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The recent growth of all-road and gravel riding has ushered in a new appreciation for touring and bikepacking. Indeed, the bikes that occupy this niche typically offer rack mounts so that buyers can fit racks, sometimes front and rear, for all their luggage. But what about those bikes that lack the necessary mounts? This is where Tailfin’s new T1 rack fits in, because it can be easily fitted to any road or gravel bike for hauling up to 18kg of luggage.
In this review, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a look at the T1 rack along with Tailfin’s matching panniers.
Tailfin began life as a Kickstarter campaign for an ultra-light carbon rack and panniers early in 2016. The man behind the system, Nick Broadbent, a mechanical engineer and product designer, started working on the project because he was frustrated with what the market had to offer.
His list of complaints was long, starting with the fact that most rear racks require dedicated frame mounts. That alone was enough to alienate most road cyclists but he could see that there was also a need for a quick-release system to speed up installation and make it easy to remove the rack when it wasn’t needed.
The end result was a lightweight rack with a carbon fibre mainframe and a trio of clamps for attaching it to the rear wheel and seatpost of the bike. A pair of panniers completed the new system, which was significantly lighter than what the market had to offer, something that Broadbent hoped would appeal to road cyclists.
However, for many road cyclists, the whole notion of using a rack and panniers is quite foreign, and arguably irrelevant. After all, the modern road bike has evolved to meet a need for speed rather than luggage capacity, so there was a risk that Broadbent’s new rack and pannier system wouldn’t have much appeal. And yet, Tailfin’s Kickstarter campaign was a huge success, bypassing its funding goal of £50,000 with ease to raise £150,000 from over 700 backers.
More than that, Tailfin managed to negotiate the tricky transition from a successful Kickstarter campaign to become a bona fide company on the strength of that appeal. Now there is room to question the initial assumption — that road cyclists simply have no use for racks and panniers — and acknowledge the possibility that the market has been ignoring the needs of road cyclists for a very long time.
One eye-catching feature to appeal to a new group of users
The biggest challenge for any kind of innovation is to capture the interest and imagination of prospective buyers while demonstrating the intent and promise of the product in a single glance. For Tailfin’s T1 rack, the choice of carbon fibre manages to achieve all of this while delivering one simple, and very powerful, message: this is no ordinary rack.
And it truly isn’t. Compared to Tailfin’s T1 rack, every other rack on the market appears rudimentary and primitive. The carbon fibre monocoque mainframe of the T1 fits onto the wheel like another set of stays for the frame, and rather than resort to a collection of Meccano-like fittings like every other rack on the market, there are just three simple clamps to lock the T1 rack in place.
The T1 rack is not the first to be designed to suit road bikes without dedicated mounts but with a load-carrying capacity of 18kg (9kg/pannier), it easily trumps Topeak’s Roadie Rack (7kg max.), Thule’s Tour Rack (11kg max.), and Arkel’s Randonneur Seat Post Rack (6kg max.). This has little to do with the use of carbon fibre, though — by anchoring the T1 rack to the rear wheel axle (rather than the seatstays or saddle rails), it is able to contend with a heavier load. It also means that no direct loads are placed on the frame, which will be a welcome sight for any buyer that owns a carbon fibre frame.
This last point was a crucial consideration that underpinned Broadbent’s engineering and guided the final design of the rack. Early prototypes were made from metal but Broadbent was always intent on capitalising on the strength-to-weight ratio of carbon fibre, the end result being that the T1 rack weighs just 350g (including clamps). The sight of carbon fibre will cause some shoppers to wince, though, because it inevitably adds to the cost of a product. And in this instance, it does: the asking price of AUD$440/US$350/£250/€290 is many-fold beyond what the rest of the market charges for a rear rack.
That’s enough to turn off most prospective buyers, but there is more to what Tailfin has to offer than just an exorbitantly priced rack.
The T1 rack will fit just about any road bike on the market, regardless of whether it has standard quick-release axles or thru-axles. And thanks to the system of three simple clamps there is generally no need for tools, and the amount of time required to install the rack is only marginally longer than that required to replace the rear skewer or thru-axle.
Broadbent designed a purpose-built skewer and thru-axles to provide the primary mounting point for the T1 rack. This takes the form of a pair of 8mm diameter pegs that extend from either end of Tailfin’s skewer/thru-axles. This is where the alloy clamps located at the end of the T1’s carbon fibre legs lock into place.
Each leg clamp behaves like a latch, wrapping around the pegs with a spring-loaded pin to lock it into place. A quick squeeze of the clamp is all that is required to release the pin and open the latch so that it can be removed from the peg. Such simplicity increases the risk of theft, though, which is why a pair of anti-theft bolts is supplied with the rack; these thread into the clamp to bolt the latch closed.
The seatpost serves as the other anchor point for the T1 rack. A pivoting alloy arm spans the distance between the carbon fibre mainframe and the post, and terminates with an adjustable clamp. Tailfin provides two straps — one short and the other long — so it is possible to fit the clamp around a thick aero seatpost up to 3 inches (7.5cm) deep. A hinged lever takes care of tensioning the strap with a safety button to make sure that it stays in place.
This trio of simple clamps ensure that the T1 rack is a doddle to install, and just as easy to remove when it’s not needed. This is quite distinct from traditional racks that can be considered semi-permanent additions to the bike: yes, they can be removed when desired, but the need for tools and keeping track of fiddly bolts is far more time-consuming and inconvenient than Tailfin’s effortless three-clamp system.
A set of panniers that integrate cleanly with the rack
Broadbent was not satisfied with re-visiting the design of the rack when developing the Tailfin system. The panniers also received the same kind of attention, and in particular, the mounting system. Anybody that has ever experienced a pannier rattling around on a rack will know that it is as torturous as a creaking bottom bracket, noisy cleats, or squealing brakes.
With an eye on his sanity, and another on gravel riding, Broadbent developed a dual-jawed clamp that hooks over the pair of 16mm diameter alloy stubs on the T1 rack. The cam lever that sits between the two hooks operates a pair of spring-loaded jaws that lock onto the underside of each stub, eliminating all play and any risk of a rattle.
Like most panniers, there is a hook positioned lower down on the bag to stop it from swinging out from the rack. Fitting each bag to the rack is therefore a matter of engaging the lower hook and lifting the clamp onto the stubs, then closing the lever to lock it in place. For those that have used panniers before, it’s a familiar operation that can be completed with ease, even when the bag is weighed down by its contents.
Tailfin’s pannier offers 22L of storage and is 100% waterproof thanks to polyurethane backing, welded seams and a roll-top closure. A plastic frame is fitted inside each bag along with a full-length flap that provides two flat pockets for storage. The rest of the interior remains un-compartmentalised, and for those hoping to save some weight, the pocketed flap can be easily removed.
A pair of straps is provided on either side of the bag for securing the top of the bag once the top has been rolled closed. Tailfin also supplies a shoulder-strap with each bag; alternatively, the ends of the roll top can be mated to form a small carry-handle.
Finally, there is a choice two versions for the pannier — Super Light (SL) and Ultra Durable (UD) — that differ in the weight and durability of the construction materials; an external zippered pocket has also been added to the latter. The SL is made from 240D nylon with a layer of 420D nylon coated with Hypalon (a synthetic rubber compound) for the base. The UD makes use of 420D nylon/Hypalon throughout with two layers of the material for the base, and according to Tailfin, the difference adds 150g to the weight of the bag.
Weights, options, extras and prices
The T1 rack sent for review weighed 355g while each SL pannier weighed 825g with mounting hardware and the internal pocketed flap, or 690g without the internal flap. As for the axles, the quick-release skewer weighed 75g compared to 62-63g for the thru-axles. For those counting grams, that makes for a total as little as 1,735g for a rack and two bags.
As for pricing, the T1 rack sells for AUD$440/US$350/£250/€290 while the panniers (SL or UD) cost AUD$160/US$125/£90/€100 each. Buyers can save a bit of money by opting for a rack and bag bundle, which start at AUD$564/US$450/£320/€360 for one bag while a bundle with two bags costs AUD$705/US$565/£400/€455. All are available with worldwide shipping and a choice of all major currencies through Tailfin’s online store.
Every rack ships with a skewer/thru-axle — buyers simply pick one when placing an order. At present there are four options: standard quick-release (to suit 130mm and 135mm hubs), or, a 12 x 142 mm thru-axle with either 1.0mm, 1.5mm, or 1.75mm thread pitch. Also included with the rack is a short plastic mudguard that clips onto the carbon mainframe along with a set of adapters that convert the 16mm stubs into a 12mm diameter rail for fitting other brands of panniers.
All mounting hardware is included with every Tailfin pannier along with the inner flap with pockets, a shoulder strap, and a set of inserts for the mounting clamp so that the bag can be used with standard racks that have 8mm, 10mm and 12mm diameter tubing.
Tailfin offers a five-year warranty against manufacturing defects for all of its products. The company also offers a range of spares for both the rack and bags, and in the event that one or both are damaged in a crash, owners can take advantage of a crash replacement discount of 30%.
For more information on the T1 rack and it SL and UD bags, visit Tailfin.
Out of the box and onto a bike
As mentioned above, Tailfin’s rack and panniers are very easy to install. I installed both on at least six different bikes during the review period, and in every case, I only ever required a few moments to complete the task.
In the past, I have wrestled with a variety of conventional racks, and in every instance, the installation process was time-consuming and tedious. In contrast, the T1 rack was a joy to install, and I never hesitated to swap it from one bike to another. After the first few installations, my efficiency actually improved so that it was no more demanding than fitting a rear wheel to the bike.
One important consideration when fitting a rack and panniers to any bike is to make sure there is plenty of heel clearance. This issue is akin to toe overlap for the front wheel and is dependent on the length of the chainstays and cranks, the size of the rider’s feet, and to a lesser extent, the position of the cleats. This is why many panniers offer an amount of sliding adjustment for the mounting hooks and clips, and can be fitted at multiple positions along the length of a conventional rack.
Tailfin’s rack and panniers do not offer any of this adjustment, so I was initially concerned that heel clearance might be an issue. However, it soon became clear that this was something that Nick Broadbent had given plenty of thought to by providing a generous rearward position for the bags. The bags also tilt forwards on the rack so that the lowest part is positioned even further away from the pedals, often well behind the seatstays.
As a result, the heels of my large feet (size 46 shoes) never touched the panniers, even when the bike had short stays (405mm) and 175mm cranks. Indeed, the amount of clearance was very impressive, and while that’s not enough to rule out the risk for those riders with large feet and a fondness for long cranks, it remains quite small.
The only issue that I could identify for the T1 rack concerns any road/cyclocross/gravel bikes that employ employ proprietary threadless thru-axles such as Manitou’s HexLock SL or Naild’s 12-3-9 system. There is no way to install one of Tailfin’s thru-axles on these bikes however the company is working to eliminate these incompatibilities by creating suitable threaded adapters. An adapter has already been created for Focus’ Rapid Axle Technology (RAT) and more are on the way.
Another smaller consideration relates to tyre size: the carbon mainframe arches closely over the rear tyre, so there is a limit to the size of the tyre that can be used with the rack. Tailfin recommends a maximum of 700 x 35C, however I had no trouble fitting a rack onto a bike with 700 x 40C tyres. I’m told that Tailfin has an MTB-specific rack on the drawing board that will accommodate larger tyres, but for now, there’s a chance that the T1 won’t fit some gravel/gravel plus/monstercross bikes with big tyres.
On the road with Tailfin
If it wasn’t clear from my comments above, Tailfin’s T1 rack and panniers made a strong and very favourable impression on me during installation, but my appreciation for the system went up a notch once I started road-testing it. The rack was impressively stout and the panniers unshakeable, so the whole system went largely undetected while I was riding my bike.
The most satisfying aspect was how silent the system was. The only time I heard any noise from the rear of the bike was when a couple of tools started clinking from within one of the bags. The rack and panniers never suffered from any vibrations, and perhaps more importantly, there was no obvious sway, even when I was out of the saddle.
I tackled a variety of terrain during the review period, paved and unpaved, and all of the clamps remained steadfast and secure throughout it all. I couldn’t find any evidence that the clamps could slide about, either, and after a week of riding, I had complete confidence in the system. In fact, I started to take it for granted.
There was no overlooking the effect of the luggage in the bags, of course. The extra weight was immediately obvious, even when the bags were packed sparingly. This is something that applies to any rack and pannier, and requires a few precautions, such as taking care when rising out of the saddle or stopping for a set of traffic lights. More effort is simply required to keep the bike upright at all times.
It is for this reason that it is worth taking the time to get accustomed to the extra weight, slowly increasing it over time, to get a feel for how it can affect the handling of the bike. It will also be quick to take its toll on the legs and lungs, requiring a more conservative approach (and lower gearing!) when making an effort on the bike.
That isn’t to say that the bike can’t be ridden fast. Indeed, the sturdiness of Tailfin’s rack and panniers was quick to shine whenever I lifted my speed, but it was futile to press hard on the pedals when I didn’t have the momentum. Thus, I was quick to lose speed on any kind of incline, but once I was over the top, I could use the extra weight to pick up speed. I was able to surprise a riding buddy by doing this but when it came to the final sprint, I was outclassed due to a lack of responsiveness.
I used bottles of water to vary the weight of my luggage, but even with multiple bottles, I wasn’t able to get close to the maximum load capacity of 18kg. What I really needed was a set of weights to test Tailfin’s claims, but even then, any effort I made was bound to look amateurish next to Tailfin’s lab-tests and the independent verification that was done to satisfy ISO 11243:2016.
The feedback from Tailfin’s backers and customers has been overwhelmingly positive, and according to the company, around 1,500 racks have been put to use without a single failure (though some have been damaged or broken in crashes). That’s not enough to prove the reliability and durability of the T1 rack, but when coupled with a thoughtful design that takes advantage of the load-bearing capacity of the rear wheel and the short-term performance reported here, it looks very promising.
With that said, it is worth pointing out that adding a rack and panniers to a road bike will require some extra consideration, especially for those riders that weigh over 90kg. The weight limit for many wheels is often 120kg, however it can be lower (e.g. 100kg), especially for some performance-oriented builds. Considering that a road bike with lights and a couple of bidons can approach 10kg, heavier riders may find themselves challenging the weight limit of the rear wheel even before they have started filling the bags with their gear.
Having witnessed first-hand the kind of toll that luggage can take on the rear wheels of touring bikes, this is not something that can be ignored, even by riders that weigh less than 90kg. A low spoke count, narrow tyre, and/or low tyre pressures will exacerbate the risk, resulting in pinch-flats, broken spokes and/or a damaged rim. Thus, a change in tyre and/or a move to a heavy-duty wheel may be prudent, especially for those riders planning to make full use of Tailfin’s luggage capacity.
Summary and final thoughts
Tailfin’s T1 rack and UL pannier is an innovative luggage system that unlocks the latent utility of modern road bikes. Both products offer buyers a number of thoughtful features, and while the asking price of the rack is high, it’s a small cost compared to buying a dedicated commuting or touring bike that can accommodate a conventional rack.
With that said, the carrying capacity of the T1 rack is limited to 18kg, which won’t impress (or satisfy) bikepackers that need to carry much more luggage for an extended outing. This is the realm where a specialised bike and heavy-duty rack systems are required, a niche that Tailfin is not trying to fill with the T1 rack or UL panniers. Its target market comprises commuters, day-trippers, overnighters, and traditional road cyclists discovering an interest in light-and-fast touring, where 18kg is likely to be a generous luggage allowance.
It is easy to label any product as innovative, but in creating the T1 rack, Tailfin has demonstrated just how much room there was for improving the design of a rear rack. It’s not a product that every road cyclist will need, but I think it’s one that the market was in need of, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it ushers in a new era of products.