Monday, October 31, 2016

Seven and a half allroad bikes for $2000 or less

It's Halloween - the only time in the year we let our kids accept candies from random strangers. But that's not what I wanted to write about. Let's talk about candies for big boys - bicycles.

We all know that unless you are into racing, Strava and the general Fredness, road bikes are boring. They really are! How long can you keep riding on a straight, smooth road after all? On the other hand, mountain bikes are fun... as long as you ride them in right places. Often, this means that first you would have to ride your mountain bike several miles to the trail. Ideally, you would want to own both of those bicycles but if your mother, girlfriend or wife keeps reminding you "One more bike and you're moving out!", it may be the right moment to forget about the n+1 rule and look for a single bicycle that would do it all.

Several years ago we've seen the arrival of "gravel bikes" - "designed" for riding on all types of roads, especially those unpaved ones. And even though in the recent years we slowly stopped calling them "gravel bikes" (which was a pretty stupid name to begin with) and now prefer adjectives such as "adventure", "allroad" or "anyroad", their design is actually not dramatically different from the bicycles that have already existed on the market for a long, long time - cyclocross bikes. In this sense, many modern "gravel bikes" are sadly not designed from ground up to serve as lean and mean unpaved road vehicles. Instead, they just seem to be race-oriented, re-purposed cyclocross bikes. Essentially, if you are looking at an adventure bike that comes with a low stack (frame height from the bottom bracket to the top of head tube), high bottom bracket and space for max. 35mm tires - it's not a modern adventure bicycle (even though it could serve you quite well as one!).

Anyway, I figured that it may be fun to put together a list of interesting adventure bicycles available now. My main selection criteria were: relaxed geometry, clearance for 40mm+ tires and multiple water bottle, rack and fender mounts. The point is to find bikes that can be decent on paved and unpaved roads, work well for touring in your summer adventures and commuting in winter time. For the sake of budget sanity I decided to cap prices at $2000 (-ish).

(All pictures come from either manufacturer's websites or related reviews. Used here as examples only.)

Salsa Vaya GX ($1800)
Let's start with Salsa Vaya - the bike that started it all years ago. In its newest incarnation, the Vaya GX comes with a steel frame of relaxed geometry with high stack (>600mm for size 55cm), slacker head tube angle (71.5deg) and lower bottom bracket (75mm drop). It's also adventure-ready with 3 water bottle mounts and rack mounts. Vaya's frame will easily fit tires up to 50mm wide if you don't use fenders. The only thing I'm not particularly fond of is the gearing. The bike comes with a road crankset with 50/34T chainrings, which means the gearing will be too high for off-road riding. Fortunately, the wide-range cassette (11-36T) helps here quite a bit.

All of this can be had for $1800 but if you don't want to spend that much, Salsa offers two other flavors for $1400 and $1100 so there's plenty to choose from. Overall, Vaya is a great bike for someone who would stay on pavement most of the time but doesn't want to be limited to it. I can tell you that it works great and is fun to ride, as I had a chance to test the previous X9 model recently.

+ well-thought-out geometry - relaxed and comfortable
+ plenty of clearance for large 50mm tires
- road crankset with 50/34T chainrings

Salsa Fargo is a bit different animal. While Vaya was still more of a road bike, or an off-road bike showing its road heritage, Fargo is more of a mountain bike wearing road bike's clothes. It's essentially a 29er MTB designed to be used with drop bars. As such, Fargo's frame has a very high stack (>640mm for size M) and slack head tube angle (69deg). This will work well off-road but makes it less suitable for fast riding on pavement. On top of that, the frame is suspension fork-ready, the bike comes with a MTB-specific 38/24T crankset and beefy 29"x2.0" tires.

Clearly, Salsa wants you to choose between Vaya and Fargo depending on your riding style. If you spend more time on pavement and once a while venture off the beaten path, Vaya will be a better bicycle for you. But if you think pavement is boring and those unknown trails are your true call - pick Fargo and it won't disappoint.

+ a true off-road vehicle with suitable geometry and components
+ fits very wide tires (2.0"+)
+ convertible dropouts mean you can use any drivetrain you like - even a belt-driven Rohloff hub
- not as fast on pavement as other bikes shown here

After adventure bikes were introduced on the US market and generated enough interest, big players entered the game. Sequoia is Specialized's answer to Vaya and generally it does the job well. For two grand we get a bicycle with Shimano 105 groupset mixed with hydraulic brakes, wide-range cassette and 48/32T crankset. Add wide 42mm tires, a bunch of accessory mounts and attractive design to this mix and you may get a perfect on/off road machine. However, frame stack is only 584mm (for size 56cm) and bottom bracket sits high (66mm drop), which tells me that Specialized started well, but then forgot it's not a cyclocross bike after all.

+ wide tires
+ hydraulic brakes
- low stack (584mm for 56cm size), targeted more towards sporty, fast riding
- high bottom bracket showing its cyclocross heritage

If Sequoia is what Vaya would be if Specialized made it, then AWOL Comp is their (late) answer to Fargo. Similarly to Fargo, AWOL comes with 1.9" wide tires and higher stack for more relaxed riding. There are some key differences though. AWOL does not have a suspension-corrected frame so you can't put a suspension fork on it (which actually makes it look better than Fargo) and it has a much steeper head angle (72 vs. 69 on Fargo). All this means that unlike Fargo, AWOL is not a mountain bike dressed in a road bike uniform but rather a separate, purpose-designed solution. All of which is nice for a total of $2100. Yes, it's the most expensive bike shown here but I thought that the extra $100 was worth it.

+ hydraulic brakes
+ wide 1.9" tires
- steep head angle - 72deg
- expensive at over $2k
- some might complain it's not Salsa

If it happens that you would really like to own a shiny allroad bike, but your budget is severely limited, it may be worth to take a look at Masi Giramondo. The 700C version shown here is a budget version of Vaya (or Sequoia). No integrated shifters, triple crankset, cheaper brakes - you get what you pay for. Still, it should be a fun bike to ride thanks to smart geometry and wide 40mm tires.

+ simple and reliable components (bar end shifters, mechanical disc brakes)
+ wide gearing range with triple crankset
+ inexpensive
- steep head angle - 72deg
- I'm guessing it's certainly heavier than Vaya

For the half of money you need to spend on AWOL, you could have this Giramondo 27.5 instead. It's essentially exactly the same bike as Giramondo 700C except the wheels. By going with smaller 27.5" wheels Massi managed to fit wide, 2.1" tires in the fork and frame. It makes this bicycle very similar to what AWOL offers, in terms of geometry (identical!) and tire width. Of course, Giramondo doesn't have a fancy 1x11 drivetrain nor hydraulic disc brakes, but that's where those savings come from.

+ simple and reliable components (bar end shifters, mechanical disc brakes)
+ wide gearing range with triple crankset
+ inexpensive
- steep head angle - 72deg
- I'm guessing it's likely heavier than AWOL

Kona Sutra LTD ($2000)
Kona bikes often had some fun Hawaiian names. Sutra may not follow this tradition but looks like a fun bike nevertheless. Geometry is appropriate - high stack, low-ish bottom bracket, slacker head angle and longer chainstays for better stability. On top of that, we get hydraulic brakes, 45mm tires and a well-tuned 1x11 setup with good range (36T chainring with 10-42T cassette). What's not to like? Honestly, it's hard to find anything wrong with this bike unless you don't like color orange.

+ good, comfortable geometry
+ hydraulic brakes
+ 45mm wide tires

Soma Wolverine ($630 frame+fork)
And now for something a bit different. Wolverine by Soma is a frameset that had gained lots of popularity since its release a few years ago. You can see why - stable geometry, adjustable dropouts, capability of running a belt drive, plenty of accessory mounts and clearance for wide tires. All this comes with the Wolverine. Unfortunately, it's only offered as a frameset, which means you would have to build it on your own or let your local bike store do it for you. In any case, you should have lots of fun riding this thing.

+ great start to an awesome bike
+ lots of drivetrain options thanks to adjustable dropouts
+ fits wide 45mm+ tires
- not offered as a complete bike

There are probably several other models I missed here. Let me know about them in comments. No matter what you choose, an allroad bicycle should quickly become your new best friend - capable of taking you everywhere, whether it's a trek across Sonoran Desert or just a ride to work.

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