Getting Comfortable in the Desert: The Racing Hydration Vest
As adventure and gravel races become longer and venture further into the wilderness, more and more riders have turned to hydration vests and backpacks to carry enough fluid to enable them to perform. With most vests and backpacks designed for running or shorter rides, comfort can be a real problem over a long day of racing. But it doesn’t have to be. Read on to find out how we banished the chafe to help adventurous cyclists go farther, faster and in more comfort.
Our story begins in the Sahara Desert. Our Creative Content Lead, Chris, was racing the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race, carrying five litres of water – more than he’d ever had to fit on his bike before. With long stretches of the race taking riders far from civilisation and water sources, he had to carefully balance carrying enough water for long hours in the intense desert heat against having space for gear and supplies. The obvious solution was to carry water on his bike and his body, but finding a comfortable way to carry a large amount of water on his back for such a long ride proved difficult.
Chris had both a running vest and a mountain biking hydration backpack but neither of them was up to the challenge of such long days on the bike. The running vest had a lot of accessible storage but wasn’t designed for wearing in a tucked riding position and quickly became uncomfortable. The backpack was heavy and inaccessible while riding, so in the end, Chris ended up simply carrying a large reservoir of water in his bike frame.
The reservoir worked well but meant it was impossible to accurately mix electrolytes or carbohydrates into his drinks and he ended up carrying a spare bottle in his Packable Backpack anyway as a rudimentary hydration pack. Speaking to other riders in the race using a mix of vests and backpacks, it quickly became clear he wasn’t the only one finding carrying water on his body challenging and it was obvious that there was a real need for a much more race-specific, comfort-focused vest.
It’s a challenge our product team rose to upon his return, promising to have a hydration vest ready before the next team member headed off for an ultra-distance adventure race in the desert.
“We spoke to all of our ambassadors and supported riders to find out what they were using, where it fell short and what they would carry for these kinds of events. Fit very quickly became our focus – working to combine the carrying ability of the best running vests with the on-bike comfort of cycling-specific packs.”
So how do you make a vest that’s both comfortable and capable of carrying two litres of water and up to five litres of gear and supplies?
A tucked, racing position isn’t something many vests or backpacks are designed for. Packs that are designed to sit high up on a rider’s back rub against their neck or helmet when they’re in the drops and straps that are comfortable while walking dig into riders’ armpits when they’re in the drops or using aerobars. Simply lowering the neckline and opening up the side construction drastically improves comfort. Taking this a step further, the design team moved the neckline even lower so that it couldn’t rub on any seams or stitching on a rider’s jersey and cause irritation after a long day of riding.
The fit under and around the rider’s arms is key to keeping the pack secure and reducing any movement while riding but mustn’t restrict breathing in any position. This meant finding a minimalist solution with enough stretch to be comfortable, while still being secure. The resulting side closure is a low-profile bungee system, supported by a stretch mesh on the sides of the pack that ensures riders can create a secure fit that never feels restrictive.
The use of stretchy materials has the added benefit of adding compression to the bladder pocket. As the bladder empties, the pocket constricts, helping ensure that flow rates remain as high as possible. The bladder hose was also designed to be reversible so both left and right-handed riders could make the pack work for them. A magnetic hose connector on the sternum strap was then added to keep the bite valve close to hand while ensuring that it doesn’t get in the way. The stretch materials and 3D mesh construction keep the weight low and breathability high, ensuring that the pack is comfortable even in the blistering heat of a desert.
Making the vest unisex was a further challenge raised by female riders and a great deal of research went into making sure the rails on the front sternum straps were long enough to allow riders to tailor the fit to their body. At the same time, the front of the vest had to be short enough to fit comfortably in an aggressive riding position in the drops or on aerobars and contoured to avoid any chafing around the armpit, even when a rider’s arms are very close together.
Making the pockets accessible yet secure was another surprisingly complex challenge. They need to fit the items a rider is likely to need (or find) during a race (including large bottles, tins and bags of food) without oversized items falling out over rough terrain. The resulting shaping and angling of the pockets means they are easily accessible and a one-handed bungee lock system ensures even oversized items can be held tight enough to remain secure.
Finally, the length of the back of the pack was carefully tailored to retain access to jersey pockets. Plenty of gravel and adventure cyclists use fitted cycling jerseys, particularly during races, so it’s important that they are still able to use the rear pockets and maximise what they can carry.
Returning to the Desert
The vest has already been tested all over the world, including at races like Badlands and the design team have kept their promise, with the Racing Hydration Vest being perfected in time for our Partnerships Lead, Rory to head to the Atlas Mountain Race.
He’s been training with the vest in the lead up to the event, finding that the comfort offered means he can go for longer, more remote rides without having to overthink resupply opportunities or worry about running out of water mid-ride. It’s also one of the few pieces of performance equipment he’s found that’s genuinely designed to work as well for him as any other rider.
“Adventure cyclists come in all shapes and sizes, but performance cycling gear is usually designed for the traditional racing cyclist. It’s really refreshing to have a piece of performance wear that is incredibly comfortable but also able to fit such a wide range of riders.”
Having an additional two litres of water on his body and space for food and supplies freed up in his pack, Rory no longer needs to worry about squeezing everything onto his bike for the Atlas Mountain Race, meaning he can concentrate on training and riding instead of trying to decide what he can survive without in the desert.