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.
“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.”
“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.”
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