I first sampled the YT Szepter gravel bike in San Clemente, USA, at the bike’s international debut late last year. It impressed me on all fronts and made mince meat of the route mapped out for us but an objective assessment would mean testing it here in the UK, too. The terrain on offer in and around the Surrey Hills – where I do the bulk of my off-road riding – is slower and more technical than the open expanses of California and I was keen to see how it would do in this predominantly wet and slippery terrain. So when YT offered off.road.cc a long-term Szepter to use for six months, we obliged.
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YT Szepter Core 4 gravel bike - Technical details
The Szepter is YT’s first foray into the drop-bar market, a move which took many ardent fans by surprise – me included. The Szepter, however, is not merely a gravel bike festooned in YT logos but a cleverly thought-out machine that embodies the true ethos of the German company. As a result, the geometry is less racy than the current crop of best gravel bike protagonists – and I like that because YT has done its own thing here, which neither waters down nor affects the brand’s gravity-orientated reputation.
The bike and its geometry were designed around the idea of a 40mm fork – no afterthoughts here. To ensure the front end played nicely with the front suspension, YT’s designers reduced the head tube to compensate for the added height afforded by the fork. It certainly has a long and sack theme going on and this is reflected in the geometry.
Looking at the numbers, the YT Szepter takes on very much a hardtail mountain bike-like facade. The numbers of the medium test bike pictured here corroborate this fact and are not too dissimilar to my Trek Procaliber hardtail. The Szepter gets a 69.4-degree head angle, 425mm chainstays, a reach figure of 393mm and a BB drop of 61mm. Not the raciest of numbers as far as gravel bikes go, no, but the stability and predictability of this set-up make it an absolute hoot to throw around on the trails. The Szepter comes out of the box with 42mm rubber but can accommodate a maximum tyre width of 45mm. While YT has explicitly stated the Szepter was never designed for touring or bikepacking, it does get a host of bottle bosses with a brace of two-bolt mounts under the top tube and multiple bottle cage mounting positions on the seat- and downtubes. Though polarising in appearance, it also gets a built-in rear and OEM-developed front mudguard; handy additions given the UK’s notoriously wet and muddy winters.
At 10.15kg (weighed on our scales) it’s not the lightest gravel bike around either but you don’t feel that ‘heft’ and I’ll touch on that a little more later. The frame itself weighs in at 1,400g (in a large) and is constructed from ultra-modulus carbon fibre. While it’s a pretty stiff affair, particularly around the BB area, YT has managed to add some compliance to the recipe by way of slim, dropped seat stays and angled dropouts.
Most of the cables are routed internally which makes for a pretty clean aesthetic. There are some exposed cables at the front but this is negligible. According to YT, full integration was considered during the R&D phase of the design process but the idea was scrapped owing to the complications that come with internal routing – especially in terms of plumbing brake hoses through the handlebar assembly.
Both the Core 3 and Core 4 are available in 1x configuration only and there’s no option to mount a front derailleur.
YT Szepter Core 4 gravel bike - Build and components
The YT Szepter comes in two distinct but similar build grades - the Core 3 and Core 4 pictured here. The Core 4 sits at the top of the range and comes with a luxurious mix of trick parts that complement the 1x drivetrain configuration. In terms of components, the Core 4 employs a SRAM Force AXS groupset, complete with XPLR cassette and rear derailleur. Of course, depending on the type of riding you do, this can be switched out for an Eagle AXS mullet which will unlock better gearing for climbing.
With a 38T single chainring driving 10-44T cassette, the gearing ratio is spot on and ideal for the type of riding the Szepter was designed to undertake and conquer. Further bolstering the bike’s gnarly undertones are the RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR fork and Reverb AXS XPLR dropper post. Keeping things uniform and in line with the SRAM theme is the Zipp cockpit - a 70mm Course SL stem and 420mm handlebar configuration in this instance.
I feel the alloy wheels are a little at odds with the rest of the build. While the YT Szepter Core 4 comes outfitted in WTB Proterra Light i23 wheels - hardy rolling stock that proved to go the distance during our six-month test - a carbon wheelset would do wonders to unlock extra performance and significantly improve the bike’s unsprung weight. Perhaps, a pair of Zipp 303S wheels?
The Szpeter is currently only available in two colourway options - machine light grey for the Core 4 and assault green for the Core 3. While I like both colours, the neutrality of an all-black livery would undoubtedly appeal to more riders.
YT Szepter Core 4 gravel bike - Performance
For starters, it’s hard to ignore the overall comfort afforded by the Szepter’s chassis. It’s super compliant while offering stiffness in the important areas – around the bottom bracket and headtube. This stiffness is offset by the 40mm RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR fork and dropped seat stays at the rear. Even the Reverb AXS dropper absorbs a bit of trail chatter; simply touch the AXS controller and you’ll get rewarded with a hint of vertical compliance for when you’re negotiating corrugated surfaces. I can confirm I didn't use the dropper post - the trails I ride are neither steep nor gnarly enough and I guess my cross-country marathon-style mountain bike riding is the reason for my lack of dropper-post adoption.
Grip is always in abundance. I did use the stock wheel and 42c WTB Resolute tyre arrangement for a while but switched it out for Roval Terra CLX and 40c Schwalbe G-One RS tyres, the result of which positively transformed the bike’s performance. Maybe it was more a placebo effect than anything else, but the Szpeter felt more urgent and responded better to pedal inputs with the Rovals fitted. The stiffness of the wheels provided more confidence during aggressive descending manoeuvres but that’s probably also down to using the right tyre pressure (40/40psi front/rear at 61kg). The Szepter handles very much like a mountain bike and can hold its own on trails that other rigid gravel bikes have a hard time taming.
Out on open gravel roads, it manages to keep a decent head of steam and, once up to speed, the 10kg weight doesn’t matter much. It’s only when negotiating steep non-technical climbs that you can feel the weight penalty but it more than makes up for it when the terrain gets bumpy or there’s the odd switchback thrown into the mix. In technical climbing situations where traction is king, the Szepter will easily outperform bikes such as the Cervelo Aspero, Specialized Diverge, Cannondale Topstone et al - it was designed for the rough stuff where its long, slack and low proportions and suspension arrangement help foster incredible traction regardless of which way the gradient is pointed.
The SRAM Force AXS groupset is superb delivering sharp, precise shifting and feelsome braking that instils in the rider added levels of assurance when pushing hard on the descents. The riding position, too, is more akin to a mountain biker thanks to the short stem and shallow drop of the handlebar which prevents a crouched road-bike-like rider layout. This in itself, tends to balance out the weight distribution over both axles making for a planted and confidence-inspiring ride.
Does it need the dropper post? I’m inclined to say no although there are far more gifted – read technically skilled – riders out there that can utilise the full potential of the Szepter, where getting the post out of the way reduces the centre of gravity and improves descending speed. For me, it’s added weight and something I never use – despite having several dropper posts fitted to various bikes.
YT Szepter Core 4 gravel bike - Verdict
My views of the YT Szepter gravel bike haven’t changed since riding it for the first time in California, USA. It’s an out-and-out trail slayer delivering a balance of speed and agility – and it’s very different to what’s currently available out there. In terms of options, the YT Szepter doesn’t have any direct rivals with the closest bikes being the Canyon Grail, Specialized Diverge STR or Lauf Seigla.
At £3,800 the Szepter Core 4 represents great value for money. The Canyon Grail CF SL 7 eTap, at £3,550, comes close offering a race-inspired geometry and trick compliance features such as the hover-bar and seatpost but comes with no hydraulic suspension. That said, it does get better DT Swiss carbon wheels and two colourway options. The Lauf Seigla that Jamie tested is as unique as the Szepter with its leaf-sprung fork and leftfield colourway but it's a significantly pricier option at £4,180. The Specialized Diverge STR Expert is nearly double the price of the Szepter Core 4 at £7,000 - it offers both front and rear Future Shock suspension and higher-grade components. You’d need to spec down to the regular £3,300 Diverge Sport Carbon but then you’re only getting a front Future Shock, a SRAM Apex mechanical groupset and lesser componentry.
While it lacks the gravitas of more established brands, it’s hard to ignore the value and all-out hooliganism of the YT Szepter. It’s an amazingly fun bike to ride. YT Industries has done a commendable job here - the company hasn’t diluted its gravity-centred formula but rather repackaged it in a way that forces you to rethink everything you know about gravel biking.