With sign up for next year’s Transcontinental complete, aspiring racers have turned their attention to route-planning, preparation, and gear selection. In the wake of this flurry of activity, I’ve been asked for gear advice a few times over the last week. Rather than respond individually, I thought I’d post some information here as a more lasting resource.
For the last few years I’ve been slowly refining my gear selection. When I embarked on my first lengthy bike tour across the US in 2010 I carried around 20kgs of kit. At the time I was pleased with how light I was travelling, satisfied that I’d managed to keep it to two panniers instead of the more traditional four. I felt that every item of kit I’d carefully selected was essential. Fifty days on the road showed me that I was wrong: there were a good few items I could do without and several that I never used. I also managed to collect five books along the way, cumulatively weighing several kilos!
On the plane on the way home, I jotted down some thoughts on my gear — what had worked, what hadn’t, resolving to learn from the experience. I’ve continued this process of refinement during every trip I’ve been on since, eventually making the shift from panniers to frame bags.
Although it helps to read through hundreds of trip journals and equipment reviews when trying to select the best kit, I firmly believe that there is no substitute for experience. Everyone has individual needs and tolerances: on any given night one person might be fine kipping under an emergency space blanket, while another might spend a sleepless night shivering without insulation. By learning your own limits and comfort zone, you can make the correct kit selections for you, limiting the potential for nasty surprises during a race.
Having said that, the following are my thoughts on the gear I used during the 2013 Transcontinental. For ease of reference, I’ve structured this review by area: each corresponding to the place on the bike where the kit was attached.
Area 1 — Cockpit
I’ve found I can save a good deal of time by keeping all the items I use regularly close to the bars — this way I don’t have to stop when I need something. A Revelate Designs feedbag is used to store food, a lightweight suitcase lock for securing the bike, and extra water when going through an area with limited services. A Revelate Gas Tank sits on the top tube, just behind the stem. This is reserved for important documents, wallet, and electronics. If I need to store more food, I carry an empty Sea to Summit dry sack that I can clip on my aero bars.
Area 2 — Tool Kit and Medical Supplies:
Although I could probably fit tools and medical supplies elsewhere, storing them separately (in a Revelate Jerrycan) allows for easy access when needed. Tools include: zip ties, electrical tape, spoke key, multi tool, spare chain links, chain lube, spare cables, 2x spare tubes, tire patches and boot. My medical supplies tend to be limited to some vitamin I, band aids, and antiseptic wipes. I also carry some chamois cream. There’s no way this kit can fix everything, but it can resolve just about any minor issue. My philosophy is that if you try to cover every possible issue you’ll end up carrying too much weight to be competitive anyway — it’s better to take enough to be cover the basics and resolve other problems on route as they arise.
Area 3 — Sleep Kit and Clothing
This is the area that can make the biggest difference to pack weight. It is also the area where knowing your personal comfort zone is most important. As I knew temperatures would be toward the toasty end of the spectrum during the Transcontinental Race I didn’t bother taking warm clothes. Instead I packed a Montane rain jacket, Montane rain trousers, and Extremities rain mitts (cumulative weight less than 400g). I didn’t end up using the trousers, but used the jacket most mornings and the gloves when descending big passes at night. Some riders carried only a jacket, but I was confident that my kit that would enable me to keep riding in just about all conditions.
I didn’t carry any other clothing and I didn’t need it. One set of cycling kit got me through the race with no issues at all; it was pretty feral by the end, but nothing too bad!
For my sleep system I went with a Nemo GoGo Elite bivy (~600g), a Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag (525g), and a Thermarest Neoair Pad (~400g).
The Nemo GoGo Elite is a hooped bivy with a twist: rather than use a pole, it uses an inflatable ‘airbeam’. This is a brilliant design, providing a huge amount of usable space within the bivy — it even has a vestibule where shoes can be stored overnight. The GoGo is one of the best bits of kit I’ve ever bought, but I wouldn’t take it on another bikepacking race. I’ve spent around 40 nights in the GoGo this year, mostly when taking overnight trips or light touring. In these situations I typically have time to ‘pitch’ the bivy, pegging it out and inflating the airbeam. When racing, I didn’t bother: I just laid it on the ground, placed my sleeping bag on top, and went to sleep. In future races I’ll probably take an ultralight emergency bivy: if the conditions get really bad I can always augment it by climbing into a bush!
My Western Montaineering Summerlite bag is a staple bit of kit that I’ve spent hundreds of nights in. It’s probably the most useful 500g that I pack. I used it every single night on the Transcontinental and wasn’t uncomfortable once. I’ve also used it at temperatures well below its comfort rating (0C, 32F) without too much issue. The Transcontinental was a summer race, where my Garmin recorded daytime temperatures of around 50C (120F) on more than one occasion. Even so, it still got cold at night — I know some racers who went with quilts or space blankets to save weight regretted it afterwards.
The Thermarest Neoair is the only piece of camping equipment that’s been on every single bike trip I’ve done. It’s been great, but it won’t be coming along next time. I didn’t use it once during the race — I just couldn’t be bothered to inflate it at night — and I didn’t miss it at all. It ended up being a 400g weight I carried for no real reason. I’ll probably bring it along on future touring trips and overnight training rides, but not for another race. I don’t know what I’ll do for the Trans Am Bike Race — I’m considering going with a Klymit Inertia X-Lite (172g): it should be lighter, take less time to inflate, and provide some extra warmth in the Rockies.
I stored all of the above, along with a Topeak Road Morph pump, in a Revelate Viscacha seatbag. All the Revelate bags I’ve used have worked flawlessly — absolutely no complaints. They’re easy to attach, well thought out, and don’t move around while you’re riding. I haven’t used another frame bag manufacturer and, at this stage, have no reason to do so.
All the kit I took for the Transcontinental worked well — I didn’t have any equipment failures or nasty surprises. Most of this gear will be coming with me when I line up for the Trans Am Race next year. I’ll probably tweak a few things, and maybe add an extra warm layer as the route spends much more time at altitude.