By Tom Demerly
How much fluid do you need to carry on your bike at any one time?
The minimalist, aerodynamically obsessed and “weight weenie” answers “only enough to get me to the next aid station or party store”. A more baroque approach includes large reservoirs to keep you on the bike for hours without replenishment.
Bike hydration systems are a natural for the tinkerer. Their medium is plastic and readily available hardware. The Camelbak was improvised this way. As a result we see a very wide range of offerings in hydration systems, some simple and elegant, some an ode to Rube Goldberg.
It’s hard to beat the basic water bottle and cage. It’s relatively lightweight- even when full. The basic bottle and cage is modular, inexpensive and adaptable. Some wind tunnel pundits suggest it is even more aerodynamic than nothing at all. A few companies have innovated combined hydration system/aerodynamic fairings that are extensions of an aero frame to lower drag.
In an industry filled with constantly changing “standards” the diameter and attachment pattern for the frame mounted water bottle has stayed remarkably universal since the early 1960’s. There have been recent attempts to introduce a smaller cage and bottle, and they were universally shouted down. As a result, many major beverage manufacturers design their packaging to fit a standard diameter bicycle bottle cage. This is a boon to athletes and race directors for stocking aid stations at big events. Volunteers can simply hand up pre-packaged fluids without risk of contamination or incorrect formulation. You don’t have to spend time on the bike emptying the contents into a hydration reservoir. Standard cage-held bike bottles are easy to remove from the bike for filling from a spigot, hose or jug.
Elite level athletes have long acknowledged the value of the simple water bottle and cage. On exceptionally hilly courses, bottles can be jettisoned in an aid station prior to a big climb, reducing weight substantially. Fresh bottles can be replenished at an aid station at the summit. If you’ve ever seen the aid station at Ironman Canada leaving the town of Osoyos prior to the climb of Richter Pass, you notice very few leaders take a bottle there- but most throw their bottles off. They take fresh bottles at the summit, keeping their bikes up to 4 pounds lighter for the climb. If you considered weight when you were buying your bike this is an easy way to save 4 pounds going up a climb.
A drawback to standard bottles is raising them to your face to drink. If you ride with a power meter you may notice the wattage falling off when you reach for the bottle. Drag increases also. That is a big part of the argument for “hands free” hydration systems using a hose, and there is one frame mounted, high capacity system in this survey. Bike handling is another factor in reaching for a bottle- in some situations, it simply isn’t safe to take one hand off the handlebars. If you are on the descent off the Col de Vence at Ironman France you won’t be reaching for a bottle for 20-30 minutes during the very technical downhill.
There are a few limitations to frame-mounted, bottle cage hydration. Very small frames may not have room to carry oversized bottles. Frequent bottle removal and replacement can loosen or break cages, a big problem in the middle of an important event. The good news is alloy cages can be gently bent back into place to hold bottles snugly again- until you get to that point when you’ve bent it one too many times and it breaks- hopefully not 10 minutes before the start of your “A” race.
The Systems: Frame Mounted.
The Speedfil Hydration System by Inviscid design is a viable approach to carrying a large amount of fluid low on the center of gravity of the bike but drinking hands-free through a cleverly designed no-backflow drinking tube. The system carries (effectively) 40.5 fluid ounces. Trisports.com founder Seton Claggett, who owns two sub-10 hour Ironmans, has used the Speedfil extensively in racing and training. Claggett is pragmatic about his approach to hydration systems: “Ultimately, if I can maintain an aero body posture and drink hands free I probably use the thing more.”
The Speedfil does what it was designed to: It carries a lot of fluid low on the bike and the bite valve/drink tube works very well. The system includes a mounting bracket that bolts to a standard cage mount on your frame. There are down tube (most popular) and seat tube mount versions.
When filled the system weighs 3 pounds 8.5 ounces. A standard small sized water bottle weighs 1 pound 8 ounces when full and holds 22 fluid ounces (capacity varies with bottle maker due to shape). The additional weight of the Speedfil compared to the combined weight of two 22 fluid ounce water bottles is accounted for by the drink tube.
The question is, do you ever need that much water on your bike all at once? The answer is up to you. If you don’t want to use aid stations at a big race the Speedfil increases your unrefueled range. You don’t have to reach for a bottle as often. When you do grab a bottle, the contents are quickly squirted into the Speedfil through its cap for a re-fill.
Perhaps the greatest drawback to Speedfil was highlighted by Phil White of Cervelo during one of Cervelo’s dealer tech camps. White, an engineer and expert in low speed aerodynamics, did not like any system that incorporated a drinking tube or was wider than the frame width of the bike. “Drink tubes are a disaster aerodynamically” White said. When you consider how carefully companies like Trek, with their new truncated airfoil bikes, and Cervelo with their TrueAero profile, design their frame shapes it stands to reason that strapping a length of tubing is going to change those characteristics to a degree. The counterpoint is that the overwhelming amount of drag on the bike is caused by the rider. If the rider has to frequently leave the aero position to use their bottles- they will lose time. Pick your poison.
Speedfil is a popular seller among age groupers but almost never seen on pro bikes at the top of the Ironman field.
Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★” Three Stars of Five. Lots of capacity and hands free drinking for good body aerodynamics at the cost of frame aerodynamics. Do you need this much fluid?
Aero-shaped Bottle/Cage Combinations.
Profile Design, X-Lab and Arundel all make narrow, aero-inspired bottles and conformal carbon fiber cages. These systems are said to improve overall frame aerodynamics on most bikes. They are relatively lightweight even when full and carry a reasonable amount of fluid; about 20 fluid ounces give or take depending on the bottle.
My favorite of these systems is the X-Lab. In fact, it is my favorite hydration system in this survey short of a nice quality bottle cage. The X-Lab Aero TT bottle has a few subtle features that out class the other choices. X-Lab designed an “Easy-Grip” groove into the bottle making it easier to hold and squeeze. The bottle is a little tough to squeeze since it is tougher Polyethylene so it holds it shape in the cage and clamps firmly, but I did not find this an issue when drinking from it. The cage that holds the X-Lab Aero TT is also best in class, with slots to adjust the cage position to the optimal place on your frame for easiest reach. Overall, the X-Lab Aero TT is superbly designed for easy use and aerodynamic benefit. It may be one of the fastest accessories drag savings-per dollar you can bolt to your bike.
Profile Design and Arundel’s design are both also very good, with Arundel’s squared off bottom/trailing edge fitting beautifully with some bikes. Profile Design’s aero bottle featured the softest, easiest to squeeze plastic.
X-Lab Aero TT: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five: Best in Category.
Profile Design Razor Bottle: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★” 4 Stars of Five.
Arundel Chrono: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★” 4 Stars of Five. Fits well with many aero frames.
Conventional Bottle Cages.
Profile Design’s Karbonlite Kage, Stryke Kage and Fuse Kage are polymer/composite bottle cages with traditional mountings. Each cage is reasonably light but none of these three has exceptional bottle holding power. The Karbonlite Kage is labeled that it isn’t designed for use on rear mount hydration systems due to its low bottle holding power.
In Profile’s defense, their iconic, inexpensive composite-polymer “Kage” and the Karbon Kage and Strada Karbon Kage are all very good for holding power. Those are my favorites from the Profile bottle cage selection, and they are very good. The “Kage” is so successful it is also sold by X-Lab as their “P-Cage” and advertised as having exceptional holding power for rear mount hydration systems. I agree, and have used rear-mounted Profile Kages very successfully on rear mount hydration systems including on an old Softride beam bike, the most notorious bottle launcher. My bottles stayed put firmly in the Profile Kages.
While I’m not a particular fan of the delicate Karbonlite Kage, Stryke Kage and Fuse Kage I do love the standard Profile Design Kage and pretty Karbon Kage and Strada Karbon Kage.
Profile Design Karbonlite Kage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★” 1 Star of Five. Poor holding power.
Profile Design Stryke Kage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★★” 2 Stars of Five. Too Flexible for large bottles and rough pavement.
Profile Design Fuse Kage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★” 1 Stars of Five. Poor holding power, difficult to bottle back into after use while riding.
X-Lab scores super high marks with their excellent Chimp and Gorilla cages. The X-Lab Gorilla was specifically configured for X-Lab’s rear mount hydration systems and is a peace-of-mind upgrade to any hydration system. No cage grips a bottle like X-Lab’s Gorilla Cage. It is light, beautifully finished in three colors (Red, White and carbon weave) and holds bottles faultlessly. This is even an excellent choice for off-road riding. A number of elegant refinements make this cage so nice, included a fluted entry section so it is easier to get your bottle back in the cage without looking, critical on rear mount hydration rigs.
There is a lip at the top of the X-Lab Gorilla that corresponds with an indentation in most water bottles. The lip is there for improved grip. A few bottles don’t have the corresponding indentation, the Camelbak Podium bottle is one, it is the exception rather than the rule. Most bottles fit great. Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander have both used this cage. There is not a single criticism of this cage, as close to a perfect product as it gets.
X-Lab’s Chimp cage is another example of subtle and expert engineering. With slightly less grip than the Gorilla Cage, the Chimp is ideally suited for small frame sizes where the bottle has to be wrangled in and out of the cage at a slight angle, about 30 degrees according to X-Lab. This is an elegant design: The X-Lab Chimp Cage holds bottle securely even on fairly rotten roads but allows very easy bottle removal and replacement. Craig Turner of X-Lab, a former defense industry/aerodynamic engineer, did his homework on these products and they truly outclass other cages in their category.
X-Lab Gorilla Cage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five. Best cage of its type.
X-Lab Chimp Cage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five. Excellent for small frames.
I was skeptical when I saw this bottle/cage combination. That was a mistake.
I thought the Speedplay Nanogram cage wouldn’t hold bottles well due to its gossamer appearance. The Speedplay Nanogram cage does hold impressively well. Its unique shape facilitate ultra-easy bottle removal and replacement. The cage weighs about the same as a few credit cards, a bantam 19 ounces. It works well on small frames where getting a bottle in and out may be tight, but two of these bottles on a very small frame may be a squeeze.
The cage includes a bottle but every standard bottle I tried also worked.
Speedplay, known for their unique pedal systems, did an impressive job on this cage. Despite the super light weight it holds very well and permits easy entry and removal. If there are any drawbacks to this cage the price tag may be it, but all nice composite/carbon fiber cages are pricey and some aren’t as well made. This is a refined and functional bit of bike jewelry.
Speedplay Nanogram Cage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★★★★” 4 Stars of Five. Elegant, light and secure. Pricey, but worth it.
A quirky product designed for any application where you want to access the bottle from the right side of the bike mounted on the down tube, or the left side when mounted on the seat tube. A different version, called the “Othersideloader” enables bottles to be removed and replaced from the opposite side- the left hand when mounted on your downtube. If you wanted access to both downtube and seat tube mounted cages from your right side of the bike, you would use a Sideloader on the downtube and an Othersideloader on your seat tube, and vice-versa. Great idea for small frame sizes where the tight main triangle prevents the easy removal of a bottle.
The Arundel Side Loader is best used for right handed cyclist (unless you mount it on the seat tube, in which case it loads/unloads to the left. It is a nicely molded and finished carbon fiber cage that is super stiff, won’t lose bottles and looks beautiful. If you use an Arundel Side Loader, even on a 58cm frame where you don’t need its side loading feature, you’ll like it for its unique function.
The Arundel Side Loader does what it says, the question is, do you need what it does?
Arundel Side Loader: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★★★★” 4 Stars of Five. Problem solver for small frames.
In a world of products that travel for months in the hold of a ship after being automatically assembled by robots the King cages in titanium and stainless steel are functional bike jewelry. The cages are made by hand in the United States in a small shop. You can see video of the unique hand-bending process on their website (and ours on the product page).
This is a connoisseur’s bottle cage, light, simple, super durable in both titanium and stainless steel and very subtle looking. Some may be critical of its conventional appearance, but I love that. These will be at home on a beautiful handmade Serotta, Seven or other custom classic.
Clamping force for the bottle can be influenced by subtly bending the cage inward (tough on the titanium version). This cage is the very definition of refined design, and it is completely at home on a $15,000 super bike. Drawbacks? None. If we had a “six star” rating these two cages would have gotten it.
The Dutch made Tacx Tao is a perfect choice for aero frames with a very tight inner frame triangle where it may be tough to fit two bottle cages. The cage is polymer lined to eliminate scratching your bottles and prevents vibration and noise even on rotten pavement like the cobbled roads of northern Europe where this cage was born.
I’ve used this cage on the roads of Northern France and Southern Belgium on the fabled cobblestones of the Spring Classics. You’ll never lose a bottle.
The frame of the cage has a bit of flex to it for fitting to your frame and you must use the mounting bolts provided with the cage as they are the only ones that fit into the holes in the cage. Conventional button-head bottle bolts don’t work.
I like the Tacx Tao’s industrial appearance, especially in anodized silver. This is another one where there is simply nothing wrong with the product. It’s a classic, it works, and it deserves a top rating.
Tacx Tao Alloy Cage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five. Superior holding power, does not scratch bottles, works well on small frame sizes.
A fairly blatant knock-off of the Elite Ciussi cage but without the embossed flourishes, this cage gets the job done admirably for less than $10. It is light, mounts well to most frames, and holds bottles very well. The polymer buttons resist marring and don’t scratch up your bottles.
The Achilles of this cage is the weld at the mounting bracket. you don’t see them break too often and usually not from normal use. Failures usually occur from packing your bike in a flight case or similar handling. For under $10 though, you can’t go wrong for an inexpensive, functional and reliable (if not flashy) cage.
Dimension Button Cage: Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★★★★” 4 Stars of Five. Cheap and good.
This review is part 2 in a 3 part review of bike hydration systems. You can read Part 1 of the bike hydration system review series here.