My aim was to ride about 60 miles daily. In retrospect the average was 62 miles, not counting rest days, at an average speed of exactly 10 mph. So I spent more than 6 hours daily in the saddle. This is about the double of what I am used to ride at home. At home I never ride day-after-day. So you are doing something unusual with your body. Staying healthy is definitely a gear issue. Think about your neck, back, buttocks, knees, feet and wrists. I am an avid follower of the Tour Divide race. From what I read, racers rarely give up because of mechanical issues or exhaustion, but because of excessive pain, i.e. buttocks, ankles, knees, wrists, back, neck. Of course, the TD racers ride 100+ miles daily. However, most of them are well-trained, young athletes. At a lower level, all GD riders have to cope with excessive stresses. Here are some issues.
In preparation for the GD my main worry was about my back. On my local MTB circuits I often felt a low back pain after 1.5-2 hours. These circuits are usually 30-40 miles long and very tortuous, so I prefer to ride them on a 26” hardtail XC bike. The geometry of this bike is that the saddle is at the same height as the handlebar grips. On my road bike the grips on the drop bar are even 6 inches below the top of the saddle, in order to keep the upper body in a favorable aerodynamic position. For this GD route I chose a 29er bike with a more upright geometry. The handlebar grips are 2 inches above the saddle and about 2 inches closer to the tip of saddle than on the XC bike. This results in a more relaxed position: the upper body is at roughly 45 degrees. I am happy to report that I never felt any low back pain.
Both on the TransAm in 2009 and the GD route in 2010 I was happy with a Fizik Nisene saddle. Nevertheless, some months before this GD tour I experimented with a saddle from SQlab, a German product claimed to be primarily designed from biomechanical studies. It is advocated by several specialized bike fitters. The seat has two levels: a higher rear for the buttocks and a lower front to reduce the pressure on the scrotch areas. It was a painful experiment. On long rides I felt that the saddle slowly strangulated my glutes. I was glad to return it! It shows that the saddle is a very personal component, where you can't take standard advice. You have to do your own trail-and-error.
I then bought a Fizik Gobi XM Muzzle saddle, mainly because of its similarity to the Nisene. It is one of three MTB saddle types that Fizik currently offers. Their guideline on choice is related to spine flexibility. This is an area where choices are not based on quantitative rules but on broad rankings. The Gobi felt good. I liked that I could use the entire length of the saddle to alternate between several body positions, which is convenient on long rides.
In May 2012 I made a bike tour in the north of France. The weather was hot and humid. After a few days I developed blisters on my buttocks. I used ‘second skin’ plasters to cover them. That was a mistake. It worked well for two days until the plaster adhesive leaked out and stuck to the bike short. This pulled the plasters and the blisters from the skin. I abandoned the tour to let the wounds heal. I took great care that this couldn’t happen again on the GD route! I selected shorts with good moisture drain. I cleaned my short as often as possible. In addition I rubbed my buttocks daily with two skin crèmes: one with camphor, an antimicrobial and local anaesthetic, and one with miconazole, an antifungal agent. Except for the last week, I didn't feel saddle discomfort, the most common complaint of all GD riders. In the last week, I had a slight saddle sore, but nothing serious. Why, I am not sure; possibly because the altitude dropped to 4000 ft and thus temperatures increases.
Pedals and shoes
For at least a decade I have used Time ATAC or Look Quartz pedals on both my road bike and mountain bikes. They allow a large amount of free rotation of the shoe in the pedal, which significantly reduces the stress on the knees. Because Look is some 70 grams lighter than Time, I mounted a new pair of Quartz pedals. They performed well and the squeaking noise of the 2010 model didn’t occur.
It was much more difficult to decide on the shoes. I had a new pair of Shimano MTB shoes and an older pair of Diadora that I use on the local trails. The Shimano pair was both 50 gram lighter and better aerated, but narrower. At the last moment I decided for the run-in Diadora’s. This was probably my best last-minute decision. It is impossible to say whether the Shimano shoes would have been too tight, but it would have been a big mistake to bring untried shoes on a tour like this. If anything, for shoes it is better to err on the wider side. On long rides the feet tend to swell. Nothing is more effective in killing your motivation than pinched feet.
Handlebar grips and suspension
When I finished the GD ride I felt a minor pain in my right arm. It didn’t go away in the following weeks. I consulted my GP and he diagnosed a tennis elbow, likely to be caused by overexposure to vibrations or shocks. Parts of the GD route are really tough on the hands and arms, especially the stony trails and washboards in the Gila. The shock and vibrational load on my arms was evidently on the edge.
I never use cycling gloves, which would probably have prevented the injury because of their cushioning effect. A positive effect must have been the Ergon grips on the handlebar. They support the wrist of the hand and reduce the numbness on the hands and fingers. Without front suspension the complaints would probably have been much worse.
My hardtail bike has a titanium frame. Titanium is more elastic material than aluminium. This probably reduced some load on my buttocks. I never felt the need for rear suspension that I had in 2010.
Trailer or panniers?
In my GD ride in 2010 I used a BOB trailer to carry the luggage. In 2012 I used panniers. There are a lot of issues here, but I clearly prefer panniers, mainly for safety reasons.
1. Safety and stability.
With the trailer I had about 5 crashes ; with panniers none. The crashes always occurred on a downhill slope with a loose surface or a sideward ramp. Usually the trailer wheel follows the rear wheel of the bike almost exactly, but on a loose downhill slope the trailer is pushing you and may take its own course. This creates a torsion on the rear of the bike. This reactive force was such that on a handful of occasions I lost control over the bike and was launched to the surface. Fortunately the spills did only cause some bloody rash on arms and knees. But it could easily have been worse, a fractured collarbone or facial wounds. It is possible that a hardtail bike has a more rigid rear and is better able to keep a trailer in check. It is also true that the way the trailer is loaded plays a role. Putting the weighty stuff low and near the back of the trailer gives more stability. Although I learned to pack properly and to anticipate dangerous situations, my last crash in 2010 occurred just a few days before Banff. Apparently, after 70 days I still hadn't got the bike fully under control.
My feeling is that the trailer wheel is an extra drag. This is hard to quantify in a quantitative way, like the difference in rolling resistance of a 26er and 29er bike. On the other hand, wind drag of a bike-trailer combination is less. The trailer is definitely less agile on tortuous trails, but these are rare on the GD route.
Even if a bike-plus-panniers adds up to some 40 kg, it is possible to lift it for a few seconds, which is usually sufficient to tilt it over obstacles or to climb a short stairs. But you cannot lift bike plus trailer together, simply because your reach is too short and the two are linked flexibly. So you often have to detach the trailer. The GD has some notorious ‘roads impassable when wet’, i.e. sticky mud. With panniers you might carry the bike over a sort distance; with a trailer you are really stuck.
4. Packing volume
Here the trailer has advantages. The volume is large and less compartmented. Packing is easier and faster. It is also easy to strap things on top.
5. Air travel
With air travel the trailer has a significant disadvantage. It definitively doesn’t fit in the usual bike box. It is a separate package, usually at a stiff extra charge. Panniers can be collected into a single travel bag that fits the airline size requirements.
My gear, including bags but excluding food and drinks, added up to 26 kg. Amongst GD gear lists, this appears on the heavy side, but I do not care too much about weight. Spending some 500 dollars for a lightweight tent and sleeping bag could have shaven 2 kg off without loss of comfort.
It would be different if I were to compete in the Tour Divide race. For doing 100+ miles daily, ultralight is mandatory. TD gear lists are typically below 15 kg. But then comfort is at a minimum.
There are a few items I wouldn’t bring next time, such as a multitool and an electric razor. Scratching sunburned skin isn’t helpful and a beard is good protection for sunburn.
Wait, I forgot an important item for staying healthy: a baseball cap under your helmet. The forward brim shields eyes, nose and lips from the sun.
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