By Aaron Teasdale
A look at what Adventure Cyclist contributor Aaron Teasdale took with him to ride a chunk of the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route last fall. For the full story, check out the May issue of Adventure Cyclist.
For over a decade, I’ve been an evangelist for using lightweight down jackets as insulating layers on bike trips. They’re vastly lighter and more packable than fleece, wool sweaters, or really any other material in the known universe. I had no interest in “puffies” with synthetic insulation, which have always been heavier and bulkier. That was before Patagonia’s miraculous new Micro Puff jacket, which has just relegated my down jackets to the storage bin. Weighing a scant 9 ounces, it’s the first synthetic puffy I’ve used that is as light, compressible, and warm as down. Plus it keeps you warm even when wet, which has always been the Achilles’ heel of its feathered competitors. Patagonia is calling it the best warmth-for-weight jacket they’ve ever made, and I won’t argue. It’s almost mystically warm for how light and thin it is.
Designed for lightweight adventure, the Micro sports a windproof and water-resistant shell material, elastic cuffs and waist for holding in warmth, a cozy collar that can zip up over your face, two zippered handwarmer pockets (one of which functions as a stuff sack), two voluminous interior drop-in pockets, and a cut that’s long enough to not ride up your back when pedaling. Should you find yourself in abysmal enough conditions to need it, the fitted hood even fits under a helmet. Personally, I’d love to see a chest pocket and a drawcord waist in place of the elastic, but those are minor quibbles. The Micro Puff is so light it feels like a shirt when worn, insulates as well as down, and packs down to the size of a softball. I expect it to accompany me on every tour I take for years to come.
Clipless cycling shoes have long been an irresistible bane for touring cyclists. You use them because you want the power and efficiency of a stiff-soled cycling shoe, but as soon as you push your bike up a trail or walk into a convenience store you either brutalize your feet with blisters or clack and slip around on hard floors like a drunken tap dancer. Fortunately a few companies are starting to figure out that some cyclists actually walk, too. Enter the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch II, which makes for a fine mountain bike or cool weather road touring shoe.
The trick is the shoe’s stiff sole, with its “carbon fiber injected composite shank,” softens in the toe to allow your walking foot to flex naturally. The lugged rubber sole — taken from Pearl Izumi’s now-defunct running shoe line — helps with traction on dirt, rocks, and convenience store floors. It combines the benefits of a cycling shoe with a normal outdoorsy shoe, though it’s too stiff for hiking and it’s a compromise on the bike compared to a traditional, super-stiff cycling shoe. But the upside is that it’s comfortable enough to wear around camp or for shopping forays after a day of riding, which can save you from bringing a second pair of shoes. It also, for me at least, has a roomy enough toe box that it won’t deform your little piggies like too many cycling and athletic shoes.
A BOA system replaces traditional laces and works well. I’d probably prefer laces for long-term durability since you can’t simply replace the BOA mechanism like you can a lace. But I’ve had zero problems with BOA, which holds your foot securely and is quick and easy to adjust. You can also get this shoe right now from Pearl Izumi for a reduced price (size up, these run a bit small). The new version is the X-Alp Elevate, which looks nearly identical. For hot-weather cycling, where the Launch II and Elevate could be stuffy, check out the X-Alp Journey, which delivers similar performance in a more breathable, slightly lower-tech package.
If you haven’t already, say goodbye to the days of heavy, bulky waterproof jackets that take up a quarter of your pannier, and say hello to the Outdoor Research Helium II jacket, which weighs 6 ounces and packs up to the size of an apple. I’ve used the original Helium jacket for years on extended bike trips and can report that it is indeed waterproof. Made with Pertex Shield fabric, it also breathes well for its weight (some heavier, and more expensive, jackets do breathe slightly better when exerting in rain, but if it’s raining that hard maybe you should take a break).
Befitting a 6-ounce rain jacket, bells and whistles are few. There’s a zippered chest pocket and a single interior pocket that doubles as a stuff sack. Cuffs and waist are elastic, with the latter sporting a bungee drawcord for tightening. The hood fits best under a helmet. Not everyone wants hoods on their cycling jackets, but I do. The extra protection and warmth when riding in the rain or waiting out storms or around camp at night is welcome. Fit is athletic but not tight like some cycling-specific jackets. You still might want to size up if you’re serious about layering underneath it. A kaleidoscopic array of colors is available.
The pants are more of the same — light, simple, and waterproof. They only have one pocket, in the back, which doubles as a stuff sack. A lightweight drawcord waist keeps them up. If you know you’re going to be facing regular deluges, you might opt for heavier-duty protection. But for bikepacking and road touring in dryer climes, the Helium Jacket and Pant make a perfect set of storm-worthy rainwear.
Big Agnes has been a leader lightweight tents for years, and the Fly Creek HV1 Platinum is their lightest shelter yet — and possibly the lightest freestanding tent in existence. It has plenty of upsides and a few downsides. It’s also not cheap. But, and this is the important thing here, it weighs 1 pound, 10 ounces. That’s lighter than some bivy sacks.
The construction: the fly and bathtub floor of the tent are made of seam-taped siliconized ripstop nylon that kept me plenty dry during light rain and snow (I have yet to use the tent in a true downpour, but based on my experience so far, and with other Big Agnes tents, I don’t expect problems). The tent body, once you get above the three or so inches of nylon that wrap up from the floor, is entirely fine polyester mesh. That makes it light and excellent for stargazing when the fly is off but does little to hold in heat. A single pole starts at the foot and runs the length of the tent, splitting above the door where it connects at the tent’s two front corners. You do need to stake out the two corners at the foot of the tent to properly pitch, making it more accurately described as freestanding-ish. Nomenclature niggles aside, it’s an excellent lightweight tent design that further refines the platform first introduced with the venerable Seedlight model. Big Agnes even included three much-appreciated interior mesh pockets for headlamps and other doodads you want handy.
The downsides of the tent are predictable for a tent of this weight. It’s small. I found it perfectly adequate for a solo shelter, but if you’re riding for weeks or months at a time and want a bit more room, the two-person model weighs only four ounces more. The door is low and you have to squirm your way in a bit. This wasn’t a problem for me, but I’ve heard people complain. The vestibule is also small though still big enough for your shoes, helmet, and daypack. If you open the door all the way and are not careful when entering during rain, you could theoretically drip water onto your sleeping bag. I did not have this problem, but it’s a grumble I’ve heard more than once. If you knew you were touring in an intensely wet environment, it would make sense to get a heavier shelter with more storm and standing water resistance. It’s also worth pointing out that you can buy the 4-ounce heavier HV UL version of this same tent for $150 less, which will make sense for many people.
But if you want to maximize your minimizing, and you know how to properly coddle lightweight gear, this is your tent. You’ll feel the benefits every time you go uphill or decide to push on a bit farther near the end of a long day. I highly recommend buying the footprint, available separately, which can be used with the full tent but truly shines when set up with just the fly and pole for a miraculous, 15-ounce “fast fly” setup. That’s a stormproof shelter for less than half the weight of a typical bivy sack. I actually have a bivy sack, but now that I’ve got this tent I’m never using it again.
Fat bikes changed the way we look at bike touring. Suddenly beaches, snow, and unseen corners of the map were all available to explore. But four- or five-inch tires have obvious limitations, so along came three-inch, plus-size tires to offer some of the traction and comfort benefits of rotund tires with less rolling resistance. Last year the innovators at Salsa decided to take plus tires on 29er wheels and mate them to a full-suspension bike, the Deadwood, creating an entirely new style of bicycle. The question is, who is it for?
First, the bike. The Deadwood Carbon GX Eagle ($5,099) and Carbon SLX 1x11 ($4,099) have carbon frames with aluminum stays, while the base-level Deadwood NX1 ($2,799) has an all-aluminum frame. Just as on its more svelte cousin the Spearfish, the 91mm, Split Pivot rear suspension provides comfort on long days but is not designed to be super plush. The two bikes are quite similar; my Spearfish framebag fits almost perfectly on the Deadwood. Likewise, and with the exception of the top-end GX Eagle, the Deadwood comes with an in-vogue single-chainring drivetrain with inadequate lower gearing for loaded riding. If you plan to do much bikepacking with this rig, be prepared to replace much of the drivetrain to achieve reasonable climbing gears or buy the frameset and spec it yourself. I’d also like to see more water bottle mounts for long hauls — there’s only one.
And Salsa did design the Deadwood for touring, or as they describe it, “connecting widely spaced points on unfamiliar maps,” which sounds about right to me. Once you get these enormous hoops rolling, they just want to keep going, no matter how loose or rocky the terrain. This is not, however, a light bike. My entry-level model weighs over 33 pounds with tubeless tires. Between the weight, huge wheels/tires, and slack geometry (68 degree head tube angle), I found the bike difficult to muscle up steep climbs. I felt too far behind the front wheel, and no matter how much I leaned over the handlebar I never felt I could get “on top” of the bike on steeps, often resorting to pushing. But those same attributes make the bike a wonder of comfort and control when descending and on rough surfaces. I rode some of the worst canyonized washboard roads I’ve ever seen when bikepacking in Idaho recently, and the Deadwood absorbed them like they weren’t there. It’s like a couch on wheels. Point it and go.
Which makes the Deadwood a wonderful bike for a small niche of riders. If you don’t mind the weight and want possibly the most comfortable ride of all time for rough dirt roads, get this bike. It would also be a great steed for back-of-beyond wilderness, as long as no steep goat trails are involved. Mine has three-inch-wide tires, which I find a capable and inspiring size for rugged touring, but Salsa put 2.6-inch meat on 2018 models, which should make the bike a bit more versatile and sporty. You can also run it with standard 2.2-inch 29er rubber for a more traditional ride. All in all, the Deadwood is a versatile bike with noteworthy limitations. But if it fits your needs, there’s nothing else like it.