Cervelo Aspero Apex XPLR AXS review – fast but user-friendly gravel bike

Guy Kesteven has been riding Cervelo’s new fast but friendly drop bar dirt bike to see who it’ll suit best and he reckons it’s potentially a real sweet spot for the road rooted but gravel curious

Cervelo Aspero APEX AXS
(Image: © GuyKesTV)

BikePerfect Verdict

The new Cervelo Aspero is a fun, fast, forgiving and surprisingly good value bike for flying along the border between on-road and off. Handling and tire clearance means it’s not a drop bar mountain bike though, and a lack of fender mounts means it’s not the all seasons, all reasons ‘quiver killer’ it could be.

Pros

  • +

    Smoothly comfortable with a powerful kick

  • +

    Feels faster the further you go

  • +

    Good value compared to big name brands

  • +

    Fast handling keeps it road-responsive

  • +

    Clean, contemporary, integrated cockpit aesthetic

Cons

  • -

    No fender or rack mounts

  • -

    Twitchy on more technical trails

  • -

    Not everyone likes headset control routing

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Cervelo has softened up their more affordable Aspero gravel/all-road bike while still adding speed and on-road/off-road versatility. It’s unexpectedly good value for such a premium, ‘asperational’ brand too, potentially making it a top gravel option. But if you’re after progressive MTB-style geometry, check out its sibling the Santa Cruz Stigmata instead.

Design and geometry

Five years on from the original Aspero, Cervelo has carried on some features and barely touched the geometry but completely changed the way the various points are connected. You still get the ‘Trail Mixer’ flip-chip in the fork to adjust trail between 46 and 51mm. This gives a slower steering option with 700c wheels or the same trail if you switch to 650B wheels. It’s a slimmer fork now though and it integrates neatly into the downtube via a ‘chin’ cutout.

There are still under and over bottle cage mounts on the down tube and it uses the same rubber armor on the underside as before. The downtube is slimmer than the previous Aspero though. The top tube is also slimmer and while the two-bolt ‘fuel tank’ bag mount is carried over, the tube is more sloped for 31mm more standover. The seatstays are also dropped further down the shorter (by an average of 40mm) seat tube which still gets a cut out to follow the front edge of the tire. The bottom bracket is stiffened and now has a screw in T47 version of the ‘BBright’ bottom bracket rather than a press-fit. That’s the bonded sleeve addition that adds most of the 32g gain over the old frame but it’ll make servicing a lot easier long term.

The chainstays are both dropped down and lengthened by 5mm to open up clearance from a 40mm tire max to over 7mm with a 42mm tire. That also gives room for a 46-tooth single chainring. They end in the latest UDH (universal derailleur hanger) dropouts too, ready for the latest generation MTB/next generation gravel direct fit SRAM rear derailleurs.

Apart from the standover and chainstay/wheelbase length, Cervelo has stuck with the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra for the Aspero geometry. On the 56cm I rode that means a 72-degree head angle, 73-degree seat angle, 397mm reach, 159mm head tube length and 76mm bottom bracket drop.

Cervelo Aspero APEX AXS front hub detail

The 'Trail Mix' dropouts let you alter steering feel with 700c wheels or keep the same feel when switching to 650b (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Components and build

While the Cervelo AB09 Carbon aero top bar is a carryover from the previous Aspero, the new bike gets the same ST36 stem, headset and 'D' shaped fork steerer cable management front end system as the Soloist road speed and R5 CX cyclocross bikes. This still leaves the cables/hoses clipped under the stem and entering the front of the headset but if you want to go fully integrated you can upgrade to the ST31 stem and HB13 headset of the R5 road race bike. Cervelo also supply the round 27.2mm SP19 seatpost that means the Aspero can be retrofitted with a dropper post – if you want space under your shorts for descents or challenging terrain. All bikes also get the angular looking, but surprisingly comfortable Prologo Dimension STN and very good quality Cervelo bar tape. The neat hardshell Smartpak 400A storage bag is also supplied ready to bolt onto the top tube mounts.

Otherwise, the bikes are based around either SRAM or Shimano gravel groupsets with a price range from $5,500 (£5,200) for SRAM Rival XPLR AXS with Reserve 40mm deep carbon wheels to $3,200 (£3,000) for Shimano GRX 600 1x. I tested the SRAM Apex XPLR AXS which uses the entry-level wireless gravel group from SRAM together with Fulcrum Rapid Red 300 wheels for $4,300 (£4,200). 

Cervelo Aspero APEX AXS

Apex is the entry level group of SRAM's AXS wireless world but it shifts just the same as more spendy setups (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Ride, handling and performance

By keeping what was already aggressively road rather than off-road biased geometry, Cervelo have distanced itself from the increasing trend to adopt more MTB style geometry. If that’s what you’re after, then check out the Stigmata from Pon group partner brand Santa Cruz, which used to share the same head angle but which is now 2.5 degrees slacker. Even with the fork chip in the rearward position to create more stable handling that means it’s still a very keen and responsive bike through the bars. That’s great for quick and incisive moves on the road and sharp traction catch reactions off-road. You’ll need to be sure of your own skills to push the pace in loose or wet dirt conditions though as there’s no inherent front end stability in the bike. There’s also a trace of lightness and flutter from the frame if you’re pushing it against the grain of the trail or descending fast in a varying crosswind. The longer chainstays means it carves well at speed if you can keep the front end on track though and the low BB helps here too.

The chunky BB and chainstays mean powerful effort efficiency too. So while the alloy cranks and 1,800g wheels mean it only just scrapes under 9kg for the complete bike, it never feels lardy on climbs or out of corners. The close-spaced tread of the WTB Vulpine tires also keeps rolling speed high. While I’m not claiming I could feel it, the slimmer tube shapes mean a three-watt aerodynamic saving over the previous bike at 40kph. 

What I could definitely feel was the increased comfort of the new bike. While bottom bracket stiffness is now closer to their race-dedicated Aspero 5 gravel racer frame, head tube and seatstay/toptube stiffness are reduced for a much smoother ride. The increased seatpost extension adds more flex under the Prologo saddle and the quality, flat top carbon bars and Cervelo’s own tape complete a premium contact point feel. That’s a really significant aspect of the whole Aspero experience as well, as so many brands foolishly sacrifice that quality rider-to-bike connection for the sake of a few dollars of tape or a generic bar. 

Despite that – and a name I’d normally associate with paying extra for – the Aspero undercuts big name brands like Trek and Specialized with the models where components are comparable. It’s great to have six different spec levels, each in six different sizes too – and you can also get the frame and fork to build up yourself if you want. 

Cervelo Aspero APEX AXS handlebar setup

Headset routing keeps things clean and fast, but it's the quality carbon bar and bar tape that really stand out on the road and trail (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Verdict

Gravel is getting an increasingly broad landscape, but Cervelo has avoided the temptation to take their latest drop bar bike towards the super fast trail territory already covered by their ZHT-5 XC hardtail. Head angle is sharp even by sportive road bike standards and the fact it’s not bristling with bag mounts keeps the ‘haul ass, not cargo’ vibe Cervelo have always given their gravel bikes. The handling means that criticizing the new Aspero for ‘only’ taking 42mm tires would be missing the point too. Because if you’re riding where you want bigger rubber, then you’ll be well out of the comfort zone of the handling already.

Stick in the road / groomed gravel zone though and the Cervelo is a very comfy bike indeed, but still with the reactions to steering and power to make it a really alive and encouraging ride as well. Its surprisingly good value is also boosted long term by the simple to service BB, external clamp conventional seatpost and no proprietary ‘suspension’ to look after.

That leaves the only potential downside as the lack of fender mounts for foul weather riding, but then if it had those, it would completely eclipse the Caledonia as Cervelo’s obvious endurance/all-season/all-road bike choice.

Cervelo Aspero APEX AXS saddle

The Prologo saddle is a lot more comfortable than it looks and completes the Aspero's excellent ride quality (Image credit: GuyKesTV)
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The lowdown: Cervelo Aspero
AttributesNotesRating
PerformanceEfficiently powerful and semi-aero but mid-weight★★★★
ComfortReally smooth and forgiving ride, racey position★★★★
Components and buildDecent parts pick with excellent contact point kit★★★★
Value for moneyBetter value than similar spec Trek and Specialized★★★★

Test conditions

  • Surface: Road, pave, fire road, loose gravel and singletrack 
  • Trails:  Road, gravel, bridleways, farm tracks natural XC
  • Weather: All of it. Apart from the nice sunny warm sort

Tech specs: Cervelo Aspero Apex XPLR AXS

  • Discipline: gravel / all-road
  • Price: $4,300 / £4,200
  • Head angle: 72 degrees
  • Frame material: Cervelo Aspero carbon
  • Fork: Cervelo All-Carbon, Tapered Aspero
  • Sizes: 48, 51, 54, 56 (tested), 58, 61 
  • Weight: 8.9kg 
  • Wheel size: 700c
  • Chainset: SRAM Apex 1 40T 170 - 170mm arms with SRAM DUB T47 bottom bracket. 
  • Rear mech: SRAM Apex XPLR AXS
  • Shifter: SRAM Apex XPLR AXS 
  • Cassette: SRAM Apex XLPR PG1231 12 speed 11-44T 
  • Brakes: SRAM Apex, 2-piston hydraulic disc brakes with 160mm rotors 
  • Tires: WTB Vulpine TCS Light Fast Rolling Dual DNA 60tpi 700x40c 
  • Wheels: Fulcrum Rapid Red 300
  • Bars: Cervelo AB09 Carbon
  • Stem: Cervelo ST36 Alloy, with Cable Management 
  • Grips: Cervelo
  • Seatpost: Cervelo SP19 Carbon 27.2mm 
  • Saddle: Prologo Dimension STN
Guy Kesteven
Technical-Editor-at-Large

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg