Every ride is an adventure - especially when you're on an adventure bike.
Over the past ten days, I've ridden an abandoned railroad bed covered with loose ballast, a few different limestone rail trails that had been battered by flood waters, and the potholed streets of Chicago. I've plowed into puddles, maneuvered around garbage heaps, slogged through mud, and blazed my own trail between saplings and weeds, ever careful not to pick up any broken glass. I cruised along country lanes and took in the scenery. I ran errands. At times, I even carried a miniature version of my home office along with me.
And I did it all on the same bike.
The key to a good adventure bike is versatility. It needs to be as competent on rough surfaces - pothole-riddled city streets, gravel roads, limestone rail trails, and hard-packed dirt paths - as it is on the smooth ones. There is a happy medium between wide, slow-rolling mountain bike tires and the thin, fast-rolling road tires that provide the right amount of traction for the task at hand without adding too much resistance. These tires are available in sizes between 28c (too wide for a road bike frame) and 38c (too narrow for a mountain bike's intended use). While there are dozens of choices in this size range with a wide variety of tread patterns, it's the bike's ability to accommodate the full spectrum that is most important.
Another important aspect of ample tire clearance is the ability to add fenders. For many, fenders seem old fashioned - incongruent with the design aesthetic of today's bikes. Fenders may not add style points, but they protect you from getting that damp, gritty stripe up your backside when the pavement is wet and a coating of white dust on your legs and water bottles when your favorite trail is bone dry. I no longer pop out of the saddle and cringe when I'm forced to fjord a puddle - my fenders get to enjoy the spraying of cold water on their exposed surfaces, not me.
Beyond tire clearance, the invisible hand of the bike industry tends to get, how shall I say this, a little pissy about the remaining features that must be present for classification as a "true" adventure bike. Given the fact that the basic platform is already a cyclocross bike (which itself is a derivation of the road bike), I find this purist ideology a little silly. If your bike - whatever style you ride - takes you on adventures, then you, the rider, should have the right to call it an adventure bike. But I digress...
Here are some nice features that can make your adventure bike more comfortable and efficient when you ride:
Drop handlebars. Yes, these are the same type of ram horn shaped bars that your old ten-speed used and remain in use on all competitive road bikes today. Keep in mind that we don't have the same stems used in years past. You don't have to have a dramatic drop from your saddle to the handlebar if you don't like that riding position. You can ride as upright as you desire - just like on a straight handlebar model.
Drop bars are versatile. They provide you with a wide-variety of hand positions for comfort and efficiency. You can ride with your hands on the brake hoods, keeping quick control over your shifting and braking. You can sit up taller and ride holding on to the very top of the bar or you can slide down into the drops - the lowest part of the bar - to get your head down out of the wind. Having the ability to frequently switch hand positions during long rides will help prevent wrist strain and finger numbing. Drop bars are highly recommended for your maximum enjoyment.
Rack(s) and bags. As George Carlin said, wherever you go, you're gonna need to take your "stuff" along with you. A good adventure bike will provide you with the ability to mount a rear rack capable of holding a trunk bag and a pair of panniers (saddle bags). Bags come in a variety of shapes and sizes for different types of uses. Some are waterproof and designed to hold camping gear while others are open and accommodate grocery bags. You can carry spare clothes for work or a six-pack of cold ones on ice. A good adventure bike will have the eyelets and braze-ons to mount a rack without any modification that will compromise the rack's strength and payload capacity.
If you plan on taking a self-supported tour for multiple days, you may like the flexibility to add a second rack to the front fork of your bike for carrying smaller loads. A good adventure bike will feature eyelets and braze-ons for a front rack, as well as a rear rack.
A lack of front braze-ons should not be a deal breaker, however. Carbon fiber forks - popular on many cyclocross models - aren't designed to have a hole drilled into them. If you prefer the lighter, vibration-damping properties of a carbon fork, you have to forego the front rack option. This leads to that pissy classification debate that I eluded to earlier...
Only you, the rider, know where you'd like your adventure bike to take you.
If you dream about riding cross country, camping in national parks, heating up cans of beans with a Sterno stove, and carrying a portable version of your home strapped securely to your bike, you may be drawn to a more traditional touring frame with maximum tire clearance. Whether you will actually ride "fully loaded" on a regular basis or only once in a great while is something only you can predict.
Models that feature touring geometry - longer chain stays that position the rear rack a few centimeters farther back to balance a load between front and back and provide greater heel clearance when you pedal - tend to be less responsive during everyday, unloaded use. If more than half of your adventure bike's use will be unloaded or lightly loaded (trunk bag, occasional pannier use), you will be sacrificing quick acceleration and responsive maneuverability if you select a bike with touring geometry. If your adventure bike is the second or third bike in your collection and won't be used for commuting, rail trail excursions, and general road riding, touring geometry may be ideal for your self-supported outings.
No amount of words will ever substitute for a test ride.
You'll know which model is right for you once you've ridden it. You can't tell by a spin around the block or figure-8's in the parking lot. Take the time to really ride - stand out of the saddle and pedal hard, sprint, slalom. Ride over rough surfaces. Compare how each model responds to your effort and evaluate the performance attributes that appeal to your riding style. Remember, you can change every part on a bike frame to improve performance, but you can never change the ride attributes of the frame itself.
It's time to start planning your adventures for this season. Get out there and test ride a new adventure bike!
Here are a few shots of my new Bianchi Volpe - custom-tailored to my adventure needs. I'll be writing about my excursions on it throughout this season. I'll recap where it has taken me during 30 Days of Biking. Feel free to check back regularly to see what type of adventures the Volpe has taken me on!
Bianchi Volpe with my personal adventure package. Fizik Superlight microtouch bar tape, Nite Rider Lumina 650 headlight, WTB Speed V Sport saddle, SKS Chromoplastic fenders, Axiom Journey rear rack, Axiom Paddy Wagon trunk bag, PDW Fenderbot taillight, Elite Ciucci bottle cages, Camelbak Podium Big Chill bottles, Bianchi seatpost bag, and PDW Radbot 1000 taillight.
Axiom Paddy Wagon bag fully expanded for a trip downtown on Metra.
Front view showing SKS Chromoplastics fender.
Axiom Journey rack that offers maximum heel clearance for traditional chain stay length adventure bikes.
Rear view of Axiom Journey rack, SKS Chromoplastics fender, and Portland Design Works permanently-mounted Fenderbot taillight with large reflective surface. I supplement this with the PDW Radbot 1000 which I alternate from the seatpost to the trunk bag.
Close-up of the PDW Paddy Wagon trunk bag. The expandable side pocket / pannier just barely accommodates the iPad in a protective case with Kensington keyboard. The other side holds a U-lock, cable, and seat leash. Trunk expands to hold two full-size water bottles standing straight up plus lots of other stuff (keys, spare tube, lunch, etc).
More photos appear in the album Anatomy of an Adventure Bike on Easy As Riding A Bike's Facebook fan page. It also includes another semi-custom version of the Volpe, courtesy of BikeFix in Oak Park, IL.
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Keep riding and be safe!