Too much stuff = Too few routes…

20 07 2012

My not ultralight Big Dummy Touring rig…

Following on from my You are carrying too much stuff post I wanted to discuss the unavoidable relationship between rider fitness/power + bike/gear weight and route selection. Bikes are human powered vehicles and every human has a limited amount of power they can put out during a bike tour. Some riders are very strong so this discussion is less important to them, but for most of us a loaded touring bike takes a lot of our energy to propel down the road.

This equation leads to a vicious cycle:

  • As we add weight to our bikes the distance we can comfortably ride in a day is reduced.
  • If the route in question involves a lot of climbing the distance we can comfortably ride in a day is reduced further.
  • If the route in question is a poorly paved road or a dirt road/trail our bikes take more energy to propel and the distance we can comfortably ride in a day is reduced further.
  • If the route is rough a heavily loaded bike has to be ridden slower so nothing breaks and/or you don’t crash which reduces the distance we can comfortably ride in a day further.
  • As we reduce our daily ride range we pass fewer and fewer services per day which means we often have to carry more [food/water or tools/spares] on our bikes.
  • now our bikes are heavier so go back to the top and start again!

The practical impact of the limited power to weight to distance equation is that riders simply don’t consider routes that are too challenging with their touring loads. It also means that the willingness to explore off the planned touring route is diminished because the effort is so hard and the range they can explore from their start point is curtailed.

That’s too bad because there are some really cool things to see once you get away from the beaten path.

My FAT fatbike touring setup…

My own touring setup has been getting more compact and lighter over the years and I didn’t fully appreciate the benefit in terms of route selection at the time, but looking back I can now see that each iteration of the process opened more and options for where I could tour. A lighter bike can tackle potholed or rough dirt roads without breaking anything and climbs become less of an issue expanding not just what’s possible, but what’s fun!

I don’t have a specific weight I’m shooting for nor do I own a scale. My goal is to keep my gear/bike weight down at a level that it isn’t my focus on the road or trail. When an interesting point of interest appears a few KMs uphill off my main route I want to be free to explore that without first groaning inwardly at the effort of pedaling my heavy bike upwards. I want to look at a map and know that if there is a trail through an area I can ride it with a smile on my face not look for most direct flattest paved road between two points.

It’s all downhill today – right?

Interestingly in the motorcycle touring world a similar phenomenon plays out even though a small motorcycle has a lot more power than a strong cyclist. The limiting factors in that case is weight vs. bike handling and weight vs. breaking the machine. You literally can’t ride an overloaded motorcycle down a challenging track for long before you crash, break the bike or both. The result is the same for those folks – most plan routes that are kind to their machines limiting where they can go. A few riders carry small loads and go wherever they want.

Ultimately there is no absolutely right one size fits all answer for all riders, but it’s an unavoidable reality that as we load up our bikes we reduce our realistic route options and/or we push ourselves to the limit reducing the smile factor. Everyone has to decide what’s best for themselves when planning their next tour.


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2 responses

25 07 2012
SurlySeabear

I often compare a loaded dummy(carrying say, 60-100lbs) to driving an 18 wheeler…you use the low gears more, start off slow, but get out of my way going downhill(cause I need the speed to help me up the next!)

1 08 2012
Brad Hawkins

Part of my cargo is ~90 lbs of kids plus their gear so I can only imagine what this must be like. On the bright side, I didn’t have to train for any of the recent 400k or 600k rides that I found myself lucky to get time to experience.

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