Designing Adventure Bike

After four years of riding my fixie, I wanted a bike that would let me stretch my legs and go exploring. My friends organized a bike tour to Provincetown (~130 miles from Boston) and the event was the perfect catalyst to spec out and build my Adventure Bike.

Bike requirements

  • Fun to ride.
  • Carry enough gear to go bike camping up to 3 nights, and with modifications, longer.
  • Ride on pavement, gravel, and smooth single track.
  • Love. I had to really want to ride it.

I walked into the bike shop asking for a Surly Disk Trucker and (after some long test rides) rode out on a Specialized Sequoia Elite. It checked all of my boxes.

Now that I had a frame, it was time to design how I was going to carry everything I needed.

Storage requirements

  • Carry enough gear to go bike camping for 2–5 nights.
  • Versatile: scale up and down to carry a tube/pump/snack for a day ride, a towel and speaker for a beach trip, camping gear for an overnight, etc.
  • Minimum storage for ~1.5L of water with options for more.
  • Minimize changes in bike handling.
  • Rugged enough to ride on gravel and single track without falling off.
  • No jingles, clinks, or other noises.
  • Weight on the bike, not on my back.

There are two main strategies to carry gear on a bicycle: panniers and bikepacking bags. Panniers are very common among bike tourers, and offer a straightforward way to carry a lot of gear. Bikepacking bags are smaller and fit around the frame of the bike. They can’t carry as much, but they do a better job of distributing the weight and minimizing aerodynamic drag.

Bikepacking was the high-risk, high-reward approach. It would be harder to find a set of bags and a packing method that worked (especially on my 54cm frame), but if I could pull it off it would best meet my functional requirements. And if I couldn’t pull it off, I could return everything and buy or borrow some panniers, which I knew would work. Bikepacking also jibed with my love of minimalist packing and my craving for an after-work design project.

Gear requirements

From years of singlebag (Goruck GR1) international travel, I know that it’s important to start with a packing list, and not the bag I’ll put it in. When packing, I tend to fill whatever space I have. It’s hard to pack a bag half full without lots of temptation to bring more. By starting with the packing list I can focus on bringing the minimal set of things to do what I want to do and not be tempted by extra capacity.

I referenced my friends’ bike touring packing lists, my travel and Burning Man trip packing experience, and my engineering “what would I realistically have to fix? how often? and what kind of McGuiver improv can I pull off?” background.

My baseline packing list was for a 2–5 night bike camping trip, carrying all of my own weight. The per-night packing cost (some balance of volume, weight, and mental bandwidth) falls dramatically on multi-night trips, since you need the same infrastructure equipment either way: shelter, cooking, tools, outer layers, etc. For longer trips you just scale the consumables: food, water, fuel, spares, inner layers, etc.

Experiments

I evaluated each of my proposed packing configuations by its ability to carry every item in the baseline packing list, optimizing for:

  • Lower center of gravity, to improve handling.
  • 50–50 weight distribution front to back, to improve handling.
  • Less weight on the fork and handlebars, to improve steering and stability.
  • More weight in the frame triangle, to minimize moments of inertia and center of gravity, to improve handling.
  • Less drag.
  • Less loading/unloading time.
  • Ease of access to essential items.
  • Flexibility & expandability.
  • Awesomeness.
  • Simplicity.

After lots of comparing bikepacking setups via Google Image search, I broke the packing problem into three modules that I could iterate on independently: frame, fork, and seat.

I went through the baseline packing list and bucketed each item into which storage module it would go into, optimizing for the parameters above. I used an Excel worksheet with pivot tables and pie charts to compare prototype packing configurations.

Here is the packing list Google Sheet.

In the pysical word, I tested a variety of prototypes of each module, mostly by packing and tinkering indoors, but also on shake-down rides.

My first tests were to get a familiarity with different packing options, what I could fit in them, and what flexibility they gave me with the rest of the solution. I ended up choosing the Specialized 5L frame bag because it best fit my bike geometry, though I knew that I had to be creative with the bottom of the triangle to make best use of that space.

The bottom of the frame triangle was the hardest to pack, so I saved it until last. The next round of tests was focused on improving the packing of the fork and seat bags, and figuring out a solution for water. Putting a bottle in a cage over the downtube took up too much space, and didn’t leave a good option for the stove, fuel, and food. Wanting an easy-to-access bottle, I experimented with mounting one above the top tube. I tested it with a gasket made out of part of a bike tube and soon expanded the gasket to a full spare tube. Double dipping!

Generally, solutions put the heavy, dense things (water, tools, food, cooking) in the frame, and soft things (tent, sleeping bag & pad, clothes) on the fork and seatbag. One surprise was the density of the tent fabric, causing me to shift it from the fork to the seat-bag so that I could shift more weight and volume from the fork to the seat, improving handling.

I used a storage cage on the top of the downtube to try holding various items in the bottom of the triangle, ultimately opting to put the stove, fuel, and cookset there.

The tent poles went on the side of the down tube, far enough forward to clear the pedals. After some iterating, I realized I could include the stakes and the groundcloth in the same wrap, opening up space in the frame and seat bags.

I made a last minute change from a front rack to a handlebar bag mount (both used the same 23L drybag) when I realized that I could probably get away with it, volumetrically. I liked the looks of the handelbar mount better, as well as how it kept the weight closer to the steering axis.

Solution

Frame: snacks, meals, stove, fuel, cookware, tools, toiletries, electronics, spare tubes, tentpoles, stakes, groundcloth, water.

  • Seat: tent fabric, clothes, towel.
  • Fork: sleeping bag & pad, pillow, clothes, plate.
  • Velcro OneWrap as a universal attachment mechanism.

Detailed packing list here: https://goo.gl/W3mu2M

Discussion

The bike performed really well! It was fun to ride. Everything was secure and easy to access. I had a light setup (~25 pounds wet) but didn’t feel like I was missing anything.

  • The front bag was the trickiest element of the setup, since you have ot balance width and diameter and I initially installed the handlebar mount too low. This caused a few instances of wheel rub and blocked shifts before I got things dialed in while on the tour.
  • The reflective elastic bands were very versatile. I used them to strap things to the outside of the setup, as extra high-vis, and to secure the bike to trees, racks, and ferry boats.
  • Velcro OneWrap is great. Can get tight, doesn’t stretch out, can stick to other straps for reinforcing, lightweight, super versatile. I used 0.5" and 1.0" wrap depending on the loading.
  • I’m going to move the rear light to the seatstay in order to be able to use it against cars without blinding whomever is riding right behind me.
  • The seatbag was easy to pack and rock solid.
  • The tentpoles and groundcloth worked well there. No unexpected movement, low CG, and easy to attach. Took some practice to roll it tight and to position it so that my feed didn’t touch it while pedaling.
  • The lock could have been faster to set up and take down, but was very secure there.
  • I’m going invest in clipless pedals and a better bike seat.

The tour and the planning were lots of fun!

Cape Cod has some great beaches!

See also