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Gravel race strategy: Hydration pack VS bottles

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Cyclocross and Gravelbiking (Recreational) This has to be the most physically intense sport ever invented. It's high speed bicycle racing on a short off road course or riding the off pavement rides on gravel like : "Unbound Gravel". We also have a dedicated Racing forum for the Cyclocross Hard Core Racers.

Gravel race strategy: Hydration pack VS bottles

Old 09-10-23, 06:22 PM
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Gravel race strategy: Hydration pack VS bottles

I've signed up for a gravel race that is going to take around five hours. On a recent five hour "simulation ride" I went through three full bottles (each with 80g of carbs in them, some additional carbs from snacks). I carried two bottles on the bike, then switched up that third bottle by swinging back to the car, something I can't do on race day of course.

On race day there will be four aid stations where I could easily fill bottles - BUT - I was thinking about potentially using a hydration pack for the race. I have a small 2L one, so I could wear that plus have two bottles on the bike, or even just one bottle. That way I wouldn't need to rely on aid stations or even stop unless for a comfort break. Who knows how busy the aid stations will be. Plus this is an actual race, so I'm aiming to finish as fast as I can! Should I go with the pack?

PROS: Potentially faster as I'm not stopping?

CONS: Heavier initial setup. Hot sweaty back? Also, I'd look like a proper chopper... 😅

If I do use the hydration pack, should I put straight water in it, then additional carbs in the bottles? Or carbs in the pack bladder also?

I've got time to properly test different setups before race day. Thoughts?
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Old 09-10-23, 10:03 PM
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I've always hated hydration packs, my back always ends up sweaty and slimy but for 5+ hour solo rides they're a must, really anything over 3 hours. For a supported ride with water stops, I'd probably pass on it and just stick with bottles.
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Old 09-10-23, 10:44 PM
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I just switch to a hip pack because it is the hip thing to do, get it. For mtn biking I've always used a back pack and never really thought it made my back sweaty, decent packs are made to help minimize that. Even now using a hip pack I don't really notice much of difference there. I'm not 100% sold on the hip pack thing either. It doesn't hold as much water and I don't think it stays in place as well as a back pack unless you have it super tight so I'm still 50/50 on which is better.
Anyway as long as it isn't bulky I don't see any reason not to use one in this example. You can throw all that carb stuff in there if you want but keep in mind you will have to do a thorough cleaning job on it or it will mold up. I'd just keep it water and carb the bottles.
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Old 09-10-23, 11:04 PM
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In your shoes, I would only choose a hydration pack if I expect to be in an efficient pack or paceline that might blow through the aid stations. By carrying enough fluids, I could stay with them right to the finish. But if the race will get strung out, or I think most others will stop to refill, or I simply won't be competitive, I would rather skip the pack and refill bottles at the aid stations.
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Old 09-10-23, 11:11 PM
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When I did BWR San Diego in April (6 hours of ride time), I had 2 bottles with Skratch Super High Carb mix, and a 2L hydro pack of plain water. I also carried an extra baggie of drink mix powder, but never used it. This was in addition to some snacks, and making use of a couple of aid stations (ice cold Cokes!). For me, it was perfect, and I will use the same approach for another similar-length gravel event next month.

I use this same bottle mix + hydro pack water combination for 2hr+ MTB rides. I have never had the sense that that hydro pack is making me overheat, and I ride in some pretty warm weather on a regular basis.

FWIW, I really like the USWE hydro packs. Theyíre pricey, but worth it, IMO. High-quality gear.

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Old 09-11-23, 01:01 PM
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No hydration pack for me. I would rather have 2 bottles in the triangle, a bottle in my jersey, and a bottle on the bars in a snack bag. Get everything off my back- please!


My gravel frame has an under the downtube bottle mount. I have used all 3 mounts, then added a Wolftooth B-rad 4 to give space for another bottle in the main triangle.
https://www.wolftoothcomponents.com/...s/b-rad-system B-RAD 4




In the races I have participated in, I use the supply stations. Even if its a 100K race, stopping for 2min every 25K can be nice for body position, comfort, etc. I would rather carry just 2 large bottles and refill whats gone every 25K than carry water on my back and in 2 bottles on the bike.
I am never going to win any of the gravel races I participate in, so my perspective comes from a participant trying to do their best vs a participant trying to win.
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Old 09-11-23, 03:49 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr
No hydration pack for me. I would rather have 2 bottles in the triangle, a bottle in my jersey, and a bottle on the bars in a snack bag. Get everything off my back- please!
I'm the opposite. Other than bottles, I tend to prefer to carry stuff on my body, rather than on my bike.
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Old 09-11-23, 05:44 PM
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Originally Posted by Koyote
In your shoes, I would only choose a hydration pack if I expect to be in an efficient pack or paceline that might blow through the aid stations. By carrying enough fluids, I could stay with them right to the finish. But if the race will get strung out, or I think most others will stop to refill, or I simply won't be competitive, I would rather skip the pack and refill bottles at the aid stations.
I'm hoping to be "competitive" in my own way and finish as fast as possible (obviously not going to hang with the pros). This will be my first real race of this type so I don't know how it'll pan out. If I end up in a good group and they don't stop, I know my stubborn self won't stop either, even if I'm out of water. That'll end badly for me...


Originally Posted by Eric F
When I did BWR San Diego in April (6 hours of ride time), I had 2 bottles with Skratch Super High Carb mix, and a 2L hydro pack of plain water. I also carried an extra baggie of drink mix powder, but never used it. This was in addition to some snacks, and making use of a couple of aid stations (ice cold Cokes!). For me, it was perfect, and I will use the same approach for another similar-length gravel event next month.
Thanks. I think I'll give the hydration pack (water-only) and two carb-filled bottles approach a test on my next longer ride. Try and carry everything I need, then only stop if necessary or if I fancy that Coke! 😎
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Old 09-11-23, 10:02 PM
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Originally Posted by tempocyclist
I'm hoping to be "competitive" in my own way and finish as fast as possible (obviously not going to hang with the pros). This will be my first real race of this type so I don't know how it'll pan out. If I end up in a good group and they don't stop, I know my stubborn self won't stop either, even if I'm out of water. That'll end badly for me...

Thanks. I think I'll give the hydration pack (water-only) and two carb-filled bottles approach a test on my next longer ride. Try and carry everything I need, then only stop if necessary or if I fancy that Coke! 😎
Be careful about pacing. Itís easy to get wrapped up in a group that is rolling fast while youíre feeling good in the first couple of hours, and you end up limping home, desperately trying to play catch-up with your bodyís fuel needs.

Definitely test things out before hand to figure out what works and what doesnít for you.
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Old 09-12-23, 02:04 PM
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I'm doing a similar gravel race, 60 miles I'm guessing will take me a little over 4 hours at a fast casual pace. Myself and a couple of buddies aren't in it to win it. Just riding to finish and enjoy ourselves. For my first race I decided to use a frame bag and put a bladder in it. Then will stick a bottle on the underside of the downtube filled with scratch I will fill up at aid stations if needed. Small soft flask in the back pocket with 120g of carbs (Water + Sugar + Dextros). Extra food and gu in the frame pack.

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Old 09-17-23, 10:30 PM
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Originally Posted by Eric F
FWIW, I really like the USWE hydro packs. Theyíre pricey, but worth it, IMO. High-quality gear.
Did a test ride with my current hydration pack. It was "okay but not ideal" as the pack is only a cheap one and wasn't very comfortable or user friendly. I've ordered a USWE Outlander Pro now! Apparently it's what all the cool kids of gravel racing are using...
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Old 09-17-23, 10:41 PM
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Iím using this oneÖ https://uswe.com/en-us/c-mtb-pack-3-black-blue

Itís the same 2L hydro pack as the one you got, but adds a removable 1L external storage pouch, which I have found that I like the flexibility of. It can be used as a stand-alone tool (or whatever) pouch that fits in a jersey pocket for shorter rides when Iím not using the hydro pack.
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Old 09-18-23, 12:37 PM
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On the question of putting carbs in the pack, I have heard of triathletes just throwing their bladder away after an event. Of course, they are paying big $, so it's not exactly a dent in their event costs. The pelican bladder I have seems like it would be pretty easy to clean though.

I used to use a hydration pack all the time for long rides. I tried again recently, and carrying the weight was uncomfortable. I have never had much trouble with mine being sweaty, the airflow is pretty good. Someone told me that hydration packs lead to dnf on long rides. He was talking about longer rides than 5 hours though.
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Old 09-18-23, 01:13 PM
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Originally Posted by unterhausen
Someone told me that hydration packs lead to dnf on long rides. He was talking about longer rides than 5 hours though.
Without a reasonable justification why, I have a hard time believing that one. Not only from my own experiences, but from what I see being used in endurance events.
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Old 09-19-23, 07:42 PM
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Originally Posted by unterhausen
Someone told me that hydration packs lead to dnf on long rides. He was talking about longer rides than 5 hours though.

Not sure I'd believe that. I've never heard of a hydration pack causing a DNF before! Hydration packs are very commonplace in pro gravel racing, with many courses taking well over 5 hours.

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Old 09-20-23, 11:38 AM
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Originally Posted by unterhausen
Someone told me that hydration packs lead to dnf on long rides. He was talking about longer rides than 5 hours though.




This was about 600 miles into the 1050 mile Flint Hills Ultra gravel race. And yes, he did finish – and set a FKT record.

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Old 09-20-23, 01:55 PM
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you guys are awfully literal.

I have finished a 1240 km grand randonnee while wearing a hydration pack. The bladder I had was pretty annoying, it would leak if you didn't get the cap on right. That happened to me at a somewhat unpleasant point of that 1240 km ride. I never did figure out why the cap was placed where it was. Fortunately, they lost a lawsuit and had to redesign, and the new one is much better.

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Old 09-21-23, 05:06 PM
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I use one of these USWE Outlander. I highly recommend it. Very comfortable and very popular among high-level gravel racers.

Dylan Johnson did some wind tunnel testing with a hydration pack and found that it was actually slightly more aero-efficient with the pack on.
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Old 09-21-23, 06:11 PM
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Originally Posted by Clipped_in
I use one of these USWE Outlander. I highly recommend it. Very comfortable and very popular among high-level gravel racers.
My USWE Outlander arrived in the post yesterday. I'll be giving it a test later today! 🙂
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Old 09-23-23, 09:21 AM
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Originally Posted by Clipped_in
Dylan Johnson did some wind tunnel testing with a hydration pack and found that it was actually slightly more aero-efficient with the pack on.
After GCN did a test where they found out an aero belly was more efficient I grew one. I wonder if this hydropack will help more.
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Old 09-23-23, 10:42 AM
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I may be late to this thread. So far I see no one has suggested a CrankTank. I have the 4 liter version I use for hot dry rides in the desert of Eastern Washington. If you are carrying all that water weight anyways, why have it human mounted? Why not down low & centerally located?

https://adventurehydration.com/
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Old 09-29-23, 10:10 AM
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Only time I wish I had a hydration pack was during RPI. After the first big climb, the downhill was so washboarded (is that a word?) out that mine and obviously a LOT of other people's water bottles were spit out. It looked like a water bottle graveyard. Problem was that I didn't realize until after the downhill ended and I wasn't climbing back up that thing. So I was stuck doing the entire century w/ 1 water bottle. Wasn't a good situation.
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Old 10-01-23, 12:21 PM
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Originally Posted by Chris(NJ)
washboarded (is that a word?)
Yes, it is where I come from!

Another benefit to a hydro pack over bottles when riding offroad is that the mouthpiece doesn't get covered in dirt.
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