Traversing Italy through Naples, Rome, Sienna, Florence, Bologna, Verona, and more, unsupported and on gravel—such is the delightful challenge presented by the Italy Divide. It covers a distance of 1250 km, with 22,000 m of vertical gain, through breathtaking landscapes, excellent wine, and some of the best cuisine in the world.
This is the challenge that we presented to Rémi Lequint. On April 25th, he picked up the gauntlet on our Triban Gravel RC520. In today's article, he explains why he accepted the challenge, the adjustments he made to the bike, and his bikepacking bag configuration. His goal? Be as lightweight as possible, and focus on the essentials.
After riding the Tuscany Trail last year, I knew that Italy is a great place for bikepacking and exploration. Tuscany was already a source of great memories, so a cycling trip from Naples to Lake Garda would certainly be a long string of landscapes each more glorious than the last. This year, with nearly 300 km more travel distance than the Tuscany route, there would be more to discover than ever.
We will first traverse the plains of Campania and Lazio, winding our way between the sea and the mountains, before taking on a multitude of Tuscan hills, with the highest point of this first stage coming between Florence and Bologna. This will be followed by nearly 300 km across the Po valley before we gather our strength to climb two successive peaks in Monte Baldo, and, at last, reach the shores of Lake Garda.
I had prepared my Highland Trail 550, and was already planning to do a week of bikepacking that same week. So when the offer came to participate in the divide, it was a dream! It will be the ideal opportunity to get more miles in, test my new camping gear, and enjoy the delights of the Italian countryside and cuisine!
"The RC520 Gravel is a bike with strong road DNA, and mounted with 700c wheels, it is very responsive and a pleasure to ride on roads and trails, with one limitation when the route gets a bit too technical. While the rear triangle has a design that emphasizes comfort, the stiffness of the entire frame-wheels-tyres assembly can get a bit in the way during technical sections.
Switching the wheels to 650 reveals a whole new bike. It's not just that the wheel size changes the bike's behaviour. It's still responsive, and even easier to handle and more playful, with a greater tolerance for obstacles (roadside, uneven road, rocks, etc.) and steering errors. The wider rims and tubeless tyres also increase the riding comfort level considerably, making long distances less tiring, as well as making the bike more playful on technical trails and during accelerations without sacrificing much in terms of speed on faster terrain. Just in terms of bike behaviour, the RC520 with 650 wheels is more aligned with the way I ride gravel. With 700 wheels the bike feels more like an Allroad to me. "
"Compared with the original bike, I mostly made adjustments in terms of riding position and comfort. Long distance riding doesn't have the same constraints as short rides (under 4 hours) or even day-long rides. I might spend 10 to 18 hours in the saddle, and at that time scale, even the smallest discomfort can take on immense proportions in terms of pain. So getting the position and gear ratio just right is essential.
In terms of position, I simply swapped the stem for a 90 mm with an upward tilt. This raised the steering position to one that was still sporty—with the bust at a 45º angle—but more comfortable and with better distribution of pressure between the handlebar and the saddle. This gives me a comfortable position with good control of the bike on the lever hoods. And on faster terrain when I want to be a bit more aerodynamic, I switch to the drops where I can be more efficient while remaining comfortable.
In terms of comfort, I added lining to the handlebar crossbar for more vibration dampening and to reduce the pressure on the ulnar nerve at the base of the hand. Too much compression of this nerve can cause a loss of feeling in the ring and little fingers, and a loss of strength in the hand. Last year, after the Gravel Tro Breizh, I couldn't even hold a fork in my right hand, and it took me six months to get back all the feeling in my fingers(!!!)
The original bike saddle is well made, but when it comes to seating comfort it can be hard to find the saddle that fits you just right, so I was loath to set off on a long journey with a saddle that I had not yet tested over such distances. So I mounted my old faithful, the Brooks C13, which deforms nicely to absorb some of the unevenness in the terrain.
Besides mechanical concerns, the two problems I've run into or which I've heard about when embarking on a bikepacking trip, are related to weight and gearing. "
"The Triban RC520 Gravel comes equipped with a 2x11-speed drivetrain. The double chainring drivetrain has a 50-34 gearing in the front and a 11-32 cassette at the rear. After a discussion with the team, given the specifics of this bikepacking event, with consecutive long days of riding with a load, we decided to try a 48-32 crankset with an 11-34 cassette. The result is a gear ratio that is just below 1 at the minimum and 4.36 at maximum. It's the minimum ratio that I'm most interested in. When riding the French Divide, my minimum ratio was too big and I finished with tendinitis in four places. During a test run, it's easy to tell yourself that you can push through and it'll be okay. But on a long journey, the accumulated exertion over time can bring you to a point where you can't just push through any more and that's when you miss not being able to drop down another gear or two. In an allroad event, it's not speed that makes the difference between cyclists but the number of hours spent in the saddle, so you have to optimise your ability to go further, not faster. Your average speed won't matter as much, especially on rugged terrain. So if you can lower your gear ratio, you should. "
"In terms of weight, the unloaded bike, with a double chainring plus electrics (dynamo, lights, USB charger), weighs 11.3 kg which is not bad at all. My travel load, not counting food and water, is 5.1 kg, which brings the loaded bike to 16.4 kg. Weight has a big impact on the amount of energy expended, not only on the flats but especially, and exponentially so, in the climbs. Steering is also influenced by the weight of the bike, so when riding offroad it's essential to stay lightweight.
This is in fact the philosophy of bikepacking: do away with pannier racks to ride lighter, with better distribution of the weight, and be able to ride faster and further than when journeying on a traditional bike by contenting yourself with taking the bare essentials. I've known plenty of people who set out on a long trip with too much gear and ended up shipping it back home by post as the days went by.
We tend to fill our bags with our worries, but this is a leisure activity so we can do without. "
"I'm setting out with a load configuration consisting of three bags, plus one."
Saddle bag Revelate Design : bedding and warm clothing.
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag
- Survival blanket (used as ground cover, or in case of intense cold or an accident)
- Rainproof jacket
- Merino wool warm socks
- Merino wool leggings
- Merino wool long-sleeve top
- Silk glove liners
- Long underwear for the night
The Frame bag Restrap :
- Repair and maintenance kit (tools, inner tubes, lubricant, ...)
- 10 litre compressible backpack
- Titanium fork
- Toiletries bag
- The remaining space is for food.
The Stem bag Restrap :
- Power bank (battery)
- Knife with pliers
Plus an additional bag on the handlebar for my camera (because Italy is a beautiful place), and the rest of the space for food.
In terms of electrics, I added an electric circuit powered by a modern rim dynamo. It has a "day" configuration with a USB charger that recharges a power bank which in turn powers the GPS and charges my phone as well as my headlamp when necessary. Plus a "night" configuration where the dynamo powers the front and rear lights.
What I'll be wearing:
- Cycling undershorts
- Cycling jersey
- Light socks
- A helmet with the headlamp on it.
"I tested this configuration one week before setting off on a flashpacking trip, which is like bikepacking but instead of exploring remote and distant corners, it involves discovering places close to home, on a short trip. It's an adventure that's ... just around the corner.
So we set off towards one of the bivouac areas in Belgium across the border from the French city of Lille, passing through the hills of Flanders. I selected the destination at random, because that's what exploring is about! The route was a total of 120 km round-trip, with a bivouac in-between, which gave me time to give my dérailleurs and double chainring a little tune-up. Shifting gears was fluid and the gear ratio provided a nice range. The sleeping setup was ideal for the average conditions I'll be experiencing in Italy. I'll just need to avoid bivouacking at higher altitudes.
Everything went well. The bike is comfortable and a pleasure to ride. There was plenty of faster terrain and little climbs and descents through forested areas. On those descents, I was pleasantly surprised by the responsiveness and power of the semi-hydraulic brakes, with a good progressive feel when more was needed. The bike is enjoyable and playful even when loaded. In all, it was a successful trial run, with a configuration suited to a good range of riding on gravel and bikepacking.
I'm eager to see how it will perform over several long days! "