As part of our mega guide to the best bikes on the market, we talk you through what to look for if you're keen to go on big riding adventures.
Words: Adam Macbeth
Remember when you first got a bike, as a kid? I do. For a long time it was hard for me to really pin down what it was about those early years of riding that really sold it to me. What it was though, was the new found freedom. The ability to see new things quickly, under my own steam and get home again with an experience that was my own.
This kind of cycling still exists, and there are a lot of very cool bikes available to help you explore your backyard, or the world. Welcome to adventure riding.
The beautiful thing about this genre of bike is also the aspect that makes trying to find the right one for you so difficult. Versatility.
Whereas many of the other styles of bikes we’ll look at in this issue have a quite clearly defined purpose, the adventure bicycle needs to do a lot, and it needs to do it all pretty well. From tarmac to gravel, carrying some load for bikepacking adventures and even shredding a bit of proper mountain bike trail. Ticking ALL these boxes is a near impossible task. – Adam Macbeth
Adventure bikes checklist
Carbon bikes have become much better value over the last few years and the reliability has improved out of sight. Carbon also allows the creation of some funky shapes for better tyre clearance, ride quality changes, improved cable routing and frame bag mounting. If you really are thinking about bikepacking as your main focus, some of it remote, then steel is still your friend from both a comfort and reliability point of view. And those on a budget will be amazed by the value on offer on alloy bikes these days.
Whereas a lot of other styles of bike are designed with great standover height for sprinting and climbing clearance, as soon as you start exploring longer and further you realise one thing. There’s a lot of room, even on a small bike, to store stuff in the front triangle. As a result, you’ll find a lot of models with a more horizontal top tube that you are used to seeing on your road or CX bikes, and some models even go so far as to add a curved downtube to create more space. The accompanying longer seat stays also add a bit of comfort as well as allowing for bigger rubber.
Wait. Multiple Wheel Sizes?
Imagine owning one bike to use for the occasional morning road ride all the way through to some loaded bikepacking. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a bike that could handle a 700c road wheelset during the week with a 30mm tyre, but was also able to have proper mountain bike hoops dropped in at the weekend to go shred on 2.2 inch 650b rubber? This is something we’ll be seeing more and more of, and modern adventure bikes allow this.
Excuse me, HOW wide are those bars?
Wider bars offer more control, especially once you get well and truly off the sealed roads and have to navigate minutia on long forgotten fire roads. Add at least 20mm to your preferred road width (hood to hood). But it’s not just the width that is important. A bar with either a little, or a lot more sweep than a traditional road bar improves handling on rough terrain. It also offers much better access to the brakes from the drop of the bar, improving control and confidence and allowing for a wider dry bag to be mounted to the bars.
Show me the headtube
Your most controlled position in the rough stuff is in the drops and a lot of manufacturers have adjusted their geometry to allow this to be your main position on the bike. Longer head tubes, often combined with slacker head angles, all point towards security and forgiveness on boulder strewn logging trails. Don’t be scared by bikes with a 20mm longer top tube than you are used to riding either. The mountain bike influenced geometry of long, slack frames has made its way to adventure bikes. A much shorter stem than usual, in conjunction with wide bars and slack angles adds to rider confidence at speed or when the hours are taking their toll.
How Much Rubber?
If you’re coming from riding on the road, a 38mm tyre seems huge. Long rides on varied terrain require two things – comfort and reliability, with speed a close third. 40mm tyres on a 700c wheel has become the minimum for exploring, especially loaded with gear, with many companies now offering bigger tyre clearance and the option of running various wheel sizes. As a simple rule, bigger is better. You can always run a smaller tyre on a bike designed for big rubber, but if your bike only takes 40mm treads and you are craving some cush, then it’s new bike time.
Mounting Bolts Everywhere!
You need to be able to carry your gear. As a minimum we’d suggest making sure a water bottle could mount under the downtube but you’ll find more and more options with hidden rack mounts, fork leg mounts for light goods like sleeping gear and even mounts for integrated frame bags. Again, it’s the kind of stuff you might not feel you need today, but having options as your riding evolves is a glorious thing.
Specialized Diverge, from $1,500
The focus of the new, redesigned Diverge was to enable riders to never be in a position where they’re thinking ‘that looks fun, but I couldn’t do it on this bike’. And Specialized have executed it very well.
A completely new take on the previous model, the updated Diverge boasts a lot of details that speak highly of its ability to take you a long way off route comfortably and confidently. Clearance for 42mm tyres is a good start but once you start digging there are some nice geometry and technology details that will spark your interest for sure. Specialized moved away from the geometry of the old Diverge, which definitely had a very cyclocross vibe to it, and have created what they call their Open Road geometry. Speaking basically, it’s mountain trail bike geometry for the road bike.
Specialized dropped the bottom bracket height, shortened the chainstays and slacked out the head angle on the new Diverge - aiming to maintain hard surface speed while adding a whole lot of fun to the offroad parts of the ride. Combined with its new-found ability to handle some proper sized rubber, the bike is pushed well and truly into the adventure seekers’ ballpark.
On top of this, Specialized have rebirthed their Future Shock headtube suspension system, and it’s very well suited to the versatility of the Diverge. Now with a much stiffer spring rate, designed to take the edge off harder hits, the main benefit of the future shock is the removal of suspension related handling changes.
With a traditional suspension fork, the head angle and wheelbase of a bike change as the fork absorbs bumps. Not so with the Future Shock, which also runs firm enough to be barely noticeable on the tarmac. Some will baulk at the ‘unslammed’ appearance of the front end, but those seeking more ride comfort than the rubber will offer should check it out. 20mm of travel doesn’t sound like a lot but it sure makes a difference.
Plenty of Specialized’s signature strokes are on offer, including their carbon models being amongst the lightest in class. The SWAT storage system on the carbon models for carrying tubes and tools is a feature that definitely suits the Diverge’s design brief.
As always with Specialized there are plenty of options in alloy or carbon.
Norco Search XR Ultegra Carbon, $4,499
Off the back of their Search gravel bike range the new Norco Search XR takes the capability of those bikes and adds another dimension. By dropping the drive side chain stay Norco have allowed for some great tyre clearance - without sacrificing the amount of material in the stay. The bigger sizes can handle up to 45mm rubber on a 700c rim and a claimed 2.1” 650b tyre. There are loads of mounts for gear, racks and fenders all of which have hilarious names (check out their website) but are clearly well thought out.
Merida Silex, from $1,599
The Silex is a new model from Merida boasting some very modern geometry and the ability to run multiple wheel sizes. The Silex features a very long top and headtube, aiming for some serious offroad action with confidence. From a versatility point of view, giving riders the option to run up to 700x44mm or 650b x 2.2” inch rubber is a beautiful thing. One bike, two wheelsets… do just about anything you want. There is plenty of room for mounts on the frame and fork, including a multipurpose mount on the downtube for large items, making the Silex well worth checking out if you’re thinking about some multi-day missions.
Salsa Fargo, $3,990
Capable of running tyres up to 29x3.0” the Salsa Fargo is geared very much toward off road comfort, dealing with a bikepacking load and staying on your bike when others are walking.
Such was the popularity of the original Fargo, that the Cutthroat was spawned. Think ‘full carbon, endurance racing Fargo,’ and you’re pretty much there. The Cutthroat is lighter than the Fargo, offers bigger front triangle space and can take up to a 29x2.4” tyre. The choice of Tour Divide race legend Jay Petervary, the Cutthroat is well worth checking out if you’re staying on the dirt but you don’t want to hang about.