I don’t do much in the way of kit reviews, as generally by the time I buy stuff it’s already been on the market from a while. But in this case, I’ve managed to get hold of one of the first production Alpkit framebags.
I had been in the process of designing my own in Google Sketchup when I heard Alpkit were going to start making custom bags. I knew of a number of companies producing bags, Porcelain Rocket and Revelate Designs being the two top tier Stateside. Wildcat and Buggy Bags in the UK, but had ruled them all out; the US companies as I wanted to avoid the tax and customs charges over and above the already premium purchase price, Wildcat as they never responded to my inquiry tweet and Buggy Bags, despite looking great value and bombproof were relatively heavy Cordura and looked like they’d double in weight when wet!
I initially sounded out Sean from Oookworks about doing the sewing, and he was up for it, but in the end I chose this route as I’m lazy and this was path of the least resistance from my point of view. I know Sean is a busy man and a six week lead time would eat into much of what is left of ‘summer’.
I created the template per Alpkit’s instructions and sent it off. It arrived sooner than expected. My frame is aluminium and has fairly chunky tubes, so the bag isn’t huge, but it appears to be well sown together and light. I haven’t bothered to weight it, and that information would be of little use to the reader unless you spec it up identically to mine and ride a 19.5 inch On-One Scandal (mk I).
I specified a 6cm width and dual pockets with removable divider. Unpacked, the width looks a little narrow, although I have not measured it. I can just squeeze a MSR Titan Kettle in on it’s side into the centre of the top compartment. I reckon it just about bulges to 8cm in the middle when packed, but there is a taper to each end. There are generous lengths of Velcro, which I have trimmed down. Waterproof zippers are a nice unexpected bonus, the product photo on their website does not appear to use them (revisiting the site, I see the spec does state PU coated zipper). The material is Polyant VX21 with distinctive diamond weave pattern and Cordura around the frame interface panels which also have a small amount of padding to protect your tubing. Water beads nicely on the VX21, although I’m not sure how long this will last.
I envisage using the lower section for tools, tubes and other miscellaneous bike bits. I hope to use the top section for stove and bulkier items. On previous trips, I’ve used a seat bag and homemade handlebar harness combo, coupled with a large pack. I hope to ditch the pack, or at least transition to my 20 litre Alpkit Gourdon or Camelbak Mule. I expect there will be a degree of experimentation required to find a packing system which works best for me.
First impressions are that Alpkit might be onto a winner. The usual balanced Alpkit design ethos of weight/durability/value is present. I’ll get a better picture of the durability over the coming months, but I’m not anticipating any issues. Sure, you can get cheaper bags, or more expensive ones from more established bikepacking brands, but the Stingray is in the middle ground price-wise. It looks like a no-brainer for UK and European customers who don’t want to sew their own or play the import-tax lottery with a purchase from the US.
Alpkit were asking for frame model and size info when ordering, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with this data. Maybe they’ll start offering generic off the shelf options if they can settle on some one size fits all templates that would serve most buyers, or maybe they’ll start pre-building popular designs.
Whilst I’m on the subject I may as well cover the rest of the bike and setup in more detail. I’ve been using an Alpkit Airlok drybag bungeed to the seat post, as the side attachment points ensure it remains stable. The 20 litre model is probably a little bit large, but it’s perfect for my sleeping bag, PHD Minimus Vest and Oookstar inner. There is small amount of rub on the my inner thighs due to the width, but it isn’t really noticeable when riding. I rode down the side of a not-inconsiderable hill last weekend over steep and, in places, rocky terrain without incident. TBH, I’m not sure I see any need to buy a dedicated seat pack at this point, the bungee and dry bag does a good enough job.
I am using an old 13 litre Alpkit drybag on the bars, it’s due for replacement as the seam tape has split. The webbing harness I made (I say ‘made’, it’s just some webbing threaded through some ladder locks), is secure on all but the roughest terrain, but requires tightening after bumpy descents. I’ll be considering how to address this (more friction needed!), but am keen to keep using it as it was mere pennies to put together. I use an additional bungee to stop it bouncing around too much. The On-One Mary handlebars, coupled with old XT brake levers form a sort of platform, which coupled with the Crud Fast Fender serves to keep the head tube from getting rubbed by the gear/brake cables. I may experiment with mounting on top rather than in front of the bars.
I have used an old Shimano battery mount on the downtube bosses to attach a mini pump and walking pole. As I only have the TrailStar for shelter these days, the pole is required, unless I want to take my chances finding a suitable tree to pitch under. This is a compromise I’m prepared to live with, I don’t particularly like the idea of bivvying, particularly in midge season. I’ve made some small effort to find a collapsable pole which would be wide enough diameter to cope with the TrailStar, but in all cases, these work out heavier than my Fizan walking pole. I use the saddle rails for the door guy and remove the front wheel for stability in order to save carrying two poles.
Future Bikepacking Additions
I’d like to get a small fuel bag for bits/pieces and snacks, and will be thinking about mounting another bottle under the downtube, as 750ml doesn’t go very far, although this may foul the area where my roof rack mount clamps the frame. The bike itself I’m reasonably happy with. The brakes have improved a bit since I bled them and suspension post and carbon fork make for comfortable seated riding over uneven terrain. I need to grease the saddle rails as there is some creaking when the tip of the saddle is loaded whilst climbing. The 29 inch wheels are a revelation. I love my Cotic Soul, but a 29er makes absolute sense for offroad touring. The additional grip allows you to run faster rolling tyres without sacrificing too much traction. I seem to be able to ride conditions which require mud-specific tyres on my Soul with a Continental X-King 2.4 up front and a Race King 2.2 on the rear!
As comfortable as the Mary bars are, at some point I’d like to get something wider. I ride with 745mm bars on my Soul, so something in between that width and the Marys, but with similar back sweep for all day comfort would be perfect. I’ve heard On-one might be resurrecting the ‘Ragley Carnegie’ design in carbon, or I might splash out on some Alu Jones Loops once funds allow, Salsa and Surly have some alternatives too. The Scandal has horizontal dropouts, I thought I could get away with only a single chain-tugg, but my huge manly-man thighs have managed to deliver such impressive torque that the wheel slipped enough for the disc rotor to foul the caliper. I’ve tightened the QR and it hasn’t happened since, but it’s something I’ll need to keep an eye on.
My Soul is setup tubeless and there is a minor, almost imperceptible improvement in rolling resistance cross country, but I found tubeless really impressed when riding with greater speed and commitment at Glentress. I’m not quite so convinced it makes sense for bikepacking purposes. The potential mess and faff of dealing with problems miles from home isn’t hugely appealing, and you’d still need to carry spare tubes, tyre boot, etc although there might be small weight savings on my relatively heavy rims. I’ll run tubeless on my Soul for a few more months before deciding to go for it or not.