I was honored to be asked by Scott Brady to assemble this piece to shed some light on a subject very close to me, Adventure Bicycling. Everyone knows of bicycles and adventures, but just how do the two come together?
What is Adventure Bicycling?
In the broadest sense of the term, Adventure Bicycling is best defined as self supported bicycle travel along singletrack trails and unimproved roads. Traditionally, most bicycle travel has been relegated to the paved road side, but the advent of the mountain bike has ushered in a new era of off-piste travel on unimproved roads and singletrack trails. It is the off road variations of bicycle travel that are currently enjoying the greatest level of growth and best defines the term Adventure Bicycling. Touring along paved roadways traditionally has fallen under the general term, Bicycle Touring.
Ultra Light Touring - Touring with the absolute minimum of gear on technical singletrack and unimproved roads. No racks or panniers are used. Maximum duration without resupply seldom reaches beyond 5 days.
Loaded Touring - The use of racks and panniers qualifies as loaded touring, but does not necessarily eliminate the ability to travel singletrack trails. Maximum duration without resupply seldom reaches beyond 7 days.
Extended Touring - Specialized touring bicycles using full panniers and/or trailers gives these riders the maximum self supported range that can often exceed two weeks. The additional weight often translates to bikes that cannot traverse terrain more challenging than gravel roads. Most extended touring is done on developed roadways and paved highways where necessary.
Ultra-Light Touring is a relatively new segment to bicycle travel. These riders prefer a more spirited riding style over fast and technical terrain. By keeping total gear weight as low as possible, these riders are able to forego the use of racks and panniers in favor of more svelte seat, frame and handlebar bags. This keeps the bikes light, agile and unencumbered.
• Bicycle: The most appropriate bicycles for ultra-light touring, also commonly known as bikepacking, are bicycles purposely built for singletrack riding. These bikes seldom have features specific to touring. An ultra-light rider can tour on anything from a singlespeed hard tail to a fully suspended bicycle. For many ultra-light riders, the bike they use for touring is the bike they ride day in and day out.
• Equipment: Given the requirements for extreme low weight, gear selection for ultra-light touring must be done with great care. Total weight of camping gear and supplies needs to remain under 30 pounds. Recent innovations in backpacking equipment has flooded the market with a multitude of options for feather weight tents, stoves, sleeping pads, etc. This new influx of gear has also increased camp comfort immeasurably. The options for affixing this camping gear to a bicycle varies. Solutions are as simple as stuff sacks strapped to seat rails and handlebars or use highly specialized custom frame bags. The use of a small backpack is universal for ultra-light riders.
• Range: A skilled ultra-light rider can often ride three to five days between resupply stops. This naturally excludes water. If resupply stops can be positioned to fit within that 5 day range, ultra-light riders can often cover thousands of miles spanning multiple weeks. The most common duration for an ultra-light tour is often three to five days.
It would be easy to discount the significance of ultra-light touring as it seems impossible such minimal gear could be effective for trips exceeding a long weekend. However, some riders fully embracing this unique means of travel have proven it's effectiveness with resounding success. Riders in the Continental Divide Race are now able to ride from Canada to Mexico via singletrack and gravel roads in as little as 14 days. The ultra-light sector of Adventure Bicycling is currently seeing the most explosive growth.
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Loaded Touring has been the core of off-road bicycle travel over the past 20 years. The use of racks and panniers most easily defines this category. Some riders may use a small trailer instead of panniers, but this trend for off road travel has faded somewhat. These riders often carry loads reaching 45 pounds or more balanced between panniers front and rear. Although overall weight is very much a concern for these riders, they are willing to carry more than their ultra-light counterparts. This additional weight allowance permits the inclusion of more supplies for greater unsupported range and allows travel in more extreme weather conditions requiring more robust clothing and shelter options. This increased weight and bulk comes at the expense of agility and speed. A fully loaded mountain bike can still traverse singletrack trails, but the ride qualities of a loaded bike mandate a more reserved riding tempo. Even pushing a fully loaded mountain bike along narrow singletrack is not without challenges.
• Bicycle: These may or may not be bikes with specific bike touring features. In most cases a standard mountain bike platform is appropriate. These bikes will always be geared as singlespeeds are unable to push such heavy loads. Some riders will opt for the simplicity of a fully rigid frame and fork, while others will seek the comfort of a fully suspended bicycle.
• Equipment: The gear used for loaded touring isn't much unlike that used for ultra-light touring; These riders simply carry more of it. Selection of proper racks and panniers is critical for loaded off road travel as the demands on them are severe. The use of a backpack is less common for loaded touring.
• Range: The additional storage capacity offered by panniers allows these riders a range of seven to ten days between resupply points. Where water availability is a concern, loaded riders can often carry water stores for two days if not three.
Extended Touring represents the smallest niche within Adventure Bicycling. These riders have ambitious distances to cover and can average as much as 60 to 100 miles a day for weeks and months on end. As such, their loads can often be staggeringly large, requiring the use of not just panniers but a trailer as well. These loads will usually exceed 75 pounds. The massive quantities of gear on the bicycles renders the rider's pace to a virtual crawl. The terrain covered must also be well developed as these bicycles simply cannot endure much beyond a gravel road. The focus with this mode of bicycle travel is all about range.
• Bicycle: These bicycles are highly specialized touring machines. The design attributes of these bicycles reflect a need for the ultimate in durability and stability. Speed and agility are not design concerns. These bikes are purpose built for hauling large loads and cannot be used for much beyond that. It is rare for these bikes to be suspended.
• Equipment: Extended touring often mandates an increased level of comfort, and while gear weight is still a primary concern, small luxuries are often included in the mix. Additional space is often allocated for a larger supply of repair parts and tools. All of this gear is carried in rugged panniers on racks designed for excessively heavy loads. The inclusion of a trailer permits the addition of even more gear. Total gear loads can often weigh over 100 pounds.
• Range: A fully loaded touring bike, especially one using a trailer for maximum capacity can easily travel two weeks or more before needing a resupply. Even water is less of an issue with these riders as a fully laden touring bike can sometimes carry water for as many as four days.
Extended touring is slow and laborious, but the ideal mode of touring if the goal is to cross massive expanses of land. It can also bridge vast distances between resupply points. These enormous loads come at a severe sacrifice of speed and agility. A fully loaded bicycle can barely conquer a normal city curb without a full dismount.
These are just three modes of bicycle travel that represent the core of Adventure Bicycling, but creative minds always reach beyond the core. There is a new boom in Hut to Hut touring. Modeled after European trekking hut systems, these riders enjoy the comfort of established huts, yurts and cabins along defined routes. Credit Card Touring has also become more common as riders link hotels with little more in their kit than a change of clothes and a wallet. Others are Satellite Touring. Using a vehicle to access a central location, these riders offload their bikes and tour within a small distance of a base camp before moving on to another riding area. The options for adventure are limited only by the ambitions of the individual.
The bicycle is a fantastic machine. It can take you from the family driveway as a free spirited kid to the far reaches of the globe, fueled only by the spirit of adventure.
Compiled by Christophe Noel
Special thanks to Jeff of Carousel Design Works http://www.carouseldesignworks.com/
Additional thanks to Andy of the Mountain Bike Expedition Team