Give it Your Worst

Give it Your Worst

My first impressions of Litespeed are a lot like titanium: strong and lasting. I had just started riding in the South Bay of Los Angeles County, just before the carbon fiber boom, and would frequently see titanium bikes, most of them Litespeed.

The owners were men and women I respected and learned from. They rode with skill and confidence, some of them raced masters. Many were employed in the aerospace industry; aircraft engineers that knew quality materials and construction. They rode Litespeed. It left an impression.

So when I was roaming the 2015 Outdoor Demo at Interbike, and I came across the Litespeed tent, I had to stop. In particular, the brand’s T5 Gravel had caught my eye. I took it for a quick test ride and again, Litespeed left an impression. That first generation T5g is still on the Litespeed website and there still some demand for it due to its slightly shorter wheelbase. The bike you see here, in this review, is T5g ver. 2, with flat mount disc brakes.

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Litespeed’s Product Developer and Designer Brad DeVaney says he loves the modern cyclocross bike. But just like the old touring bike did not make a great ‘cross bike, DeVaney believes today’s ‘cross bike does not make a great gravel machine. So he developed the T5g to be gravel specific.

DeVaney’s other goal was to give the T5g a race feel. Randonneur it is not. As a starting point, he pulled out the spec sheet on the Litespeed Classic, a bike known for being fairly quick and steady on the descents.

To get the rider in a gravel-ready position, Devaney set the bottom bracket drop to 71mm (74mm in XL), and raised the stack. He provided clearance for 40mm rubber, added 12mm thru axles front and rear and 142mm rear spacing. The sloping top tube, longer wheelbase and 58mm trail put the T5G, at least on paper, squarely in the gravel/race category.

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Litespeed makes and shapes their tube sets in house. It’s one of their obsessions. Tube diameters and gauges are graduated based on size with the idea that a larger bike would likely be ridden by a larger rider who is going to require more strength and stiffness. They “cold work” the tubes which means they limit temperatures during forming to maintain the integrity of the Titanium.

I was very impressed with the T5g’s overall stiffness. The bike feels connected front to rear. A push of the pedals is met with an appropriate surge. Standing efforts were delivered straight to the rear wheel with minimal flex. Pretty amazing considering the seat and chain stays are on the lower average of stiffness compared to other Litespeed entries. The through axles are one reason for the T5g’s one piece feel. But engineering, design and craftsmanship also play a significant role. The downtube is ovalized at the seat tube junction to resist pedal induced flex. More subtle work was done where the top tube and seat tube meet to also solidify the platform.

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Up front, the 44mm head tube has received special treatment.  To counter the increased leverage produce by the longer, gravel fork, the piece is double butted with thicker sections lengthened. The “big butts” means the top and down tubes, where they meet the head tube, have large diameters, even at the head tube junction. The result is a sturdy feel and a responsive front end. I was amazed how precisely I could point this 20lb machine. See a rut, miss the rut. Or see the rut, rip right threw it. Either way, the T5g did not flinch. It felt solid yet precise in unkind conditions.

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Litespeed uses straight gauge tubes in the seat stays. I have felt more flex in the rear from other gravel bikes, even carbon models, and I could have used a little more on the T5g. Through choppy sections of dirt, the energy traveling up from the rear wheel would bounce me out of my seated position.  Some of that could be chalked up to the 31.6 seat post. Installing a reducer in the seat tube and going with a 27.2 would probably be a good call.

DeVaney says he bent the stays on the flat mount bike because customers wanted to and are now running 27.5 wheels with tire width up to 2.1. So the T5g can cover a wide range of riding based on its rear triangle. DeVaney says the chain stays will clear a 52 tooth big ring for the rider throwing on slicks and emphasizing more road than dirt. But it’ll also do a single ring and bigger tires for a more trail friendly configuration. Complete bikes split the difference, coming with a compact 50-34 and 700×40 Clement X-Plor MSO rubber.

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Frames come in two configurations: DI2 and mechanical. Our tester was wired for electronic shifting, head tube clean of cable stops. A compact chain set and an 11-32 provides enough range for most of the U.S., but I find having a 1:1 ratio makes climbing and long days more manageable here in Cali. I’ll take one, micro-compact to-go please.

3T is assigned cockpit duties: aluminum stem and bars and carbon seat post. The Ergonova bars are a fav for the dirt. I love to go for the drops when the rough gets going and that short reach and drop make hand changes a snap.

The Stan’s Grails are 28 spoke front and rear and have the new, Neo hubs. A solid choice but Litespeed should spec a tubeless tire to go with. Clement now makes the X-Plor tubeless, as long as you’re good with 36mm.

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Photo by Scott Lynch

I put the T5G through a rigorous test at Old Cazadero, the kickoff event for the Northern California Grasshopper series. It’s 50 miles, 4500 feet of elevation, dirt and rough Sonoma County roads, a river crossing, and this year, some sections of greasy mud.

There is no perfect bike for Old ‘Caz. On the start line there are anything from road bikes to 29’ers. The race/ride makes an immediate turn onto a paved climb that pitches above ten percent. The heft of the T5G (23lbs with pedals and bottles) made clearing this first kick a struggle. In 20 minutes, it’s over and I was all smiles as I was passing carbon mounted hoppers on the dirt descent of Willow Creek. At the bottom, where dirt turns to broken pavement and mud puddles have gathered for their winter convention, I was again at an advantage thanks to the Litespeed’s ability to plow through the crud. I crashed through a series of dark puddles, unable to see the soil below. I didn’t care, and neither did the T5g.

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Photo by Scott Lynch

Traction, whether going up or down, was rarely a problem, even in the Sonoma County slime. The T5G stayed planted in loose dirt. In the mud, the bike’s momentum and low center made clearing slick patches a low stress affair. There was some sliding but rarely did I skid off my intended line. And on the final climb of the day, the trip back up Willow Creek, I was able to clear some steep, muddy sections while others were forced to dismount when traction and legs gave out.

A day at Old Cazadero also means getting into a paceline. Groups form, temporary relationships are made. Hanging in a rotating group, as long as it was smooth, was fine. Aboard the Litespeed, I was able to do my part.

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There are many more reasons to consider a T5 Gravel than there are not. Sure, if you ride a lot of steep terrain and you like to climb fast, maybe you should be looking for something else. And Litespeed says their goal with the T5g was not to build their lightest attempt, it was to make a bike with a high degrees of durability.

On my final ride, the T5g’s purpose was cemented.  It had rained the night before. I had climbed to Eagle Rock in the Santa Monica Mountains and was headed for Tippet Ranch State Park. The descent to the park’s parking lot is a wide, steep fire road. Normally the conditions are loose over hard, but the rain had turned this quick downhill into just plain loose. I rounded a final corner, got into the drops, moved my butt back and got into attack mode. Speed, even in mud, picks up quickly and before I knew it, my front tire was flinging mud into me as a darted downhill. I changed lines at will, rarely grabbed brake and carved off camber turns in some pretty terrible conditions.  It was if the T5g was saying, “what else you got?”

In the parking lot it came to me, the T5g is a specific machine, just the way Litespeed and Devaney intended it to be. You can call it a gravel bike but really, it’s a bike for taking on the worst conditions.

Final thoughts: durability, handling, reputation and gravel specificity.

 


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7 comments


    1. Author
      Michael Hotten

      Jim- thanks for reading both reviews.

      Most notably, the Routt leans more road in the mixed surface world. the T5g is a holds its ground better in the rough stuff. The Routt runs out of room for tires at about 35mm. The T5g easliy took a 40mm front and rear.

  1. MidTNBrad

    Back in the spring of ’99 I convinced my new wife that even though we still had student debt, car payments and a fresh mortgage that the best use of a tax return would be to buy me a brand new bike. That bike was a Litespeed Tuscany and to this day I still can’t believe that she agreed. That was my main bike until May of last year when I upgraded to a Cervelo R3. This winter I put my pedals back on the Tuscany and rode it instead of the R3. It still feels good to ride.

    1. Andy

      Over time, the stem on my Litespeed Tuscany became a little too long. Easy remedy for an amazing bike. My Tuscany was my first Father’s Day gift in 2000 – there is no way I can give up that bike. Thanks for the informative review – I am looking for an all road/gravel bike and this might be the pick.

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