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The Van Nicholas Rowtag is a new titanium bike that's capable of fast gravel blasts and multi-day adventure rides. It isn't the quickest off the line, but if you want stability, versatility and durability, you really can't go wrong here.
Van Nicholas bills the Rowtag as a 'crossover gravel racer' and it offers a stable ride whatever the terrain you're tackling. It's one of those bikes that holds its line well over pothole-strewn tracks and fast, bumpy descents, giving you loads of confidence to push the speed.
It doesn't offer the sharpest acceleration ever in this particular guise – pure gravel racers might outgun it to the first turn – but if you're out for a quick blast on bridleways and forest roads you can wind it up and enjoy the ride with a superb level of comfort and control.
If you want to load the Rowtag up for an overnight – or longer – adventure, there are plenty of options for mounting racks and bags, and you get mudguard mounts for all-weather riding on the road too. All in all, it's a highly versatile bike, and a lot of fun in a whole load of different scenarios.
At the heart of things, the Rowtag's frame has a real air of class to it. For a start, the fact that it's titanium – 3Al/2.5V – means it stands out from the crowd, with a neatly engraved head tube immediately winning cool points.
The top tube is hydroformed, tapering from front to rear, and the chunky down tube morphs from tall and thin up at the head tube junction to short and fat so that it extends across almost the full width of the bottom bracket shell.
The dropouts are 3D forged with a little threaded insert on the driveside allowing the thru-axle to screw into place.
The Shimano Di2 derailleur wires and rear brake hose enter the frame via a neat little port on the side of the head tube. The front derailleur wire emerges just behind the bottom bracket and heads upwards from there externally, although, shielded by the seat tube, it's hardly conspicuous.
There's internal cable routing provision for a dropper seatpost too, if that floats your boat. You can use Van Nicholas's online configurator (more on that in a mo) to spec one when you buy the bike.
The chainstay bridge looks tidy, although I did find that area could act as a platform for claggy mud to accumulate in the wintry test conditions. Being flat, when anything sticky got on there it tended to stay put until I got home and shifted it with a brush (the same is true of many bikes with a bridge between the chainstays).
You get lots of mounts: ones for a mudguard at the rear dropouts and on the seatstay and chainstay bridges, and rack mounts up at the top of the seatstays.
There are mudguard mounts on the fork too, along with three rack mounts on each leg.
As well as a pair of cage mounts on the seat tube, you get three on the down tube so you can opt for either a high or a low bottle position, and you get a couple more on the underside of the down tube for long-haul hydration.
There are mounts for a bolt-on top tube bag/bento box too, so you have plenty of different options for carrying stuff along with you, whether you're heading out for hours or days.
The finish looks cool and, as we always point out with brushed titanium, it's easy to maintain. If it gets scratched or rubbed in use – and if it doesn't you're really not trying hard enough – a quick rub with a 3M Scotch-Brite scourer will have it looking flawless again in seconds.
Other advantages of titanium are that it's strong, impact-resistant and it won't corrode (and it certainly won't delaminate) over time. I've ridden a whole load of ti bikes over the years (and own one) and I'm not one of those people who believes the ride quality is inherently superior to anything else, but you'll have no complaints with the Rowtag – particularly if you go for the huge tyres that we had on our review bike.
I've been riding the large-sized Rowtag which has a 570mm effective top tube, a 570mm seat tube (measured centre to top) and a 185mm head tube.
The seat tube angle is 73 degrees while the head tube angle is a slack 70.5. With a fork rake of 50mm and seatstays that are a lengthy 440mm, the wheelbase is 1,061mm – which, other than the Merida Silex+ 6000 (which is designed with a long frame and a short stem), is about the longest I can ever remember riding.
The stack height on this size is 608mm while the reach is 384mm, giving a stack/reach of 1.58. This results in a riding position that is pretty relaxed, not putting too much pressure on your lower back or neck. I could still get into a reasonably flat-backed riding position for the fast bits by moving to the drops and putting an 'attack' bend in my elbows; I certainly found myself with my hands down there more than usual, especially on flat, open sections and descents.
You can buy the Rowtag as a frame, go for a standard build, or use Van Nicholas' online configurator to choose the components you'd like from an extensive range.
There are nine standard builds, based around Shimano GRX RX400 (£3,566), Shimano GRX RX600 (£3,721), Shimano GRX RX810 (£4,031), SRAM Force 1 (£4,186), Shimano GRX Di2 (£4,806), and SRAM Force Etap AXS (£5,117) groupsets. You can tweak the spec list for any of these according to taste, budget, mood, whim...
Our review bike came with a 2x Shimano GRX RX810 Di2 groupset, 650B DT Swiss G1800 Spline 25 DB wheels, and Panaracer GravelKing SK tyres.
Like the Dura-Ace and Ultegra road versions, the gravel-specific GRX Di2 groupset works beautifully to provide effortless shifting with metronomic precision whatever the conditions. That might sound like a press release but it really is excellent.
Shimano's Shadow RD+ technology in the rear derailleur stabilises the chain on rough terrain by minimising unnecessary derailleur arm movement. This provides more secure chain retention, reduces the amount that the chain slaps on the chainstay, and ensures smooth shifting.
The derailleur has a stabiliser on/off switch that allows you to change the chain tension and minimise bounce, although I didn't use it other than to give it a quick try, never feeling that this was a particular issue. I've been riding the Rowtag maybe four times a week for nearly three months, the vast majority of that time on gravel roads and muddy tracks, and I've not dropped the chain once. In fact, other than topping up the tyre pressure a few times and using about a gallon of lube on the chain – because most rides have been absolutely filthy – I've not had to do a thing to this bike over that period.
I won't go into a full critique of GRX Di2 here, but the STI lever is quite different from road versions, with a taller hood that extends upwards abruptly – rather than smoooooothly rolling along – and hooks back slightly to keep your hand in place over rougher ground. Take a look at the pics and you'll see what I mean. It works.
Textured ribs on the hoods are designed to provide extra grip. My hands certainly didn't slip around during testing, nor did I ever feel like I was fighting to maintain a firm hold. To be honest, I didn't give it a second thought.
GRX Di2 has a slightly deeper scoop to the brake lever than a road version – although you really need to put them alongside one another to notice – and an anti-slip textured finish. More than that, Shimano has made the brake pivot higher on GRX so that braking from the hoods is easier, and the RX815 Di2 levers use the company's Servo Wave technology which means the first part of the lever travel is very light for easier modulation over lumpy, bumpy terrain.
Do you need electronic shifting on your gravel bike? No. Is it nice to have? Yep, it really is, in my opinion. You might prefer a mechanical system, particularly if you're heading off on a month-long tour of Mongolia and don't want the hassle of recharging, but I've found GRX Di2 to be a fabulous option.
My review bike was set up with a 48/31-tooth chainset and an 11-32t cassette, so the smallest gear ratio was less than 1:1. That allowed me to get up everything that came my way. If you prefer something different, Van Nicholas allows you to choose things like the cassette size, crank length and rotor diameter according to your needs.
The DT Swiss G 1800 Spline 25 wheels aren't especially light but they put in a decent all-round performance. DT's own 370 rear hub is a three-pawl design that offers quite slow engagement, but I've had no issues with durability, and the tension of the bladed straight-pull spokes has remained even throughout testing. If you wanted something higher-end, Van Nicholas offers other options from DT Swiss as well as Mavic, Zipp and FFWD.
One advantage of the DT Swiss G1800 Spline wheelset is that it's available in both 650B and 700C versions. Go for 650B and you can run bigger tyres – up to 50mm (2in) on the Rowtag, as opposed to 45mm with 700C wheels.
Our review bike came fitted with 1.9in (48mm) Panaracer GravelKing SK tubeless tyres. They look massive, actually measuring just over 50mm when fitted, and provide plenty of traction and a ton of comfort.
The ZSG Natural Compound tread grips well on most surfaces that I encountered during testing, the one clause being that if your ride takes in tarmac, gravel and the occasional section of mud, any tyre is going to be a compromise. The GravelKing SKs are surprisingly adept when the trail is damp and sloppy but they're not designed for mud so you'll need to go careful there. They eke out a decent amount of traction but, you know, don't go nuts.
Underneath the tread there's an anti-flat casing and Panaracer's AX Alpha Cord – a narrow cord that's woven at a super-high density into the casing – which is said to improve resistance to cuts and abrasions. I've put a lot of miles into this bike since November, covering loads of chalk roads and fine gravel, and the tyres are still in really good shape. There's wear to the tread, of course, but not all that much, and no cuts or slices from impacts with sharp rocks.
I've occasionally run ridiculously low tyre pressures too with no ill-effects, although you obviously run a higher than normal risk of dinging the wheel rim if you hit something hard and jagged.
I won't go into depth on the other components but Zipp's SL-70 XPLR handlebar is a top-quality aluminium option with a comfortable flared (but not too flared) shape, and I found the Fizik Aliante R3 K:ium saddle to be very comfortable.
If either isn't to your taste, plenty of other options are available when you place your order.
The gravel market is ruled by carbon fibre and aluminium, but there are a fair few titanium models out there from the likes of Kinesis, Enigma and J.Guillem.
Most are pretty expensive, although the Ribble CGR Ti Gravel is built up with a Shimano GRX RX810 groupset – with mechanical shifting – for £2,999. That's extremely good value. CGR stands for 'cross, gravel, road' and we reviewed the CGR Ti Sport (£2,299) recently, with more of a road/all-road bias, and were hugely impressed. We called it an absolute steal.
The Enigma Escape that we reviewed last year was £3,899, although it's now £4,000. That bike was built up with Shimano GRX components, but with mechanical shifting rather than Di2. The Escape frameset is £2,299, whereas a Van Nicholas Rowtag frameset is currently £1,992 (€2,099).
If you're not confining yourself to titanium and want Shimano GRX Di2, something like the 1x Specialized Diverge Expert Carbon would set you back £5,250 while Cervelo's Aspero GRX Di2 – which is a gravel racer without cargo-carrying mounts – is £6,049.
There's loads to like about the Van Nicholas Rowtag. If you want a full-on gravel racer there are lighter, more specific tools for the job. But the Rowtag is more versatile than that. Armed with multiple mounts and cool, unflustered handling, across a whole range of different surfaces, it's suitable for everything from a quick thrash around the hills to a multi-day epic. With a classy frame and a healthy dose of durability, this is a highly desirable bike.
Versatile and durable gravel bike that's suitable for a quick blast in the hills or an epic adventure
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Van Nicholas Rowtag
Size tested: 57cm
About the bike
List the components used to build up the bike.
Frame: Rowtag, titanium, hand-brushed finish
Fork: Rowtag, carbon
Groupset: Shimano GRX RX810 2x11 Di2
- 48-31T chainset
- 172,5mm cranks
- 11-32T cassette
- 160mm Rotors
Wheels: DT Swiss G1800 Spline 25 DB 650B
Tyres: Panaracer Gravelking SK 48mm
Stem: Zipp Service Course SL
Handlebar: Zipp Service Course XPLR
Tape: VNT Flexribbon Gel
Seatpost: Van Nicholas Titanium Omm setback
Collar: Van Nicholas Titanium
Saddle: Fizik Aliante R3 Large K:ium
Additions: 2 titanium bottle cages
Tell us what the bike is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Van Nicholas says this about the Rowtag: "Designed to be the most fun, in the most places. Supremely balanced geometry combined with multiple mounts, wheel and transmission configurations make this gravel racer the ideal companion for any adventure."
Lots of people go with frame bags these days, but if you want mounts, you get the full complement here.
Where does this model sit in the range? Tell us briefly about the cheaper options and the more expensive options
There are nine standard builds, based around Shimano GRX RX400 (£3,566), Shimano GRX RX600 (£3,721), Shimano GRX RX810 (£4,031), SRAM Force 1 (£4,186), Shimano GRX Di2 (£4,806), and SRAM Force Etap AXS (£5,117) groupsets. You can tweak the spec list of any of them.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
The frame is really well made.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
The frame is 3Al/2.5V titanium, the fork is full carbon.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
The large-sized Rowtag has a 570mm effective top tube, 570mm seat tube (measured centre to top) and a 185mm head tube.
The seat tube angle is 73° and the head tube angle is a slack 70.5°. With a fork rake of 50mm and seatstays that are a lengthy 440mm, the wheelbase is 1,061mm.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
The stack height on this size is 608mm and the reach is 384mm, giving a stack/reach of 1.58. This results in a riding position that is pretty relaxed (even though I had quite a long stem fitted), not putting too much pressure on your lower back or neck.
You can get into a reasonably flat-backed riding position down on the drops, and you can ride comfortably on the hoods for ages.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
It's very comfortable. People sometimes talk about titanium having a sublime ride quality. I'm more of the opinion that you get good and bad bikes in all materials – and this is a good 'un. Whatever the qualities of the frame, the fact that it's fitted with whopping 1.9in tyres has a larger effect!
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Yes, no worries on that front. There's always going to be a bit of 'squish' with tyres of this size, but the frame and wheels felt stiff.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
It felt efficient.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively neutral or unresponsive? It's on the slow side of neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
This isn't the most flickable bike ever. The flip side to that, though, is that you get a whole lot of stability, and that's a valuable commodity when riding on bumpy roads.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
The large-volume tyres cushion the ride and Fizik's saddle is great. Everything was pretty comfortable from the off.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
Again, there's nothing crying out to be changed.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
The wheels are decent enough but they're not especially light. If you've got a bigger budget, you could make a change through Van Nicholas's online configurator when you buy the bike.
There are lighter, more responsive bikes out there at this price.
It's not the lightest bike but the excellent Shimano GRX gearing will get you there easily enough.
Wheels and tyres
There's nothing wrong with these wheels, but the frameset could easily handle better.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? If I wanted versatility, defo one to consider.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
How does the price compare to that of similar bikes in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
Titanium tends to be more expensive than other frame materials. There are cheaper titanium rivals out there, but there are also many that are more expensive. Likewise, there are plenty of more expensive bikes equipped with Shimano GRX Di2.
Use this box to explain your overall score
Titanium is rarely cheap, but if you want a stable, comfortable, and versatile bike for gravel and adventure – and one that's likely going to stand up to some serious action over many years – this is a very good option.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding,
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.