With its wide tyres, 1x drivetrain and disc brakes, the 3T Strada is changing the way we think about road bikes. Designer Gerard Vroomen talks us through the development of this unique bike.
While the Strada Due – a new version of the Strada compatible with 2x electronic drivetrains – is imminent, 1x version remains the ideal bike for the many riders who care less about tradition and more about simplicity, weight savings, aerodynamics and where the future of the road bike is heading.
A LEGACY OF INNOVATION AND PERFORMANCE
Having garnered a deserved reputation for design ingenuity and aerodynamics expertise during his time at Cervelo, Gerard Vroomen’s move to become co-owner of 3T in 2015 sent an almost palpable frisson of excitement throughout the world of cycling tech enthusiasts.
Vroomen's first bike project with the Italian company, the Exploro, redefined the performance potential of gravel bikes and the Strada does the same for the road bike; challenging the form’s conventions with the promise of greater speed, comfort and simplicity. It’s a design that reflects 3T’s ethos since the brand’s conception: exploring the limits of cycling performance through innovation.
“Since 3T started in 1961, they’ve been responsible for a lot of innovation in the bike industry,” says Vroomen. “One of the attractions for me with 3T was that it was really one of the original brands, but unlike some others, 3T has always been innovating and trying to do things that others aren’t. It’s this ethos of never being satisfied with the status quo and always trying to push the products, ourselves and the sport of cycling along that’s at 3T’s core.
“The industry itself changes quite rapidly as well, so we’re not just reinventing products, but also the company, and we’re now into the fourth generation. We have to stay true to the brand, but the trueness of 3T is that it changes all the time. For me, that’s what makes it interesting. The brand started with handlebars, but they were also the first to focus on speed and fun, so enjoyment as well as performance.
“The Exploro is a good example of our approach. We saw a direction that we thought should be an important part of the bike industry. Nobody was going there, so, we thought, ‘OK then, we’ll make it.’ Of course, it was the first time 3T made a frame, but there was also a first time when 3T made saddles: Just because they had a good idea for a saddle, they made it and it was the world’s lightest saddle.”
With this sort of gung-ho pioneerism applied to the gravel bike sector and resulting in spectacular positive feedback from riders and press alike, the logical stablemate for the do-it-all off-roader was a do-it-all road bike.
ENTER THE STRADA
“The Strada certainly comes from the same thought process. For probably 10 years now, I’ve been thinking about 1x drivetrains for road bikes, but it never really made any sense. I have this really old spreadsheet and it shows, ‘How do you do 1x with eight cogs?’ The gap was just too big.
“Eleven-speed is really where it started to make sense. And 12-speed is where it’s perfect for everybody, so I felt this was really a good time to do it. The decision was also down to a little bit of a disappointment with where the industry was going. If you look at all the new product introductions on the road side, all the press releases are more or less interchangeable.
“The big news is always that it’s 13% stiffer in the bottom bracket and 11% stiffer in the head tube. Mostly, it now comes with a D-shaped seat tube as the main innovation, and it comes in a rim and a disc-brake version, because, apparently, the industry can’t figure out which one is the best.”
“To me, it’s sad that’s all there is. I know, as well as anybody in this industry, that it’s hard to come up with something new all the time, but I just feel that, with a lot of these things, it’s not even what the customer is asking for. I can’t remember the last time that a customer told me that their bottom bracket wasn’t stiff enough. I mean, they’re 10 times stiffer than what Merckx rode.
“These are just new solutions to problems that simply don’t exist anymore. Nowadays, any decent road bike for $1,000 is a good bike that anybody can ride around, get home safely and have a good time on. So, we’ve got to look somewhere else.”
This search for difference was where the Strada’s journey to the market began; challenging the conservativism of the industry in a bid for genuine innovation and improving the rider experience.
“We’re looking at a dozen areas to see, ‘OK, where do we think the major trends are? What’s really going to change?’ The drivetrain, the disc brake and, basically, optimisation in general… It’s just really making a decision in a certain direction and committing to that. The Exploro is a very generalist bike; you can ride it anywhere, from a road race to a serious off-road with the right tyres on. By its nature, a road bike is already a very specific bike, so if you’re going to make a road bike, then make it totally specific.”
For Vroomen, this specificity combines aerodynamics unhampered by front derailleur placement; the simplicity of a 1x drivetrain and fast-rolling, comfortable tyres, the latter of which provided the starting point for the Strada’s design, with everything else stemming from that decision.
“Wide tyres are something I’ve been pushing for a long time. Back at Cervélo, we were probably the first to spec the 25mm tyre as standard on all of our bikes. Dealers hated it. We had some who sent back the bikes saying, ‘We can’t sell them with these mountain bike tyres on.’ That’s what they called 25mm tyres. It was incredible. But if consumers took those bikes on test rides, they loved them because you can feel the difference of a wider tyre; remember that back then many were still on 21mm.
“I think, today, most people understand. About half the vertical compliance of the bike is in that tyre. It makes you think about where to put comfort: a rubber thing with air in, or some carbon triangles?
“A lot of people think comfort is just important for amateur riders, but it’s also important for people who are looking at pure performance. Especially if you go on longer rides or, say, a three-week stage race in France, a big factor in fatigue is this high-frequency vibration buzz that you get even from smooth roads. So, if you can cut down on that, it means better recovery, day after day after day. That really makes a difference in the third week.
“Some people also start to realise that wider tyres have a lower rolling resistance, although there’s certainly a big group who believe narrow is better. I think that misunderstanding comes more from the fact that, when you compare a mountain bike tyre and a road tyre, the road tyre rolls lighter. But if you have the same casing and tread pattern, then a wider tyre has the lower rolling resistance.
“Then there’s just this third part, which is, ‘Aren’t they less aero?’ There are some tests that are done with different tyre sizes and the bigger tyre always comes out worst, but, of course, those tyres are always tested with a bike that’s been designed for a narrow tyre. You’re not proving the wider tyre is bad; you’re just proving this combination wasn’t designed that way. So, it’s not a shocking result.
“The Strada’s tyre clearance is 28mm and the rest of the bike is designed around that specifically – it’s exactly what we want, aerodynamically. One point a lot of people ask is, ‘Do those tyre clearances work well? Are they safe?’ Basically, these tyre clearances are the same as they’ve been on time trial bikes for 15 years, so it’s no different from that.”
“The one thing that never has really been attacked in an aero road bike is the drivetrain. I would absolutely include myself in that; for 20 years we haven’t really looked at it because it just wasn’t possible to do much about it. But especially around the bottom bracket, you have your derailleur hanger, your derailleur, your inner ring, your outer ring, your crank arms and your legs flying through. You have a water bottle, maybe two. So, in the end, there’s not much space for the air to flow through there because it all happens at the same point.
“If you’re able to eliminate that front derailleur and inner ring, that creates a lot more space for the air to flow through – really close to the wheel and frame – aerodynamically, it’s a no-brainer. Also, if you know that this frame is never going to have a front derailleur hanger, you can optimise that whole seat tube to shield the rear wheel. You don’t need to widen it or reinforce it in any way; you can just choose to put in whatever shape you want aerodynamically.
“The approach towards the Strada’s aerodynamics was the same as we used for the Exploro. We tried to design for the real world with Exploro, where we did the testing at 20mph. With Strada, we tested at both 20mph and 30mph because we realised that we would accommodate a larger range of rider levels with this frame.”
While removal of the front derailleur equates to a drag saving of about 25g, the question on many riders’ lips when the Strada launched was whether this is reason enough to remove the beloved front derailleur. The Marmite effect was quickly in full flow as trendsetters and traditionalists fought a predictable war of words on forums and cycling tech news comment sections.
“People love it or hate it, which, to me, is better than that everybody just says it’s so-so. I’d rather that even 80% of the market hate it, 20% really love it and I have that 20% to myself than having to fight for the 80% with 100 other brands. I think, so far, it’s split down the middle, which is a bit better than I hoped for.
“We used to have 2x6 gears. It really meant eight unique gears and the other four were overlapping. That was good enough 40 years ago to do everything with. Then, we got 2x7, which was clearly better, and 2x8 was even better. Now, do you remember what your first 2x11 bike was? Most can’t because it wasn’t a momentous occasion. All of a sudden, cycling didn’t become 10% more fun when we went from 2x10 to 2x11. Sometimes more isn’t better, it’s just more.
“What this whole trend to meaningless 2x drivetrains means is that cassettes start to look pretty good on 1x. When we finally had the Strada and started extensive testing – including the 100 media that rode it at press launches in the US and in Europe at the end of June – I was actually surprised that most people were OK with the 11-36.
“That said, I think smaller steps are a plus for everybody. Therefore, we’ve done our own cassette. It’s not because we wanted to become a cassette company; it’s the same reason that 3T has innovated over the years – because we had some ideas and nobody else was doing it.”
In fact, 3T has produced two 9-32t cassettes. The Bailout features tightly packed small-cog spacing for a smooth range when pushing hard on rolling terrain and bigger jumps when the road rears upwards. The Overdrive features more evenly-spaced cogs, making it ideal for big days in the mountains. Putting those into context, pairing either cassette with a 40t ring would offer a similar range to a 50/36 crank with an 11-29t cassette.
“The total range is 355%, almost 30 percentage points bigger than the 11-36. So, really, you have enough range to ride everywhere unless you go really crazy. The interesting part about this range is that it’s not really that dependent on cycling ability. It’s being aware of where you need that range; Chris Froome can have a front ring 20% bigger than mine, but we can both ride with that same cassette.
“Of course, another advantage to 1x is that it’s very easy to adjust a gear range just by changing your front chainring. If you’re vacationing in the Alps and doing five climbs a day, you just change your front ring to something smaller. Maybe you lose the top end, but the top usually doesn’t matter in that situation.
“Sometimes, people say, ‘Maybe I don’t climb as fast as Chris Froome, but I can descend the same as him. I’m heavier even.’ Even if you had the skills and the closed roads – which you probably don’t – that top-end gear doesn’t make the difference. If your terminal velocity is 80kph, it doesn’t matter if you spin out at 50 or 60kph; it just means that you get to that 80kph two seconds later, but you’re going to end up at the same speed per definition.”
While it might take a while for some riders to see the practicality and benefits of 1x, equipping the Strada with disc brakes hasn’t proved divisive.
“It’s funny that we hardly get any comments about the disc brake. There is no doubt that this is where the market’s going. The transition only goes one way. As is often the case with the bike industry, whether it’s better doesn’t even matter anymore.
“When you decide that it’s disc-brake only, you can attack the design differently. The most obvious way is the fork crown; if you don’t have to stick a brake there, it means less frontal area. It also really pulls the front wheel towards the down tube if that crown is smaller, so the integration of your front wheel with your down tube becomes much easier.
That works very well for stiffness and strength too. The crown shape is structurally still there the way you would normally have it, it’s just ‘sucked into’ the downtube and hidden from the airflow.”
“When you think about the Strada as a whole, it’s really a no-compromise bike. There’s no rim-brake version coming out next month; there’s no compromise in weights and aerodynamics.
“You have this 1x aero drivetrain and this full aero frame with wide tyres all the time that cut down on high-frequency vibration, so you’re also fast on the roads that are poor, as well as disc brakes so you can stop in any conditions. At the same time, all you need to look at is that front chainring to adjust to the terrain if you want to do something extreme.
“In the end it means you don’t need a bike for comfort and a bike for speed; you can have the same bike and setup for everything, whether you’re going on the cobbles or just the average UK road. I think the Strada does a good job of achieving that and, at the same time, it’s a bike that stays true to the 3T ethos… to make the best, the most beautiful bicycle parts, and to make what others do not.”
Photos: Joby Sessions