A bike ride through the Mendip Hills teaches Tristan Kennedy some hard-earned kit wisdom
When it comes to long-distance bike rides, you can never be too prepared. An 1898 guide for British and Irish cyclists that recently resurfaced online features a long list of more than 100 ‘touring requisites’, including ‘sperm oil’, ‘white cuffs’ and ‘permanganate of potash’ – alongside more recognisable essentials such as ‘dark glasses’ and ‘extra stockings’. Of course, this was an era when the self-sufficiency of cyclists – as heroes who tackled vast distances, powered by pure force of will – was celebrated, their suffering fetishised to the point of sadomasochism. It wasn’t until 1930 that riders on the Tour de France were allowed to ask for help in fixing their bikes. At the 1931 World Championship road race, a 172-kilometre time trial won by the legendary Italian bricklayer Learco Guerra, riders weren’t even allowed to ask for water.
Even by the self-flagellating standards of Grand Tour competitors, such rules sound pretty extreme today. But the principle that it’s always best to pack for every eventuality still stands. The ride where I learned this lesson wasn’t even particularly long or arduous. A friend and I had set out from his house on the outskirts of Bristol to complete a mountain bike route through the Mendip Hills. We estimated that the mixture of singletrack trails and dirt roads would take us about six hours all-told. It was a warm spring weekend; the sun would be out late and we figured we might even have time for a pub stop on the way home.
I’d arrived with my pride and joy – a secondhand (but recently purchased) mountain bike made by an American company called Evil. All black, with a full-carbon frame and rear suspension, it looked like the kind of thing Batman might ride if Gotham banned motorised transport. It was overkill for the ride we were attempting. My friend was on a slightly more modest hardtail. But in our backpacks, we’d packed everything we thought we’d need for a daytime ride. Some items (sunglasses, spare inner tubes, chocolate bars) would have been recognisable to our Victorian forebears. Others (lightweight Gore-Tex jackets, iPhones loaded with Strava) less so. But we believed we had all bases covered. Until my chain snapped.
We were cycling up an innocuous hill somewhere near our turnaround point, about as far away from home as we could be. We were also miles from the nearest bike shop and a good half-hour walk from the closest road. With the right tools, a chain break takes five minutes to mend, but as we rummaged in our backpacks, we found we were missing a crucial component: a spare quick link, which allows you to re-attach two broken chain ends together. After an hour of sweating, swearing and trying to persuade inflexible, fiddly bits of metal to bend using only penknife pliers and nearby rocks, we prised open the existing quick link and stitched the two ends back together. But in doing so, we had to remove a lengthy section of chain, creating a loop just long enough to make it around the smallest of the rear cogs – and leaving me stuck in the most difficult gear.
All of a sudden, the Mendips felt a lot steeper. I began to struggle on the slightest incline, frequently needing to dismount and push my all-singing, all-dancing bike up the hills while my friend waited, trying not to look too smug on his Halfords own-brand hardtail. This was a humiliation I could take: my just desserts for having bought pricey gear and not brought the basics. What was more difficult to deal with were the knock-on effects. Like a butterfly flapping its wings and creating a typhoon elsewhere, my failure to pack one tiny, quick link led to a whole series of consequences – a chain reaction, if you will – each of which exposed how woefully underprepared I was for anything going wrong.
With each hill taking three times as long to climb, our bike ride ballooned in length. The amount of water I’d packed for a six-hour ride quickly proved inadequate for a nine-hour hike. My mountain bike shoes – perfectly comfortable when pedalling – began rubbing a blister as I walked and I had no blister plasters. Worst of all, however, was the fading light. We’d reckoned on finishing at 6 pm at the latest, even with a pub stop. As it was, we limped back into Bristol after dark, cursing our stupidity for not packing that most basic – but most essential – piece of safety gear: bike lights.
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Even the earliest cyclists knew to carry lights. That 1898 list of touring kit includes ‘lamp’ and ‘spare lampwick’ as must-haves. And yet 120 years later, my own stupidity left me pedalling home on a black bike, in the dark, along dangerously fast roads. Two trucks passing scarily close was all it took to cement the day’s lesson in my brain: always pack for every eventuality.
There are, of course, some logical limits to this mantra. Even the Victorians, while advocating a more-is-more policy, recognised that some items were overkill. ‘A revolver is not considered necessary in the more civilised areas of Europe,’ the 1898 packing list notes, suggesting that ‘if accosted by footpads or brigands, simply inform them that you are British and display your Union Flag’. Thankfully, I’ve yet to be accosted by anyone on my two-wheeled travels, still less a scoundrel who might be scared off by the waving of a flag. But after my Bristol baptism of fire, I make a point of imagining as many points of failure as possible when packing for a long ride. These days, I carry extra water, multiple quick links, blister plasters and even a spare chain – and I always put bike lights in my bag. After all, you can never be too prepared!
Wishlist – an essential, a luxury and one that is surprisingly useful
The Essential: Exposure Lights Strada Mk11 SB bike light – £335
Regardless of whether or not you’re planning to be out late, bike lights are essential safety gear. Exposure Lights’ Strada Mk11 SB is arguably the most advanced front-light money can buy. The SB stands for Super Bright and with 1,600 lumens of power (twice as much as a 60-watt domestic bulb), it lives up to the name. It’s also packed with clever tech – including an auto-dim functionality so you don’t dazzle others and a pulse specifically designed for daytime riding – designed to keep you safe.
The Luxury: Hydro Flask 32oz Lightweight Trail Series Thermos – £50
Frame-mounted plastic water bottles are fine for most things, but if you’re going for a longer ride, why not treat yourself and carry a thermos in your backpack? Hydro Flask’s bottles keep hot liquids warm for up to 12 hours, and cold liquids cool for 24. Their Trail Series bottles are super-lightweight, too – this 32oz model (that’s 946 ml to us Europeans) weighs just 335 grams. Whether you’re carrying sugary tea for winter days or ice-cold water in summer, that’s extra weight you won’t regret.
The Surprisingly Useful: Lowe Alpine Drysack Multipack – £35
Sealable dry bags are obviously great for keeping valuables such as electronics, cash and travel documents safe inside your backpack, but they’re also great for keeping your kit organised, especially on longer tours. Socks still muddy from the previous day’s ride? Pop them in a dry bag. Want to keep your snacks clear of your dirty laundry? Dry bags again. Even if you’re not carrying anything wet, they’re useful for separating things out. This multipack from Lowe Alpine contains three of different sizes: 2.5L, 4L and 7L.