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Gravel Test: DeAnima Soul Custom Build

Alison McGregor literally travelled around the world to find the perfect gravel bike, here she explains the process of building her dream bike.

Unless you’re a champagne gravel seeker, you’re probably like me—on the lookout for outlandish routes. On the roughest trails you get to combat some extreme conditions.

I’m no Bear Grylls, but this constant readiness to jump a snake or avoid some possible impending doom makes gravel damn exciting. The irony is, when it comes to marketing, gravel bikes tend to be defined by their level of comfort. Well, the following review is devoid of any comfort scale. This isn’t because I experience pain on my DeAnima Soul, but because DeAnima won’t make unobtainable promises.

Gravel is dirty, tough, and sometimes wild. Your best bike should allow you the gamut of gravel experiences, from slipping through sandpits to loosing your vision as you vibrate over the worst washboard roads.

A Backward Glance

Reverse to June 2019. I’m travelling through Trentino, Northern Italy, looking for the perfect gravel bike. The typical dry heat is inescapable. As my business partner David and I leave our air-conditioned hire car to enter the DeAnima showroom, Matt Cazzaniga (co-owner of DeAnima) greets us with the offer of water. He leads us through the gallery where painted tubes grab my attention.

Striking from every aspect, the custom Italian build.

The Pegoretti hand is instantly identified by the abstract paintwork. The infamous frame building brothers, Gianni and Dario Pegoretti, grew up in a household of art. This former aesthetic influence on the DeAnima Workshop gives the impression I’m visiting an artist studio. I look around and reference a few of my favoured European abstractionists—Piero Dorazio, Cy Twombly, Claude Viallat.

We meander through the bikes to arrive inside the greater workshop. The heat remains the same. Here the principal frame builder Gianni Pegoretti stands. They are expecting us and he strides forward with his hand outstretched. In quiet Italian, Pegoretti takes David aside to discuss technical aspects.

Meanwhile, Matt chats. He guides me through the workshop and with perfect English accent talks about the current bike market. He shows me the painting area, another room with a clean floor, and large jigs. Nearby complete frames hang like animals at the butcher alongside rows of forks and frames.

With finality, Matt stops at a carbon frame. It sits raw without a lick of paint. In the hands of the DeAnima Team this chrysalis is about to emerge into a gravel bike called the Soul. If I could see the future I’d know this was to become my off-road champion.

The twin upper seat stays assist strength & stability and help provide better support for wider tyres.

But the future is unreadable, and while I absorb the perfect unison that occurs during the custom build process, I’m still unsure if the Soul is the best bike for me. I question Matt. Why would I want this frame? “It’s fast,” he replies. The silence afterward is poignant. I expect jargon, a sales pitch, some reasoning at least. Instead Matt just sort of looks at me, waiting.

Retrospect: Ordering the Soul

In our later conversations, I realised Matt’s answer wasn’t evasive. The silence had logic.

Riding trails is more than a fad. For myself, gravel rides are about enjoying the wild and getting through each adventure in one piece. I wanted a bike to provide excitement and allow hours of efficient riding. While speed is an attractive trait, most of us sit at the computer for hours a day hunched over while tightening our ITBs. You’ll likely be conscious that enjoyment on the bike depends on holding a ride position for half a day or more. If you’re too aero or aggressive, pain takes over.

The key to understanding if this bike is for me is to understand and trust the process of customisation in the hands of the specific builder.

I already owned one custom road bike and fortunately the intricacies of custom purchasing are familiar. If you haven’t yet stepped into the world of having a bike tailored to your specifics, the process can be a mystery to unlock. So too can your issues of trust as a consumer. We have become obsessed with buying goods according to reviews, whether that’s through paid marketing, published reviews or riders’ personal experience on social media. But, instead, I like going to the source to understand exactly where the bike was conceived, why and by who?

Immaculate attention to detail everywhere you look … the frameset is certainly built with pride.

Knowing what and who makes the frame

A few years ago Gianni prepared a geometry suited to harsh gravel terrain as well as hard packed roads. The objective was to create a bike that could essentially handle it all. With his vast experience it’s a given this bike is more than capable of taking on the terrain I ride.

The frameset under construction.

As you order a bike like the Soul, Gianni will follow the specific geometry but tailor each tube according to your measurements and flexibilities. My dimensions are in effect imprinted into the design of my Soul, making it one of a kind.

The process of customisation perfectly synchronises the bike with the terrain and the rider. This unity translates into riders confidence in bike handling and that in turn helps when riding the extreme conditions of gravel.

…I’m travelling through Trentino, Northern Italy, looking for the perfect gravel bike.

Maximum bike handling, proper bike position and balance transported on a geometry designed to withstand the forces of gravel.

The build features Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX groupset.

The Advantage of Custom

Only a handful of Italian master builders continue making made-to-measure frames. Many possess skills and equipment passed through generations.

Gianni Pegoretti and David Piancenti in the Deanima workshop.

Currently, custom frame-building is experiencing a revival. Perhaps it’s a response to trends and the growing intelligence of riders questioning the limits of generic-sized models. Maybe because the availability of factory frames is problematic and so buying custom proves quicker. Regardless, DeAnima is a brand renowned for quality and providing bikes for clients who don’t fit the norm.

Customising the Future

When I asked Gianni about the main benefits of custom, he cited “Around 40% of people would benefit from a made-to-measure frame.” Unfortunately the choice is taken from many consumers who remain solely exposed to generic-sized brands. Matt and Gianni have both discussed at length the role of marketing and its effect on choice. “The explosion of the bicycle sales in the world has meant that frame geometry has been standardised to maximise production,” says Gianni.

The issue with generic sizes is that we are rarely standard. There is a reason why bike fitting is a fast growing profession. A rider who is either very tall or very petite will likely experience common aches and pains relative to a frames generic sizing. Also, riders who are proportioned differently than standard sizings often make compromises with stem and saddle position. Long legs and short torso is an example whereby spacers are frequently added and stem is shortened. This in turn affects both bike handling and safety.

Alison aboard her dream gravel bike on home trails out of Sydney.

Instead a custom bike accounts for all our idiosyncrasies. Not only our physical appearance and characteristics but our ride intentions. Gianni requests details. “Other than the classic bodily measurements, we need to know what use the frame will be used for, the length of rides, type of surface, this allows us to maximise the customisation of the frame,” he tells me.

Colliding forces: Fit and Fast

I now call Matt’s term, “It’s fast,” the no-BS response. DeAnima doesn’t rely on cycling jargon that spreads across so many reviews. They don’t believe it because combining every conceived technical term to describe the one frame is meaningless, a lie, physically impossible. Matt says, “A lot of people come to us saying…they’ve been told to get a gravel bike because it can do everything. It’s like, well, not really. I mean, you can put road tires on it, do whatever, but it ain’t never gonna be a road bike because of the geometry.”

The Soul accommodates up to a 40c tyre so if you want comfort, as Matt puts it, “You probably don’t want a gravel bike but a bloody MTB with very fat tyres.” Or perhaps you’re better off watching a friend’s GoPro recording from your sofa.

How does the actual ride feel? Lets remain in the realm of reality. Dirt, rocks, and sand are harsh on the body, to slip in the terminology, the Carbon Soul is stiff to ride. That helps when you need traction to keep the wheels down on the climbs. Because of the customisation, the bike is stable. This is especially true when compared to other bikes that have their own integrated suspension headsets or seat posts.

In my experience these additions afford a rider some minimal comforts but are ripe for failure and can add an element of sloppiness to a ride. Instead, the Soul remains true to purpose. It’s raw, capable, even ruthlessly accurate in its handling when fitted perfectly.

My gravel partner frequently comments how much a part of the bike I seem. This fits-like-a-glove feel is a familiar trait of professionally built custom bikes. When it comes to the Soul, that feeling of being part of the bike is visible when correcting myself on slippery sand or gravel corners at speed.

The moral of the story is that a gravel bike is a gravel bike because it pushes you beyond your comfort zone. You’ll want to fly on the edge of your seat because the adrenalin is part of the joy. Adrenalin has you feeling alive, adventurous, courageous, and if you allow me a cliche, free.

Gravel is unpredictable and a bike that handles quickly is a benefit on the trails. On the Soul, notice the shortened chain stays, thinness of the seat stays and angle of the head tube. All of these features indicate a bike built to respond quickly akin to a road equivalent.

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