A guest post by Nicholas Carmen (who blogs as Gypsy by Trade)
The excitement to load my bicycle with expedition-grade racks and plastic waterproof panniers has waned, and is countered by a fascination with ride quality, rather than load capacity. My cycling interests have wandered off-pavement and over mountains, onto the Great Divide Route and the Colorado Trail, and a lessened load has become my best friend. A lightweight bike allows greater access to new terrain and reduces fatigue on both rider and bicycle. A smaller load equates to a lessened frontal face and an aerodynamic profile in headwinds or when riding fast. The bike is easier to lift over fences and rocky trails; best of all, it is fun to ride. With a quiet lightweight bike and larger volume tires, I can go anywhere.
With less equipment the cycletourist climbs more nimbly, maintaining momentum and covering distances with ease. On unpaved surfaces, tire pressures can be optimized to quietly and comfortably float over obstacles and washboard. And on terrain that challenges the limits of rider and bicycle, having less stuff may be the only way through. Rough surfaces and high pressure tires are the cause of many physical discomforts, as well as broken rims, racks and spokes. I prefer a tire in excess of 40 mm for most of my riding, while a 45-50mm tire enables more rugged mountain roads.
An American Pass Hunter
I am excited that the new VO Campeur frames features generous tire clearances. Tires up to 42mm (45mm on the 59cm and 61cm sizes) allow for mild off-pavement riding on cyclepaths and most forest service roads, as well as for comfort and safety. The growing options for larger 700c tires include several from Schwalbe and Vee, the Clement X'Plor MSO, Panaracer Fire Cross, and the prevoyant Bruce Gordon Rock'n'Road. Many smaller cross-type tires are also suitable and will fit under a fender. Initially, I appreciated vintage 80's touring frames for all-purpose riding, but was drawn away due to limited tire clearances and inflated prices on the used market. The Campeur kills both birds. A Campeur with racks and panniers is well-suited to paved roads and graded rail-trails -- traditional touring fare. With a tidy, lightweight load and larger-volume 700c tires the Campeur is an American Pass Hunter capable of our scenic and remote roads as on the Great Divide Route. Strap a bedroll to the handlebars and attach a saddlebag. The Campeur turns from a capable gear-hauler to a dirt-road scorcher-- a real adventure bike!
Doing more with less
The secrets of a lightweight load are not in sawing off toothbrush handles or titanium sporks. Avoid redundancies and bring only what you need. While backpackers have known the benefits of lightweight travel for years, cycletourists have a tendency to “fill the truck”. Comfort, safety and preference will determine personal equipment needs, while packing for worst-case scenarios will ensure a heavy bike. Expect real conditions and plan for them; don't “what if” yourself into an extra pannier full of gear. Provisional items such as batteries, bandages, and the remaining six books in the series can be left at home and sourced along the way. Additional clothing, food and water are available in more places than you will require. The fact is, most cycling occurs along roads of some kind, and along roads are people and resources, and most often a willing pick-up truck in the event of a worst-case scenario.
When planning my adventures I pack relatively little clothing, rotating several t-shirts, socks and underwear with a single pair of nylon athletic shorts. Clothing quickly becomes laundry on the road, and touring the land with a bag full of smelly socks isn't particularly attractive. In the summer months I find it refreshing to swim multiple times daily, rinsing soiled clothing to maintain a reasonably clean exterior. I wear a single pair of reliable shoes for riding and walking. This is convenient when I require to push my bike up a steep, rocky grade. When the temperature drops, I expect to empty my bags wearing most of my layers, pairing a down jacket and thin wool long underwear with a 30-deg down sleeping bag. In the coldest weather, a vapor barrier liner allows me to comfortably sleep down to single digits inside my tent. If you are inclined to spend money on kit, replacing an older inexpensive tent and a too-warm sleeping bag will make the greatest reductions in packed size and weight. The remaining gear for a cycling trip is usually already in your closet, and only small reductions in weight and volume can be achieved with new equipment. Better to leave gear at home than to buy “lighter”. As such, lightweight cycling need not come at a great expense.
How to pack gear without a full load of panniers?
Reducing a load from four panniers to two is a good start. The effects of a lighter load are multiplied by the support equipment that becomes unnecessary, including racks and bags, stout wheels, and a “proper” touring frame. The Ortlieb panniers and Jandd racks I used on my first trip four years ago weigh over 12 lbs. and burdened me with extra clothing and food.
Parting with panniers entirely, a “rack-lite” system may use an existing rack or a mini-rack. The VO Pass Hunter supports a handlebar bag, saddlebag or a drybag attached with straps, but it doesn't support panniers. Independent of weight, the benefits of riding without panniers are threefold: a quieter ride on rough roads, a narrower profile with greater ground clearance and aerodynamics; and distribution of mass near the center of the bicycle. Last year the Pass Hunter provided a strong lightweight saddlebag support mounted to the rear of my Schwinn High Sierra, cradling a Carradice Camper over many thousand miles of pavement and dirt roads.
Without a heavy load and the need for rack fittings, almost any bike can serve as a touring bike. With the ability to cover distances more easily, even fewer supplies are needed on-board-- it's a slippery slope to a really enjoyable, ridable bike.
While lightweight travel is often considered the realm of endurance racers, randonneurs, and mountain biking “bikepackers”, the benefits of lightweight touring are for everyone. It need not be legitimized by epic distances and record times, or even an obsessive calculation of pounds and grams. Sometimes I ride fast and far, but I never hesitate to share with others that many of my days are spent swimming and drinking coffee, pushing my bike up rutted steep trails, or writing. The measure of success in my travel is fun and adventure. Lighten your load, throw a leg over the top tube and enjoy the ride.