The gear I loved at the Migration Gravel Race

From my personal gravel bike to a beaded Maasai good-luck charm, these are the things that made my race.

Photo: Betsy Welch

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James Savage, one of the directors of the Migration Gravel Race, didn’t ride in his own event, but his bike did the entire race.

During stage one, Savage’s yellow Santa Cruz Stigmata was ridden by Skyler Bishop, an American whose bike arrived in Kenya two days late. That first day, Colombian Felipe Aguirre Martinez cracked the left seat stay on his red Ridley. When Bishop’s bike arrived, he handed off the Stigmata to Felipe, who rode it the entire rest of the race.

Basically, Savage’s bike saved (four) days.

Photo: Betsy Welch

Having gear malfunctions at any bike race is a major buzzkill, but it feels more fatal when you’ve traveled across continents to ride. The Migration Gravel Race, with its brain-rattling roads to the daily transfers of gear between remote wild camp locations to the daily issues of dust and dew, served up plenty of challenges to bikes and gear.

Fortunately, all 60 of us, along with the organizers, mechanics, and Maasai, all managed to get by with a little help from our (new) friends. Here is the gear that made my race.

Travel things:

EVOC Bike Travel Bag Pro: This bag requires a bit of initial assembly (like inserting the rods that form the skeleton of the case), but packing it is very straightforward. Mount your bike to a removable stand using the provided through-axle adapters, secure the stand and the frame to the inside of the bike with webbing straps, and chuck the wheels go in the padded external pockets (no need to remove rotors). My favorite touch is the removable clip-on wheel that goes on the front of the bag, making steering it that much easier.

The EVOC Bike Bag Pro was a cinch to pack and kept everything intact.

Osprey BigKit Duffel: Unfortunately, Osprey doesn’t make this exact bag anymore, but it’s worth mentioning (should you be shopping for a similar bag) certain features that are great to have in an international bike trip duffel bag. One, backpack straps, schlepping is the name of the game. Two, compartments. This bag was designed with a skier or cyclist in mind and has sections for shoes (ventilated) and a helmet (padded). The main compartment of this bag is deep and ample. It was the perfect receptacle for the . . .

Topo Designs pack bags: Would you like to know how much dirty laundry you can fit in the 10L cube bag? Approximately five jerseys, four bib shorts, two neck gaiters, one pair of sun sleeves, five pairs of socks, and two pairs of gloves. Even overstuffed, the big burly zippers make these things easy to get into and out of. I also used the 5L pack bag for all the random things like tubes, tools, snacks, a headlamp, and batteries that I didn’t want floating around in my duffel. This was a race of packing and unpacking every single day, so I really appreciated these packs’ ability to maintain some semblance of organization amidst the chaos.

The Topo Designs pack bags helped keep my chaos organized.

Honorable mentions: My 15-year old Thermarest camp pillow (works much better than balled-up clothes or no pillow at all) and my battery-powered Black Diamond Storm headlamp that was great for the early-morning starts and middle-of-the-night pee breaks.

Bike things:

Ibis Hakka MX: The global bike shortage has meant that even cycling journalists have a hard time sourcing test bikes. This meant I wasn’t able to put a new bike through its paces at the Migration Gravel Race. However, the bike shortage turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Often, I can fake-it-til-I-make-it with a test bike that doesn’t fit that well, but the MGR would not have been the place. The riding was so rough and gnarly that having a bike that A) fit and B) I am used to riding through ridiculous terrain proved to be in my best interest. The Hakka really can handle it all.

My personal 53cm 2019-edition Ibis Hakka MX.

Hunt Carbon Gravel Disc X-Wide wheels: These are wheels for burly off-road adventures; have I mentioned that the MGR was a mega off-road adventure? I’ve been riding the X-Wides for a few months now, and I don’t think I’ll ever not. The folks at Hunt have optimized the X-Wide rims for tires in the 40-45mm range, which I believe is the optimal range for gravel. Their 35mm depth is strong and durable for banging into rocks and roots. Rims were broken during the MGR; thankfully, mine were not.

And honestly —  those spokes though!

The wheels are great, but everyone really loves the spokes.

Specialized Tracer Pro: These tires with that wheelset? A match made in heaven. I’m close to saying that the Tracer Pro in 700×42 might be my favorite gravel tire yet. I rode on 40s for two years before I sized up; rather than feeling sluggish and slow, the 42c Tracer Pro tires are fast-rolling and have just enough bite for when the going gets rough.

I can’t speak to how these tires respond to mud (thank god we didn’t have that to contend with), but for dry conditions on pavement, grass, singletrack, cobbles, and sand they roll with very little resistance.

Honorable mentions: my 40t chainring and 11/46 cassette combo — it’s all the gearing I ever need, and a Specialized Power Comp with Mimic saddle. There were plenty of reasons why it was hard to get back on the bike day after day, but my bum wasn’t one of them.

Kit things:

Velocio Luxe bib shorts — Velocio bibs do everything right. It’s easy to pee with the FlyFree design, and the overall fit is a marriage of comfort and performance. Although I had a few pairs of shorts with me on the ride; I could have easily reached for the Luxe every time.

Camelback Chase Vest: Even though I didn’t need to access anything in the pack except the water, I’m still glad I wore it, just in case. It’s extra security that somehow feels weightless. The right breast pocket is also handy for storing and easily accessing an iPhone; however, I learned the hard way that if the going is rough, you need to zip that iPhone pocket shut!

Smith Wildcat sunnies and big smiles.

Smith Wildcat sunglasses: These sunnies have now been with me on three of my favorite bike adventures: bikepacking the Colorado Trail, road riding on Maui, and now, the Migration Gravel Race. They have the oversized look I love, both for fashion and function, and they still manage to stay put on my small nose. The design allows plenty of airflow, and they don’t fog up even when I had a gaiter pulled up over my nose.  At the MGR, we experienced all types of light, from dusky beginnings to cloudless skies; the ChromaPop lenses do a decent job in all conditions.

Pearl Izumi Sun Sleeves: Before the race, I was supposed to stay out of the sun for a few weeks for health reasons, and these sun sleeves are what allowed me to cheat before I was home free. They’re lightweight and breathable and have UPF 50 sun protection. Once bright white, they’ll now forever remind me of Kenyan dusty roads.

Well-worn sun sleeves and a Maasai good luck charm. Photo: @saltlake_lian

Gloves: I alternated the Pearl Izumi Pulaski (no padding) and the Girodana FR-C Pro (half finger, light padding) gloves, and my takeaway is: it doesn’t matter what type of handwear you wear at the MGR, just wear something. I don’t usually wear gloves on gravel, but I was more than fairly warned by race organizer Mikel Delagrange that gloves were a non-negotiable on this course. Given the state of my severely weakened forearms and hands after the extremely rough first two days of racing, I can only imagine what my poor palms would have looked like unprotected after 180 miles of rowdy singletrack and Kenyan cobblestone ‘gravel.’

Honorable mentions: My Specialized S-Works Recon shoes and a hand-beaded Maasai good luck charm.

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