A Rookie's Guide To Bikepacking
13 January, 2023
Sandra Padilla tackled the Wild West Country in its first year this past season. It was her first ever ultra-race and she learnt a lot. With a fresh perspective and a series of insightful tips and tricks make sure you give this a read before you hit the start line for the first time.
Please note, any advice should be taken in good sense and amended to meet your own personal needs.
After doing quite a bit of leisurely bikepacking, I started to feel tempted by the idea of entering a bikepacking race. Seems quite similar, right? You need to be self-sufficient with your mechanics, your nutrition and carry all your stuff with you.
There are significant differences though; the latter is an organised event where you have checkpoints to get to, and a cut-off time. That means; less faffing, fewer selfie stops, no indulging long cafe stops, and long days in the saddle (even night riding, if you feel up to it) trying to cover as many miles as you can.
I had been getting lots of inspiration coming from everywhere, and even dotwatching some races, which is also exciting. With more and more ultras making an appearance in the UK scene, I decided to go for something local, rather than an overseas event. I was keeping in mind that, if things did not go to plan for any reason (mechanical, logistics, health, etc), I could just hop on a train and head back home.
My first attempt was on a brand new challenge called the ‘West Wild Country’, organised by The Perfidious Albion. It was neatly organised, with just a group of 40 riders, I was one of the 9 women taking part. This event takes on a very scenic but challenging route around the South West of England, with climbs like Quantock Hills, Porlock Hill and Dartmoor thrown into the mix. With 5 days to complete a total distance of 800 km, it seemed a good option for a rookie.
So, how do bikepacking races work?
On an ultra or bikepacking race, you aim to complete a distance within a cut-off time. However, depending on the rules of the event, you might be allowed to keep riding even after the time limit. You can even keep riding if you have scratched, this is something you should discuss with the race organiser if the situation arises though. For both scenerios, you might won't be on the leaderboards, but you will have the satisfaction of having finished.
Some events provide a route, some provide a list of checkpoints and it’s up to the riders to decide what route to take to get there. You need to provide evidence that you were at each checkpoint with a time stamped selfie. Riders are equipped with a GPS tracker, so the organisers and dotwatchers can follow the progress of the riders and know their whereabouts.
There are rules, but these vary for each event. For most bikepacking races, you need to be self-sufficient, which means, you cannot have a support crew transporting your luggage and feeding you, you are not allowed to stay at accommodation provided by friends or family, or stash food and supplies.
You can only take advantage of publicly available facilities, that all the other riders also have access to. You can ride on your own or team up with a mate and enter as pair. In my case, I did not manage to persuade anyone to do it with me, so I did it as a solo rider.
You cannot take a lift or use trains, you must ride the entirety of the route. In fact, if for any reason you need to be transported somewhere out of the route (i.e. a bike shop), you need to inform the organisers about it and ensure you return to the point where you left in order to continue the race. In terms of accommodation, it’s up to you if you want to bivvy or stay at B&Bs. In my case, I went for B&Bs as I had no wild camping experience and wasn’t keen to carry camping stuff with me. I booked all in advance and planned a daily itinerary. (This was allowed in the WWC as stipulated by the organiser and everyone was aware of this upon entry) Dealing with anxiety, doing this helped me feel in control. However, it wasn’t perhaps the best strategy, and bear with me, I’ll explain why.
What to expect during a bikepacking race?
Be ready for spending lots of time on your own; just you, your bike, and the beautiful scenery… unless you are riding as a pair. Meeting your fellow riders or the organisers along the way are uplifting moments.
Ultras and bikepacking races are also a lot about survival skills and problem-solving, you need to be prepared to face the elements, go through places that are probably not very safe, source food and water, improvise if there are any tricky mechanicals, navigate around blocked lanes or closed roads, and, in a good measure, ensure you have a good amount of rest and you deal properly with any injuries or pains that might flare up.
If you are riding solo, keeping your mind focused and staying motivated can be a challenge. For most of the route, I was singing or talking to the cows and sheep I came across. Lack of sleep and not eating well can affect your energy levels and mood. In some moments of the race, I had to stop and rest as I felt I wasn’t thinking straight. Some of the riders in the group talked about hallucinating and seeing animals morphing into trees after riding for long hours and through the night.
I had a few meltdowns, and lots of crying - but deep down - I was enjoying myself, I wanted to keep going and reach the end of the route. I was truly pushing my boundaries and discovering a part of me I wasn’t aware I had. As one of the riders on the WhatsApp group of the event said; “tears are a great impromptu chain lube”.
I found my mindset switching to something I did not know. Despite not being in race mode, and even being the lanterne rouge, my brain kept waking me up at 3 am after having just gone to sleep for a few hours, my brain was on a “go… go… go… go” mode. I was running on adrenaline, fight or flight.
A kerb, a ditch, or a bush can become the most comfortable places to have a break or a snooze. Public toilets and service stations feel like a luxury. So, an ultra or bikepacking race is not only about being a fit athlete, mental strength also plays a big role.
What would I have done differently?
I ended up scratching after having completed 640 out of the 800 km of the route. To keep it short, it was a matter of logistics but won’t bore you with the details, the ‘if’s or the ‘buts’.
No shame on scratching though, I received nothing but lots of praise and reassurance from dotwatchers and fellow riders. That lifted me up as I was feeling like a failure. Many people said to me that they always root for the ones at the back of the race, the ones who keep grinding it to the end. Here are my recommendations if you are tempted to enter a bikepacking race. I am not an expert (far from one), but this is what I learned from this experience. You can learn from my rookie mistakes.
Choosing your event: gravel/off-road, road or mixed terrain? What would you feel more confident on? Do you have a bike suitable for this kind of terrain?
The distance and elevation are also important considerations. Do you feel confident achieving it within the cut-off time?
Local or overseas? Think of logistics, transport and communicating in a different language (if you decide to go abroad).
If you are eyeing an event, speak if possible, with people who have done it before to get a sense of how it is.
bicycle and kit: I won’t go into much detail; this is a matter of personal preference.
In my case, I took my trusty steel bike, the one I usually take on bikepacking trips. It has a relaxed geometry and it’s a sturdy machine. I made sure to service it before the ride and to get a saddle fit, which was a good thing to do as I managed to remain saddle sore free.
The ultra I entered was on road with a few gravel segments, I fitted semi-slick tyres.
I wasn’t planning to bivvy, so did not carry any camping stuff with me. I had on my bike a top tube bag for snacks and my power bank, a bar bag, a frame bag and a large saddle bag. There are many set-ups; panniers, tailfins, etc, it’s a personal choice really and I recommend trying different systems before your event and finding out what works best for you.
The bags are not cheap, so borrow some to try out before you make a choice and an investment.
Here is a good read about what to pack for an ultra. Also the ‘bikes of…’ section in Dotwatcher.cc is always a good reference point. It’s just fascinating seeing the different styles and preferences of each rider.
Accommodation: I stayed at B&Bs I had pre-booked in advance (as allowed by this race’s specific rules). By doing this, I had to follow an itinerary and cover the distance I had planned for each day and be there before the end of the check-in time. Being in the countryside and remote towns, you can’t expect places with 24-hours check-in.
This was not a good thing to do, I must confess. I would have preferred to find a place to stay depending on where I was every day and how tired I was feeling. I also wish I had brought a bivvy bag as a plan B. Most days I found myself having to call my accommodation and begging them to wait for me to check in, which added stress I did not need. On the other hand, I also had to stop for the day when I was feeling like I could have gone further because I had arrived at my booked accommodation.
If you are camping, the recommendations I have got are; to find a campsite or a remote place to do it. Make sure you are aware of the local wild camping rules. If you are staying on a farm or private land, ask the owner's permission, leave early and keep a low profile.
Bus shelters are a popular place to sleep for ultra riders, however, some people do not recommend them as you might be too exposed to drunk people or passers-by who are up to no good.
Wherever you stay at night, you can switch your tracker off for privacy before reaching your accommodation. Keep in mind that your location is known to anyone who is dotwatching and you may want to avoid being targeted by thieves. However, if you have concerns please discuss this with the organisers, especially regarding turning on and off trackers.
Food & water: don’t overdo it with sports nutrition. You might go through a sportive on gels and bars, but an ultra is a different story. Your body needs proper food. Make sure you buy food at any chance you have; shops can be scarce in the countryside.
Staying hydrated is essential. I brought water bottles, but a hydration vest would have been better; space and time-saving. Bring water-purifying tablets.
Clothing: be prepared for the elements. Even if your event is during the summer, take enough layers, legs and arm warmers to wear in case it gets rainy or cold. Especially if you start riding in the early hours or until very late at night, it gets chilly, you need to keep yourself warm.
I took with me:
1 jersey, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 baselayer, Arm and leg warmers, 1 pair of socks, 1 gilet, 1 jacket, 1 snood, 1 pair of gloves, 1 pair of mitts, overshoes, helmet and shoes (obvs!) the only item I did not use was the leg warmers. Cargo shorts are the best for this type of challenge, those side pockets are a godsend!
Organisers will usually offer to store a bag for you, so you can bring some casual clothes to get changed once you have finished.
Leave no trace: wherever you go, please take all your rubbish with you and dispose of it in bins. Respect the outdoors and the local communities.
Mechanicals: become as self-sufficient as you can and be ready to deal with broken chains or spokes, snapped rear mech hangers, and flat tyres. Make sure you bring tools and spares.
Gear ratio: learn from my mistakes and fit a cassette suitable for the gradients you will be doing.
Electricals: get a good power bank and ensure you charge it at any opportunity you have. There are good lightweight options. Make sure you set up your cockpit in a way you can easily charge your GPS, lights, or phone easily on the move. For this, I had a top tube bag with a slot for a charging cable and my power bank in it.
I did not have dynamo lights but that’s something I will likely fit on my bike for my next ultra. Ensure to get your phone charged up and a ‘nice to have’ is a spare GPS (Garmin, Wahoo, Hammerhead, whatever you use) in case your main one goes kaput and you are left in the middle of nowhere without a navigation system.
Be visible: probably a bit of an obvious one. Make sure you have lights, backup lights, and high-vis clothing. You’re going to be riding in the dark, through misty early mornings or evenings.
A trail light and a head torch are a good addition to your lights set-up. Also wear a flashing red light on the back of your helmet. You are likely to be on narrow country roads with large vehicles, like tractors or lorries, around you.
Be ready to hike-a-bike: prepare your upper body for some heavy lifting. I found myself pushing a very heavy bike up sharp gradients for long periods of time. I thought I was going to do my back in when I pushed my bike up Porlock Hill but thanks to the strength and conditioning my coach added to my training plan, my back managed to put up with the strain. Thank you coach!
Weights, resistance bands and kettlebells are good options. But make sure you seek advice from a professional before you set about doing a strength training plan.
Training: talking about coaches, definitely enlist the help of one. You need to be very disciplined and follow a structured plan. Having a coach helped me to keep consistency, I needed someone holding me accountable, plus you get lots of useful advice for practical aspects of your challenge and your nutrition.
Enter Audaxes as a way to prepare for the big challenge too.
Prior to your event, go on long training rides with your bags set up and loaded to start getting used to it.
Study the route: map out shops, bike shops, service stations and opening times along the route. It’s useful to do this intel in advance and have it ready when you need it. Custom Google Maps come in handy for this.
First aid: bring basic first aid stuff like plasters, wet wipes and hand sanitiser. I also brought with me Sudocrem in case of saddle sores, which fortunately did not need, and Voltarol, which I used once on my achey knees.
photo by Rob Gardiner
What I will leave at home next time:
A bike lock. I was paranoid as I’ve heard a few stories of riders getting their bikes snatched when they have stopped at shops. Being on my own, I did not want to risk that happening to me. Needless to say, I did not use the lock even once and it was very heavy. Hiploks are a good lightweight option for short stops.
Large amounts of sports nutrition. I brought enough gels and bars to feed the whole group. Did not use even a third of what I had brought. You need to fuel up on real food. No stomach will survive an ultra on sports nutrition only.
A water filter. That was a ‘nice to have’ but did not need to use it as the route was on road and going through different towns where I could easily get my bottles filled up.
In a nutshell
If you are thinking about doing an ultra or bikepacking race, definitely give it a go.
In my experience, it does not really feel like race, not at all. The vibes are way more chilled, most riders are there for the experience and as a personal challenge, more than anything else, and there’s lots of camaraderie.
You get to know genuinely nice people. I was so nervous when I got to the registration point, but after talking to my fellow riders, I realised everyone was in the same boat, even the most experienced ones. Everyone is keen to hear your story and share theirs. Everyone takes on the challenge with their own approach and their particular style.
You get lots of encouragement, even from people you don’t even know but that are dotwatching and reach out with the kindest of messages. Experiencing all that support was one of the best parts.
Even if you end up deciding it’s not for you… still give it a try! You will learn lots, not only about ultras but ultimately about yourself.