Antony de Heveningham looks at three unconventional mountain bikes that come with fitted racks and a sense of adventure. Perfect for bikepacking.
Words by Antony de Heveningham. Photos by James Vincent.
Not so long ago, many mountain bikes were designed so their riders could carry stuff on racks. Just bolt one to the back of your hardtail, add some panniers and you could disappear off on an adventure. Probably to a youth hostel, or a sixth form college, but an adventure nonetheless. At some point though, bike manufacturers decided that this rather lukewarm strain of excitement wasn’t doing it for their target market, and racks started to disappear. The advent of suspension and disc brakes didn’t help, as neither of them played well with racks. But, more than that, racks and bags fell victim to an image problem. Mountain bikes were fast, adrenaline-fuelled and youthful, and encumbering them with luggage was viewed in the same light as mounting a roof box on a Porsche 911.
If there’s one defining rule of the 21st century, it’s that all humanity’s previous ideas will be recycled. So ‘cycle touring’ was reborn as ‘bikepacking’, and a type of luggage evolved that didn’t need racks – you just strapped it directly to your bike. It was deceptively simple genius, and sparked what might be considered a new golden age of bicycle adventuring. But it wasn’t perfect. Bikepacking bags have a heartbreaking habit of buffing the paint off your frame, seat packs mean you can’t drop your saddle on the fun stuff and soft luggage generally requires a fair bit of trial and error before you find the set-up that works for a particular bike and kit list. When I think back to my worst bikepacking experiences, they aren’t interminable pushes through bogs, or trying to sleep under a tiny, crackly tarp that’s being lashed by horizontal rain. Well, maybe they are. But they’re closely followed by the great descents spoiled by constantly having to stop to adjust bags that are escaping from harnesses, or imagining how fun it would be if only I could lower my seat…
So, racks to the rescue. Manufacturers are once again starting to make mountain bikes that are designed to handle a bit more baggage, but in a way that will actually enhance your enjoyment. While there are a ton of bikes aimed at the ‘adventure’ market, their concessions to load hauling usually amount to a few extra bottle bosses, and a marketing campaign featuring some impressive beards. But there are a handful of mountain bikes that are going the extra mile, and incorporating clever ways to carry more kit. We managed to round up three, before releasing them, unharmed, back into the wild.
- Price: £3,490.00 (+£160.00 for dynamo wheelset)
- From: Mason Cycles, masoncycles.cc
Mason Cycles may not be a household name in the mountain bike world but if you’re from the UK and ride bikes on dirt, chances are you’ll have encountered a bike designed by its owner. Dom Mason was originally the D in DMR, then the lead designer for Kinesis Bikes, before striking out on his own in 2014. Mason’s current range of bikes is all steel or titanium with drop bars, but calling them road bikes would be a misnomer. They’re all designed to be a tad more adventurous than that, with disc brakes, plenty of tyre clearance, and other indications of a penchant for leaving the tarmac….
- Frame // Dedacciai ‘Zero’ and Reynolds 853 steel
- Fork // Mason HotShoe
- Hubs // SON 28 dynamo, 15x110mm front, Hunt sealed cartridge bearing 12x148mm rear
- Rims // MasonxHunt, 30mm internal width
- Tyres // WTB Ranger TCS Light, 2.4in
- Chainset // Truvativ Descendant, 34T X-Sync Direct Mount chainring
- Rear Mech // SRAM Force 1, 11-speed
- Shifters // SRAM Force 1, 11-speed
- Cassette // SRAM XG-1175, 10-42, 11-speed
- Brakes // SRAM Force HRD hydraulic disc
- Stem // Ritchey VentureMax, 31.8 mm
- Bars // Ritchey VentureMax WCS, 31.8 mm, 44cm
- Bar Tape // Fabric Hex
- Seatpost // Mason Penta
- Saddle // Fabric Scoop Elite Alloy
- Size Tested // 50cm
- Sizes available // 42cm, 46cm, 50cm, 54cm, 58cm
- Weight // 11.1kg / 24.5lbs
- Price: £3,450.00
- From: Lyon Equipment, lyon.co.uk
Have you ever looked at the rack on your bike and thought ‘Wow, I could carry lots more stuff on this, if only it was longer’? You’re in luck – other people have already followed a similar trajectory of thought, and now there’s a whole genre of bikes which are designed to haul more junk in the trunk. The original longtail cargo bike was the Xtracycle, effectively a conversion kit that bolted to the back of your old mountain bike and turned it into a lengthy but practical beast that could carry shopping, children, and even a surfboard. Surly built on this concept with the Big Dummy, a frame built specifically to work with Xtracycle bags and accessories (although it now produces its own range of complementary kit) and, gloriously, the Big Dummy was hot-rodded into the Big Fat Dummy, a 4in-tyred off-road version….
- Frame // Blackborow mid-wheelbase
- Fork // Salsa Bearpaw Carbon
- Hubs // SUNringlé SRC, 150x15mm front & 197x12mm rear
- Rims // SUNringlé Mulefüt//ACCENT// SL 80
- Tyres // Maxxis Minion FBF, 27.5×3.8″
- Chainset // Truvativ Stylo 6K Eagle, 30T X-Sync Direct Mount chainring
- Rear Mech // SRAM GX Eagle
- Shifters // SRAM GX Eagle, 12-speed
- Cassette // SRAM XG-1275, 10-50, 12-speed
- Brakes // Hayes MX Comp Mechanical
- Stem // Salsa Guide Trail, 31.8 mm, 70mm length
- Bars // Salsa Salt Flat, 31.8 mm, 800mm width
- Grips // Salsa File Tread
- Seatpost // Salsa Guide
- Saddle // WTB Volt Sport
- Size Tested // Medium
- Sizes available // Small, Medium, Large
- Weight // 17.49kg/38.56lbs
- Price: £2,400.00
- From: Trek Bikes, trekbikes.com
Probably the closest thing the bicycle world has to a cult standard is the 29+ wheel. They’ve never really caught on outside a small audience, but the bikes they adorn have always enjoyed fierce loyalty. One such machine is Trek’s Stache, a 29+ hardtail that caused quite a stir when it was released back in 2015. It might not have torn up the rulebook, but it gave the pages a good crumpling and won the affections of riders who wanted to play one day and race the next….
- Frame // Alpha Platinum Aluminium
- Fork // 1120 Adventure HCM Carbon
- Hubs // Bontrager Alloy, 110x15mm front & 148x12mm rear
- Rims // SUNringlé //ACCENT// Düroc//ACCENT// 50 SL 28-hole
- Tyres // Bontrager Chupacabra, Tubeless Ready, 29×3.00in
- Chainset // Race Face Aeffect, 30T Direct Mount Narrow Wide
- Rear Mech // Shimano SLX M7000, Shadow Plus
- Shifters // Shimano SLX M7000, 11-speed
- Cassette // Shimano SLX M7000, 11-46, 11-speed
- Brakes // SRAM Level T hydraulic disc
- Stem // Bontrager Elite, 31.8 mm
- Bars // Bontrager Crivitz, 31.8 mm
- Grips // Bontrager Race Lite, lock-on
- Seatpost // Bontrager Drop Line 125 (100 on 15.5in size)
- Saddle // Bontrager Montrose Comp
- Size Tested // 17.5 in
- Sizes available // 15.5, 17.5, 19.5, 21.5
- Claimed Weight // 14.17kg/31.24lbs
Even though there are more and more bikepacking bikes on the market with every year, it was surprisingly difficult to find three with built-in racks. All three machines in this test are oddities in and of themselves, but in a sea of mid-travel full suspension bikes, a drop of strangeness is more than welcome. And speaking of which, when was the last time you saw a mountain bike with drop bars, let alone a fat bike designed to carry a month’s worth of food supplies?
The Trek 1120 is a genuine one-off, and a good example of a big bike company daring to do things differently. Its custom racks work brilliantly – much better than a traditional pannier rack off-road, in fact – and in time I’d expect similar variations on the concept to start appearing from other manufacturers, but for now, it stands alone. While it’s slightly hobbled as a trail bike by its geometry and cockpit, you can still have a bundle of fun on it. Carrying a full load while being able to tackle full-on terrain is the whole point of bikepacking, and this bike makes it incredibly easy.
The Mason InSearchOf would suit someone who wants to take minimal gear and just keep going. It’s a hugely enjoyable bike to ride, and gobbles up the miles, on or off road, but its road bike DNA makes it a bit nervous when things get gnarly. The frame is a great example of a small bike company pushing the limits of what can be done with steel, and it’s also pleasing that every part of the bike seems designed to work together. You could beef it up with a suspension fork and burly tyres, but it has a lot more finesse than the other bikes in this test, and it would be a shame to lose that.
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The Salsa Blackborow has all the usual drawbacks of fat bikes – self-steer, a John Wayne-esque Q factor – and yet I found it completely impossible to dislike. It combines the carrying capacity of a longtail cargo bike with the handling of a much more conventional hardtail, all at a more reasonable weight than you would expect. Someone somewhere is already planning a preposterous expedition involving kite-skiing or packrafting, facilitated by this machine.
If you’re looking to get into bikepacking, there are definitely options out there which would enable you to dip a toe in the water with less financial commitment. But as you’ll know if you’ve spent any time on the forums, bikepacking isn’t just about the riding, the sunrises, the anecdotes of suffering, or the fancy coffee-making equipment. Part of the pleasure comes from honing set-ups and being able to carry things more efficiently, comfortably and pleasantly. All these bikes will let you negotiate some of the compromises inherent in carrying baggage while trying to enjoy the ride. And they’ll all have you pulling out the maps and planning your next trip.