Apologies to Tim O’Brien for co-opting his title. It’s a haunting title and a haunting book (The Things They Carried) and you should go read it right after you finish reading and leaving amazingly supportive comments and curious questions on my blog post here. HA.
I’ve had it in mind for some time to detail for a beginner audience what I wear, pack, and carry for an unsupported race or a solo ride of 50-150 miles. Unless otherwise mentioned, assume we’re talking about a gravel century with no outside support and minimal, if any, chance to resupply other than with what you brought or might buy at a convenient store (if you can find one AND if you have time to shop without DQ’ing yourself).
Welcome to Part I, where we explore the needs of the three points of contact between you and your bike.
What touches the bike? Feet, booty, hands, or, hopefully: shoes, shorts, gloves. These are very important items! They’re so critical that the top of my packing list under “GEAR” says, literally, “Shoes! Put them in the bag NOW.” And as soon as I’ve pulled out my list to start packing for a race and read those words, I heed them. I bet you can guess why. Oh look, here’s a picture:
Shoes: Unless you’re racing in a remote location, you can probably borrow or buy a pair of shorts or gloves, but shoes are more problematic. A borrowed or brand-new pair might work for a short distance, but if you’ve got over 50 miles in ill-fitting shoes, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. Personally, I learned that my deadly cute Specialized Tahoes . . .
… work just great for about 100 miles of riding, but if I’ve walked several of those miles (coff, hills, coff coff), they start trying to kill me about mile 85. I’m being flippant and unfair to the shoes – compared to 90% of the bike shoes out there, these are eminently walk-in-able while boasting a stiff enough sole for solid power transfer. Overall, they’re outstanding for the long haul. Plus … TEAL.
Socks: Once it’s warm enough outside, I wear Keen sandals with no socks on paved rides, but it didn’t take long to learn that on gravel rides, full shoes & socks prevent nasty ankle scrapes and irritating shards and pebbles underfoot. Sock preference is personal – go with the height and thickness you like. Remember your feet may swell if you ride all day, and don’t discount the lovely feel of a fresh, clean pair of socks at a checkpoint if you’ve remembered to throw a pair in your drop bag. (Longer races may permit you to fill & send ahead to a checkpoint a “drop bag” of extra food, clothing, supplies, or other motivation. The most common drop bag is one of those string backpacks you got at your last charity ride. 😏 )
Cream/powder: I heartily encourage applying something before a long ride to help prevent chafing. I forgot my chamois cream once before a multi-day ride on the Cowgirl Trail and the closest thing I could find in Norfolk, Nebraska on a summer Sunday was some sort of antibacterial powder with “FOR MEN” emblazoned on the label. It worked and I still shake some in my socks and the legs of my shorts for long rides. On more delicate parts, I’m a strong supporter of using Chamois Butt’r. (Disclaimer: I’ve met and ridden with Curt Shelman, the company’s COO, and though I was using the product before I met him, I’m an even bigger supporter now that I have. GREAT guy and truly an uplifting and motivating riding coach.) In the Chamois Butt’r product line, I’ve tried the Original, Eurostyle, Her, and Coconut creams and will typically be found using the pH-balanced Her. Bonus: Her ingredients include lavender, tea tree oil, and aloe vera so can be used before, during, and after a race even if skin is irritated. (Be aware if you try that with the Euro: it includes menthol and THAT on broken skin will wake you UP.) I pre-load my shorts chamois the night before a race, apply cream directly to my body the morning of, and take 1-2 packets along with me and/or in the drop bag/s depending on how long I expect to be out riding. I suppose I reapply after every 5-6 hours.
Shorts: The kind of shorts you wear is a personal choice, but I’ll say for certain that you’re going to get what you pay for in this department. Expect to pay $70 and up for good shorts, and more for bib-style and knickers. Here are brands that come in all sizes (my big ass is usually in XL or XXL) and in my personal experience, will last all day and are worth the dough: Pearl Izumi & Terry (I’ve only used for road), Primal, Voler (I’ve used for road and gravel). All of the shorts I’ve been happy with on 100+ gravel rides came from gravel clubs (Pirate Cycling League) or gravel races (Dirty Kanza, Gravel Worlds). Most are bib style and I have come to prefer bibs for comfort. I also have a pair of Club Ride drop-drawer bib shorts that I’ve worn on shorter gravel rides and 50-60-mile road rides. The CR bibs are very comfortable, but I haven’t worn them on an all-day ride since RAGBRAI when I learned those cooling mesh panels? Aren’t sun-proof. Ow.
These bibs are unique in that they have zippers down each side to facilitate dropping the back panel (not unlike old-fashioned long johns) so one can wear bibs AND use the bathroom without taking off all your other clothes.
Many friends wear a loose baggy short over their Lycra. It’s not just for style points or modesty, but also for protecting those expensive yet delicate nylon shorts, especially when using a Cambium or other cotton- or canvas-covered seat. More on that in a minute. For me a pair of overshorts is just more fabric I’m going to catch on something or pee on while dropping trou behind a tree.
Saddles: Saddles are even more personal — and harder to personalize — than shorts. There’s no shortcut to finding the perfect saddle for you, but there are shops and organizations that can get you started by analyzing the span of your sit bones (Google “saddle fit” or something similar.) YMMV (“your mileage may vary”) in this category more than any other, but let me say three things.
One, because I mentioned it earlier, is that many of my friends and I have experienced damage to Lycra shorts using the Brooks Cambium saddles. The Cambium line are seats made of “vulcanized rubber with an organic cotton top” (this from the Brooks website), and unfortunately the fabric can fray along the edges of the seat & its stiff fibers can really tear up bike shorts. I heard that the 2019 seats don’t have this issue, but I can’t confirm that. So… why do I still use this saddle? Because it’s so awesome (for me) that I forget its there, and, side bonus, it’s cotton-topped rubber = no amount of rain or mud is going to damage it.
Two, a seat is to support your sit bones. Not your entire butt. Those extra-wide, squishy seats, the gel seat pads, the sheepskin seat covers, heck, any seat covers – get rid of them. Your back will thank you. Trust me.
Three, the most important thing is that your saddle is not damaging you. Yep, it’s sore getting those sit ligaments toughened up & butt muscles strengthened enough so that every ride doesn’t hurt. It’s normal to be sore if you haven’t ridden much or in a long while. But if you are hurting or swelling or bleeding, if something really feels wrong, stop. Talk to a fellow rider or your local bike shop owner or DM me. Lay off the bike until you heal completely and then try a different saddle. A good bike shop will have loaner saddles you can try out for a week or two. Find something that doesn’t cause you pain. It’s out there, I promise.
Gloves: One of the chemo drugs I was on causes neuropathy, and for my hands that means numbness in my fingers and weakness in fingers & hands. It also means my hands and forearms, sometimes up to my shoulders will go completely numb if I’m not regularly stretching and changing hand positions on the bike. Good gloves help. Many gravel riders prefer full-finger gloves for protection in case of a fall. I don’t have enough feeling through the gloves to switch gears, so am sticking with the more common “pickpocket” fingerless style. I’m using MTB gloves because the padding is thicker and they seem to delay the ultimately inevitable numbness.
I know – we can’t go even one post without mentioning cancer? I guess not? The cancer is gone but its impact and the impact of treatment will be with me always. My job is to make the modifications I can to minimize pain and maximize life. Shrug. Sometimes, that means a big fat martini.* And sometimes, that means MTB gloves.
Coming up in Part II: What Touches the Road, an actual legitimate review of a product that a company sent me to review. WHAT COULD IT BE?
*You’re going to think this is funny, coming from me, because I’m no teetotaler on a bike (helloooo, RAGBRAI?), but I’m definitely not endorsing drinking during a race. Martinis, beer, whatever, I recommend saving for AFTER. Gravel racing is challenging enough. You’re going to want all your faculties intact.