My Sunday morning ride through the beautiful hills of Northern Thailand has prompted a long overdue update on my Kinesis ATR gravel bike. The last time I wrote of this titanium framed machine I was exploring a new route in Lao. Back then I was using a titanium rack with a pair of Ortlieb panniers, a small frame bag, and a handle bar bag to carry my gear. Not only was this not as I planned to carry luggage on this bike, but the gearing was, to my mind, a tad up the creek. And so it was that I returned to Thailand eager to get the ATR set up as I felt it should be.
Wishing to use Shimano’s new hydraulic disc brakes when I built the bike I had little choice but to go 11 speed, meaning an 11-32 cassette at the back, and to begin with – as I happened to have one kicking around, a compact 34/50 crankset. Whilst OK for short climbs in a temperate climate this setup proves a tad trying on some of Asia’s steep and prolonged climbs, especially with the mercury nudging 40º. This bike is touted as a bike one can load up with luggage and travel the world. What to my way of thinking the standard 11-28 cassette on the back proves is that either the designers know little of the world, or the gearing was dreamt up with bar stool banter in mind, it certainly doesn’t strike me as the creation of someone who has been on a real world adventure.
So back in Thailand my first action was to contact Alex Cycles in Japan and order a Sugino OX901D Compact Plus crankset. My choice of chain ring size was 30/46, and whilst men with shaven legs and snug shorts may sit in a Surry pub flexing their quads whilst sniggering at my choice, for the sort of riding I do, and my perhaps mediocre prowess on the hills, I find this a perfect setup. This combo not only gives me low enough rations to tackle pretty much anything, it also means that the majority of the time is spent on the biggest chain ring, effectively meaning no faff with my left hand clonking between chain rings, especially on dirt roads. However on hilly off road sections or prolonged climbs with outrageous Thai gradients I have the backup of lower rations that can help an old fellow on long tough climbs in the tropics. Gearing sorted!
If, upon arriving in the tropics the Kinesis thought it was going to sit back and enjoy a fine warm winter relaxing by the pool it had a rude shock awaiting, this bike has to earn its keep, and its prime function is route finding.
The amount of luggage carried by many travelling cyclists is of much fascination to me. Sure I have set out on long journeys with all I need to survive camping in the harsh climate of the Andes, but when cycling through most of SE Asia there is not really much one needs to survive. Racks and panniers weight rather a lot on their own, so why bother with this cumbersome setup when a simple bike-packing solution will suffice? Enter Alpkit luggage. A full frame bag and a seat pack weighs next to nothing and takes all that is necessary whilst keeping the weight to a nice minimum. Unloaded and without pedals the ATR tips the scales at 9.4kgs, not bad for a touring bike. Fully loaded for a week or two exploring the hills of Northern Thailand it weighed in at around 16kgs, including the stash of emergency food necessary when exploring the wonderful tracks, trails and gravel roads of the region.
So how does the bike perform? Well, in short, most splendidly. The titanium frame combined with carbon forks give an amazingly smooth ride on the dirt and gravel trails that abound in this part of the world – no doubt this is helped to a not inconsiderable degree by the wonderful Clement MSO tyres.
This bike is build to explore the road less travelled, and for my purpose it would be hard to imagine a better machine. Cruising at 30kmh on sealed roads is a relaxed affair (well, maybe 28), and once the tarmac turns to gravel the ATR seems to come alive and speed up a little. Perhaps the sound of gravel crunching beneath the tyres wakes me up and ups my heart rate a tad, but as the red dust swirls up I am sure the speed ups a tad with no further effort.
Google maps are so good these days that even the smallest paths seem to be included on them, and with the mountains here this means a labyrinth of foot paths and trails to be explored are easier to find than ever.
The climbs are steep and the views are stunning and and a better way to while away time than exploring these routes is hard to imagine. Exploring a route for a tour, or just for devilment can mean an endless succession of surfaces and terrain, and whilst a road bike may ultimately be a tad quicker on road, and mountain bike more suited to rougher off road sections, that the ATR can take pretty much anything it comes across with style and comfort really is difficult to better, and then factor in the fun of riding a drop bar bike off road and for me…… well, I think you get the point, I like the ATR.
Now I am off for a ride.