in the alloy cockpit. FSA’s SMR stem and gated headset spacers hide the rear shift cable and the hydraulic brake line. A Bianchi Reparto Corsa 6061 alloy handlebar completes the front end.
The aluminum Alex hoops have a 21mm internal width and 30mm depth. The wider/narrower Alex rims are much more traditional for gravel riding. The rims are mounted with 700x37mm WTB Riddler tires, which have a low-profile tread and small knobs for a more neutral tire than the Kanzo.
We’re not sure what the gravel scene is like throughout Europe, but on paper, the Ridley is optimally geared for all-out speed in flat gravel terrain like that found in the heartland of America. While aerodynamics might seem out of place for the traditional slow-going that defines gravel where we ride, just like on the road, wind resistance is still the biggest obstacle facing any cyclist, and those looking for marginal gains will appreciate the energy savings of deep wheels and the frame shaping the Kanzo provides.
“It’s clear that flat Belgian farm roads were the testing grounds for the bike and just another reminder for us that neither all gravel roads, nor gravel bikes, share similarities.”
The long wheelbase and head tube angle combine for a planted ride that feels best in a straight line, like the rolling hills of Kansas. Tight turns felt slow compared to the Bianchi and other gravel bikes with shorter wheelbases, like the Specialized Diverge. The steepish head angle brings a twitchy feel, which makes switchback climbs trickier and less predictable. Getting the back end around took some extra wrestling and a few falls.
“The true winner here is the gravel consumer, who would prefer some solid Euro panache with their knobby tires.”
The wheels hold speed well on the road and in the gravel. Once up to speed, the wheels push the Kanzo forward, saving more watts the longer they roll. Given the relatively narrow rim width, the tubeless Venture tires measured true to size.
Shimano’s Di2 shifting performed superbly; however, the 11-speed setup was too aggressively geared for steep gravel climbs and then not enough to keep up on fast paved descents. We found ourselves spinning out in the 42-11 gear before hitting 35 mph on the road. So, the Kanzo is truly optimized for gravel racing where speeds of 35 mph are rarely met. It’s clear that flat Belgian farm roads were the testing grounds for the bike and just another reminder for us that neither all gravel roads, nor gravel bikes, share similarities.
There was no diversion from speed or aero gains with the Arcadex. Rather, Bianchi’s first all-carbon gravel bike blended performance and compliance with an emphasis on value. While there’s ample room to upgrade, our Arcadex test bike masterfully tackled a variety of gravel and all-road efforts owing to its engineered compliance and smart gearing.
Steering was agile and precise. We rode tight singletrack trails at speed with a comfortable flow similar to a hardtail mountain bike. The 37mm WTB Riddler tires ballooned out to 40mm on the wide Alex rims. Rocks and roots were smothered with the combo of low tire pressure and robust tube shapes that make up the frame.
“While there’s ample room to upgrade, our Arcadex test bike masterfully tackled a variety of gravel and all-road efforts.”
Thanks to the oversized bottom bracket, the pedaling was responsive. While not as wide-ranging as the 12- and 13- speed drivetrains from SRAM and Campagnolo, the Shimano 40-42 gear offered more aid for steep 10-plus-percent climbs. Still, a taller gear would be appreciated for high-speed descents and road sections.
If speed was the only factor to consider, head-to-head, the Ridley would steal the win due to the deep-dish wheels, more elite build and racier performance. In fact, for anyone looking for a truly capable dual-purpose bike, just by altering the front gear and adding some slick tires, presto, the Kanzo is a formidable and fast road bike.
But for us, the overall value of the Bianchi is what makes it a more realistic option for the majority of gravel enthusiasts. Its rugged and robust build is ideal for the demands of gravel riding. After swapping to a pair of carbon 650b wheels, we shaved a pound of weight off the Bianchi’s original build. Future weight savings could be made by upgrading the all-aluminum hard parts.
Not counting the e-bike version, Ridley’s Kanzo line encompasses a dozen builds, starting at $2000 for the triple-butted alloy Kanzo A. The Kanzo Speed and Kanzo Adventure feature carbon framesets in various SRAM and Shimano groups. They lack the aero styling of the Kanzo Fast, but are priced similarly to the Arcadex.
Again, as much as the modern face of gravel is based on an American profile, it’s nice to see the namesake Euro brands taking the category so seriously. With the arrival of both bikes, however, the true winner here is the gravel consumer who would prefer some solid Euro panache with their knobby tires.
RIDLEY PUNCH LINES
Geared for the flats
Aero gravel is here to stay
BIANCHI PUNCH LINES
Weight: 18.86 pounds
Sizes: XS, S, M (tested), L, XL
Weight: 21.18 pounds
Sizes: XS, S, M (tested), L, XL
Helmet: Giro Aether
Bibs: Ale Gravel Stones
Shoes: Shimano XC9
Helmet: Giro Helios
Glasses: Rudy Project
Shoes: Scott Road RC Evo
THROWBACK TECH: 2015 RIDLEY’S FIRST GRAVEL FORAY
The roots of the Kanzo lie in Dirty Kanza
It was back in the early days of 2015 that we got a call from Ridley’s U.S. importer, who was curious if we’d want to get in on the ground floor of the Belgian brand’s rookie effort at producing a gravel bike. Although the bike had already been drawn up and prototype testing had already begun, Ridley felt it was still early enough that having some first-hand American gravel know-how could add to the bike’s final finish.
And then they popped the question: “So, if we got a bike to you soon enough, would you consider riding it at Dirty Kanza?”
Recognizing the historical and technical significance of participating in Europe’s first foray into the Daytona 500 of gravel events, we jumped at the chance.
NOT JUST A ’CROSS BIKE
As then-editor Neil Shirley relayed in the bike’s review (September 2015), “What was most surprising about the X-Trail wasn’t any of its individual features; it was the fact that it existed at all.”
“As it turns out, old-school Paris-Roubaix geometry ends up being perfectly suited to make an ideal gravel bike.”
While the reps from Ridley were quick to agree, they also noted that “In Belgium, a lot of people ride ’cross bikes on the road during the winter because the bigger tires help with the cobbles and bad roads in the wet weather.”
To ensure its gravel worthiness, first and foremost we needed to check the tire clearance, and we were happy to find that there was room for 40mm tires, which were considered the gravel standard at the time. Although the 15mm front thru-axle didn’t make sense, we did like seeing a Shimano Dura-Ace drivetrain, flat-mount disc brakes and Reynolds ATR carbon wheels, making for a 17.5-pound build.
SHORTER THAN PLANNED
Despite his usual fastidious level of pre-race training and bike prep, Neil’s second effort to finish the 200-mile race came undone just 17 miles into the race after a series of peanut-butter-thick mud holes ganged up on his rear derailleur and soon enough turned his 11-speed race bike into a single-speed.
As we all know, times change, and bike models change with them. Although the specific X-Trail model is no longer found in the catalog, Ridley has broadened the X family to now include three different models—Bow, Night and Ride—all of which are aimed at cyclists looking for a more entry-level, dual-purpose bike.
Knowing that the origins of the new Kanzo can be traced back to the event from which they first got dirty in, Ridley deserves credit for being an early adapter to a segment that many thought had no future but who were definitely proven wrong.