This year, my long-term test bike for BikeRadar is a Rå Valravn S – a gravel bike with a custom geometry and custom build, fitted with SRAM and RockShox’s XPLR components.
While I wouldn’t say I’m exactly new to the world of gravel riding, as it hasn’t been the primary focus of my job (which is reviewing mountain bikes), I’ve not ridden as many bikes as some of our gravel-heavy testers on BikeRadar.
That’s not to say I haven’t spent a lot of time on one, though. In fact, over the last couple of years I’ve racked up hundreds, probably thousands of miles aboard a 2019 Specialized Diverge Comp which I rated, for the most part at least, very highly.
However, when it came to the more technical sections that you might encounter when gravel riding, the Diverge could fall short at times. That’s not to say it would for everyone, but as a mountain biker, maybe my off-road bar has been set a little higher.
While I found the Future Shock micro-suspension worked incredibly well at taking the sting out of rougher roads/lanes, or taking the edge off of fire road chatter, if you get stuck into tougher sections of singletrack then there are certainly times where the Diverge felt a little out of its depth.
Sure, Future Shock helped, but didn’t always feel as controlled as I’d have liked.
Like I said, maybe I’m asking too much, but when SRAM began talking to me about RockShox bringing a gravel suspension fork to the market, I was seriously intrigued how it could build on the performance of designs like Specialized’s Future Shock.
For starters, what sort of bike would the fork suit and just how much more capable could it make it? And where does the boundary lie between a suspension-laden gravel bike and a mountain bike, where I spend most of my time?
And that’s when the conversations started happening with Rafi, head honcho of Rå bikes, a small brand based in North Yorkshire.
With a background in mountain bike design, I could see how his more road-orientated creations had been heavily influenced and it was no surprise that he already had plans for tweaking a frame to suit the new Rudy fork that was, at the time, soon to be released.
Working with SRAM, Rå designed and built me a custom frame based on the Valravn Evo (described by Rå as “the ultimate go-anywhere drop-bar bike”), but with geometry adapted to accept a suspension fork. And I think the result is stunning.
Rob’s Rå Valravn S specification and details
So what makes the Valravn S so good?
Well, part of it is down to the frame for sure, but some of the versatility comes from the bits that are bolted to it.
More squish than your average gravel bike
The first thing that many will be drawn to when they see this bike is the RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR fork which boasts 40mm of travel (in this version anyway, but there is a 30mm option too). If you’re a mountain biker like me, 40mm doesn’t sound like a whole lot of suspension travel, but it’s a significant amount on a bike with curly bars.
You can read my full RockShox Rudy review but, on the Rå Valravn S, there wasn’t a load of tuning to do compared to most top-tier mountain bike forks, which helped to simplify set-up somewhat. With the fork pressure set and rebound adjusted, I was good to go.
It uses a scaled down version of the Charger Race Day damper found in the SID Ultimate fork, provides all the control necessary to keep the front wheel tracking the ground.
Interestingly, RockShox has ensured it’ll accept brake rotors up to 180mm (with a minimum size of 160mm) to help bring your bike to a stop – it’s a smart move for those with fully loaded bikepacking set-ups.
There’s also clearance for 50mm (700c) tyres if you’re looking for a little extra cushioning too.
But the squish doesn’t just come from the fork up front. When RockShox launched the Rudy, the brand also launched the Reverb AXS XPLR dropper post. Mine has 75mm of drop which has felt more than enough when tackling technical sections of trail, but more on that later.
Where the Reverb AXS XPLR post differs from other Reverbs (I’ve previously reviewed the MTB-focussed RockShox Reverb AXS dropper post) is that if you drop it partially, it doesn’t sit rock solid.
Instead, there’s a bit of squish, so it’ll act like a suspension seatpost and helps, ahem, keep your private area feeling fresher. I’ll admit though, I’m yet to use this feature a whole lot.
While SRAM’s XPLR transmission might be somewhat lacking when it comes to vowels, it’s far from the case in terms of performance.
Thanks to the 10-44t gear spread, set-up with a single-ring crankset up front (something that’s now standard in the mountain bike world), it gives a decent 440 per cent gear range.
And importantly, the gaps between each cog work really well.
I’ve gone for a 40t chainring up front in a bid to ensure I never run out of gears on steeper inclines and hopefully won’t spin out too easily when the pace picks up on the road.
A SRAM Red XPLR eTap AXS rear derailleur takes care of shifting. As is standard across SRAM’s eTap road groupsets, the right brake lever takes care of shifts into higher gears while the left lever changes into lower gears.
This particular derailleur is 1x-specific and designed to work exclusively with SRAM’s flat-top chains.
They see me rolling
Of course, the wheel set and tyre combo for any bike designed to be ridden off-road is critical.
The idea is that the single-wall carbon rim can pivot about the spoke nipple, damping vibration more effectively than a standard rim design. This should, in theory, help reduce fatigue, improve traction and ward off pinch flats.
These fancy, low-profile rims are wrapped in ZIPP’s G40 XPLR tyres. These come in a 40mm width only and have a relatively fast rolling tread.
While getting them set-up tubeless has been totally problem free, if left for a week unused I have found I need to top them up with air.
Another thing worth pointing out, is that while setting the tyres up and letting the rear wheel rest on its side (to allow the sealant to thoroughly soak the inner sidewalls), the freehub body and cassette dropped off.
It seems that the end cap which essentially helps to hold it in place isn’t the tightest fit and popped off during set-up, allowing the cassette/freehub to drop off. Re-fitting was easy enough, though.
Rob’s Rå Valravn S full specification
- Sizes (*tested): XS, S, M, L, XL (this is custom but sits close to the S)
- Frame: Reynolds 853 butted main tubes, custom T45 seat and chainstays
- Fork: RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR, 40mm travel
- Shifters: SRAM Red ETAP AXS
- Derailleurs: SRAM Red XPLR ETAP AXS
- Cranks: SRAM Red 1
- Wheelset: ZIPP 101 XPLR
- Tyres: ZIPP G40 XPLR 700x40mm
- Brakes: SRAM Red
- Bar: ZIPP Service Course 70 XPLR, 420mm
- Stem: Truvativ Atmos 6K, 40mm
- Seatpost: RockShox Reverb AXS XPLR, 75mm
- Saddle: Ergon SR Pro Men
Rob’s Rå Valravn S geometry
- Head angle: 68.6 degrees
- Seat angle: 74 degrees
- Chainstay: 447mm
- Seat tube: 470mm
- Top tube: 590mm
- Head tube: 100mm
- Trail: 92mm
- Bottom bracket drop: 80mm
- Bottom bracket height: 272mm
- Wheelbase: 1105mm
- Stack: 586mm
- Reach: 425mm
Why did I choose this bike?
As someone who’s ridden off-road for decades, and who has a day job as technical editor-in-chief at BikeRadar and MBUK magazine, my job primarily revolves around riding the latest mountain bikes.
That said, I still do ride drop-bar bikes for fitness and commuting – and, as I’ve already said, gravel riding has piqued my interest over the past few years by combining road speed with some off-road versatility.
The Rå Valravn S is an experiment to take that to the next level.
As a mountain biker, SRAM and RockShox were keen for me to try out the XPLR range, and equally keen to point out that the fork and dropper offer something slightly different to what can be expected from their mountain bike counterparts.
And as a mountain biker, when it came to the frame, I wanted to get something that could handle a bit of rough and tumble but didn’t want to feel short changed when riding on the road.
Rå’s bikes use quite extreme geometry, and you can see the mountain bike influence in the numbers. Naturally, this really appealed and although I was a little worried before my first ride on the Valravn S, I shouldn’t have been.
Rob’s Rå Valravn S initial setup
Set-up was a doddle. With the saddle height set, setting the saddle angle is super-easy thanks to how the seat clamp works on the RockShox Reverb post.
Once you’ve loosened the main clamp, you simply need to turn the tilt adjuster bolt with a T25 torx key until you’re happy. Torque the main clamp back up and you’re good to go.
Compared to a mountain bike fork, the Rudy is very straight forward to dial in. Its air spring is naturally progressive, so I found it was more about dialling in the sensitivity and support.
In the end I settled on 138psi ,which feels forgiving enough but ensures it isn’t bobbing around or feeling as mushy as a tyre with a slow puncture.
Aside from that, I added my go-to Crankbrothers Candy 3 pedals and some bottle cages but that was it.
As the dropper post’s AXS battery sits behind the head of the post, I was unable to fit my usual saddle bag. Instead, I’ve been riding with a handlebar bag like all the trendy gravel types seem to do.
Rob’s Rå Valravn S ride impressions
Keeping that front door firmly closed
While you might expect me to get stuck straight into the suspension fork that adorns the front of the Valravn, it was actually the geometry that stood out ahead of anything else.
That’s not to say the fork isn’t newsworthy as it really is, but as you’ll see from the pictures, the stretched-out frame paired with the seriously stumpy stem isn’t exactly run of the mill gravel now, is it?
In fact, the 40mm stem is my stem length of choice on most mountain bikes, so what’s it doing on here? The idea here is to add stability to the frame by lengthening the front triangle.
The extra length added to the frame, in theory at least, can then be subtracted from the stem length, leaving you sitting in a similar position on the bike.
The longer front-centre and wheelbase should then translate to a more stable ride, especially when your wheels are in the dirt.
There’s also no toe overlap – something I have found on the other couple of gravel bikes I’ve spent a decent amount of time on.
This was something the Spanish brand Mondraker did nearly a decade ago. But the ‘Forward Geometry’ was initially based around an even shorter 10mm stem (it’s now more like 30mm).
The effective top tube here is similar to what you’d find other brand’s 58cm frames, while the reach is even longer. And that head angle…we’re talking cross-country mountain bike territory here.
Sounds great, right? Any downsides? Well, the short stem does make the steering a little twitchier at times.
I can’t say I notice it when I’m sat down and pedalling along, but on the first out of the saddle climb there’s certainly a little more movement through the bar, with lighter steering inputs required.
It isn’t in any way awkward or unpleasant, though, just a little different. And when I say little, I really mean it. That sensation was forgotten about before I was even halfway up the first short climb.
When Canyon applied a similar design principle to the Exceed cross-country hardtail, when it first launched back in 2015, I remember at the time the engineers and their marathon cross-country riders having to reach a compromise on stem length.
While the engineers were keen for a longer frame and shorter stem, the racers felt that the longer, less reactive stem felt steadier and less fidgety on the climbs and required less effort from the riders to keep the bike riding in a straight line. Even with this 40mm number in place, though, this is far from fidgety.
The big plus here, just as intended, is that the Valravn feels superb when faced with any kind of downhill or fast paced trail, where it’s handling really elevates confidence.
The long reach and slack head angle makes for a surefooted feel on the descents and, for the first time since dipping my toe into the world of gravel riding, that I don’t feel like I’m about to go over the bars and out the front door as soon as the gradient steepens.
This has led to me riding more of what I enjoy and linking sections or road loops with more demanding singletrack than I once thought possible on a bike with drop bars.
Of course, I can’t just single out the frame here. The fork and dropper post certainly play their parts, too.
That said, although the dropper works well and is quick and easy to use once you get the hang of pressing both shifter buttons simultaneously, I haven’t been using it as much as I’d expected.
I do have a Blip to fit (an additional button that can be added to the bar and can be programmed to work as a shift button or actuate the dropper post), which will add actuation options and likely see me calling upon the post more in the future, though.
When I have used it to descend slippy singletrack, getting the saddle out of the way is a real plus and really helps boost confidence.
The post does have some play in it and has done since day one. It’s more than on the wider-diameter Reverb AXS mountain bike post, too, and there’s certainly been times on slow, steep climbs, where you really need to drive your backside into the saddle just to keep the pedals turning that I’ve noticed a bit of head twist as I turn the pedals.
“What about the fork?” I hear you say. Well, I really like it.
Having spent time on a couple of other gravel bikes over the last few years, I wasn’t sure I’d need a fork like this.
But, when I did a 100km loop over some dry, properly roughed up trails and corrugated bridleways skirting fields, I realised how uncomfortable gravel riding can really be.
Having broken my wrist quite badly a few years back, that sort of unrelenting vibration can leave it sore and painful for days after a ride like that.
The Rudy Ultimate really does help take the sting out of those types of impacts and certainly seems to have reduced arm fatigue and soreness on long rides.
Yes, it adds weight, but this was never going to be a featherweight build so I’ll happily take the comfort along with the added grams.
And despite being as sensitive as it is, there’s not too much in the way of unwanted bob (movement induced as your weight shifts around the bike as you pedal), even when climbing. If it does ever feel too much, the fork-top lock out is easy to reach and firms it up nicely.
The wheels also help and compared to the 303s they replaced, certainly add more in terms of off-road comfort.
Whether that’s purely down to the wheels is hard to say, as I’m sure picking better lines or just being less sloppy with my technique will also factor in. But I’m sure there’s a bit more give through the 101s when the chatter starts coming thick and fast.
They don’t look as cool, though, and many will argue not as aero, but I’m fine with that.
While I’ve enjoyed quick local loops and longer group rides, this bike has been called upon as my commuter, too. My ride to work is all on the road and around 20km each way, so not massively demanding.
But it’s on those gentle, flatter spins where you really notice things like the gearing. Thankfully, SRAM’s XPLR cassette offers small jumps between the gears you’ll likely be using the most and cadence never really gets upset.
In fact, I’ve been really enjoying the simplicity of the 1x set-up and haven’t yet felt like I’m really missing out in terms of gear range, even on the ups.
Thanks to the 44t largest sprocket, I’ve managed to muscle my way up every climb I’ve taken on. While the Valravn S doesn’t feel as lithe or sprightly as a carbon road bike, it still manages to feel energetic on the climbs. And it’s not like I’m racing anyone.
Rob’s Rå Valravn S upgrades
With the kit that’s currently bolted to the Valravn S, there’s little I can do to really make it better. I will, as I mentioned, add a Blip in order to have an additional point of actuation for the dropper post, just to make it quicker and easier to use.
I’ve also bought myself a JRC Taru handlebar bag. I was using an Alpkit bag previously which was fine but loosened off too easily and would rattle about a bit. Hopefully this will cure that.
One little job that does need doing, sooner rather than later, is adding some kind of chainstay protection. In the higher gears, it seems the chain is slack enough to slap about a bit and make some noise, which I’m not a fan of.
Otherwise, there’s no major changes afoot. I’m really into how the Valravn rides and appreciate the potential it holds when it comes to exploring even further afield.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do on this bike, so watch this space for my next update.
|Weight||This is custom but sits close to the S|
|Available sizes||XS, S, M, L, XL|
|Cranks||SRAM Red 1|
|Fork||RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR, 40mm travel|
|Frame||Reynolds 853 butted main tubes, custom T45 seat and chainstays|
|Handlebar||ZIPP Service Course 70 XPLR, 420mm|
|Rear derailleur||SRAM Red XPLR ETAP AXS|
|Saddle||Ergon SR Pro Men|
|Seatpost||RockShox Reverb AXS XPLR, 75mm|
|Shifter||SRAM Red ETAP AXS|
|Stem||Truvativ Atmos 6K, 40mm|
|Tyres||ZIPP G40 XPLR 700x40mm|
|Wheels||ZIPP 101 XPLR|