Only a short time ago flat-barred road bikes were a breed apart. Once the personalised steeds of streetwise couriers, these mutant machines mixed and matched parts from road bikes and mountain bikes to offer the best of the both worlds. Splicing the speed of one with the riding position of the other turned out to make a whole lot of sense, and it wasn't long before manufacturers were lining up to offer their take on the formula.
In fact, the flat-barred setup appeals to many. You might be an older roadie looking for a more upright, comfortable riding position without too much loss in performance; a commuter who enjoys a fast turn of speed on your ride to work, as this same geometry offers an improved field of view through traffic; or indeed anyone new to cycling - flat-barred cockpits, with their improved braking and easier shifting, plus the visibility bonuses, are more confidence inspiring. Lastly, they're also a bridge for those hailing from an MTB background - a familiar riding position only with a slicker, faster ride.
Tapping into the appeal of the inclusiveness of the setup, there's now a whole range to choose from. Some are effectively road bikes fitted with flat bars, offering a simple change in riding position for weekend escapes. Others are more evolved solutions, often with city use more in mind. It's worth pointing out that speccing a flatbarred setup should save you money too, as rapid fire shifters are considerably cheaper than more complicated STIs for drop bars.
A brand new Roadrat, from boutique MTB brand Cotic, is offered as a frame and fork set for £260 including delivery. It's built up here for £1050, but the stock complete bike is singlespeed and features V brakes for £675.
While most flat-barred bikes use a road frame as their starting point, the Roadrat is the opposite. Being from the Cotic family, it's the award winning, dirt driven Soul that provides the blueprint. The top-tube length is identical, and once you've taken into account sag in the suspension fork, seat angles are similar too, while classic 'cross angles on the head-tube and 45mm fork offset ensure no toe overlap. Hence the MTB look: lots of exposed seat post and standover clearance. Slender tubing is butted chromo from Taiwan and finish is simply superb - a glossy black powder coat should mean the Roadrat hides its age well. Indeed, we were impressed by the overall attention to detail, including neat mini-gussets on the downtube and chainstays, beefing it up for roughstuff duties too. And if you do stray off the black stuff, there's ample tyre clearance.
We shod it with 35c Schwalbe Racing Ralph cyclo-cross tyres, with ample room for mud and leaves - without 'guards, it should take up to 38c. There are mounts for both discs and Vbrakes but it's a shame the bosses aren't removable. A neat and minimal sliding dropout transforms it from fixed or single-speed city rat to fully geared light tourer. The only downside is that the chaintug/derailleur hanger, though beautifully machined, is a bit fiddly to remove when fixing a flat - production models will feature a tweaked, narrower version, with two adjustment screws for easy repositioning of the wheel in singlespeed mode. Like Surly's Crosscheck, the 132.5mm rear drops will take both road and mountain bike hubs. Elsewhere, there's rear rack and mudguard eyelets, and a clever forward facing front disc mount to deal with any mudguard compatibility issues too. There're even neat cable bosses at the headtube, so no paint rubbing from the cables to worry about.
The Roadrat injects a whole new lease of fun to zipping round the urban landscape, confidently darting down backstreets and skipping over potholes. Initially, the 130mm stem looked long - but once in motion it works a treat, balancing the lively frame nicely. The wide handlebar (25in) helps with stability and steering but can encroach on tight traffic corridors. The longer stem also puts you into more of a lowslung position for road work compared to an MTB - particularly with the stem flipped down. In this regard, expect an involving ride, rather than the upright, sedate position of some flat bars.
I'm a big fan of a single chainring and rear cluster combo. It's easier on the legs than a single-speed, and is all you need even in hilly locales like Bristol - side benefits being a lighter bike and fewer parts to maintain than standard gears. Although the whole bike feels very tight and together, there's just room for a couple of standard rear panniers without heel clearance issues, or toe overlap with touring width rubber - extending its horizons. The Tubus and Tortec racks we tried fitted fine and cleared the disc callipers.
The Roadrat is currently offered as a frame and fork option, costing a very reasonable £255. A similar setup to the one we tried, albeit singlespeed with Bontrager Select wheels and Vbrakes, is available for £675. Our test bike came with Hope discs, which provide superb, reliable braking though if we were speccing it, we'd plump for Avid's excellent, easy-to-maintain BB7s. There's also a matching Bontrager seat post, slender saddle and grips. The single 42T chainring and Truvativ cranks feature a chainguard while Sram's X7 rear mech and shifter pod provides light and crisp gear changes.
We're not mad about oversized stems for city bikes as inevitably, compatibility issues arise with older accessories like lights and bar bags, though the extra stiffness does make sense if you're running it as a single-speed. Set up as it is, our bike would cost around £1050, and weighs in at under 22lbs. But it's a perfect frame for running as a single-speed/fixed, and there's no reason why you couldn't fit it with a shorter stem and drop bars - maybe On-One's shallow drop Midges would work particularly well.
We reviewed the Mavic Speedcity in our commuting wheels test and since then have put them through their paces both on and off-road. In fact, we've been impressed by how tough they've proven to be with no adjustments needed. This said, they're a pricey set of wheels. A cheaper and equally effective option would be a classic rim, like a Mavic Open Pro, and a pair of well-sealed Deore disc hubs. Likewise, Conti's Grand Prix 3000 is fast and light rubber. But as our Roadrat is set up more as a city dweller, we'd spec it with Ultra Gatorskins for improved puncture proofing - especially given the rear wheel setup.