Tuesday, October 16, 2007
When we were preparing for this trip, we read many other GDR trip reports in order to glean useful information. Based on our experiences, we have created this blog to help other people plan their own GDR trips. We hope it is useful to you. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to post a comment and we will try to respond.
This blog does not include the notes we posted while we were on the road about the progress of our trip. If you are interested in that, you can find it at gdr07.blogspot.com
Very briefly about us... We are 48 and 58 years old. We have nearly 80 years of off-trail wilderness backpacking experience between us. We both use bicycles to commute to work and ride around town. Amy took 4 self-supported bike tours as a teen-ager, but not since then. Jim has never taken a bike tour. Prior to this trip, we had no mountain biking experience at all - we bought new bikes for this trip, and started riding the local fire roads a month or two before we started the GDR.
Good luck, we hope you decide to ride the GDR and if you do, have a great trip.
Amy Lauterbach & Jim Yurchenco, Palo Alto, CA
And Rickson Sun, who was with us for two weeks from Banff to Helena
It is very satisfying to have a route mapped ahead of you, and all the freedom in the world to move forward along that path. Get up in the morning, ride through the landscape until you're tired, find a place to set up camp, eat some dinner, and go to sleep. Over and over again. No schedule, no obligations, no worries. This feeling doesn't develop on a one or two week trip. You need enough time to establish the rhythm and sense of freedom.
We were somewhat nervous in advance of the trip because neither one of us had any experience riding mountain bikes and we were worried about whether we would have the technical skills to pull it off. We were fine. There are some short rough stretches in Canada, a couple short rough stretches in Montana, and quite bit of rough riding in New Mexico. But those tough places early in the trip are short enough you can just walk your bike if need be. Starting on the south side of the summit of Indiana Pass in southern Colorado, the road quality was inconsistent, and sometimes included long stretches of poor road. But this didn't start until we'd had a lot of miles to practice, and by the time we got there we were able to cope quite easily.
The ACA maps were quite good, and we were able to navigate without using supplemental USFS or BLM maps. We will comment later on the very few places the maps were misleading. A GPS is not necessary at all. A small handlebar mounted compass is useful, but not critical. On the other hand, an accurate odometer is critical; be sure to bring instructions for how to adjust the wheel circumference setting in case your not synchronized with the ACA maps; make sure every member of the party has a working odometer; if you're traveling solo consider bringing a second computer because it's not all that uncommon for a computer to fail.
The scenery is lovely. However, it isn't as lovely as what you will get backpacking where you can get out into wilderness areas away from the cows. None of the mountains were as nice as the southern high Sierra Nevada (our stomping grounds), not by a long shot. So if you want beautiful mountain scenery, get out your hiking shoes and backpacks and head to the high Sierra (or the Wind River range in Wyoming, or Glacier National Park, or your favorite high mountains). New Mexico was lovely, but not nearly as lovely as being on foot down in the slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau. However, as a whole package the ride through all those diverse landscapes was a beautiful and wonderful experience.
The guide book was useful for giving general information about what to expect in each section. However, we consistently found that the campsites they recommended were not as nice as campsites we found on our own, and we didn't attempt to follow the daily itinerary of the book. In addition to having nicer campsites, we like the open-ended feeling of starting each day with no destination in mind. Finding nice places to camp was never a significant problem.
Adventure Cycling offers this trip as an unsupported group ride (trip leader + 14 participants) every other year, including 2008. If you're a social person, or if you are uncomfortable traveling alone and don't have a companion, then that's an option. Otherwise, go alone or go with another person so you have the freedom to set your own pace and agenda.
About those cows... This opens a rather large emotional/philosophical/religious can of worms. It seems that people have "messed with" every acre of land they can reach - put each acre to it's best economic use, be it mining, timber, housing, ski resort, golf course, strip mall, etc. If an acre doesn't offer any other significant economic value, then you can always put some cows out there and graze it. The ranchers we talked to were extremely nice people who are doing what everybody else does -- earning a living and raising their families. Each rancher and each cow does no more damage than the rest of us do when we go about our business of building a house and earning a living somehow. But grazing in dry climates alters the fragile top-soil and subsequently the entire eco-system. That's fine for any individual ranch. But when you see it on every single acre for a thousand miles in a row -- well it really hits home that we humans have left very few acres of land alone for nature to take her course. This was a very depressing part of the trip for us. The only significant grazing-free stretches were the parks in Canada, Teton/Yellowstone, a section in Gila National Forest in NM, and a section in Coronado National Forest in Arizona (off route). Those sections may have represented a total of perhaps 200 miles in our 3100 miles of riding - not much. Those were precious beautiful sections that we cherished.
- 2865 miles total.
- 187,615 feet gain (based on an altimeter that uses atmospheric pressure; other reported gain statistics for the route are higher). Average daily gain was 3440'. Daily gain ranged from 840' to 5680'.
- 53 1/2 days to ride from Banff to Antelope Wells
- average miles per day was 54. Range was 32 to 95.
- average riding speed for Amy = 8.2 mph (Jim was ~20% faster and spent a lot of time waiting for Amy to catch up.) Amy's range of daily average speeds was 4.9 mph to 12.6 mph
- average time spent pedaling per day for Amy was 6.6 hours, generally spent over 9-10 elapsed hours. Minimum was 3.2 hours, max was 8.7 hours riding time.
- number of rest days = zero. We did have several "half days" of riding, when we arrived in town in the early afternoon, spent the afternoon doing chores (update blog at library, bike maintenance, shopping, laundry, showers) and then spent the night in town. (day#4 Fernie; day#8 friend's house near Swan River; day#14 Helena; day#31 Steamboat Springs; day#36 Salida; day#39 Del Norte; day#52 Silver City)
- 7 nights in motels ($40 to $75 per night)
- 4 nights as a guest in a home
- 8 nights in free "official" campsites
- 2 nights in paid campgrounds
- 1 night in private RV park
- 30 nights rough camping, mostly on BLM or USFS lands.
- 1 night on somebody's front lawn in Hachita
- showers: 12 hot showers. Many cold "showers" at the water spigots in USFS campgrounds.
- weather: We had 39 out of 54 days where our notes about weather included the word "perfect" or the word "great". Oh so lucky. On the remaining days we noted these often minor imperfections:
- cloudy and high temp of 60
- an hour of rain when crossing Whitefish Divide and again at dinner
- thunder& lightning at Huckleberry Pass, otherwise good
- good until 4:00, then one hour heavy rain.
- good except afternoon thunderstorm
- cool & cloudy, very light and short rain in evening
- a bit too warm - about 85 degrees
- drizzle for 1-2 hours before lunch
- light rain AM, good PM. Rain again starting at 6PM
- good weather, but strong headwinds in afternoon
- again, good weather, but stiff afternoon headwinds
- intermittent light to moderate rain all day. Heavy storm at night
- cloudy skies all day. One hour of heavy rain in afternoon
- too warm, high ~90
- mechanical problems: two flat tires. That's it! Mechanical maintenance: frequent chain lubing, one chain cleaning in Helena bike shop cleaning machine, worn out chains replaced in Salida, occasionally adjust chain tension using the slider dropouts, occasionally adjust brake pads.
- dog encounters: too many to count, but only two that included contact (one caused crash, one bit hole in pannier)
- Restaurants: we ate 41 restaurant meals in the 54 days. When we had an option we chose the "best" restaurant available, rather than the cheapest available.
- Costs: $38 per person per day. This does NOT include the bikes and bike gear (i.e. reusable stuff) or the transport costs to and from the route.
- Rude people: none. Nice people - too many to count.
- Best unexpected part of trip: libraries in small towns were usually open, always friendly, and always busy. It's nice to know that in these days of budget cuts even very small towns still have funding to maintain public libraries. In addition to giving internet access to travelers like us, it means that even in small towns people who don't own computers can get internet access.
All frame and component decisions were optimized for durability and field-serviceability.
Frames: Custom made steel hard-tails by the Sycip brothers in Santa Rosa, CA
Forks: Magura Odur coil spring fork
Drive Train: Rohloff internally geared hubs on Paragon slider drop-outs
Brakes: Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes
Rims: Mavic XM 719
Tires: Schwalbe Marathon XR
Pedals: platform pedals with Power Grips
Saddles: Amy - Brooks B17S, Jim - Avocet 02 Air 40
Assessment of bikes after the trip:
The bikes were great, perfect. We had no mechanical problems. If we ride the GDR again, we'll use the bikes configured just exactly the same way. Neither of us had any significant aches or pains in the hands, feet, neck, shoulders, or back- a tribute to the nice custom frames that the Sycip brothers designed and built for us.
Amy had two flat tires (one 4 inch nail, and one due to rim tape that didn't cover a spoke nipple), Jim had no flat tires. The tires look so un-worn that we could have turned around and ridden north back to Banff without replacing them. The disadvantage of the Marathon XR is that they are heavier and stiffer than some of the other options. But they are sturdy as can be, and the tread worked out just fine. We'd use the same tires again.
We had the chains pulled and cleaned at the bike shop in Helena, and we replaced them in Salida. Chain tension was adjusted using the slider dropouts once every 7-10 days. Other than frequent chain lubrication, occasional brake pad adjustment, and keeping the proper air pressure in the tires, no other maintenance was ever needed.
Rickson rode a bike with rear suspension. Jim and I had hard-tails. Jim had a Thudbuster seat post, I had a regular seat post with a nicely broken in Brooks B17 saddle. All three of us were plenty comfortable. I'm not sure whether rear suspension makes too much difference on this route. On the other hand, especially given many miles of washboarded or rocky or rutted roads, we were really glad we had front suspensions, although we can't compare it to riding the GDR on a rigid fork since we didn't do that.
The Rohloff hubs were wonderful. They required no maintenance, and they shifted flawlessly. Clearly, a traditionally geared system will work fine too, since many people complete the trip with dérailleurs. For us, it was really nice to have the reliability and simplicity of the Rohloffs, and we're really glad that we built up our bikes using those hubs.
The simplicity and reliability of our bikes was tested when we became totally mudded up in New Mexico. While the bikes became so clogged with mud that it became impossible to even push them, no damage to any components occurred and we were able to continue on riding by removing enough mud with sticks to allow the wheels to turn. The brakes still worked and the drive train still worked.
We are somewhat evangelical about “going light”. If you’ve got questions about the benefits of “going light” or the details of the list of stuff below, please post a comment and I’ll try to respond – I’m eager to help other people enjoy their trip as much as we enjoyed ours, and we believe that lightening the load makes a big difference.
We are primarily backpackers, not cyclists. Our “base pack weight” for backpacking (everything except food, water, and the base layer of clothing we wear while hiking) is 10-12 pounds each, depending on the season and location. While this is significantly lighter than the average backpacker, it is twice the base weight of the ultralight hikers (or GDR racers) who are now carrying base pack weights of 5-7 pounds. I mention this because we have been able to achieve our base weight without sacrificing anything we want or need to have along. For us, dropping down to 5-7 pounds would require giving up something that we like either for comfort or convenience.
Much of the gear for a bike trip overlaps with backpacking gear. The major differences are the tool kit and the means for carrying the load. If you are interested in trying to reduce your load, you should take a look at BackpackingLight.com, a terrific source of information and product reviews.
The list of gear below included everything we needed or wanted. There was no point on the trip where we wished we’d had something we didn’t have. In contrast, every day we were thankful that we didn’t have heavier loads.
Note that the factors we use to choose gear is different than the factors we used when we chose our bike components. For the bikes, durability was our first priority, and we used relatively heavy options – for example the Rohloff drive train and the Marathon XR tires. But for our camping gear and clothing, we have no worries about gear failure that could interrupt the trip, so we optimized for light weight.
Our grand total weight, for everything except the food and water we carried, was 60-61 pounds per person. Per person, that’s roughly 33 pounds of bike, 5 pounds of clothing/shoes/helmet worn while riding, 7 pounds of racks and sacks, and 15 pounds of gear.
I’ve covered the bikes and racks and panniers in a different post, so I’ll just summarize those here:
81 pounds: two bikes with all the attached stuff and all the racks and sacks used to carry the gear (2 bikes, 2 odometers, 2 bells, 1 small handlebar mounted compass, 12 spare spokes in the seat tube, 1 handlebar mounted altimeter, 2 pairs of Cue Clips, 1 bottle cage, 2 Tubus racks, straps and basket net to carry stuff on top of racks, 1 handlebar bag, 1 frame bag, 2 rear mud guards, 2 pairs rear panniers, 2 day packs, 2 6-liter DromLite bags with hoses, 6 silnylon stuff sacks (2 for clothing, 2 for food, 2 for ditties). [We did not use one day pack and one DromLite bag, and next time we’ll leave those behind and save 19 oz]
We did not carry map cases. Instead, we used the simpler and very effective Cue Clips available from Adventure Cycling store.
Here’s the list of stuff we carried, with some comments.
Sleeping – 155.2 oz total (9.7 pounds):
83.5 oz North Face RoadRunner Tent. This is a fairly heavy tent at just over five pounds. It is free-standing and huge and has two doors and two big vestibules and there’s certainly no reason to carry anything heavier for two people. We carry a somewhat lighter tent while backpacking which has less interior room and much smaller vestibules. We decided to carry the larger tent since we were going to spend so many nights in it and wanted to have good shelter for our gear and provisions. The RoadRunner proved a good choice: it performed well on several stormy nights, was easy and fast to erect and tear down and we never felt cramped. We were even able to get Rickson in with us during dinner one night when the weather forced us to eat indoors.
26.8 oz Two ¾ length Thermarest ProLite3 pads. We’ve tried using just foam and didn’t sleep well enough. These are the lightest of the Thermarest series, and work plenty well. This is another example of why our base weight is twice the ultralight backpackers. [updated May09: the new Thermarest NeoAir pad is only 9 oz and far more comfortable than the ProLite pads.]
4.4 oz Two 1/8” thick closed cell foam pads (from GossamerGear.com). We carry these primarily for use while eating meals – they are very thin, but they are a LOT more comfortable than sitting directly on gravel. Also used under our feet while sleeping. Also used as an emergency backup pad in case a Thermarest leaks.
3.9 oz 54” x 84” Spinnsheet ground cloth (from GossamerGear.com or BackpackingLight.com). Primarily used as a ground cloth for meals – just makes it more comfortable to spread out our sitting pads and our food and our gear to be on a cloth instead of directly in the dirt. We also used it as a ground cloth under the tent to reduce wear and tear on the tent's floor.
0.3 oz Thermarest Coupler. To hold the two pads together and to stabilize the sleeping bag.
33.0 oz One down double “top” sleeping bag/quilt. This is essentially a down blanket with a nylon pocket sewn under the legs, and Velcro attachment points to the pad coupler – the pocket under the legs and the Velcro keep the bag properly positioned on top. This is a HUGE weight savings over carrying two bags, it is more spacious and comfortable than two mummy bags zipped together, and it’s very warm. We were easily comfortable down to our lowest temperatures of 24 degrees. The bag is made by NunatakUSA.com. Ours is a custom BackCountry Blanket – but they sell an off-the-shelf two person solution, the Dual Arc Alpinist. We’ve slept in our bag for perhaps 250 nights, and the loft is undiminished. In addition to saving two pounds over carrying two sleeping bags, you reduce the volume of pannier space significantly. If you’re traveling solo and need to buy a sleeping bag, then look at the Nunatak Arc series single bags. Can’t say enough good things about Nunatak bags.
3.0 oz Two inflato-pillows (FlexAir Dual Compartment Pillow from backpackinglight.com) Aaaah, so comfortable to have a good pillow! A real luxury.
Paperwork – 30.2 oz total (1.9 pounds):
8.1 oz Bird book – stripped down Sibley guide. We removed the pages we didn’t need.
10.0 oz seven ACA route maps (mailed each one home when we finished it)
0.5 oz pencil and pen
2.3 oz passports
0.9 oz Two one gallon ziplock bags
8.4 oz Misc paperwork, including a bunch of different things:
1. Spreadsheet with details about route and availability of services, gleaned from the maps;
2. Blown up queue sheet info (which was critical for Amy who can’t read the queue sheet info on the map without reading glasses, which is not viable while riding a bike – therefore I did the time consuming task of photocopying all the queue sheet info from the seven ACA maps blown up to a size I could read, then did a big cut and paste job to reorganize them into usable pages. I can share these - if you need something similar post a comment and I’ll do my best to share.)
3. Photocopies of pertinent info from the guidebook.
4. ACA map correction addendum
5. phone numbers, contact info, etc.
6. Maps to ride from Antelope Wells to
7. Elevation profiles (copied from somebody’s web site)
8. Amy’s journal
9. Bird checklist (we kept daily record of species seen)
10. Cateye computer instructions
Bike Tool Kit and Spares – 35.5 oz total (2.2 pounds):
10.2 oz two spare tubes [never used]
5.5 oz Pump (Master Blaster with gauge)
1.2 oz Tire patch kit
0.4 oz Park tire boots
1.4 oz Park tire removal levers (3)
0.2 oz ziplock bag
2.4 oz Chain tool [never used]
1.0 oz Chain links [never used]
2.2 oz Chain lube [refilled at bike shops along the way]
1.7 oz two brake cables (same cables used for Rohloff shifting) [never used]
2.4 oz Duct and electrical tape [used to patch dog-bitten Ortlieb bag]
0.6 oz Tie wraps [never used]
0.4 oz Spokey spoke wrench
1.9 oz Hex wrench set
2.2 oz two sets of spare brake pads [never used]
0.6 oz lock-tite purple thread locker [never used]
1.0 oz superglue [used to patch a Thermarest leak]
(spare spokes were packed in the bike seat tube and are covered in the “bike” section above)
(pliers & screwdrivers were on the Leatherman listed in the Ditties section, although we never used them)
Prior to the trip, Jim replaced the Paragon sliders external hex head bolts and some Torx socket head screws on the Rohloffs with standard hex socket head bolts so that everything was standardized to five hex wrenches.
Note that we didn’t take everything that might possibly be needed to deal with every possible kind of mechanical problem. The route is not that remote; at least during hunting season there were vehicles at least a few times per day that could have provided a ride to a nearby town, where we could have stuff sent to us if we really got into a jam.
Ditty bag for access during the day –33.8 oz total (2.1 pounds):
4.1 oz iPod charger (charge two iPods at once model)
0.4 oz a few aspirin/advil
3.9 oz toilet paper, lighter, alcohol gel, in quart ziplock
1.3 oz Aqua Mira water treatment, already partially used (we used this instead of a pump – see extensive info on backpackinglight.com)
0.7 oz MSR ultralight pack towel
5.5 oz liquid soap/shampoo (a two oz bottle instead of a four oz bottle would have sufficed. Refilled wherever there was a source of liquid soap)
2.2 oz Aquaphor (alternative to butt-butter bicycle specific products. Worked well, and we were able to get replacement tubes at the big supermarkets instead of requiring a bike store)
5.4 oz Leatherman Juice CS4
1.0 oz two spoons and one fork
3.3 oz sunscreen
5.6 oz lock/cable
0.4 oz chapstick
Ditty bag for access in the evenings –26.8 oz total (1.7 pounds):
0.4 oz gallon size ziplock bag
0.6 oz paste deodorant in small pill bottle
0.2 oz four pairs earplugs
3.2 oz two headlamps (Petzle zipka and Petzle e-lite) [used them only late in the trip when the sun was setting early. For a June/July trip I would just take a couple microlights.]
8.1 oz two more sets of Aqua Mira & povodine iodine [we only needed part of one more set of Aqua Mira]
1.6 oz more toilet paper
1.4 oz toothbrush and toothpaste
0.0 oz Dr Kens Floss & Go dental floss
4.1 oz Baby wet wipes in Aloksak plastic ziplock (from backpackinglight.com)
0.2 oz Comb
0.7 oz Clothesline (from spectra cord from backpackinglight.com; also served as spare cord for our tool kit)
0.8 oz more Aspirin/Advil
4.2 oz bear bag hanging cable (multi-strand stainless steel from marine supply store. Next time we’ll probably use spectra cord from backpackinglight.com)
First Aid Kit –10.1 oz total (0.63 pounds):
Nothing special in our first aid kit, and we aren’t sure it’s a great selection, so I won’t list the details – other people or your physician will be a better source of info for this.
Personal stuff –63.3 oz total (4.0 pounds):
5.0 oz two pairs sunglasses, two pairs reading glasses
1.8 oz two wallets with content (light weight wallets on backpackinglight.com, or make your own)
39.8 oz two pairs binoculars
1.7 oz one water bottle (the brand of bottled water called SmartWater is light weight and fits the standard cage. And it’s available from most Safeway stores on the route so we could toss and replace it to prevent stuff from growing in the bottle.)
13.1 oz two iPods with headphones/earbuds and cases and belt-clips. Jim listened to music, Amy listened to audio-books. Ah, it’s really great to have a good book when you’re climbing a long hill – takes your mind off the climb.
1.5 oz four spare small Aloksak plastic bags.
0.4 oz two whistles
Amy’s clothes –137.8 oz total (8.6 pounds):
26.8 oz. shoes, Timberland Delerion wmn10 with Superfeet Insoles
7.3 oz. 3 pairs wool socks (one light, one medium and one thick)
0.6 oz. two plastic bags to keep feet dry
12.7 oz. 3 pairs bike shorts (Ibex Roaster Boxer)
4.7 oz. Wooly Warm leg warmers (from RivBike.com)
6.3 oz. rainpants (GoLite Reed)
4.3 oz. wool light-weight long johns (for evenings)
3.0 oz. GoLite Whim wind pants (for evenings)
4.4 oz. baggy shorts (for evenings)
1.2 oz. underpants (for evenings)
5.6 oz. Patagonia Island Hopper short sleeve shirt (warm weather riding)
3.7 oz. Wind jacket (Descente Velom)
2.9 oz. Wind vest (Descente Velom)
7.7 oz. Raincoat (Marmot Essence)
5.4 oz. ibex light-weight wool zip-T (for evenings)
1.7 oz. camisol (for evenings)
8.4 oz. Warm coat (for evenings, Bozeman Mountain Works Cocoon Pullover)
1.5 oz. cycling gloves
2.0 oz. Two pairs liner gloves (ArcTeryx wool & Patagonia Capeline)
2.6 oz. rubber kitchen gloves (big enough to fit over 2 layers of liners)
12 oz. helmet
0.5 oz. cotton/lycra headband
1.8 oz. Ibex wool light-weight balaclava
1.7 oz. visor
0.8 oz. saddle bonnet w/ plastic bag
Jim’s clothes –148.1 oz total (similar to Amy’s pile of clothes so I won’t list it in detail)
Here is what we used:
Tubus Cargo rear racks.
2 Ortlieb Backroller Plus rear panniers per person
Jim used an Ortlieb handlebar bag.
Amy used a custom frame bag by Carousel Design Works.
We did not carry day packs on our backs. Amy strapped a day pack on top of the rear rack (and also our trash bag) using a basket net. It was convenient to have the day pack along to use when we walked to places.
Jim strapped a short sil-nylon stuff sack with the tent and his rain gear onto the top of his rack with the tent poles and stakes carried in a longer sil-nylon velcroed directly to the rack.
This configuration worked out just fine for us. Here are comments about our choices:
We had plenty of capacity with this configuration, even for the occasional stretches where we had to carry a lot of food or water. We understand that the BOB trailers handle very well, but we didn't believe that the extra weight is worth hauling - (13.5-17 pounds for the trailer + ~2 pounds for the drybag that sits on the trailer, versus about 4.5 pounds per bike for the rear racks and panniers we used). No matter how well a trailer handles, it is simply easier to ride uphill when you have less weight to move. It is also one less set of moving parts to fail. The trailer also potentially complicates transport to and from the route.
With the weight we carried, we both felt our bikes handled very well, even with the bulk of the load carried on rear instead of front panniers. (note that the fact that the bikes handled well even with all the weight in the rear may be due to the fact that the Sycip brothers designed the frame geometry for this configuration, whereas an off-the-shelf frame will have different fork angle and herefore different handling.) For people hauling 30-50 pounds of stuff, the trailer may be the best option - but we STRONGLY encourage people to consider hauling 20 pounds of stuff and sticking with the simplicity of a pannier system. The configuration we used will not provide enough capacity for people who are carrying "too much stuff"; if you have a lot more stuff than we had, and don't have a trailer, then you need to add front rack and panniers, which in itself adds another ~4 pounds to the load.
Tubus racks and Ortlieb panniers have reputations for being sturdy and reliable, and are the brands of choice (as far as I can tell) for people taking long tours in third world countries. We had no problems with them. Reading about several GDR racers who broke Old Man Mountain racks during the race makes me hesitant about that brand. They used to be made in the US, but are now outsourced to Asia (confirmed by Jim who talked to them directly) and I suspect their quality has deteriorated. Note that the Adventure Cycling catalog still says they are made in the US and sings their praises - but the reports from the GDR racers are enough testimonial for me to choose Tubus instead.
Jim's Ortlieb handlebar bag was (of course) waterproof and very convenient for carrying an iPod, energy bars, bird book and other things requiring easy access. On the downside, it weighs about 1.5 pounds, and doesn't carry much weight.
Amy's Carousel Frame bag was awesome (with one exception mentioned below). In it I carried a DromLite 6 liter bladder. When the bladder had >4 liters of water I could not zip it closed, but it still worked fine with the zipper open, even with a full 6 liters of water. I found it a great way to carry the water - low and centered on the bike, and a very light weight way to carry a lot of water. On most days I carried 1-3 liters of water, my binoculars, a windbreaker, sunglasses, a few bars, sunscreen. With >4 liters of water in the frame bag, I couldn't fit the other things in there. It was very easy to reach the things in the bag while riding the bike. The capacity of the bag will depend on the size of your triangle and your tubing diameter. Jeff Boatman did a terrific job of sewing a perfectly fitting bag based on the cardboard pattern I sent him, and it was delightful to do business with him. The downside of the bag is that the paint under the velcro attachment tabs is slightly etched - I'm sure that's not from the velcro itself, it's from the grit that got between the velcro and the frame and then was ground into the paint. I've got a two coat paint job - the base color, and a top clear coat with small sparkly flecks. The area under the velcro tabs has lost it's sparkle - it's not scratched through to the bone though.
Most mountain bikers we see, either in person or in pictures on their GDR blogs, are carrying day packs. Neither of us did so because we don't like the way they feel while riding. I'm a comfort fanatic, and I like to have unfettered breeze on my torso on hot days. Jim carried a water bottle in a cage, and I carried a bladder with a hose in my frame bag so we both had easy access to water.
Jim carried a day pack and 6 liter DromLite in his pannier and never used either one. We had them along assuming we would need to carry the water on our backs to give us enough load capacity during the long stretches without access to water and groceries. But we were always able to fit our stuff into the panniers. When we needed to carry a lot of fluid, Jim just put quart bottles of juice into his panniers.
Note that many of the GDR racers don't use panniers - they strap a stuff sack to the top of a rack and carry a day pack. We carried more stuff than the racers carry, because we like to be comfortable at all times, and because we needed the multi-day food carrying capacity offered by the panniers.
I (Amy) carried a day pack and a trash bag on top of the rear rack, secured with a basket net. I kept my rain gear in the day pack so I could pack it when it was wet and not get the stuff in my panniers wet. By carrying the trash on the outside we didn't risk making a mess of the dry stuff in our panniers. Also, the basket net provides an essentially unlimited ability to add any shape and size bag to the top, much more flexible than regular straps -- good when we had several bags of potato chips to haul :)
If you've got questions about any of this, please don't hesitate to post a comment and I'll try to respond quickly.
Bigger towns (>1000 people) usually had a reasonable grocery store. Smaller towns have limited, sometimes very limited stores,often in the form of gas-station convenience shops selling mostly sugar, salt and trans fats. We ate several memorably good restaurant meals, but most restaurant/cafe meals were of the steak or hamburger and fries or baked potato variety.
We didn't carry a stove, which served us very well. We don't like the hassle of cooking, and we like to be able to easily eat in the tent when it's raining, and we can easily get all the nutrition we need without cooking. If you like the aesthetics of a hot meal, then carry the extra weight and bulk of a stove and pot and fuel, and cook. But you don't need to do it if you don't care about the hot meals.
Our staples were as follows:
breakfast: yogurt (available at 80% of stores), dry and fresh fruit, bars and/or muffins/donuts, sometimes juice
snacks: bars (Clif/Luna/Balance/Power/etc). We were nearly always able to get some brand of bars that had protein. On two or three occasions during the entire trip the only bars available were Quaker Granola bars, which have no protein and which we avoided when possible.
lunch and dinner: crackers, cheese, beef jerky, canned tuna or chicken, fried chicken (available as take-out from mid-sized grocery stores and from cafes), carrots, nuts, dry and fresh fruit, chocolate, potato and corn chips, cookies, salsa, and hummus (available only in larger towns).
The most frustrating thing about the food selection was produce. Carrots were the only vegetable that was regularly available that works well without cooking, and we ate a LOT of carrots - as in every lunch and every dinner on the whole trip. On good days we also got red peppers, a treat. In terms of fresh fruit, the selection was often limited to bananas and apples.
Many people mail themselves food so they can get what they want. For us, we liked the freedom of not worrying about what time and day we arrived at a particular town. While I've said the food was generally pretty uninspiring, that was not an important part of the trip for us, and we chose the freedom of having no worries about arriving in a town in time to get to the post office. If you DO decide to mail yourself packages, then seriously consider arranging with RV parks or motels so that you can pick up your packages on Sundays or evenings. That requires more work up front to call in advance, but you can then have confidence in your ability to retrieve your package. If you arrive at an RV park mid day and don't want to spend the night, you can still pick up your package, do your laundry there, and pay for showers before moving on.