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SCENE 1: In which I embarrass myself in the fall
Two years ago I found myself bar to bar with another racer on a cyclocross course. As we wove through a few tight tape-to-tape turns, I slammed on my front brake, went over the bars, and crashed. He rode on and I yelled some things I’m not proud of.
I derive a lot of pleasure from racing. But it also brings out aspects of my personality I’m not entirely comfortable with. That’s why this summer, I took a break from racing my bicycle. Instead, I sought out a completely different cycling experience, one that brought out completely opposing emotions.
I tried my hand at bikepacking.
SCENE 2: In which gravel doesn’t get my goat
When the gravel scene began its explosive growth, I simply wasn’t impressed. Why ride something that’s both slower than a road bike and less stable off-road than a mountain bike? There had to be a reason why so many people were embracing the gravel bike while I remained so bored by it. What was all the hoopla about?
Then I thought about Hippie Bob and The Gnome.
Bob Lombardo lived beneath Rose Bike Shop in Orono, Maine. His constant visits to the shop area where I was wrenching offered a serene, if slightly cranky, critique on why the industry’s pursuit of the newest and greatest was often hogwash. And Hippie Bob was right most of the time.
While I obsessed over the newest full suspension bikes and ever-expanding drivetrain options, Bob spent his time building up steel fixed-gear mountain bikes with rigid forks and mustache handlebars. Bob could, and did, truly go anywhere on these Frankenbikes. Camp in the woods? Sure, just strap on what you need. Mountain bike ride? Up for it. Road ride? Not a problem. It wasn’t a matter of getting the gear; it was a matter of pushing the pedals in whatever direction you wanted to go. Bob knew that well before I did.
David Herbold, known in certain circles as The Gnome, was similarly adventurous with a touch of curmudgeonly charm thrown in. I met him at Pay N’ Take in Flagstaff, Arizona. He wasn’t the first person to toss some flared drop bars onto a rigid mountain bike, but he was the first person I’d ever seen riding such a creation.
Memories of Hippie Bob and the Gnome popped into my head this past February when Trek released its Checkpoint gravel bike. I thought about both men as I listened to a presentation on the bike’s versatility. Then I got an idea.
By itself, the Checkpoint wasn’t much different from any other gravel bike I had ridden. But there was something about it that did catch my attention, something that made real the promise that I too could achieve gravel adventures. I’m talking, of course, about small bosses on the fork and top tube. They’re made to accommodate a rack and bag setup. You know, like, bikepacking bags.
I had a bike. I had a bag. And I was sure I could carve out a few free hours. Maybe I could make sense of gravel by bikepacking.
SCENE 3: In which I fail to plan accordingly
My plan was to do an overnighter from my house. Get home from work early one afternoon, start pedaling west, camp out for the night, and return home the next morning in time to get ready for work.
The plan evolved when I asked a few friends to come along. We mapped out a route from the VeloNews office, rather than my house, and we set a date. The plan evolved again when part of our route was closed to cyclists due to construction. We opted to drive to the nearest trailhead. Not very adventurous, but certainly convenient.
Just for good measure, the plan evolved again due to my complete failure to plan properly, due to a month of constant travel back-and-forth to Europe.
In the end, I wrangled a PocketRocket 2 stove and Trail Lite Duo cook set from MSR; a Slacker Single hammock and NeoAir XLite sleeping pad from ThermaRest; tools from Lezyne and Fix-It Sticks; and bags galore from Topeak, Lezyne, Blackburn, Ortlieb, Bontrager, and Apidura.
My bike weighed a whopping 49 pounds when completely loaded up. Too damned heavy. In my eagerness to try out every new piece of gear that had come across my desk, I forgot that the key to this overnight trip was supposed to be simplicity. And I would learn an important lesson about bikepacking as a result: Everything weighs something, and everything together weighs a lot.
SCENE 4: In which we learn the hard way and look to the woods for answers
We rode on dirt for several miles and it became immediately clear how important it is to properly pack your bike. Within the first quarter mile, I almost fell off my bike twice because my fork was weighted on one side by a bag full of cooking equipment. Matt had to stop a half dozen times to readjust his foam sleeping pad across his handlebars. Brad, whose setup was perhaps most appropriate, seemed to have no problems at all; his bags were tightly secured to the Salsa Cutthroat. It looked cool, too. Sam similarly had few problems with his Trek Domane gravel bike, and in true minimalist style, his loaded bike was the lightest at 38 pounds.
The latest, greatest equipment does not guarantee a smooth bikepacking experience. My 10-year-old sleeping bag posed a problem: It was too big to fit in anything but the largest seat pack I could find, which turned out to be the Topeak Backloader 15L. It’s a 15-degree bag, and while it’s more than adequate for most camping situations, bikepacking requires that you think light and small. My big sleeping bag forced my seat bag to pivot upward behind my back like a scorpion. It looked dumb, but more importantly, it hit my butt and lower back as I pedaled.
The general lesson learned: Bikepacking bags certainly open up a lot of opportunities to simply use the bike you have to go adventuring, but there are firm limitations, notably in size. You must sacrifice creature comforts and embrace minimalism due to the gear. Riders on multi-day excursions should prepare to ride into town frequently to pick up food. And you must be prepared to leave the pillow or bulky camp stove behind, instead opting for a more compact option (like MSR’s Pocket- Rocket) that might take a bit more patience at meal time.
Another lesson I learned: A fully-loaded bicycle is difficult to handle. In the past, most bikepacking and touring cyclists used panniers, which position the weight of your equipment lower toward the axles of the bike. Bikepacking bags generally do the opposite: They’re positioned higher on the bike, which means all the weight of your equipment sits far higher. That, in turn, means you’ll need to work a little harder to hold your line and balance on technical sections of gravel.
We also learned an important limitation specific to bikepacking with drop bars. Our handlebar bags generally didn’t work well crammed between the drops for a few reasons. First, the drops limit how wide the bag can be. Second, when fully loaded, the bag interferes with just about all hand positions. And third, it was difficult to mount the bag high enough to prevent it from interfering with the front wheel. A drop bar with a wide flare would probably work better, but ultimately, we all agreed a flat bar would probably be the best option.
SCENE 5: In which the rain lends its perspective
The ride wound up from the Switzerland Trailhead on chunky gravel interspersed with loose rocks and some sand. It dumped out onto Peak to Peak Highway. The scenery was stunning, the weather held, and the miles passed uneventfully. It was easy to feel “away,” the idea of offices and driving commutes and errands far behind us. It happened so quickly. This could be done on any weeknight, I thought. Why don’t I do this all the time?
We crested another gravel road and picked out a campsite. Before setting up hammocks and sleeping bags, we cracked open beers and ate a few snacks. Looking at the bikes that took us here, I thought perhaps I was judging gravel too harshly. It probably won’t ever be my jam, but if it gets more people to mountain vistas without phones and tweets and politics and noisy commutes, then count me in.
We ate, we chatted, we listened to the silence around us. And we went to sleep as the stars came out because there were no phone calls to make, no dishes to do. We all decided that this was worth doing again. My original plan — to ride from my house and head west until I hit the mountains, then climb up into the woods until I found a nice spot to camp — only seemed more doable now. Mountain bike? Gravel bike? The specifics of it seemed less relevant to the adventure than it had only a day earlier.
Then, at about 3 a.m. it began to rain. I had not set up a rain fly over my hammock. At first, the sprinkle felt pleasant, then the rain started coming down in earnest. I got out of my sleeping bag and headed through the tall grass to the bag in which I’d left my rain fly, fifty yards away. When I got back, I was drenched. The lower half of my sleeping bag was sopping, too. I crawled in anyway, then pulled the rain fly over me like a blanket. I got a little wet, but that was okay. From there, I drifted off to sleep, swaying slightly in the silent breeze between two trees high in the Rocky Mountains, thinking as I descended into dreams, why in the world isn’t everyone doing this?