Why Your Adventure Bike Should Have These 3 Essential Qualities

I was recently going through photos of my various bike set ups over the last 15 years and discovered something interesting. As my style of riding gravitated away from typical MAMIL pursuits and towards adventure, my bikes all began to have certain qualities in common: reliability, adaptability, and comfort. None of these qualities, it turns out, have much to do with the lightweight and aerodynamic qualities the bike industry seems to think are so important. 

Adventure Bike Quality #1–Reliability

At the top of the list of things preventing us from heading out for adventure is the fear of getting stranded, especially if the adventure takes us out of cell range and far from help. Even if adventure, by definition, involves uncertainty, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to manage those uncertainties. Sure, mechanical failures are always possible, but we can minimize their likelihood by choosing a bike set up that prioritizes the reliability of components over their weight
Components are made lighter, for the most part, by removing every last bit of material that can be eliminated without compromising functionality. The problem is that in many cases something else is compromised–strength and durability. If you’re a world tour pro and a mechanic in the team car is ready to leap into action with a new bike when your derailleur breaks, then you needn’t be concerned with how reliable your components are. But if you want to head out on an adventure where help might be hours away and self-reliance is the name of the game, reliability is paramount. 
Mechanicals happen for many reasons. A bike falling over, a crash, failure to address a mystery noise, and even just the jostling and banging of a rugged gravel route (not to mention the dust and moisture that can work its way into moving parts) are all possible causes of mechanicals. Terrain and weather can push the limits of a bike, increasing the wear and tear on components. No bike can withstand all of the above, but some are definitely sturdier than others.
And even if your cycling adventures aren’t likely to face extremes in terms of rocks, ruts and dust or snow, rain and mud, no one wants to be stranded by an unfixable mechanical problem. 
A final element of reliability has to do with readiness. The best adventures are often spontaneous. When you get that call from a friend proposing to leave tomorrow at the crack of dawn for an epic adventure, you don’t want your bike to be the reason you can’t go.
A reliable bike means that from ride to ride your components stay tuned, wheels stay true, tires hold air, and minimal fussing is needed when you’re ready to roll out for the next adventure.   

Adventure Bike Quality #2–Adaptability

Since 2010 I’ve been riding reliable and adaptable steel frames designed by Mike Varley at Black Mountain Cycles in Point Reyes Station, California. Mike opened up his shop in 2007 and began designing frames intended to be built up as adventure bikes. For Mike, adventure bikes are “bikes you can ride anywhere and on any road surface: paved, dirt, gravel.”
After a decade of riding the original Black Mountain Cycles Monstercross frame, here’s what I shared with Mike in an email:

The bike has been infinitely adaptable for my needs over the years…I’ve been doing more gravel/mixed terrain touring and shifted from a rack set up to a seat pack, handlebar roll and frame bags.   

At one point, I swapped out the stock fork for an adventure fork so I could mount some cargo cages to carry more water or gear. And if you’ve read my posts on riding in the rain here, here and here, you won’t be surprised that the bike also accepts fenders. 

The latest design, the Mod Zero, is Mike’s most adaptable adventure bike yet. There are more mounting points, including on the fork legs. There’s routing for a dropper post. There’s even a head tube that takes a fork with a tapered steerer tube, which means you have a wide range of aftermarket forks to choose from if you’d like to swap out the stock fork.

Sure, I love my Black Mountain Cycles bikes. The Mod Zero that I rode for Paris-Brest-Paris last year is pictured below. But the point isn’t to push a specific bike. It’s that every adventure is different, so your bike has to be capable of adapting to whatever the adventure demands.

In practice, what this means is the ability to accept wide tires, fenders and racks. It also means plenty of mounting points so you can move cages and bags around depending on the size of the load your adventure requires. 

It also probably means that your bike should not have integrated routing. If  professional mechanics working in a shop complain about the challenges of working on bikes with integrated routing (see The truth about integrated cable routing | 5 mechanics dish the dirt on working with integrated bikes), then there’s no chance you’re going to be making any cable or hose repairs out in the middle of an adventure. 

Back at home, however, you want the parts on your bike to be serviceable and interchangeable. The most adaptable bike is the one that has no proprietary design features or new standards. Bottom brackets, seat post diameters, hubs, thru axles and other parts all come in a wide range of sizes and styles. Some haven’t been around long and may not last. Others require super-specific parts that can be hard to find. 

Your adventure bike will be more adaptable and more reliable if its components have been around for a long time and are easily replaceable.     

Every adventure is different, so your bike has to be capable of adapting to whatever the adventure demands.

Adventure Bike Quality #3–Comfort

I probably don’t need to explain why comfort is so important. With all the factors that introduce uncertainty into an adventure, the last thing you want is to be physically suffering through your ride. Yet carbon and aluminum, the materials the industry relies on to make bikes lighter and more aero, are notorious for transferring all the chatter of road imperfections through the bike and into the rider’s body.   

Do you want to be light and aerodynamic on your adventure? Or do you want to be comfortable? In case you need convincing, I’ve already written extensively about the importance of optimizing for comfort on the bike (see 3 Steps to Achieve Your Long Distance Cycling Goals and All-Day Bike Touring Comfort with Ergonomic Bar End Grips). It’s no coincidence that many of the things you can do to increase comfort require an adaptable bike.

Many bikes come with handlebars whose geometry is more about achieving an aero position than a comfortable one. If you want to experiment with different handlebars, like the shallow drop handlebars I describe and recommend here, then you don’t want a bike with integrated cables. Similarly, there are now some great options for stems that have a little suspension, but they require your cables to be run externally.
Suspension is one of the best ways of making a bike more comfortable. But here’s where you have to consider how best to balance reliability, adaptability and comfort. Some manufacturers have begun adding suspension to their gravel adventure bikes, and not just in the form of suspension forks. Niner, BMC, Cannondale, Basso and Specialized all offer gravel bikes with various forms of rear suspension. 
Very often, however, suspension technology is proprietary which reduces the adaptability of your bike. Furthermore, whenever you replace a rigid part, like a fork or seat stays, with a part that has joints, pivots, springs or hydraulics, you are introducing unnecessary failure points. 
That brings us to tires. I said earlier that clearance for wide tires makes a bike more adaptable. In particular, it makes a bike better adapted to comfort. Wide tires run at low pressure will make your ride more comfortable. Period. 
Wider tires are also more reliable in that they are less prone to flats. If your adventure is mostly paved, a wide slick tire also offers more confidence and safety by putting significantly much more rubber in contact with the road than a traditional skinny road tire.
And as Jan Heine at René Herse Cycles has proven time and again, wide tires at low volume roll as fast as skinny tires at high volume (see Why narrow tires FEEL faster or Gravel Myths (1): Too Much Tire?).

The Three Essential Adventure Bike Qualities in Practice

Reliability, adaptability and comfort are abstract concepts. So what do they mean in practice? The diagram below highlights some specific features of my bike as they relate to these concepts.

My Adventure Bike Set Up: Reliability

My 1x mechanical drivetrain is the ultimate in reliability. Eliminating the front derailleur means one less moving part that can fail. There are no batteries, bluetooth or other technologies that are out of my control should they malfunction. 

If my derailleur does fail, or I’ve bent my chain, I can turn the bike into a single speed and still make my way slowly out of whatever predicament I’m in. And if my predicament extends past sunset, I don’t want to depend on battery-powered lights, so I have a reliable dynamo-powered front and rear light to get me through the night. 

My Adventure Bike Set Up: Adaptability

My bike can take a range of wheel diameters and tire sizes. With this set up I’m running 700c x 38mm slick tires for a trip that was entirely paved. My favorite setup is 650b x 48mm tires–slick or with tread depending on the terrain. 

Mounting points for both fenders and racks add to the bike’s adaptability. A standard 68mm threaded bottom bracket and 12 x 100 and 12 x 142 front/rear thru axle spacing means I have a wide range of wheels and drivetrains to choose from.

My Adventure Bike Set Up: Comfort

Let’s start with the frame material. You may have heard people say “steel is real.” Get on a thoughtfully designed and well made steel bike and you might discover for yourself what it means. Is there flex in the frame that reduces ever so slightly the transfer of power from your legs to the road? Yes. But that same flex is what makes the ride quality so good. 

If your handlebars are comfortable, don’t mess with them. But for me, shallow drop handlebars were an absolute game changer. It’s more than being comfortable in the drops. It’s that your comfort over a very long adventure depends on having multiple comfortable positions for your hands. 

This is also why I prefer drop bars over flat bars for my adventure bike. But if you are only comfortable in one out of the 5 or more positions available on drop handlebars, then your bike is not as comfortable as it could be.

And let’s not forget tires! Pictured are some very comfortable 700c x 38mm slick tires. But a plump 650b x 48mm wide tire at 25psi makes you feel like you’re floating.

I would also put fenders in the comfort category. If you know your adventure is going to be wet, and your bike can take fenders, you will find that staying dry longer makes you more comfortable.

Adventure Bike by Trial and Error

In the end, it’s not just that every adventure brings different challenges. It’s that we have to get out and experience the range of challenges an adventure can throw at us so we can learn what works and does not work. 

Through this trial and error, we slowly hone our bikes into the kind of adventure machine that is ready to roll at the drop of a hat, can adapt on the fly, and keeps our bodies as comfortable as possible when we’re far outside our comfort zones.