Spooky Dune Review: Gravel Bike

I join the conundrum of many in not knowing what to call the bike in this format.  Is it a “gravel” bike?  An “all-road” bike?  a “cyclocross” bike?  I default to gravel bike because that’s what we have around here to ride.  When I hear all-road, I always think of bikes running 28-30c slicks, and that’s what I’m running in “road mode”, so we’ll stick to “gravel bike”.

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I just don’t get sick of those pictures.

So what is it like as a gravel bike?  My friend Brendan said that the Dune is like a road bike that always wants to get dirty.  That’s apt in some ways.  I can tell you that coming from years of riding carbon and titanium, and never having had a premium aluminum frame, I was scared.  I was scared that it would be harsh and unforgiving, and that I’d regret the move to this bike.  I was scared it would be punishing to ride on gravel and chatter.  I was worried that if it was compliant, it would be noodley and loose.  Those fears were unfounded.

I’m running 40c Maxxis Ramblers, tubeless, on Zipp 202s, typically around 35psi.  I’ve previously written about the amazing vertical compliance of the Zipps–palpably more than my ENVE 3.4s.  And so, running big tires at lower pressures with comfy wheels, I’m aware that I’m open to the criticism that what I’ve done is taken a harsh frame and isolated it with other components.  I’ll give two answers to that:

First, I don’t believe it’s true, because I’ve ridden other frames on cushy components and not had the same result.  Heck, I rode a premium carbon frame designed for gravel just a few days before building this bike, and it terrified me because I really didn’t like the ride.  This bike is more than the sum of its parts–the frame is amazing.  Having tried different tire pressures and ridden different conditions on this frameset before posting this review, and having ridden dozens of bikes under a myriad of conditions, I can offer an informed perspective and say that this is a fantastic frame.  It is neither soft nor hard.  It is responsive, athletic and responsive without being harsh.  It is not a cushy ride by any means–it’s a sporty ride.  When I ride, I don’t want a cushy ride.  I want something that feels fast and peppy without being punishing.  I want something to take the edge off of the worst conditions, but that still communicates what surface (and what traction) is underfoot.  I want something that turns every watt into forward motion, but that doesn’t leave me feeling bruised at the end of a ride.  In short, I want a Spooky.

Second, I don’t know anyone that rides “just a frame.”  A bike is the collection of parts.  If you don’t put them together intentionally, then I’m not sure what you’re doing.  A bike can’t be ridden without wheels and tires.  Pick good ones.  I review this bike as an assemblage of parts.  The frame is versatile enough to allow me to run 40c tires, so I run them.  And yes, the tires are good.  So I’ve put together an amazing kit, and yes, I’ll review it as a kit.  I could make the bike ride worse by putting crappy components on it, or by increasing my tire pressure to unnecessary levels.  That’d be relatively dumb.  I try to review bikes at their best, and when I build bikes, I build them as good as I can (within reason).  This is a review of the Dune, as-built.

Comparing ride quality from a Salsa Carbon Warbird to this bike, the Dune offers just as good of vibration dampening and far better responsiveness.  The Dune features those short chain stays that just make it want to go.  I’ve got clearance for 40c tires and a 52/36 crank, and chain stays that are as short as the Routt had.  When you stand on the pedals to climb a hill, the Dune is a rocket.  ROC-KET.  There’s one little climb on a local bike path, where you make a 90 degree turn and immediately go up a short little roller with loose limestone.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the whole ride, though it only lasts 20 seconds.  You come around the corner pretty slow (because it’s loose and off-camber), and then stand up out of the saddle and push up the little hill.  The first time I rode that hill on the Dune, I was transfixed.  It’s awesome–it goes.  I assume it’s what riding an e-assist bike up a hill feels like; unnaturally fast.

In comparison to the Moots, again, the Dune gives up nothing on ride quality.  The Moots had short chain stays (same length as the Dune), but only had clearance for 35c tires.  The Dune feels equally as fast in most conditions (and more compliant).  In soft conditions or loose gravel, the Dune feels faster, because of those big ‘ole tires.

If you look at Moots builds, the chain stays are thick and come together in a single monolithic stay that goes up to meet the seattube.  The Dune features thin, butted stays and a thin bridge between them.  I’d dare to guess that the Dune actually offers greater vertical compliance than the Moots did.  Moreover, the Moots had a lot more seatpost showing and could leverage the vertical compliance of a significant amount of exposed 27.2mm titanium seatpost.  The Dune makes no such shortcuts.  The compliance you get comes from the design, build and materials.  The larger triangle reduces exposed seatpost, which makes you rely on the frame and rest of the design for compliance.  Moreover, it gives you a ton of room for frame bags.  I’m curious about how the bike would ride without the seat stay bridge (for a light rider like me), but it’s got such a wonderful ride now, I wouldn’t want to screw it up.

The 56cm geometry is perfect for me.  I’m about 6’ (ish), with a 33″ inseam.  I’m usually 76.5mm from center-crank to top of saddle.  With a 110mm stem, the Dune is a dream.  The ride position is perfect for gravel.  Ride the hoods or tops to recover, and reach down to the compact drops on the ENVE bars when you need to scream.

When I first pulled the virgin frame out of the box, I was awed by its beauty, but surprised by its simplicity.  I remember thinking, “that’s it?”  It is so much more than just an aluminum frame.  I don’t know what design or engineering went into the bike–the tubing sizes and shapes, the butting and welding and heat treatment.  I just know how it rides, and it rides amazing.

My first gravel ride on the Dune was Night Bison.  I punched well above my weight and kept up with riders who were far faster than I.  I dropped riders who are stronger than I am.  I crushed it, because the bike was perfect.  Look down and see beauty.  You see chudder in the gravel, but you don’t feel it.  You just keep pedaling.  You come to a loose corner and feel the bike slide around it–and never lose a hint of confidence.  You ride on several inches of thick, loose, fresh gravel and it just floats atop it.  It shifts subtly from side to side but never loses its footing.

If you need to scrub a little speed, the SRAM Red Hydro brakes are there to handle any needs you have.  Even with 140mm rotors, they’ve got far more stahp than you’ll ever need.  Actually, coming from 160mm rotors to 140mm rotors, I’ve come to think that 140s are better on a road bike in this area, as they allow more modulation and still have more than adequate ultimate stopping power.

The road points up and you need to jump up a gear, or the group speeds up and you need to click down a gear–the SRAM Red 22 shifting works to perfection.  When I was a kid, we had this old door on our farmhouse that had a spring loaded lock on it.  You’d turn the knob to open the lock, and then flip a little button that would hold the lock open.  When you wanted to lock the door, you’d close it and then flip the button down, and the lock would click home with great precision and alacrity.  It was one of those tangible mechanical feelings that gave great satisfaction, and I remember playing with it, fascinated by its operation.  That’s what shifting this drivetrain feels like.  It is just so satisfying to ride, to shift, to use.

And the carbon Cambium.  I can’t say enough good things about it.  It looks amazing (IMO so much classier than the shiny rails on regular cambiums) and feels fantastic.  I prefer the standard saddle to carved cambiums, and while I traditionally ride a C15, I’ve been incredibly impressed with how comfy the C13 is.  It’s the comfort of a Brooks with the weight and appearance of a top-end road saddle.  Best of both worlds.

My Dune has 3 bottle cages, mounts for a rack, and clearance for frame bags for days.  Soft or hard luggage, it’s ready to go.  It is such a versatile bike.

You ride and see where the little single track loop comes out to the bike path, and you think, man, I’m on a road bike.  If only I had my mountain bike today.  But then temptation gets the better of you and you duck down into the woods.  Pretty soon, you’re flying along dabbing a foot here or there as you rocket down the trail.  The Dune doesn’t know its limits–it doesn’t inspire limitations.  It inspires confidence and adventure.  It wants to go.  Everywhere.

This is an initial review.  I’m only a few hundred miles into this bike…but it’s amazing.  Keep in mind that I downsized from a top of the line carbon-fiber road bike and top of the line titanium “gravel” bike to this one bike…and I don’t miss either of them.

If you have a chance to ride one, do so.  If you have a chance to get one, do so.  If you have a chance to drool over one, don’t drool on it, but check it out.  And no, you cannot ride mine.

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Click through to read the full Spooky Series:

Spooky Cycles

Spooky Dune in Pictures

Spooky Dune: The Build

Spooky Dune: Gravel Bike Review

Spooky Dune: Road Bike Review

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