A versatile touring machine with roadie influences is the brand new Salsa Casseroll, featuring long drop brake mounts and sliding dropouts. It's only available as a frameset (£375), so given the wide range of sizing on offer, we asked for it to be specced for women; it finally rolled in at about £875.
The Casseroll's frame is semi-sloping rather than fully compact. Coupled with a fairly tall head-tube, this means it doesn't have acres of standover clearance - consider sizing down if you have shorter legs and/or want a slightly lower front end. Tubing is lightweight rather than featherlight chromoly and even though the emphasis is on comfort and long-term durability, it still weighs in at just over 4lb. There are full mudguard and rear rack eyelets, clearances for 35c tyres (32c with guards), a pump peg and forward-sloping semi-horizontal dropouts.
This means it can be run geared, single-speed or fixed - the stainless dropouts are adjustable to tension the chain (make sure you clamp the wheel in tight). The slender tubing looks classic, with a stunning ginger beer colour, and the matching fork has a size-specific rake. Although it's set up for long drop brakes to get good mudguard and touring-friendly tyre clearances, the rack eyelets and calliper arms caused some interference issues on this small-sized frame.
After fitting the Casseroll with lightweight racks, we tested it with loads of up to 10kg, which should amply cover most lightweight tours. We rode it from Bristol to Cornwall in a couple of days, and also used it for commuting, riding on canal paths and woodland trails.
The Salsa is a road bike at heart. We really like the fact that the fork complements the frame size, in that smaller frames get more fork rake. This compensates for slacker head angles - keeping handling light and lively. When loaded up at the back and using just a small bar bag, it takes a little more concentration to keep it steady at the end of a long day. It's a worthy trade-off though, especially if you prefer responsiveness over slower, touring-style handling. There's some toe overlap with mudguards, but none without. Losing the guards, we decided to try out a set of lightweight road wheels. As well as dropping the weight to just over 20lbs, this boosts acceleration and proves that the Casseroll can handle fast, unladen road rides just as well as a light tour.
To make the Casseroll more female-friendly, it came fitted with shorter cranks (170mm), Salsa's Short & Shallow handlebars, adjustable-reach Tiagra levers (with 4 or 8 degree shims) and a women's saddle. The Tiagra 30/39/50 triple and 11-32t cassette with XT rear mech gave a wide gear range, covering the hilliest rides without capping top-end speed. Shifting with the 2007 Tiagra levers is simply superb and on the whole the set-up looks as good as the 105 too. Being able to trim the front mech keeps the chainline under control, given the wide block.
As a unisex frame, the top-tube isn't 'shortened' at all, which is fine for many gals anyway, but we needed to swap the lovely Salsa Shaft seatpost with its 23mm layback for an in-line one. Likewise, we replaced the elegant Salsa chromoly 105º-angled stem, because it gave too much rise at the front. The Short and Shallow bars reduce overall reach, but the anatomic bend actually drops away from the levers - so riders with small hands are well advised to go for a specific women's bar. Only the unusually bulbous saddle seemed out of place.
The Casseroll came with Salsa's 32-spoke Delgado Cross rims and with their wide cross section, we wouldn't have wanted to go for tyres much skinnier than the 30cs supplied. However, overall weight is reasonable and they're certainly built for load-carrying strength. Schwalbe's 30c Marathon Racers, the lightest of the popular Marathon family, are fast rolling and puncture resistant, with a reflective sidewall too. The new '07 Tiagra hubs have an attractive anodised aluminium surface and an internal grease sleeve for better performance in the long run.
There's little not to like about Salsa's classy and surprisingly well priced Casseroll - our top choice. Although it approaches the one-bike-does-all angle from the road perspective, it's still a really versatile, practical frame that's incredibly satisfying to ride and gorgeous to look at. Eyelet positioning on small frames is our only niggle, though a three-point rack works just fine for light touring.
Ridgeback Horizon £500
Specialized Tricross Spt Triple £700
Planet-X Kaffenback £750
Setavento SLR Touring £775
Ridgeback Horizon £500 Designed for fast and light tours it has a solid, double-butted alloy frame, carbon fork and reliable Sora drivetrain. There are rack eyelets and mudguard clearance too. Ridgeback www.ridgeback.co.uk
Specialized Tricross Sport Triple £700 A lightweight alu frame teamed up with carbon forks, carbon seatpost and a few Zertz vibration-damping inserts for a comfortable ride. Front and rear eyelets, big tyre clearances and LX mechs give a good gear range. Great value. Specialized +44 (0)20 8391 3500 www.specialized.com
Planet-X Kaffenback £750 Flat bar, chromoly all-rounder with generous clearances, Shimano 105 10-speed and Shimano R500 hoops. Loads of build options, including custom wheels. Planet-X Bikes +44 (0)1302 638056 www.planet-x-bikes.com
Setavento SLR Touring £775 A great value, fully custom touring frame, 38mm tyre clearances, canti brakes, rack/mudguard eyelets and a titanium frame coupling option for £250. Setavento www.setavento.com
3AL/2.5V titanium An industry grade titanium with a small percentage of aluminium and vanadium to create a tubing that's both strong and more easily drawn and worked.
Effective top-tube Horizontal length between the centre of the top of the head-tube, to the centre of the seatpost or seat-tube - a good way of judging size. Bottom bracket height Low Bbs create more stability with panniers but less pedal clearance for riding off -road.
Long drop brakes The calliper arms are longer, allowing room for bigger tyres and/ or mudguards, while keeping the aesthetics of road brakes.
Non-integrated headset Our preferred system for tourers, because they use upper and lower cups to seat the bearings, so you're less likely to damage the frame.