Race Tested

When we design new products, our mantra is that they must add value – they must be unique, better, or different than what is currently available and must be designed around riders’ needs. Unsurprisingly, inspiration for new products generally comes from our community of riders; an unmet need, something not working as they had hoped or a desire to do something differently. It’s a long journey from need to product, however, and we work closely with riders to make sure the products we release are the best they can be. This is the story of Packables, a story that began back in the summer of 2018.

20/05/2020
a man by back with a Packable Backpack and a full bikepacking kit riding a bicycle down a street

 

As always, it started with a question: “Food stops: How do you carry the extra food that you’ve bought?”. We had noticed more riders carrying lightweight backpacks for when they temporarily needed a bit more space – on the way to a campsite in the evening, after a big resupply in a race, or on their way to the airport – and wanted to understand what riders were already using and what was working well and what was not. Our community of riders were quick to offer their thoughts:

“I use a musette. It has a flap and mesh pockets! It’s super light and packable. It could do with a hip strap to stop it falling to the front when riding.”

“I tend to avoid too much packaged food when I’m on a trip, and this means that it tends to be pastry or perishable and water would ruin it.”

“Waterproof, or at least highly water-resistant, is a must. I don’t want to worry about my gear.”

“I typically use a lightweight trail running backpack. When empty it can fit inside my seat pack but it’s comfy enough to ride fully loaded for several hundred miles.”

“For cycling backpacks, I really like sternum and waist straps. Nothing fancy, but functional to keep the loads stable, distribute the weight and keep it in place on rough trails.”

“Mesh outer pockets near the hip areas are great for tossing in a juice/water bottle or bear spray and being able to get to it on the go.”

A man in a grocery store adding some product into his Packable Backpack

Clearly there was room for improvement and there was nothing available that specifically catered to the needs of long-distance cyclists. Most backpacks, musettes and vests aren’t designed for on-the-bike comfort and compromise on usability, waterproofing or durability.

We wondered if we might find a preference for one style of bag over another, but it was clear that different types of riders had their own preference and that even the most perfect Packable Backpack would not hold the same appeal as a Packable Musette for riders that prefer them. More importantly, regardless of bag preferences, function and comfort mattered to the riders we spoke to above all else, including weight and packability.

With the initial feedback gathered, our design team’s first challenge was identifying which features needed to be prioritised. This meant spotting patterns in the feedback, considering how different features would interact with each other and following up with the riders that provided the feedback to better understand their needs.

Once the initial design has been finalised and turned into prototypes, the next step is always real-world testing. While the focus of our testing often means working closely with an ambassador – in this case, Björn Lenhard, we also ensure new products find their way into the hands (and onto the bikes) of as diverse a group as possible. While prototypes of the backpack have been worn at the TransAtlanticWay and Transcontinental Race by Björn, they have also been taken on short trips to the shops and long voyages into the backcountry by other members of our testing community.

Björn's drawstring bag wasn't comfortable for carrying heavy items

A man in black and white riding a bike on the beach

Björn's drawstring bag wasn't comfortable for carrying heavy items

a man riding a bike down a dirt road smiling to the camera

He was forced to compromise by a lack of options on the market

He was forced to compromise by a lack of options on the market

Björn was particularly helpful for providing the performance-focused feedback for the Packables, having previously worn a drawstring bag in races and being keen to help develop something more suitable. He tells us “the drawstring bag was what was available at the time. I couldn’t find anything better on the market, but I wanted to have something really lightweight and packable as it’s very handy for shopping and quickly putting things into or taking them out. The drawstring bag was nasty if I carried heavy things, like bottles around – the strings hurt at the shoulders.”.

Throughout the 2018-2020 racing seasons, Björn put multiple prototypes through their paces, each with minor tweaks over what came before. “The first prototype was blue and didn’t have a velcro fastener for closing or pockets on the outside. Through the process, these elements got added and the final product is well designed for my needs now. It helps me to have more comfort during the long days in the saddle.”

Björn with an early prototype of the Packable Backpack on the TCR
A man by back using a full bikepacking kit and a Packable Backpack carrying his bicycle through the stairs to a door

Björn with an early prototype of the Packable Backpack on the TCR

Aside from tester feedback, working with lighter weight materials than we use in our bike-mounted packs presented its own challenges. The 20D nylon ripstop we use is difficult to seam tape to make waterproof and we had to work closely with our factories to find a solution they were happy with.

Of the two packs, the backpack was the most complex. Creating a large storage space, suitable for heavy items, while keeping the weight low normally leads to thin, lightweight straps that stretch out of shape under load and dig into your armpits. We spent a long time working with testers looking at the shape of straps and seeing how they sit under load.

As the prototype evolved, the straps became more contoured, creating more space and ensuring the weight is pulled in toward the chest through the sternum strap. We also added some spacer mesh to create more sponginess for comfort and angled the side pockets for on-bike access. The final backpack is impressively light at 105g but doesn’t compromise on comfort, with weight stripped only where it doesn’t impact how the pack feels on a riders’ back.

The musette is a different offering; a smaller space that appeals to lightweight roadies and the real gram counters. Most riders that have experienced riding with a musette bag will be able to relate to the experience of needing to re-centre it on their back every few minutes – it’s the double-edged sword of easy on-the-bike access and being able to purposefully and safely swing the bag around to your front as you ride. Many riders also find they need to tie a knot in the strap of their musette as most simple designs are fixed in length.

Through the prototyping and testing period, we found the need for both adjustable straps and a reversible stability strap. The musette might be a very straightforward bag, but with some minor improvements, it becomes much more usable. The trick is knowing when to stop – early prototypes had internal pockets, but they proved not to be particularly functional in testing, adding weight without adding usability and making the musette harder to pack.

Close-up of hands Compressing the Packables

Close-up of hands attaching the Packable to a bike

Despite their different focuses, both bags are connected by their ability to pack down small and attach directly to your bike. From conversations with testers and the wider community, the design team knew that space inside bike bags comes at a premium and wanted to ensure that the packable bags could attach to the bike frame itself or the external straps on bike bags – meaning that even empty, the Packables aren’t taking up valuable space. Perhaps instead of the #danglemug we’ll start to see the #danglepack?

Getting the Packables to compress small enough to attach to the bike without getting in the way proved challenging, however. Early prototypes used a stretch mesh stuff sack, but while it was easy to pack, there was no compression. The solution to this was to use a ‘pillow fold’ internal storage pocket; folding the pack away takes marginally longer, but opening the packable is as easy as popping the top open and when it’s packed away, it remains waterproof.

The final part of the Packables equation was working out how to enhance visibility and safety. Most backpacks and musettes place any reflective detailing high up, where it’s visible in a standing, upright position. For packs designed to be worn primarily while riding, this renders them invisible. With this in mind, the design team focused on the base of the packs, where any visibility aids would be most visible in a riding or tucked position.

Based on our learnings creating the graphics for the Racing Series, the design team settled on a series of graduated dots of varying sizes that go in different directions to catch the eye. To match the weightlessness of the packs and create a sense of movement, the reflective graphics are inspired by the landscapes we ride through and mirror our product packaging design.

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