Gravel is the darling of the cycling industry at the moment, with more new launches and new tech in that space than others. The problem, as is always the case with new genres, is that the term ‘gravel bike’ is such an all encompassing thing that it’s hard to know what one is referring to. Is it an all terrain, fat tyred beast that until a few years ago would be called a monstercross, or is it a gravel race bike, closer to an endurance road bike than anything else?
What if it’s sort of both, and a bit of everything in between? To many of us a gravel bike isn’t necessarily a bike with a specific purpose, but one that can turn its hand to many things. A lot of the bikes in our best gravel bikes list are capable of holding their own in a gravel race, dabbling in some cyclocross, and doing a bit of bikepacking too.
The Fairlight Secan 2.5 is one of those bikes. Versatility is the order of the day, but without any real compromises in any given area. I’ve been putting the miles in on one over the last few months, covering mixed terrain riding, chunky gravel, hot laps of the woods on well graded tracks, pretend cyclocross and light touring to boot. Can it really be all things to all people? No, but it’s pretty damn close.
Design and aesthetics
Steel bikes are having something of a resurgence in the last few years as riders move back towards what was for many years thought of as an outdated material. Rather than heavy, cumbersome beasts, modern performance steel bikes can mix it with aluminium and carbon, while offering different qualities, and a certain aesthetic that, if we’re all being totally honest with ourselves, is as important as any performance advantages.
The Fairlight Secan is a very good looking bike. Skinny tubed road bikes look cool, but there aren’t enough points of difference for many to stand out from the crowd without expensive custom paint. A skinny tubed gravel bike, though? Visually that’s something a little different. In the case of the Secan the eye is immediately drawn to that top tube; diminutive, ovalised along the horizontal axis, with subtle graphics near the seattube. It looks wonderfully fragile, and along with the thin, wavy stays gives a classic look to proceedings. Add in some thicker tubing for the downtube and headtube, and a thickly bladed carbon fork and you get a frameset that’s a joy to behold, especially when paired with some very large tyres and in the off-white ‘putty’ option you can see here.
While the paint is lovely, with understated graphics and logos that pop in the bright orange, there are many many well considered details in the frameset. Primarily in this case it comes down to tubing.
Many steel bikes, including top of the range bespoke bikes, use off the shelf tubesets, meaning that to some extent the build is constrained. Fairlight is big enough to warrant a custom tubeset from Reynolds, whilst being small enough to offer something closer to a bespoke build service. I’ll not go into the tubing details in such great depth so as to scare you off, but the frame is constructed from heat treated Reynolds 853 steel. The heat treating essentially makes the steel stronger for a given wall thickness, but the same can be said of any 853 frameset. The important thing to know is that 853 is the poshest non-stainless steel tubing that Reynolds produces.
In the case of the Secan the downtube is ovalised at the bottom bracket in a horizontal direction to add additional lateral stiffness where it joins the BSA shell (an unsurprising but very sensible choice of B.B.), and similarly ovalised at the headtube but in a perpendicular direction to resist braking forces and bumping at the headtube. Given the headtube is an area of more stress that most other places on a bike frame the headtube end of the downtube has an extra butt at the end, adding a little extra thickness internally at the weld area.
The top tube is ovalised over its entire length in the horizontal plane to resist lateral forces and conversely add in some compliance along the long axis of the frame. The stays too, custom formed, are pleasantly wavy which, as well as being lovely to look at, allows clearance for a 50mm tyre on a 700c wheel, or a truly monstrous 2.4” tyre on a 650b rim.
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Three bottle cages is a must for any bike with bikepacking ambitions, but opting for triple bosses rather than doubles on the larger sizes so taller riders can opt to put their bottles in easy reach is an easy detail to point to that shows the thought that has gone into this frame. I’d have liked to see the downtube bosses be a set of three so as to accommodate a cargo cage, but for carrying non-standard items you can use straps around the downtube to spread the load more evenly. There’s also modular cable routing so you can run more or less any system you like, along with in built dynamo routing too. And then there’s the dropouts…
Dropouts usually are dull affairs, but in this case they are custom machined units made in conjunction with Bentley Components, a one man machining wizard based in Yorkshire. As much as anything they’re a lovely piece of machining, but they also serve to provide individually replaceable units for the thru-axle mounts, the non drive side also including the flat mount for the disc brakes, and either side is also installed with a large custom washer that not only dissipates the load from the mounting screws, but also protects the paint at the mudguard and pannier rack mounting eyelets. This means any issues with the thru axle threads, or the threads for the calliper mounts, doesn’t spell the end for your frameset.
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There isn’t really an ‘off the peg’ version of the Fairlight Secan, as the purchase process involves choosing from a number of options for groupset, wheels, tyres, bars, lighting options all the way through to the headset.
For my build I eschewed the dynamo, primarily as this is a long term test bike and swapping wheels regularly would often render the lighting unusable. A reliable alloy Hope Fortus 650b wheelset was paired with 2.2” Continental Race King tyres, and the locomotion and stopping were taken care of by a full 2x 11sp Shimano GRX Di2 groupset, the shifters being mounted on bars wider than the suggested width (44cm rather than 42cm). A Chris King headset did add a little bit of bling too.
There’s no getting around the fact that the under-stem junction box for the Di2 is a little ugly though. With a bar swap it should be possible to run it through a bar end system though, but I just took to trying a bandana around the stem for maximum vibes. What’s more the FSA Adventure bars are really rather excellent. Slightly ovalised tops provide a great ergonomic handhold on the tops and the flare isn’t so extreme that it makes the hood angle daft either.
Since beginning testing I have swapped out the Fabric saddle and regularly played about with the wheel and tyre configurations, primarily as it’s clearly a versatile beast and multiple configurations needed testing to get an all round feel. As the build I started with it would set you back £4,164.
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I have so far used this bike as essentially a drop bar mountain bike, a cross bike, a mixed surface do it all gravel bike, and recently as a light touring-cum-bikepacking rig. The only thing I’m yet to really have a tilt at is unladen tarmac miles, but given I’ve got it set up shod with some near-slick Teravail Ramparts it won’t be long until I’ve crossed that off too.
Despite throwing everything I can think of at it I’m yet to find a fair chink in its armour; it handles every kind of riding with such composure that it makes you think it was designed specifically with whatever terrain you’re on in mind. On steep techy singletrack the geometry is relaxed enough that you can really throw yourself into proceedings, and only really would have been improved with the addition of a dropper post (but to be honest this is such a specific use case that fitting one in the grand scheme of things would be a pointless endeavour in overcomplication).
On fast and loose, or even rocky descents you can hammer about the place at speeds normally reserved for cross country mountain bikes, and climbing on steep, loose terrain is a breeze with the massive rubber footprint. I’m genuinely curious to see how it would feel as a flat bar bike. The large tyres to marshmallow about a bit on tarmac, but if you’re riding mostly road or well graded trails you probably won’t spec 2.2″ rubber.
The 650b v 700c debate in the industry seems to be heading the way of 700c for gravel, with fewer and fewer of the best gravel tyres being offered in 650b. In this case however the clearances are so large that the much better supported world of 27.5″ MTB tyres comes into play (27.5 is exactly the same as 650b), so it’s far less of a drawback. While running a large tyre on a 650b wheel is effectively the same diameter as a 700c, the ride characteristics differ. With the smaller hoops fitted the steering speed is faster and the bike feels more agile and playful, whereas with 700c the feel is more efficient and considered; there’s a smidge more inertia to get the wheel heading where you want. It’s minor, but it is noticeable if you regularly swap between the two setups.
In either case the frameset always feels stable, but with the short chainstays (only 12mm longer than the Strael, the brands road bike) it never feels dulled.
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As a pseudo-CX setup, with narrower tyres like the Challenge Getway and some 700c carbon wheels it was as nimble as you could ever really hope for from an all purpose machine. It’s never going to compete with a pure cyclo-cross bike for outright agility, nor a gravel race bike, but it holds its own on fast twisty trails more than adequately, and I wouldn’t hesitate to enter the occasional ‘cross race with it. On the flip side it can do far far more than these bikes ever could elsewhere.
On mixed terrain rides you get all the fun off the off road sections, but the geometry and position is such that it feels efficient and planted on tarmac too, never sluggish or sloppy as overly gnarly gravel bikes can (that being said running 2.2” rubber on the road is naturally going to be a more sluggish affair).
As a light tourer or bikepacking rig it also has huge potential. In my testing so far I did over-weight the rear as you often see on a dedicated touring bike (which this isn’t, lacking the lateral stiffness needed for large pannier loads) which resulted in a bit of a wobbly front end, but that’s more down to my choice of weight distribution than an issue with the bike. Given it has triple bosses on the fork legs it’s more than capable of taking a fully balanced load, enough for a long weekend (if you’re me) or the Italy Divide or Atlas Mountain Race if you’re a lunatic like James Hayden. What’s more, with the GRX gear range in a 2x configuration it was perfectly possible to tackle gradients of over 25% with a full bikepacking load, so for general gravel riding you’re going to break traction before you run out of gears.
Just a final word on steel, too. Forget what people say about this mystical quality. Steel is a material like any other, and if designed and engineered in an appropriate way it can produce specific riding characteristics. When you look at skinny steel tubes you think it’s going to be all wobbly, but it’s pin-sharp here. The bottom bracket stiffness is sublime; not as abrupt as a carbon race machine, but never something you’d say was noodly by any stretch, and the comfort you get in return from the rest of the frame offsets any weight penalty in my opinion, especially on longer rides. Plus, for a steel bike, it’s really not heavy at all.
Upwards of £4,000 is a lot to spend on a bike, that’s for sure, but when set against the cost of top end racing gravel bikes it’s not actually that much. Furthermore, when considered as a bike that can realistically be an audax bike, ultra racer, light tourer, gravel bike, cyclocross bike and a cross country mountain bike it represents pretty astounding value. There are for sure other bikes out there that are similarly versatile and in this price range, but they are part of an exclusive club and I’m also yet to ride any other members.
All things to all people, then? Not quite, but I think it’s as close as you’re going to get. I am lucky enough to have ridden a lot of bikes, with ten at the moment to choose from. If you put a gun to my head and told me to pick a single bike from any I’d ridden I’d pick the Fairlight Secan before you’d even finished asking; it’s that good.
Fortunately though (for me and for you) Fairlight have let me hang onto this as a long term test bike, so I can see how easy it is to live with over the course of a year, so I can throw a few more disciplines at it over the next six months or so and see how it fares.
|Design and aesthetics||Its beautiful, save for an ugly junction box||9/10|
|Build||GRX Di2 is hard to beat, and the finishing kit is sensible without being needlessly bling. There are always options, too.||10/10|
|Performance||This is the most complete gravel bike I’ve ridden to date||10/10|
|Weight||Steel and a mtb wheelset are going to be heavy, but for a steel bike it’s not a heavyweight at all||8/10|
|Value||If you consider how many hats this bike can wear the value is pretty phenomenal||10/10|