Mel Webb is an ultra-distance bikepack racer and host of Detours: An Ultra Cycling and Adventure Podcast. She’s lined up at the start of events like the Silk Road Mountain Race, the Hellenic Mountain Race and the Alberta Rockies 700.
In just over a week she’ll be racing the 2024 Atlas Mountain Race and will be putting her body and setup through their paces in one of the world’s toughest, and most beautiful, ultra-endurance events.
Standing at 5’2, she’s no stranger to the game of tetris that is packing a small bike. Come along as Mel takes us through the evolution of her ultra race kit with photos from Morgan Taylor.
Since my first bikepacking trip in 2020 I’ve jumped head first into the world of ultra-distance racing and have been carefully fine-tuning my setup to optimize for both touring and fast-and-light racing. I’ve made countless poor investments in kit and others that have been worth their weight in gold. It’s taken a lot of trial and error to get to a place where I feel like I’m getting the most out of my setup. Today, I’d like to take you through my journey learning to pack my teeny tiny bike ahead of this year’s Atlas Mountain Race, sharing the many mistakes and triumphs I’ve had along the way in hopes that they help someone else, new or experienced.
One of my favorite things about bikepacking and ultra-distance races is the never-ending puzzle of packing my bike. Each route or race presents a new logistical challenge: from water capacity, to resupply, to the weather, there are countless factors that influence my approach to packing my bike for a given adventure. Over the past few years, I’ve tested the limits of what’s comfortable when it comes to sleep kit (or lack thereof), water capacity, and much more. The road to a kit that I feel stoked about and 100% confident in hasn’t been straightforward, and I’ve learned that the “perfect” setup likely doesn’t exist, or is at the very least subjective to the rider. I’ve also learned that riders who are smaller in stature face unique challenges when it comes to packing, that—albeit frustrating—make bikepacking all that more addicting to me.
A Steep Learning Curve
I came to bikepacking from marathon running and before that competitive rowing. When I started dipping my toes into bikepacking, I looked at my partner’s setup: bar roll, frame bag, seat pack. Everything on the internet said that those items were good things to have, so I bought them without considering how they would work on a smaller bike, because frankly I didn’t know any better. I quickly learned that what works so well for my 6’1” partner and his large frame, doesn’t necessarily translate to me standing at 5’2” riding the smallest frames that brands make.
Packing and repacking, then repacking handlebar bags again to fit them between my drop bars; frame bags that bulged out of my frame; saddle bags that hit my tire—there’s no shortage of challenges when it comes to packing a smaller bike and I feel like I ran into all of them. There’s plenty of ultralight equipment out there that can help make better use of pack space, but let’s be real: this equipment is not accessible to everyone and is a big barrier to entry. What works well for a rider is highly personal, and it’s easy as a first time bikepacker—whether for a casual overnighter or someone diving into multi-day events like I have—to spend a lot of money on gear that simply doesn’t work for you.
My First Bikepacking Trip
The first bikepacking setup I dialed in was on my XS Brodie Romax gravel bike. My first multi-day trip was through the Canadian Rockies from Fernie to Lake Louise and back, sticking mainly to off-road sections of the GDMBR. The goal for this trip was to be comfortable, maximizing the pack space available to me, while staying reasonably light to make the climbing as manageable as possible. I purchased the same set of Apidura bags my partner had: a handlebar bag, a half-frame bag and the biggest saddle bag they made. Despite being the smallest size frame bag, it was too long for my front triangle and bulged out the sides, but I needed the pack space so I sucked it up. Using the half-frame bag also meant that I wasn’t able to fit water bottles on my frame, which meant mounting them to my fork, which I ended up really liking for their easy access and ability to reach while riding.
That trip I also opted to wear a hip pack to have more capacity for snacks and an extra water bottle, but by day two of the trip it proved to be uncomfortable. I macgyvered it to attach to my saddle bag… which then made the saddle bag droop and hit my tire. On this bike I run a 38 cm flared drop bar, and packing the handlebar roll small enough to fit between my hoods each morning proved to be an art in itself, even with the flare. The narrow nature of the Apidura handlebar bag and sticky fabric made it challenging to stuff my heavyweight sleeping bag in and still leave room for other sleep kit. My sleeping pad ended up in my giant saddle bag with my clothing and my partner graciously took our tent and the poles.
Hooked on a Feeling
While packing proved to be a greater challenge than I first thought, I was quickly hooked on the game of tetris and long-distance bike travel. Compared to running, biking allows you to see and experience so much more. Each ride I found myself venturing further and further, craving the opportunity to see where the limits of my mind and body were. With time, I gained the confidence to venture out on big rides in the backcountry solo, unlocking a new sense of freedom and capability I didn’t know I had within me.
It’s difficult to put into words the strength these adventures have given me in the rest of my life: they’ve shown me the power of going all in on something that sets your heart on fire, of impermanence, and just how far a good attitude can get you. No matter how big or small of a ride, if you’ve done a hard thing you weren’t sure you could do, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I wish I could bottle up these feelings and drink them on my worst days.
Finding What Worked
For all the hours I’ve spent training my body and mind, it feels like I’ve spent double scouring the corners of the internet for ways to streamline and enhance my bike and packing system, building a list of dream pieces to one day invest in as well as budget-friendly hacks. In my search for advice from others who have faced this same game of small-bike tetris, I came up with next to nothing. I did however receive one gear recommendation from a woman in my local community that has proven to be an invaluable addition. She turned me on to the Salsa Anything Cradle + dry bag system.
Three years later, this is still my preferred bar bag. I love that the cradle extends the bag off your bars so it doesn’t mess with the cables, and the dry bag has a wide opening and smooth fabric that makes packing it a breeze compared to other bags I’ve tried. The cradle’s solid mounting makes it easier to keep the dry bag off your front tire, a factor you can see is part of the tetris game with my AMR setup on a suspension fork. The other added bonus of using a cradle is that it makes it possible to pack the dry bag fuller on a drop-bar bike.
My first bikepacking trips showed me that I was capable of so much more than I believed. I am constantly blown away by the fact that my body can pedal all day and power me to beautiful places and through challenging conditions. I gravitated towards ultra racing, and what better way than diving head first into the scene by racing the mother of all bikepacking races as my first: the Silk Road Mountain Race. Makes perfect sense right? While many people have completed the 1,900-kilometer SRMR on a gravel bike, I had heard stories of the unrelenting washboard, mountain passes littered with baby heads from landslides, and steep gradients.
Different Bike, Different Challenges
With an infamous route in mind, I opted to ride my full-suspension Scott Spark at SRMR rather than my gravel bike—and, as such, opened up an entirely new can of worms when it came to packing. The triangle on the Spark is pretty tiny, but it’s easy enough to run a full frame bag on because of the integrated shock. I housed quick access items in the frame bag, like extra snacks, water filter and medical kit. I opted to borrow my partner’s one-person tent for extra shelter, and thanks to the 15-liter dry bag on the Anything Cradle, I was able to fit my tent, sleeping bag, pad and a few extra layers of clothing up front on the handlebars.
The real dilemma of the entire setup was the seat pack. I never fully considered just how the bike would compress when the suspension was fully open, and every single saddle bag I used would hit the rear tire, even when using a rigid seat post. I ended up running a tiny saddle pack, the smallest one Apidura makes, and it still hit my tire when I opened up the suspension fully. Another piece of the puzzle was having room for water, so I wore a hydration vest for the first time and stored an extra water bottle in a feedbag on the handlebars. In hindsight, I would have likely needed more water capacity, but I scratched from the race early on enough that I didn’t have to learn that lesson the hard way.
Making an Investment
Following my experience at SRMR, I invested in hardtail specifically for bikepacking—the Cannondale Scalpel you see in the photos here—and it quickly became my favorite bike to race and bikepack on. It’s a size Small, but the triangle is surprisingly roomy considering everything. I still have to be mindful of the size of the saddle bag I run so as not to hit the 29” rear tire, but I’ve finally landed on a setup that I’m reasonably happy with.
This past summer I raced the Alberta Rockies 700, an off-road race starting in Banff, Alberta, that follows a significant portion of singletrack through the Rockies (hence the name). I’m often my own science experiment, and this time around I wanted to see what would happen if I was a real weight-weenie and stripped my kit down to the absolute bare necessities. I opted not to pack any of my usual camping gear on the bars, sticking with a small handlebar bag under my aero bars to fit snacks and miscellaneous items. In the saddle bag went my modest sleep kit—a SOL Escape Lite bivvy, MEC insulated ultralight sleeping pad, down pants, down jacket, and merino layers—in addition to rain gear and toiletries. I left the frame bag at home, put two bottles on my frame and rounded out the setup with a hydration vest for more snacks and water.
The lesson this time around? An emergency bivvy saves space and weight, but isn’t enough for sleep in -5ºC, for me anyway. I had one extremely cold “sleep” in a field somewhere in the mountains the first night, and opted to stay in shelters the other nights that I needed a nap (yes, one of those was a toilet). To me, this race was a huge success: I was the first (and only) woman across the line and learned a ton. In order to find the ideal setup, you have to find out how light is too light to pack, and boy did I learn!
My AMR Setup
Heading into Atlas Mountain Race this year I’ve landed on a practical setup that falls somewhere in the middle of everything I’ve tried when it comes to weight (though I’ve never actually weighed my bike). It’s largely similar to what I ran at Hellenic Mountain Race last year, and a lot more robust than my AR700 setup.
Over the last year, I’ve invested in a few pieces to reduce and lighten my overall pack size, including replacing my -1ºC Patagonia sleeping bag with a -6ºC Thermarest Vesper quilt. I had hoped not to run a handlebar roll for AMR, but the reality is that I still need the space, since my 64 cm saddle height won’t let me use a giant saddle bag.
As you might expect, I’m sticking with the Salsa cradle and dry bag combination. I can leave my sleeping pad, quilt, and bivvy all together in the morning, roll them up and stuff them directly into the bag. When it comes time to sleep, it can be pulled out as a single unit, and all I have to do is inflate the mattress, crawl inside my little burrito and I’m ready for a few hours of shut eye. In the event that overnight temps in Morocco are well below freezing like last year (it hit -12ºC at certain points of the route), I have ample spare layers in my seat pack, along with plenty of space for extra food and other creature comforts from home.
Once again I’ll use my Oveja Negra Bodega frame bag; it fits like a glove and provides plenty of extra storage space for food. Spare clothes, toiletries and food will go in my Apidura saddle bag. I am not a camel and Morocco can be hot—with two long sections of the route where water is scarce to unavailable—so two 1 L Radavist Expedition bottles will be mounted on my fork via King Cage Universal Support Bolts. I’ll also sport a Salomon 12 L Adv Skin hydration vest for more water and snacks.
Bar Bag: Salsa Anything Cradle + EXP Series 15 L Dry Bag
– Thermarest -6ºC Vesper Quilt
– MEC VectAir UL 4S Insulated Sleeping Pad
– SOL Escape Bivvy
– MEC Air Pillow
– Albion Zoa Insulated Jacket
Saddle Bag: Apidura 9L Expedition
– Albion Cycling cargo bibs, merino socks, summer socks, merino base layer, merino tights, merino buff, merino headband, leg warmers, Zoa rain jacket
– Toiletries (including all the creams and tinctures you could imagine to keep my butt happy)
– Big bag of quick oats mixture
Frame Bag: Oveja Negra 5 L Bodega Full Frame Bag
– Electronics (battery banks, chargers, spare headlamp, cables)
– Water purification tabs
– Emergency blanket
– First aid kit
– Empty space for snacks etc.
Down-tube Bag: Apidura Expedition
– Robust repair kit
Top-tube bag: Apidura
– Pass through charger
On My Body
– Salomon ADV Skin 12 L hydration vest
– Albion pocket bibs
– Albion merino summerweight t-shirt
– Fizik Ergo Lace shoes
– Helmet with Fenix HMR65 headlamp
– Cannondale Scalpel HT (S)
– Fox Factory 32 Stepcast suspension fork with 2 x 1L Radavist Expedition bottles
– Mismatched rims with a Shutter Precision dynamo hub, stock Shimano rear hub
– Shimano chain and cassette paired with SRAM AXS derailleur and shifter, 30 tooth chainring
– 29×2.25 Vittoria Mezcals (swapping for 29×2.25 Maxxis Rekon Race EXO before AMR)
– Touch points: Profile Designs aero bars with risers mounted on a Fred bar; SQ Labs inner bar ends; Ergon GA3 grips; Fizik Vento Argo saddle
Into the Atlas Mountains
As you can tell, it’s been quite the process to get to a setup I love, and truthfully, I wouldn’t have had it any other way! Where’s the fun in that?! It’s a welcome challenge to get things dialed just so, and I find myself seeking out routes and races that will have me scratching my head and plotting out that elusive “perfect” setup. I will say, the Atlas Mountain Race setup feels pretty darn close to that. After learning the hard way what is too little to pack, this setup has got what I feel is the right mix of comfort and compromises to get me through a week romping through the Atlas Mountains. I’m still riding the limits of clearance between bags and tires, and you always wonder if you’re bringing the right kit. Of course, every time you try something new, you don’t know how things will shake out until you’re actually doing them. I can’t wait to see how I get on and have no doubt there will be plenty of lessons to learn as I look forward to tackling some local ultras and heading back to SRMR this summer.