The grand daddy of Bikepack racing is the Tour Divide, traversing the Rocky Mountain spine 2700 miles, from Banff, Canada to the US/Mexican border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. In the spirit of the Tour Divide, smaller interpretations of the Divide are sprouting up everywhere. These races are shorter but intense challenges, suitable for the working man’s diet … get in, get out, come away with taste of the experience.
Still, the self-supported, bikepack race can’t be tackled lightly. It taps into a lifetime of skills: training, nutrition, hydration, gear, wrenching bikes … survival riding at its finest. And yes, while there can only be one who finishes first, like my nine year old says, everyone’s a winner.
Fresh out of the saddle from my first 400 mile bikepack race (the “Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400”), heaps was learned. Considering your own bikepack race…? (and I strongly recommend you do once in your life.) Keep these points in mind:
Follow Your Gut
Several milestone training rides (with several bad experiences) helped flush out what I could and couldn’t tolerate eating in the saddle. In the end, I knew I couldn’t suck down Gu’s or blocks. They made me hyperglycemic and eventually nauseous. I chose to fuel my ride with Tailwind Nutrition and homemade, portable rice bars. I strictly followed a regiment of 18-26oz of Tailwind an hour, followed by a bar and 20oz water every fourth hour. 3 bottles of Tailwind and one bladder of water carried me through four continuous hours on the move.
Still, after 150 miles on the first day, my body had run dry. It could have been the heat or the 4000′ climb. But whatever it was, the body wasn’t having anymore of it. I stumbled into Ketchum and bought a burger and fries, brought it back to camp and ate it after the stomach quieted.
From then on, I rode with Tailwind, but started and ended each day with grease and fat. It’s not pure, but it just felt right.
Rest and Recovery
After day one, I was trashed … beyond trashed. I thought I was done. And I wasn’t the only one. But the body is an amazing machine. Feed it, water it, give it rest, and it can rally to pedal another day.
150 miles into the ride, I was wandering the Ketchum city streets like a vagrant with a bike when I heard a voice calling out from the shadows. A local asked me if I was riding the Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 and then offered up his porch for the night and showed me the bathroom. He’d ridden the ATZ 300 in spring, he knew what I was feeling. Yeah, I slipped a few positions on the leaderboard, but I slept better that night than I did the night before in my own bed and rode strong into the next day.
Bikepack races are filled with highs and lows. Thinking of throwing in the towel? Give it some time. The mood can and will shift.
Ride (until you can’t)
At its essence, bikepack racing is about moving. Always moving … moving is progress. At times you’ll be crushing 18mph on gravel. Other times, you’ll be cursing the race director for pointing you down a marshy patch of grass that looks like a dead body was dragged through it to mark the ‘trail.’
To keep moving, resupplies should be pre-planned. Breaks should be short (if at all). And ride until you can’t keep the bike upright anymore. This strategy ensures that fuel is predictable and by the end of ‘your day,’ you’ll be so tired, you’ll sleep.
Mind the Miles, Measure in Hours
Not all courses are measured as the shortest distance between two points. Example: I spent my final hours circling above an old mining town, making what I can only describe as infinity loops on abandoned mining roads. The pursuit was taxing and tedious, but I kept reminding myself that every mile forward was one more mile behind me.
And while miles ultimately matter, when training, get comfortable measuring progress with hours in the saddle. Because at the end of the day—whatever time marks your day—you could be in the saddle for 24+ hours.
Dress for Success
My kit borrowed liberally from my mountain background. When you think about it, bikepacking isn’t that different from alpinism. Both expend tremendous energy while on the move, spilling off heat. But once you stop, convection can pull sweat, and with it, heat, away from the core.
My base was a thin cycling ‘action suit,’ (a jersey and bibs), paired with sleeves, leggings, gloves and a windbreaker. I brought a heavy down parka to layer over my kit. It kept me warm at night and allowed me to soft pedal in the early morning while warming up.
I also brought a 1/2 quilt to throw over the legs and some heavy gloves and boot covers to keep the extremities warm. If your digits run cold like mine do, it’s wise to bring a pair of chemical glove and boot warmers.
A bikepack race isn’t won with an hours effort. Riders are in it for the long game, so find a pace you can sustain for hours on end. Modify it when on the hills. There’s no shame in walking. I leveraged a technique borrowed from ultra running. If I couldn’t see the top of hill, I’d often choose to walk it. The technique’s got a name, Hike-a-bike. And as they say, “if you ain’t hikin’, you ain’t bikin’.”
And don’t get consumed with another rider’s pace. They may know something you don’t … or they may not know anything at all. Count yourself lucky if you find a partner on the trail whom with you can pace to the finish. While there is power in numbers, bikepack racing has too many variables to ensure a successful pairing. Nutrition, hydration, terrain, mechanicals … a race can derail for any number of reasons. In the end, the only thing you can control is your own race plan.
Do you Wahoo?
While many races will have a cue sheet for step-by-step navigation, you’ll be much more efficient using a GPS device. A good device will share the miles, average grade, time in the saddle, and visually show the upcoming terrain (both trails and elevation profiles), and alert you of upcoming turns and when you are off course … because nothing sucks more than backtracking 2 miles up a hill at three in the morning.
I used a Wahoo Elemnt, which did all this and allowed me to charge the device while riding. And because conditions change, be sure to load the latest GPX file into your device.
Because bikepack racing is about perpetual motion, you’ll eventually find yourself riding before dawn or late into the night. Few strategies here: you can power your lights through a dynohub (leveraging the spin of the wheel to power any device, including lights). Or you can bring battery powered lights.
I chose the latter and brought a lightweight lamp with a 2 cell and 3 cell battery. I only needed the 3 cell for a cumulative 12 hours of light emission.
A bike light is overkill for general camp chores and can be a bear to wrestle off a tightly packed cockpit. I used the light on my phone for digging through my kit. But I’d recommend also bringing a micro headlamp. It throws enough light to climb hills but also serves as a backup for your main should you run out of juice.
And because we want you all to be safe, bring a red tail light. It’s nearly as important to be seen as it is to see.
I always bring a portable power pack, a micro USB, and phone cable to recharge the portable devices.
You can’t race an event without one. And because this is a 3T blog, of course I’m going to wax poetically about the Exploro. But it’s not because “I have to.” I genuinely believe in the Exploro and had several riders on the course comment about how well it was able to keep up on the single track descents.
For a bikepack race, consider running the Exploro in 650b, laced with 2.1 WTB Nanos. It’s a balance of traction, cushioning, and roll to be fast and capable on all terrain. For gearing, I ran a Wolftooth 40T with a 10-42 cassette in back. Many were running something much less agressive upfront (36 or less). It wasn’t always easy, but in the end, it worked fine and I walked no more than most.
The Apidura bags fit the frame spot on. Food in went in the saddle bag, parka and bag went up front. I put a personal kit and batteries in a handle bar accessory pocket. Daily food was in the top tube behind the bars. Repair kit in the “jerry can.” I stashed additional food and the camera in the pair of food pouches. A 3L bladder was in the frame pack, though because I had three bottles, I rarely needed it.
Would I change anything? Yeah, I have a Superghiaia drop bar being installed as I write this. The Superghiaia provide more variable grips and relax the wrist, reducing the chances of ulnar neuropathy.
Bikepack racing is an exhilarating pursuit, combining a wide gamut of skills for success. It’s perhaps the largest test of man and machine. Simply being mentally prepared to step up to the line is a success. For more on the Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400, follow the race on Facebook or surf on over to the race’s website. Maybe I’ll see you out there next year.
Check the full PHOTO GALLERY here below:
Download the original GPS route and cue sheet here