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Planet X Tempest Long Term Review

This Planet X Tempest review is a rare thing for me because it’s not often I buy a new bike.  I’m in the habit of buying something I really like, sometimes pushing the boat out a bit on price and then keeping it for a very long time.  Anyway the time was ripe to buy myself a gravel bike.  I’ve always enjoyed riding off road but have never been keen on mountain bikes.  Really I’m a roadie at heart, so the idea of a bike which combined a roadie riding position with off road capability was just too tempting and the skinny tyres on my CX bike just don’t cut it these days.

All this stuff about keeping bikes for a long time leads me neatly to frame material.  The most obvious feature of the Planet X Tempest is that it’s made of titanium, which was why I considered it in the first place.  I don’t buy into the hype about titanium.  Yes, it can be a great frame material but isn’t necessarily a bike for life because like any other frame material it can break and of course any bike gear goes out of date.  I also don’t buy the hype about titanium frames giving a magic carpet ride.  Yes, they can do that, and the material is well suited to building a compliant frame, but titanium can behave however a frame builder wants it to.  When I bought it, in September 2019 it was the cheapest titanium gravel bike on the (European) market.

So why did I want a titanium gravel bike, and, come to that, why was this bike the 4th titanium bike in my shed?  Well, I’m nervous about buying carbon bikes, not because I think they can’t cope with being ridden off road, clearly they can, and in any case, this bike has carbon forks and cranks.  Two things worried me.  Firstly some of the trails round here are quite rocky and the front wheel regularly hurls rocks at the frame which is not something carbon is good at resisting while titanium just shrugs it off.  For some reason the rocks never hit the forks.  The second reason is that I live in fear of press fit bottom bracket creaks and worse.  This frame has a traditional metal threaded bottom bracket shell to set my mind at rest, a rarity on carbon frames.  Then there are the aesthetics.  Most frames look nice when they’re new but don’t look so good after several years of being ridden off road.  This frame isn’t painted, the decals are sand blasted on and any scratches can be polished out.  I know from long experience that titanium frames never lose their looks.  I’ll talk about the ride quality later….  So those things rule out the three main frame materials – steel, aluminium and carbon, leaving only titanium.

Sand blasted decals and bare metal are going to keep their looks.

The Planet X Tempest comes in several configurations.  The frame is the same across the board but it can be specced with different groupsets, upgrades and custom options.  How this works is that you order the bike, and Planet X build it for you on a date they specify, after which it’s boxed up and sent out to you.  It means you can’t get one super-quick, but their communication was good and they stuck to the dates they gave me.  The bike needed a small amount of easy spannering when it arrived which is the case with any mail order bike.  Less pleasing was the bleed the rear brake needed, but I wasn’t going to send it back for that – 30 minutes in the shed and it was sorted.  I chose a Force1 11 speed groupset.  It’s a classy, well made gruppo with a clever clutch rear mech (which is fantastic off road) and bling carbon cranks, but for me, the most appealing feature is how easy and cheap it is to modify the gear ratios.  Most gravel group sets come with a lowest gear around the 1:1 mark, which in my view isn’t low enough, and most definitely isn’t low enough for where I live nor for the regular trips I do to the Pyrenees.  With this bike all I had to do to solve the gear problem was buy a cheap direct mount chainring and take a couple of links out of the chain.  2x typically don’t offer that flexibility – the inner chainring is already as small as it can be and the cassette is as large as it can be.  2x also offers high gears that I know I’ll never use, especially off road.  Some people use gravel bikes on and off road, so the high gears have some merit, but mine almost never sees asphalt so I have no use for them.  The downside of the 1x groupset is that some of the gaps between the gears are too large, especially at the top end.  Eventually I swapped the 11T smallest sprocket for a 12 because for me a smaller jump is preferable to a higher gear.  It’s a compromise.

Moving on to the design of the frame, it’s impressive and at the price point it seems churlish to criticize it at all but it’s good to know what you’ll be taking on if you buy one.  Earlier iterations of the Planet X Tempest were designed by Mark Reilly of Reilly Cycleworks and this one seems only to have been tweaked a little since. Firstly the weight of the bike is fine for the price but it’s no featherweight.  I have no way of measuring it accurately but it’s just under the 10kg mark.  Frankly if you want a lighter bike you need to spend more.  The tubes are oversized and the seatpin is a beefy 31.8mm, which brings me on to the ride quality.  If you’re expecting a plush ride, you’ll be disappointed.  The Tempest isn’t going to shake the teeth out of your head, there are plenty worse, but the big tubes don’t have too much give in them.  What it does have is a sure footed, predictable, confidence inspiring ride which I really like.  It’s also quite lively – it really does feel like a toned down road bike you’re taking off road, which was what I was looking for.  My Planet X Tempest has been taken on trails which really stretch what gravel riding is, and it’s had no problems at all.  One of its most impressive features is the tyre clearance, which leaves plenty of mud room with 700x45c WTB Riddlers and should just about accommodate 700x50c although I have yet to try that.   With those sorts of clearances I can’t see that 650b makes much sense, although the frame will take them.  It’s easy to get big clearances on a frame everywhere except the drive side chainstay where the frame tube has to be squeezed between the tyre and the chainring.  There are several ways of dealing with this problem: the method Planet X uses is to replace that part of the chainstay with a Ti plate which of course is much slimmer than a tube, leaving more space for the tyre.  There’s a weight penalty with that method, but it’s worth it for the massive clearance and not needing to increase the bike’s Q factor (the distance between the pedals) by using a boost system.  Tyres make more of a difference to ride quality than frame material so the lack of a magic carpet ride is hardly an issue with the huge clearances this bike has.

There is a rather irritating niggle with the frame design.  The chainstays splay out towards the towards the dropouts.  For me this normally causes no problem, but when I’m wearing my hefty winter boots the heel strikes the chainstay.  Now I’m no framebuilder or even an engineer but the problem seems to be entirely unnecessary.  The dropouts are joined to the chainstays on the chainstays’ inner edges, meaning the tube is further outboard than it needs to be.  It’s difficult to see any reason for doing it that way.  I don’t have particularly big feet (size 43) and my boots are Shimano’s standard offering.

Planet X Tempe
Chainstay heel strike. You can also see the chainstay plate which helps with tyre clearance.

The Planet X Tempest frame is a bit disappointing in terms of what you can attach to it.  You get 2 bottle cage mounts not the customary 3, which has been an issue for me on long hot rides in the middle of nowhere.  It has front and rear pannier carrier mounts (who apart from me still uses those?) but is missing mounts on the forks for fork bags.  It does have mudguard eyes though which are welcome.  The cable clips are a clever design which secures the cables to the frame with neat plastic clips.  The problem with that system on a gravel bike is that as soon as your cables get caught in some undergrowth (ie every ride) the plastic clips fly off leaving your cables flapping around all over the place.  I found myself stuck a long way from home unable to pedal because the fully enclosed gear cable was constantly getting tangled in the transmission.  Eventually I found an old fertilizer bag and tore strips off it to tie the cable to the frame and get myself home.  Once home I removed all the plastic clips and replaced them with zip ties.  Not quite as neat, but the cables stay put now.   No doubt Planet X use this cable system because it makes the bike easier to build, but it also makes replacing cables easier, so there’s something in it for you too, that is when you’ve invested in some zip ties.

Annoying Plastic Clip
Zip Tie Hack

Although my Planet X Tempest is a 1x bike, it has all the fittings you need for 2x.  The frame is built for the inevitable 12mm thru axles, which seem to me to be a solution looking for a problem, but of course they work as they should.  What’s a bit weird is the mismatching axles.  The front has a lever (which isn’t quick release of course but means you don’t need an allen key) while the rear needs an allen key.  Either system is fine by me, Planet X just need to pick one and stick with it..

I need to write something about the forks but I can’t think of much to say because all they do is sit there doing their job and contributing to the great handling this bike has.  They’re carbon, they flex a bit for comfort, they look good and the tyre clearance matches the frame.

Now to the wheels.  Firstly and most importantly, they work fine as you’d expect from Fulcrum.  As you’d also expect at the price they’re not the lightest wheels on the planet, but neither are they the heaviest, so no complaints there.  They’ve taken quite a battering on the rocky trails I often ride without needing any attention and contribute to the sure footed handling of the bike overall.  They’re tubeless compatible (if you add a rim strip – Planet X supply a cheap but totally functional kit) and sealed fine with my WTB Riddlers.  Weirdly they’re only guaranteed to work with Schwalbe – I guess they need to do a bit more testing.  The freewheel is very quiet, if that sort of thing bothers you.  I have to mention the spoke lacing though.  So far it hasn’t been an issue functionally, but it’s so bizarre, especially the rear wheel, it deserves a mention.  Asymmetric spoke patterns have been around for a long time but, with the notable exception of Campagnolo’s clever 3G system have never made much sense.  What makes even less sense is radial spokes on the non drive side of a disc braked rear wheel.  Radial spokes are useless at resisting the twisting loads both disc brakes and the bike’s transmission produce, which is why they should only be used on the front wheel of rim braked bikes.  This means only 12 of the 24 spokes are transmitting accelerating and braking forces which can’t be a good idea.  What were they thinking?  I expect it will lead to premature spoke failure, but no problems yet.  The front is also asymmetric, 2 cross on the disc side and 1 cross on the other, which is close enough to sensible (for a 24 spoke wheel) not to worry about.

The groupset is impressive, especially the rear mech.  Its clutch mechanism, which allows the cage to rotate slowly when you change gear, but resists the fast movement you would otherwise get on rough terrain is extremely effective.  Combined with the tall teeth on the chainring it keeps the chain in place 100% reliably and eliminates chain slap which is a first in my experience for any derailleur system.  The shifting is slick and accurate right across the cassette and the double tap levers work well, even for an old roadie like me who’s been riding Campagnolo since the dawn of time.  It’s slightly irritating that you can only change up one gear at a time, and just occasionally I’ve gone to change down when already in bottom gear, and changed up instead, but overall, no complaints about the system.  If I’m honest I’ve got my eyes on the new Campagnolo Ekar, but that wasn’t available when I bought this…  Maybe next year.  The chainset is a bling carbon affair which is supplied with a 110mm BCD 5 arm spider and a 42T chainring (paired with an 11 – 42 11 speed cassette).  For a bike purely used off road, I think the Planet X Tempest is over-geared, but you can make your own mind up about that because changing the chainring is an easy and cheap DIY job.  Either you buy another 110 ring (down to a 34T minimum) and bolt it on in place of the existing one, or do what I did and buy a direct mount chainring which allows you to go smaller and is lighter too.   Changing it involves taking the cranks off and undoing 3 T25 bolts, but that’s easily done.  I’ve ended up using a SRAM 32 ring most of the time with a 30T Absolute Black elliptical ring for the Pyrenees, but that’s because I like to spin up the technical climbs we have here and freewheel down them – if your riding is different you’ll want a different chainring, but that’s what I like about this system, you can experiment easily to find what’s right for you and you can change things around easily for different rides.  I’m not entirely convinced by the carbon cranks.  They look good and are light, but they’re constantly getting bashed on rocks and after a year are looking a bit the worse for wear.  With an alu crank, that’s only an aesthetic problem but I’m not so sure about carbon…

The brakes are powerful with good modulation, but on occasion they seem a bit out of their depth on big descents.  One of these days I’ll get around to asking Planet X if the forks can cope with a 180mm rotor.  In the meantime I’m experimenting with different pads.

The rest of the Planet X Tempest is pleasingly dull.  Obviously at this price you’re not getting a bling carbon finishing kit, but what you do get works well.   Special mention goes to the San Marco saddle.  Yes, it’s a steel railed basic model but I really like it.  OK, it wasn’t too long before I swapped it for my favourite Specialized Toupรฉ, but that was always going to happen on a bike I ride as much as this one.  The bars are flared as you’d expect on a decent gravel bike.  Personally I’d be just as happy on standard road bars, but flared is what most people go for, so the spec makes sense.  I’ve been keeping an eye on the headset for the last few months.  It’s been making rust stains down the frame and sometimes feels a bit notchy, but so far slathering it in grease has solved the problem and you can’t expect a cheap headset to last forever off road.

One of the great things about how Planet X sell bikes is the customization.  There are various upgrades you can have, although none were especially appealing I thought, so I kept my wallet in my pocket.  However they let you say which way round you want the brake levers connected up which is fantastic.  I absolutely have to have my front brake on the right hand lever or my head explodes – and of course swapping the levers over is a total nightmare, so letting the customer decide is a great thing.  I also like very narrow bars which is rare on gravel bikes so being able to specify 40cm bars put a smile on my face.  If you’re more of a gorilla than I am, wide bars are available too.

Now to tyres.  Once your bike is the right size and is fit for purpose, tyres make more difference than anything else you can change on your bike.  But no-one refuses to buy a bike because of the tyres, so manufacturers typically skimp on them.  The Planet X Tempest came with some unsuitable Vittoria Revolution 35mm tyres.  Too skinny, too roadie and too tubed.  A weird choice given all they effort they’ve made to create massive clearance.  To their credit Planet X said I could swap them if I paid the difference, but they had no decent quality, fat tubeless tyres in stock at all, so the bike shipped with the Vittorias, which have been hanging up in the shed ever since.  I’ve just looked and they still don’t have any suitable tyres in stock.  However I bought some tubeless WTB Riddlers from one of the usual online places, a super-cheap tubeless kit from Planet X and I was soon good to go on better rubber.

Planet X Tempest Review

So overall, should you buy a Planet X Tempest?  Frankly if you can live with the lack of mounts on the frame and you don’t have big feet, it’s hard to think of anything better at this price.  It’s made of the best possible material for a gravel bike, the spec is good, the price is low – that’s a bit of a killer combo.  But I like to keep bikes for a very long time – if that’s not you, you’ll be less interested in all the things I love about Ti frames.  If you want something lighter and more compliant, you’ll need deeper pockets.  If you’re going to spend substantially more, the Tempest wouldn’t be on your shortlist anyway, but to be clear, you’d need to spend a lot more before the bike was noticeably better.  For some there will be an issue with Planet X.  I’ve had no problems because I’m a decent mechanic, but unless you live near them or the bike is so catastrophically bad you’re willing to send it back to them, you’ll have to resolve any issues yourself – in my case a brake needed bleeding.  You’ll also have to do a small amount of assembly work when the bike turns up.  If you can’t do that, you need to be buying a bike from a reliable local bike shop, not going to a mail order outfit like Planet X.

Pros:

  • Fantastic Ti gravel bike at a budget price
  • Great handling
  • Massive tyre clearance
  • Several specs available to suit different budgets and riders
  • Custom and upgrade options available

Cons:

  • At the price, not much!
  • Missing mounts for 3rd bottle cage and fork leg bags
  • Heel strike in winter boots
  • Annoying cable clips need a zip tie hack
  • Mail order means you’re not getting bike shop service.
  • You have to wait for your bike to be built

I’ll finish with my usual disclaimer.  I have no connection to the manufacturer, and bought the Planet X Tempest featured with my own money at full retail price.  The bike is exactly as it looks after a year of heavy use.  I may have cleaned it, but not thoroughly. Planet X don’t know I’m doing this review, but I might tell them now it’s done.

St Antonin Noble Velo sells cycling holidays in Southwest France.  We also run a vegan cookery school.

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