Alpkit and bikes? Bikepacking bikes right? Erm, sort of, except that the provisionally named Sonder Transmitter is actually more of an out and out 'trail bike' or, if you like, a bike just for riding. Though it's a little bit different thanks to its 650b+ 'new school' balloon tyres. Think a fat-bike that's shrunk in the wash.
It's one of a range of three bikes and frames due out this autumn and designed by time-served bike industry maverick Brant Richards, previously of On-One and Ragley and now the proprietor of Pact Bikes. But all you really need to know is that he knows his onions and his angles and that the Transmitter is a logical extension of what he's done before.
So what's the Transmitter like? The 'Sonder' bit, by the way, is going to be Alpkit's new bike sub-brand. In simple terms it's an aluminium hardtail frame with some really neat touches and artfully shaped, hydroformed tubes.
The top tube in particular is a sliver-thin blade of a thing that looks like it could slice some-one's leg off. The idea is that the wide cross section gives lateral stiffness, while the thinness allows vertical compliance.
Does it work? Er, maybe, but it looks as cool as hell. As does the integrated seat-clamp, though sadly it's not going to appear on production bikes, and a confectionary of pretty curved tubes.
The spec of the bike we rode was decidedly posh complete with de rigeur 2020's SRAM 1x11 gearing - ideal if you find front mechs taxing - matching SRAM Guide brakes and a Reverb ejector seatpost that moves up and down at the press of a thumb lever.
It also came complete with a class-leading Rockshox Pike fork and 650b wheels complete with 2.4" WTB Trail Boss tyres.
Bottom line, with a matt, gun-metal, anodised finish it looked bloody awesome and rather more awesome than a frame that's going to sell for around £300 has any right to look. Then again, in this spec, the complete build would be close to £2,500 odd, though a more basic spec should be closer to the £800 mark once available in October.
So how does it ride, mister? In short, if you've ridden a Ragley, like one of those but with 650b wheels. Which means super relaxed steering - 65˚ static head angle if you care - so it steam-rollers downhill like a giant boulder swept up in an avalanche, but with a seatpost that puts enough of your weight forward that it'll climb pretty much anything you can turn the pedals on.
All of which makes it a sort of Big Friendly Giant of a bike that looks after you when you're tired or careless or when the trail suddenly grows big, fierce teeth. Long, stable, reassuringly, well, reassuring. Everything else on it just worked: the Reverb dropped down smoothly for steeper downs - we'd have preferred the lever under the lefthand bar though - the brakes stopped us and the 1x11 drivetrain with its dinner plate cassette breezed up all our local Peak District climbs with no hint of needing a lower ratio.
All good except for one thing: the otherwise excellent Pike felt step-ladder tall. Cresting the top of a climb was like riding an Apache attack helicopter, though from then on it was pure custard on the descents. Turns out the fork was around 20mm longer than it should have been. Ooops.
Ooops, start again. This time with a 120mm X-Fusion fork fitted with a new standard 650b+ front end consisting of a tubeless WTB Trailblazer 2.8" tyre - for perspective, most tyres these days hover around a 2.3" sweetspot.
Think of it as like a shrunken fat bike tyre maybe, big and fat and round with the idea being that the extra volume adds cush, while the extra rubber with its expanded contact area, improves grip. It's fat, but not ridiculous and that, initially, was how it felt.
No More Chopper
With the right height fork, the Transmitter lost that helicopter feeling, but equally striking was just how 'normal' the fat front felt on hardpack - the WTB tyre has a continuous central ridge so it rolls fast too and teamed with the 2.4" tyre out back, it really did feel like, well, a bike really. No ponderous steering, no lairy cornering, no nasty 'Super Tacky' dragginess.
Big deal we thought. And then, we turned left onto a tree-lined, stony, greasy, damp and dubious trail. The sort of thing you can bomb in the dry, but treat with the sort of respect normally reserved for dozy-looking farm dogs in the damp.
Except that 650b+ gradually made it very clear that it didn't really give a stuff about dogs, or slime, or leaf mulch or slippery rocks. Mostly it just gripped with the result that what started as a sort of tentative potter ended as with a ski-jump style blur of acceleration.
Without The Drag
Gosh we thought, all this stuff about increased footprint, softer rubber compounds on the sides and Alpkit's hypnotherapy session - just joking - really does work. Seriously though, it gave an odd sensation of giving far more grip than we were expecting, a little like using sticky rubber, but without the added drag.
And the next few days just reinforced those first impressions. We messed about with tyre pressures to up the grip further and found we could go surprisingly low. We played with the bar-height. And we spent some time just looking down at the fatness of the front wheel. But mostly we just rode it and enjoyed it.
Here's the odd thing. Although it was very easy to switch to 650b+, switching back to a 'normal' 2.3" front tyre was surprisingly difficult. Suddenly it felt like we had half the grip and even a 2.5 Minion DHF - generally reckoned to be a pretty fat slice of rubber - looked comparatively spindly and less, well, rolly, if that's a word.
The idea of the Transmitter is that it's a bike you could ride at a trail centre, but equally well take out on big mountain days in the wilds and we reckon, particularly with those fat 650b+ tyres at both ends, it would really deliver in both scenarios.
Don't be put off by Alpkit's lack of bike-building background, this thing has proper new school heritage and the looks and build are as good or better than anything we've seen from mainstream bike brands. Does that leaf-thin top tube work? Honestly, with a 2.4" tyre out back, we find it hard to say, but what we can tell you is that it certainly doesn't feel harsh according to our finely calibrated bum-o-meter...
At £300 it looks like a bit of a bargain in frame-only mode, though it's hard to comment on the full bike specs without seeing them.
Also In The Pipeline
And if you want something a little more different from Alpkit, don't fret. The initial collection should also include the rigid titanium, Broken Road 'bike-packing' rig complete with a ti fork and an in vogue, drop-barred, titanium Camino gravel bike, both at around £1,000 for the frames and £2,000 for the complete bike. Oh and a tandem called the Duo, maybe. More in the links below.
And finally, and more generally, what about 650b+? Well, based on our front-end experience, we're impressed. It has some of a fat-bike's implacable rolling conviction, but without feeling outlandish or requiring any adjustment for a normal rider. And while the bike industry seems to be reinventing the wheel with confetti-like abandon at every opportunity, the b+ does genuinely seem to be just different enough to be genuinely worthwhile and should fit into most 29ers quite happily.
Apologies to anyone bamboozled by the bike tech. If you're looking at buying a Transmitter as a first mountain bike late this year, our simple advice is: just do it. Great bike that'll look after you wherever you take it.
The frames are set to launch around October/November 2015 and will be branded 'Sonder', with that being a sub-brand of Alpkit and join the guys' selection of bikepacking luggage and outdoor kit. A little bird tells us that an expanded clothing range is also in the offing. More at www.alpkit.com.
We really did buy a 650b+ front wheel and put it in a rigid ti singlespeed. Genuinely.