BMC just released the URS, a new gravel bike with a geometry concept called “Gravel Plus”. We visited BMC HQ in Switzerland to check out the bike and take it on a day-long adventure, through mountainous terrain, gravel roads, and even long stretches of mountain bike trails. We even got a bit of extra time on the new URS in the Dolomites as well.

First Rides Review: BMC URS Gravel Plus adventure bike

BMC has finally moved beyond cyclocross racing and into the gravel scene. We already did an in-depth tech overview of the new BMC URS (short for ‘UnReStricted’), so check it out if you haven’t already. In short, the platform is all-new, combining BMC’s soft-tail MTT suspension with a 1x-specific drivetrain and all-internal cable management. And of course, a new non-UCI-legal geometry concept called Gravel Plus.

Let’s be clear. While the word ‘Plus’ is typically used to refer to tire sizes (i.e. 27.5+, 29+ for wide ~2.6 – 3.0” options), BMC uses it to refer only to the geometry of the URS. Similar to the evolution of mountain bike geometry, it uses a long top tube and wheel base, combined with a slack head tube angle and (very) short stem – 55mm in Small and Medium frames, and 70mm in Large and XL frames. BMC claims that this setup improves control and responsiveness on demanding terrain, and adds capability on loose high-speed terrain.

My test bike was a size Large (I’m 6’1”) URS ONE, outfitted with a mix of SRAM Red and Eagle AXS, along with the BMC ICS stem. The handlebar is an Easton EC70 AX, which I’ve used before – and love the short reach and overall shape.

Our ride began up in the mountains above Solothurn (we got up there via the outstanding Alpenchallenge AMP Road with Shimano STEPS system). Right off the bat you notice the impressive light weight of the URS ONE (8.3kg / 18.3 lbs) – and it should be at $9,499. I initially thought that the Eagle 10-50 cassette was going to be excessive for gravel riding, because, well, that’s a lot of gear. While we weren’t quite sure how far we’d be riding, I was reasonably certain I’d leave at least one or two cogs unused. Spoiler alert: BMC had more than just light gravel riding planned to introduce us to Gravel Plus, so many gears were used.

Things started out as you’d expect – sunny skies above the fog line, brown gravel roads, and herds of healthy-looking Swiss cows. We encountered some unexpected road construction that left us hiking for a quarter mile or so, but nothing out of the ordinary. Pedals turned, photos were taken, and laughs were had.

The gravel continued, mixed with some bits of road. Per usual, tire pressures were set conservatively to start, and I found myself dabbing air out several times. This was also partially prompted by my handlebar slipping a bit in the ICS stem clamp on some rough gravel trails with rocks and decent sized hits. It’s a sleek-looking two-bolt affair and had been installed with carbon paste, but it’s hard to know whether the slip was due to anything beyond insufficient bolt toque. We tightened things down, and it stayed put for the rest of the day.

The ride went on through vast rolling hills, and onto fast descents so rough that my hands cramped and my forearms, wrists, and shoulders ached. Water bottles launched out of bottle cages. I dabbed more air out of my tires. While my hands struggled to brake, I was impressed at the utter lack of skidding from the WTB Resolute tires, and the bike held its line. We were doing riding well beyond what I’d call ‘gravel’, so I suppose it’s safe to say that the Gravel Plus geometry was working. If it needs mentioning, the photos don’t do the ride justice, mostly because of the logistical difficulties of getting a photographer out in front at the right time on aggressive trails.

We still had a monster climb headed our way of a distance I can’t recall, but we were warned that it’d be at least 30-45 minutes of solid climbing. Time to test those gears.

Me, doing a lot of motivational self-talk and/or hallucinating from the extreme pain. It’s (much) steeper than it looks.

To say we climbed is an understatement. In a short time, I was all the way in my 50-tooth big cog (with 38t chainring), half-wishing for more, but realizing that this would result in ride speeds that would likely be slower than walking. I just had to gut it out, and find a rhythm of pushing the pedals and telling myself not to quit. Small logs and obstacles became mini sprints above threshold. Everything hurt, including my butt from days of riding on unfamiliar saddles. On the technical side, the bike had zero complaints, burps, or perceptible flex anywhere… I was the problem.

The nice version is that the ride was epic. It was beautiful and impossible and reminded me of how hard riding a bike can be. It also taught me something about 1x gearing for gravel, which I’ll summarize with a quote from a restaurant job I had in high school – answering the question of how much dressing one should apply to a Caesar salad – “Too much is never enough.”

The not-as-nice version is that that the more I ride gravel bikes, the more I appreciate what mountain bikes can do. After tackling the huge climb, we still had a long way to go through blinding-fast washboard descents, more climbing, and more ‘Gravel Plus’ sections… which are called ‘Mountain Biking’ where I’m from. Don’t get me wrong – this is not a knock on BMC or the URS – which did better than I’d expect of any gravel bike on such terrain. It’s just a reiteration of the truth that mountain bikes with suspension are a faster, safer, and more comfortable way to navigate trails that can be survived or picked through by a skilled rider on a gravel bike.

Our ride would’ve been made more comfortable with a Fox AX fork (with which the URS is compatible), but the drop bar design is the larger issue when the going gets rough. You can wrap your thumbs all the way around an MTB flat bar, where the drop bar hoods leave you struggling to not slide off the top. Yes, you can ride in the drops with your thumbs fully wrapped, but this can make it hard to reach the brake levers, especially over heavy washboard trails. The mountain flat bar is simply a better design for riding off-road.

Ed: Besides Greg riding the Large URS, Veronika spent some time riding gravel road & root-strewn trails on a Small URS One in Italy last week, as well. Her test bike was fitted with that short 55cm stem, which together with the long-for-a-Small 403mm reach kept her hands in the same position she usually has with a 90mm stem on a more conventional geometry gravel bike. It also has an upright position with a high front end of 538mm stack, plus another few cms of spacers under the stem on her test bike. 

Veronika’s impressions fit pretty well with Greg that that longer, higher front end, paired with the micro travel did make the URS quite capable on technical trails that push the limits of what a gravel bike would normally handle. But it’s still not quite a mountain bike…

She didn’t spend all day on the URS so can’t really speak to the long-term comfort of the mostly imperceptible 10mm of theoretical rear wheel travel – not really feeling the micro travel more than standard tire flex. But the bike did seem like it was slightly less quick sprinting up steep climbs than a comparable light carbon gravel bike with conventional geometry – not a surprise with the ‘Gravel Plus’ focus.

OK, now back to Greg…

The final note I’ll make on the URS goes back to the gearing. With a 38t chainring and 10-50 cassette, I used every bit of both ends, and could have used more top-end on several occasions… even getting a dozen pedal strokes would’ve been enough to bridge gaps in the group on a few descents. Fitter and lighter-weight riders should consider using a larger chainring size to help address this. The lower-spec models all come with a 40t ring and 11-42 cassette, which is a much narrower range than what we tested.

It’s a problem of equipment evolution that hasn’t yet caught up with itself, with no affordable 12-speed mechanical drop bar shifters available that work with the wide-range MTB cassettes and rear derailleurs from Shimano and SRAM. After our test, I consider 10-42 to be the absolute minimum you need for 1x gravel, and that won’t be enough if you’re riding MTB trails at altitude like we did.

BMC-Switzerland.com

14 COMMENTS

    • It was really hard to feel. I actually had an easier time feeling it on the Alpenchallenge AMP Road bike, since we were on roads (with smaller bumps at more irregular intervals… plus higher tire pressure making it easier to feel the frame movement). The URS was our third ride in two days, and by that time my butt was absolutely killing me from saddles that didn’t work for me, and the trails were so rough that my hands, neck, and arms were killing me… so it was really tough to detect anything substantial from 10mm of rear travel. I was much more concerned with the lack of suspension up front.

  1. This post begs the question.. why not offer a 2x option on this bike? For all 1x’s strenghts, gear range is still cheaper and easier to come by with two front chainrings.

    • Yeah, I remain firmly in favor of 2x drivetrains on gravel bikes, especially now that road-compatible clutches are available, along with subcompact cranksets. The only place where 1x provides an advantage at this point is in getting the absolute lowest gearing possible – subcompact generally bottoms out at a 30T chainring and 36T cassette cog, which is a bit taller than the 38-50 low gear offered on this bike.

      • Pretty sure quite a few people have been running doubles with 11-40/11-42 rear cassettes, but point taken… I run an 11-36 on mine 🙂

  2. Liked your comment about gravel plus or cx/gravel bikes on mtb trails. I do rides that combine surfaces, and do some singletrack(downhill usually). The key is that there are pavement, smoother gravel sections that gravel/ CX bike is faster then a MTB if doing just gravel, jeep roads, sigletrack I think Rigid 29er (fast 2.6-3.0 tires)is a better tool.. I recently did a ride where we rode long stretches on MTB trails on CX bikes, and my Rigid 29er would have been a better weapon.

  3. Very informative, thank you. The gravel grinding marketing phenomenon has been fun to watch and good for the industry. I live in the rural Ozarks and have used cross country mountain bikes as my gravel grinders for decades. We have some fairly civilized gravel locally, for the most part, but frequently things deteriorate quickly from graded dirt/gravel to golf-softball sized rock minefields. I see these “gravel grinder” bikes, even with 35+ tires, and I have to wonder how many flats and/or broken rims will be suffered. I love the idea of a drop bar fat tire bike, but my go to dirt road bike is a 1990 Klein rigid Attitude. It’s still a rocket. Full disclosure, I just bought an Allied Allroad with 35mm tires, but it’s really a road bike for bad paved roads. And it’s a rocket too.

  4. Gravel bikes are superb at what they are designed for, gravel. With these gravel plus designs we might just as well use an mtb.

    • if you’re going to just MTB, yep.

      If you’re going on a 100 mile loop with 50 miles paved, 40 miles dirt road and 10 miles singletrack – 18lb gravel bike with 40c’s is pretty dang awesome. Same with a 15 mile loop where it’s 5/5/5 split – ya get it done quick and it’s super fun.

  5. This post highlights the shortcomings of existing out-of-the-box gravel gearing options, especially on bikes limited to 1x setups. But I lament the direction the industry is headed with subcompact cranks and more cogs. The range is there, but the front shifting is annoyingly clumsy with 16-17T differences between rings. The 3x setups I’ve used on gravel work very, very well in terms of gearing range, shift patterns, drivetrain efficiency, smooth steps between cogs, etc. There’s nothing not to like there as long as you’re ok being out of fashion. But they are a franken-mix of 10 speed MTB and road parts with no options for hydro brakes. If Shimano produced a modern triple STI hydro shifter, FD and crankset with, say, 48-36-26, I would buy it tomorrow.

    • Agreed, though I’d still prefer the either-or of a double. If more of us were OK with our cyclomasculinity we’d use 42-44T outer rings. Small outer rings don’t mean you’re not a fast rider. 42 x 11 on a big tyre is a tall enough top gear for most. If you’re riding a really light gravel bike on 35mm tyres as a rough-road bike maybe not. But for the rest, no problem. That means a 13-15T gap is all you need.

      • Yup. On my mixed-surface bike I’m using a 46/30 with a 12-34, haven’t spun out, and would be happy to have a lower low.
        For years my “gravel bike” has been hardtail 29r with a rigid fork, 2X drivetrain, flat bars, 2.3″ XC race tires. For rides that are mostly dirt or rougher dirt roads it’s a great setup.

        • I think I found a better way to think about this situation (article author here). There aren’t any 1x gear setups that will allow you to deal with both extremes of fast road group riding with descents AND super slow uphill MTB riding (all of which were in our test ride). Not everyone needs to do all that, so it’s not a universal deal-breaker. But if you DO want to do all that on your gravel bike, you are going to need a double or triple chainring.

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