Over the River and through the Woods

Over the River and through the Woods

In reviewing a bike I like to make sure I take that bike down a couple of descents with which I’m intimately familiar. They have to be drops on which I’ve pushed as far as I’m willing, stuff I know so well I could nearly do them blindfolded. With the advent of Strava, it is possible for me to learn almost instantaneously how good the bike is. If there is one universal truth about bike handling it’s that a bike that doesn’t lend a high sense of speed is easier to descend on. The more a rider senses how quick a bike handles, or senses that they are going fast, the earlier they will brake. The key to going fast is that the way the bike behaves has to make 35 feel like 25 and 50 feel like 35.

But not every bike is designed with that in mind. Indeed, that’s not quality most cyclocross races want in a ‘cross bike. In ‘cross, most races want a bike that is nimble as an Olympic gymnast. It’s got to turn—if not on a dime, then at least a nickle. It’s got to be stable enough out of the saddle that when a rider is on full gas the bike tracks straight, despite the obvious flail factor that comes with a an all-out effort.

That bike, in my experience, isn’t a lot of fun at 40 mph. But how often does anyone really ride a ‘cross bike that fast? I mean, when was the last time Sven Nys hit that speed during a race?

Here’s the the central issue to that bike: ‘cross bikes, traditionally, have a higher bottom bracket than a road bike. This started with the first specialized ‘cross bikes long before I was born. In remounting a bike following an obstacle, riders would take several pedal strokes before flipping the cages over. During those pedal strokes the cages would, at minimum, mow the grass, but sometimes strike the ground. While that didn’t feel as bad as hitting the actual pedal, a bent cage can be harder to get into and uncomfortable on the toes. The answer was to raise the bottom bracket. At one time I was running across ‘cross bikes with a BB 2cm higher than road bikes by the same manufacturer. Bottom brackets have dropped over the last five or so years; it’s a pretty recent phenomenon. They dropped for a few reasons; first, everyone rides clipless pedals, so the BB need not be so high to avoid pedal strikes or grass mowing. Second, which a bike with a high bottom bracket is terrific for sprinting because you can flail and the bike will track pretty straight, it’s harder to get that bike around a tight turn; you’ve got to steer a great deal more. Third, more and more companies want their bikes to be usable as gravel bikes and that means being able to do rides that may mix and match paved and unpaved bits like our Grasshoppers and Giro’s Grinduro.

Which brings me to the Pivot Vault. I’ve respected Chris Cocalis’ work since his days at Titus. In an unassuming, matter-of-fact manner, Cocalis has been producing great riding bikes across an incredibly wide range of riding styles and needs. Very few bike designers have done as much good work as he has on everything from road bikes to downhill bikes.

So I was particularly interested to try the Vault because every time I have gotten on a bike meant to split the difference between road and gravel, I’ve ended up disappointed. As a rule, most have higher BBs of ‘cross bikes, but might increase the wheelbase a tad. The upshot is that they can handle technical terrain, but end up doing poorly at speed. Somewhere between 35 and 40 mph every cyclocross/gravel bike I’ve tried has turned twitchy. But, in part because Cocalis designs so many bikes intended to go downhill well, I was curious if the Vault might break that pattern.

The short answer is yes. But first, let’s cover some basics on the bike. The Vault features a carbon fiber monocoque frame and a fork with a 1.5-inch tapered steerer. It uses thru-axles front and rear and comes in a single build using a mostly Ultegra drivetrain and a 3T cockpit. It uses the RS505 non-series mechanical/hydraulic levers and brakes. The wheels are built around Stan’s Grail rims and roll on the Maxxis 38mm Rambler tire. Suggested retail is just $4199.

Cocalis wanted a bike with a broad appeal. While intended to race ‘cross, he also wanted something comfortable for gravel riding and with a smaller set of tires at home at a fondo. Compared to the previous version, this Vault has better stiffness numbers at the BB and in the rear triangle he says. He increase tire clearance in the rear and moved to flat-mount disc brakes. Thanks to the new design, they were able to change the layup, which allowed them to achieve more performance-oriented stiffness without compromising stiffness. Cocalis says they were even able to increase vibration damping. While the previous Vault used a thru-axle, it was decreased from a 15mm version to a 12mm one to give the bike a friendlier ride.

The Vault comes in only four sizes, but that honestly makes sense to me. ‘Cross/gravel bikes are still a niche within a niche and no matter how popular this vein of riding is with some of us, you’ve got to sell a bunch of bikes to make tooling up an additional size pay off. The challenge is that when you look at those jumps in sizes, frequently you find that some riders fall in holes between the sizes. That seems less likely than I might have expected with the Vault.

Sizing runs like so: the small is built around a 52cm top tube (37.25cm reach), the medium around a 53.8cm top tube (38.07cm reach), the large around a 55.7cm top tube (38.82cm reach) and the XL around a 57.5cm top tube (39.68cm reach). Looking at just the top tube numbers one might expect a few riders to fall in holes between some of those distances, but when I consider the reach numbers, which increase by less than a centimeter per size, it becomes apparent that a good fitter will be able to accommodate a very wide range of riders. Exceptionally diminutive riders or NBA players might not have much luck, though.

For purposes of this review, I rode the large, with a 10cm stem. Were I buying the bike, I’d probably increase the stem length by a single centimeter to better accommodate my fit.

The Vault is built around 6.5cm of BB drop. That’s a bit higher than I’d prefer to see on a pure gravel bike, but it’s understandable for a bike meant to perform in ‘cross races. Thanks to a slack head tube angle and fork with 4.5cm of rake you end up with some very calm trail numbers: 6.95cm for the Small, 6.63cm for the medium and 6.31cm for the large and XL. I think the long trail numbers contribute a significant portion of the bike’s good manners.

Some weeks back I took the Vault to the Tour du Placer Roubaix in the Sierra foothills. There were several long and quick gravel descents, just the sort of occasion to pound a tire into a sharp rock and end up in the weeds changing a flat. What impressed me was the Vault’s ability to plow through rough terrain and hold a line. Again, that long trail. Rutted fire roads are a problem for low-trail bikes because it becomes so easy to knock the front wheel off its line as it hits those edges, not to mention hitting big rocks.

What Cocalis told me about the bike is that he didn’t intend it to be a pure gravel monster. On this point I don’t entirely agree. While his view of gravel bikes is something closer to a 29er mountain bike with lots of braze-ons for bike packing, the only difference between this bike and the best gravel bikes I’ve seen is the fact that this has a slightly higher BB. Drop the BB by a centimeter and this would be a stunningly all-purpose bike. As it is, it’s terrific. It’s important to remember that as you increase tire size the bottom bracket rises, so what may not seem all that high on paper can be quite high once the bike is rolling on a 40mm tire (or 38mm ones, as the Vault is equipped).

My one quibble with the build was the gearing. It was equipped with an 11-28 Ultegra cassette and an FSA Gossamer ‘cross crank with 46/36 ‘cross gearing. That 36×28 low gear simply wasn’t low enough for the terrain I encounter on my gravel rides here in California. While the 10-tooth jump from 36 to 46 was refreshing, I’d like to see a long-cage rear derailleur and a 36-tooth large cog. Of course, if I lived in the much flatter terrain of nearly anywhere else in the U.S., this wouldn’t be a problem at all, so this gearing makes more sense for more of the market.

Honestly, I’ve encountered very few carbon fiber bikes that perform well on unpaved surfaces. The Vault is one bike that really can do it all.

Final thought: Just take the cages off before you try to put it on your shoulder.

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    1. Author

      To date, my two favorite bikes have both been custom. I’ve yet to ride a production bike that I’d buy. There are four things I want out of a bike: a low BB (more than 7.5cm of drop), a fair amount of trail (more than 5.9cm), clearance to run 40mm tires and disc brakes.

  1. Dave King

    Nice review. I was very interested in this bike for awhile but I’m in between the medium and large sizes and didn’t want to run a really long stem on a small bike. I also knew I would want to swap out the cassette and chainring sizes for the reasons you mentioned. My only aesthetic issue with the bike was that they didn’t make the rear disc housing internally routed for a cleaner look.

    As an aside, I find that any time I ride a new bike it takes weeks or months to get the fit right and to adjust to the new position no matter how carefully I try to translate measurements from my old position. I have a similar experience when it comes to small changes in fit on current bikes – a different saddle or handlebars or even a few millimeter change in saddle height is noticeable for weeks. Usually, this change in position becomes most apparent in descending and cornering and I generally ride more conservatively until I’m more comfortable with the bike/handlebars/saddle/etc.

    I’m wondering if you don’t experience this or if you experience this adjustment period for a shorter amount of time because you ride so many different bikes so often or if I am just weird. For me, I would have a difficult time judging bikes without having weeks to adapt.

    1. Author

      My years as a reviewer have forced me to become adaptable. When you ride the same bike day after day, even a single millimeter change becomes noticeable; it’s something many riders will simply interpret it as wrong, so accustomed to they to their existing fit. I find it terribly important to know what my optimal fit is so that as I deal with review bikes I can judge the handling relative to how far it is from my fit. In short, no, you’re not weird. Your experience is the norm for any rider who isn’t riding a bunch of different bikes. Also, it’s basically impossible to get two bikes to have exactly the same fit. But as I wrote in a previous post, I believe that different bikes, if they have different purposes, should have different fits.

  2. Kimball

    This bike is right on the edge of my sweet spot, but for me to be a true all-arounder it needs eyelets so you can fender it up for winter here in the NW. Also curious how you liked the Shimano ST-RS505 levers?

    1. Lyford

      Agree that a bike for bad roads and weather should be set up for full fenders.

      My lightbulb moment was last year on a long dirt-road ride in the rain. At one food stop thre of us pulled in together and the volunteers started laughing at our varying degrees of filth. The guy with no fenders was striped and soaked. The guy with clip-on partial fenders(me) was spattered but not striped. And the guy with full fenders was….clean.

      There’s a safety issue, too. I realized this spring that having full fenders made it easier to hold a line through puddles when I heard a car coming up behind. The impulse to swerve around the puddles was greatly diminished, and riding was more relaxing.

    2. Author

      There are some fenders that can be mounted to a bike without braze-ons, but for a rider in the PNW, I can appreciate that not being a satisfactory answer.

    3. Author

      Oh, and I really liked the levers. They are a great way to bring hydraulic brakes to a bike for an affordable price.

  3. Andrew

    For our gravel here in SE MN, I’ve always found 46/36 to be the worst of both worlds. We have a lot of short, sharp hills. 50/34, 11-32 seems to be good gearing, although I think 48/32, 11-32 would even be better.

  4. b5000

    Southern California Rider here: I have a 2015 BH RX Team (which is the same frame design as the Pivot Vault) with Sram Force 22 (11-28 cassette and 46/34 front chainring). ) Its a very fun bike for exploring trails, dirt, grass, etc.. Brakes are: Juin Tech r1 mechanically actuated hydraulic brakes. Very fun bike. Never thought once about “BB stiffness” etc. Its just fun to ride.

  5. YL

    I have an earlier incarnation of the Pivot Vault, i.e. the BH RX team (which I believe Cocalis licensed to BH when he was distributing BH in the US).

    Glad to see Cocalis still developing the platform of this bike. The BH RX uses the BB386EVO bottom bracket standard. Is the 2017 Vault still using the same BB?

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