Category Purgatory: Turning the YT Industries Szepter Into a Mountain Biker’s Gravel Bike

The Szepter is YT Industries‘ first foray into designing a gravel bike. But unlike other gravel frame designs that are subtly-tweaked road bikes, the Szepter shares more DNA with the German company’s line-up of trail bikes. After putting—and pushing—the Szepter through its paces on his local Los Angeles-area trails, below Travis Engel shares his review alongside some suggested adjustments to the stock build to get the most out of this gravity-focused gravel bike. 

Like all aggressive gravel bikes, the YT Szepter exists in a sort of category purgatory. With its firmly-established stance on the shreddier end of the off-road spectrum, that’s not a place YT Industries often finds itself. In the mountain bike world, the lines between categories are imaginary. They’re based on subtle shifts in things like travel or head angle, and every point along that range can be just as valid as the one next to it. There are no rules.

But aggressive gravel bikes don’t have that sort of freedom. If designers want to push their limits, they’re up against lines that are far more absolute. On one side are flat-mount brakes, on the other are post-mount. On one side is 142/100 hub spacing, and on the other is 148/110. On one side is a 40mm Rudy fork, on the other is a 100mm Sid SL.

Of course, there is a “new” category of dirt-focused bikes—like the Otso Fenrir, Bearclaw Beaux Jaxon, or Curve GMX+  —that are essentially drop-bar mountain bikes. Often specced with suspension-corrected frames and sloping top tubes that make them hardtail-ready, the difference in these industry-proclaimed ATBs (i.e. all terrain bikes) and a model like the Szepter is that the latter are not generally positioned as racing rigs, but rather are endlessly versatile and durable tourers. With a carbon chassis and clearance for 700 x 50mm front/45mm rear (so long as you remove the integrated fender), the Szepter feels way more like a svelte stallion than a bikepacking burro.

Going the niche route of the ATB would not have been a smart move for a brand like YT. Their speedy growth and impressive value arose from their ability to simply make bikes that a lot of people want to ride. Instead, they took their knowledge of mountain-bike design and tucked it into a traditional gravel bike anywhere it would fit. They gave it a steep seat angle, slack head tube, a 180mm front rotor, a 30.9mm dropper-ready seat tube, and of course, front suspension. Except for the Szepter’s slightly high bottom bracket, YT threaded the needle perfectly for gravel-curious riders who identify with the brand’s in-your-face attitude … But then, they kneecapped it with a few particularly unfortunate stock spec choices.

I mean, there’s nothing inherently bad about any one component on either of the two Szepter models. If I were buying an OPEN or a Canyon, the Szepter’s 42mm WTB Resolute tires and barely flared 46cm (45cm measured) ZIPP XPLR handlebar would be right at home. As would the matching 75mm Reverb AXS dropper and 38t x 10-44t drivetrain. But this is not an OPEN or a Canyon. It’s a Y mothafuckin’ T. Their bike launch videos tend to feature ninjas or goat men or Christopher Walken.

And more to the point, the messaging around the Szepter leaned heavily on YT’s MTB pedigree. The press release they sent out used words like “trail,” “fun,” and “gravity” multiple times each, but didn’t once use “race” or “light.” So, it took a little digging, but I’m happy to report that, buried underneath the slightly off-message build, the bike that YT promised is waiting.

I did give the stock build a chance, and found it performed exceedingly well on moderately chunky terrain, a.k.a: gravel. In fact, on a popular winding downhill pothole garden above LA, I bagged 4th out of over 5,000 Strava users (another word not found in the Szepter literature). But as soon as I took it anywhere loose, narrow, or even moderately steep, I was fighting the fear, not the clock. My bars were too low, my butt was too high, and my tires were either deflecting off or digging into the San Gabriel Mountains’ coarse, rocky soil. So, I identified three relatively inexpensive changes I would recommend you make if you want the promised gravity-oriented gravel bike to enjoy, well, the gravity.

Full-Length Dropper Post

I know I said “inexpensive,” but hear me out. I tested the $4,399 Core 4 build, which comes with a 50- or 75mm, $633 retail Reverb AXS XPLR dropper. YT’s consumer-direct platform means there’s no bike shop to barter with at point of sale, so that’s a big hit to take if you have to flip it on eBay for half the price. And it’s especially painful if you then opt for the $861 full-length Reverb AXS, that I’m recommending here.

But keep in mind, the Szepter does offer cable routing for a traditional dropper. Whichever route you take, the $3,399 Core 3 comes with a painlessly disposable fixed post, and you still get an AXS drivetrain. The most notable downgrades on the Core 3 are the Rival brake/shift levers, which lack contact-point adjustment, and the entry-level Rudy fork, which lacks a lockout and the more supportive Charger damper.

You’ll also lose the XPLR dropper’s ActiveRide feature, which offers some suspension once you’ve dropped it slightly. But you won’t miss it. It’s hard to drop it less than 15mm, and at sag, you’ll go down at least another 10. Any rough section long enough that I craved suspension was too long to countenance pedaling with my seat 25mm too low.

There are also popular claims about the compliance of a 27.2 post over a 30.9, but I’ve yet to see any data on how that applies to dropper posts. Regardless, I didn’t feel a difference.

At 6’2”, I was able to fit a 170mm AXS post in my size XL Szepter with about 25mm to spare externally. You may say gravel bikes don’t need a 170mm dropper, to which I’d say they technically don’t need a dropper at all. Or, for that matter, disc brakes or tubeless tires or derailleurs or bar tape. But they sure are nice to have. So if you are going to go for it, my experience on the Szepter was improved so much by a full-length dropper, that I believe most gravel bikes need full-length droppers.

Any of my truly aggressive riding was done in the drops, so I wanted my saddle as low as possible to keep my body level. It allowed me to lean into turns more confidently, and to distribute my weight between the wheels more optimally. It wasn’t just about pointing the bike down beyond-category chutes (though it absolutely helped there, too). Even on smooth terrain, I had better traction and was more comfortable holding speed when I had maximum mobility of my body mass.

Wider, Shallower Bars

Quick note: I prefer a setup that optimizes body position when in the drops, where I can both pull brake and pull up. The hoods make me choose one or the other, but when shit gets real, I need it all. The Ritchey Beacon has been my go-to bar, but I recommend anything more progressive than the Szepter’s stock setup.

I know that drastically flared dropbars aren’t right for every rider, but they do seem right for the yet-to-be-defined YT gravel rider. When I took the Szepter on terrain that could merit a front shock, I had more fun when my hands were 55cm apart than when they were 45cm apart. I also liked the sensation that my arms and wrists went directly to the bar, and met it naturally above and slightly behind the gripping surface. After spending a season on the Beacons, even moderately flared bars seem like they’re forcing my arms to wrap around and grip the drops from the side.

The Beacons also drop 90mm, compared to the Zipp XPLR’s 115mm. Again, such a shallow drop is not for everyone. But given the Szepter’s lineage, the benefits of a more confident posture would seem to outweigh the benefits of a more aerodynamic one. That’s also why I flipped the stem to a rise position, which I hope doesn’t get The Radavist banned from Instagram. Again, my goal here is to get this bike to ride the way I see a YT customer wanting it to. When I would pop this thing off a water bar and throw a shape, I didn’t want it to be a stretch. I wanted it to be fun. To be natural.

Once I swapped the post and bars, that’s exactly how the Szepter felt. And I never sensed any significant extra struggle when I needed to get down to business on the climbs or traverses, but this setup opened so many doors everywhere else, I can’t imagine going back. Still, I needed a little more traction.

Wider Tires

The stock 42mm choice isn’t terrible. It’s not cyclocross width or all-road width. Before I swapped tires, I was able to run my pressure in the mid-to-high 30s and find a good balance of speed and comfort. But what I didn’t find is good flotation, where the footprint is wide enough to stay above loose dirt. This is most important up front, and thankfully the RockShox Rudy fork fits a 50mm-wide tire … as long as I removed the Szepter’s nifty integrated fender.

In the rear, the limit is 45mm, and if you’re wondering, that’s a hard 45. This is where the axle-width line in the sand really matters. If a brand wants to leave room for large(ish) chainrings and big(ish) tires, they need to widen the hub spacing, widen the chainline, or ideally both. Or they could drastically dip the drive-side chainstay like the Evil Chamois Hagar (whose clearance still maxes out at just 50mm), but that introduces stiffness and aesthetic issues that YT wanted to avoid.

So, working within the Szepter’s boundaries, I went with a 50mm front tire and 45mm rear, and it put me just past the threshold I was hoping to cross. I never felt the frontend dig in unexpectedly, and I was able to drop two PSI in the rear and three up front. I was able to brake more confidently, and hold a line around a rough corner more easily. This is where having front suspension truly felt like an asset. That little bit of suspension, paired with the slightly wider tire, combined to offer better traction than a fully rigid gravel+ / drop-bar mountain bike could. It’s sort of a way to cheat those category rules I was talking about. These modifications still keep the Szepter firmly on the “gravel” side of the line, but YT’s design choices allow it to be something more.

It’s never fun to have to pour money into a bike you just bought, but the changes I made weren’t all that expensive. The tires I chose go for about $60 each. And the Ritchey Beacon Comp goes for $55. Add some bar tape, and that’s under $200 for a major change in the bike’s character. The dropper post isn’t so easy, but you could get set up with a post and drop-bar-friendly remote for under $300 if you don’t want to spring for a Reverb AXS. Still, I’m kind of ignoring one final, pretty important issue.

The Drivetrain

Oh boy. So, there’s a reason I didn’t test the Szepter with an Eagle cassette and derailleur. If I’ve gone and made you excited about changing the bars and tires and adding a full-length dropper and you might want a wider-range cassette, that’s a sign this probably isn’t the bike for you. Or at least, not until YT gives the Szepter their signature, limited-edition “Unchained” treatment. And it’s a shame, because a self-proclaimed gravity-oriented bike should do a little more to help you fight gravity.

Especially given its aptitude for singletrack terrain where you tend to encounter more sudden and drastic shifts in grade than you would on gravel. But even on gravel, I had a hard time with the stock gearing. I don’t quite know how to put this, but I’m pretty fit. I’m no superstar, but I can get shit done. That’s why it was a little frustrating to spend so much time with my back against the granny gear on my local mountains’ dirt roads. Their grades hover around 10-12% for miles on end, so they’re no joke. But again: Gravity. Oriented.

The good news is, the Szepter is built on a nearly perfect foundation. If my only lingering complaint is that I need to hammer on the climbs, well maybe that just comes with making the leap so much of the Szepter’s audience will be making; from stoner mountain biker to stoner gravel biker. The hammering is part of the deal. It’s so much more rewarding to put effort into a bike that’s going to match you watt for watt.

And I didn’t feel those rewards diminish, even as I steadily dialed the Szepter towards the downhill side of the spectrum, one shade at a time. It still covers ground with a real sense of purpose, and it feels light and fast, without YT making a big deal about it. So, maybe I’m glad there were some boundaries to keep the Szepter from getting too crazy. With a little help, category purgatory can be a pretty fun place.


  • Geometry is progressive, but not awkward or unfamiliar
  • Front suspension adds capability without feeling sluggish or vague
  • Respectable bang for the buck
  • 30.9 seat tube for long-dropper compatibility


  • Conservative spec limits an otherwise shred-ready ride
  • Consumer-direct means you’re on your own if you want to upgrade parts
  • Bottom bracket is a touch too high for a bike meant for speed and stability

Bottom Line

The Szepter’s steep seat angle and slack head angle were purpose-built for gravel riders who want to go up and down, not just around. And the front suspension adds traction and compliance without distracting from a quick, responsive ride. But anyone who wants to hit the singletrack in comfort may need to make a few upgrades.