Cairn BRAVE – a Back Road Adventure Vehicle for Everyone?

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When I reviewed the Cairn Adventure 1.0 I wished for a more adventurous and burly specced option. It’s almost like the team at The Rider Firm have listened to what I said – you can now get the Adventure 1.0 in a 700C or 650B option, with the 650B having flared bars and a dropper post. But then this, the Cairn BRAVE, landed on my doorstep. Now, it’s like they’ve listened to what my inner voices whisper during the night when they think no one can hear: it’s adventure spec with added oomph. It’s bigger, it’s more powerful, it’s a monster – but does all that MORE add up to better?

  • Size tested: Medium
  • Weight: 18.46kg
  • Price: £2,549 (drop bar), £2,189 (flat bar)
  • From: Cairn Cycles
Cairn Brave gravel

The Bike

The Cairn BRAVE has an alloy frame with rigid alloy fork and Shimano e7000 Steps motor. Available in a drop bar or flat bar set up, it’s got clearance for 29×2.5in tyres, bosses for plenty of bottles and racks – there’s even a mount for a kickstand – and with a 630wH battery you should be able to haul this beast up and over plenty of climbs.

The bars are nicely flared Ritchey Beacon Comps, giving a great hand position for reaching the SRAM Apex 1 brakes, which meet with 180mm rotors for more stopping power. There’s no dropper post here, just a Cairn branded saddle on a standard fixed seat post. Maxxis Rekon 29×2.35 tyres are fitted to Ryde Disc 30 Tubeless Rims with  32H  Formula Boost Sealed Bearing Hubs – despite the family association, you don’t get Hunt wheels in order to make the BRAVE hit a more affordable price point.

We chatted to Matt, the bike’s designer, about the idea behind the build:

The Ride

I’m going to deal with the downside of this bike first, because on the one hand it makes me sad and I want to move on from it to all the fun stuff, and on the other hand it hasn’t actually affected my use of the bike that much at all. The Shimano E7000 Steps motor doesn’t have a drop bar compatible assist actuator (rather than integrated actuator levers that you can use with higher end electronic shifters) – the up/down buttons you get attached to your flat bar Cairn BRAVE just aren’t the right diameter to fit on drop bars. This means that to make the bike ‘go’, you need to use the teeny tiny button that’s on the Shimano display unit. Yes, that little round one. That also doubles up for changing the units on display. Push the button to cycle through the display data, or hold the button briefly to change up the assist modes: Off – Eco – Trail – Boost – Off – Eco… Uh-huh, you can only go one way: up. So if you find yourself wanting a little bit of Trail help to get up a steep section, you’re committed. Once you’re done with trail, you’re going to head into Boost – which I found gives too much power to stay in control on a steep and technical climb – and then you’re going to have to wait for a flat section because next up comes ‘Off’. Now would not be a good time to hit a bumpy section and start cycling through your display options instead of holding the button long enough to get into Eco. Cadence…yeah, well that’s grinding down to nothing now that I’ve switched the assist off and the trail is heading up again…push….push…time, distance…hold…whoop! Back to Eco!

After a few incidents like this I realised that it was wholly easier just to stay in Eco and use an easier gear and a bit more leg power. If that’s not something you’re willing or able to do, you may well want to look to the flat bar option, or start writing weekly letters to Shimano to demand that they resolve this obvious oversight for mechanical shifters on electric bikes. It is a little frustrating to know that for the sake of a slightly different sized bit of plastic and a bolt you could be really using the bike to its full potential. However, I overcame my frustrations and pedalled on.

And on, and on, and on. I have simply not managed to do a ride which has used all of the battery – I’ve run out of energy or dry clothes long before I’ve got down below three bars. No doubt that being mostly in Eco mode helps, but on one early ride I risked the upwards assist cycle of doom to fling a few trail mode sections in and still knocked out 65 hilly kilometres without getting below three bars. Range anxiety just isn’t a factor. 

Cairn Brave

As a reasonably fit but unquestionably lazy cyclist with a strong aversion to suffering, the Cairn BRAVE is pretty close to perfect for where I live and how I want to spend most of my rides. The soul sapping road climbs between the good bits of bridleway are easily tapped out with the Eco assist, meaning I have ventured out further and more frequently than usual. Tough off road climbs are little issue either – get yourself into the easiest gear and put a bit of effort in and it’s just like being really fit and riding a carbon fibre race bike. If you’ve not got the legs for that extra effort, then I think you might want the Trail mode and experience the frustrations of shifting through the assist levels, but otherwise, leave it in Eco and forget that the assist is there – just enjoy having great legs. The 1x gearing set up with it’s mix of Shimano E800 crankset, Shimano 38t chainring and Sunrace 11-42t cassette, plus SRAM Apex 1 derailleur, works just fine giving a decent range of gears for downhill descents on the road and uphill climbs in Eco.

I much preferred the sensation of riding road sections on the Cairn BRAVE than I have on e-MTBs – there’s less of the overkill feeling and the ride feels more natural than with a heap of suspension to haul with you. Off the bike too, the absence of suspension and associated bulky frame keeps the weight down, making this a bike that’s a bit easier to manhandle – though I still wouldn’t want to have to lift it onto the roof of my car.

Boost mode is, I think, too much, unless you’re in a hurry to get to the top of a road climb without any effort. Off road, Boost left me feeling out of control, and at times I felt like the Trail mode offered more than I really wanted. However, you can tune the assist, so I changed things to something along the lines of Eco, Trail-light and Trail-more – rather than having the usual zoom-along-Boost setting as an option. It wasn’t often that I had any cause to get off and push, but touring travellers planning steep, loose climbs laden with luggage may wish to note there is no ‘Walk’ mode on this bike (there is on the flat bar option).

Riding along on off-road sections, the flared bars and large tyres make for a fun and engaging ride that reminded me of the classic Kona Sutra LTD. I recall riding that and thinking it was lots of fun, but I’d have to move to somewhere like Mars to get the terrain for it to make sense. Having the e-assist on the BRAVE renders the drag of the bigger tyres (which can go much bigger on the Cairn BRAVE than on the Sutra LTD, although the supplied 2.35in tyre is not so much bigger than the 2.3in maximum on a Sutra LTD) a non issue, leaving you to enjoy getting the most out of the larger volume tyres and stable geometry on rougher terrain. The Maxxis Rekons are definitely on the less-knobbly side of things, and in mud you’ll find both wheels going sideways at the same time, but I felt that for the mixed terrain I took in they were a great balance. The EXO tyre casing is welcome – when I started picking up speed and heading downhill there were many line choices that had me having closer interactions with rocks than I’d like on a lighter weight gravel tyre. And I certainly did pick up speed – I’ve had quite a few instances of hitting lines fast enough that they’ve acted as kickers, with one particularly memorable double drainage channel/gap jump moment that I only wish I had on camera because it felt both ridiculous and amazing. The flared bars, geometry and the large tyres all add up to a bike that will let you go fast over some pretty rough terrain, and while the brakes are pretty good, I did have to regularly remind myself that drop bar brakes never have that tap and stop feel that you get with great mountain bike brakes. You’ve been warned: this may make you ride places you’d ride on a mountain bike, you may go as fast as you would on a mountain bike, but it is not a mountain bike.

It is however a whole lot of fun bike. Aside from large drops and steep off piste, there’s really not much I can’t ride on this that I can’t tackle on a mountain bike. Sure, it’s more of a workout on the arms on a long and rocky descent, but go at the speeds you might normally expect to ride a gravel bike down such things and it scales back the workout. Cairn hasn’t yet tested the bike with a suspension fork, but they think it should work well with 80mm travel up front. If you want to add a dropper you can, and the production frames will have internal routing through the seat tube and then out to a series of external tabs until you get to the bars. I’ve found that the ride position is sufficiently relaxed that even without a dropper it’s perfectly possible to tackle more technical trails without feeling like you can’t move around the bike, so I don’t feel like the lack of a dropper has held back my ability to ride trails on this. If you were going to be loading it up with racks and heavy luggage however, I can imagine that a dropper could have the added benefit of confidence when mounting and dismounting.

Durability Notes

While riding along some of the filthier sections of trail (and I really have taken this through some unavoidable slop – thanks worst May ever) I have occasionally had an unpleasant squealing/grinding noise. Think the noise when you hoover up the edge of a rug, or when your kid (or you) gets something tangled up the mechanism of your remote control car. As the noise would stop when I stopped pedalling, I can only assume that this would be a bit of grit getting trapped somewhere in the motor mechanism, and then working its way out again. On my pre production bike there is quite a gap below the battery, so I suspect grittiness is getting in there. Each time it’s happened it’s stopped again very quickly, but I don’t know what – if any – damage it might be doing to the insides. Production bikes have a neater fitting between the frame and battery, so a smaller gap – and the hole allowing the cable to connect between the battery and motor is smaller too. Hopefully this might spare your ears the squealing sound should you buy one.

Three Things I’d Change

  • I really want Shimano to make that button so that you can use this bike to its full potential. For those carrying heavy loads or without the legs to push a bit harder, the inability to change both up and down assist modes is a real drawback.
  • It would be good to see the gap around the battery housing filled by a rubber seal or similar to prevent grit and water from getting in. Oh, wait, they’ve addressed that on the production bikes!
  • I’d be very tempted to add a dropper. It’s so capable, why not.

Three Things I Liked

  • The go everywhere and anywhere whenever approach that it brings to my riding. This bike makes me ride more.
  • The flared bars and powerful brakes make this as capable a descender as any gravel bike I’ve ridden, despite the weight of the battery.
  • Laughing madly flying down a descent and leaning around corners as if I’m on a hardtail.

Overall

If you can get past the limitations of the assist shifting then I’m struggling to think of any reason why you wouldn’t want this bike. It combines fun and function at a price point that seems pretty competitive. For the less urban cyclist looking to leave the car at home more often, or just to ride for the fun of it more frequently, I think the Cairn BRAVE is a great package. Fast and light enough to make road and easy gravel track riding fun, but burly and stable enough to make chunky off road riding a blast too. Giving this test bike back is going to have a sad impact on the frequency of my rides. Are we sure it’s not available on prescription? I’m sure it’s doing me good.

Review Info

Brand: Cairn
Product: BRAVE
From: cairncycles.com
Price: £2,549
Tested: by Hannah for 2 months

Comments (9)

    I’d like to get the flat bar version and put a suspension fork and dropper on it. Anyone listening out there?

    It would look a bit funky but you could run switch SW-E7000-L via some kind of 22.2 accessories holder clamped near the stem. Or swap everything to Di2 then you have motor controls on the left side but no option to control an aftermarket dropper via the shifter.

    @jimmyt I think they did look into 3D printing some sort of bespoke mount but decided against it. And yes, Di2 would partially solve it but…kerching!

    I am not sure but maybe SW-R600 will also work, that is the 2 button Di2 climbing switch. Perhaps it needs a junction box and/or some poking about in Etube project as well? Its not quite a full kerching then.

    Hey Fahzure,

    The bike is Suspension corrected for an 80mm travel fork and it will have dropper routing. Obviously all stuff that adds cost so haven’t done it as standard but you could if you wanted too. Not saying we wont do it in the future though, Just don’t anytime soon.

    Matt

    Cairn Product Manager

    @jimmyt Originally that was the plan to use R600. As those climber switches would be a super neat finish. Shimano has just never programmed Steps to work with them oddly. It is not like normal STIs and other Di2 parts heavily feature in the OEM market. Those buttons are only really used on High-end road bikes, and really only in the aftermarket. So you can see why it’s that way. It is annoying and I am sure it wouldn’t take a lot for them to have done it but we don’t have the volume to make that request at this time.

    Thanks

    Matt Cairn Product Manager

    Hassle Shimano for odd stuff to make MTB and road kit match up, keep up the good fight Matt ; )

    Would a cowboy hack work by using both SW-E7000-L and SW-R600, with them both connected to the display port maybe SW-E7000-L (hidden in the frame) can provide the brains to the satellite on the bars?

    I can understand why they would make SW-R600 dumb, if it worked standalone then brake makers such as Hope and TRP could get into the road market without having to worry about making an integrated shifter, at the same time customers could save money on Di2 systems. I am sure a lot of riders will be happy to just have button shifters on the bar tops.

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