When most people think of a long distance cycling their first thought is of a classic looking steel bike festooned with brightly coloured panniers and as many gears as possible. Despite the advances in all forms of the sport over the last 20 years or so this aspect of cycling has remained relatively unchanged, until recently.
The rack and pannier system has been well proven over many years, specifically enabling solo road based cyclist to carry all their own equipment and supplies over very hostile and often baron landscapes. The theory being you have at least 4 separate bags you can fill with camping, cooking, electrical and any other gear you can think of (I have meet people literally carrying collapsible picnic tables and chaired with them) and as with most in this situation (just think of your own suitcase when going on a summer holiday or weekend away) all the bags get filled!
This was the prevailing mentality when back in 2008 Mark Beaumont set out to break the then Guinness Word Record for circum navigating the globe by bike. Riding 18,296 miles in just 194 Days. A feat he successfully managed and which has been documented in a four part TV series The Man Who Cycled The Word.
However, even as this was happening cyclists looking for more of a backcountry, off road, wilderness experience were looking to extend their range by taking more supplies with them while not impeding the ride itself ie a replacement for a backpack. Here panniers and racks were not as successful for a number of reasons, including making the bikes profile and therefore clearance much wider and in doing so inhibiting its ride ability on single track. Riders also found that taking this much weight on rough off road tracks led to the equipment itself failing and as mountain bike design developed tradition rack systems no longer fitted the new frames. Companies like Old Man Mountain and Freeloader bridged the gap with mountain bike enabled racks, but the limitations of panniers remained.
At this point people like Eric Parsons (Founder of Revelate Designs) started tackling the problem from a new angle and produced some of the first soft/frame bags. These bags make use of the bike frame itself for support in place of additional racks and attach via velcro. This enables better weight distribution and means they fit any bike including carbon and full suspension mountain bikes, while not adding anything substantial to the bikes profile and therefore also not negatively effecting both the bikes handling and aerodynamics. They do however only allow for a much reduced carrying capacity in comparison to the pannier system. This has led to riders having to be much more specific with their kit, thanks also to lighter more compact gear, as well as taking inspiration from other sports such as long distance hiking on gear selection.
The result of this is maybe best seen in the success of the Tour Divide mountain bike race in North America, where competes ride 2,745 miles unsupported and off road from Banff Canada to the Mexican boarder, documented in the Mike Dion documentary Ride The Divide. Here frame bags have been on the ascendence for many years and now virtually all riders use them.
Mike Hall was one of the first to take these new small volume, lightweight frame bags and put them on a carbon road bike (well a CX bike to be exact). When he took to the start line for an around the world race back in 2012 other riders with traditional rack & pannier systems must not have know what to think. Mike ended up smashing the then record by riding an average of 200 miles a day for 3 months and in doing so moved the sport further into racing then just fast past touring.
It was these changes in equipment and mindset that gave birth to a new style of long distance road based racing such as the Transcontinental and the Trans American (featured in Mike Dion’s latest documentary Inspired To Ride) races that have brought all this together and presented a different option to cross continent bike travel.
The advancements in both load carrying and bike design can best be seen in Mark Beaumont lasts record attempt bike. For his upcoming ride and record attempt from Cairo to Cape Town he will be riding a full carbon Koga Solacio Disc frameset with electronic Di2 gearing and of course a full set of Apidura bike packing frame bags.
Due to a combination of separate bags being used to adjust load capacity this new style of bag has also become the go to system for long distance rides and races such as the gravel road series in the USA and the Dorset Gravel Dash 100 here in the UK. Effectively giving you the capacity of a small backpack without having to wear the thing for 100+ miles.
I believe this change will continue to revolutionise cycling, wether it’s long distance racing, touring or a century with your boys, but also see a place for panniers when you want to carry your own coffee set or in our case yoga mat and a few dozen bananas slowly around a foreign country.