Packing panniers - Lessons from the road

What kind of clothes do you need when cycle touring in France? Bob Zeller replaced his cycling clothes with hiking clothes and reaped the benefits.  

Cycle touring in France

Bob's fully laden bike.

Coming back to England on a ferry after an autumn tour in France, I was having a wonderful chat with a fellow passenger who hadn't the slightest idea about cycle touring. But boy, was he curious. He was asking me all sorts of questions: how far do you travel in a day?, what happens if you have a puncture?, and so on. But mostly, he wanted to know about the clothes I take on tour and how I manage to carry everything in the panniers that he saw at my feet. They're questions lots of people ask – especially those who are contemplating their first tour. 

Packing has always been easy for me because in my 20-plus years of touring, I've taken mostly the same types of clothes each time I set out. And for the last 13 years, I've always packed them into the same panniers, my Arkel T-28s which I got at the same time as my Arkel handlebar bag. The two T-28 panniers provide a total of 28L of storage and together weigh 1.2 kg. The 'bar bag never carries clothes. Like many tourists, I actually call it my office and it contains my passport, wallet, ferry and rail tickets, note pad and pen, phone and camera and bits and pieces collected along the way.

But on that tour, the bulges in my panniers were telling me that I was either collecting too much stuff en route or the bags were shrinking. Well, it couldn't be the latter so it must too much stuff inside the panniers and, most likely, stuff that weighed too much as well.

When I got back home, I started looking at the websites of pannier makers with the idea that I should buy some larger ones. There are lots besides Arkel to chose from of course. Ortlieb, Carradice and Vaude are just three of many. Most likely I would have opted for Arkels again, this time just a bit bigger. But then I came across an advert for what's now called 'technical clothing', the clothes often worn by serious hikers and climbers – and that's when the light flashed on. New clothes were the solution, not new panniers. 

The key to technical clothing, I discovered, is that it wicks moisture away from the body just as most of the better quality cycling-specific clothes do. But more importantly for cycle tourists, technical clothing is exceptionally lightweight and packs into the tiniest of space, saving room and weight for other things.

Furthermore, most technical clothing provides high sun and insect protection, two things that can be important in some parts of France. It gets even better because most of it is fast drying which means I could wash my clothes while touring, and thus not need to take so much with me to begin with. As well, clothing that isn't cycling specific means more comfort on long days in the saddle because usually it isn't tight fitting. And lastly, it doesn't shout 'cyclist' when visiting a cathedral or other quiet place.

But before committing to this solution, I purchased some examples of the technical stuff to road test. The criteria were simple: light weight, packability and quick drying after hand washing. Without exception, everything worked as I had hoped.

One long sleeve shirt, made by Columbia, an American company with a much looser cut than any of my cycling jerseys, was really comfortable on the bike, even when I was on the drops. So was an Ortler short sleeve shirt made by the British company Berghaus. I then tried two Under Armour items, one a crew neck long sleeve shirt and another a zip front sweater. All performed as promised.

When it came to cycling shorts, I decided that on really difficult days, nothing beats high quality padded cycling shorts. But for less challenging rides, I opted for fast drying Showers Pass padded underwear that I could wear under technical but normal summer shorts (there is a review of another Showers Pass item here). I also chose Craighoppers and they were fine. I thus had plenty of options for both hard days and those times when I wasn't attacking hills but riding mostly on flat roads.

Lastly, for times when I'm not on the bike but perhaps out for dinner, I bought a pair of Rohan Fusion chino-like trousers. They are very much lighter than jeans and dry in five hours. Jeans and many other regular trousers seem to take forever to dry.

Here's a quick glance at the weights and drying times of my new touring clothes:

Berghaus Ortler short sleeve shirt, 200g, 2 hours
Columbia Silver Ridge long sleeve shirt, 220g, 3 hours
Rohan Frontier long sleeve shirt, 240g, 2 hours
Rohan Fusion trousers, 345g, 5 hours
Under Armour Heat Gear long sleeve tee-shirt, 135g, 2 hours
Under Armour Tech Zip long sleeve shirt, 110g, 2 hours
Showers Pass padded underwear, 250g 3 hours
Montane Terra Mojo Shorts, 210g, 3 hours

Drying times can vary according to the temperature and how hard you squeeze them out when you're finished washing them.

Furthermore, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many manufacturers making first class technical clothes that are eminently suitable for touring cyclists. My advice would be to visit as many outdoors shops as possible to see what's available and what might be best for you and your own situation. Cost wise, you might be surprised at how much less some of these clothing options can be when compared to similar quality cycling clothes.

The results can be really worthwhile. My choices meant a saving of approximately four kilograms from my previous tours. On a long day with a some good climbs, four kilograms can be huge, especially after the usual French lunch. But, more importantly, when I packed the panniers for the first time, I saved at least 25 per cent of room. Now, all I have to do is resist filling up the empty space with all kinds of ridiculous tourist tat and replacing one set of four kilograms with another. 

Bob Zeller, a now-retired UK-based Canadian journalist, spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for (Toronto) Globe & Mail, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and world championships. While he has enjoyed just about all types of cycling – sportives, audax and just riding his bike to the shops – it's touring that he has always loved the most. And it's touring in France that he enjoys the most.

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