With the new SZEPTER CORE 4, YT are launching their first ever gravel bike while at the same time shaking up existing bike category dogmas. Trimmed uncompromisingly for downhill performance and adventure, the SZEPTER wants to impress with an unusual concept at a very attractive € 4,499 price tag. But can it deliver?
German direct-sales brand YT – an acronym for Young Talent – was founded by Markus Flossmann back in 2008. The company is committed to selling premium bikes with high-quality specs at a (comparatively) affordable price. In Markus’ own words “our ‘live uncaged’ mantra reflects the company’s goal to remove boundaries, challenge conventions, and do things better.” In other words, you’re never too old to have fun on your bike and you shouldn’t let anyone hold you back. Up until now, the portfolio of the popular German manufacturer was made up entirely of mountain bikes, although rumours of a YT gravel bike have been buzzing around the web for several years. Now it’s finally here and, at last, we’re able to answer the one-million dollar question: What’s YT’s idea of gravel bikes? And how does it ride?
The best thing about gravelling is that there are no rules – yet countless areas of application. From casual post-work adventures to Belgian waffle rides, from daily commutes to epic bikepacking expeditions, the spectrum is huge. However, at this moment in time, gravel bikes can be divided into two broad yet relatively well-defined categories: gravel race bikes and gravel adventure bikes. That being said, every manufacturer tries to find their own superlatives and subcategories, claiming to have created the fastest, lightest or most comfortable graveler – or the one with the most mounting points for all panniers in this world. But how did YT approach the gravel theme? We dropped in at YT’s US headquarters in San Clemente, California, and put the new YT Industries SZEPTER CORE 4 2023 through the wringer.
Gravity gravel – What’s the key to achieving more confidence-inspiring handling on a drop bar bike?
Gravity gravel? What the hell is that supposed to be? Don’t worry, relax! It’s not a new buzz word from YT’s marketing department. And, no, the German manufacturer isn’t trying to create a new niche to sell their new bike. It’s just the first thing that popped into our head while riding the new YT SZEPTER for the first time in California. Because if there’s one thing it can do incredibly well: inspire confidence on demanding descents without compromising on touring and long-distance capabilities.
In a nutshell, the new YT SZEPTER belongs to that type of gravel bikes relying on a MTB-inspired geometry, which combines a long reach and short stem. The long frame ensures good composure while at the same time minimising toe overlap, thus inspiring huge amounts of confidence, especially on winding trails with tricky technical sections. Moreover, the combination of a short stem and long head tube should ensure a comfortable pedalling position – we’ve heard that one before! Evil Bikes’ Chamois Hagar, which we have already tested back in 2019, employs an even more radical concept than the new SZEPTER. The MERIDA SILEX also takes a similar approach, as does the winner of our 2022 gravel group test, the Canyon Grizl CF SLX, albeit with a more moderate seat and head angle.
So far, no other brand has implemented the gravity gravel concept as consistently as YT. The SZEPTER is more aggressive than the MERIDA and the Canyon but not as extreme as the Evil. YT’s main goal was to create a bike that’s great fun on every trail but at the same time capable of inspiring huge amounts of confidence in a wide range of situations. According to the developer’s own statement, the SZEPTER was primarily developed as a gravel rig for mountain bikers, and not for roadies. To make sure that the bike can handle all sorts of trails without shattering in a thousand pieces, the frame was tested according to the rigorous Category 3 ASTM standard, which is used as a reference for testing XC and all-mountain bikes! This means that you can hit drops up to 61 cm with a system weight of 120 kg without voiding your warranty. For comparison’s sake, most gravel frames are manufactured to comply with the ASTM Category 2 standard, which clears them for drops up to 15 cm at the same maximum system weight. However, not all components of the SZEPTER meet the ASTM standard, so the certification applies to the frame only, and not to the entire bike.
The new SZEPTER comes equipped with a complete SRAM XPLR groupset and RockShox Judy Ultimate XPLR suspension fork, which generates 40 mm travel. However, the latter has a longer axle-to-crown height than conventional rigid forks, which means that swapping to a carbon fork will alter the geometry of the bike. Since the frame was designed specifically to be used with a suspension fork, the head tube is slightly shorter. SRAM also supply the Reverb AXS XPLR dropper post, which offers 50 mm travel in sizes S to L and 75 mm travel in sizes XL to XXL. In addition, the dropper post features SRAM’s proprietary ActiveRide system, which provides a fully rigid top-out but offers extra compliance when it’s not fully extended, thus ensuring more comfort while riding seated. Our test bike in size M features a Zipp Service Course SL XPLR cockpit consisting of a 70 mm stem and 440 mm handlebars. The SZEPTER rolls on a WTB Proterra Light i23 wheelset with 42 mm WTB Resolute tires. Shifting is taken care of by a 1×12 SRAM Force eTap AXS drivetrain with 10–44t cassette while SRAM Force eTap AXS HRD disc brakes do stopping duties.
Design, features and details of the new YT SZEPTER 2023
When developing the SZEPTER, a unique look was high on YT’s list of priorities – and the design department clearly got the memo! At first glance, YT’s gravel bruiser is understated and discreet, but upon closer inspection you’ll come across several interesting details. Overall, the frame’s a little restless, looking harmoniously proportionate one second and oddly disproportionate the next – depending on the angle from which you look at it. It’s an ensemble of contrasting design elements and different shapes, combining a beefy, voluminous down tube with a thin and wide, almond-shaped top tube. The seat tube looks wide from the side and is complemented by generous aero surfaces and dropped seat stays, which are reminiscent of an aero racer, but with the difference that the SZEPTER wasn’t tested in wind tunnels or explicitly optimised for aerodynamics. And while design is undoubtedly a matter of taste, we think that the SZEPTER would benefit from a more consistent design and clearer lines.
Unfortunately, these inconsistencies also come at the expense of practicality. In other words, YT chose sleek aesthetics over additional mounting points for bottles and bags, limiting the range of applications of the bike. The frame has no direct mount points for a top tube bag nor bottle cage bosses on the underside of the down tube, which is a limiting factor, especially when bikepacking or embarking on extended backcountry missions, where any additional storage space is a godsend. And the bottle cage mounts aren’t too well-thought-out either: while the down tube features an integrated mount for FIDLOCK bottles, the seat tube relies on standard bottle cage bosses. Is it a good idea to use two different standards on the same bike? Not really, plus the FIDLOCK system mount doesn’t sit flush with the frame of the SZEPTER, and its aesthetic advantage is only marginal when combined with a second bottle on the frame. At least there are 2 additional mounting points for a tool strap or frame bag on the underside of the top tube. One detail we’re particularly fond of are the integrated mudguards, which might be on the short side but make the SZEPTER stand out from the gravel crowd. The rear fender merges seamlessly into the seat tube and is complemented by a YT own-brand mudguard at the front, which the German manufacturer chose over the standard RockShox model. The cables aren’t entirely routed inside the frame, both because the fork doesn’t allow for it and to make maintenance easier. The frame forgoes a front derailleur mount altogether. If you want to use a dropper post with more travel, you can, because YT rely on a 30.9 mm seat tube diameter, which is compatible with most long-travel mountain bike dropper posts – awesome!
YT Industries SZEPTER CORE 4 2023
Seatpost SRAM Reverb AXS XPLR
Brakes SRAM Force eTap AXS HRD 180/160 mm
Drivetrain SRAM Force XPLR eTap AXS
Stem ZIPP Service Course SL 70 mm
Handlebar ZIPP Service Course SL XPLR 440 mm
Wheelset WTB Proterra Light i23
Tires WTB Resolute 42 mm
Cranks SRAM Force1 Wide
Cassette SRAM Rival XG-1271 XPLR 10-44T
Size S M L XL XXL
Weight 9.9 kg
Just two models for now – YT SZEPTER CORE 4 and CORE 3
For the time being, the YT SZEPTER will be available in two versions, the € 4,499 CORE 4 in this test and the more affordable CORE 3, which sets you back € 3,299. While both versions come equipped with a wireless drivetrain, the cable ports on the frame suggest that YT will soon release more models with cable-actuated drivetrains.
YT SZEPTER CORE 4 2023 first ride review – what is YT’s first gravel bike capable of?
In all honesty, when we rode the SZEPTER for the first time in a trail centre not far from YT’s US headquarters in San Clemente, we went totally ballistic – and boy, did we have fun! In a way, the YT SZEPTER CORE 4 feels more like a drop bar enduro rig than a gravel bike. And while you’re more likely to embark on leisurely tours with it, in your peripheral vision you can’t stop scanning the surroundings for new trails. The SZEPTER inspires huge amounts of confidence and delivers maximum fun downhill – and the dropper post is hugely responsible for this. Despite offering just 50 mm travel, in combination with the suspension fork and wide tires, it makes a huge difference on the trail, allowing you to ride sections you wouldn’t dream of surviving onboard a conventional gravel bike. And the geometry concept works incredibly well too! The SZEPTER feels composed and always stays planted on the ground, even on washed-out trails and in high-speed sections.
We experienced first-hand how much confidence the SZEPTER inspires from the get-go – so much, in fact, that we surprised ourselves during the first test ride. Not even 500 m into the first lap, we felt so good onboard the YT that we hit and cleared a big double without breaking a sweat! The SZEPTER didn’t disappoint and only confirmed how safe it makes you feel. Deep ruts, cross ruts, blown tarmac? No problem! The YT ploughs right through it like a tank! Sure, it’s not a full-suspension mountain bike, but it gobbles up many impacts without losing composure. We ran the 42 mm WTB Resolute tires at 2.1/2.3 bar (f/r), which feels great off-road but a little spongy on tarmac and clean hardpack, where we recommend adjusting the pressure accordingly.
Needless to say, the SZEPTER isn’t a wonder of acceleration and feels rather sluggish uphill and on flatter ground. At 10.2 kg in size M without pedals, it’s not the lightest gravel bike either. For comparison’s sake, it’s around 800 g heavier than the Canyon Grizl CF SLX 8 eTap, which costs € 500 more and has a suspension fork too – but no suspension dropper. Nevertheless, the SZEPTER generates good traction on climbs, and, thanks to the dropper post, which ensures additional damping when lowered slightly, puts you into a comfortable and confidence-inspiring pedalling position on technical climbs. Dropping the saddle ever so slightly also makes sense because it allows you to shift your weight faster and more efficiently. Since the impacts are mitigated and the pedalling position is more comfortable, you’ll be able to put more pressure on the rear wheel and thus generate more traction. As a pleasant side effect, your back doesn’t get too much of a beating (yes, we’re getting older too!). The steep seat tube angle ensures an even weight distribution, allowing you to negotiate steeper climbs with ease. However, for roadies who are used to the nimble handling of race bikes, the front of the SZETPTER might be a little cumbersome.
“Braaap” will soon be part of the gravel slang: the YT SZEPTER expands the vocabulary of the drop bar community and is heavily into shredding
The downhill-oriented gravity gravel concept around the YT SZEPTER CORE 4 is trimmed to ensure a high level of safety and inspire confidence in a wide range of situations, making YT’s gravel debut a super exciting bike for mountain bikers who are considering an affair with the drop bar world. That being said, the gravity concept could have been implemented more consistently in some places. For example, the SZEPTER could do with an integrated chainstay protector that prevents paint chips on the chainstays and chain slap when you ride on trails. In addition, our water bottle flew out of YT’s own bottle cage in several occasions, because the plastic softens up with higher temperatures – and this can be particularly annoying on bumpy trails. However, YT deliver the bike without bottle cages, so now you know what to do ;). If you ask us, both a closed bottle cage or FIDLOCK system would be a more sensible choice.
Tuning tip: add a generously-sized chainstay protector
One obvious question now arises: Why the SZEPTER and not a MTB? Simple, because the nice thing about gravelling is that there are no rules, nothing is set in stone and everything’s possible! And from a mountain biker’s perspective, when you’re underbiked, even moderate trails become technically more challenging. The YT is also a good option for bikepacking and long trips because the drop bars allow you to switch between more hand and body positions on long tours.
The YT SZEPTER is radical but by no means extreme. It’s neither the fastest gravel bike on flatter ground and uphill, nor a transatlantic expedition graveller with a thousand mounting points on the frame. Instead, it handles descents with stoic composure while inspiring huge amounts of confidence in the process. The SZEPTER isn’t perfect but innovative in its segment, retailing at a very fair price and delivering a killer concept for mountain bikers who are looking for a drop bar bike for all kinds of adventures. We had the fun of our lives!
- excellent downhill performance, extremely fun to ride and confidence inspiring
- “braaap“ has just made it into the gravel slang
- consistent spec, attractive price
- good off-road climbing performance despite the weight
- too many design elements
- could do with more mounting points for bags and bottle cages
Did you enjoy this article? If so, we would be stoked if you decide to support us with a monthly contribution. By becoming a supporter of GRAN FONDO, you will help secure a sustainable future for high-quality cycling journalism. Click here to learn more.
Words: Simon Kohler Photos: YT