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Fat, Gravel, Bikepacking: Best Bikes For Off-Road Adventure

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Need some real adventure, and now? Rip yourself away from the leash of civilization just as fast as you can pedal with a burly bike.

Adventure bike

Pulling long miles on gravel roads, lurking through desert nooks, rolling down deep-in-the-woods singletrack… what makes a great adventure bike depends on your objective.

We asked a few of the best in the business to weigh in on which steed they reach for when answering the call of the wild.

Meet our informants:

Mike Curiak co-founder (and past winner) of the Great Divide Race. He’s won the Kokopelli Trail Race and raced the 1100-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational … eight times (twice unsupported). Mike owns Lacemine29, building high-end big wheels. Out of the office, Mike pedals desert rock and packrafts remote wild rivers.

Steve Fassbinder (aka Dr. Doom), is principal crazy at the Republic of Doom and a three-time 24 Hours of Adrenalin singlespeed champion. Nowadays, when not building boats for Alpacka, Dr. Doom can be found (or rather lost) pedaling and paddling the desolate Utah badlands.

Kurt Refsnider has bikepacked across the globe, winning and setting records in some of the longest bikepacking races along the way. A geology professor at Prescott College, Kurt rides for Salsa Cycles. He founded Ultra MTB Consulting, offering coaching and consulting services for endurance mountain bikers and bikepackers.

Casey Greene is a cartographer for Adventure Cycling Association. His rides don’t stop when the trail ends. He’s helped define the fringe sport of pack-biking, strapping a pack to his bike to cross un-trailed terrain. You can follow Casey’s adventures by bike at his blog.

Ira Ryan. Ira Ryan is half the loaf at Breadwinner cycles, where they build classic, TIG-welded steel bikes of all sorts. Ira grew up pedaling remote midwest farm roads before it became a thing. Putting the grind in gravel grinder, his early work helped put him on the podium at last year’s Oregon Outback 360, where he took the win in 28 hours.

Here’s what the experts pick for their adventures:

The 29+ (full suspension). Mike Curiak


Mike‘s take: I’m not much into riding gravel — life’s too short, and if a car can get there … it’s not likely to be my kind of adventure. Nor am I into crowds. Thus when I’m up for an exploratory I tend to want to get way out there. In my neck of the woods that means I dive deep into the desert or climb high into the mountains. I reach for the 29+ bike.

Strengths: It doesn’t fall into 29″ holes. The rougher the trail, the more it shines. Tall flywheels hold momentum once you’ve established it. The 29+ can tractor through chunk, tank traps, and bomb craters more adeptly than any other bike I’ve ridden (or heard about) to date.

Weaknesses: Tall wheels take a bit more initial oomph to get up to speed. It’s also a parking lot geek magnet. Tire selection is still limited.

Why this bike:. In idle moments, many of us dream of the one-bike quiver. The soon-to-be-released Lenz Fatillac is the closest I’ve yet come to that mythical unicorn fart … combining modern, playful short/slack mountain geometry with the sure-footedness of lightweight mid-fat tires and the added capability of full suspension.

The Fat Bike. Dr. Doom


Doom’s take: Back in the day … we did everything we could to find bigger (i.e., better) adventure-bike tires and wheels, going as far as welding two rims together and running the biggest (heavy) DH tires that we could find. Finally Surly’s Pugsley came on the market [in 2005] and all things were wonderful in the adventure-bike world.

The term fat bike took a few years to catch on — no one else was making anything like it. Flash forward to modern fat bikes, and the infinite offerings from every major manufacturer, rims, tires in every shape size, color, and all the local hipsters riding them to the coffee shops, and you may just think fat bikes are OVER … too cool and too fat for their own good.

Although there’s some truth in that, when it comes down to it, fat bikes are f#$ing amazing, fun, utilitarian adventure tools, and I can’t imagine not owning one. Like most bikes, a fat bike is purpose-built, and they shine when the going gets rough.

Strengths:  Obviously snow and winter riding. These bikes also plow through deep soft sandy desert. The fatty excels anytime large quantities of off piste riding are encountered.

Weaknesses: Generally heavier and slower than your average 29er or 29+.

Why this bike: Because the coffee shop might be 200 miles of off piste desert death riding away from where you are.

The Full Suspension. Kurt Refsnider


Kurt’s take: So many bikepacking routes seem to lace together stellar riding in amazing places with subpar riding on forgotten and seldom ridden trails. Such trails often provide rough, chunky, challenging riding. And even some of the most amazing trails in the West (the Arizona or Colorado Trails…) have exceptionally rugged, rocky sections. In these places, full suspension bikes are my choice for bikepacking.

Strengths: On rough terrain, full-suspension rigs can make riding so much more fun and help reduce the abuse your body feels. Rattling down rock-strewn descents day after day on a hardtail becomes a bit tiresome. The suspension can also save your butt from sailing through the air when you find yourself on a line that you probably shouldn’t have attempted.

Weaknesses. Decreased space for a frame bag and decreased clearance for a seat bag can make hauling your gear a bit more challenging, so a svelte, compact kit is required. The increased complexity of full suspension frames can also make field repairs more challenging. Fortunately, such failures are uncommon.

Why this bike. For bikepacking trips that have long sections rolling over rugged, rocky trails, Salsa’s Horsethief is my favorite ride. The bike has ample travel to smooth out the rough stuff but is still efficient enough that I never question riding a trail bike even on long dirt road climbs. And I can still strap a small seat bag while using a dropper post, allowing me to get back behind the saddle and ride steeper descents than I normally would on a bikepacking rig.

The Packbike. Casey Greene


Casey’s take: When the trail runs into wilderness or withers into snowline, my adventure is just getting going. I’ll dismantle my bike, strap it to my pack and press on to virgin singletrack lodged deep in the way-way-backcountry.

Strengths: My titanium singlespeed is a simple, light (19lbs), and completely versatile bike. It should have a home in the quiver for a long time to come.

Weaknesses:  If you thought bike weight matters when you’re on your bike, wait ’til it’s on your back for 15 miles! Every component counts and weight adds up. It’s just a step away from a ‘crossbike. The lack of suspension makes for a tough ride on gnarly trail.

Why this bike: I’ve had my GT Xizang for a while now, and in hindsight, I can honestly say it’s the best bicycle purchase I’ve ever made. It’s low-tech, durable and lightweight — exactly what I had been looking for in a packbike.

The Gravel Grinder. Ira Ryan


Ira’s take: I grew up as a roadie in the Midwest so the idea of riding gravel roads added thousands of miles of potential to what would have been another boring road ride. Often times, the miles pedaled to a new route or section of gravel are vast, so a mountain bike is just too slow. There are thousands of miles of gravel roads all around us and a gravel adventure bike is just the right tool to discover new hidden gems and bring you closer to the natural world.

Strengths. Light and fast, the gravel grinder rides like a stable road bike but with more clearance for bigger tires to cover ground easily and fast. Most have disc brakes for superior braking on rough and loose gravel roads. Fittings for extra bottles and packs help supply longer races. A cousin of the road bike, the gravel grinder fits standard size parts and components.

Weaknesses: They are not as burly for really gnarly off road use and feel “dull” when pedaling regular road use.

Why this bike: Most people dream of big adventures but in reality there are a lot of great things to see right out our front door. Not everyone has the time or means to drive to a trailhead for a ride and in most cases, a bike that can get you off of your local loop is the best start. One bike to fit fat or skinny tires, enough water for a long hot ride, and maybe even fenders to keep you clean and dry is a great start.

Parting thoughts

Lusting after an adventure bike? Give some realistic consideration to where the rubber meets your road. If you live in the flats, you may not need full suspension. And don’t overlook what you might already have in the stable. Can you get by with a second set of wheels (setting you back hundreds instead of thousands of dollars).

Hellbent on something different? Deals can be found by the fistfull on eBay and craigslist. I just picked up a vintage titanium singlespeed for a song.

And as Ira shared, adventure can start just outside your door. So swing a leg over the top tube and see where it might take you. It’s a big world, get out and ride it!

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