Why Downtube Storage is the Next Best Frontier in MTB Evolution

In-frame storage doesn't interfere with serviceability and you always know where to find your kit.

I have a pet peeve. (Whoa, you don’t say?). Maybe it stems from my time in the Scouts. But it drives me just a tad bit crazy seeing anyone on a ride, especially deep in the desert or high in the mountains without the proper gear. Whether it’s a rain layer, an extra tube, a multi-tool, or a snack bar, being prepared is the best way to be a trustworthy backcountry partner and the best way to keep yourself out of trouble.

But, being prepared is also one of the easiest things to mess up, and I am guilty of forgetting things several times over. One of the gifts of being a product reviewer is having a lot of gear around. One of the curses is that your kit is never where you left it last time and sometimes the pressure of leaving a friend waiting at the trailhead to start the ride is greater than the pressure to find your flat kit. 

How we carry what we need has changed a lot over the past decade or so. Before the advent of hip packs, people usually found themselves in two camps: lycra jersey, with an emergency kit in the back pockets, or big ol’ hydration pack with jars of peanut butter, emergency blanket, fire starter and everything else. 

I remember my first hip pack. I found it on Craigslist for cheap; some worn, scuffed general outdoors brand pack, definitely designed for hiking. I didn’t care. It was cheap, it worked adequately, and made far more sense on hour-long rides where the heft and cargo volume of a full pack isn’t necessary. Why drive an F-350 to the 7-11 for a Gatorade and a bag of chips when a Mazda Miata is all you need?

I’m still surprised when someone asks me “how do you like that hip pack?,” given that the packs have been around long enough that they shouldn’t be labeled as a trend anymore. But the stigma of being a Disneyland dad still exists and is reason enough for some to never consider wearing a hip pack.

Along with the development of hip packs, frame bags, tube wraps and everything else, downtube frame storage has become increasingly popular on new bikes. Though some people still cling to full packs, it’s evident by popularity and design that mountain bikers by and large don’t want to have anything on their back during a ride. And why would they? For a sport that requires precise handling and agility, any limitation is to be avoided.

I believe mountain bikes are entering a new stage of development. Geometry by all accounts seems to be slowing down and suspension kinematics are too. Engineers have mostly found the proper balance of efficiency and traction and stability and agility. Of course geometry and suspension will still evolve, but probably not at the pace they have in the past ten years. 

Thus, we’re going to see more frame features: cleaner, albeit more complicated cable routing or no cables, due to more electronics. More adjustability and better frame protection, and more frame storage options are coming. These features will err on the side of comfort, convenience, and aesthetics rather than performance. Specialized pioneered these storage solutions in 2015 with the SWAT box, but the market picked up in the past two years with more brands like Orbea, Trek, Giant, and Santa Cruz carving open their downtubes for stowage. 

This year, I was excited to have two different bikes in for review that both had downtube storage and though I didn’t have them long enough to utilize the boxes for my own benefit, it would have been one of the first things I used if it were mine. On a ride with a friend who bought a Specialized this summer, I assumed he hadn’t brought enough water until we stopped and he pulled a footlong, J-shaped tube of water from the inside of his bike. 

I have a hard time believing anyone really wants to wear a sweat-inducing, shoulder-aching pack or play musical chairs with their emergency kits as they switch from one bag to the next. Downtube storage surely adds costs and extra layers to mountain bike frame production, but it is, in my opinion, the best feature on future mountain bikes. But, unlike so many other developments like electronics and cable routing, it doesn’t complicate self-serviceability and the best thing is that it doesn’t involve wearing a fanny pack.