The perfect bike for bikepacking? Long-term review of the Tout Terrain Outback Xplore & Pinion C1.12
I’ve now been riding my Tout Terrain Outback Xplore 29 (‘Pandora’) for almost a year, with bikepacking tours in the Canary Islands, mainland Spain, England, Wales and Scotland, and I feel I now know the bike well enough to be happy reviewing it. In this article, I’ll talk about why I chose this bike, and go through the things I do and don’t like about it. I’ll run through my component choices, and give some general advice and suggestions on what to consider when choosing a bike for bikepacking. This will obviously be useful for anyone specifically considering buying an Outback, but should also prove helpful for anyone looking to fine-tune their setup, or for anyone looking for general recommendations on bikepacking bikes and what to look for.
First, a bit of background. Prior to Pandora, I had been riding a Surly ECR (‘Lara’) for just under three years, with the two years prior to that having been on a 26” Surly Long Haul Trucker, so these are the bikes which will serve as my main points for comparison. Lara, running 29x3.0” tyres, saw me through Europe, carried me the full length of Africa, and was still working perfectly when the pandemic forced me to fly out of South America in June 2020 and postpone my planned crossing of the Americas. I flew back to Europe, picked up a new set of narrower rims and ran Lara with 29x2.2” tyres for the rest of 2020 as I toured Europe once again. I tested 29x2.6” tyres while putting together the Kenya Bike Odyssey bikepacking route, and then went back to 29x2.2” for Lara’s final outing in the Scottish Highlands in summer 2021. All of this was with a fully rigid fork, as the ECR is not corrected for suspension.
By the end of 2020, I’d begun to think seriously about switching to a new bike. The ECR is a fantastic bicycle and I was very happy with it, but my priorities had been gradually evolving and I felt it was time for a change. I spent several months looking at dozens of options before finally settling on the Outback, as it’s a bike that seemed to tick just about all of my boxes. This is going to be a very long and comprehensive article, as I’m going to go into quite a lot of detail. There’s a lot to say. Frame Geometry & Material
Although I was very happy with my ECR, the type of riding I found myself doing, the type of riding I found myself wanting to do, was quite different by the end of 2020 to what it had been when I first bought Lara back in 2018. I was gravitating towards more technical routes, looking increasingly for singletrack options, and was travelling quite a bit lighter than I had been a few years ago. The ECR is designed as a mile muncher, with a low bottom bracket and a geometry that makes you feel like you’re almost ‘inside’ the bike, rather than on top of it. This made it extremely comfortable for riding long days, even on rougher dirt roads, especially combined with the floatation provided by the massive 29+ tyres. I did find, however, that although it wasn’t a bad bike when it came to more technical riding, it clearly wasn’t designed with that kind of thing as a priority, and I increasingly felt there were some sacrifices both when pedalling steeply uphill and when descending. I wanted something with more of a ‘trail bike’ style geometry, something slacker and more capable on the technical trails I was increasingly wanting to ride.
Let me be clear; despite the name of this article there is no perfect bike for all situations, so especially on a longer tour, it will always be a compromise. The trouble with going for a bike with more of a trail bike geometry for better handling on technical routes is that you are likely to suffer drawbacks when it comes to non-technical terrain; pedalling efficiency may be affected, which is one of the reasons it’s generally not recommended to go long-term bikepacking on a full-suspension enduro bike. A bike like that might be great for that small minority of the time when you’re bombing down the mountain in full-lunatic mode, but the rest of the time you’re going to be working a lot harder for every mile. It’s therefore all about finding the sweet spot for the kind of riding that you’re doing, and the reason for my switch was therefore that I had been increasingly finding that the ECR was no longer quite hitting that niche.
I’ll take a minute here to pre-empt a question I’m getting asked a lot these days - why a mountain bike rather than a gravel bike? I’m not going to go into great detail here, though there’s a lot I could say about this. Consider reading this article I wrote a couple of years ago which covers bike types, but essentially I prefer a mountain bike because whereas a mountain bike can ride anything a gravel bike could, albeit slightly more slowly (though not much more slowly), a gravel bike becomes quickly overwhelmed when pushed into much rougher terrain. It’s not that a gravel bike isn’t capable of rougher trails, it’s that the ride tends to become so rough and jarring that it’s not really much fun. I want to be able to ride those types of trails in at least relative comfort so that I can actually enjoy myself, and a gravel bike just isn’t comfortable on the more extreme stuff. For this reason, a mountain bike is for me the clear choice.
In terms of frame geometry, I’m happy to say that I think the Outback is absolutely spot on. It’s noticeably slacker than the ECR was, which in real-world terms means it feels a lot more capable on technical terrain. For steep, rough downhills, the longer wheelbase makes it feel much more stable, with less chance of being thrown over the handlebars, and I also find it significantly easier for pedalling up steep hills, which is presumably due to the steeper seat tube angle. I’m not going to dig deep into the angles; I’m not a frame builder so I’ll leave that to the mad scientists and bike boffins who really know what they’re talking about, but I can say that in practical terms I find the Outback to be extremely capable as a trail bike, and perhaps most importantly I find it extremely fun to ride, definitely more so than the ECR, as it feels a lot more lively. Riding the Outback immediately put a big smile on my face.
I was pleased to find this, as it was a big part of why I switched, but what has really surprised me is that there don’t seem to be any tradeoffs. As I said, it’s always a compromise, so I had been expecting the Outback to be slightly less comfortable than the ECR when it came to long days on non-technical terrain. That kind of thing is, after all, exactly what the ECR is designed around, and it was a compromise I was willing to make in exchange for better technical handling. In practice, though, I’ve found the Outback has been every bit as comfortable a mile-muncher as my ECR ever was. Even with a suspension fork, pedalling efficiency feels great and I’ve been able to ride all day every day without discomfort. It’s an incredibly comfortable and capable bike, and it feels like a real upgrade, so I have only praise for the frame geometry - Tout Terrain have absolutely nailed it. As you would expect of a bikepacking-focused bike, the Outback also comes with eyelets for mounting a rear rack, triple eyelets for a cargo cage on the downtube, and enough eyelets in the frame triangle for either multiple bottle cages or for fitting a bolt-on frame bag, which is great. The only thing it could potentially add are eyelets on the front of the top tube for adding a bolt-on top tube bag, but that’s really nit-picking.
In the interest of balance, and in looking for something negative to say, I could perhaps come up with only two things. The first has been a moot point for me but is perhaps worth mentioning - the bottom bracket drop of 65mm means that on paper the bottom bracket height is perhaps arguably a sliver low for a bike aimed at trail riding. I’ve not actually had a single issue with pedal strike so in practice I think it’s absolutely fine, although admittedly I’m also running 29er wheels and a 130mm suspension fork, both of which slightly increase the bottom bracket height, so someone running 27.5+” wheels with a rigid fork might potentially find this to be more of an issue. Raising the bottom bracket might well have negative effects on the geometry, however, so overall I think it’s fine as it is.
The only real negative I can therefore find with the Outback is that its maximum tyre clearance when running 29” wheels is a relatively narrow 2.25” on the rear. There’s clearance for 27.5” x 3.0” tyres, but if you want to run 29er wheels you’re a bit limited in width. That’s not a major issue for me, as I’ve found 29x2.25” to be my sweet spot these days anyway (which I why this limitation didn’t put me off choosing this bike even though I'd planned on running it primarily in 29er mode), but it does mean that if I ever wanted to use wider tyres I’d have no choice but to switch to 27.5+. I’ll go into more detail on wheel and tyre sizes later in this article, as there’s a lot to talk about, but with respect to the frame I’ll admit that I’d ideally like to see clearance for up to 29x2.6” tyres on the Outback. I don’t think it needs any more clearance than that (no need for 29x3) but having the option to run 29x2.6” would, I think, be preferable, and this would also mean more mud clearance. It’s not a sticking point (no pun intended) for me, as I’m very happy with 29x2.25”, but this is the one area which I think could be improved.
In terms of frame material, the Outback is constructed from top-quality Chromoly steel. While researching bikes I looked into frame materials in quite some detail, weighing up the pros and cons of bikes made from steel, titanium, aluminium or carbon fibre, and in the end, I actually ended up concluding that the frame material matters fairly little in a high-quality bike, as all of them will do the job, with various pros and cons, and there are quite a few other factors which are much more important.
Steel has the advantage of being comfortably the strongest and most reliable material, which is great for the worry-free factor, especially if, like me, you tend to drag your bikes through a lot of silly rocky hike-a-bikes where the frame can get banged up. Carbon is the most lightweight material (a carbon frame could save you as much as around 2kg compared to steel), which is why it’s favoured by most racers, but it’s also the most fragile, so I’d be a little apprehensive subjecting a carbon frame to the kinds of abuse my bikes tend to see. Titanium is lighter than steel (the frame will likely save you around 1kg) and theoretically just as strong, but in practice, titanium frames seem to be far more prone to breaking as, anecdotally, I know quite a few people who have had titanium frames break on them - I did a bit of digging on this and it seems the problem is the quality of the titanium that's available, so in practice, titanium is probably not quite as reliable as steel. Aluminium sits in the middle, not as light as carbon (usually around the same weight as titanium, around 1kg lighter than steel for a frame) but not as fragile as carbon either, though certainly less durable than steel.
There’s a lot of speculation about ride comfort and how different materials feel; I can’t really comment on this as I’ve only ever ridden steel bikes, but my suspicion is that it won’t make much difference unless you’re on very skinny tyres. Steel does have the additional advantage of being easier to fix in the field - if your frame does break or crack you can probably find a welder to repair it, even in remote areas, whereas realistically if you crack a carbon, aluminium or titanium frame, you’re probably out of luck, as fixing these frames, though possible, requires much greater expertise and equipment. As I said, there are pros and cons to each, and I think I could probably be happy with any of these, so I don’t place massive importance on frame material. I do really like steel for its durability, and I also like the aesthetics and feel, but I think I’d probably be equally happy if it were made from any of the other materials as well.
Pinion C1.12 Gearbox
One of the most notable and unusual things about the Outback is that it’s designed around a Pinion gearbox drivetrain, rather than a traditional derailleur gear system. The Pinion is a fully sealed internal gearbox located in the centre of the bike, at the bottom bracket. It’s fully mechanical, with no electronics, and functionally it’s pretty similar to riding a derailleur system, though with a number of advantages and disadvantages to consider.
First and foremost, the big advantage of using a Pinion is that when combined with a belt instead of a chain (more on that in a moment) you’ll have a drivetrain that’s almost completely maintenance-free, and one which will last far longer than a normal derailleur system. Because the gearbox is sealed, the gears are protected from all of the grime, mud, and road dust that regular drivetrains are exposed to. Especially when riding off-road, and especially in places with a lot of dust, mud, sand or ice, a normal drivetrain can be a bit of a nightmare, requiring regular cleaning, sometimes multiple times a day. The Pinion completely eliminates that need, which is something that I’ve come to massively appreciate over the last year on my Outback. Durability is another major advantage of the Pinion - a derailleur is always the most fragile and vulnerable part of any bicycle, and prone to bending or braking if struck by rocks or damaged in transit, whereas the Pinion is extremely rugged, so it’s one less thing to worry about.
Because all of the gears are located inside the gearbox, you don’t need a flexible chain that can move between cogs in a cassette, as the angle will remain the same, just like when riding a singlespeed. Although it’s perfectly possible to run a Pinion with a regular chain, you also have the option of switching to a belt, and this was a major selling point for me. The Gates Carbon Belt Drive has the major advantage of not needing to be oiled or cleaned, as it will continue to function perfectly even when it gets clogged up with grit, sand, or whatever else. It’s much lighter than a chain, should last significantly longer, with an estimated lifespan of up to around 30,000 kilometres, and it will continue to function at 100% efficiency for the entire duration of its lifespan, whereas a chain will degrade in performance significantly over that time.
I’ve been incredibly happy with how the belt has performed and am absolutely delighted to no longer have to worry about maintaining a chain, especially as I’ve done a lot of riding through dusty areas which I know from experience can be very hard on a chain, so I can highly recommend it. The only downside I can see to using a belt instead of a chain is that you won’t be able to find a replacement belt in a bike shop (should you need to) in the same way you could with a chain, which means that on longer trips, especially to remote areas, it’s wise to carry a spare belt just to be on the safe side. The belt weighs less than 90 grams and folds down pretty small, so it’s not a major problem. The belt drive runs silently, which is a nice bonus when compared with the greater noise of a chain, especially when dirty. I did find that when going through extremely dusty places the belt drive could start squeaking slightly, so I did pick up a small can of silicone lubricant (cheaply available at any hardware store); applying a small amount of this to the belt made it silent once again, and because it’s silicone it’s non-greasy and you can still touch the belt with your hands without blackening them. If you’re interested in more information about using a belt, Alee over at cyclingabout.com wrote an excellent article which goes into more detail, you can read it here.
As far as the Pinion gearing goes, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. The Outback comes as standard with the Pinion C1.12 gearbox, which is 12-speed, with the option to upgrade to the Pinion P1.18 gearbox, which is 18-speed. I chose to stick with the C1.12 as it saves around 600 grams, and I find 12 gears to be perfectly sufficient, as the C1.12 comes with an insanely good gear range of 600%. The P1.18 has a slightly higher gear range of 636%, which isn’t too significant a difference, but it does also come with much smaller steps between the gears - the C1.12 has a difference of 17.7% between gears, whereas the P1.18 has steps of only 11.5%. I will say, though, that I find the gear steps with the C1.12 to be great for me, and I’ve never once found myself wishing for smaller steps. With the Pinion, the gear steps are always the same amount, as opposed to with derailleur drivetrains where some of the steps are much higher and others much lower, and this is something I really like as it makes the gearing feel more consistent.
Whether you’re going to prefer the C1.12 or the P1.18 will come down to you, your riding style, and the amount of weight you’re going to carry on the bike. For me, I think the C1.12 is downright ideal. It’s just about perfect, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The gear range is spot on - with a 1:1 ratio (this is the default for the Outback, 30 tooth rotors front and back) it gives me a granny gear of around 16 gear inches, which is insanely low, and a top gear of around 96 gear inches. In real terms that means that, as someone with a fairly fast pedal cadence, I can pedal at less than walking speed in granny gear (meaning that unless I’m going to tip over backwards or the ground is so loose that I can’t get traction, I can pretty much pedal up anything, no matter how steep) but that I also won’t spin out until around 45 kph (around 28 mph) in top gear. That, for me on a mountain bike, is exactly what I want. It’s one of the main reasons that I moved away from a 1x11 drivetrain to a 2x11 on my ECR, and one of the reasons I don’t feel a 1x system, even a 1x12, is quite enough range on a loaded bikepacking bike.
My preferred 2x11 drivetrain, with 26-36t front chainrings and an 11-46t cassette, would give me a range of 16-95 gear inches with a comparable wheel size, almost exactly the same as the 16-96 gear inches I get from my Pinion C1.12, so it’s easy to see why I’m so happy with the Pinion gear range. For comparison, a 1x12 10-50t SRAM Eagle drivetrain has a gear range of 500% and on the same wheel, with a 30t chainring, would give me a range of 17-87 gear inches. That’s not miles away, but I do really appreciate the extra range and would miss the extra gearing on the upper end. With my Pinion C1.12 I use every single gear on a regular basis, both top and bottom. In my opinion, for loaded off-road bikepacking, it’s much more important to have the lowest gear you can, as it will make life much more pleasant, so if forced I’d much rather sacrifice top gears than bottom ones, but with the Pinion, it’s a sacrifice that you don’t have to make. This is also another reason I’d favour a mountain bike over a gravel bike in general, as what’s considered a low gear on a gravel bike isn’t usually very low when the terrain starts getting properly steep and rough.
As far as shifting goes, the Pinion is outstanding, far better than the Shimano XT shifters I was using for years on my ECR. The Pinion comes as standard with a grip shifter, and honestly, I thought I’d hate it. It was the only part of the whole Pinion system I wasn’t excited for. I’d been using trigger shifters for years and was completely happy with them, and especially as a mountain biker, I really didn’t think I’d get on with the grip shifter - it looked like it would be much less convenient for shifting when riding technical trails, and from the very Iimited experience I’d had with grip shifters in the past, I hadn’t liked them at all. It’s possible to convert the Pinion to thumb shifters using a product made by Cinq, available here: https://tout-terrain.de/en/cinq-innovations/shifting-technology/428/shift-r-tour-for-pinion but it’s rather expensive, so I thought I might as well give the grip shifter a go first, even though I was almost certain I’d dislike them and end up having to go with the Cinq conversion.
To my surprise, however, I’ve absolutely loved the grip shifter and now much prefer it to the trigger shifters I was using on my ECR, so I have absolutely no interest in switching it out. The shifting on the Pinion is butter smooth, so it’s so easy and pleasant to switch gears with a quick rotation of the wrist. One advantage of gearbox systems like Pinion is that you can switch as many gears as you like without pedalling - it will shift instantly and doesn’t require you to pedal to engage the shift as with derailleur drivetrains (as the chain/belt does not have to move with gearboxes, the gear change being internal) so you can much more easily switch multiple gears quickly. With the grip shifter, you can get from top gear to bottom gear in one or two seconds, whereas with a trigger shifter you’d have to click down one or two at a time. It’s not a massive thing but is something that I’ve really come to love.
It’s worth pointing out that there is a short learning curve when switching to a Pinion in that, unlike with a derailleur drivetrain, a gearbox cannot be shifted under load, by which I mean you can’t shift while applying pressure to the cranks. Once you get used to it there’s really no practical difference as you can still shift comfortably whilst pedalling, you just have to back off the pressure ever so slightly for a fraction of a second, which is easy to do at the top of a pedal stroke once you get used to it. Even with a derailleur drivetrain where shifting under load is possible, it’s still best practice to back off the tension slightly anyway, as shifting under heavy load puts a lot of strain on your components. With the Pinion, the reward for this minor restriction is in being able to shift gears from stationary, without having to pedal to engage the shift, which has come in useful more often than you would think, especially on steep hills. It’s not a huge point but the little benefits do add up. And shifting with the Pinion is always perfect, and will not degrade over time, whereas derailleur drivetrains work less and less well as the chain and cogs get worn out, and especially as you introduce grit and dirt to the system. Honestly, the Pinion is such a pleasure to use that I think I would really struggle to go back to a derailleur drivetrain at this point; the Pinion shifting is a massive win.
The main negative of the Pinion comes down to price - it doesn’t come cheap, and because you need a bicycle that’s specifically built for a Pinion (as the gearbox is housed in the bottom bracket and needs to be specifically catered for) you can’t just upgrade your current, non-Pinion bike; you’ll also need a new frame. A Pinion adds around $1000 to the price of a comparable bicycle with a derailleur drivetrain and even the cheapest full-build Pinion bikes start from around $2000, with $3000-4000 bikes not being uncommon. That’s a lot of money to invest, and therefore Pinion may not appeal to the casual user. It’s perhaps worth noting, though, that although the up-front price is higher, over several years the costs will eventually balance out, as the components in a Pinion will last far longer. Cassettes and chains can be fairly expensive, especially nowadays, and as each of these may need replacing multiple times per year when touring, these costs can quickly add up, so over the course of many years a Pinion could actually end up being cheaper. The longer you have it and the more you ride it, the better value it will become, and in my opinion, it’s definitely worth the money.
Another slight negative is the weight - compared to the lightest derailleur drivetrains (such as a 1x12 SRAM Eagle), a Pinion C1.12 gearbox is around 1kg heavier. It’s a weight penalty I’m very happy to pay for all of the benefits, and especially when loaded up with bikepacking bags 1kg isn’t going to make much difference, but gram counters and racers may find this off-putting. Supposedly, gearboxes are also ever so slightly less efficient than derailleur drivetrains when it comes to maximising power and speed, so serious racers may also avoid it for this reason, but in practice, I’ve noticed absolutely zero difference and can’t feel any additional resistance compared to a derailleur drivetrain. And it’s worth reiterating that this supposed inefficiency is only when comparing it to a derailleur drivetrain in perfect condition - as soon as you add degradation or grit/mud into the equation, a gearbox can actually end up ahead. Unless you’re a pro racer, though, I don’t think this is worth worrying about, as we’re talking about the smallest of margins.
The final potential negative to mention is that, although overall, the durability and the maintenance-free aspect is a major advantage of the Pinion, the complexity of a gearbox does mean that if you get very unlucky and something serious does go wrong, you’ll almost certainly be unable to fix it yourself and have no choice but to post it back to the Pinion factory in Germany for them to repair or replace it. Pinion are known for excellent customer service, so it should be done quickly, but if you have a problem in the middle of nowhere this could be a real headache. That said, issues that can’t be personally repaired can and do also happen with derailleur drivetrains as well (and indeed are significantly more likely), and in the developing world you can still find yourself having to import parts from abroad regardless, so I still think that durability-wise gearboxes are still the clear winner.
I really do feel that gearbox drivetrains are the future for bicycles, as they just make so much sense. The Pinion gearbox isn’t perfect and has pros and cons like anything, but it’s been a major upgrade for me and I’m incredibly happy with mine, so I would highly recommend it to anyone considering making the switch. It really is brilliant.
Rigid vs. Suspension, and the Cane Creek Helm Mk2 fork
After years on a fully rigid bike, having the option to run a suspension fork on the Outback was another big part of the reason I switched, as my ECR was not corrected for suspension, so putting on a suspension fork was never possible. To be fair, with high volume 29x3” tyres suspension wasn’t really necessary, but after experimenting with various tyre widths since the start of the pandemic I’d moved away from plus tyres and was finding that I generally preferred tyre widths of around 2.2-2.3”. I’ll go into more detail on tyre and wheel sizes later, but for now, suffice it to say that with the narrower tyres I was starting to use, the idea of having suspension was becoming a lot more attractive, especially as I wanted more capability for technical riding, something a suspension fork can help with a lot.
Tout Terrain sell the Outback with one of two fork options; a rigid carbon fork and an air suspension fork with 130mm of travel, the Cane Creek Helm Mk2. Because I’d never toured with a suspension fork before, I decided to go with the Helm, viewing it as a bit of an experiment and figuring I could always swap it out for a rigid fork in the future if I wanted. The question of rigid vs. suspension for longer-term bikepacking is a complicated one, and one I will fully address in a future article of its own, but for now, I’ll try to keep it fairly simple.
Essentially, I do think that most people considering buying this bike are probably going to be better served by going for the rigid carbon fork option. Having a suspension fork is incredibly nice when the terrain gets rough, dramatically increasing ride comfort, and it has allowed me to have fun riding far more demanding and technical singletrack than I could have enjoyed with a rigid fork. I just find having suspension to be a lot of fun, making off-road downhills of any kind more enjoyable and relaxed, and allowing me to go a lot faster without having to worry about being thrown by a particularly jarring hit that I didn’t quite see coming.
On the other hand, on your average long tour, the amount of time you spend on this kind of thing, and therefore the percentage of your time during which the suspension fork is in its element, is realistically likely to be very small. No matter what you might think or intend, I can tell you from experience that when crossing a country, let alone a continent, you are going to spend the vast majority of your time on non-technical terrain, whether on-road or off, where a suspension fork just isn’t going to help that much.
And a rigid fork comes with advantages, too. Pedalling efficiency is better, you won’t have to worry about maintaining your fork (something which could get annoying and expensive on a long trip), and there are no moving parts to go wrong. It’s cheaper, and also significantly lighter. The Helm Mk.2 weighs in at a pretty hefty 2070g, whereas the Cinq rigid carbon fork Tout Terrain offers as the alternative weighs just 860g. A difference of 1.2kg on the front end is definitely noticeable, and the rigid fork also comes with fork cage and rack mounting options, making it more versatile. It’s true that you can improvise a way to attach a cargo or bottle cage to a suspension fork using hose clamps or something similar, but bear in mind that this will also further increase the weight disparity between the two; hose clamps are heavier than you might think.
One final thing to note as well is that with 130mm of travel if you want to mount any bikepacking bags to your handlebars you’re going to need a fair bit of clearance to make sure the bag doesn’t rub on your tyres when the suspension is fully compressed. My preference is for a larger handlebar bag like the excellent Roadrunner Bags Jumbo Jammer, which requires about 10” of clearance, so even with a large frame, I have to use a few more spacers than I’d like to get my bars high enough to make it work. It’s not really a problem, but as someone who likes a slightly lower handlebar setup, it means that when loaded up I can’t get the bars quite as low as I’d ideally like, and if you’re on a smaller frame this could be a bigger issue. With a rigid fork, you’re free to set the bars much lower, which may or may not be an issue for you, but this is certainly something I would appreciate.
As for the Cane Creek Helm Mk.2 fork specifically, I have slightly mixed feelings. It’s a fantastic fork for its intended use - this is a trail fork, very solidly made, and it excels in rough conditions. The action is extremely smooth and comfortable, and there are a lot of adjustment options so I found it easy to get everything dialled in. In use, the fork has been fantastic and I have no complaints as to how it functions. Its main weakness, at least for my purposes, is that it lacks any kind of lockout, and this is a feature which I do think is important for a suspension fork when it comes to long-distance bikepacking. As I said before, the majority of the riding you’ll be doing on a longer tour will be non-technical, and there will inevitably be long sections on smoother surfaces. Being able to lock out the suspension is fantastic in these situations, maximising pedalling efficiency, so the fact that the Helm Mk.2 can't do this is definitely a drawback.
It’s not really a failure of the fork, as it’s designed as a trail fork and if you were using it on a trail bike, or riding shorter singletrack-heavy bikepacking routes, you wouldn’t really miss lockout, but on a dedicated bikepacking bike, I do think lockout is an important feature, and it’s one that I’ve found myself wishing for when using this fork. It’s possible to firm up the suspension by adjusting the rebound damping, which does make things manageable and I was generally fine with it, but even then there is still a bit of bounce when pedalling out of the saddle and I can definitely feel I’m losing some pedalling efficiency. And, as is normal for most suspension forks, the rebound damping adjuster is located right at the base of the fork, so it’s not possible to adjust this while riding, which meant that sometimes when switching repeatedly between rougher terrain and paved roads I might have to regularly stop and lean down to adjust the settings, which feels quite silly, and it’s annoying having to do this.
As good as the Helm Mk.2 is when riding on rougher trails, I’m not sure it’s the best option for this bike, as I think something with the option of lockout would be a better all-around choice, at least for anyone planning on riding longer trips. That said, if you plan on riding predominantly rougher singletrack routes, which is really only likely to be the case on relatively short trips, then this fork will still be a great option, and obviously if you want to use it primarily as a trail bike then it’s exactly what you’d want. For most people, I'd recommend going with the rigid carbon fork.
Wheel & Tyre Sizes
As with suspension, wheel/tyre size is a subject on which I could easily write an entire article in itself. Although I might get to that eventually, for now, I’ll keep it simple and say that I don’t think it matters hugely which wheel size you use, as they all have relative pros and cons.
The Outback come be shoed with either 29” or 27.5+” wheels, depending on your preference. In the 29er size, there is rear clearance for a maximum width of around a 2.25” tyre, whereas in 27.5+ the Outback will take up to a 3” wide tyre. Having ridden a 29+ bike around the world for almost three years, I’m very familiar with the various benefits and drawbacks that come with plus tyres, and, having also run regular 29er tyres for the best part of a year, I've covered many miles with those as well. I opted to go with the 29er option, as although I loved plus tyres, for the riding I have planned over the next few years I feel that narrower tyres are the better option.
Plus tyres are amazing for comfort and traction, and on really rough terrain, or looser surfaces such as sand, I’d always opt for a plus tyre if possible. My experience, however, is that when crossing continents, this kind of riding simply makes up a relatively small percentage of the journey. The vast majority of the time, you tend to be on smoother dirt roads and trails, gravel, or pavement; and although plus tyres are perfectly capable on these, the additional rolling weight is definitely noticeable. Either way, it’s a compromise, but on balance, I prefer a tyre around the 2.25” width range, as I find this to be sufficiently comfortable and capable on the rough stuff without sacrificing too much in speed and efficiency on smoother surfaces.
In 29er mode, the Outback comes with WTB KOM Tough i25 rims, which I’ve been super happy with. After a year of abuse, my wheels are still perfectly true, with zero issues of any kind. The bike comes stock with WTB Ranger TCS Tough/Fast Rolling 29x2.25” tyres, and for the most part, I’ve been content with these. After around 5,000 kilometres my front tyre still has plenty of life, but I did have to replace my rear tyre, as it was getting fairly bald. I don’t consider 5,000 kilometres to be a very good lifespan for a bikepacking tyre, although admittedly most of what did the damage was the two months I spent in Gran Canaria - I was blasting down fast, steep and rocky singletrack almost every day, and the volcanic rocks out there are extremely sharp, so it’s a good place to shred rubber.
When the WTB tyre started to wear out, I replaced it with my preferred tyre for bikepacking, the Vittoria Mezcal, again in 29x2.25”. I find this tyre to be a better all-around option, as it’s faster, lighter, more durable, and grippy enough for my needs, so I do plan to swap in another Mezcal on the front once the WTB tyre wears out as well, but I’m not in any hurry to do this. The WTB Rangers are perfectly good tyres, they just aren’t my first choice, and that’s fine - just personal preference.
Although for the next few years I’ll be sticking to 29x2.25”, I do really appreciate the fact that I have the option of picking up a second wheelset and running 27.5+ in the future. I might consider doing this for certain shorter trips, where I would know that the majority of the riding I’d be doing would be taking full advantage of plus tyres (for example for the Baja Divide, or if I were to go back to the Baltics where the ground is often sandy), but in my case, I am most likely to swap to 27.5+ once I get back to South America. Because dirt roads are so much more prevalent there, and because there are quite a few routes I want to ride which go through very sandy areas (such as the incredible Ruta de los Seis Miles), South America is probably the one continent where I do think plus tyres are optimal even for longer journeys.
I haven’t done much riding with 27.5+, but from my limited experience with it, I found it to be fairly similar to 29+; slightly more nimble, but also slightly less of a steamroller for ploughing through rough terrain. Personally, I don’t think there’s much in it between 27.5+ vs 29+ as they each have advantages and disadvantages, but these days 29+ is being increasingly phased out, making 27.5+ much more appealing. 27.5+ tyres are available in many bike shops around the world, whereas 29+ is so specialised that ordering in will almost certainly be necessary. There is also a much better selection of 27.5+ tyres available, whereas with 29+ your options are far more limited.
Whether you should go for 29er or 27.5+ on your Outback will depend entirely on you. For long-term touring, if you plan on spending a lot of time in South America, I’d probably recommend plus tyres, but for almost everywhere else I’d probably recommend 29er wheels. If you’re going to be doing mostly shorter trips, however, and if these trips are likely to be mostly offroad, then going for 27.5+ would be a great option, especially if you tend to gravitate towards rougher terrain. If you do go for 27.5+ though, I’d definitely suggest going for the rigid fork, as suspension combined with plus tyres will almost always be overkill for bikepacking.
Brakes, or, as I like to call them, 'coward levers', are of course essential for any bicycle, but particularly so if, like me, you're frequently liable to bomb down steep techy singletrack with most of your possessions strapped to the bike. I resisted the pull (pun intended) of hydraulic disc brakes for years, sticking to mechanical disc brakes on my ECR in the interest of reliability and roadside repair. Personally, I never found the mechanical disc brakes I was using (first Avid BB7s and then TRP Spyres) to be lacking in power - I could always stop when I wanted, and I never had any real issues with any of them.
Rather than increased power, the main appeal of hydraulic brakes for me has always been hand fatigue - when using mechanical brakes on long, steep, rough, singletrack descents where I would need to be hard on the coward levers most of the way down, I would often reach the bottom with a sense of relief, and with exhausted fingers from the sustained effort. At times, where it's been exceptionally/ridiculously steep, I've even sometimes had to stop midway down to give my hands a rest before continuing. Because hydraulic brakes require so much less physical exertion to actuate, I find that hand fatigue has now dropped massively and I enjoy long descents far more than I did on my ECR. Part of this can be attributed to the suspension and geometry, but there is no doubt that hydraulic brakes are much more comfortable and pleasant to use.
Although mechanical brakes are clearly the more repairable choice, as they can be easily serviced or replaced with basic tools, my belief is that modern hydraulic brakes are now more than reliable enough for long-term bikepacking. I've not had a single issue in a year of use and my brakes are still working perfectly, and anecdotally there are now numerous people happily touring long-term, incident-free, with hydraulic disc brakes. It's a good idea to take your bicycle into a bike shop to bleed the brakes once every year or so, but beyond this, I have no reliability concerns, and I think the comfort benefits of hydraulic disc brakes do outweigh the tradeoffs in repairability compared to mechanical brakes.
The Outback comes equipped with Magura MT5 hydraulic disc brakes, 4-piston front and 2-piston rear, with 180mm disc rotors front and back. As I said, these have been flawless for me over the last year of use, providing excellent stopping power and smooth braking action. I can comfortably bring my bike to a complete stop using just one finger, and I've had no mechanical issues or failures. There's not much else to say, they work perfectly, and I'm very happy with them.
Handlebars are always going to come down to personal preference, and to each their own, but for the kind of riding that I do, I'll take flat bars over drop bars every day of the week. Having used drop bars for my first year of touring, although I found them great for road riding, I just don't like them for technical riding and find the weight distribution terrible for steep, rough, offroad descents. Flared offroad drop bars can make this a lot better but are still far less comfortable, in my opinion, than a good flat bar when it comes to mountain biking.
Aside from looking cooler, the main advantage of drop bars, in my opinion, is that they offer more hand positions than a simple flat bar, which can be very important on longer trips for avoiding hand pain and numbness. My solution for this is to use Spirgrips+; attachable extra grips which mimic the hood position on drop bars. These have been a game changer for me; I've been using mine for a couple of years now and find them so incredibly comfortable that I can use them for hours with zero hand or wrist soreness. Because I can still access the brakes and shifter from this position, the Spirgrips are my default hand position probably 80% of the time. I only tend to use the normal flat bar position when riding technical trails, when descending rough ground, sometimes when climbing, and occasionally just to change up the position. But the vast majority of the time, I sit on the Spirgrips. I really love them, so I can highly recommend them. I also have a discount code, so if you do want to try a pair you can get 10% off using the code 'TristanPlus'.
I've played around with a lot of different handlebars over the years, everything from very swept-back bars such as the 45° Jones Loop H Bar, to simple flat MTB bars, and several in between. The Outback comes as standard with a Black Label Ergo 760mm handlebar, which has 9° of sweep. Everyone's different so what works for me might not work for you, but I've ended up settling on an SQLab 30X handlebar. It's rather wide at 780mm, which I appreciate for better technical handling, and the 16° sweep is the sweet spot for me. If I didn't have the Spirgrips I'd probably want slightly more sweep, as I don't find 16° especially comfortable for hours on end, but I find more swept-back bars less effective for technical riding, and swept-back bars don't seem to work as well with the Spirgrips as the wrist angle is less comfortable. I use Ergon GA3 grips, which are fantastic.
This setup works perfectly for me as the Spirgrips give me a super comfortable position for non-technical riding, while the Ergon grips are fantastic for technical stuff and descending. The only thing I will possibly add once I get back to long-term touring is a pair of clip-on aerobars; I've talked before (https://www.tristanridley.com/post/perfect) about how much I like aerobars for riding long distances; I find them so comfortable and they make long days in the saddle just so much easier. For shorter trips I would never bother with these, but when crossing continents you are inevitably going to end up with many days of slog where aerobars can make things so much easier, so I do think these can be worth the weight.
Saddle & Seat Post
Because saddles are so personal, I won't go into much detail here. Although I've tried a handful of other saddles over the last couple of years, I still haven't found anything that's anywhere near as comfortable as a leather saddle from Brooks, so although I've experimented recently with an Ergon SM Pro and Brooks Cambium C17, I wasn't completely happy with either and am now resigned to sticking with my current Brooks B17 Narrow Carved leather saddle. It's a little heavier than I'd like, and I'd prefer not to be using leather, but it's just so much more comfortable than anything else I've tried. I never get any soreness or discomfort, and I don't need to wear padded shorts. But, as I said, saddles are so subjective to each individual that works for me may not work for you.
The seat post is often dismissed as an unimportant component but actually makes a substantial difference to ride comfort. Rather than paraphrase, I'll simply direct you to this (https://www.cyclingabout.com/seatposts-overlooked-yet-critical-for-cycling-comfort/) excellent article which goes into a lot of detail on why seatposts are important. I first tried switching from a stock aluminium seatpost to a carbon flex seatpost, back when I was still riding my ECR, and the improvement was noticeable enough that when I found a heavily discounted suspension seatpost online, I decided to give it a try.
I've now been using the Cane Creek eeSilk MK2 Carbon suspension seatpost for over six months, and while I don't think it's a game-changer, I do really like it and feel it's a worthwhile upgrade. Because it's only got 20mm of travel, I don't notice it when pedalling and feel there's no loss in efficiency, but it's enough that it takes the edge of the bigger hits, and my back feels less sore at the end of long, rough days. It's not a massive improvement, and considering that suspension seatposts are so expensive it wouldn't be at the top of my list of things to buy, but if you're looking to optimise your setup to the max, then I do think a suspension seatpost, or at least a carbon flex post, is worth it.
EDIT, April 2023: I switched to a RedShift ShockStop Suspension Seat Post in November 2022 and have been using it since then. Although it's around 200g heavier than the eeSilk, I find it performs so much better that it's well worth the extra weight. Whereas the eeSilk felt like a pretty minor upgrade, the ShockStop is very noticeable, making the ride much more comfortable without ever feeling inefficient. I'm super happy with it and definitely feel glad I made the investment.
Last but not least, the humble pedal. This is another component that I largely dismissed during my first year of touring - I figured 'a pedal is a pedal' and just went for whatever was cheap and available at the time. As a result, in that first year I went through three or four separate sets of pedals, as they kept seizing up on me. Once, a pedal completely snapped off on me, leaving me with no choice but to cycle almost 20 kilometres with only one leg to reach the next town. I was in Uzbekistan, it was freezing cold, and snowing. Although I was able to see the funny side, the experience convinced me that pedals should be taken seriously, and my days of buying cheap pedals were at an end.
Although I've toured for around one year using clipless SPD pedals, these days I prefer flat MTB pedals for various reasons. It allows me to travel with just one pair of shoes, whereas with SPDs I'd want to bring a second pair for long hikes, runs, and days off. I also do a lot of hike-a-bike, which is much more comfortable without cleats. And honestly, I don't miss being clipped in at all. If you combine a high-quality, grippy, mountain bike flat pedal, with a good, grippy, mountain bike shoe (I use a Specialized Rime Flat MTB shoe, which is also super comfortable for hiking), your foot stays really well glued to the platform. These days I never find my foot slipping, even when it's wet, and although many people are quick to tell you that SPDs are more efficient, there's actually very little scientific evidence for this. Provided you have good pedalling technique, flat pedals can be just as efficient as clipless.
I'm currently using Burgtec Penthouse Flat Mk.4 pedals, which are still going strong after almost two years. Before that, I was using Race Face Chester Flat pedals, which I also really liked, as they're great value. The only downside to using these types of pedals is that the pins, which are what makes the pedals so grippy, are also pretty savage on the shins, so if you do a lot of hike-a-bike you'll just have to accept that you're going to end up with a few good scars!
That just about wraps up my review. The Tout Terrain Outback Xplore is an incredible bicycle for bikepacking, with a geometry that hits right in the sweet spot. The Outback is simultaneously both a fun and lively trail bike and a comfortable all-day mile-muncher; I don't know how they managed it, but the bike is a joy to ride. The component choices are excellent, with the highlight being the fantastic Pinion gearbox which is honestly so good that I'd now be bitterly disappointed to have to go back to a traditional derailleur drivetrain. The only negative I'd find after a year of touring is that it would be nice to have wider tyre clearance with 29er wheels than 2.25" on the rear, ideally up to 29x2.6", but this isn't a major issue for me as I'm very happy with 2.25" at the moment and will probably look to switch to 27.5+ wheels at some point in the future.
The Outback is the best bike I've ever had, so I can massively recommend it to anyone looking for a comfortable, versatile, and highly capable all-rounder for bikepacking. I've had so much fun riding it, and I can't wait to see where else it will take me!