I know how wheels can transform a bike. Throughout the years, with various road-bike and wheel tests, I’ve experienced the change. By adding newer or better hoops, the whole bike can become more lively. Recently, with the rise of gravel bikes with wider wheel and tire options, there are more variables at play. I’ve experimented with 700c and 650c hoops on the same bike to see how the ride quality changes. With the No. 22 Drifter X, I ran a seemingly more subtle wheel experiment and was surprised by the results.
No. 22 has been building beautiful titanium bikes since 2012. In 2014, the Canadian founders, Mike Smith and Bryce Gracey, set up a facility in Johnstown, N.Y., where the bikes are still made. The Drifter X debuted in early 2019. It’s a speedier version of the versatile Drifter. On the Drifter X, you get slightly shorter chainstays (430 mm on the size 56 I tested), and thus a shorter wheelbase. What you gain is a more nimble rig that will help you move quickly in a gravel race. This setup suits my bias nicely: I prefer a more road-race feel on a gravel bike, as opposed to something more relaxed and languid.
“Nimble” in this case, does not also mean “twitchy.” Smith and Gracey took care to design a balanced bike. “There’s a difference between what feels fast and what is actually fast,” Smith says. “For some people, I think a twitchy bike is a signal of a fast bike: it’s full of energy and always wants to turn. But that’s not really faster. If you are fighting the bike to go in a straight line, you’re certainly not going faster. It’s just kind of exhausting. We like our bikes to be a little bit more stable. ‘Twitchy’ doesn’t give you more grip in a corner.”
Full disclosure: the Drifter X I tested was Smith’s own bike. It’s lucky we have the same saddle height as the bike has a titanium seat mast with a ti topper. Also, that this bike is designed for a specific rider, plays into the “results” of my experiment.
The first thing I did with the Drifter X was to take out the No. 22 wheels by Boyd with 38c Schwalbe G-One tires. I put on some hoops with 28c road tires. (When I got the bike, most of my gravel routes had snow on them. The roads were open.) The bike was responsive and was a pleasure to ride kilometre after kilometre. The only thing that was troubling me was that my position wasn’t quite right. I fussed a little with the saddle and the bars, but I came up against some limits. Then, it was time to run the No. 22 wheels with the wider tires. I noticed immediately that the bike felt different: I was then truly in a position that felt aggressive and balanced. The change of a few millimetres that came by virtue of the different wheels and thicker tires was striking.
So, is the Drifter X only really designed for 38-mm-wide tires? No, not at all. But if you plan on running different tires and wheels on your Drifter X, you’ll want to check the effects of those changes. I know it may seem a bit princess and the pea, but if you’re hoping to push yourself in a gravel event, you’ll want to make sure every thing on the bike is dialed. It’s only fitting really. The titanium construction of the Drifter X is precise. If you opt for custom build, you’ll have a geometry that’s tailored to your fit. You just want to be diligent with the details with such a prime ride.