Sunday, August 06, 2006


I did the ride on a Gary Fisher X-Caliber 29er hardtail with a rack and pannier system. The racks were Old Man Mountain, and the panniers were some eBay specials I picked out (had to save money somewhere).

The bike performed great. For a tall guy like me (I’m 6’3”) it fit better than any standard mountain bike. The big wheels did a good job of rolling through washboards, and the bike was crazy stable on the downhills, to the point where it was easy to be having fun, cruising on the gravel, and look down and realize you’re going 30 mph on gravel with a loaded bike. In rocky sections, particularly the snowmobile trails in MT and some downhills in NM, the bike took a significant pounding on the rocks without any problems. I haven’t even had to true the wheels. The only knock on the bike was that it may not have been the fastest rig in the world. Those big wheels took a lot of energy to turn, and the overall feel was sometimes more like a semi than a Ferrari. But maybe that’s the case for all touring rigs that would fit me. I’d have to try out some other setups to say whether that’s really the case.

The panniers did well also. The only issue I had was a hook that actually broke clean out of the backing on one of my rear panniers. But the fix for that was not difficult (poke a new hole and screw it back on). For less than $100 for all four, it was a screaming deal.

I recommend the pannier system over the BOB (the caveat is that I haven’t actually ridden a bike with BOB, but I did ride with Tim and his BOB), for three reasons. First, I think the handling concerns with the pannier system are largely overblown. It does take more effort to turn the wheel, but that’s more of an adjustment to get used to than an actual disability. And with properly loaded panniers the weight distribution feels like you are just riding a really heavy bike as opposed to a sensation of pulling something. Plus, the Divide includes very little technical riding. Second, a BOB itself is significantly heavier and has more rolling resistance. In particular, dragging that third wheel through sand is not fun at all. The weight makes a major difference on climbs, which make up a significant part of every day. I also think that having the BOB is an open invitation to pack a lot more stuff, while the panniers encourage thrifty packing. Finally, the major disadvantage of a pannier system – wind resistance – is not a huge player on the Divide. With the exception of WY, most of the route is spent going up and down mountain passes. On the uphill, the wind is generally blocked for the most part, and the downhills are usually steep enough to coast through any headwind. Plus, tailwinds help you more with a pannier system, so that evens the score a bit as well.

UPDATE (12/9/06): Not everyone agrees with me. I was reading other journals today and came across this quote from a guy who did the divide with a BOB:

I had the privilege to observe and ride with several people that had full pannier setups. Based on what I saw was a little horrifying. Everyone who had full panniers experienced more flats and loose spokes. I also noticed that they rode significantly slower than those who had trailers and they could not keep up on distance. When I watched them ride over rough terrain such as washboard, grave roads, and sand I noticed that they exerted a lot more energy to cross the obstacle, steering was more erratic, and they often had to stop and walk. Another troubling observation was that these riders were often frustrated with small inconveniences and had a negative attitude.

Full page here. He also has a chart that claims the weight savings is only about two pounds, which seems on the low side. (Looking at it again my estimate of ten pounds difference doesn't take into account the bags -- the real number is probably somewhere in between and depends whether you get the heavy waterproof panniers.)

Anyway, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. I suspect the surly pannier folk he ran into were just carrying too much weight. Also, it sounded like he ran into a lot of bad weather, but still he did the route in 63 days, which is almost half again as long as it took me with my pannier system. And from the sound of his journal it wasn't like he was sitting back and not pushing or anything like that.

It may be true that if you're going to pack 40-60 pounds a BOB is the way to go, but for people who make a strong effort to go light I can't see how pulling extra weight and an extra wheel is a more efficient way to go. How many divide racers pull a BOB? And, yes, apparently there is some bad blood between the BOB crowd and the pannier crowd. But he started it. OK. Update over.

As far as specific gear goes, other people have provided a full list of equipment, so I won’t do that here except to make a few general observations. First, tools are heavy. Second, even for catastrophic repairs a solution is only a hike and a UPS overnight package away. There are only a few spots where a breakdown would mean more than one or two rest days waiting for a part. Third, mechanicals are going to happen, so it’s important to be prepared for at least the obvious ones that don’t require a heavy tool. For example, you should be able to fix a blown tire, a broken spoke, and a broken chain out on the road. Beyond that, you could carry the needed gear, but going light, keeping on top of maintenance before and during the ride, and hoping is not a bad strategy either.

My final word is not to underestimate the difference that a little bit of weight makes. We all laugh at hikers who cut holes in the handle of their toothbrushes to save weight, and weight conservation can get ridiculous. But the fact is that carrying five pounds up 2000 feet takes a lot of energy. 10 pounds (about the extra weight of a BOB) is even worse. So my advice is this: if you really just want to pedal and have a good time, keep weight in mind, and be prepared to ditch things you don’t need. If you are trying to do more than 50 miles a day, go over every piece of gear and think about what you need it for. If there’s any potential workaround or you can do without, don’t take it. Try to take some inspiration from Matthew Lee and his CamelBak full of energy bars, even if you aren’t willing to quite go that far.


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