April 29, 2019

Litespeed Ultimate Gravel

Litespeed has pedigree in titanium, and it shows in this off-road racer.

Litespeed Ultimate Gravel

There aren’t many bike brands that have seen their components put to use beyond the confines of Planet Earth, but Litespeed is one of them. It developed a ‘rocker-bogie’ suspension system for the Curiosity Mars rover, designed to prevent the car-sized vehicle from tipping over while exploring the Martian surface. So far so good – it appears to still be upright.

Its testament to the technological expertise of the company from Chattanooga, Tennessee, which began life in 1986 and quickly developed a reputation for titanium bikes. Litespeeds were used by Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond in Grand Tours (rebadged with sponsors’ logos, of course), but the brand fell out of fashion for a while, not least because of a disappointing foray into carbon fibre. Now, with the emergence of the gravel scene, titanium has returned to the limelight, so the Ultimate Gravel is bang on trend.

Titanium and gravel riding just seem to belong together. Titanium’s compliance and toughness, coupled with the rigidity of wider tubes, seem to be the perfect match for rubble, rocks and muddy trails. Almost every major titanium manufacturer now offers a titanium gravel bike, and even mass market brands such as Boardman and Ribble have joined the likes of Moots and Mosaic.

Litespeed Ultimate Gravel

Litespeed’s offering is not dissimilar to those other brands, but it does showcase some of the company’s technical knowhow. The bi-ovalised down tube and square-profile top tube are designed to increase stiffness and improve handling, while the sloping seatstays promise to increase rear-end compliance. More importantly, every element of the frame is made in-house by the US company in Chattanooga.

The 3Al/2.5V titanium tubes are butted and shaped by Litespeed using a cold-working process rather than by using heat. This increases cost but makes sure Litespeed can be completely confident in the quality of its tubes. For me, having it all done under one roof is not only an assurance of quality, it also suggests a passion for the product that might not be shared by an anonymous Far Eastern factory (as good as many of them are).

It made me excited to ride the Ultimate Gravel, and my first impressions lived up to expectations.

On The Road Again

One of the big selling points of gravel bikes is their versatility. You can run 25mm tyres on the road one day and switch to knobbly 2.1in tyres to hit the trails the next. What distinguishes them from each other tends to be whether they err towards being more like a road bike or more like a mountain bike.

The Ultimate Gravel is in the former camp. It has a relatively short chainstay length of 425mm (by comparison, the Ribble CGR Ti I tested in issue 82 has 435mm chainstays), and relatively steep head tube and seat tube angles of 72° and 73.5° respectively. Put simply, it rides like a road bike.

My first pedal strokes bore that out. The Ultimate Gravel was pacy, responsive and felt far more alive than many gravel bikes I’ve ridden. Even with the specced 38mm tyres, it was able to keep up with the pack when I headed out on a Sunday morning club ride. I could even mix it in the sprints, helped by the light and stiff FSA K-Force AGX wheelset (claimed 1,464g).

Alongside speed, the Ultimate Gravel has a quintessential titanium ride quality. The sound it makes against the tarmac – that gentle zing – and smooth handling both left a distinct impression on me. For all that, though, this is a bike that just begs to be taken off-road.

The Ultimate Gravel was pacy, responsive and felt far more alive than many gravel bikes I’ve ridden.

Litespeed Ultimate Gravel

The more I rode it, the more the Ultimate Gravel endeared itself to me. It feels like a bike for life.
The Path Less Travelled

Heading onto bridleways, gravel tracks and trails, the Ultimate Gravel was always an exhilarating ride – at times a little too much so, as the racy geometry meant it wasn’t always as stable as some gravel bikes, and I found myself taking quite a bit of air from the tyres to soften the ride.

If I were to commit it more specifically to offroad, perhaps the fork would be the first alteration I’d make to soften the front end. While the specced carbon fork does a good job of tyre clearance, something like Fox’s AX suspension fork or even Lauf’s Grit SL suspension fork would turn it into an altogether different beast. Interestingly, Litespeed sells the frame and fork separately – most likely for this very sort of upgrade.

Litespeed Ultimate Gravel

The stiffness of the front end was also a factor when riding on the road. On the rough roads of Surrey I found the bike filtered out the buzz pretty well, but over potholes the front end would ping with just a little bit too much force. That said, if the ride was any softer it might interfere with the speed and handling, so personally I’m happy that the bike feels similar to a carbon frame in terms of power transfer, even if there is a sacrifice in terms of comfort.

The more I rode it, the more the Ultimate Gravel endeared itself to me. It feels like a bike for life, which is a good thing considering that at around £3,600 for just the frame and fork it’s more expensive than the entire build of the Ribble CGR Ti from issue 82. From a distance, there doesn’t look to be a great deal of difference between the two, but up close the geometry and design of the Ultimate Gravel reveals a more crafted bike, which many people will believe to be worth the premium.

Litespeed Ultimate Gravel

Considering the price of this bike, and the fact that it’s handmade in the States, it did make me wonder why Litespeed doesn’t offer custom geometry. I put that question to the company, and the reply was a pleasant surprise.

‘We’re planning to announce something at the end of April,’ says international sales manager Steve Dunn. ‘We’ll be launching a new custom geometry programme for Litespeed – a $599 [£459] retail upcharge for custom geometry and any additions like adding rack mounts.’

My lasting impression of the Ultimate Gravel is that it does a huge amount very well, and there isn’t much to criticise. If I had the money and a longing for a titanium do-it-all bike, would I choose the Litespeed over, say, a Moots or a Mosaic?

The more I think about it, that is the very definition of a first-world problem.

Litespeed Ultimate Gravel



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Frame Size
Rider Heightin
Rider Height cm
 
 
 
Road, Gravel, Cherohala
 
 
XS
4'9" - 5'0"
145 - 152
S
4'11" - 5'4"
149 - 162
M
5'2" - 5'7"
157 - 170
ML
5'6" - 5'11"
167 - 180
L
5'10" - 6'3"
177 - 190
XL
6-2" - 6'7"
187 - 200
Pinhoti Boost
S
5'0" - 5'6"
152 - 167
M
5'5" - 5'11"
162 - 178
L
5'10" - 6'3"
165 - 190
XL
6'2"- 6'5"
187 - 195
Pinhoti SL
 
 
XS 27.5
4'9" - 5'3"
145 - 160
S 27.5
5'0" - 5'6"
152 - 168
S
5'0" - 5'6"
152 - 168
M
5'5" - 5'11"
162 - 178
L
5'10" - 6'3"
165 - 190
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