The most important change I made was my saddle. After trying a demo leather Brooks saddle for a couple of weeks, I got a Rivet Imogene slotted leather saddle. Rivet’s owner, Deb Banks, is a close friend, but just so ya know, I paid full retail for the saddle and am reviewing this of my own accord with no perks or compensation from Deb of any kind. When you put on a leather saddle you immediately notice it is hard af. But the promise is that if you ride it for a thousand miles or so, it will get really comfy, more comfy than any synthetic saddle.
Since I started my trip with a 35-lb. backpack and no riding shorts, the “hard af” part of the deal delivered. In fact, the final three or four hours of each day was pretty miserable. But as my tour progressed I found ways to get by with less and less stuff so that my pack finally averaged between 15 and 20 pounds depending on the day. The lighter weight and the gradual softening of the saddle meant that, as promised, the Rivet saddle was unbelievably comfortable.
The times and days when I simply rode around with no pack at all, it was not even apparent that I was sitting on anything. In sum, the Rivet leather saddle is the only saddle I plan to ride from now on, and as it continues to soften and conform to my ass, I will see if the comfort remains even with a fully loaded, 35-lb. pack.
Care and feeding of the saddle were minimal. I smeared some oil on it as prescribed a few times but otherwise there was nothing to do but pedal, and to mostly forget that there was a saddle beneath me.
Which brings me to the next item, my Chrome Barrage backpack, and whether it panned out as wonderfully as I had hoped. The answer: No. There was no average speed differential with a pack versus panniers; with few exceptions I averaged about 10 mph over the course of a day. Nor was there any particular comfort advantage. When the pack is really heavy, it gets uncomfortable after five or six hours, both on my back and on my unpadded undercarriage.
But there were aspects that still make it far superior to panniers, first and foremost bike handling. The bike without panniers handles like a bike. Also, lightening the pack so that it wasn’t quite so heavy greatly, and often completely, eliminated the tired shoulders and back. For me, the perfect weight was 20 lbs. and under. And the bike without panniers started so much more easily, which was a big issue in Houston’s urban traffic and constant stops. Other practical considerations were getting on and off the bike without having to worry about it tipping over, and not having to find a place to lean it; simply putting it on its side worked fine. The times I had to hike-a-bike, it would have been impossible with panniers and would have required unhitching the bags and making multiple trips.
One caution, though, especially if you ride without a helmet, is that falling with a pack could cause greater injury than if you ride with panniers. I went over the bars in Silver City, going slowly with no pack, and had I been carrying a fully-loaded backpack and going at speed I would have certainly broken something or gotten a head injury. (Please, no lectures.)
I’m unconvinced that the backpack is slower or the same as riding with panniers because I never felt good for more than a day or so this entire trip and still went as fast as I would have with panniers. Also, on the handful of days when I felt good, I positively flew at average speeds I’ve never come close to hitting with panniers; i.e. 15-18 mph. I will keep using the backpack for my next trip and see how things go when I am rested and not starting the ride with a significant deficit.
The piece of equipment that made the most impact was my sleeping bag. The REI down bag rated for 32-degrees doesn’t work except in cool temperatures, period. I replaced it with a Sea-to-Summit 0-degrees bag and never had a moment of sleeping discomfort again. It was more important than the tent. My North Face Mountain 25 tent worked great, especially in cold weather, but is probably overkill unless you are camping in snow and/or freezing rain. It was spacious, easy to assemble once you got the hang of it, and was more than ample even with two people. The downside is that it’s heavy and bulky. Still, it was a great tent for this trip.
Most impressive were the ACA Southern Tier maps, which I followed scrupulously all the way to La Grange, where I had to veer off for Houston. The only part I left out was the Anthony Alternate Route to El Paso. Otherwise, the maps were as good for crossing the southern US as they had been for my Canada and Sierra rides. Paper is for me the way to go. It was great not to be dependent on a GPS signal or a computer screen, and stopping every now and again to read the map was no problem at all. Plus, I’m a paper guy anyway.
I’ve used three kinds of tires so far touring–Panaracer Gravel Kings, a pair of Giant something-or-others, a Maxxis Rouler, and Panaracer TourGuard Plus. The TourGuard tires were the cheapest and by far the best. They flatted twice, both times in my motel room which was littered with thorns, and both flats happened when the tires were significantly worn. Once fresh tires were slapped on in El Paso courtesy of emergency delivery by The Dropout Cyclery, they traversed the entirety of thorny, detritus-ridden Texas roadways without a single flat.
The Apidura frame bag and Apidura seat bag worked well, although the seat bag can never really be secured so that it doesn’t sway a little bit. This is a big deal for bikepackers who ride off road, and would be a bigger deal if I had climbed much out of the saddle, but I didn’t and its large capacity and durable construction paid off. These two storage items don’t hold nearly as much as panniers and a rack, but if you are trending towards less-is-more and want less wind drag, some combo of frame bag and seat bag are a must.
Finally, perhaps my best piece of gear was the Fierce Hazel wallet. I have put that thing through, well, everything, and it still looks mostly new. Having a secure and rugged wallet for your money, cards, ID, facemask, and tampon is the killer 3-D app for bike touring.
As a framework for bike touring, this trip proved that for me it’s better to have less stuff than it is to be completely prepared. No bibs worked. One pair of pants, underwear, socks, sweater, long underwear, shoes, gloves, hat, rain jacket, wool jacket, rain pants was plenty. Same with gear, and the adage that you need to carry two days’ worth of food I trimmed down to “carry only what you will eat until noon.” After that, hit the grocery store.
The gaping hole in my experience is rain. I have yet to ride in any, let alone set up camp in a driving rainstorm, then figure out how to dry out, cook dinner, etc. I’m sure that will all be coming soon enough.
On a physical note, and perhaps it’s obvious, the more you camp, the more tired you will be. Camping is flat fucking hard, and if you are loading cooking on top of that, it is really, really hard. On the other hand, eating prepared food, at restaurants or convenience stores makes for terrible nutrition. This trip I cooked only about half my meals, lost way too much weight, and never felt properly nourished. Camping and cooking works when you have plenty of daylight, but in winter the ticket seems to be less riding so that you are encamped and done for the day no later than one, two at the latest.
I think that winter riding is more tiring because of the immense energy required to stay warm and because less sunlight during the day has an adverse effect on recovery. Mentally it’s also much harder when you have to get up in the dark, in the low 20s, to eat, break camp, and be on the road at sunrise. However, all of this exertion is fundamentally good, it’s just a matter of not overdoing things, never my strong suit.
In 2021 I’ve got more tours planned, at least one to England/Ireland/Scotland to do a Chaucer tour. Next up will be in a month or so, much closer to home.