The combination of technological advances in outdoor gear and the multitude of lightweight bag options has allowed people to pack for bike travel more minimally than ever before. With these lighter loads comes the ability to employ carbon touring bikes which are quite often 50% lighter than what is typically used for bike travel. This is exciting because not everyone needs that extra-bombproof, world-conquering steel touring bike for an overnighter into the countryside.
Carbon technology has recently made the jump from the considerably larger road and mountain bike markets. The popularity of gravel and adventure riding has provided manufacturers with a business case for investing their resources into 1000 gram (2.2lbs) carbon bike frames.
The bikes we’ll be discussing today are all intended for bike adventures; they feature rack, fender and cargo cage mounts, as well as provision for tyres wider than 40mm.
I’ve previously argued that your bike is the best place to drop weight in your ultralight packing kit. This is because you have the most weight to lose with a bike – it’s the heaviest thing you ‘carry’ after all. Carbon certainly isn’t necessary for a lightweight touring rig, but you will achieve a tidy weight saving of between 500-1000 grams when compared to the equivalent aluminium build, and this can be as much as 2500 grams when compared to a steel touring frame and fork.
You’ll need to pack a bit lighter than normal if you want to use one of the carbon touring bikes mentioned below. Carbon touring bikes and their associated parts are normally intended to haul between 10kg and 15kg of gear. That said, if your body weight is on the lighter side, say 50-70kg, your bike will support more gear than someone who is over 90kg. In any case, the eyelets supporting your front or rear racks are typically rated to no more than 20kg/44lbs. If you can, load less than 10kg up front to optimise your bike’s handling.
For advice on sub-10kg packing lists, head across to my guide on putting together an ultralight bikepacking kit.
Is Carbon Strong?
Frame material is just one factor when it comes to overall bike strength. Other factors include the manufacturing quality and frame design. A carbon bike that’s constructed soundly and is engineered for the purposes of adventure riding will handle the rigours of bike travel just fine.
Even if you’re a heavier rider, let’s say 90kg + luggage – a well-designed carbon frame is unlikely to fail in most situations, provided you’re within the rider weight limit of the frame. These limits apply to all bikes whether they’re steel or aluminium or carbon and they vary between manufacturers. The limit on most carbon bikes is 125kg in total, which in this case would include your body, luggage, food and water.
The thing that is more likely to cause headaches is the wheelset of a carbon touring bike. Many of the wheelsets specified are pretty lightweight and are often compromised on strength compared to a regular touring bike. This will be significantly less of a problem for people on the lighter end of the spectrum, but something to consider for heavier riders. Top-notch lightweight wheels can be built strong, but with the more premium materials comes a higher price tag. It’s the old adage here: ‘light, cheap, strong – pick any two’.
That said, carbon is susceptible to damage from directions of force that it hasn’t been engineered to overcome. This includes tube crushing, side impacts and rear end damage from sticks getting caught in the wheel. Manufacturers are getting better at mitigating this damage, but carbon bikes still don’t seem to fare as well in crashes. As baggage handlers don’t have the best reputation, you’ll also need to be more careful when flying with a carbon bike. A good pack job should have you travelling with no worries though – I’ve never experienced any carbon frame damage when flying.
Carbon bikes can actually be repaired in most cases. Using ultrasonic, thermographic and microscopic imaging we can check for internal/external damage like cracks and fractures. When a fracture is hard to determine, carbon repairers will perform a stress test which will check the damage at a microscopic level. You can get a good idea for how this works in GCN’s latest carbon bike repair video.
Carrying Even More Gear
If you like the idea of having a lightweight bike for day trips, road rides or commuting, but also want to carry a full touring load (15kg+) – I can recommend pairing a carbon bike with a trailer. This combination is often lighter in total weight than a long-distance touring bike with empty panniers. Plus you can unhitch the trailer at any time. On my most recent Japan tour, I used a 9kg titanium road bike with an Aevon KIT L80 trailer and it worked out wonderfully.
The Multi-Use Bicycle
With a weight under 10kg/22lbs, carbon touring bikes are begging for some narrow slick tyres to turn them into a decent road bike. I’d suggest 700×28-32c as a good all-round width capable of fast bunch rides. Many of the carbon touring bikes listed below will also make excellent commuters given their ability to fit full-fenders and racks.
Some of the carbon adventure bikes I’ve listed are actually designed to fit either 27.5″ wheels with knobby tyres or 700C with narrow slicks. This allows you to own just one bike and, depending on the terrain, swap out two different wheelsets. For example, you could have one wheelset setup for off-road/gravel riding and another for fast road riding and commuting.
Pros/Cons At A Glance
+ Carbon bikes are as lightweight as it gets for bike travel
+ Carbon touring bikes are light enough for fast road rides; they’re potentially able to replace your road and cyclocross bikes
+ Many carbon touring bikes allow you to fit both narrow road slicks and knobby MTB tyres for off-road riding
+ You can pair a carbon bike with a trailer and it’s still lighter than a long-distance touring bike
– Typical carbon bike pricing is US $3000-4000
– Carbon bikes typically use gear ratios more suited to flatter terrain
– You’ll need to pack lighter as a carbon bike cannot handle the same loads as a regular touring bike
– The framesets are more susceptible to damage (tube crushing, side impacts, rear end damage from sticks etc)
– Should your frame need it, they’re somewhat expensive to repair
Here Are Your 34 Carbon Touring Bike Options
Bombtrack Hook EXT-C // 9.4kg and US $3149
The Hook EXT-C has been designed for the road less travelled. This new hi-mod carbon bike is spec’d with 27.5×2.2″ mountain bike wheels and tyres so that you can have maximum traction on the trails. Got a 700c spare wheelset? The frame has enough clearance for 29×2.1″/700x52c tyres too. You’ll find 3-boss mounts on either side of the fork and three bidon mounts on the frame. The Hook EXT-C allows for front and rear racks as well as full fenders. The SRAM 1×11 drivetrain offers a climbing gear of 26 gear inches which is a little high for an off-road bike, but with a new derailleur and 11-50t cassette, you’ll be flying up those hills.
Diamondback Haanjo EXP // 9.7kg and US $1999
The Haanjo EXP is the cheapest carbon bike on the list, in fact, the complete bike is cheaper than most framesets. Not only is the bike price the lowest, but so are the gear ratios. With three front chainrings, this bike gets a climbing gear comparable to most long-distance touring bikes (21 gear inches). The bike is spec’d with some ultra-reliable touring barend shifters. For better usability, a nice upgrade could be to some Shimano R3030 integrated shift/brake levers. The Haanjo EXP will fit front and rear racks as well as fenders and 3x bidon cages on the frame. With its 2.0″ tyres, TRP cable disc brakes, 9-speed gearing and a threaded bottom bracket shell – this carbon bike is about as close as it gets to a fuss-free touring bike.
Diamondback Haanjo 7C // 8.9kg and US $2699
The Haanjo 7C is the more road-oriented model in the range. As it uses the same frame as the EXP, it will squeeze in 27.5×2.0″ as well as 700x40c tyres. The groupset is the new Shimano Ultegra R8000, which is quite a surprise at this price as comparable Ultegra bikes go for $1000 more. The sub-compact crankset with 48-32t chainrings is paired to an 11-34t cassette to offer a decently low climbing ratio of 24 gear inches.
Giant Revolt Advanced 2 // ~9.8kg and US $2000
Giant’s new carbon adventure bike has all the right ingredients to make a decent tourer. It squeezes in 700x45mm tyres or 37mm tyres with fenders. It has front and rear rack mounts (you will need a special D-Fuse seat clamp to mount a rear rack). It has Giant’s carbon D-Fuse seatpost which flexes up to 12mm vertically on rough dirt tracks – I was very impressed when I used a D-Fuse in Vietnam on a Giant Contend. I was also impressed with the performance of the Giant hydraulic brakes found on this bike. The Advanced 2 uses a Shimano 105 11 speed groupset with a Praxis sub-compact crankset and 34t cassette, which achieves a moderately low 26 gear inch climbing gear. The wheels are a little heavy (>2000g), but with a high spoke count, they should be pretty tough (the wheels are definitely the best place for a future upgrade; you can drop more than 500 grams from the bike).
Giant Revolt Advanced 1 // ~9.4kg and US $2500
The Revolt Advanced 1 employs SRAM Apex brakes and a 1×11 drivetrain which saves a bit of weight over a 2x setup while still achieving a 26 gear inch climbing gear. It otherwise shares all the same parts as the Advanced 2.
Giant Revolt Advanced 0 // ~8.6kg and US $3300
The Advanced 0 steps up to an Ultegra groupset and carbon wheelset. While the carbon wheels (1630g) aren’t as light as some of the aluminium wheels on this list, they will be stiffer than the equivalent aluminium rim, and with 28-spokes they’ll handle a bit more abuse too. With the sub-compact crankset and 34t cassette, the climbing gear works out at 26 gear inches.
Jamis Renegade Expert // 9.5kg and US $2699
The Renegade is an adventure bike that can fit 40mm wide tyres. It also has provision for racks, fenders and up to five bottle cages. The Expert model uses a full Shimano 105 groupset and hydraulic disc brakes. The 50-34t crankset with 11-32t cassette limits the gear ratios a bit – the climbing gear works out to be 29 gear inches (8.3km/h @ 60RPM). As the seatpost clamp is integrated, the Renegade frames only permit a rear rack that can attach to the seatstay bridge (eg. Tubus Fly or Axiom Streamliner).
Jamis Renegade Elite // 8.2kg and US $3899
If you’d like a Renegade with a Shimano Ultegra build, you’re looking at a $1200 price premium. It’s not just the groupset that gets an upgrade, you also get a carbon seatpost and the ultralight 1459 gram American Classic Race wheelset (which saves over 600 grams by itself!).
Kona Libre // ~9.5kg and US $2999
The Libre is the latest carbon adventure bike from Kona. It has eyelets galore; everything from front/rear rack mounts, fender mounts, front randonneur rack mounts, 4x bidon mounts on the frame and another set on either side of the fork. The Libre is the entry-level model which is spec’d with a 2×10 Shimano Tiagra drivetrain and 650x47C tyres, but the bike accommodates 700c wheels too. The low climbing gear on this bike is around 28 gear inches (8km/h @ 60RPM).
Kona Libre DL // 8.5kg and US $3999
The DL is the highest spec’d model in Libre range. While it uses the same frameset as the base model, it is fitted up with 700c wheels and 45mm tyres instead. The 28-hole Easton EA70AX tubeless wheels are designed to be pretty tough and offer a wide 24mm internal rim width so that you can drop your tyre pressures down. They are pretty light too – just 1760 grams. Interestingly, the 1×11 drivetrain actually offers a slightly lower climbing gear than the 2×10 drivetrain found on the base model. You should still have a decent cadence at 6.5km/h with the 26.5 gear inch low gear.
Niner RLT9 RDO Tiagra // ~9.2kg and US $2950
The RLT9 RDO is an ultralight adventure bike with 700x40mm tyre clearance. It will fit front/rear racks, fenders and lots of bidon cages. Niner says that the front eyelets are designed to handle up to 21kg/45lbs and the rear rack eyelets 25kg/55lbs. The entry-level model comes with Niner-branded wheels, 10-speed Shimano Tiagra gears and hydraulic brakes with a climbing gear ratio of 27 gear inches. It’s available as a frameset for US $2300.
Niner RLT9 RDO 105 // ~9kg and US $3800
The next step up offers a significant upgrade to Shimano 105 11-speed gearing, however, the climbing gear is a bit on the high side at 29 gear inches (due to the 11-32t cassette). The bike is finished with Stans Grail S1 wheels that tip the scales at 1950 grams.
Niner RLT9 RDO Rival // ~8.8kg and US $3800
For the same price as the 105 model, you have the option of a SRAM Rival drivetrain and brakes.
Niner RLT9 RDO Ultegra 4-Star // ~8.6kg and US $4300
For another US $500 you can upgrade to the incredible new Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset. You’ll still get the pretty stout Stans Grail S1 wheels (1950 grams).
Niner RLT9 RDO Ultegra 5-Star // ~7.9kg and US $5500
The flagship RLT9 RDO has one key component difference when compared to the Ultegra 4-Star: a Stans CB7 carbon wheelset. These wheels are blisteringly light, tipping the scales at just 1277 grams. That’s lighter than the majority of carbon road bike wheels! The downside to running these hoops is that you and your gear can’t weigh more than 86kg/189lb. So if you’re planning on packing 10kg of gear, you’ll need to be under 76kg.
Norco Search XR Carbon Apex // ~9.5kg and US $2899
The Search XR range is suited for either 700x45c or 27.5×2.1″ wheels. The entry-level model uses a SRAM Apex 1×11 groupset with a moderately low climbing gear of 26 gear inches. The Search XR framesets fit front and rear racks, fenders and all of the bidon/cargo cages you’ll need to have a good time. The Norco Search XR frameset is also available separately for US $1999.
Norco Search XR Carbon Ultegra // 8.9kg and US $3799
Using the same frameset, the Ultegra model gets an upgraded groupset and wheels. A nice feature is the sub-compact crankset with 48-32t chainring that’s paired with an 11-34t cassette to give a considerably low 24″ climbing gear. The 1620 gram Clement Ushuaia tubeless wheels should be able to cop a fair bit of abuse, and have helped drop a significant amount of weight from the Apex 1 model – perhaps almost 500 grams.
Norco Search XR Carbon Force // ~9.6kg and US $4199
The most expensive Search XR model has quite a different build to the other models in the range. It utilises the fact that the Norco can run a 27.5″ MTB wheelset by speccing 2.1″ knobby tyres and a dropper seatpost. The SRAM 1×11 drivetrain allows for an ok range of 26-111″ but for people who like mountains you’ll want to swap out the rear derailleur and cassette to an 11-50t.
Rodeo Labs TrailDonkey 2.1 105 // 9.5kg and US $3400
Rodeo Labs recently unleashed the updated TrailDonkey on the world. The most recent update gives the frame a T47 threaded bottom bracket shell (as opposed to press-fit bearings) and a smaller diameter 27.2mm seatpost for extra compliance. The TrailDonkey is still able to fit 700x42c or 650x48c tyres, it’s rocking swappable rear dropouts (quick release/thru-axle) and has mounts for a rear rack and fenders. The full carbon fork is a bit of a swiss army knife; it can run post/flat mount brakes, 12mm/15mm thru axles, a front rack and cages on the fork blades. The fork also features internal dynamo cable routing, brake cable routing and routing for a USB stem cap. The bike is available with SRAM or Shimano builds, or the frameset can be purchased separately for US $2560.
Rose Backroad Randonneur // 9.8kg and 2799€
The Backroad is one of the lightest frames in the list, employing high modulus fibres to bring the frame weight down to just 1040 grams for a size 51cm. This carbon bike is impressively under 10kg even when fitted stock with a dynamo hub, dynamo front/rear lights and a rear rack. It employs a full Shimano Ultegra groupset which has recently been updated to perform incredibly. This bike is set up for sealed roads with its 29 gear inch climbing gear and 32c tyres, but without the fenders, it will fit a 42c gravel or touring tyre. In addition to the Randonneur model, there is also an Ultegra Di2 (8.4kg/3199€), Force 1 (8.2kg/2549€), 105 (8.5kg/2249€) and Ultegra (8.4kg/2549€) version available without dynamo gear and rack.
Salsa Cutthroat Apex 1 // 10.7kg and US $2499
The Cutthroat is probably the most popular bike for dirt road ultra-endurance racing. Basically a mountain bike with drop bars, this bike is easily the most off-road capable here with its ability to squeeze in a 3.0″ front tyre or 2.4″ in the rear. It also has much better mud clearance than any other carbon framesets here. On the frame, you can fit a rear rack, but the fork is limited to 3-boss cargo cages only. There are eyelets in the front triangle for 3x bidon cages and a direct mount top tube bag. The climbing gear is 23 gear inches which seems to be pretty perfect on most terrain provided you have a lightweight setup. Framesets are available for US $1999.
Salsa Cutthroat Rival 1 // 10kg and US $3499
The Cutthroat Rival uses the same carbon frameset but receives a drivetrain (SRAM Rival 1) and wheel upgrade. The DT Swiss C1800 wheels tip the scales at just 1745g, which makes up the majority of the weight saving over the Apex 1 model.
Salsa Cutthroat Force 1 // 9.8kg and US $4499
The top-level Cutthroat doesn’t provide you with much more bike for the extra $1000. You get an upgrade to a SRAM Force 1 groupset, a 10-42t cassette and some slightly nicer DT Swiss CR1600 wheels (the engagement system is star ratchet instead of pawls). But overall, the performance and weight advantages are minimal.
Salsa Warbird Tiagra 10-Speed // 11.3kg and US $2399
The Warbird is marketed as a gravel race bike, but really, it’s much more than that. It has eyelets everywhere including two bidon cages along the downtube and 3-boss mounts on either side of the fork. The fork has internal routing for a dynamo cable as well as provision for a lowrider rack and full fenders. The Warbird Tiagra is built with no-fuss WTB wheels, TRP Spyre-C cable disc brakes and aluminium Salsa components. The climbing gear on this bike (1:1) measures 27 gear inches; you could swap to an Absolute Black 46/30t chainring set to achieve a 24″ gear if you’re into steeper hills.
Salsa Warbird Apex1 // 9.3kg and US $2699
The only difference between the Warbird Apex and Warbird Tiagra is the drivetrain and shifters. The low gear remains the same (27 gear inches) but the 42 tooth front cog allows for 50km/h rather than 60km/h (at 100RPM). The 2kg difference listed by Salsa on their website is incorrect – there is actually only a 200-300 gram difference between SRAM Apex and Shimano Tiagra. I’d suggest both bikes are closer to the 10kg mark.
2019 Salsa Warbird 105 // ~8.7kg and US $3399
The best performance-to-price ratio is surely found with the 105 model. You’ll get 1745 gram DT Swiss wheels, hydraulic brakes, 11-speed gearing and the same mid-range Salsa aluminium components as the Force1 model. The US $1000 price difference between the Warbird Force1 and Warbird 105 could easily buy you a second 650B wheelset to crush it off-road too.
2019 Salsa Warbird Force1 // 8.7kg and US $4399
If you’re after a carbon off-road tourer from the get-go, the Warbird Force is it. It comes with some WTB KOM Light wheels (~1750 grams) in size 650B that are fitted with 2.1″ Maxxis Pace tyres. The 1:1 climbing gear is 27 gear inches, but by switching the front chainring to a 38 tooth, you can drop this to 25 gear inches.
2019 Salsa Warbird Ultegra Di2 // 8.4kg and US $5399
The crown jewel of the Warbird range comes with a Shimano Di2 electronic groupset, 1728 gram DT Swiss wheels (with their ratchet drive hub) and carbon Salsa components. The 29 gear inch climbing gear (34-32t) is a little high for more mountainous terrain, but you can drop this to 24 gear inches by swapping the chainrings to Absolute Black 46-30t and the cassette to the Ultegra 11-34t model.
Specialized Diverge Sport // 9.6kg and US $2100
The Specialized Diverge carbon frames will all fit 700x42c or 650x47c tyres. They have eyelets for racks and 3x cages on the frame. The Diverge Sport is the lowest cost carbon model. Costs are saved on this bike by using the awesome TRP Spyre cable disc brakes (as opposed to hydraulic) and by fitting a 10-speed Shimano Tiagra groupset. A great feature of the new Tiagra is the 11-34t cassette which when combined with the 32t front ring provides a climbing gear of 25.7 gear inches.
Specialized Diverge Comp // 9.3kg and US $3000
The Diverge Comp Carbon is spec’d with a Shimano 105 11-speed groupset and Praxis Alba cranks with 48/32t front chainrings. This offers a 27.3 gear inch climbing gear. This is the only Diverge model to feature the ultra-flexy CG-R carbon seatpost with built-in elastomers to maximise comfort. The Diverge Comp is the only carbon model available in the XXL (64cm) size.
Specialized Diverge Expert // 8.5kg and US $4000
The Diverge Expert Carbon is a 1x bike, but with its SRAM Force 11 gearing, it achieves a 1:1 climbing ratio (27.3 gear inches). A really nice 1500g Roval SLX 24 disc wheelset comes with the Expert, complete with DT Swiss 350 hubs. Interestingly, this model is delivered with the Fact carbon seatpost rather than the gravel-specific CG-R on the Diverge Comp.
Specialized Diverge S-Works // 7.9kg and US $9000
Specialized’s flagship bike is the Diverge S-Works. This is a different frameset in terms of carbon layup and resin (called 10R) but it still shares the same frame geometry as the other carbon models. Specialized have matched a Di2 road shifter with an XTR Di2 MTB derailleur to fit a larger cassette on the bike, and you could go to 46t if you needed the extra climbing gears (the current small gear works out to be 28.7 gear inches). A 35mm dropper seatpost has been fitted to the S-Works with a handlebar-mounted remote in order to reduce your centre of gravity on technical descents. Carbon Roval wheels (1350g!) and carbon Easton cranks, as well as a SWAT box (tube, co2, levers and multitool) complete the build and result in a weight under 8kg (17.6lbs) without the SWAT tool box (56cm). The S-Works Diverge is available as a frameset for US $4000.
Trek Checkpoint SL5 // 9.6kg and US $2799
Trek recently unveiled the Checkpoint, a bike designed for ‘gravel’ riding but it comes with a raft of touring features including f+r rack, fender, bidon (4) and top tube bag mounts. But the thing that sets the Checkpoint apart from other bikes is the seat tube “iso-speed decoupler”. The carbon seat tube actually extends all the way from the bottom bracket to just under the seat. At the intersection with the top tube is a pivot with two sealed bearings on either side which allow the whole seat tube to flex vertically when you’re in the saddle. This is not a gimmick; it’s my experience that the flexy seat tube adds a whole lot of comfort to your ride. The Checkpoint framesets are officially good for 700x45mm tyres but Trek is very conservative when it comes to official clearance which results in 50mm tyres fitting too. The SL5 model comes with a Shimano 105 groupset with a 1:1 climbing gear (27 gear inches) which is a bit on the high side for mountainous terrain; it would’ve been nice to see this bike with a sub-compact crankset. You can also get the Checkpoint as a frame only for US $1999.
Trek Checkpoint SL6 // 8.9kg and US $3799
For $1000 extra you can get the Trek Checkpoint with a Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset and Bontrager Paradigm Comp wheelset. The wheels alone save an estimated 400 grams when compared to the SL5. Again, the low climbing gear is 27 gear inches which will be better suited to rolling hills rather than dirt roads in the mountains.