Why You Need a Side-Load Water Bottle Cage

The "best" water bottle cage is a matter of opinion, but if you ask Bruce, the answer is a side-loader. He explains why you might want one and picks out some of the best side-load cages for your bike.

Why You Need a Side-Load Water Bottle Cage

Written by
Bruce Lin

Published on

Posted in
Tech

For many riders, water bottle cages are an afterthought. You get a new bike, put it together, and just slap on whatever cage you have handy. But for me, a perfect ride demands a perfect bottle cage. If you ride smaller-sized bikes or a full-suspension mountain bike, you’ve probably struggled to fit a bottle into a frame with limited space. For this reason, a side-load water bottle cage is one of the first accessories I install on every new bike. 

Some riders might not even know that they need a side-load water bottle cage. If you’ve never seen or heard of side-load cages, today’s your lucky day. I’ll explain why they’re brilliant, and pick out some of my favorites to help you find the perfect bottle cage. 

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Why a side-load water bottle cage?

Vintage water bottle cagesOld school cages work well on old school bikes.

The traditional water bottle consists of a hoop of metal tubing, plastic, or carbon fiber that wraps around a bottle snugly and engages the neck of the bottle to prevent it from bouncing out. This basic design works well and has remained more or less the same for over 100 years. But around the mid-'90s, bicycle design changed. 

Compact frames with sloping top tubes became a mainstay of modern road and gravel bike design. Compact frames are lighter and stiffer, but they limit space for bottles, especially in smaller sizes. In a similar vein, modern mountain bikes are designed with drastically sloped top tubes for more standover clearance. Add in rear suspension, and there’s even less available space for bottles. Sometimes, the frame or suspension can actually make it impossible to get a bottle in or out.   

The solution is the side-load bottle cage. As the name implies, side-load cages allow bottles to be inserted and removed from the side (or diagonally), rather than only from the top. This lets you easily access bottles from tight spaces while you ride. They’re ideal for smaller frames, full-suspension bikes, and when riding with a frame bag. 

Best side load water bottle cages Elite cannibal XCEven my medium-sized road bike needs side-load cages to comfortably fit big water bottles.

Side-load cages are often “right entry/exit” or “left entry/exit,” meaning the opening will be on the right or left side when looking down at a cage mounted on the down tube. Depending on your frame or your dominant hand, this can be important to consider. I grab bottles with my right hand, so for road and gravel bikes, I buy both a right exit and a left exit cage because the seat tube mounts are opposite the down tube mounts. This allows both cages to exit on the right side of my bike. If you want to use both hands, there are also some side-load cages that are “dual entry/exit,” but they often don’t hold bottles as securely. 

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The best side-load water bottle cages

I’ve been riding with side-load bottle cages for over 10 years now and I’ve tried nearly every side loader on the market. Some are definitely better than others. If a cage is too loose, bottles rattle around and get ejected over bumps. Too tight and it can be a pain, or even dangerous, to extract a bottle while riding. Just right is somewhere in between. Here are the best side-load bottle cages that I’ve used.

Specialized Zee Cage

Specialized Zee Cage side load bottle cageThe Specialized Zee Cage is the benchmark when it comes to side-load cages. The Z-shaped cage wraps around the bottle, providing a very snug fit. It’s my favorite side-load cage for mountain biking because it keeps bottles secure in the gnarliest terrain. It’s tight enough though that it takes some practice to pull bottles out when it’s rough and bumpy.

Lezyne Flow SL 

Lezyne Flow SL side load bottle cageThe Lezyne Flow SL is a simple and secure plastic cage that looks very modern and is super affordable. I find it holds bottles very tightly, even tighter than the Zee cage, so it’s great for smaller-sized bottles or securing bottles in extremely rough off-road terrain. If your bottles often feel too loose or rattle in your current cages, this is a great solution.

[product-block handle="lezyne-flow-sl-water-bottle-cage-plastic-black-right-entry"/]

Elite Cannibal XC

Elite Cannibal XC side load bottle cageThe Elite Cannibal XC is currently my favorite dual entry/exit option. The cage uses stretchy rubber to adapt to different-sized bottles. It holds bottles much looser than the Zee cage, so I prefer something more secure on gnarly downhill trails. I like using the Cannibal XC on my road and gravel bikes because it makes it easy to pull out bottles while pedaling hard. 

ENVE Carbon Bottle Cage

ENVE side load carbon bottle cage

I think of the ENVE Carbon bottle cage as a fancier carbon version of the Elite Cannibal XC. It has a similar low-slung design that lets you remove and insert bottles from either side. It holds bottles a tiny bit tighter than the Cannibal XC, but not as tight as the Zee cage. At 19 grams, it’s also the lightest cage on this list and the best pick for weight weenies. 

[product-block handle="enve-carbon-bottle-cage"/]

King Cage Side Loader

King cage side loader

King cages come in steel or titanium and are ideal for riders who prefer the look of a traditional bottle cage. The Side Loader version essentially clocks the entire cage 45 degrees to the side. The tightness can be “tuned” by bending the cage to your preference. King Cage Side Loaders  are indestructible and unique looking. They work great with most bottles. 

Whiskey No. 9 Carbon

Whiskey no 9 side load bottle cage

I’ve recently gotten a lot of use from the Whiskey No. 9 Carbon cages on my gravel bike. They have a large opening that makes it super easy to remove a bottle while riding. They don’t feel as tight or secure as Zee cages, but I haven’t had any ejected bottles (yet) thanks to a rubber gripper at the lower mounting bolt that keeps the bottle secure. 

[product-block handle="nc_whisky-no-9-carbon-water-bottle-cage-right-side-matte-black"/]

PNW Lucky Cat / Very Good Dog

PNW Side load bottle cagesPNW’s Lucky Cat is probably the cutest bottle cage you’ll ever see. It’s cut from a single sheet of aluminum into the shape of a Maneki-Neko (Japanese for "beckoning cat"). The tightness can be adjusted by bending the arm. At 91 grams it’s the heaviest cage here, but it’s worth it for the looks. Dog lovers might prefer PNW’s Very Good Dog cage featuring a St. Bernard. 

Arundel Mandible

Arundel mandible side load bottle cage

To me, Arundel has always made the most elegant carbon bottle cages, and they’re the perfect accessory for any carbon dream bike. The Mandible side-load cage provides a tenacious grip, comparable to the Lezyne Flow SL, but you’ll pay a premium for the fancy carbon construction and 3k Gloss finish. 

[product-block handle="arundel-dtr-mandible-side-loader-bottle-cage-3k-glossy"/]

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