Book review: ‘The 2019 Bikepacking Bike Buyer’s Guide’ by Alee Denham
Bikepacking: whether you see it as touring-made-popular or as an exciting new sub-discipline of the sport, there can be little doubt it has exploded in recent years. Where multi-day cycling adventures were once the domain of a select few, using bikes and gear from smaller, niche brands, now more and more cyclists are embracing their inner adventurer, and all with the support of bigger brands.
The rise of ultra-endurance racing has certainly played a role. Races like the Trans Am, Transcontinental, the Indian Pacific Wheel Race and Race to the Rock have all captured the attention of cyclists around the world. Lachlan Morton’s recent demolition of the GBDuro won’t have done the scene any harm either.
And combine the growth of bikepacking with the explosion of the gravel bike market and riders are arguably better equipped for multi-day touring than ever before.
But say you want to try your hand at bikepacking, to embark on an exciting adventure of your own. Where do you start? Well, you could do far worse than The 2019 Bikepacking Bike Buyer’s Guide, an e-book from Australian rider and writer Alee Denham.
If you’ve followed CyclingTips for any length of time you’ll likely be familiar with Alee Denham. He was one of the riders on our Roadtripping the Mawson Trail adventure in 2016, and we’ve shared his bikepacking adventures from Bali, Vietnam, Japan and, most recently, South America. At the time of writing Alee is partway through a multi-year solo journey through the Americas, all from the seat of his bike.
All of this is to say that Alee Denham understands bikepacking. He’s spent literally years of his life on the road, exploring by bike, and in that time he has written and created films about his adventures for his website, CyclingAbout.com. As Denham writes, The 2019 Bikepacking Bike Buyers Guide is something of an extension of CyclingAbout.com, “an overview of all of my knowledge condensed into a simple and easy to read book.”
This 178-page e-book is divided into three sections. First: a detailed breakdown of the components that make up a bikepacking bike. Second: a guide to comparing and selecting the right bikepacking bike for you. And third: detailed listings of more than 180 bikepacking bikes, from gravel bikes, to full-suspension 29-inch MTBs, to burly fat bikes.
One of the things that first stands out when you dive into this book is just how much work has gone into it. Sure, virtually all of the information here is available elsewhere — at bikepacking.com, for example, or in Nick Legan’s ‘Gravel Cycling: The Complete Guide to Gravel Racing and Adventure Bikepacking’ — but bringing it all together in one place is quite the achievement. The collation of information about so many bike brands, in particular, would have taken a colossal amount of work.
For each bike, Denham lists the materials used, the gear range, the steering speed (trail), weight, max tyre width and a whole bunch more.
But as mentioned above, this book is more than just a series of listings — although that does take up more than 100 pages worth. This ebook starts with the basics of a bikepacking bike, including the different types of handlebar setups available, component choices, gear options, brake types, wheel and tyre options, the various ways of carrying gear, and much more.
Each subject is given a page or two of explanation plus a brief summary as a reminder. It’s all presented very clearly and concisely, and frequent photos and diagrams help to illustrate Denham’s explanations. It’s all written in a light and conversational manner too, making it perfect for the bikepacking beginner.
And this book is targeted at the bikepacking beginner. Very little is assumed; everything is explained from first principles. For example, this explanation of gear range.
“The gear range that is on your bikepacking bike will determine how easy it is to climb hills and cruise along on the flat,” Denham writes. “It’s my experience that you can almost never have a small enough gear!
“You can measure the highest and lowest gears on bikepacking bikes using ‘gear inches’. They are calculated using the diameter of your wheel, multiplied by the front sprocket and divided by your rear cog. That gives us a convenient two or three- digit number to compare gear ranges between bikes.”
While this book is aimed at those who are just dipping their toes in the bikepacking waters, more advanced readers will certainly find value here too. Perhaps you’re looking for a primer on the available wheel and tyres sizes for various frame types. Or maybe you’d like to better understand how a bike’s geometry affects its handling (particularly under heavy load). Or perhaps you know plenty about road cycling but gravel adventure riding is a little beyond your comfort zone. In all of these situations, you’ll find value in Denham’s book.
Denham does an impressive job of distilling the somewhat complex technical elements of frame design into easy-to-understand explanations. Particularly impressive is how Denham has categorised trail figures to give a very rough indication of how quickly each bike steers.
But in simplifying some concepts Denham does lose some of the nuance. For instance, he recommends using stack and reach measurements to compare fit across all types of bikes.
“You can test ride ANY bike that fits (road, gravel, MTB) and match that bike’s stack and reach to another,” he writes. “This will give you the confidence you’re picking the right size bike – without ever testing it.”
While this is a useful technique for comparing fit between bikes of the same purpose (e.g. gravel bikes from different brands) it’s not as useful for comparing bikes across categories (e.g. gravel bike vs MTB).
This is largely down to the difference between a drop bar and a flat bar bike. A drop bar increases the reach so, to offer the same fit as a flat bar bike, a frame with a drop bar needs to be shorter as a result. Furthermore, the trend in MTB is to use a short stem for weight distribution and quicker handling, increasing the necessary length of frame again. These factors make it tricky to use stack and reach across the board.
But this is something of a minor gripe and for the average beginner bikepacker it’s unlikely to be too much of an issue. Comparing stack and reach across bike genres will get riders close to a comfortable fit, even if it’s not perfect.
The 2019 Bikepacking Bike Buyers Guide is available through CyclingAbout.com for US$19.95 (~AU$28) which gets you the book in PDF form, plus free yearly updates. This last point is important.
New bikes are being released all the time — particularly as the gravel market continues to grow — and so a bike buyer’s guide will only remain useful as long as it’s kept up to date. With its annual updates, Denham’s book promises to stay relevant for years to come.
If you’ve been thinking about giving bikepacking a go but don’t know where to start, this book will set you on the right path. It will get you up to speed on everything you need to know about bikepacking bikes and help you find the right option for you. And even if your bike or bikepacking knowledge runs a little deeper than the average beginner, this is still a handy reference guide for understanding the bikes and the gear available to you.
CyclingTips’ tech reporter Dave Rome contributed to this review.