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Gravel Gear

The gear I used to ride gravel roads and famous cols from Torino to Nice

My body took a beating after the 400 miles and 58,000 feet of climbing along the France-Italy border, but my equipment passed the test

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There is a time and place to test new gear, and there is a time and place to take the gear you already know and love.

For me, gravel races are an inconsequential time and place to give new equipment and accoutrement a solid shakeout, but bikepacking trips? That’s when you don’t want to f*ck up.

When bikepacking — or bike touring — the bike is equal parts transportation and transporter of basic necessities like clothing, food, and shelter. Clothing, food, and shelter must be sufficient but also minimal. Having a dialed bag system helps you unpack and repack more efficiently and keeps weight to a minimum. It also keeps important stuff from flying off your bike.

After covering the Tour de France Femmes earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to take a bucket-list bike vacation and credit card tour (bikepacking without the camping) the Torino-Nice Rally route, an incredible up-and-down adventure in the Alps that squiggles along the France-Italy border.

Rig and rider

Over six days, I rode 400 miles and climbed 58,000 feet on both tarmac and gravel roads.

I started each day with croissants stuffed into my jersey pockets and ended exhausted in little French or Italian villages, where my sole concerns were finding a bed for the evening and a plate of pasta as big as my face. In between, I tagged cols and colles featured in the Tour and Giro, and delighted in the fact that, depending on the day, I greeted fellow riders with either bonjour or buongiorno.

Here is a run-down of the gear that got me from Torino to Nice

My personal Ibis Hakka MX (and its mullet drivetrain) — After a particularly huge day (70 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing 😳), I ended up at a quirky mountain inn that happened to have a bike wash and a garage. I had been caught in a torrential downpour midway down the huge descent of the Colle di Sampeyre, so I was grateful for the amenities. Before dinner I noticed a guy checking out my bike, and I tried to start up a conversation.

He opens with: ‘Is that your bike? It must be really slow.’ Needless to say the “conversation” was doomed to begin with. This guy needed to tell me everything and ask me nothing; he already hated gravel bikes and did not give a shit about the type of riding I was doing. So much for conversation with a fellow bike-loving traveler!

The next day I couldn’t stop stewing about some of the stuff he said to me (he had the nerve to ask, ‘have you heard of XC mountain bikes?’) so I decided to focus on what I love about my bike.

As far as gravel bikes go, the Hakka has been perfect for me in the three and a half years I’ve owned it: it’s light, goes fast when I want it to, and is super shreddy and fun to throw around when things get techy. In France and Italy I cranked up the tarmac climbs and had no issues on the mountain-top gravel roads, which were usually pretty challenging and rock-strewn.

Best bike, best day, best route EVER

As luck would have it, the day after that guy got me all fired up was my absolute favorite day of riding: a sweet switchbacky tarmac climb into the alpine up the Colle de Preit, then miles of traversing on gravel through the Altopiano della Gardetta, a magnificent plateau fringed by jagged peaks high above treeline. I was gloating (and glowing) the entire time.

The icing on the cake of my bike is the drivetrain. I got my Hakka just before GRX debuted, so I scored with an XT derailleur paired to a big ole 11×46 cassette. With a 40t chainring up front, I believe this to be the ultimate mountain goat gearing, and it was perfect for this climb-heavy adventure.

This particularly loose descent was no prob for the Hunt 25 CGR wheels and Schwalbe G-One RS rubber

Hunt 25 Carbon Gravel Race wheels — Like everyone, I appreciate a lightweight and fast set of hoops, but I don’t need aero and deep dish for my style of riding. I need something that is both efficient at speed and capable on the rough stuff. The Hunt 25 Carbon Gravel Race wheels fit the bill perfectly. Hunt also makes a deeper dish 40 wheelset, but I’m not sure those wheels — or me for that matter — would have survived the rough sections of the Torino-Nice Rally route. The 25 is less stiff vertically and thus more resilient for rougher gravel roads mixed in with bits of singletrack — just how I like it.

For those that like tech specs: the Hunt 25 CGR rim is 25mm deep and 26mm internal, with wider hookless rim flanges measuring a total of 33mm outside. The claimed carbon rim weight is just 385g apiece, with complete wheelsets weighing in at 1380g.

Schwalbe G-One RS tires — I would not be upset if I never used another gravel tire. Seriously, these are that good. Yes, annoying bike guy from the hotel, 45c tires with a bit of knob are slower than road tires and yes, they would suck in an enduro race, but for a 400-mile mixed surface route with 58,000 feet of climbing, they were Just. Right. These tires roll fast given their weight and width, but I think what’s more impressive is their grippiness on super rough descents and how they stay planted on steep, loose climby bits. I stayed puncture-free (and upright) my whole trip despite a few particularly challenging rowdy downhill sections.

I’d rate the EVOC bar bag as OK: it was waterproof, stayed put, and held a lot, but I didn’t like the over-engineered attachment system

EVOC handlebar and seat bags — These were my biggest question marks, gearwise. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to test these bags from EVOC, and I knew I didn’t want to take them mountain bike bikepacking. Here’s why: they use BOA dials to attach to the bike.

While BOA is a super slick technology that I really enjoy on my shoes, I was wary to see it on bikepacking bags. Having experienced a BOA failure on a ski boot this winter and going in circles trying to fix it, I knew that a failure with the bags out in rural Italy or France would make for a very annoying experience. Because I knew that I wouldn’t likely be crashing over super gnarly terrain, I figured this was a good place to test them.

Sizewise, both the handlebar and seat post bag were perfect for the trip. I stuffed my extra clothes and toiletries in the handlebar bag and reserved the seat bag mostly for snacks and my rain jacket. Neither would be big enough for a true (where you camp) bikepacking trip, but they worked for only carrying the bare minimum. The handlebar bag fit between the drops of my 42mm bars and was easy enough to get in and out of; however, my preferred attachment for bar bags is a harness that makes taking the actual dry bag or stuff sack easy to take on and off.

The seat post bag was minimal, snug, and actually had a quite a large carrying capacity.

That said, a harness/dry bag system for the seat post bag is also ideal — with the EVOC bags, I had to unattach the whole system every evening. Revelate Designs has set a very high standard.

Both bags attach well, but the seat post bag was noticeably easier to snug. In fact, that one just worked better in general. The bar bag poses a few issues: one, the BOA interferes with a computer mount, forcing it into an awkward upright position. Also, the bar attachments don’t snug perfectly to non-round bars — and when bikepacking, you need everything as lashed down as possible.

Overall, I give these bags a 6.5/10, but I still would only use them on a road/gravel trip, not for mountain bike bikepacking.

Velocio Concept Merino jersey — I took approximately two jerseys on this trip, and I wore this one five out of six days. If you’re going to wear a jersey bikepacking, this is a good one. It’s soft, stretchy (but doesn’t get stretched out), and doesn’t stink. The three pockets are ample and easy to put things in and pull things out of, and there’s a zippered spot for cards and money. I was very hot very often on this trip, and this merino truly breathed.

Helmet, sunnies, and jersey (and lucky TdFF polka dot cap)

Oakley Sutro sunglasses —These sunglasses are ubiquitous in the gravel world right now, and I now understand why. After losing my favorite sunnies (Julbo Fury) in Aspen a few weeks ago, I gambled on the Sutros for Torino-Nice, and I was not disasspointed. The Prizm lenses are great in nearly all types of light, and the oversized frames offer protection from both sun and flying bits of grit. The lenses are also proving to be very scratch-resistant (see below).

And, let’s be honest, these glasses look flattering on nearly everyone.

POC Ventral Lite helmet — I wear this helmet a lot because it’s light and airy. However, one thing about it really bugs me — my sunglasses don’t snug into the vents when I take them off my face. Honestly, this feature is a deal-breaker for me, and until I get a new helmet I have to be extra careful that I’m not lulled into thinking my sunnies are snugly atop my helmet only to have them fling off when I move my head.

Specialized Power with Mimic saddle — I have an amazing ability to be happy on most any saddle but that doesn’t mean I don’t have favorites. The Mimic is one of them. It’s on the stubby side, but with the right bike fit, I simply don’t notice it. I appreciate the medium-density foam for its not-too-much, not-too-little cushioning, and the Body Geometry design is a real thing. Specialized invested lots of time and money into developing ergonomic saddles for women, and as a women who rides A LOT, I can attest to the fact that the data they collected resulted in a saddle that truly takes into account women-specific anatomy. While even that is a dangerously broad stroke to paint with, this saddle just happens to suit mine.

Bonjour! Buongiorno! Atop the Col Agnel/Colle dell’Agnello

The Torino-Nice Rally route, and bikepacking routes in general — People who like to explore the world by bike are living in a heyday right now. Thanks to the internet and mapping apps like Komoot and RideWithGPS, it’s never been easier to benefit from the painstaking work of other riders who get out there to map incredible routes.

I knew this one would be special when I mentioned to my friend Lael Wilcox that I was considering riding it, and she said it was one of her favorite routes in the world 😊. Lael has bikepacked nearly everywhere!

Huge thanks to James Olsen and company for creating this incredible route. To be able to ride some of the iconic cols/colles in the French Alps while also taking extended and isolated dirt tracks and gravel paths to connect them, all while knowing that ample resupply and accommodation was just over the next hill or down in the next valley — routes like these don’t blow up out of nowhere. I would love to come back for the annual September depart of the Torino-Nice Rally — with a bit more time and camping gear in tow.

Other “gear” highlights include tiny containers of Nutella poached from hotel breakfast buffets, the fountains that always appeared at the right time for filling bottles, my trusty Rainbow flip flops, my lucky TdFF polka dots, and every person who fed, housed, or sheltered me from the storms along the way. Unsurprisingly, all of the other hardgoods I brought I’ve already waxed poetic about at some time or another: S-Works recon shoes, Machines for Freedom Essential Short, Revelate Tangle frame bag, POC rain jacket, and Pearl Izumi barrier jacket.

Allez allez allez!