by Rolf Prima athlete Amy VT
‘Twas the night before a major gravel race. My buddy was holding up his hydration pack at arm’s length, just blinking at it. I asked him what’s up and he groaned, “I should probably use it, but I’ll look like a total geek if I am the only one.” So there he was, making a race day decision, potentially allowing image to outweigh performance factors.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe cycling trends and fashion are a relevant and fun component of the industry. I own an Imelda Marcos-level number of sunglasses, and I’m currently debating between barely-discernible variations of caramel color for my next jersey. But my friend’s conundrum that night had me wondering: are hydration packs really too geeky to use in spite of their practicality?
Ian Boswell and Laurens ten Dam battling for 1st and 2nd place at Undbound 2021. Image credit: Wil Matthews
- Guaranteed hydration - Duh. If you’ve ever deftly avoided a dropped water bottle on course, or jettisoned one yourself, you know they’re slippery little suckers. Maybe you missed a hand-up, or perhaps the aid station didn’t quite provide. No matter what, if you’re wearing a full hydration pack you’re 100% guaranteeing those fluid ounces will enter your system.
- Safety - The Rooted VT gravel race is entirely self-nav, and at many points cyclists are off-the-grid, deep in the Vermont hinterlands. What if you double-flatted? What if you crashed into a deer, or Bernie Sanders, or a hiking Phish-head? Similarly, the Belgian Waffle Ride, Cedar City features a ridiculously steep and sandy ascent after 100 miles. When I raced it, I recall us paper-boying back-and-forth to stay upright, silently regarding one another with hollow expressions, contemplating the meaning of life. One elite cyclist once opted to sit in the shade under a nice eucalyptus tree, content to live out the rest of his days right there. In any gravel race featuring rural coordinates, you could be stranded for a while, in which case your full hydration bladder, and the extra gear you could carry in the pack will prove even more useful than a Wilson volleyball.
- Convenient sipping - Like a good neighbor, the bite valve is always right there, alarmingly close to you. It’s like a pesky little Elf on the Shelf reminding you to drink. Moreover, if you’re smack in the middle of a peloton on gravel, you won’t have much latitude to reach your down tube bottle. Indeed, there’s no doubt I end up drinking way more, especially with packs with magnetic sip tube holders (is that the technical term?). Seriously, with these packs, like the one featured below, you can be navigating a gnarly, technical, and jarring descent where you need both hands on the hoods, and all you need to do you is sort of toss the mouthpiece up to an approximate location on your sternum strap, and the magnet will grab it.
- Storage - I’ve never started and finished a gravel race with the same layers. In fact, most races I begin all layered up and chattering, but end stripped-down in a hot salty mess. It’s risky to leave your shit at aid stations, and jersey pockets can only hold so much, which is where the extra storage around the hydration bladder comes in handy.
- Phone security - Where do you carry yours? Jersey pocket? Handlebar mount? Bib shorts side pocket? Even if you’re prudent enough to ride with yours in a waterproof baggy or a case to protect it from rain and sweat, your phone is way safer in your pack in the case of a crash.
- Less stopping! - This one deserves an exclamation point. I am radically against stopping, evidenced by my 170 mile Days Two in Ultraman races without unclipping even once. During gravel races I skip half the aid stations, and when I do hit them up, I often keep one shoe clipped, marveling at riders racking their bikes for a spell, and setting up dinette sets for what appears to be a luncheon. The few small races where I’ve been at the front, I’ve raced at the mercy of the lead pack making decisions as a collective, deciding if we’ll stop together or not. Usually not.
- Sweaty back - Truth. Your pack will induce and hold sweat. During hot races it would definitely be cooler without one. Your armpits will be drenched, and your pack straps might smell rancid.
Geek factor? - The jury’s out. Wait, does that phrase mean that the decision is clear, or we don’t know? Do you want a higher or lower deductible? Is it butt naked or buck naked? In this case, actually, the jury isn’t out because I’m confident about my verdict, which I reveal below. Spoiler alert: although I’m not a fan of pros and cons lists (they aren’t weighted, and they don’t take nuance or emotion into account), just glance at the length of these two lists.
If I didn’t sufficiently bury the lede, I always wear hydration packs in gravel races over 100 miles. I personally think it’s a cool move to capitalize on controllables to set yourself up for your best race, but don’t just take it from me. I polled some gravel hot shots for their take on hydration packs:
Ian Boswell - multiple major gravel race wins including Belgian Waffle Ride Asheville 2021, Unbound Gravel 2022; former pro world tour cyclist with multiple podia, 2nd Liège–Bastogne–Liège; host of Breakfast With Boz: “Hydrations packs are awesome. They bring back the self-reliance gravel started with.”
Matthew Beers - National Gravel champion and South African marathon mountain bike champion; 2nd, Belgian Waffle Ride 2022, 1st, Absa Cape Epic 2022: “I think it’s a great way to keep properly hydrated in these long events, especially in the USA. The level is getting really high so the bunches are so much bigger, therefore making it so stressful to stop and fill bottles. We have been racing with hydration packs for the last two years at Cape Epic because we have had problems with crazy aid stations, so we decided to run packs for tactical purposes. So to me it’s nothing new to be honest…haha…we’ve been doing this on the MTB for a while.”
Alexey Vermeulen - 1st place, Belgian Waffle Ride 2022 (by six minutes!); world class professional mountain bike racer - “I think they are useful when the needs arise! Gravel, unlike road or MTB, relies quite heavily on feedzones, so if you miss one it can be the end of your day!”
Alexey Vermeulen exhibiting the storage capacity of his hydration pack.
Jorden Wakeley - professional mountain bike racer with multiple wins including 1st, Barry Roubaix 2022; 1st, Mohican 100 SS (ran the last five miles); 2x Snowbike World Champion; plus a lumberjack: “As gravel races become longer and longer, hydration packs are on the backs of almost all the contenders at races I attend over 100 miles. As gravel continues to get more competitive, not having to stop and refill bottles and just focus on the ride ahead.”
Nicholas Chase - Rolf Prima professional triathlete: “To vest or not to vest? This question is a very controversial one for anyone racing gravel or cross-country mountain biking. For races over five hours that don’t have a “bottle hand-up” station, I will absolutely be in a lightweight hydration pack. I want to be in control of my nutrition and know what I specifically need to sustain the dominant efforts at the front.”
Sarah Lange - elite gravel racer; 1st, The Vermont Overland 2022; 2nd, Rooted VT 2022; 3rd, Rasputista 2022 - “I learned how important hydration is this season and have been experimenting with how to better hydrate during longer races. I tried carrying extra bottles, using larger bottles, but ultimately realized I will need a hydration pack for these multi-hour events!”
Heather Jackson - multiple Ironman Champion professional triathlete and elite gravel cyclist: “I love them! The last thing you want to do is take your hands off the handlebars, especially in the first hour or so of a gravel race when there can be a fast start, lots of nerves, and lots of people riding close together before things split up. Hydration packs let you stay on your nutrition, and get it down fast and easily while not having to reach down. You can also shove a bunch of other stuff in there like spare parts and CO2s.”
Sam Long - Ironman Champion professional triathlete and pretty OK gravel cyclist: “Ha ha. At first I thought they were geeky, but then I saw a lot of the top racers use them because they can get an advantage by not stopping. Unless I had someone personally handing me bottles, I would wear one now.”
Mike Ripley - Race Director, Mudslinger Events featuring the Oregon Triple Crown gravel series: “Mountain bikers have always known the value of hydration packs, especially when the time and place demands that you don't lose your focus going for a water bottle. Roadies coming to gravel are a bit slower on the uptake to get on board with them, but they should know their bodies, recognize the strategic benefits of packs, and get onboard.”
Ted King - legendary professional World Tour cyclist (retired); Race Director, King Challenge and Rooted VT: “While not the most comfortable or aesthetically pleasing, hydration packs are plenty functional and can be a huge help for the long haul.”
The proof is in the pudding in the amazing photo above from Unbound 2021. Ian Boswell and Laurens ten Dam, two world-famous, highly decorated gravel cyclists raced side-by-side for 200 miles to clinch 1st and 2nd place, respectively. Say, what’s that on their backs? If the number one- and number two-spots of one of the most iconic gravel races, and arguably the most grueling, both raced with hydration packs, ‘nuff said?
Other potentially geeky cycling gear
Burrito bags - like Oasis, Blind Melon, and Gotye, burrito bags came in hot, and then sorta faded. They were so cool a few years ago, but then perhaps cyclists realized that it’s actually not that convenient to reach over your bars and unzip a little bag during a race. If you need extra gear and aren’t sporting a hydration pack, then a ginormous saddlebag will probably suffice. I personally think they look rather cool, but I don’t use one and TBH, I don’t completely understand them.
- Helmet mirrors - Hard no. They are not just nerdy and a surefire way to identify a bush league cyclist, but they are dangerous for myriad reasons.
- Bento boxes - Like burrito bags and saddlebags, these are extra storage compartments for anything you like, but unlike burrito and saddlebags, they have no aerodynamic cost. I love them. They’re ideal for nutrition, and there couldn’t be a more convenient placement to negotiate without sitting upright.
- Lights - This topic is hotly debated. I espouse erring on the side of safety, and I appreciate races that demand front and tail lights. I personally don’t think flashing lights are necessary during races or any ride with multiple riders, though. It’s not the worst, but I don’t love staring down a migraine-inducing flashing disco light in a peloton, debating whether I should burn a match and pass Disco Stu, or just drop back to spare myself. That stated, horrible bike-and-traffic crash incidents are on the rise, so I will officially standby #safetyfirst.
- Gloves - Of course yes. This one is a personal decision, but if anyone thinks that bike gloves aren't cool, they must be a triathlete, and triathlon is a patently uncool sport.
Ski goggles - I just saw someone wear them in a race. Amazing. Inspiring, actually. You go, dude.
- Massive bright yellow rain cape - Sure. As someone prone to hypothermia in the mildest conditions, I will never judge layers designed to combat inclement weather. TBH, I personally wouldn’t choose the neon yellow variety, but that’s just style talkin’. I respect the #safetyfirst rationale of high-vis apparel.
- Earbuds - It’s not safe to blare music into your cranium during a huge race, elbow-to-elbow with 1000 of your closest friends. That move is both ant-social and dangerous. I have, however, recently switched from navigation displaying on my device to the audible Ride With GPS cues broadcast via my phone. In this case I champion earbuds for navigation and safety if race rules permit.
- Mounted boom box - I dunno. It’s kinda cute when you pass some cheery hippie broadcasting a Widespread Panic song courtesy of the Doppler Effect. On the other hand, during a race I belive it’s a bit selfish. My rule-of-thumb for all ethical questions is: what if everyone did it?
VT happy and hydrated at Rooted VT 2022
Be yourself. I have very recently worn Breathe Right® strips in an Ironman, impossibly huge ski gloves in a bike race, and a wetsuit in my neighborhood pool. I’m not sorry. Gravel races feature countless uncontrollables and unpredictable surprises. I promise you will not give a shit how geeky you look when you’re sitting under a tree in BWR Cedar City considering laying down there for the rest of your life. At least you’ll have water and a make-shift pillow.