Knolly Cache is the Gravel Bike Made by Mountain Bikers [Review]
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Knolly Cache is the Gravel Bike Made by Mountain Bikers [Review]

Jun 15, 2023

Known for their burly mountain bikes designed for North Shore riding, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that the Knolly brand has a gravel bike in their lineup: the Cache. The term gravel is open to interpretation, and Knolly's vision of what a gravel bike should be follows their overall design ethos, which is to build bikes that are tough and capable.

Gravel riding here in BC looks a lot like mountain biking in other places. It's all too easy to get carried away and wind up riding things wholly unsuited to a bike with drop bars with a ‘well, here we are’ mindset, and I know it can't just be me. The Cache was clearly designed with these situations in mind; it's the sort of bike that doesn't mind a misadventure or ten, and makes riding on the road enjoyable, while being versatile enough for a bit of bikepacking, commuting and whatever else gets thrown at it.

I only managed a handful of rides on the Cache, and while I got a good feel for the bike, this isn't a long-term review.

The Cache was designed for versatility, from road riding to mountain biking, and everywhere in between, and the small details reflect that. With steel and titanium models available, the Knolly Cache on test here was built using their butted hardened steel tubing, painted in Beere Blue, a color inspired by the local brewery's Go Easy beer. Small details such as the dropouts, the chainstay yoke and even the welds are all nice quality, deliberately so, and set the Cache apart from many other cheaper-looking frames.

Mountain bikers may not be used to seeing front derailleurs, but they’re still common on drop bar bikes, and the Cache includes a mount for a braze-on derailleur. Other sensible features include a threaded bottom bracket and full external cable routing. The front triangle includes two bottle cage mounts on the inside and one under the down tube. The carbon tapered-steerer fork has three mounts on each side for bottle cages or gear storage, and the back end has rack mounts while fender mounts can be found front and rear. Other typical gravel bike features can be found such as a 12x142mm rear axle and 12x100mm front axle and flat mount brakes.

Where the Cache sets itself apart is with features that push it more into mountain bike territory. This updated version of the Cache has clearance for 700x50c tires for example, and the fork features a flip chip to maintain the same trail numbers and therefore handling characteristics when changing tire sizes. The Cache uses a 31.6mm seat post and features routing for a dropper post, combined with a generously sloping top tube with room for a full-size mountain bike dropper post.

The Knolly Cache geometry is one of its party pieces, with a 71° head angle and 42mm chainstays. This combo keeps things slack out front and short out back for a combination of lively yet stable handling. The big surprise is in the reach however, where this 56cm frame comes in at 409mm which is almost 20mm more than the equivalent Specialized Diverge, a bike that's considered fairly radical. The reason for such a long reach is twofold: stability and for the ability to convert the bike to flat bars.

The bike only comes in a drop bar configuration as stock, but the long reach means fitting a flat bar can be achieved with the use of a slightly longer stem since bike comes with a fairly short stock stem. I’m 6ft tall, and Knolly's geometry chart put me squarely on a 58cm bike, but with the already long reach and my preference for a less aggressive fit I felt that the 56cm would work better for me.

Keeping things simple, the Cache has only two spec options: Shimano GRX 600 1x and GRX 600 2x. Proven to be a robust and reliable groupset already, GRX 600 is the lower tiered 11-speed option from the components manufacturer. It features the same 800-series clutch derailleur with 600-series shifters and cranks, and 400-series calipers. Despite not being the top-tier group, the feel is quality with great shifting and plenty of power from the hydraulic brakes. This bike came with the 1x spec, with the 11-42t cassette and a 40t chainring up front.

The wheels are Shimano GRX RS370 which are affordable and tubeless-ready with straight-pull spokes and hubs featuring Shimano's famously serviceable cup and cone bearings. Wrapped with a Maxxis Rambler/Ravager tire combo in 700x40c these should work well for most, though the test bike came with 700x50c Ramblers front and rear.

The cockpit on my 56cm test bike features a 70mm Easton EA50 stem and 42cm-wide EA50AX handlebars with a moderate 12° flare wrapped with Easton bar tape. The seatpost is a Race Face Ride XC and perched on top is an SDG Duster P saddle.

Getting my hands on the Cache, one of the first things that's immediately obvious is the weight of the bike. Tipping the scales at 25lb 8oz it's not outrageously heavy, but it's also not light by any means. Pedaling off the line is not exactly snappy; it's not a race bike, nor was it designed to be. Getting the Cache up to speed requires a little effort, and it's more of a marathon rather than a sprint type of bike so it doesn't accelerate like a svelte carbon weapon such as the Cervelo Aspero.

Once up to speed however, the Cache maintains that speed remarkably well, the weight giving it a little more momentum. Without wanting to make a big deal of bike weights, I find it makes a little more difference on a gravel bike than an enduro bike, but the Cache's intentions are a little different from those of many other bikes in the gravel segment. I’d argue that for those genuinely interested in the Knolly Cache, weight is unlikely to factor into the purchasing decision.

Climbing isn't what I’d call a chore, particularly compared to a ‘proper’ mountain bike, but the Cache does make you work, and I find the gear range on the GRX drivetrain somewhat limiting. I would prefer a smaller gear for the really nasty climbs, because the Cache is more of a sit-and-spin type of bike than one that rewards spirited out of the saddle efforts. And while the GRX drivetrain shifts well, the 42t big sprocket is just not big enough.

Coming from a mountain bike background and being loathe to give in and run a front derailleur, I wish the GRX 1x range was bigger, but that isn't Knolly's fault. From my own trials I know that an Shimano XT 11-46t cassette does work without any modifications other than chain length, but is not officially recommended by Shimano. Shimano's GRX 600 groupset is something I’ve spent a lot of time on, and other than the range issue, I would highly recommend it based on its incredible reliability, excellent shifting and comfortable ergonomics.

Rather than a snappy gravel race bike, the Cache is more of an adventure type bike for the inquisitive knobby-tire native, and where it truly shines is in its sure-footedness. With the 50mm-wide Maxxis tires, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was a little suspension built into the frame. Enlarging the clearance to run big tires was a smart move, and it does a lot to increase both comfort and grip. Combined with the long front center, once the Cache is up to speed, it feels incredibly stable.

This is especially noticeable on asphalt where a more road-focused gravel bike might feel more nimble and lively. The Cache is happier to point in a straight line, but on fast, rough gravel roads it holds a line very well and feels confident rather than sketchy.

On slower, more technical mountain bike type trails, the large volume tires help with climbing and grip, while the short chainstays mean cornering is nippy and fun.

As far as fit goes, I felt vindicated in my decision to size down to a 56cm. My tight lower back and short torso appreciated this choice since aggressive road bike fits are not for me. As mentioned earlier, the Cache has quite a long reach, and comes with a shorter stem (70mm in this case) to keep handling quick. This also means that switching out to a flat bar would be easy, and for those with a longer torso it would even be possible to size up and run a short stem. The other benefit of such a long front end means zero toe overlap.

The Knolly Cache is a well rounded enough bike, depending what's expected of it. It's clearly a mountain biker's gravel bike, designed for fun and getting into trouble rather than donning head to toe lycra and hunting for KOMs. It’ll do double-duty as a bikepacking rig, commuter and then some, and would be an excellent bike for big days out adventuring, particularly with a flat bar, dropper post and even a short suspension fork such as the Rockshox Rudy.

There are certain details that I like about the Cache such as the multiple mounting points, big tire clearance and the aforementioned dropper post compatibility. Personally I would prefer to see internal cable routing to keep a cleaner aesthetic but I appreciate that many people like the simplicity of external routing. I also would appreciate a wider gear range on the 1x option, but I’m also aware that the Cache hits a certain price point and that neither of the big two produce a mechanical gravel groupset with what I would call adequate range without having to get creative.

Overall, the Cache is best suited for those spending more time off the beaten track rather than on it, and value off-road capability and descending rather than all-out speed and climbing prowess. Finally, the Cache is a pretty good price for what is a well-specced, designed-in-BC bike with a solid build quality.