Testing is training, training is testing

This was one of Andy Coggan’s favorite lines, and it’s true.

A big part of my preparation for the ride to Texas and back has been testing, both equipment and fitness.

One thing that road racers get right is the importance of weight, or rather, the importance of being as light as reasonably and affordably possible. With a touring setup, whether you have saddlebags or whether you go for the stylish/aero/badass “bikepack” mode, the whole point is to load your crap onto the bike and let it do the carrying.

Over the course of my last tour I concluded that this is really hard. You go slow and your back is unwieldy. On the plus side, pushing a massively heavy bike makes your legs stronger, at least if you are trying to push the pace to where there’s a bit of burn. But on the whole, the best comparison for a touring/bikepack rig is a donkey. Slow and steady. Not always terribly exciting.

This led to the big theoretical divide in bike touring: Panniers or bikepack setup?

I’d read about the advantages of both and had seen numerous setups on my tour. The panniers were convenient and capacious, and their only downside was the fact that I’d put a rack on my ‘cross bike that was unstable, which really ruled out using the bike for any off-road riding except the gentlest. There was a good rack alternative to the one I was using, but before putting it on I decided to get a seatbag and a frame bag, see how much stuff I could cram in, and then evaluate.

It became immediately clear that there was no way the seatbag/frame bag would hold all the crap.

Kristie, who had joined me at various times during my tour and ridden several hundred miles with a 40-lb. backpack and a tiny rack that held almost nothing, suggested I try the backpack route. “The panniers and the bikepack are both inefficient. You should put it on your back.”

“No way,” I said.

“Why not?”

“No one does that. Why would I put something hugely heavy on my back when I can put it on my bike?”

“Because you’ll go faster.”

“No way.”

“Yes, you will. The lighter the bike, the faster you go.”

“The backpack will weigh a ton and make me fucking miserable.”

“No, it won’t.”

“Yes, it will.”

“The muscles in your back and abdomen, and to a lesser extent in your shoulders and neck, distribute the weight so that if the backpack is properly adjusted you will not even feel it.”

“That makes no sense.”

“You just don’t understand how muscles work. The most fatigue-resistant muscles in your body are your back and abdomen; they’re responsible for holding up your body at all times. Adding weight to them doesn’t fatigue them except moderately at first. They immediately adapt. That’s how overweight people are able to carry all of the extra tissue. And it’s why fat people are so strong. Their skeletal muscles have to support a ton of weight.”

“I’ve backpacked. Heavy packs are exhausting.”

“That’s because most people wear them wrong. They stack the weight high so that it sits on their shoulders, which are relatively weak and which fatigue rapidly compared to your back and core.”

“Where are you supposed to put a backpack if not on your shoulders?”

“If you look at a wildfire firefighter, people who have to hike 15 or more miles, often in extremely hilly and rugged terrain, just to get to the fire, you’ll see that their 40-50-lb. packs ride very low, with the weight as close to the lower back/buttocks as is comfortable. The weight sits on the lower back and pelvic girdle, the part of your body that is evolved to carry the most weight and to fatigue the least.”

“You really think I should carry most of my stuff on my back?”

“Why not try it?”

I dragged out my Chome messenger bag and strapped on my tent, pad, and sleeping bag to the outside of the pack. Then I filled it with my heaviest items. Its 22-liter capacity meant that in conjunction with using my seatbag and frame bag for clothes and light items, I could carry everything that I’d been carrying with a rack and panniers. The backpack weighed about 32 lbs. I put it on and tottered.

“This is gonna suck.”

We fiddled with the straps until the weight hung as low as possible, and as advertised, with every inch that it got closer to my lower back, the lighter it felt.

I got on my bike, which was now incredibly light compared to before, weighing less than 25 lbs. It jumped forward when I started pedaling, something it never did when weighted with panniers.

“Wow,” I said. “Where are we going?”

“Let’s give the Cove climb and then Ganado a try.”

“Great,” I said. “The steepest and longest hill in PV.”

END

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19 thoughts on “Testing is training, training is testing”

  1. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this, Wanky. I’ve been debating what I’m going to do when I start this.

  2. Have you ever considered leaving all the crap behind and just living with your bike, a change of clothes, and a wallet?
    I did a 1200 km in Ireland that way….a bit hard to get used to…but it was lighter.

    1. It was below freezing many mornings. Would have been difficult with no sleeping bag or tent or warm clothes. It would have been difficult to eat without a stove. 1200 km sounds like a long way but it’s only 720 miles-ish. You could do it in a week, easily, if it’s not too hilly, but 82 days with lots of high mountains, often far from a town … with only a change of clothes and a wallet … nope. Of course if you were just doing the coastal route to Canada, and were doing it in August, that would be totally doable. From LA to Texas, in winter, with cold desert mornings and hot afternoons, the possibility/likelihood of extended cold or freezing rain, it’s not something I’d be willing to try. Also, even my pannier setup was extremely minimal compared to every other tourist I saw, who all had front panniers, handlebar bags, and some had framebags as well. As for a single change of clothes, that’s all I currently have except for sweater/jacket/gloves/raincoat. And ditching the stove greatly increases the cost of your trip and reduces your flexibility a lot. Nor is hotel sleeping especially comfortable and certainly not cheap. Credit-card touring is common but for me at least, not much fun. The two nights I slept in hotels felt wildly overpriced and a cop-out. It’s all personal taste, I think.

    1. I’m already light, moreso than any other tourist I’ve run into. The places I won’t compromise are on clothing (wool) and cooking.

  3. Interesting. I think I am with you on this, however, it doesn’t look as bad as I thought it would. I wonder whether your Chrome bag is the right bag for the job. You may want to look at Hyperlite Mountain Gear and get one of their bags. The advantage I think, and I haven’t gone back and looked up your messenger bag stats, is the HMG bags are pretty waterproof, and very light, and since they are made for long distance hiking, I would think long distance riding fits right in line. Plus, they have those pod inserts which fit their bags perfectly making for a simple pack/unpack experience. Maybe rain won’t be a problem for you.

  4. Dude. Anything that makes your COG higher, i.e., backpack, renders you inherently more unstable.
    Try a BOB YAK in-line trailer sometime. First thing I noticed was that on mountain descents, having a trailer attached to your rear axle makes you so stable, it feels like you’re riding a rail.
    My only beef is the weight, but the improvement in handling- over panniers, etc., is a game-changer. Now I’m looking to weasel one of my friends who can weld titanium into making a Ti version of the BOB YAK. At that point there is no downside.

    1. Yes to this. I commuted for a decade with rear rack/panniers. Trailer is the game changer.

      I know the whole “riding a bike with a backpack” is fashionable, again. But, you have some meaningful KMs to cover in VERY inhospitable environments. (With an S) We both know that means many layers and extra clothes you didn’t need this summer. Which, a trailer handles beautifully.

      Of course, that means spending “money” which, somehow isn’t a problem on a bicycle, and ONLY a bicycle.. But is a very serious problem when it’s not, specifically, a bicycle.

      Stop messing around with half-assed alternatives. Get a trailer.

      1. Having a trailer on a rocky, brutal dirt descent like Windigo Pass sounds really innovative. And now that I think about it, adding a trailer always improves handling. On high speed, technical courses, that’s when Michael Schumacher would always pull into the pit and hitch up the trailer. And who can ever forget the high mountain battle between Ocana and Merckx in ’72, when Ocana won by virtue of his superior trailer.

  5. You, of course, are strong enough to do this any way you want, Seth. You’ve only tried rear panniers mounted too high on a CX bike. With a backpack the question then becomes how comfortable do you want to be with stuff on your back, neck, and shoulders while touring 6+ ride hours per day? Bikepacking gear was designed to keep gear contained over rough terrain. Racks and panniers don’t do well in that environment, but, as you say, you gotta pack light! I’d highly recommend you find a decent used steel bike that accepts front and rear racks and panniers, and spread the load relatively low in all four panniers. If you are mostly road touring, you’ll understand why this setup is best, if you give it a go.

    1. I agree with Drew completely. And with you Seth in not compromising on wool and cooking (food). I would add that your diet as portrayed on this blog may well be straining your system with too many refined sugars, saturated fat, and an abundance of cholesterol. These things will slow a rider down as much as any extra pounds and where they are distributed. But life and goodness… Have a fantastic journey and I look forward to following along.

    2. rear panniers mounted too high on a CX bike.

      As someone who has ridden with panniers for a decade, this isn’t a thing. Rack sits over a wheel, pannier mounts to rack. There’s no “too high.” They ALL sit where they sit. Which, is roughly in line with the rear wheel.

      Sure, put the heavy things on the bottom of your bags definitely helps. But, there’s no “too high” on a bike with panniers, regardless of the material the bike frame is made.

  6. You’re going to Texas. Sweat regulation with a backpack?

    As much as you’re going to hate to hear this, buy a proper touring/gravel bike. Buy a metal bike with the proper mounts for racks and the proper geometry for the long haul. If you can find one, buy a used one with disc brakes until your custom bike is finished. Learn what you like and don’t like about touring bikes and how their geometry is superior to the task over a frame designed for a 45-60min effort on a course created by a sadist.

    Don’t think of it as “consuming”. Think of it as investing in your new direction. You can sell the ‘cross bike or keep it for fun. It has earned its rest.

  7. Sounds like Anquetil, a TDF winner who would put his water bottle in his jersey pocket at the bottom of climbs. Put the weight on him, not the bike. Faster?

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