Shifting the Paradigm with the Titanium Knolly Cache

Are you ready for the next paradigm shift in drop bar bikes? In news that will come with little to zero surprise, this same shift began in the mountain bike world nearly a decade ago. It took a while for people to jump on the bandwagon, but once they were on, the entire industry figured it out. Now it’s drop bar’s turn. Here we go with the titanium Knolly Cache.

Knolly is a mountain bike company, a relatively small mountain bike company, but one whose fans are some of the most loyal in the industry. I like to say that Knolly’s bikes are “by engineers, for engineers.” If you like poring over well-thought-out details, then you’re likely to enjoy Knolly’s bikes. And that’s exactly what leads us to the Cache, which happens to be Knolly’s first bike designed to be ridden with drop bars and also their first made of titanium.

I say “designed to be ridden with drops” intentionally, because, as you’ll read below, the Cache happens to be more suited to flat bar conversions than just about any other drop bar bike out there. But to say that its longer-than-average frame reach is the only interesting thing about the Cache is to miss the point: just like their mountain bikes, the design and engineering details are nearly bottomless.

Before I had a chance to ride the Cache, I met with Knolly’s namesake and founder, Noel Buckley, to take a closer look at one of the pre-production frames. We nerded out for nearly two hours, Noel exuberant in his passion for doing whatever it takes to see his dreams become reality through the most detail-oriented factories in Taiwan. Bottom line, there’s a lot more to this bike than it may at first appear; this is no average production frame.

Functionally-Driven Aesthetics

With Knolly you can’t consider aesthetics without considering the functional reasons for choices made. When the Cache arrived for testing and I got it set up with my fit kit, just looking at the bike took some getting used to.

The large diameter, raw titanium tubes are beautiful, with that signature deep shine. The silhouette is hardtail-inspired but with relatively tall head tubes, with tube shapes and choices made for function before aesthetics. Despite its angles not being extremely far off from the current crop of gravel bikes, the highly sloped top tube, kinked down tube, and tall head tube do stand out.

Out on the trails, the biggest critical comment I got on the bike was about the down tube. The bend is there to accommodate a suspension fork: MRP and Fox both make a 40mm gravel fork. How many people are actually buying those forks and paying a 2.5-pound weight penalty, I’m not sure, but for singletrack alternates there’s not doubt that a dropper post and suspension fork would make for a real fun time.

The bike’s super sloped top tube means a short seat tube: this 58 measures 520mm c-t. Short seat tubes mean more exposed seat post, and more exposed post means more flex is put into the seat tube. Seat stays intersecting below the top tube junction further increases this flex and, voila, you have a bike that is engineered to ride smoother, not only by shape, but by tubing choice.

The tall head tube only really stands out on the larger frame sizes, and it’s part of a fit consideration that I’ll get into later on. Suffice to say that after the bike had been in our house a while, I got used to the looks, and the ride characteristics certainly outshone the initially unusual aesthetic.

Knolly’s fork, on the other hand, took no getting used to. I think it’s one of the best looking tapered carbon forks out there, with a slender straight blade and a gloss clear with subtle graphics and visible carbon. To satisfy my PNW winter riding desires, it also accommodates fenders with eyelets that are all but invisible when not in use.

Why Ti?

Knolly’s never made a bike in Ti before, so I was somewhat surprised to see a new material choice for their first foray into the drop bar world. Titanium has always been expensive, both in material cost and manufacturing time, and now seems especially so with carbon becoming ubiquitous. And according to Noel, this is exactly why they chose to work with the space metal.

For the sake of this innovative bike and how many Knolly might be able to sell, I wasn’t sure Ti was the right choice. How many people would be able to afford a titanium frame to experience the innovation cooked into it?

Of course, this question of “Why Ti?” got Noel really excited. They wanted to put a gravel bike into the market that stood out for the reasons Knolly bikes stand out, because every detail is considered – and material is one of those considerations.

He went into great detail about how the tapered, curved, and butted seat tube is produced using four separate machine operations, those comments about how tubing is specific to frame size, and simply to jump into a new project with a bang. Encapsulating this, he told me that “a better made product is better, regardless of material”.

Another interesting tidbit that came from that conversation was about tubing selection. The Cache’s tubing diameter and thickness are size-specific across the range of seven frame sizes, resulting in a difference in stiffness of about 40% from the 49.5 to the 62.5. The same can’t be said for most production bikes.

Titanium is always lauded for its sublime ride quality, and I can attest that the Cache hits the mark. No matter what wheels and tires I rode on it, road chatter was soaked up, and power was delivered swiftly. In a time where most performance gravel bikes have supremely stiff carbon forks in tapered head tubes, frame forgiveness is underrated but, in my opinion, highly appreciated.

The bottom line is the Cache is a passion project for the folks at Knolly: they have great factory partners to dig into this new material with, and treated it as an opportunity to expand their skills while having some fun. And the good news is they’re now making a steel version as well.

Fit Philosophy

Knolly’s fit philosophy on their first drop bar bike naturally follows from their experience in mountain bikes. Over the past decade or so, mountain bikes frames have become increasingly longer in the reach measurement, with corresponding shorter stems. A longer reach and shorter stem means a longer front centre, better handling in steep terrain, less chance of going over the bars, and so on. In the mountain bike world, this has proven to be a pretty much universal improvement.

In contrast, while we’ve seen significant changes in the drop bar world with disc brakes and tire volume, frame reach and stack has remained fairly static – and it is here that Knolly is looking to make waves. Rather than building frames that end up with riders on 90-120mm stems (larger riders usually ride longer stems, and vice versa), Knolly is looking to put riders on 60-90mm stems. Basically, take your current drop bar bike, shorten the stem by 20-40mm, and lengthen the frame accordingly to maintain the position of your contact points.

I’m 6’0, with a saddle height of 76.5 cm, and on a performance fit I usually run about 3 cm of drop from saddle to bar. In general, most folks my size would ride a 57-58 or Large drop bar frame, and I usually ride a 110mm stem on that size.

I’ve personally been experimenting with lengthening frame reach by riding up a frame size on my bikes as of late, but in practice, the difference between a traditional 58 and a 60, with my fit transposed, consistently only results in a shorter stem by 10mm in most cases. For example, on my Rock Lobster, which is effectively a 60, I still run a 100mm stem.

Cache frame “size” doesn’t correlate with a real number on a bike, but is instead meant to give you a starting point based on what size drop bar bike you would normally ride. When I dove into the geometry chart, I worked out that I could ride either the 58 or the 60, on which I’d ride a 90mm or 80mm stem respectively. It’s not a huge change, but it’s more than incremental, in my opinion.

When the time came for my review bike to be built from Knolly’s first production run, all the 60s had been pre-sold and I ended up on a 58. As expected, that lined up with a 90mm stem to transpose my fit, which means the Cache is still 20mm longer in reach than an average 58.

Checking in after I’d had the bike for some time, Noel was concerned that I wasn’t experiencing the full potential of the bike by riding it with a 90mm stem, and set me up with his personal 60 to try out toward the end of the test period. He noted that a lot of folks are finding they want to size up to take advantage of the longer reach, and I’d tend to agree.

So, while the bike in these photos is the 58 with a 90 stem, the 60 with an 80 stem was spot on and went even further on the long reach, short stem situation that Knolly is looking to deliver. I say, as long as you can handle the taller head tube and get the fit you want, definitely size up!

For my own fit needs, I had to run a 30mm offset seatpost on the Cache. There’s a trend in gravel bikes – particularly those who take their fit inspiration from modern mountain bikes – of steeper and steeper seat tube angles. It’s pushing my own endurance fit out of the picture, but it seems lots of folks can handle steep seat angles on the 100+ mile days this bike is suited to.

What Does That Geo Do?

All this nerdery comes down to this: the Cache offers a geometry experience that not many drop bar bikes currently have. While 20mm more reach in a given size isn’t extreme, it’s certainly a vision of what the future may hold for drop bar fit. If you like to run a flat bar on your ‘cross bike, longer reach means shorter stem there too, which is a huge bonus.

Out back, the Cache’s 422mm chainstay makes for intuitive and quick steering from the hips. Just like the modern mountain bikes in its DNA, the front wheel being further in front of you which is confidence-inspiring on steeper descents, but the short rear end makes for zippy handling nonetheless.

When I had 650x47s on the bike, I took on one particularly rooty and technical singletrack climb that I used to ride a lot when I was racing mountain bikes. To my surprise, I cleaned the entire climb. Back on 700×40, which is the kind of tire I suspect most people would ride on it, the frame’s comfortable ride is immediately noticeable. But the fact that it fits 27.5×2.1 or 700×45 makes it pretty versatile for those who like to play around with wheels and tires – and still get road crank Q-factor.

The Cache is fast like a road bike, but comfortable like a gravel bike can be, particularly with the Ti frame. It fits relatively big knobbies but would also be very much at home on a 32mm slick. If you are looking for an example of a bike that with a couple wheelsets could replace your road bike, your ‘cross bike, and your gravel bike, this is a good one.

Tire Clearance

I will admit that the 27.5×2.2” Sim Works Super Yummy tires in these photos were only on the bike for one day. I happily rode them that first day, but pulled the bike out the next day, and they’d grown enough that they were rubbing in the chainstay once I got on the bike.

Knolly claims a 27.5×2.1” fit, but I’m going to have to say that probably depends on the tire and rim combination. I also rode the bike with 700×42 and that fit comfortably in both frame and fork. With 75mm of bottom bracket drop, I’d wager that for most people the bike is more suited to 700c wheels anyway.

Spec Hits: My New Favorite Bar?

The surprise hit of the parts kit Knolly sent the bike with is the carbon FSA K-Wing AGX bar. It’s got ergonomic shapes that only carbon could do, while allowing a flex that very few carbon bars actually do.

While the futuristic aesthetic turned me off at first, as soon as I installed the shifters I saw the light. The scooped flat ramps transition into the hoods seamlessly, and a flattened section on the drops is also comfort-inducing. Of course, all of this is mostly hidden under the bar tape, but you can see them bare on FSA’s website.

The only hitch with this bar is it’s made in sizes from 40 to 46 – and the 46 actually measures 45 c-c at the hoods – which doesn’t really serve the current wide trend. Personally, I am happy on the 44, but I know many people are still experimenting with wider and wider bars and wouldn’t be happy with the relatively “narrow” AGX.

Shimano Ups

Had Knolly built this bike a few months later, it would have had Shimano’s GRX group on it – and that’s now how they spec the bike. But, given the timing, it happens to have the Shimano’s original clutched road group, Ultegra RX. A 52/36 double and 11-speed 11-34 cassette combine for a very decent gear range. I’m a big fan of super-compact cranksets – and would find it extra-useful to have a 30 or 31-tooth small ring – but this drivetrain does the job well.

I’m also happy with the ergonomics of the R8000 hydro shifters, but when the going gets rough, I still wish the brake levers would stay put laterally. Thus is the conundrum, Shimano ergonomics versus SRAM’s fixed brake lever; Shimano’s come a long way and I think I’d still choose these Ultegra shift levers over a SRAM hydro system for long days in the saddle, but SRAM’s fixed lever is appreciated off-road.

Shimano Downs

While Shimano’s IceTech rotors are my first choice in all conditions – no fewer than six bikes in our house have XT RT86 rotors – the Ultegra RT800 rotors showed a side I didn’t expect. On a late summer gravel ride, I got caught out in a valley when a storm came through.

Grit made its way onto the RT800 rotors and would not shed itself. Regardless of whether I was on the brakes or not, terrible scraping noises, amplified by the aluminum cooling fins. And remember, these were basically brand new calipers, retracting just fine. I sacrificed one of my bottles to fill from a ditch and clean out the rotors, which took quite a while.

I can’t imagine trusting these rotors in a wet weather gravel race situation. Too bad, as the performance is otherwise just as good as the XTs we love. Get me some without the aluminum windmills.

Is It Worth It? (Nearly Custom Money)

When I first got this bike, the biggest question in my mind was about value. At $3000 USD for a frame and fork, the Taiwan-made Cache Ti costs as much as many full custom steel bikes. Of course, that $3000 still gets you a very highly featured frameset for a bunch less money than a USA production Ti frame.

Chatting with Noel about this, he pointed to the Cache’s completely custom tube spec. Having continued to build high end aluminum mountain bikes long after most companies had switched to carbon, he’s no stranger to refining the manufacturing process and defending his highly-engineered solutions.

He waxes about the exit angle of the derailleur cable at the chainstay. The angle and intersection of the seat stays. The seat tube offset versus dropper post integration. He goes on about every single piece of the frame that’s had special consideration, which is, no surprise, every single piece of the frame. If you trust Knolly to build great bikes, which so many riders already do, then you know the value is there.

It’s up to you whether you find more value in trusting Knolly to do their thing, or trusting a custom builder to build something just for you, as long as you’re willing to wait.

Saved by the Steel

Of course, just as I wrangled with the question of the Ti Cache’s value, Knolly went ahead and released a steel version using the same full carbon fork for $1250 USD. Geometry is the same, and though the feature set is scaled back, the steel Cache is still a boutique offering in the market.

For my money, I’d gladly ride the steel frame. And I want more people to experience this significant change to drop bar fit, so I’m happy this less expensive option exists.

A Harbinger of Geometry to Come

This long-reach geometry is a sign of things to come in the drop bar world. Whether mountain bike-inspired geometry sticks will depend on whether people actually buy these bikes.

Around here, where mountain bikers have a big chip on their shoulder about how rigid bikes aren’t worth riding, it’s definitely more road riders than mountain bikers investing in gravel. Will bikes like the Cache – or the Evil Chamois Hagar, which John reviewed earlier this week – change that opinion? Or will we find out that fast XC bikes with flat bars and an even wider variety of big tires are the right tool for the job?

John mentioned in his review that, as long as it hasn’t killed gravel, we can expect to see hints of the Evil’s extreme geometry in production bikes in the years to come. I personally think the Evil is a polarizing conversation starter, but the Knolly is what we’re going to see out of the bigger companies in the near future.

As is usually the case with out-of-the-box ideas, I’m happy to see bike designers like Noel following through on their what-ifs. We really will never know what possibilities exist unless someone takes the chance and makes these bikes for us to try. The Cache is a very reasonable next step for gravel bikes, and I think a lot of folks are going to enjoy it.