Adventure bikes

By Australian Geographic Adventure 27 October 2015
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Bike disciplines collide as companies reinvent the 700c-wheeled bike for the new century

THERE ARE FEWER outdoor industries as good as the cycling trade for reinventing itself year in and year out in the chase for new sales. Bikes are no longer simply divided along on-road and off-road lines, but are sliced into increasingly thin segments within each discipline.

Add to that the almost constant technical arms race when it comes to component standards, and choosing a bike can quickly become overwhelming. Do I want a mountain bike? A dual-suspension bike? How much suspension travel do I need? What frame material? How many gears? What diameter of handlebar (true question!)? The choices are legion.

There is a positive side, of course – it’s now possible to cherry-pick a bike that suits your purposes down to a tee even before you’ve left the shop, and – if you’re savvy – for a pretty good price. Let’s take a closer look at a line of bikes that resonates strongly with outdoor adventurers who need a machine to do more than one job.

So, what’s an adventure bike?

As its name suggest, the adventure bike is primarily designed for use on good quality unsealed and sealed roads. Upon closer inspection, though, it’s actually a lot more than that. A cross between a road bike and a cyclocross bike, the adventure (or gravel) bike is closer to the latter in execution, though there are some key differences that make it a more practical proposition.

It’s based around a set of 700c wheels, a traditional double-diamond frame and road bike-esque drop handlebars and narrow saddle. Where it differs is in its component selection and frame inclusions.

A dedicated cyclocross bike, for example, will often eschew small but very useful inclusions on its frame build; rack mounts, for example, aren’t necessary for the ‘cross racer, but essential for a multiday trip. Its frame geometry, too, is generally more aggressive and direct in its handling traits, which makes it fast on a racecourse but a handful off it.
An adventure bike will not only have a set of rack mounts, it will also have provision for wide tyres, fenders and perhaps even an extra water bottle cage.

Should I get a carbon adventure bike?

While carbon-fibre composite frames are now available in abundance at affordable price points, the material it pushed aside is making a comeback. Aluminium (or more accurately, alloy) frames can be manufactured more cheaply than the equivalent carbon frame, while advances in metal tube manipulation technology (hydroforming, for example) give new life to this old tech.

Both materials have their pluses and minuses. A carbon-fibre frame will generally be lighter for the same strength, but is harder (not impossible, but harder) to repair, especially away from civilisation. Alloy frames have a much higher tolerance against the scrapes and bumps of an active life in the field and can be welded back together in a pinch.

Many companies offer gravel, road and cyclocross bikes in both materials; you’ll find better value buying in the alloy-framed range, but quite often with lower-spec drivetrain parts.

Carbon adventure bike parts?

You’ll notice that all the bikes pictured in this piece share one particular part; disc brakes. This is just one example of how bike designers are currently – and finally – looking across the cycling spectrum to cherry pick the best ideas from each segment.

Road bike – and, by dint of association, cyclocross bike – brakes have been rubbish for a long time now. With a high effort needed at the brake lever to exert even basic pressure on the narrow rim track via a tiny caliper; adding a pair of loaded panniers quickly makes things even worse. Disc brakes, while still in their road and ‘cross infancy, have been standard fare on even basic MTBs for years now, and the quality, performance and reliability is nothing short of amazing.

Both major component makers Shimano and SRAM offer disc systems for road and gravel machines. Cable-actuated discs are easier to maintain, while hydraulically operated systems offer more power for less effort, but are trickier to maintain in the field.

Most other parts are interchangeable between the disciplines, though parts designed for MTB use are heavier-duty (and heavier full stop) than their road counterparts. A modern adventure bike will generally use a seat/stem combo that could be used on any bike, but will offer a more road-orientated drop bar and narrow seat configuration.

Another part that has made the transition to the gravel bike from the MTB world is the through-axle. For decades, both road and MTBs made do with thin quick-release skewers designed by Tullio Campagnolo for road racing in the 1950s. Now, large-diameter axles are used to secure the wheels to the frame and fork, and serve to tie the bike together in a much more rigid fashion.

Anything else I should look for?

Depending on what you’re planning to do with your bike, it’s worth making friends with your local bike shop when you buy your new bike. Want to ride across the Brindabellas, for example? You’ll need a wide range of gears, which might necessitate the use of a wider gear cluster or smaller front chainrings.

A good bike shop will fine-tune these before you take delivery of your new rig. Tyre choice, saddle choice, rack fitment; all of these essentials can be done at the time of purchase, and if not done as part of the original deal, can be done for a far better price than if you did it afterwards.