The Not-So-Definitive Guide to Gravel Bags | Broken Spoke Bike Studio

The Not-So-Definitive Guide to Gravel Bags

03 March, 2021

Tyler Willmer: Words & Photos

The temps are moving up, and that means that mountain bike and gravel season is soon upon us! As our gravel bikes start rolling in the door and then start rolling out the door, we face one question more than any other.

“What bags should I buy?”

It’s an exceptional question, one which I always answer with, you guessed it, another question.

“Well, what are you intending on doing?”

It’s important to know, because when I’m setting someone up with bags for their new Warbird or Diverge; I want them to be set up for the right situations. Not necessarily every situation, unless that’s what their goal is. Just like gravel grinding, there are a lot of different ways to get to the same place, and it’s important to gear yourself up properly so when the time comes, you’re ready.

In this post, I’ll cover some of the most essential setups to get you going on pretty much any adventure you can think of, excluding bike packing or 200+ mile adventures, which both probably need their own articles to do them justice. 

Situation 1: 10-20 miles 

Chances are if you’re riding 10-20 miles anywhere, you’ll never be farther than 10-20 miles away from your starting point. This means that even in the absolute worst case scenario help isn’t that far away. Therefore there isn’t a huge reason to pack your bike like the end is nigh. Typically on a ride of this distance, I’ll set myself up with a small bag on my top tube or my seatpost and then will use my jersey pockets to the best of their abilities. I prefer to travel light, so in a situation like this I’ll typically put my spare tube and inflation in my bag, along with my wallet and possibly my phone depending on which bag I’m using. I’ll then fill my back pockets with my nutrition, typically leaving at least one pocket open for gloves/arm warmers depending on the weather. Something like a Brooks Saddle Pocket Bag (pictured below) is perfect for an application like this, but you may want to opt for a top tube bag if you’re looking to keep your pocket clear. 

Situation 2: 20-50 Miles 

Alright now we’re getting into the “Oh shit I’m 37 miles away from my car with no cell service and there’s a vulture circling me” situation. When doing a gravel ride over 20 miles, it’s wise to prepare yourself in the case of mechanicals or multiple flats. It’s also worth noting that if you’re planning on riding over 20 miles of gravel, you should make sure you’re comfortable doing at least some basic mechanic work on your bike; Youtube is a great resource if you love to procrastinate (I can personally vouch for this). We also offer a few seminars a year that go over basic trailside maintenance and preparedness, and we’re always down to give pointers if you come in!

Again, I pack light, but for myself I will run a top tube bag and a decently sized saddle bag of some kind. Alternatively you can also use a small frame bag, the choice is yours. I will also always run two bottles, because even though I don’t personally consume much water over 20-50 miles I know that having extra water is the most important thing you can carry. In my bags I’ll carry two tubes (more if the terrain constitutes it), inflation, food, phone, wallet and a micro tool. In terms of tools, the Crank Brothers M19 is a favorite. It includes every hex size you’ll need, as well as a Torx T25. It also features a chainbreaker which is crucial in the case of a chain failure; make sure you have a spare quick link (which is specific to how many speeds your bike is) which will allow you to make it back home. The M19 also has a few sizes of spoke wrenches which are useful in the case of a broken spoke or an untrue wheel.

Again, I like to keep as much stuff off of my body and out of my pockets as possible, and running two bags gives me almost all of the space I need. You may find that you have to put a couple snacks in a jersey, but all in all you should have the space open in case you want to bring some gloves or warmers, or if you think you might need to take off a layer during your ride. 

Situation 3: 50-100 Miles

This category is interesting, because the gear we need to bring doesn’t change much; however the amount of gear we need does. For simplicity sake, I’m going to treat this like you’re riding 100 miles and you can dial back what you need from there. The trick here is keeping the storage space we had with the sub-50 mile distance while doubling our water supply. 

So, what do we do? Well, step 1 is we get our water situation figured out. It’s highly likely that your bike already has mounts for two bottle cages, so that’s half (at least for me) of my water figured out. When we plan for the next two bottles, we first have to figure out what bags we’re carrying. Fortunately we don’t need to double our storage space, but we do need about 30% more than we did previously. My solution is to run one of the bags from my previous setup, and replace the other one with a bag double the size. For instance, I can keep my saddle bag the exact same, but instead of using a top tube bag I’ll instead use a frame bag. Alternatively, You could use a top tube bag and a frame bag, and snuff the saddle bag. I recommend one of these two setups, because the bag we snuff can then be turned into the spot for our extra bottles. If you have a bike which already has additional bottle mounts on the fork or under the downtube, feel free to ignore this section entirely, although you’ll obviously still need the extra storage. 

If we’re losing the top tube bag I’ll opt to use two stem mounted bags for carrying bottles, something like a Cedaero Devil’s Kettle or a Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbag. There are of course other offerings for this type of bag, but these two are some of the most popular. With two of these mounted on either side of the stem, we have room for two more bottles as well as a marginal amount of extra space to cram more shit in.

If you opt to ditch the saddle bag, you can buy something like a Topeak Tri-Backup mount which can accept up to two cages, a CO2 bullet, etc. There are some added benefits and risks to this unlike the bar mounted bottles. Like I mentioned, in addition to bottles you can attach inflation or numerous other accessories to a system like this which frees up space in other parts of the pack. The risk you run with rear mounted bottles though is that you now have to worry about a bottle saying “later dude” while you’re jaunting down a gravel path in Nowhereland. Of course a good enough cage will more than likely prevent this, but it’s something to think about. 


Situation 4: 100+ Miles

Get ready to enter the I don’t know what I’m talking about zone. I will be honest, I have never in my life ridden more than 100 miles. When I do a century, I cut it OFF at 100. Not 100.5 or 101, 100 miles on the dot. If you’re silly enough to attempt more than 100 miles without ever having done it before, I both applaud and pity you. Please keep in mind every comment I have for riding this distance is based on anecdotal experience and what I’ve seen with my own two eyeballs at events. Please do not take this as gospel, I really don’t want the phone call from an outraged cyclist because their 200 mile ride ended at 169 miles and I’m to blame, so please, I’m begging you.

So what I can tell you is this, you’re gonna need water, and a lot of it. If you don’t have the extra cage mounts on your fork or downtube, prepare to ride with a hydration backpack of some kind as well as employ at least one of the extra cage mounting options discussed above.

As far as bags go, fit as much as you can. Most people I see value storage more than handling for rides like this, and are willing to compromise how the bike feels to get what they need. Earlier I discussed mounting bottle bags on your stem rather than using a toptube bag, however these are not mutually exclusive items and can be mounted together. The bottles will make it a bit more difficult to get in your top tube bag, and the top tube bag will make getting bottles out a little more difficult, but hey, when in Rome. The benefit is that with this system you can run at least two extra bottles, a top bag, a larger seat pack, and a frame bag of some kind. If you’re really going the distance, you can also fit a roll bag to the front of your bike which hangs off the handlebars. Most roll bag systems typically consist of a dry bag which rolls at either end, and then is held in place with a cradle which is attached to the bike. Typically roll bags are used for deep storage; stuff you hopefully won’t need. This includes rain jackets, warmers, gloves, real food, micro stove, etc. 


So here we are, we’ve reached the end. I would like to mention that this is by no means a definitive list but more of a rough outline designed to help you prepare for whatever journey you’re setting out on. There are many variations to what you’ll need on a ride, as well as many variables that are dependent on your situation. I hope this helps you set out on that next gravel ride, no matter if it’s a 17 mile casual ride down beaten down limestone trails or a 170 mile gravel epic.
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