Go Light, Go Long

Oct 13, 2010

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For decades, climbers and backpackers have embraced “ultralight” as a strategy for moving faster and farther on difficult terrain.

And while cyclists are constantly trying to shave grams, bicycle travelers have been much slower to jump on the lightweight bandwagon. This could be because many of us don’t really care that our extra-large air mattresses and portable espresso makers are slowing us down on the hills when it means a comfy night’s sleep and energized morning. But for others, the image of a loaded cyclist laboring up a hill, face strained beyond recognition beneath the weight of four bulging panniers and a trailer, is daunting enough to discourage the idea of a multi-day ride. Add technical terrain, such as singletrack trails, rocky jeep roads, and muddy logging routes to the mix, and it’s no wonder that mountain biking has long been a single-day affair.

That’s all changing with the growing trend of “bikepacking,” whose enthusiasts understand that one can’t clear the gnarly stuff with a trailer swinging from their rear wheel, but they can pare their belongings down to a manageable size. Bikepackers have taken all of the classic ultralight camping gear that backpackers have long used, and developed bike-fitted bags that maximize space while minimizing profile. The end result is an overnight kit that’s hardly more bulky than some of the packs day riders often use, but allow mountain bikers to extend their trail rides days and even weeks at a time.

In the coming weeks, this column will explore bikes, gear, tips and trails for the ultimate bikepacking experience. The obvious place to start is the ever-present question: “Which bike should I use?” The simplest answer is “your bike.” Bikepacking doesn’t require a particular type of mountain bike, at least not in the same way road touring usually calls for a “touring bicycle.” Any bike designed for off-road and trail use can be taken on an overnight off-road and trail trip. Most mountain bikes are sturdy enough to handle larger loads, and already have comfortable geometry for longer rides. While hardtail mountain bikes offer more versatility of space (and a few less parts to potentially destroy), even full-suspension bikes can make room for camping gear.

Marshall Bird of Woodland Park, Colorado, has a few tips for what makes the best multi-day bike from a “purely practical point of view.” Bird is an veteran mountain bike traveler, with experience on both the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the singletrack-heavy Colorado Trail. Here are Bird’s tips:

Wheel size: “29 inches. A shallower angle of attack has many benefits for the multi-day rider. It smooths out the bumps more than a smaller wheel, works better in the sand and a 29er in the front means a tired rider is less likely to 'endo' on steep descents with large drop-offs.”

Tires: “It’s a personal choice but should be suitable for the chosen route and should be run tubeless to avoid wasted time with unnecessary flats.”

Frame material: “Titanium is best because it is: 1) Durable; 2) Has the best damping characteristics; 3) Light. No other material can offer all three; steel comes in second.”

Frame design: “Hardtail (or soft tail) with full main triangle. A full main triangle allows for a full frame bag or a large bag plus a water bottle. This is important to the multi-day rider so as to remove as much weight as possible from the backpack and also to ensure good weight distribution and handling.”

Front Suspension: “There is no technical or ‘reliability’ reason to use a rigid fork with today’s offerings of durable, lightweight front suspension forks.”

Drivetrain: “Standard 9-speed in the rear, with one, two or three rings in the front depending on intended multi-day route.”

Brakes: Disc.

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BIKEPACKER is written by Jill Homer, deputy editor for Adventure Cyclist magazine.

Comments

Dylster

Interesting timing for this post, Jill. Like most bike nuts, I have several setups, but the older I get, the more I understand what I really want: a return to my backwoods, offroad. hillbilly-esque roots. Which means building The One: a bicycle that can work under all conditions (which also means selling everything else to afford the building of The One, since it'll require at LEAST one extra wheelset!). The old term ATB (all-terrain bicycle) from the 80s comes to mind.

Accordingly, your post and Bird's criteria are where I'm leaning: a Speedway Fatback in titanium, with the fat, Surly tire wheelset and one additional wheelset with a leaner 29er tire. Finally, I'd keep a set of road-friendly slicks around for touring purposes.

Of course the bike won't be perfect in ALL conditions. But with a proper fit, I think it does stand a chance of being very good in most circumstances. And the idea of just one bike is intriguing. In this spoiled American existence, it almost seems...rebellious...to own and maintain just one ride.

So that's my plan, as hard as it might be to consider selling my Goat (the Dummy) and my year-old Pugsley. And the Monster Trucker, which has carried me through some great adventures.

Last thing: great to 'hear' your voice within the ACA! Looking forward to more...

October 15, 2010, 12:48 PM
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Howard Q. Bikeman

Ok, I'm going to call BS on the Ti frame recommendation. The other tips are sensible, but an exotic frame takes "purely practical" to "extremely expensive". Unless y'er racing, the high price of fancy materials might be better saved for lighter gear elsewhere or travel costs on the next trip.

October 15, 2010, 5:26 PM
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Dylster

@Howard:

Could be "BS" for some. The price of Ti hasn't gone down as far as I know, so that keeps it in the 'exotic' category, as you say.

But consider the context for some folks (myself included): 1. desire for a snowbike with no corrosion issues—and a desire to lighten the load given the usual 5+ pounds that snow rims/tires adds, 2. the desire to also swap a wheelset and actually race that same frame now and then, 3. seeing it as a very long-term investment, where all other bikes are sold to finance the one.

I don't intend to convince you personally that Ti is the best choice for you. But per the original post, AND for some of us with unique desires and situations, it's what we think will best satisfy all those criteria at once.

October 15, 2010, 6:32 PM
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Mac, Field Editor

Jill, your description of trudging up hills reminds me of my first bikepacking experience 25 (!) years ago. If you can find a copy, check out the story "Wyoming, the Hard Way" in the July 1986 BikeReport magazine. I look forward to your future posts. --Mac

October 16, 2010, 3:54 PM
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Marshal

Humm, a bit late finding these bikepacking articles/posts [bty-nice write up(s) Jill]

It’s been pointed out that a Ti frame’s cost should exclude it from being considered ‘practical’ for a bikepacking bike. When I wrote out the reasons why Ti is the best frame material I did not include/think about cost as a factor. And, as pointed out-- the best bike might be the one you already own, especially if cost is a key factor.

But, if I were to add a non- physical factor like cost to my other factors, durability, ride characteristic and weight then steel ‘might’ then trump Ti

Unless-- I planned to keep the frame for many yrs, or really wanted that Ti feel, or wanted to go light (in general light steel is also quite pricy). Or unless I intended to recoup most of the frame cost someday ie: Ti holds it’s value quite well compared to carbon, aluminum or steel

Ha, but I didn’t include ‘initial cost’ –so using the factors that are most important to me--Ti still wins hands down (insert cute smiles, imho, and all that stuff)

Marshal Bird

Note: as of today you can get a new HT Ti 29er frame for $1200

December 1, 2010, 6:39 AM
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