Camelbak Raceback Pro Review - By KWC

  • Camelbak Hydration for the time trial
  • 72 oz reservoir (~3 water bottles)
  • MSRP $100.00

The days are starting to get longer and winter is almost over. That means it's getting time to put away the cyclocross bikes and start practicing our tuck positions for our time trial bikes. It's also time to start looking over our gear for the season and see what we can change to get that little bit of improvement.

One place you can start is your hydration. You can get aerodynamic water bottles or change your bottle mounts, but have you thought about wearing your water? I hadn't, but when I saw Camelbak's Racebak product at Sea Otter, it looked like something I should try out. The idea is simple: it's a vest with a water bladder you wear under your jersey. Yes, I was inspired by the Dave Zabriskie endorsement, which is enough to get me to reconsider my chamois cream, but the Racebak really seemed like a product that could even change the way I ride a time trial bike.



Before we looks at the pros and cons of the Racebak, lets first look at the tried-and-true water bottle. It's served cyclists well for many, many years, so what's wrong with it? For that matter, what's right?

Well, the water bottle does what it's supposed to do -- make it easy to drink water while riding -- and it does it cheaply. Water bottles are so cheap that most of my collection comes from freebies, which means I have plenty of clean bottles to choose from when I go on a ride. It seems silly to mention, but the water bottle is also great at getting water on you on a hot day.

So, what's wrong with the water bottle? Mainly, aside from getting water in you and on you, it doesn't do much else. In a time trial setup, where every piece of equipment is evaluated for its aerodynamics, you start to wonder about alternatives. There are simple switches, like moving bottle cages to mount behind the seat, as well as more radical changes. The Cervelo P4 integrates the water bottle as a structural, aerodynamic element and Trek stuck a hydration bladder in the downtube of Lance Armstrong's USPS time trial frame.

The Racebak has some Tour de France history as well. In 2004, Bobby Julich made headlines for wearing a Camelbak underneath his time trial suit. The distinctive bump was easy to see on TV, and sent pundits debating back and forth about its aerodynamics. Some even claimed that a Camelbak makes a rider more aerodynamic.

Unfortunately, until our review budget includes time in the wind tunnel, none of these aerodynamic claims can be evaluated. We'll take it for granted that the aerodynamics of it can't be bad if the Garmin and Columbia teams, including Dave Zabriskie and George Hincapie, used the product.

Thankfully, the Racebak offers a lot more than arguments about aerodynamics. In comparison to a water bottle sitting in a bottle cage, the Raceback offers three main advantages:
  • Drinking from your tucked TT position
  • Temperature regulation
  • Capacity



Drinking from the Tuck
The bladder for the Raceback operates like your standard Camelback bladder. It's shaped differently, but otherwise the same. The hose runs over your shoulder and you can set it up to dangle in front of your face, however you choose. There is a insulation sleeve over the hose that gives it enough friction to stay in place, but it does take some pushing and pulling to get it in the right spot. It can also slowly slip as you're riding, so you may want to get out some tape or some pins.

Even if you have to reach for the hose, it's a big advantage over having to reach for a water bottle. The extreme positions of a time trial bike make it difficult to alter your pedaling or shift your weight to get a bottle. There are no such problems with the Racebak, and even when the hose slipped, a quick flick of the shoulder was usually enough to get the hose into my mouth.

Temperature Regulation
The Racebak comes with an insulation pad that keeps your back from heating up the water. The first thing I did was slide this insulation pad out. Pardon the pun, but one of the coolest features of the Racebak is it's ability to regulate your temperature.

My first thought was to stick ice in the bladder and use it to stay nice and cool on a hot day. It does that well -- in fact, if you get the jersey a little wet, it works really well. There's a lot of studies that show that keeping your core temperature down helps improve performance, and you'll notice that the Garmin riders warm up for time trials with ice vests on.

Now it's winter time, though, and I've realized that it goes both ways: fill it up with warm water, and it will help you fight off those chilly mornings. Trust me, it feels really good to have a warm pad between your shoulders when you start pedaling into the cold. As you warm up, your back will continue to keep the water nice and warm. I grew up on a tropical islandand hate the cold, so the Racebak might get me outside a little earlier this season.

The Raceback can store up to 72 oz of liquid. That's like having three water bottles on your bike. You probably won't need that much for a time trial, but it's nice to have the extra water when you're out training -- it's enough water that you won't be troubled figuring out how to fill it up while you're on the road. The additional water also makes it more effective for temperature regulation.



I've gone over some of the advantages of why you might wear a Racebak, but what is it actually like to ride in, and what are some of the cons? For the most part, it's just like wearing a normal Camelbak backpack, but more tightly integrated. The water doesn't slosh around much, it's easy to drink from, and it's easy to slip a jersey over. The vest does look a bit like a sports bra, and I've taken to referring to it as a "bro", in honor of the Seinfeld episode. If you're embarassed, fear not: no one's going to see it under your jersey anyway.

The top half of the Racebak vest is a thicker elastic material that probably is made of the same material as a sports bra. It's meant to fit snug against your body to keep the bladder in place and fit under your jersey. The lower half is a loose, lightweight fabric that does a good job of wicking moisure away. The upper part is snug enough that I have trouble getting it on and off, but that is most likely my fault. I was on the borderline for their sizing chart and chose the smaller size. My advice is, if you're borderline, go larger.

The only real disadvantages I see are cost and maintenance, which go together. The Racebak retails for a $100, though you can get it cheaper. That's not unreasonable, considering that's about the cost of a good jersey and a Camelbak separately. However, there's always the water bottle.

Water bottles are cheap, which means that I own a lot of them. After I finish a ride, I throw the dirty bottle in the sink, where it accumulates with half a dozen other bottles before I finally getting around to cleaning them. You probably aren't going to own six Racebak jerseys, which means you'll need to clean it after every use. You'll also have to clean the bladder itself, which is not as easy as sticking it in the dishwasher. Granted, you're not doing a time trial race every day, but it's not going to replace your water bottle collection anytime soon.

My main complaint is that the vest isn't offered separately from the bladder. I could see myself buying a couple of vests, which would save on the frequency of the laundry loads, but buying multiple full Racebaks feels wasteful.

Is it better than a water bottle? Of course. Except for squirting water on your head, the Racebak does everything a water bottle does, plus many things that have nothing to do with hydration.

Is it worth the cost? I think that the cost is reasonable in comparison to jerseys, but it really depends on your commitment to time trialing. I won't pretend that this is a budget item, but nothing in time trialing really is. Even an aerodynamic helmet, which is about the most bang for the buck in time trialing, will set you back at least the same amount.

There are many ways in which the Racebak can improve your performance: lowering your core temperature, keeping you in an aerodynamic position, and, for those that want to debate it, getting rid of non-aerodynamic bottle cages. I haven't scientifically attempted to measure any of these, so take this all with an appropriate amount of skepticism.

On a final note, if you're interested in just a normal bike jersey with a Camelbak bladder, you make want to look at another Camelbak product, the Velobak.


3 bottles


4 bottles