The endurance racer has always faced a conundrum when it comes to liquid nutrition. Bottles or hydration pack? The low placed, light weight of bottles onboard a frame have been the logical solution for at-the-ready hydration since Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher took to the slopes of Mt Tamalpais. These dirt pioneers re-purposed the bidons road racers had used for over a century prior but something better was on the horizon.
In 1989 Michael Eidson suspended a water bladder over his shoulders with nylon webbing and the Camelbak brand (and its ubiquitously named hydration backpack) was born. Again Eidson’s purpose was a road event; the “Hotter ‘N Hell 100” road race in Texas. While the hydration pack option has ever since been in the playbook for the endurance rider or racer the fit and feel of a bulky hydration bladder strapped to a rider’s back has always carried some drawbacks.
That is until the bright minds at Camelbak developed the Chase Bike Vest. Adapted from the popular Chase ultra running pack the Chase bike vest wears more like a piece of apparel and less like a backpack. I was lucky enough to spend 7 days in October racing the Brasil Ride UCI stage race with a production ready prototype of the Chase. The Chase did double duty during the 7 day stage race; serving up nutrition and hydration for myself and partner Sonya Looney. On some days we both opted for the Chase but most days the onboard hydration served me; freeing up the bottle cages bolted on my Pivot LES hardtail to hold Sonya’s liquid nutrition. I’ve been anti water-pack in the past, only opting for the aching back and compromised handling of my previous hydration bladder options in the back country or seriously remote events where minimal aid support and need for self-reliance were key. With the Chase bike vest I no longer have to make that compromise.
The 1.5 L Crux water bladder sits high on the rider’s back to allow access to jersey pockets; although I found I needed them much less with the Chase strapped on. Gone is the binding feeling of a waist strap or belt in favour of double sternum straps which are fully customisable in length and height. The Chase is suspended by two mesh shoulder straps and double hip straps. All of the rider contact of the vest is constructed of 3D mesh which allows incredible air-flow and just enough cushion that the Chase vanishes from the rider’s concerns. The broad shoulder straps in particular are near sheer thanks to the 3D mesh construction. The fit and finish of the vest is both minimal and yet substantial enough to be practical in any application. It provided just enough cushion to be incredibly comfortable. 1.5 litres of fluid is minimal while still being substantial enough to provide sufficient hydration on even the longest race days. Camelbak’s updated Hi-Flow bit valve and tube as well as their baffled reservoir are also anti-microbial to prevent the ever present funk and flavour of a well seasoned hydration bladder. The only downside of the Chase is that the bite-valve dangles down in front of the rider, exposing it to a little bit of dust and dirt as well as occasionally moistening the rider ever so slightly. I didn’t find this bothersome but some bulkier packs opt to secure the bite valve a little more effectively.
With all this talk of minimal feel and maximum performance its easy to gloss over the 8(!!!) pockets for gear storage for all purposes. While being targeted at the race pace audience the Chase doesn’t skimp on storage options.
One large top-load zip pocket is divided by a mesh divided for a dose of organisation while the bottom portion of the top pocket remains open to seal off the larger items a rider may need to bring.
External to the top load pocket is perhaps my favourite feature: a surprisingly large stretch woven stow pocket that fits and grips whatever you throw in it. During the blistering heat of the longest days at Brasil Ride it was crucial to have this space for extra bottles. I was blown away by how well this stretch pocket held onto one or two water bottles; even when they were slick from sweaty condensation. This stretch pocket would hold anything you stashed in it; rain jacket, leg warmers, bulky nutrition, back issues of Bicycling Magazine, you name it. One elastic loop on the right side of the bag holds a mini-pump or other awkward tool nicely. Further down the outside of the bag is another flexible pocket for quick access or quick stashing of gear. While only a half litre at best this pocket is open on both sides of the lower portion of the bag allowing for quick access with either hand; sitting just above a riders jersey pockets and suiting nicely for used gel packets or other nutrition rubbish. All of this conveniently mounts on top of the bladder while not being taken up by a full reservoir as other minimalist packs Ive used. All of this said leave your bivvy sack and camp stove at home because the 2.5L of storage isn’t meant for week long hauls. While it expands well beyond its expected purpose its no enduro pack.
The rear of the Chase vest is well planned and thought through for the mountain bike racer but the show-stopper for this rider was the storage options provided by the front harness pockets. Optimised for Camelbak’s “Quick-Stow” flexible flasks but perfectly sized for all of the nutrition and tools an endurance racer would want to keep at hand and easily accessible.
Inboard zippers make reaching contents with opposite hand a snap. During the longest days of the Brasil Ride I found myself utilising this feature more and more; even favouring it over my jersey pockets, which seemed to gradually become unused as the race days added up. Both chest pockets open at the top; a feature which didn’t compromise their function as they zip nearly shut or are secured by an adjustable tension cord. Ive found these chest pockets surprisingly cavernous. I could finish an event or endurance ride and still found snacks or treats I had forgotten about stashed down into the recesses of these pockets. I found it helpful to keep my at-the-ready gels or blocks on one side and quick-access tools like a tyre plug and c02 in the other side. While a safety question about placing my tire plug on my chest could be raised I promise I never crash. 😉
After 30 hours of racing at the Brasil Ride and numerous endurance events since I am incredibly pleased with the Chase Bike Vest. Camelbak has FINALLY solved the endurance MTB racer’s conundrum of bottles or Camelbak. NOT strapping on a well loaded Chase vest before your next XCM event is a mistake. It positions all of your needed gear closely while keeping it pinned to the rider in a comfortable and stable way.