If you’ve ever ridden with me, you’ll immediately discover two things: I dread climbing and I wear a pack that weighs a metric shit ton on every ride.
You can learn a lot about a person by what they carry in their pack. A peek inside mine will reveal a collection of moderately organized tools half covered in exploded energy gel. But somewhere in that sticky pile of tools, parts of parts and a hodgepodge of whatnot are snapshots of all my best rides gone wrong— and if you look deeper still, you’ll see both the best and worst of me.
So, I excavated my pack’s innards onto my dining room table in an attempt to pare down the calamity of over preparation I carry on my back. To a stranger, the layer of mechanical detritus would make it seem like I’m someone who prepares for a zombie apocalypse just in case, but in my everyday life, I’m the opposite. I travel lightly and am a minimalist, as long as you don’t count my nine bikes and 12 pairs of jorts.
A decade ago, I spent two straight years traveling on the road. As a highway turtle, I’d consolidated my formerly suburban life until my worldly possessions fit in the back of a car, and I still had room to spare. Years later, traveling with more than the absolute necessities feels excessive and downright discombobulating.
But when it comes to the trail, I feel naked and exposed without my heavy pack clinging to my back, like some kind of masochistic tool-filled security blanket. Throw me out into the woods on a bike and I become Linus, except my blanket is made of ripstop nylon and might give you tetanus.
On the trail, I feel a compulsive need to single-handedly fix any problem that comes my way, along with any problem that comes someone else’s way—but I’m starting to question the cost of it all. There’s a thin line between carrying around solutions to problems and shouldering the baggage of bygone rides.
It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, I carried nothing at all, naive to the fact that rides go haywire more often than not, especially as more riders are added to the pack.
Soon enough, carrying nothing evolved into shoving a tube and mini tool into a janky saddlebag, and relying on the kindness of strangers to lend me a pump. A few flat tires later and I carried two tubes, a patch kit and a frame pump that always managed to be missing or broken when its services were needed.
When hydration packs became a thing, I was eager to indulge my inner hoarder in exchange for the rectangle of sweat drawn on my back after every humid ride. Two tire levers became five because my annoyingly small hands require three levers to get a bead off the rim. Plus, it’s guaranteed that one lever will get lost and another will break. And yes, I know the tricks to pulling a bead off with only my hands, but I can’t do it—and if I hear one more person tell me to “Just put the bead in the wheel well,” I’m jamming a tire lever in their wheel. After all, with five, I have one to spare.
Back in the ’90s, I came across a guy whose carbon-fiber handlebar had snapped
in half. This was back when the bike industry was still figuring out how to be weight weenies without having their parts explode, and one look at his sliced forearm is why I’ve been toting a fistful of gauze in my pack for 15 years.
The inclusion of CO2 cartridges didn’t nullify my need for a backup pump and the number of tubes I carried went up as bikes kept having a wheel-size identity crisis. Duct tape is perfect for making torn bike shorts slightly less obscene—a fact I learned too late, but I’ll be prepared next time. There’s bug spray and sunblock and even more bug spray, because mosquitos are little jerkwads that will try to sting my soul the moment I break down.
Once I’d crossed the threshold from minimalistic to “What’s one more tool going to hurt?” my need to be prepared got downright ridiculous. I added a Leatherman to the fray because of the time I had to pull cactus spines out of a stranger’s shin, plus you never know when you might need to open a can of creamed corn on the trail. I also carry a full-size pocketknife because knives are versatile and the one on my Leatherman can’t quite cut the stale trail mix bar I’ve been toting around in my pack since the spring before last.
There’s a mini set of channel locks that I’ve carried ever since finding them on the trail, a sign from the trail gods that they’d serve me well one day. Sometimes they almost come in handy, but at this point, I need to carry them around until I do finally use them, otherwise I will have hauled them along all this time for naught.
The truth is that all of these silly little tools serve a single purpose. They are the placebo I take to convince me that I can stop things from going wrong. I’ve watched the unpredictable ruin plenty of rides, and even a handful of lives, so I pretend that my bag of tricks will give me more control than I have, which is barely any.
But I’m tired.
I’m tired of planning for lightning to strike twice. And I’ve already dedicated too much of my time being prepared for mishaps that may never happen. So I finally did it. I lightened my load. I left my past on the table and didn’t even pack a spare tube.
I drove a few hours and rode for a few more. Amazingly enough, the ride turned out just fine. Better than fine actually. And those climbs? With my pack so much lighter, well, I still hated them just the same.