Category Archives: Biking

Industrial landscapes; back to the country; brake troubles; thunderstorms; and, a Great Lake

Update from the road on day 7, sitting in a NY diner. Last night we finished the Underground Railroad Pittsburgh spur and camped on the shore of Lake Erie, two days of 75 miles and 114 miles. There was so much packed into two days: heavy industrial landscapes as we left Pittsburgh, many crossings of the Ohio river, some testing little climbs, Amish country, miles and miles of open countryside, Pete’s back brake failing, replacing it under an awning as a huge thunderstorm rolled by, getting completely soaked, hitting our first century distance as we raced the sunset to the PA/NY state line, and lastly watching the sunset from camp on the shore of Lake Erie. A really great two days.

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High times on the Great Allegheny Passage, day 4 of the Eastern Tour

We’re in Pittsburgh now, at the end of the Great Allegheny Passage, having left DC four days ago. It’s been an excellent few days, 340 miles of traffic free cycling, the majority of that in secluded, quiet forests. The section leaving Cumberland was all uphill until the Eastern Continental Divide, 2392ft high. Whilst the gradient was mild and steady the whole way, it still tired us out. The views were spectacular wherever we had a break through the trees.

We rode through four long tunnels yesterday, leftover legacies of the canal or rail builders taking direct routes through the mountains. We also passed the Mason-Dixon Line so we’re officially in the North now.

Our camp last night near Confluence was one of the best of the summer so far. Chatting around the fire with fellow bike tourers and walkers, and Pete and I were inducted into the genius of the s’mores! Real, gooey ones made over a campfire, superb.

Today we put in 53 miles before lunch, gorged ourselves silly on big sandwiches at West Newton, and then cruised the last 38 miles into Pittsburgh, through increasingly industrial landscapes.

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End of the C&O canal, onto the GAP trail

Excuse the brevity of this post – I’m typing on an iPhone.

My brother and I are having lunch in Cumberland, MD, at the terminus of the C&O canal and the start of the GAP trail to Pittsburgh, our next target. It’s been two and a half days of really enjoyable riding from DC. Some rough surfaces aside, the trail has been relaxing riding through the woods with great campsites along the edge of the Potomac River. My back hasn’t been too bad and continues to get better. The bikes have been great and we’re not wanting for anything, despite our light setup.

We’re heading out of Cumberland shortly, aiming for Pittsburgh and then on towards Lake Erie.

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Pedalling north today, our bike tour continues

Today we’re setting off again, picking up the pieces from the aborted No Rest Out West bike tour and beginning a new ride up the eastern seaboard. We’re cycling from home this time, leaving right from the front door after breakfast. I love tours that start and end at home – there’s something about the purity of the route when it doesn’t involve any other mechanised transport, only the power of one’s legs and the bicycle.

We’re going with a much lighter setup this time, partly to avoid the unstable bike setup we had out west and partly to allow us to travel further each day. Whether we can uphold our side of this deal and actually pedal further each day remains to be seen, but we’ll give it our best shot. We’re both champing at the bit to get out there and challenge ourselves again.

The new route we’ve mapped out, documented more elegantly here by my brother, takes us from the capital, Washington DC, inland to Lake Erie, before we turn north east and ride through New York and into New England. If time permits, we’re aiming for Maine, but we’ll see how we go. Our return route will be along the Atlantic coast route, following the coast in places but heading inland as we head further south. I’ve come to love the various parts of the eastern US that I’ve seen, so I’m excited to fill in the gaps and see more of the mountains, lakes and natural beauty of this region.

It’s a loop linking up the following route: C&O canal, GAP trail, Underground Railroad Pittsburgh spur, Northern Tier and Atlantic Coast.

This very rough screen-grab/sketch-map shows our approximate route:

New eastern route

Evolution of a lightweight bike touring rig

Goodbye to the panniers

Goodbye panniers

Earlier this summer, my brother and I set off on what should have been a 3,500 mile bike tour around the mountainous west of the U.S. for two months. Things didn’t go to plan when I crashed badly on day 9 so we returned home to DC whilst I recovered. However, I’m now better and itching to get back out on the bike. We’ve spent the downtime going through our kit item-by-item, paring down to the absolute minimum and transitioning from panniers to full bike-packing setup. As I alluded to in this post, I believe my previous setup with two heavy rear panniers was a contributing factor in the crash. A rethink was needed.

Below is a brief history of my bike touring equipment, showing a general progression towards a lightweight setup.

Bike touring version 1 – 1997 to 2006

I began touring way back in my teenage years, on a 26″ mountain bike. This culminated in a 3 month tour across Norway in 2006, at the peak of my fully loaded setup:

Cycling above the Arctic Circle

Fully loaded above the Arctic Circle, on my 2006 Norway tour

I had two large rear panniers, two smaller front panniers, a bar bag, and a tent and sleeping mat attached to the top of my rear rack. I was certainly not in the lightweight category but I still encountered plenty of heavier laden cyclists during my travels through Norway. I did post some kit home during the tour and suffered numerous broken rear spokes, so the setup was far from ideal. Still, it was relatively stable fore and aft, but rather heavy going uphill. I carried a Terra Nova Voyager tent (2.2 kg), as well as a stove, plenty of warm clothes and food. I was still a novice tourer, carrying too many “spare” items and always an excess of food in my panniers. Overall though, the tour was a fantastic experience and hugely enjoyable.

Bike touring version 2 – 2013/14

After a long period away from bike touring (I spent most of my holidays mountaineering or trekking), I returned to cycling with a vengeance, as a way to explore a new region of the world, when I moved from the UK to Washington DC, USA.

Last year I started touring again – a lightweight tour on a road bike, with two small rear Vaude roll-top panniers and a Revelate gas tank on the top tube. This was a comfortable setup and didn’t dramatically alter the handling of the bike or add too much of a burden for the hills. I kept the weight low by not carrying a stove or too many additional clothes (it being a hot DC summer). I still carried a double skin tent however (a Mountain Hardwear Skyledge tent in this case), weighing a little under 4.4 lbs or 2 kg.

Lightweight rear panniers and a Revelate gas tank bag - works well as long as you keep the weight down

Lightweight rear panniers and a Revelate gas tank bag – works well as long as you keep the weight down

This year I’m riding a Cannondale Cyclocross bike. The riding position is very similar to the road bike and it’s supremely comfortable for long rides. It’s light and rides well over the rougher stuff. It’s inching closer to that mythical one-bike-to-do-it-all that we cyclists dream of.

For the No Rest Out West tour this summer, I went for the same setup that I used on my tour last year, namely two rear panniers and a gas tank bag, but added a bar bag as well. (At the time, I thought the lack of eyelets on the front fork was a drawback of this bike, but now I’m glad I didn’t go down that route of front panniers, and instead went in the opposite direction.) However, I had a lot more gear this time – a stove, warm storm-proof clothing for the mountains, an iPad for keeping in touch with home and telling the story, and a pair of trainers for trekking and days off the bike. Way too heavy to have on the rear of the bike only. The front wheel felt very light and squirmy. The photo below from the California coast shows this setup:

Large rear panniers and tent on the top of the rear rack

Large rear panniers and tent on the top of the rear rack

Bike touring version 3 – summer 2014

The transformation to this final bike-packing setup really began on day three of the No Rest Out West tour, at a campsite in California. My brother and I had rolled into Van Damme camp after a beautiful, but hilly, 68 mile ride, feeling pretty good and in the touring groove. We were soon put in our place when an ultralight bike tourer arrived at camp, having ridden 160 miles that day. He carried the bare minimum of equipment, in various frame bags. We looked in envy at the lightness of his setup in comparison to our seemingly monstrous panniers. A seed was sown, and we started discussing ultralight tactics that very night. We’d both been following the growing bike-packing movement with interest, so this encounter, and then my subsequent crash on an unstable bike, were the catalysts that set us off down that road.

And this is where we’ve ended up:

Cyclocross bike setup with Revelate bags, bar bag and touring tyres

Cyclocross bike setup with Revelate bags, bar bag and touring tyres

For the next phase of our summer tour, we’re leaving a lot of heavy gear at home (notably, the panniers, pannier rack, all the cooking gear, the iPads, spare trainers, warm clothing for the mountains) and swapping out other items for lighter versions (the tool kit has been slimmed down, lighter clothing is being taken). The revised kit list is as follows (summer conditions, north east US):

[Note – am working on weighing all the kit, will add to the table in due course]

Bike and items attached to the bike

Item Kit Weight Notes
1 Cannondale Cyclocross CAADX Disc Ultrega bike 9,480 g / 334 oz Fitted with Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres for touring (700 by 35)
2 Ortlieb bar bag A 6 liter, waterproof bag containing spare clothes, camera, diary, food. Mine is around 9 years old now, still going strong
3 Revelate Gas Tank bag A 1.5 liter bag on the top tube, useful for food and misc. items
4 Revelate Tangle half frame bag Around 6 liters or so, currently packed with tent poles and flysheet. My brother is carrying the inner tent.
5 Revelate Viscacha seat back Up to 14 liters, packed with sleeping bag, thermarest, spare clothes
6 Topeak Mini Dual G minipump 158 g / 5.56 oz Attached to frame via bottle cage mounts
7 Water bottles One standard bike bottle and one soft drinks bottle (since bike bottle too large to fit under frame bag)
8 Cateye Strada wireless bike computer
9 Rear red LED light
TOTAL tbc

Camping gear

10 GoLite Shangri La 3 tent Lightweight for its size and very comfortable for 2 people, carried between the two of us
11 Rab Neutrino 200 sleeping bag 580 g / 20.5 oz 4 years old and still going strong, a superb sleeping bag. Leaving stuff sac behind and stuffing directly into Revelate bag
12 Rab silk sleeping bag liner Not sure of the model, old. Leaving stuff sac behind.
13 Thermarest Neo Air Small Very small pack size and ultralight, this smaller size will be an experiment
14 Petzl Tikka headlamp
15 Mini Pac towel
TOTAL tbc

Clothing (items worn on the bike indicated in parentheses)

16 Shimano Mountain Bike shoes Not sure of the model as these are a decade old now, but still going strong. So comfortable!
17 2 * Generic black cycle shorts (1 pair worn) Any brand will do, nothing expensive
18 2 * full zip cycle jerseys (1 worn)
19 2 * socks for cycling (1 pair worn) I favour thicker socks
20 Cycling gloves (worn)
21 Bontrager Helmet (worn) New – replaces the one that was damaged in recent crash
22 Oakley sunglasses (worn)
23 Cycling biretta (cap) (worn) We bought caps from Velo Cult bike shop in Portland, to remind us of our time in the west
24 Cycling jacket Something lightweight, no hood
25 Zip-off trousers (pants in the US) For town wear
26 Long sleeve layer For town use or cold days on the bike
27 T-shirt For town wear
28 Boxer shorts For town wear
29 Flip Flops For off bike wear
TOTAL tbc

Other items

30 Maps From the Adventure Cycling Association
31 Canon G16 Camera, padded case, mini tripod and charger
32 Mobile phone (cell phone) and charger
33 Diary and pen
34 Toolkit and spare inner tube Relatively lightweight, left the heavy multitool at home, carrying separate, much lighter Allen keys
35 First aid kit
36 Toothbrush and small wash kit Half sized toothbrush and travel size body wash/shampoo
37 Spot satellite messenger Emergency contact beacon, in case of disaster
38 Cable and padlock Lightweight, shared item
39 Ben’s Insect Repellent (DEET) Small amount carried in 2 oz container
40 Chain lube Small amount carried in 2 oz container
41 Wallet with ID, credit cards
TOTAL tbc

Shakedown tour and further refinements

Ahead of our upcoming east coast tour, my brother and I headed out for a short overnighter to test the new setup. A quick, evening blast 30 miles out along the C&O canal, chosen for its lack of traffic and rough surface, then an overnight camp and a blast back early the next morning in time for breakfast.

Despite its minute scope, the tour delivered an out-sized portion of natural beauty as we enjoyed a stunning sunset, plenty of wildlife (deer, vultures, herons being the most interesting) and the peace of the woods.

The kit performed flawlessly. The Revelate bags are rock solid – the seat pack does swing side to side when you really stomp on the pedals but you don’t notice when you’re riding. The frame bag isn’t noticeable except for occasional brushes against the inside of my knees which is not a problem. We were able to carry everything we needed (see above list) but it was a squeeze, so we spent some time discussing further weight/volume savings, leading to the following modifications:

  • Small half-size toothbrush
  • Zip off pants (trousers) – saves on taking separate pants and shorts
  • Small bottles for liquids – e.g. take chain lube in a 2oz bottle instead of a 6oz bottle, ditto for bug spray
  • Leave mosquito headnets at home
  • Transfer the Advil (painkillers) from their container into a bag or much smaller container
  • Leave spare spokes and spoke tools at home – much less likely to suffer broken spokes with this lighter setup
  • Only carry the minimum number of tent pegs (6 in our case) and leave spares + stuff sac at home

Some photos from this mini-tour:

Pete on the C&O canal

Pete on the C&O canal

Evening reflection near Great Falls

Evening reflection near Great Falls

Sunset over the Potomac River

Sunset over the Potomac River

Further reading – some useful articles I refer to:

Joe Cruz wrote a superb post about touring on a road bike.

Legendary ultralight cyclist Iik talks through his own lightweight evolution – he is much further along this journey than we are, so there’s still plenty to learn here.

Bikepacking.net is a useful resource with plenty of gear and route information in the forums.

And finally, here’s a cool trip that beautifully captures the essence of bikepacking – bikepacking the Appalachian Trail.

Thoughts or comments on anything above? Further tips or any good resources you use? Let everyone know in the comments.