Pathfinding again. Reviewed: Sven updates its stainless do-it-all and we ride it

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  • Tested: Pathfinder 2
  • From: Sven Cycles
  • Price: £2200 frame and forks, around £4200 for this exact build

It’s almost two years since we rode the original version of the Sven Cycles Pathfinder. In that time, Darron, Sven’s founder and builder has made some tweaks and was keen for us to take the new model out. It was one of our favourite bikes a few years ago, so we were keen to see what difference the changes had made and whether is was still as stand out as it was then… in general we’d say that gravel bikes have come on a fair bit in the last 24 months. Would a top-end steel frame still stand up well against the competition?

Shine on

What is the Pathfinder?

For those of you without a perfect memory (or who didn’t fancy clicking on the link above), let’s recap on the Pathfinder. First off, Sven Cycles is a small builders in Dorset. As well as fully bespoke bikes, Sven has a few tried and tested ideas that you can buy. Basically, Sven has done the hard work of designing the bike, but will tweak fit and accessories to meet your needs. The company has carved out a nice little niche making beautiful looking tourers, posh commuting bikes and utility bikes, alongside the more usual road – and of course, gravel – frames.

Filthy good

The Pathfinder is part of a little range of drop-bar off-road bikes that Sven offers. There is the Pathfinder Light – a Reynolds 853 “all-road” bike, then there is the Pathfinder that we have here.

That’s not chrome, it’s stainless

I wrote this about the Pathfinder two years ago, and it still stands true: “Drift your mind back to the halcyon early days of mountain biking. Steel frames, no suspension, exploring tracks and trails all day, during endless summers and under Mint Sauce skies. It was this kind of riding that Darron was seeking to emulate with the Pathfinder. I guess it is what many would now call gravel or adventure riding.”

Old school

A bike to do everything

The Pathfinder is at the most rugged end of the scale for something that we’d still call a gravel bike. At its heart is a Reynolds 921 stainless steel frame and forks.

Skinny steel always looks great

This is polished up to a high shine and left bare, letting you marvel at the tidy joins and all-round excellent finish. It’s more than a little striking. I keep flipping from total lust to feeling like it’s a little too “look at me” for my tastes. Either way, there’s something particularly nice about knowing that the bike will look as good as new in many years time. Aesthetically it also takes me back to the early-mid nineties and polished Marin Team Titaniums. No bad thing.

All the bosses

That frame has mountain bike clearances for 650b wheels. Official clearance is 2.2in, but we reckon you could get something wider in if you really wanted to. There are multiple bottle cage braze ons, and it’s the kind of thing that you can specify at the time of purchase if you have any special requirements.

Double butted. This bike has tweaked the profile slightly to make it a little more robust.

The matching stainless forks also have anything cage mounts on each leg. The frame and fork uses bolt-thru axles. You might want to note that the head tube is straight 1 1/8in diameter. We’ve talked about this before, most recently on our review of the Ritchey Outback.

Skinny head tube

Functionally, we’ve never been able to tell the difference vs a tapered steerer on a gravel bike. One thing to note, though, is that should you think you might want to fit a different fork at some stage in the future, you’ll be a bit limited. We think that’s pretty unlikely with this bike though.

We love the shape of the unicrown forks

Finally – those changes. Well, the original Pathfinder was so good, there weren’t many to make. Sven has tweaked the geometry slightly, designed to make it a little more stable when loaded. The main changes have been in the butting to the tubing to add more strength for loaded riding. Sven Cycles were always happy with the bike – it just needed  a bit of beefing up.

Ready for all the practicalities

Finally, the fork blades have been worked on so they can run a 180 rotor. Darron felt that a fully loaded bike needed the extra stopping power.

Tidy routing

Full bike

No one can ride just a frame and forks. We’ve tried and it’s just no fun. You can, of course, specify the bike exactly how you would like, and build it up yourself. Or, you can ask Sven Cycles to pop on it’s selected components. Our bike was Sven’s current preferred build.

Speckled

It’s a tidy selection of components that the company has gone for – tried and tested rather super light, it’s the kind of kit that will last the lifetime of the frame. Thomson seat post and stem (note, I swapped the stem for a slightly longer one and forgot to swap it back for pics *facepalm emoji*), Brooks Cambium saddle. Hope seat post clamp and headset. Safe, but good looking kit.

Middleburn cranks add some old school cool

It was also great to see a Middleburn crankset specified – performance wise, we aren’t sure if there is any difference versus, say the SRAM Force crankset it could have come with… but just look at it. Aesthetically it matches the frame perfectly.

Onyx hubs

Finally, the bike came specced with wheels built up on Onyx hubs, using DT Swiss X432 rims. We haven’t used Onyx before, but initial impressions were excellent. The finish is of the same level as Hope or Chris King, but rather than the telltale “buzz” as the freewheel clicks through, the Onyx rear is absolutely silent.

Hope brakes

If you are interested, then there’s a little video here that explains how the free hub works and delivers instant engagement. Our wheels came shod with Rene Herse (the new name for Compass Tyres) Juniper Ridge 48c.

Juniper Ridge – good bite on soft ground

The total build carries a fair amount of heft (this build was over 10kg with pedals) to be honest. It’s part of the price of a build that focusses so heavily on reliability and strength, but if you are looking for a lightweight gravel race bike, you’ve probably already decided this one isn’t for you.

Focus on the details

The ride

Two years ago, I waxed lyrical about the Pathfinder on technical trails: “on challenging off-road trails – the kind that are at the limit of a rigid, drop-barred bike, the Pathfinder is one of, if not the, most capable drop-barred bike I have ridden. I quickly reassessed what was possible as I got to know the Sven. Trails that I usually save for my mountain bike were hit with increasing confidence”. 

Hope brakes and a big rotor

Nothing has changed there. Actually, maybe one thing has. The Pathfinder is less unique now. There are more bikes out there with similar trail competence.

Organic and metallic

Why does that matter? Well, it doesn’t. I’m not going to mark the Pathfinder down for being ahead of the curve. But, if those bikes are lighter or cheaper, does that make a difference? Well, possibly.

The Pathfinder is one of those bikes that you find yourself staring at for hours.

I’m happy to say that the Pathfinder was also as lively and engaging and fun as I remembered, even when the terrain wasn’t quite as rough and closer to typical “gravel”, if there is such a thing. Swapping between it and a lighter carbon bike, the weight was really noticeable though. It needed more work to move the bike around under me and just felt a little less nimble. This was amplified when climbing.

Not many bikes look as good dirty as they do clean

Short punchy climbs weren’t an issue and the traction provided by the high volume tyres saw me clean a number of little ramps that I failed on with other bikes. For draggier stuff though, it felt sapping to try and maintain speed. I ended up settling down and spinning my way up slowly. There is nothing wrong with that, but for me, I want a gravel bike that maintains a real sense of liveliness on the road. Most of my riding is spent linking up “the good stuff” and I want a bike that won’t hold me back on either.

Tan walls FTW

Back on singletrack, and the Pathfinder had perfect manners… stable without being boring, predictable in a “don’t worry, we’ve got this” kind of way. I’d frequently come back from rides a physical mess… hot, sweaty, tired, with legs and arms cut to ribbons thanks to trying to lean the bike as tight as I could around twisting, overgrown corners.

Load her up

I had a niggle though. As good as the Pathfinder was at the above, was I being a little unfair about its sturdiness? This was designed in to make a better handling bike when fully loaded up. Surely I needed to test it in that guise as well?

Internal routing

Well, in the absence of any actual bikepacking trips on the horizon, some extra weight was strapped to it for a commute or two. Saddle bag, frame bag, anything cages. While some bikes feel a little top heavy and unbalanced once laden, the Pathfinder just seemed at home. Sure, even more weight made things slower, but its handling remained responsive without too much “steering flop”.

If I was looking for an adventure off-road touring bike, I would snap the Pathfinder up in an instant. That’s not to say that it isn’t very, very good at the other stuff, but this is where it excelled.

Parking please

Component notes

I won’t dwell too long on the components, but given that the hubs in particular were completely new to us, it would be a shame not to make a few notes. The silence of the Onyx was disconcerting to start with. I’ve become so psychologically used to the sound of a click, no matter how soft, it took a little getting used to. Once I did, I grew to love the stealthy wheelset. It might have been completely psychological, but it felt like the wheels carried speed a little better, despite the relatively knobbly tyres. The only downside was there was no audible clue that you were approaching walkers when out on the trail. I quickly fitted a bell after my first ride. The test wasn’t long enough to comment on longevity, but if they are as well made as they look, I’m sure the Onyx will last a long time indeed. The hubs are really quite heavy, but again on this build, it just seemed to fit.

Golden hours spent on this bike

Those tyres… I really like the Rene Herse range. It has some practical tread patterns for those of us who live in wetter climates, and tend to be a little lighter than many mainstream brands. They are a little expensive (these Juniper Ridge retail at £58 each if you want to buy them separately). They had great grip in the damp loam that has typified my summer trails this year. This wasn’t at the price of being overly draggy on dry gravel or tarmac (although don’t expect it to roll like a slick). I’d probably be tempted to go with something less heavily cleated for summer, and revert back to the Junipers come late autumn. The only caveat to this; I have a feeling the tread would pack heavily with wet clay style mud.

The Pathfinder has a very 90s MTB look about it.

Final thoughts

How has two years and some tweaks changed my perspective of the Pathfinder? I’m happy to say that I still love this bicycle. But, love is a funny old thing. It looks past the flaws and maybe isn’t entirely logical. Depending on what gravel means to you, there may well be more suitable bikes for you (including the Pathfinder Light). It’s a little hefty, maybe it almost feels too competent over rough ground, but it’s also incredible fun and sublimely comfortable. It had me planning long off road tours and plotting where I’d like to take it, and not every bike can do that. If you want a bike for adventures, whether that be on the doorstep or riding around the world, the Pathfinder fits the bill perfectly.

It was love

Sven Pathfinder Specification (as tested)

  • Frame // Sven Pathfinder 2, Reynolds 921
  • Fork // Sven Pathfinder 2 unicrown, Reynolds 921
  • Wheels // 650b, Onyx mtb hubs,
  • Tyres // Schwalbe Thunderburt
  • Chainset // SRAM Apex 42t
  • Front Mech // N/A
  • Rear Mech // SRAM Apex 11 speed
  • Shifters // SRAM Apex Hydro
  • Cassette // SRAM 11-42
  • Brakes // SRAM Apex Hydro
  • Stem // Thomson, 90mm 10º
  • Bars // Salsa Cowchipper
  • Seatpost // Thomson layback, 27.2mm
  • Saddle // Selle Italia Flite Titanium
  • Size Tested // Large
  • Sizes available // Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large

 

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