This feature originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. To receive nine issues a year as well as a host of other benefits, join Adventure Cycling today.The Recipe | A Pocket Guide to Steel | A Chat About Steel | Caring for your Steel Frame
Among the many materials available for touring bicycles, steel is the big favorite. Although other materials are certainly popular — aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber among them — touring bike makers and touring cyclists overwhelmingly prefer the ferrous option thanks to its ease of use, affordability, and its ability to be repaired nearly anywhere. But with steel so prevalent, it can be hard to decipher the myriad options seen in the spec sheets and on manufacturer websites. We’re here to help. We’ll dive into the kinds of steel employed by bicycle makers, take a look at several common tubing manufacturers, and provide tips on how to care for a steel frame once you have one, if you don’t already.
The base of all steel is iron, “Fe” on the periodic table. One reason steel is here to stay is that iron is the fourth-most abundant element on earth. This keeps the cost down, although the additives used in many alloys are rarer. Thanks to generations of experimentation with steel, there are many varieties, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and intended uses.
When speaking about bicycles, we commonly refer to ferrous (deriving from the Latin word for iron, ferrum) frames as steel. In most cases, and certainly in the case of high-quality bicycles, that material is more accurately described as chromoly steel. This isn’t the mild steel or inexpensive steel seen at the local hardware store. The steel used in bicycle tubing is an alloy. Chromoly is the result of iron blended with small amounts of chromium, molybdenum, and other elements.
Chromium increases the ability to harden the alloy and enhances corrosion resistance. Molybdenum increases toughness, or steel’s ability to absorb energy and deform before fracturing. The combination also increases the tubing’s strength-to-weight ratio. But these results come from tiny, carefully measured amounts of the additives — 95 percent of chromoly is still good ol’ iron.
Even within the somewhat narrow category of chromoly, there is still great variety. Those who have ridden bicycles for many decades will recognize names like Reynolds, Columbus, and True Temper as manufacturers and purveyors of many types of chromoly tubing made specifically for bicycle frames. We’ll explore those brands a bit more.
Fans of Surly bikes will likely be more familiar with 4130 chromoly. Unlike “name-brand” tubing like Columbus SL or Reynolds 853, 4130 is a designation given by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) that describes the metal’s ingredients. According to cycling industry legend Scot Nicol’s “Metallurgy for Cyclists” article, 4130 is very popular in quality frames thanks to its “affordability, weldabilty, formability, strength, ductility, and toughness.” Continuing the theme of SAE-designated alloys, less expensive frames, like those found at department stores, use plain carbon steel or 1020 with much lower strength.
A Pocket Guide to Steel
Fatigue Strength or Fatigue Life
In materials science, fatigue is the weakening of a material caused by repeatedly applied loads. Fatigue strength, or fatigue life, describes the range of cyclic stress that can be applied to a material without causing failure due to fatigue. Related is fatigue limit, a value beneath which a material can endure an infinite number of stresses without failure. Steel does have a fatigue limit whereas aluminum does not. Counterintuitively, this means that an aluminum tube will eventually fail no matter how low the cyclic stress remains. To mitigate this, aluminum tubes usually have thicker walls. Thankfully, the stresses involved in cycling are so low compared to industrial scales of stress that a well-designed aluminum frame can last many decades. Titanium, on the other hand, has a fatigue strength and fatigue limit similar to steel alloys.
Butted tubes have varying wall thicknesses with more material at the ends so that joints remain strong. Meanwhile, the thinner sections in the middle save weight. A double-butted tube has two thicknesses, a triple-butted tube has three, and so on.
Heat treating — the controlled application of heat or cold — is used to harden or soften a material. In the case of steel, the application of heat within a specific range hardens the material, making it more durable. But too much heat can produce a brittle material, and too little heat will result in soft steel. Steel tubes are heat treated during the manufacturing process to increase strength. Unlike aluminum alloy frames, steel frames are not heat treated after they are welded or brazed.
Some modern steel tubesets are air hardened, meaning that the heat from brazing or welding actually increases the strength of the material at the heat-affected area of the joint after cooling. Reynolds 853 is one example. This allows for thinner tube walls, saving weight and resulting in more damage-resistant steel.
The scientific measurement of stiffness is called modulus of elasticity. This refers to the degree to which a material can undergo a stress, deform, and return to its original shape after the stress subsides. The larger the number, the stiffer the material. A steel bicycle tube is typically stiffer than a titanium or aluminum tube of the same dimensions. This is why aluminum and titanium tubes are often larger in diameter than their steel counterparts.
Welding is a means of joining in which the edges of the materials to be joined are melted and fused together with the aid of a filler material. TIG welding, or tungsten inert gas welding (technically TIG welding is gas tungsten arc welding, GTAW), is a form of arc welding that uses a nonconsumable tungsten electrode to deliver the current to the welding arc. Both the tungsten and weld puddle are protected by a stream of inert gas, usually argon. Only steel alloys that are designed for the higher heat of TIG welding can be joined using the technique.
Brazing uses a filler material with a lower melting temperature than that of the material being joined. Fillet-brazed frames forgo lugs and instead employ sections of filler to create fillets that join the tubes.
As mentioned, 4130 is widely used in bicycle frames. It is a generic term, not a brand name like others we’ll discuss. Many bicycle manufacturers have it custom drawn, sometimes internally and/or externally butted, to suit their design needs. It may take many forms and be given many names, such as the “Cobra Kai” tubeset Salsa designed for its Marrakesh, or the “Utilitour” tubeset Marin uses on its Four Corners, but 4130 is the steel most likely to be seen on touring bikes from larger manufacturers.
Legendary British brand Reynolds has a long history of producing tubing for bicycles. In 1897, the company was granted a patent for producing butted tubes. In 1934, they debuted the iconic 531 double-butted tubeset. More recently, Reynolds 853 was among the first air-hardening alloys, offering stronger joints and increasing dent and impact resistance. Reynolds is widely used by touring bike manufacturers.
When Japanese bicycles like Miyata, Fuji, and Nishiki made a splash in the 1980s, Tange entered the cycling vernacular. But the Japanese tubing maker had been in the cycling business for over 60 years by then and has been producing butted tubing since the 1950s. Their expertise was such that Tom Ritchey sought them out to produce his Logic tubing. To this day, Tange is used by brands like Soma Fabrications.
Stalwart Italian tube maker Columbus was founded in 1919 and is still going strong after building its reputation during the era when steel reigned supreme among professional racers. Italian brands like Bianchi, Pinarello,
De Rosa, Ciocc, and Colnago have all used tubes from the firm. Columbus currently produces an expansive line of tubesets ranging from the affordable Cromor, through its Niobium line of Spirit, Life, and SL tubing, all the way to its gorgeous XCr stainless steel tubeset.
Unfortunately, after many years of making high-quality U.S.-produced steel tubing for bicycles, True Temper phased out its bicycle tubing options at the end of 2016. But because the firm’s tubesets were so popular, you may still see them in use, especially if you’re looking at the used bicycle market.
A Chat About Steel with Adam Scholtes, Surly Product Manager
Do you design and build for overall strength and life span (fatigue life) on touring models?
We do build for overall strength and durability but also for ride characteristics. A balance between stiffness and ride quality is important. I would say that we design for durability for all models, given their specific use.
Do other models receive lighter, more compliant tubes?
They do where appropriate. And other models get heavier tubesets.
Are your touring models built with stouter versions to better handle the weight of racks and panniers?
Sort of. We have different grades of touring bikes. Our off-road–rated touring bikes, the Ogre, Troll, and ECR, receive a different tubeset, as they are intended for both on-road and off-road use, than say the standard Long Haul Trucker (LHT). On the Pack Rat, we can use a lighter tubeset as it’s intended for a different use than the standard LHT as well. But, yes, we do. This is not just in the main triangle tubes, but also the seat- and chainstays, as well as the fork blades, dropouts, and braze-ons.
Surly offers bicycles with good value. Is this thanks partly to the affordability of 4130?
Thanks! We do try to pack a lot of value into our products. The cost structure of manufacturing with 4130 is certainly part of it. But given the climate of the bike industry and manufacturing as a whole, other materials are less costly to work with. We like 4130 chromoly for a whole host of reasons. For the types of bikes we strive to make, with an emphasis on utility, versatility, and durability, 4130 is the right material. We could use more costly materials or cheaper ones, but they come with other compromises.
How should Surly owners care for their steel frames and forks? Should they spray Frame Saver inside before assembly? Periodically?
Yes, they should use Frame Saver or boiled linseed oil. Make sure it’s the pure, raw kind. You need to check as all linseed oil is not the same. We do ED coat our frames and forks (electrophoretic deposition is a method of painting a corrosion-resistant primer on frames using a large bath and an electric current), except the Big Dummy and Big Fat Dummy frames. They don’t fit in the tank. The ED coat is an excellent base coat and does a base-level protection on the inside of the frame. This ensures that throughout transportation and distribution the frame gets to the customer in the best possible condition. But further protection is recommended. Not to be overlooked, keeping the outside surface protected helps preserve the frame. Surface rust is a primary contributor to premature frame failure.
You mention design specificity for a given intended use frequently. What will a cyclist experience if he/she uses a Surly outside its intended purpose? For instance, what if a cyclist used a Long Haul Trucker, loaded with racks and panniers, on an off-road trail? Are there risks involved, or is the margin of error great enough to accommodate some mild “abuse?” Will the downside be riding characteristics and not a frame failure?
We do design around a given use, but we also plan for and anticipate misuse. In your example, a fully loaded LHT ridden off-road might not be a great scenario to find yourself in. The main issue here would be that the handling and geometry are not tuned for it. In addition, the term “off-road” also has a wide range of definitions. Full-on enduro-style singletrack is not a place for a fully loaded road touring bike, whereas a gravel or minimally maintained road would be fine. For some, the latter example could be called “off road.” So, yeah, generally the main downside would be handling. But given the example of the full-on mountain bike trail — where features like drops and other obstacles are common — that may lead to premature frame failure if you were tackling it on your LHT.
Editor’s note: Many thanks to Adam for taking the time to answer our questions on Surly’s use of steel. For more, head to: surlybikes.com
Caring for your steel frame
Despite all of steel’s good qualities, no material is perfect. The great enemy of chromoly is corrosion. Here are some easy steps to keep your frame from falling prey to oxidation. These are more urgent for riders who live in wet climates. Those living in the desert can rest a bit easier.
• When you purchase a new frame, be sure to spray J.P. Weigle Frame Saver inside each of the tubes. Vent holes allow ingress. Rotate your frame as it dries so that you coat the entire inside surface of each tube.
• Ensure that your bottom bracket has a drain hole. Have a qualified mechanic add one if necessary. Check the drain periodically to ensure that it hasn’t clogged.
• After wet rides, remove your seatpost, and in the case of quill stems, remove your stem as well. Turn your bike upside down to empty any standing water, and then allow the frame to “breathe” overnight so that additional moisture can evaporate. Apply a fresh coat of grease to your seatpost and quill before installing them. In the case of carbon fiber seatposts, use assembly compound, essentially grease with grit to stop slippage. Titanium seatposts should receive a coat of antiseize compound instead of grease.
• Touch up paint chips using fingernail polish as quickly as possible. If you see any rust, lightly sand the area and clean it with isopropyl alcohol before painting.
• If you ride frequently in the rain, it’s worth disassembling your frame once or twice a year. Removing the headset bearings, fork, bottom bracket, and seatpost will allow you to dry out any moisture while also inspecting for corrosion. This is also an opportunity to spray in additional Frame Saver.
• When installing or replacing the cables on your bike, apply a thin film of grease to the cable ferrules. This is to keep cable stops from collecting rain or sweat, protecting them from corrosion and making the ferrules easier to replace in the future.
Chromoly has a long, illustrious history in cycling. It is the material with which framebuilders have the most history. One could contend that it is the most evolved of the materials used in bicycles. Chromoly, thanks to its unique properties, will remain popular thanks to its affordability, durability, and ease of use. For many reasons, steel is real. But hopefully after this in-depth look, it isn’t really confusing.
Keeping the Lights On
Keeping your electronics charged during a bicycle tour can be a chore. Although USB battery packs extend the range of GPS units, lights, and mobile phones, they too store a finite amount of energy. Those packs also create more items to plug in while at a hotel, restaurant, or campground.
Many cyclists have explored the benefits of dynamo, or generator, hubs to charge their electronic accessories. Although no system is perfect, a well-made dynamo hub with a quality wiring harness, light, and USB charger can keep you off the grid in near perpetuity. But there are limitations. Dynamo hubs can’t produce enough current to top off laptops or larger batteries. You need to research your needs and perform tests during your rides at home before taking off for longer periods.
Before we dive deeply into popular options, here’s a quick primer on how a generator hub works. Inside a dynamo hub is a series of magnets and a stationary coil. As the wheel spins, the magnets rotate around the coil, creating alternating current — AC electricity. A wiring harness routes the juice to a light, a USB charger, or both. Of course, the speed of the hub determines the output of electricity. So at lower speeds, power is not supplied to accessories wired to the hub. This is why many dynamo lights have built-in capacitors that store enough energy to keep your lights on while stopped.
While hubs continue to improve, advances in LED lighting technology have made dynamo systems more reliable than ever, thanks to lower power requirements and bulbs that are more robust than halogen options.
The Germans are the unquestionable kings of both generator hubs and lights. Schmidt hubs are typically viewed as not only the most expensive models available but also the most reliable. Japanese companies Shutter Precision, Panasonic, and Shimano also produce dynamo hubs, but of lesser quality.
Lights from Schmidt, Busch & Müller, and Supernova get the lion’s share of attention. All produce great headlights with options for urban cyclists, brevet riders, and touring cyclists. Smaller firms like Sinewave and kLite also produce lights of exceptional quality aimed at long-haul riders.
No discussion of generator hubs would be complete without speaking with Peter White of peterwhitecycles.com. He is the largest U.S. importer of Schmidt hubs and many generator lights and accessories. White also has nearly 20 years of experience with dynamo systems. If it’s gone wrong, he’s likely seen it before.
Here are his answers to common questions about dynamo hubs:
What electronics can you charge with a dynamo hub?
With the newer chargers and headlight/charger combos, you can charge most cell phones. Some giant Samsung phones are too big. GPS units can also be powered.
What maintenance is there for a dynamo hub system?
There really isn’t any. For the really inexpensive hubs we sell from Sanyo, now called Panasonic, along with the Shimano hubs, there is no service to be done on them. I can’t tell you in any detail why that is. But neither company provides any service information. You’re likely to do more harm than good by trying.
I can service some of the Schmidt hubs here in New Hampshire. Some of them need to be sent to Germany. Because of the electrical wiring, they are not user serviceable.
What goes wrong when a dynamo hub stops producing electricity?
That will take a little explaining. If your bike is indoors and it’s 35 degrees and raining outside, when you take your bike outside and start riding, the cold air and the rain cool the hub shell. The hub shell cools the air inside the hub. That creates a partial vacuum. The low air pressure inside the hub shell then sucks air in from the outside. If water intrudes at the gap at the axle and the hub shell, it will be drawn in and eventually cause corrosion in the dynamo.
Schmidt has a way of mitigating the problem with a clever axle design that allows air to circulate freely but doesn’t allow moisture to enter the core of the dynamo. Fording a river will cause problems. But for 99.9 percent of us who are crazy enough to enjoy riding our bikes in the rain, that isn’t a problem for a Schmidt hub. It is a problem for a Shimano or Sanyo hub.
Any tips on using a dynamo hub?
One way to help is to put your bike outside for 30 minutes, out of the rain, to allow it to precool. This will decrease moisture being drawn in.
I also strongly advise anyone, including the home mechanic who’s really good at doing most things on his bike, against tearing into a dynamo. It’s a big mistake.
(Editor’s note: If you have a problem with a Schmidt hub, please contact Peter White Cycles for help. They can perform a repair or forward the hub to Germany if need be. They also carry factory-refurbished hubs that are used to replace hubs in need of repair. This is far quicker than sending the hub across the Atlantic.)
What lights and chargers do you recommend?
Recommendations depend on the application and the person’s tolerance for uglifying their bike. A lot of people want anything they put on their bike to look good. And there are headlights that look better than others. For instance, a Supernova or Schmidt Edelux II or the IQ X from Busch & Müller are nice-looking lights with an aluminum housing. Someone in each case thought about making a light that is nice to look at.
The Busch & Müller Lumitec IQ Fly is really tall and ugly, but its nighttime beam is really good. Not quite as nice as their best lights, but the margin is small. Underneath the lens is a reflector. Embedded in that reflector are six LEDs. It has an ambient light sensor so it knows whether it’s night or day. At night it projects light on the road surface. In daytime those LEDs act as daytime running lights, making a rider more visible to motorists and other road users. This particular light is probably the best dynamo light for the urban commuter because of what it does during the day.
But I live out in the woods. I don’t need the IQ Fly. I don’t need a daytime running light. I use prettier lights. I have two of the Edelux IIs and a B&M IQ X. They fit my needs best.
When riding on unfamiliar roads — brevets or hilly terrain on fast descents — you want the brightest light you can find. You can then aim the beam higher and see things earlier. That gives you more time to react. For those people, I recommend the Schmidt Edelux II or the Busch & Müller IQ X.
For charging and lighting, the Busch & Müller Luxos U is the best deal around. For someone who has neither a charger nor a headlight and wants to get both, it’s a great deal. It doesn’t have the very brightest beam, but it’s very wide and the differences are very small. And the charger works very well.
The other options, if you already have a really good light, include getting a separate charger. To go on any bicycle, the USB-Werk from B&M is an excellent solution. It can go into any bag on the bike or be strapped to the bicycle using O-rings. A more elegant solution goes on top of the steerer tube, if the fork is threadless and 1 1/8in. and steel. The Tout Terrain Cinq5 “The Plug” replaces the top cap. Supernova private labels the same product. Sinewave, here in the U.S., also has top cap and box USB charger options.
Any tips on wiring and setup?
Think about how you’re going to use your bike. If you have to lock it outside, you need to be very careful about how you run the wire, especially when using a taillight. If you have a lot of scratches, you need to think about how your bike is making contact with the world.
You can also look at how the rear derailer and rear brake cables are routed and use those as pathways for your taillight wire. Just loop it around the housing. Those routings are typically in places that are less likely to get damaged.
(Editor’s note: We recommend spending time on the Peter White Cycles website (peterwhitecycles.com) for more in-depth information and technical discussion on dynamo hubs, lighting, and recharging.)
When you imagine a loaded touring bicycle, you often conjure two racks, four panniers, and a handlebar bag. This is the classic manner of conveying rider and camp gear across counties, states, continents, or even around the globe. But just as no two snowflakes are alike, diversity in touring setups is infinite. Here we explore three popular ways that touring cyclists carry their gear, from traditional racks and panniers to ultralight bikepacking, with one hybrid system thrown in the mix. Gear lists provide inspiration for many of us, but no list is comprehensive or offers the perfect solution for all riders. Use these as a starting point and build from there based on personal experience and experimentation. Enjoy!
Racks and Panniers
Just as the name implies, here we have two racks and four panniers. Although it is perhaps the heaviest of the three methods outlined here, it also provides more space for cyclists on the road for months at a time who might indulge in a few more luxury items. It is tried and true and extremely versatile for touring as well as for commuting and general bicycle transportation.
Old Man Mountain Pioneer front and rear racks
Ortlieb Sport Packer rear panniers
Ortlieb Front Roller Classic front panniers
Arkel Large Handlebar bag with map case
REI Co-op Quarter Dome 2 tent
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Max sleeping pad
Kelty Ignite 20 sleeping bag
Therm-a-Rest compressible pillow
MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove
MSR Trail Lite Duo cooking system
GSI 3-piece cutlery set
Katadyn Hiker Pro microfilter
Adventure Cycling patches (decoration!)
Scrubba Wash Bag (camp laundry)
This is for the rider looking to save some weight or cover ground more quickly than on a traditional touring setup without foregoing all creature comforts. Using a single rack and only one pair of lightweight panniers, extra cargo is carried using bikepacking bags inside the main triangle,
on the handlebars, and mounted to the front fork.
Tubus Logo Evo rear rack
Arkel Dry Lite rear panniers
Revelate Designs Tangle bag
Revelate Designs Mag-Tank
Bedrock Bags Tapeats To-Go handlebar bag
Salsa Anything Cages and Bags (fork mount)
NEMO Hornet Elite 2P tent
Klymit Ultralight Insulated SL sleeping pad
Big Agnes Wiley SL 30 sleeping bag
Exped Air Pillow UL M inflatable pillow
DIY soda-can alcohol stove
Snow Peak titanium mug
Sea to Summit Alpha Lite aluminum spork
MSR TrailShot water filter
Dr. Bronner’s soap
This is for the newest breed of touring cyclists, for whom minimalism delivers more. This allows for speedier and more technical riding while still camping in the wild. Many bikepackers forgo cook systems and carry ready-to-eat food instead. If you’re looking to go ultralight, tents are often substituted by bivouac sacks or tarp systems.
Salsa EXP SeatPack
Bedrock Bags Entrada handlebar bag
JPaks RukSak stem bag
Oveja Negra Snack Pack top tube bag
Revelate Designs Jerry Can top tube bag
Montbell sleeping bag cover (bivy)
Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated sleeping pad
Enlightened Equipment quilt
Extra Ziploc bags for carrying restaurant food to camp
Ready-to-eat food items — energy bars, cakes, candy, Fig Newtons
Bikepacking Bag Manufacturers
As adventure and mixed-surface cycling has boomed in recent years, so too has interest in soft luggage that is strapped directly to a bicycle, forgoing traditional racks. The appeal is widespread, even for cyclists who never plan on sleeping under the stars. A convenient way to carry items, whether during a round of errands, on the way to work, or when traversing a mountain range, will always be en vogue.
Thankfully the industry has taken a look at the more practical needs of cyclists and responded. At the beginning of 2018, manufacturers both big and small are in on the bikepacking bag action. Previously the domain of small, cottage industry makers, bikepacking bags are now offered by the likes of Specialized, Topeak, and Salsa, as well as established pannier makers like Blackburn, Ortlieb, and Arkel. In fact, bikepacking bags are so popular that a previously backroom operation, Revelate Designs, is now arguably a behemoth in the segment.
So how does a prospective bag buyer decide among the myriad options? Support a small operation or stick to a brand with which one may have experience? Let’s take a look at options and explore each manufacturer’s strengths and weaknesses.
On the whole, we think that for the typical bikepacker, buying front and rear bags from a larger manufacturer is a great way to save a few dollars. We then recommend you spend that saved money on a custom frame bag from a smaller operation, one with the ability to tailor a bag to your bike and personal needs. Accessory bags like feed bags, top tube bags, etc., are used frequently throughout the day and typically see daily use even outside of long tours. So look for higher quality there as well.
Of course, if you have a lot of experience bikepacking and can’t find what you’re looking for in the bags of bigger manufacturers, or if you have an aesthetic that you’re trying to achieve, a custom bag maker like JPaks, Nuclear Sunrise, Oveja Negro, Andrew the Maker, and Bike Bag Dude will likely fit the bill.
The Big Players
Eric Parsons began making bags in his spare time while working as a civil engineer. Eventually the demand for his gear grew to the point that he took it on full time. Revelate Designs now finds itself as the leader in the bikepacking bag category thanks to its early work in the segment and continued innovation.
The Alaskan company offers a full suite of bags, including several variations harnesses, seatbags and front rolls.
Like its excellent panniers, the German brand’s bikepacking bags are exceptional. Both the Seat Pack and Handlebar Pack are waterproof and built to last. They are not as light as other options on the market, but at the same time they verge on cavernous in size. Smart features like a front Accessory Pack, well-executed attachment points, integrated bungees, and an air purge valve show that Ortlieb did its homework before leaping into the category. We recommend these without hesitation. Ortlieb also has smaller versions of its Handlebar and Seat Pack arriving later this year. Expect a review soon.
If you’re on a budget, Blackburn’s offerings are tough to beat. They get you out and adventuring without breaking the bank. Blackburn’s Outpost series includes a large seat harness/drybag, a handlebar harness/roll, an expandable framebag, a top tube bag, and even a set of cargo cages. Quality is on par with other Blackburn accessories. They’re built to last, and with a few bells and whistles, but with a certain plastic feel when compared to other options. Materials aren’t quite as lightweight as you’ll see from small makers, but Blackburn’s bags do hold up nicely. If you’re curious about bikepacking, Blackburn’s bags represent a good gateway into the arena. After using them in the field, a newer bikepacker can then figure out their personal preferences and needs. But to gain that experience, you have to get out and get dirty.
Designed by engineers with extensive bikepacking experience, Salsa’s EXP line impressed from day one. The EXP Anything Cradle is a novel approach to carrying a front load that uses an aluminum and plastic bracket to support a large drybag. The Cradle keeps its load extremely stable and out of the way of cables and hoses on your handlebar, but does so while adding more weight to your bike than most other front bags. For rugged riding though, the Cradle is a fantastic option. An accessory Front Pouch integrates nicely into the Anything Cradle Dry Bag and puts smaller items up front and handy.
The EXP Seatpack is a waterproof bag with a quality attachment, a bungee storage area on top, convenient light attachment loops, and a small air purge valve. At under 400 grams for up to 14 liters in carrying capacity, the Seatpack is quite light. It, like the entire EXP line, presents a good value as well.
Where the EXP line falls a bit short, in our opinion, is with its Framepack. Designed specifically for Salsa’s Cutthroat frame, the bag lacks enough width to carry larger objects and the zippers feel strained even when the bag is nearly empty.
Specialized is taking the adventure category seriously enough to hire an adventure brand manager. One result of their efforts is the Burra Burra line of bags. Two differently sized seatbags (with an optional stabilizing rack), three sizes of partial framebags, a cargo cage, a handlebar harness, a couple drybags, and a top tube bag complete the line.
Based in the UK, Apidura produces an extensive line of high-quality bikepacking bags that have found favor among ultra racing and touring enthusiasts. A clean aesthetic and clever features make each bag, whether top tube, frame, seat, or handlebar-mounted, worth considering. When another UK brand, Rapha, decided to produce a front and rear pack, they collaborated with Apidura to ensure a success.
With two seatbags, each offered in three sizes, four framebags, also offered in varying sizes, multiple handlebar packs, and several accessory packs, Apidura hasn’t shied away from offering a variety of bags. Color though, like Henry Ford’s Model T, is limited to gray with yellow and black accents.
Without any on-bike experience, it’s difficult to write much on Lezyne’s new bags. Dubbed “Adventure Bags,” they debuted last fall at Interbike and look like a good budget option. The Bar Caddy is small compared to many bar bags at only seven liters, but should work well with dropbars. The XL Caddy seatbag is also on the conservative side at 7.5 liters. These are complemented with the Stuff Caddy, a feed bag that mounts alongside the stem, and the Energy Caddy XL, a top tube bag.
Canadian bag maker Arkel has expanded into bikepacking bags in the last couple years, but currently only produces bags to mount behind your saddle. Bikepacking-style handlebar bags, top tube bags, and framebags are not on the Arkel menu. Its Seatpacker 9 and 15, as well as the Rollpacker 15 and 25, all feature a clamp-on brace to support the bag’s weight and eliminate sway. Build quality is excellent, as we’ve come to expect from the Quebec-based company.
While the larger bag makers have advantages like wide availability, often lower prices, and shorter wait times (if any), smaller companies are more agile, experiment more frequently, and can easily accommodate custom needs whether functional or aesthetic. Another reason to seek out a custom maker is that they are spread throughout the country. You may be able to visit a maker personally, bring your bike along, and discuss your needs and wants. They are also likely to understand regional needs like frequent wet conditions where a waterproof bag is important or the havoc that dust and dirt can wreak on zippers.
The list of boutique bag makers in 2018 is massive and so we won’t attempt to be comprehensive here. Instead we’ll highlight several brands with established reputations for making reliable bags, many of them with unique features and looks.
Porcelain Rocket is one of the older brands in the bikepacking game. Alberta-based Scott Felter has years of experience making bags, and his experimentation has led to innovations like dropper seatpost–compatible seatbags and roll-top framebags. While he is no longer in the custom game, he does batch runs of each of his bags and they are offered for sale as they are produced. This means that getting your hands on a bag may take some time, but the wait is worth it based on user feedback.
The Midwest is no stranger to bikepacking, especially with long gravel epics dotted around the region. In Kansas City, Missouri, Andrew Wiloid produces some of the most beautiful custom bikepacking bags currently on offer. With crisp lines, high-quality materials, and near-perfect execution, his bags are often rendered in vibrant colors. Especially popular are his handlebar-mounted camera bags that protect but also keep photography gear handy. He has also produced many framebags that employ a lace-up mounting on the top tube. This is secure while also allowing some movement.
Denver-based Joe Tonsager has pioneered bolt-in framebags, creating an amazingly clean look while eliminating straps that scuff paint in the process. Tonsager produces loads of custom bags, everything from water bladder attachments to carry extra liquid under down tubes, to split framebags that can be used as a partial pack when a lighter load is needed. JPaks’ RukSak feed bag is a personal favorite as it is deep enough to hold a one-liter bottle, a camera, or thousands of calories with ease.
Made in El Paso, Texas, by Dave Wilson, Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks produces a complete line of custom handlebar, frame, seat, and accessory bags. Wilson is a Tour Divide veteran whose meticulous approach is evident in his well-crafted bags.
From the Four Corners area of Durango, Colorado, Bedrock Bags makes a full suite of bags with several unique options. The Tapeats Handlebar Bag is a fantastic roll-top bag that is easy to use one-handed and large enough for a massive water bottle. When carrying little or empty, it lies flat and out of the way. The Honaker Bag is a way to carry extra fluids or gear on the underside of a bike’s down tube. Bedrock’s SPOT Harness offers an affordable, secure way to mount your GPS tracker to your bikepacking rig. Last but not least is the RailWing Seat Bag Stabilizer, a design used on both of Bedrock’s seatbags but that can be retrofitted for use on nearly any seatbag to reduce sway.
Spanish for “black sheep,” the Salida, Colorado company has made a name in the Rockies and beyond for high-quality bikepacking bags. With seat, frame, top tube, handlebar, and accessory bags, Oveja Negra can outfit your entire bicycle. One of the more unique bags they make is the Bootlegger bag, a bolt-on storage solution for fork legs with “Anything” 3-bolt bosses. It uses an internal aluminum frame and holds a 32-ounce Nalgene or 40-ounce Klean Kanteen without the need to use a separate cage, bag, and straps.
Out of New South Wales, Australia, BBD produces nearly a full suite of bikepacking bags using a variety of materials, great for those who want to focus on durability or weight. They employ sail-making techniques to ensure durability and strength. One construction technique that differentiates BBD from other makers is the “inside out” seams that wrap around frame tubes. This increases stability and interior space. BBD also acts as an importer of Oveja Negra seatbags (as BBD doesn’t produce one) and BarYak gear into Australia.
Greg Wheelwright has quietly made top-notch bikepacking bags from his Boulder, Colorado, home for many years. His focus on function was apparent during the design process for a custom top tube bag that I commissioned. I needed a narrow but extremely long bag that didn’t get in the way of my knees but held vast quantities of food. Wheelwright took the time to discuss options and created a bag that fit the bill to a T. He has made bags for Tour Divide racers, tandem touring couples, and everything in between.
Portland Design Works produces its Bindle Rack, a seatpost-mounted support for stuff sacks, as another option for those who are willing to trade extra weight for supreme stability. PDW has partnered with Andrew the Maker and Revelate to offer a complete system with drybag options.
Nick Legan is the Technical Editor of Adventure Cyclist and the author of Gravel Cycling.