YT Szepter first-ride review - a drop-bar trail slayer
After years of holding back from entering the drop-bar market, YT Industries has finally caved and revealed its first attempt at the best gravel bike concept. The bike pictured here has been designed and built in typical YT fashion retaining the same ethos and identity we’ve come to expect from its mountain bike range - but with a twist. The result? The YT Szepter, available in Core 4 and Core 3 trim levels. According to YT, the bike came to fruition through demand from sponsored athletes wanting to train on both gravel and road.
We were invited to San Clemente, California to test the YT Szepter’s mettle in a variety of challenging and diverse terrain settings: mountains, single track and traditional American gravel. Here’s everything you need to know.
YT Szepter - Design and aesthetics
It may not be the most inspiring bike when it comes to visual drama but the YT Szepter is by no means unattractive. It's available in two inconspicuous colourways, machine light grey (pictured here) and assault green. The branding, too, is fairly lowkey - a brace of Szepter logos on the headtube and a YT wordmark on the downtube are the only graphical references on the frame, and the result further validates the bike’s stealthy appearance.
In terms of design, the Szepter was built using the age-old principle of form-follows-function, and was inspired by the Audi Quattro S1 rally car, gladiator helmet and fighter jet blueprint - the references are subtle but they are there.
It very much follows YT’s style guide taking on more of a mountain-bike-like appearance than the road bike facades of its rivals. Looking at the best gravel bike landscape, a large proportion of the category contains models with a road-bike bias. YT’s aim was to turn the gravel bike concept on its head and design a bike that is fun to ride on trails with a geometry blueprint that favours off-road terrain over the road. As such, the maximum tyre width is rated at 45mm - which is more than wide enough to sate the girth requirements of the ardent gravelista.
The Szepter is characterised by its front suspension fork - a Rockshox Rudy with 40mm of travel. The fork was added to bring more control, comfort and balance to the front end as well as inject the package with more aggression. Because of this, the geometry was designed and adapted around the fork assembly complete with a short head tube to compensate for the added height of the fork. In terms of the head angle and reach, the slacker and longer theme play out here with a 70mm stem providing a direct-steering feel and a 69.4-degree head angle and a steep 74.4-degree seat tube angle rounding off the headline numbers.
The frame - constructed from ultra-modulus carbon fibre - weighs 1,400g in size large. While this does result in a rather stiff monocoque, compliance has been dialled into the underpinnings by way of slim, dropped seat stays - something YT calls a ‘smart seat stay’. You’ll also notice the angled dropouts that have been fashioned in an unusual-yet-functional manner that serves to promote better bump compliance.
Most of the hoses are routed internally. While there’s still some cable faff around the front end, YT did think about a full internal system plumbed through the stem but ruled against it as many YT clients like to tinker with and service their bikes themselves - and this would complicate things. Both build options are available in 1x configuration only and there’s no option to mount a front derailleur. The key focus around Szepter is that of off-road riding.
As far as bikepacking and endurance riding go, the Szepter was not designed around pannier racks, and on-bike luggage was not part of the bigger picture. That said, it can accommodate four cages and some strappable bags on the frame itself. It unfortunately does not possess any bosses for panniers or racks. The reason for this omission is down to weight distribution rather than an anti-touring philosophy - the Szepter was designed for trails and adding luggage would upset the weight balance and dynamism of the bike. It does have a built-in rear mudguard, which follows the cut-out design of the seat tube, and a further OEM-developed mudguard for the Rockshox Rudy should you require one.
YT Szepter - Build
The Szepter is available in two build configurations - the Core 4 and Core 3 - and both come outfitted compliments of SRAM.
As the top-tier offering, the Core 4 is built around a Rockshox Rudy Ultimate XPLR fork and SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset with an XPLR-optioned cassette, and rear derailleur. The drive ratio is governed by a 38T, 10-44T combination and powered by a SRAM Force1 Wide crankset available in lengths ranging from 170mm (s), 172.5mm (M-L) and 175 (XL-XXL). The balance of build comes from Zipp (a Serice Course SL stem and handlebar), SRAM Reverb AXS XPLR dropper post, SDG Bel-Air Overland YT-developed saddle and WTB Proterra Light i23 with WTB Resolute rubber.
The Core 3 keeps much of the same build rhetoric but drops some of the fancy bits for slightly cheaper components. This includes a Rockshox Rudy XPLR and SRAM Rival eTap AXS groupset - a just-as-good and properly hardy option. It ditches a dropper post for a regular seatpost from Zipp and also uses a Zipp Service Course stem/handlebar arrangement (one model down) and SDG saddle. While the wheels are still from the WTB stable, they’re the cheaper Speedterra i23 hoops wrapped in the same Resolute tyres.
Both models can also accommodate a Fidlock base plate for a cageless magnetic bottle storage solution.
Interestingly on both models, carbon-fibre hoops were eschewed in favour of alloy rolling stock - the result of which has done little to affect the performance. If anything, it's made the bike a little easier on the wallet.
In terms of weight, the YT Szepter tips the scales at a touch under 10kg which is impressive considering the dropper post and alloy wheelset. A further 500g can easily be removed by ditching the dropper altogether and installing a lighter wheelset.
YT Szepter - Performance
The test bed for understanding the Szepter's dynamic capabilities took in much of the extensive mountain bike trail network in and around the hills of San Clemente in California - a stone's throw away from The YT Mill. This would form part of day one and give us some insight into Szepter's mountain bike DNA.
The immediate takeaway is how comfortable the bike is to control and power along in a singletrack environment. Despite the 42mm tyres, the front end is super planted, which instilled an immediate sense of trust and confidence as far as grip was concerned. This stability is further complemented by the 69.4-degree head angle and 425mm chainstays, which are a boon for steep and tricky descents. In fact, the YT Szepter's geometry is very much like that of my Trek Procaliber (or most contemporary XC hardtails for that matter) and behaves in much the same way. It's all very controlled and predictable - not like some of the racier, twitchier rivals which often get mistaken for being 'faster' bikes.
The shorter stem and cockpit arrangement enables you to better position the body and even out weight distribution along the wheelbase. This together with the seat tube angle has provided an impressive platform from which to pedal, not to mention bolster power transfer in the process. I really like the shallow drop on the handlebars. The bars were optioned this way to give less of a feeling of being crouched over but are still aggressive enough to drive some weight over the front wheel during cornering situations.
The bike's geometry is flattering and often allows you to push further and harder into corners. Of course, the Rockshox Rudy fork has helped keep things under control on the front end but it's also helped along by the dropper post and powerful SRAM brakes, the latter of which provides precise and modular stopping power.
But it's not just in dynamic terrain where the Szepter excels but out on the open gravel roads and mountains, too. Day two of the press camp took us to Santa Catalina, one of California’s Channel Islands located southwest of Los Angeles. This particular location would showcase the other side of the Szepter's multitalented personality - and boy did it excel. Catalina Island is more traditional in terms of gravel with corrugated surfaces, long climbs and treacherous descents comprising much of the terrain layout.
As far as ride quality goes, YT has nailed things. The combination of the Rockshox Rudy fork, the slight give in the dropper post, alloy wheels and frame engineering has created a smooth riding yet responsive bike. It soaks up imperfections and washboard roads with ease, keeping open-road speeds high. Of course, this is all relative and there was an incredibly rutted section of mountain descent that proved quite tricky to negotiate, but the Szepter handled it. YT has done a great job in terms of frame compliance.
It climbs well, too - even at its near-10kg weight (9.9kg). You actually don't feel the weight when gravity begins to tighten its grip on things, and the minimal crouch over the front end allows for a comfortable climbing position. To test its ability, seasoned journo Ben Delaney and I had a little joust up what Strava identified as the 'Airport Road climb' - a 1.3km/85m climb over some incredibly loose terrain - which resulted in a photo finish. For a bike with somewhat relaxed geo numbers, it really is an impressive climber.
But it's also a really good descender, on any surface. Of the little tarmac we did negotiate - a 5km hairpin-adorned rollercoaster down to Avalon in this instance - the Szepter again showed its mettle. This time, I couldn't keep up with Mr Delaney who proceeded to give a master class in descending. Despite the paved surface, this section was still pretty tricky and highlighted the impressive weight balance dialled into the bike, not to mention the stopping power of the SRAM brakes.
YT Szepter - Early verdict
The YT Szepter is my kind of gravel bike and I’m sure it will appeal to many mountain bikers looking to dip their toes into the world of gravel bike racing and riding. It’s so fast and nimble, and perfectly adept at negotiating singletrack that it nullifies any need for me to continue riding - read owning - a hardtail mountain bike anymore, even with its 40mm of travel. Of course, it’s not the bike I’d use for a bona fide cross-country mountain bike race but it punches well above its weight when it comes to dismissing technical terrain, small jumps and seriously rough gravel roads.
It might not have the same brand cachet as some of its more established rivals but YT doesn’t care about that - the brand has created a gravel bike that stays true to its design doctrine and company values. And while its looks won’t appeal to all, I quite like that it doesn’t pander to the ubiquitous cookie-cutter design trends currently dominating the best gravel bike space. It really is a capable machine and a worthy alternative to the usual suspects and I'm talking about Canyon, Specialized, Cannondale and Scott here.
And now for the pricing. At £4,399 / $4,499 / €4,499 the range-topping YT Szepter Core 4 is pretty opulently appointed. It gets a suspension fork, a dropper post and SRAM Force componentry but loses out on a carbon wheelset. That's not necessarily a dealbreaker as the Szepter proves high-end alloy wheels are just as effective as carbon fibre - but for many it's an expectation at this level and the reason I expect the Core 3 to be the most popular model in the Szepter range.
The YT Szepter Core 3 is over a thousand pounds cheaper than the Core 4 - £3,199 / $3,299 / €3,299 but won't perform any differently - and I'm being deadly honest here. Yes, it lacks a dropper post (it doesn't need one really) and a slightly less posh fork (it's still damn good) but still gets a fully electronic SRAM Rival eTap AXS groupset. Besides, the money saved can be spent on a pretty decent carbon option from the best gravel wheelset category.
We'll be getting the YT Szepter in on long-term test in the coming weeks and will report in detail on how it performs over the winter and what it's like to live with every day.
YT Szepter Core 4
Frame: Ultra-modulus carbon fibre
BB: SRAM DUB PF
Fork: Rockshox Rudy Ultimate XPLR 40mm
Stem: Zipp Service Course SL
Handlebar: Zipp Service Course SL XPLR
Crankset: SRAM Force1 Wide 38T
Cassette: SRAM XG1271 XPLR 10-44T
Derailleur: SRAM Force XPLR eTAP AXS
Brakes: SRAM Force eTAP AXS HRD with 180/160mm centreline rotors
Wheels: WTB Proterra Light i23
Tyres: WTB Resolute 700x42C
Seatpost: SRAM Reverb AXS XPLR
Saddle: SDG Bel-Air V3 Overland
YT Szepter Core 3
Frame: Ultra-modulus carbon fibre
BB: SRAM DUB PF
Fork: Rockshox Rudy XPLR 40mm
Stem: Zipp Service Course
Handlebar: Zipp Service Course XPLR
Crankset: SRAM Rival1 Wide 38T
Cassette: SRAM XG1251 XPLR 10-44T
Derailleur: SRAM Rival XPLR eTAP AXS
Brakes: SRAM Rival eTAP AXS HRD with 180/160mm centreline rotors
Wheels: WTB Speedterra i23
Tyres: WTB Resolute 700x42C
Seatpost: Zipp Service Course
Saddle: SDG Bel-Air V3 Overland