I still can clearly remember my first experience bike packing. With no backpacking background, minimal camping experience, and only slightly more mountain biking know-how, I set out to tour the Colorado Trail, self-supported with my boy. On the first downhill, one of his pannier bags fell off and went tumbling down the hillside and my handlebar bag made a jump for freedom a few miles later. After the first day, we stopped in Bailey and sent nine pounds of gear home. We sent our coffee maker home, only to cave two days later and buy a new one in Buena Vista. We hadn’t done a fully loaded ride before hand, assuming we could figure it out as we went. We finished with a rack held together by sticks and all our spare straps used to hold gear to our bikes. That was seven years ago.
On my first attempt at the Colorado Trail Race, my jacket flew off my rack a mile into the single track and I spent the first ten miles of the race trying to adjust my rack so it wouldn’t flex every time I rolled over a rock or root and slam into my rear tire. Again, I hadn’t ridden the bike fully loaded. That was two years ago.
On my second attempt at the Colorado Trail Race, I dropped my sleeping pad about five miles in. I’m going to blame it on a freak accident because that time around, I had ridden my bike fully loaded and was confident that everything would stay in place.
Being able to rocket down singletrack without worrying about gear last summer brought home a point for me: testing gear is one of the most important aspects of preparing for a multi-day race such as the CTR or Tour Divide. Even after many bike packing trips, I’m still spending large amounts of time testing different equipment, finalizing clothing decisions, and experimenting with different ways to pack it all on a bike.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main things to consider when packing a bike: How the weight is distributed, how well the weight stays put on the bike, and how accessible key pieces of equipment are.
First, weight distribution. On a course like the Colorado Trail that involves a lot of hike-a-biking, I’m a big fan of being able to easily put weight on my back when I know I’m going to be hiking for a ways. For something like Tour Divide, I’m going to try to get all of my gear, water, and food on my bike so I don’t have to carry a pack, or if I am going to carry a pack, it’s going to be uber-light. One of the biggest issues I foresee having, especially early on in the race, is a sore rear end, and then the less weight I can carry on my back, the better my rear is going to feel. Having the weight on the bike also helps lower the center of gravity of the whole operation. While the vertical weight distribution is less important on roads compared to singletrack, having the weight lower on the bike reduces the tippy-ness, thus making bombing down rocky jeep roads slightly less terrifying. The front to rear weight distribution is also important, but less so. My plan is to put as much of my dense gear in the center of my bike and then add the extra, lighter bulk, to the front and rear.
This brings me to the second most important part of packing a bike: stability. With the increased popularity of bike packing, bags have come a long way since the time of panniers that would flop around. Back in the bad ol’ days, bouncing down rocky trails or roads was always a gamble, as weight would shift on the bike at the most inopportune moments. Currently setting the industry standard for bike packing bags is Revelate Designs based out of Alaska. They make a variety of frame bags, seatpost bags, handlebar bags, and feed bags and all the bags are designed to strap down tightly so they don’t bounce around on rocky descents. After a little bit of getting used to, a well-loaded bike will handle amazingly well on technical singletrack. I know that having weight on the bike has helped me avoid more than one endo.
And lastly, there’s the accessibility issue. Especially while racing, it’s key to know where every piece of equipment lives on the bike so time isn’t squandered looking for chapstick in one bag when really it’s in another. I’ve adopted a system of grouping items that are generally used together in the same spot. For example, my sleeping bag, bivy, and sleeping clothes all go in my seatbag and aren’t touched outside of camping. All of my ‘Hope I don’t need this’ stuff goes together in one bag and is buried low in my frame bag. This includes my first-aid kit, spare parts, and all my tools aside from my allen keys. If I’m carrying food for multiple days, that also gets buried deep down and my easily accessed food for the day is put in feed bags each morning. I also designate a separate pocket for ‘Comfort Goods’ such as chamois cream, sunscreen, and chapstick. And then lastly, I have a separate compartment for night riding equipment that includes clear lenses for my glasses, lights, and spare batteries. Even when I think I have my system completely dialed, I still have been known to need to unpack everything on my bike in search of my chain lube.
While everything seems easy in theory, there’s no better way to test a system out than to go on an overnighter with everything, which is exactly what I did this past weekend on a giant loop outside of Moab. The verdict: While the desert is warmer than the mountains, having to carry two days worth of water on my back dramatically increases the amount of chamois cream that I need to have easily accessible.