In recent years, bikes of all kinds have been segregated into smaller and smaller categories, marketed to more and more specific uses. Meanwhile, riders are looking for a performance machine that allows them to enjoy a wide range of riding. Splitting the difference between categories can make for a confusing experience while looking for a bike. The Brodie Wolff is one such bike, with DNA from a variety of places. I’ve spent the past few months ripping the Wolff on roads, trails, and everywhere in between.
Let’s start with a bit of background. Some of my best times on a bike in the past decade have been on steel road frames from the ‘70s and ‘80s. These bikes, originally designed around larger tires than those from the decades between then and now, have a versatility that makes them excellent daily rides to this day. The current surge toward higher clearance on road bikes brings back this versatility – with the added bonus of disc brakes.
When I got my first bike with hydraulic disc brakes, I had just come off a successful season racing cross on a bike with absolutely terrifying canti brakes. The disc brake experience was a revelation, and one that threw me into a tailspin of dirt exploration. I still rode my cross bike for longer distance adventures, but I was spending more and more time on mountain bikes.
The year I stopped riding my cross bike was the year the UCI began allowing disc brakes for racing. I knew the industry would take some time to respond to the UCI decision, but was optimistic for the future of 700c bikes. It was only logical that we would begin to see technology being developed for cross trickle into the road arena. With that as a background, you can see why I’m a proponent of hydraulic brakes for road bikes.
These new groupsets have my interests piqued, though the range of designs in the gravel world is about as broad as the riding people are likely to do with the bikes. With the cachet of a unique material in stainless, room for big tires, a super tight rear end, and Shimano’s trickle-down 11-speed road hydro shift levers, the Wolff jumped out at me as a interesting option amongst the masses of bikes currently pointed at the burgeoning gravel market.
I’m always intrigued by the intersection of different categories of bikes. Can an engineer successfully marry the positives of two distinct platforms, or does the hybrid platform fall flat? With the Wolff we see geometry very much descended from the road side, but room for higher volume tires (though not as big as I’d hope; more on that below), and a group that would feel right at home on the cross course.
I began my journey with this bike with a fit session with the guys at Mighty Riders. We determined that the Wolff’s 74º seat angle would necessitate a setback post, so the Easton EC90 was pulled in favor of an aluminum unit. I am a fan of FSA’s Compact bar, and grabbed my trusty pink Arione out of the bin to finish off the fit kit.
The Wolff comes stock with 25mm Clement Strada LGGs. This is a curious choice given the gaping chainstays and cross fork. Alas, I began my time on the bike on these tires, and got to know its characteristics on our winding highways and asphalt passes. The 415mm chainstays made for quick handling, and the lively feel of steel was certainly there – but make no mistake, this is a stiff bike. Descending on asphalt the Wolff encouraged spinning out its top gear with excellent stability at speed.
After a couple hundred miles on the slicks I was ready for more volume and some off-piste exploration. I had picked up a pair of 38mm Challenge Gravel Grinders and mounted them up. Immediately, the 44mm head tube and high clearance fork no longer looked out of place, but almost perfect. The bike looked sick! Like it was meant to be. I wondered how they could possibly spec such a small tire on the bike when it looks absolutely mean with larger ones.
And then, I shifted into the big ring. The long arm of Shimano’s 11-speed front derailleur squished firmly into the tread of the 38mm tire. Bummed, I tried a 33mm Clement PDX off Stephanie’s bike, which was still a no-go. I ended up finding a small-fitting 32mm Vittoria that cleared the derailleur and still looked alright with the GG up front.
With the smaller tire on the rear I had to run quite a bit more pressure in the rear, but immediately I was happy with the switch to higher volume tires. The larger tires really opened up what I could do with the Wolff, and that’s really what one would hope for in a road bike with big clearance. I explored forest roads and used rail trails to link up new mixed-surface loops that I wouldn’t really consider on a mountain bike.
I rode singletrack that is definitely better suited to even larger tires, and didn’t flat. But the 73º head angle did make for some hairy moments. In one particularly dumb effort, I climbed the back side of a local peak on old mining tracks, linking up to a forest service road, and continued up the 18% grades into the subalpine. While it was here that I found the limitations of the 11-28 cassette, it was on the 1000 metre gravel descent that I found out that the bike just doesn’t like descending steeps.
And that’s OK – or is it? What do you want out of your bike? How versatile does it have to be in order to fit the bill?
Regardless of a bike’s original intent, I have a tendency to push them outside their limits to find out what they can really do. The Wolff felt right at home on low-grade gravel and singletrack, and equally as comfortable on longer asphalt excursions. It is on the steep end of the gravel spectrum, and is more suited to rides that reward high speed stability over technical prowess.
So, what about that Shimano road hydro group? The RS685 shift levers were crisp and accurate out of the box, with really smooth cable action. The brake lever feel was nice and firm, with excellent power to the wheels, though I found the hoods to be quite bulky. Shimano has crammed a lot of stuff into these shift levers and they do function well, though I do prefer the ergonomics of SRAM’s hydro levers.
I feel the same way about the 36-52 chainset on this bike as I have about 34-50s in the past: the jump is too big to be useful as a single shift, but it is nice to have the high gear of the 52 for road riding. I found the big ring to be quite a bit noisier than I would expect from 105. Avoiding this noise had me spending more time in smaller cogs with the little ring, but even still it never dropped the chain.
The rest of the Wolff’s build kit performed as well as I could have hoped. The Alex CXD5 wheels stayed tensioned and true despite my repeated efforts to whack them out of line. The headset and bottom bracket were quiet, as they should be. I will admit I was expecting to see a carbon steerer on the fork, but it rides just fine as is.
My time with the Wolff leaves me with some questions. Is the (lack of) front derailleur clearance a deal breaker on this bike? Would a slightly longer rear end have been a better call? Would the same people who want large tires be the same people who would choose a 1x system? The answers to these questions are obviously dependent on your own context.
If Brodie meant for this bike to be a gravel racer and not just a winter trainer, it’s got to fit the tires people want to race on – and to me, that means 38s and bigger. Being at the steeper end of a market filled with bikes with disc brakes and room for big tires, this one swings toward the asphalt side of the spectrum. I know that’s a very specific thing to say after touting the benefits of versatile bikes, but they’ve all got their limits.
So what is the Wolff? In my opinion it is an excellent winter club ride bike that you could also race in the summer. It could be your ideal commuter if you go longer distances. Or get your light duty randonnerd on. If you’re willing to give up gear range for a 1x setup, you could run whatever tires you wanted to. But if you spend more of your time on singletrack, a cross bike is probably a better call. It all depends what kind of versatility you are after in your own bike.
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