Hannah tests out the Sonder Camino AL, the company’s most popular bike. Will she find out why it’s such a hit?
The Sonder Camino has been a popular choice since it was first introduced in 2016, and is Sonder’s top selling model. Designed for long days in the saddle with a fairly relaxed and upright ride position, it has all the luggage carrying capability of traditional tourers, but with the modern comforts of large tyre clearances and disc brakes. While an upmarket titanium framed model is available, the aluminium framed option with carbon blade fork that we have here offers a more budget option, with a range of builds to suit different pockets.
This latest V3 model is the first material update since it was launched – new paint colours in between don’t really count as a new version in my book. As well as changes to the geometry, Sonder says there’s been a step up in the build quality too. Having seen the original Camino under construction in one factory, and the Transmitter in another, Product Manager Neil Sutton could see that the factory building the Transmitter was doing a much better job. Mitres were much neater, with the frames being of better quality just by the time they’d reached the tacking stage. Production for the Camino was shifted to the Transmitter factory, so underneath the painted exterior, you should now find a much better frame.
The Sonder Camino AL is available in four sizes, suitable for riders sized approximately 5ft 2in on the small to 6ft 2in and over on the X-Large. I’m 5ft 9.5in and rode the Medium. If you can catch them in stock – at time of writing they’re all sold out – the 2020 season has them in three colours (dark red, grey, and turquoise). There are four drop bar build options, plus a flat bar build, and a frame and fork only. A frame and fork is £300, with full drop bar builds starting at £949 and going up to £1,299. I had the Sonder Camino AL Rival1 Hydraulic, which sits at the top of the range on the same price point as the Shimano GRX equipped model. Since the first edition, tyre clearance has been boosted, so you can now just and so squeeze in a whopping 700x50mm tyre – though Neil admits that’s tight. Alternatively, go for a 27.5in wheel and depending on the tread Neil says you can fit a 2.1in or even 2.2in tyre in there.
This would be my first outing on a Sonder Camino, and while I’ve had chance to ride plenty of gravel bikes, it would be my first with truly flared bars like the Love Mud Bombers, where the brake levers are angled towards the horizontal rather than being vertical. I’d actually been taking a bit of a break from gravel thanks to some recurring drop bar induced nerve troubles in my arm, so I was keen to get back out there and see how I – and the bike – would fare.
Setting off on the Sonder Camino AL was almost instantly comfortable. I say almost, because after a first ride that prompted me to write a feature on saddle comfort, I swapped out the wedge that was significantly the wrong shape for my undercarriage for one I know fits. That done, this bike was one of the mostly instantly comfortable bikes I have ridden.
Often I find myself wondering if I’ve got the right size test bike, swapping spacers, wondering if perhaps a slightly longer head tube or longer fork steerer might have been a little better. Am I really such a prima donna that a few millimetres on the stack is something I can feel? Have I disappeared down a bike journo rabbit hole when I think the fork feels too flexy when hitting edges of rocks? Having ridden the Sonder Camino AL, I think not – these things are real. The ride position is just what I’m looking for – upright enough to be comfortable, but with enough of an in the drops position to tap out the miles into a headwind when needed. At 5ft 9.5in, I am at the top of the recommended height for the size Medium, and the size chart even suggests I could step up to a Large. Given my preference for a less stretched out ride, particularly when it comes to the rather large rock sized lumps I tend to call gravel, I think the smaller size was the right choice for me.
It’s very well balanced, retaining a confident ride position and traction while sitting or standing. It doesn’t have the ‘could I take a jump?’ factor that some gravel bikes I’ve ridden have had, but that’s something I’m happy to swap for the comfort and confidence of the geometry as it is. Plus, if you load up all those mounts, you’re going to be pretty firmly held to the ground anyway.
There are rack mounts or bottle bosses everywhere. A pair on the seat tube, a triple cluster on the inside of the down tube, and a further pair on the underside of the down tube. There are rack or mudguard mounts on the fork and rear too. Having tested this bike in lockdown, I haven’t had cause to carry more than a bottle, but if camping away from home became an option then you’d have plenty of choices for where to attach your various bits of kit. So far as I can see, the only omission from going #totalwildernesslife is that there’s no dynamo routing option on the fork – just an internal front brake route. All the rest of the routing is external, with good sized metal mounts for either clips or cable ties to hold things in place – there’s no risk of any of these being thin and flimsy and breaking off. I’d recommend adding a chain stay protector as mine showed some chips to the paintwork after just a couple of rides, and I was careful to protect the frame when I added a bar bag.
The ride quality is really good – it’s nice and quick to pedal along, even with the slightly knobbly tyres that are fitted. I’d be tempted to go for something even slicker for multi surface use, then add something much knobblier for full time off roading – the WTB Resolutes that are fitted seem to sit a little between the two, being a bit slower than a slicker tyre, but not really adding much grip in mud. That said, I did clean a number of dry rocky climbs on them with more ease than something slicker would’ve offered, so maybe it’s worth the trade off on road speed. As well as being nice and nippy, the ride is comfortable, much more so than I would have expected for an aluminium frame. That’s especially remarkable since I ran this bike with tubes, not tubeless. The only time I noticed any real harshness was on my regular test descent down packhorse trail. This is pushing the boundaries of what most gravel bikes might expect to see, and while the ride was a little harsh and jolting, there was no sense that the bike couldn’t take it, and a tubeless set up would likely help things a little. The fork remained firm, with no sense of twanginess on square edged hits that I often find disconcerting in a gravel bike.
The SRAM Rival brakes were super sharp at the outset, but did seem to quite quickly lose their bite and I think they’re in need of a bleed. I’m putting this down to me hanging the bike to store it, and I think if they were bled they’d be fine again, even with my vertical storage set up. When they were working properly though, they were really good, giving me control over the bike to ride low speed tech style lines. In fact, part way down one route I had to stop and give myself a good talking to, as it really wasn’t the sort of thing a sensible person would be doing when they’re trying not to put any additional strain on the NHS. But the brakes were so confidence inspiring that I’d sort of let myself be lured down the trail without feeling any pressure. Conditions mean there has – unusually – been no wet weather testing at all, so I can’t comment on performance there.
As I’ve come to expect, the SRAM gears were sensitive to being set up just so, but once correctly aligned and tensioned they work well. Even on the steep hills of Calderdale, I had no trouble climbing even with the 40T chainring. If you’re super keen on sitting and spinning, or you’re planning on some fully loaded Alpine bike packing, you might want to think about a smaller chainring for the front. Though of course, that comes at the expense of speed on the flat with the 11-42T cassette.
Initially, I thought that the handlebars were a revelation, and then I wasn’t so sure, and now I think they’re still better than standard drop bars, but with some potential shortcomings. The key thing is I’ve had no weird nerve troubles while riding this bike – something that was previously such a problem that I had to stop riding gravel bikes. I think that’s down to having a less awkward braking position on trickier descents – the wrist is less rotated, I think creating less strain. Braking on the hoods is much easier and more effective – on a gravel bike with vertical brakes I’d rarely attempt to brake from the hoods off road on anything more than fine and even gravel (of which there is very little in Calderdale), but with these bars that’s a very natural and effective thing to do.
My slight misgivings about the bars came from riding on the hoods, which placed the bars – and my weight – in the groove between my wrist bones. I found that quite uncomfortable, and wished I had gloves with padding in that area. A few rides in, I learnt to avoid resting on this spot, and it didn’t bother me any more. But perhaps some thicker bar tape as well as padded gloves would be a good idea, especially if you’ve got any weird lumps or bumps from previous crashes and are planning long and epic rides. I do have a couple of scars around there, so maybe I’m just a bit over sensitive. While I was messing with bar tape, I’d add better bar ends – one of the push on ones used here just kept on dropping out.
On the tops of the bars, it’s a nice relaxed ride position, and on the very ends of the flared drops the sensation is akin to riding a swept back bike packing number – just lower. It feels like a really stable position for ploughing into a head wind, or stabilising a heavy load – though from here there’s no reaching the brakes so it’s not a position for descents. The ‘horns’ of the hoods do come quite close together, so if you were going fully loaded I think you might have to think carefully about how you’d fit a bar roll in there, especially with lights and a GPS.
Despite those slight niggles, this is certainly a bike I’d happily have in my garage. While my test bike was set up with 700C wheels, these could be swapped out for 27.5 x 2.1in wheels and tyres, at which point it would make a very interesting comparator to the Juliana Quincy I tested last year. Even at the 700×42 set up I had on test, I would say that the Camino AL is one of the most capable gravel bikes I’ve ridden. Towards the end of the test, as lockdown restrictions eased and I was able to ride with people, I felt more able to push myself. On climbs and descents I was able to hold my own against even a mountain bike rider – obviously I stopped short of drop offs and long steep enduro descents, but for anything with my wheels on the ground I was whooping and wiggling my way through ruts, rocks and tight lines.
In terms of instant comfort and feeling ‘just right’, the Quincy is the only other gravel bike that springs to mind – but it costs quite a significant amount more pocket money. The Sonder Camino AL is not just a bike would own, it’s a bike I could own. In fact, it’s a bike I rather wish I did own.
Three things I’d change
- Dynamo routing – it would be a great addition to the versatility of this bike.
- The bar tape – I’d add something with a bit more cushioning, and add proper bar plugs with screw fittings while I was at it.
- A chain stay protector – I’d like to see one to protect the paintwork here.
Three things I loved
- The ride position – this is the not too aggressive, comfortably upright position I prefer.
- The bars – braking on the angle is much better than on the vertical.
- Great tyre clearance for versatile set up options.
With its flexible wheel size options and plenty of tyre clearance, there’s scope for building the Sonder Camino AL however you want it. However, as built, this Rival 1 option seems to me to be a great fit straight out the box. If you can’t fork out for this higher end build kit straight away, the ride quality is such that the frame makes a good candidate for later upgrades, and the handling is simply excellent. Unless your heart is set on steel, titanium, or carbon, I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t want this bike. I do want this bike, and I’m genuinely sorry to be sending it back.
Sonder Camino Al Rival1 Hydraulic Spec List
- Frame // Camino Al Frame [V3]
- Fork // Camino Al Forks [V3]
- Headset // FSA Orbit C-40-ACB Headset / 7.8mm Spacer
- Seat Clamp // Love Mud Gromit / 31.8mm
- Rotors // Avid Centreline Rotor / 160mm
- Rear Mech // SRAM Rival Rear Derailleur / 1 / Long
- Rear Shifter // SRAM Rival 22 Shifters / Hydraulic / Right / Flat
- Chainset // SRAM Rival 1 Crankset GXP / 172.5mm / 40
- Bottom Bracket // SRAM GXP Bottom Bracket / Standard
- Chain // SRAM PC1110 Chain / 118 Links
- Cassette // SRAM PG1130 Cassette / 11 / 11-42
- Stem // Love Mud Storc 31.8mm / 80mm
- Seatpost // Love Mud Membar / 27.2mm / 400mm
- Saddle // Love Mud Abode / Black
- Tape/Grips // Love Mud Reels / Black
- Handlebar // Love Mud Bomber
- Wheels // Love Mud Nova 700c Wheelset / Shimano
- Front & Rear Tyre // WTB Resolute / Comp / 700 / 42
- Tubes // WTB Inner Tube / 700 / 28-38
- Weight as tested // 10.74kg