The Low Down on Dirt Dropbar Bikes
Of all the styles of bike we are lucky enough to have on the floor at Commuter the dropbar, dirt capable bike is probably our favourite, and certainly the most versatile. As a result we’ve tried to stock a LOT of options in this style of bike. So much so that, we admit, the choice can becoming daunting at times. And so, in this latest edition of deep dives into cool stuff we have, we take a proper look at all of the off-road capable drop bar bikes in our range and hopefully make it a bit easier for you to work out which one suits you best.
If you were lucky enough to own one of the original Fargos from late 2009 you’ll remember that time fondly. That first Fargo was a game changer not just for those individuals like me that grabbed one, but for the industry in general. It looks a bit unrefined now compared to the modern incarnations, but it’s fair to say that the original Fargo inspired the bulk of the super versatile drop bar bikes we see on the market today.
For 2020 many of the features we loved about the original Fargo remain but, wow, does it sure pack a punch in a tonne of other areas. When the original Fargo dropped I remember being totally mind blown about being able to run 29×2.4 rubber! The comfort and traction available on that bike was unbelievable. This year’s Fargo will let you run your choice of 27.5×3.0 or any size 29er rubber you please right up to 3.0 aswell. This is mainly thanks to Salsa’s sliding Alternator dropouts which also allow the Fargo to easily be set up single speed, whether that be on purpose or in an emergency, and it can run a Rohloff internal geared hub too.
The new Fargo has it’s geometry corrected to run a 100mm suspension fork no worries and there are bottle and storage mounts literally EVERYWHERE. The Fargo is hands down our first choice for a drop bar bikepacking machine but it also sets up very nicely with a flat or Jones bar though we’d suggest you go up a size in this case. The one area we don’t feel awesome about recommending the Fargo is for unloaded, big kilometres day rides, like gravel Audax events. It’s a little on the heavier and relaxed side compared to some options, including the next one.
Designed specifically with bikepacking ‘races’ in mind, the Cutthroat is basically a Fargo with sharper angles, a bigger front triangle for storage and, being carbon, it is WAY lighter. WAY! If you weren’t ever thinking about running racks, and wanted a bikepacking machine also capable of smashing huge unloaded kilometres on mixed surfaces, the Cutthroat is unreal.
Being full carbon though, this thing is not cheap. Complete Apex 1 bikes kick off at about $4500, but if going fast and travelling light are things you’re passionate about then it’s pretty hard to beat the Cutthroat on versatility. Slightly less upright and slightly shorter in the rear end than the Fargo, the Cutthroat rides more like a classic cross country hardtail mountain bike but with the multiple hand positions of dropbars. It’s worth having a look at the rear end of a Cutthroat in the flesh, if only to see the kind of ride quality tweaks that are possible with carbon. The big curves of the Cutthroat rear end are designed to suck up a whole lot of vibration from corrugations and other crappy surfaces before they get anywhere near you and let you keep rolling for longer.
For the same frame size, the Cutthroat front triangles are almost 20% larger than those of the Fargo thanks to the flattened tubes and reduced standover height of the Cutthroat. This allows for a huge framebag relative to your frame size. And starting with a 9kg bike instead of a 12kg bike does make a solid difference when packing light and looking to ride far. It’s worth noting that carbon bikes have come a LONG way and we certainly don’t have the durability concerns we would have had ten years ago and the Cutthroat has proven itself as a seriously robust long term option.
Kona Sutra LTD
The regular old Sutra has been in Kona’s range for a long time as a great value out of the box tarmac touring option. Kona are pretty good at keeping their ear to the ground and watching what customers are doing with their bikes. I had the pleasure of hanging out at Kona HQ in Bellingham, Washington earlier in the year and was actually amazed at how closely Kona follow what their customers are up to with their bikes. With the growing popularity of bikepacking, and some Sutra owners getting pretty rowdy on their bikes with big rubber and wider dropbars, the Sutra LTD was born.
Trimmed back to it’s steel frame bones, no fenders, no racks but with the addition of 3-pack fork storage mounts and some big 700×50 rubber, the Sutra LTD is the dirt road hunting bike a lot of Sutra owners had been looking for. Without those fenders the LTD can take up to a proper 29×2.2 mountain bike tyre on the existing rims. If you want to really make the LTD a rugged, go anywhere machine, changing to 650b wheels will let you run a MASSIVE 2.6 inch tyre with loads of room for mud.
That said the LTD still gives you the option of running regular racks and panniers, as well as smaller volume slick tyres, down to about 35mm, and makes it a great option for a daily commuter that’s also capable of regularly getting out into the mountains for some proper exploring and some camping.
Kona Rove ST
The Sutra LTD sounds awesome right? But if you’re realistically going to be commuting most of the time and getting out onto some fireroads only ever couple of months or so, it’s likely you’ll really dig the Rove ST.
It’s a bit more agile and a bit lighter than the Sutra LTD with less tyre clearance. Certainly better suited to long day rides than multi day epics, but still with loads of mounts on frame and fork for extra bottles and proper 3-Pack storage cages. Tyre clearance tops out at 650×48 but we have a LOT of tyre choices in this size so tailoring the Rove ST to your usage needs is a piece of cake. The Rove ST was narrowly beaten this year by the next bike in our list as Most Popular Commuter Than Can Party Hard but looks like it’ll probably take number one spot this coming season. And at $2500 it really is a great affordable Melbourne adventure choice.
For the last twelve months the Straggler has been our most popular dirt capable drop bar bike for commuting with a solid helping of exploring and light touring. Mostly we feel, because it’s a ridiculously fun bike to ride.
Throw some full fenders on there and commute in all weather. Chuck front and rear racks on and go get lost for a few weeks of proper loaded touring. Go frame bag and saddle bag for some longer miles on rougher surfaces. The Straggler can handle it all. It’s certainly not the lightest bike in our range, but Surly certainly emphasise long term durability and handling over weight and they’ve totally nailed it with the Straggler. One thing we love about the Straggler is that the smaller sizes come with 650b wheels making for a much more proportionate and better handling bike in sizes like 50cm while eliminating chances of tyre and foot overlap.
It’d certainly be possible to overlook the Renegade as only existing in our range because it’s the cheapest, but the reality is that Jamis have created a very good bike for the pricepoint, and it’s certainly worthy of inclusion in our fleet and in this article.
For under two and a half grand you get a LOT of bike from Jamis. Steel frame and carbon fork, both with clearance for up to 42mm tyres make for a great entry into the world of exploring off the tarmac. Full rack and fender mounts will appeal to the daily commuter too. If you are happy with 42mm as your max tyre clearance it’s certainly a frame worth upgrading parts on over time and turing into something really individual.
Mone El Continente
The El Continente is certainly the outlier in our range but we REALLY like this bike. If a Fargo and a slack, trail oriented hardtail made a baby it’d likely come out like this! Picture courtesy of the extremely stoked El Conti’ owner Keith.
Super short rear end for a bike capable of taking 29×3.0 rubber, slack headangle and absolutely stunning build quality, the El Conti’ is the most fun option here when things get rough’n’tumble. Not as serious a mile-crusher as a Cutthroat, with less options for mounting gear than a Fargo, the El Conti’ certainly makes up for all than in fun-factor. Extremely agile handling for a big wheeled steel bike, it’s certainly at home on singletrack and loose, rough 4WD trail. Adjustable length rear end also allows for the use of internal geared hubs or some singlespeeding. And did I mention the build quality? It really needs to be seen in the flesh to be appreciated but the raw finish of the El Conti’ is a head turner for sure.
You’re not wrong if you’re thinking ‘Salsa do a tonne of cool dropbar bikes.’ The Vaya has been a mainstay of Salsa’s range since 2011 and a really popular option for those looking for an all rounder.
For the last few years the Vaya has been specced with a much wider gear range than many of our light touring and gravel options, using a mix of road and MTB shifting components to allow riders to explore further off the tarmac without having to walk or turn back. Now that the industry has caught up and Shimano GRX exists the Vaya is likely to come into it’s own a bit. Much more upright and stable than a Straggler, the Vaya is well suited to long days on crap surfaces, whether that’s just with a half-frame bag and a couple of one litre bottles or with a full bikepacking setup. For 2020 the carbon fork also features proper mounts for storage cages and it can totally handle a light front deck rack. If the Rove ST and Straggler make you smile, but you want something a little lighter with more gear range then the Vaya is sure worth a look.
It would be totally remiss of us to publish an article about dirt capable drop bar bikes and not include the Wolverine, as it’s just about the most versatile offering we have.
Incase you already read all about it in our previous article, I won’t bang on about it again but if you haven’t gotten the lowdown on the Soma Wolverine you can read it all HERE.
If there are any further details about any of these options you’d like more information on feel free to get in touch by commenting below or firing us an email at the shop. Apart from the new GRX Vaya, which is due in early December, we have all of these bikes on the floor now to view and test ride. Hope you’re all looking forward to a weekend of exploring by bike.