Bikepacking races–self-supported ultra-endurance competitions that are rapidly growing in popularity–offer up big adventure, enormous challenge and incredible scenery. For some racers, the experiences are life-changing. A decade ago, there were just a handful of races of this sort in the world. Fast forward to 2016 and there are now dozens of events in North America, quite a few in Europe and Australia, and new ones are popping up in other parts of the world. Nearly all are underground affairs with no entry fee, no prize list, no officials, no aid stations, no course markings, no support crews allowed and no cheering spectators–these are do-it-yourself endeavors. Follow the established route on your GPS, abide by a very short set of rules, and have at it.
These events range from 200 to more than 2,000 miles and could be comprised of nearly entirely singletrack or mostly dirt road depending on the route. Unlike lengthy mountain bike stage races with specified daily segments and overnight locations, the clock in bikepacking races begins ticking at the starting line and doesn’t stop until a rider reaches the end. That means that it’s not just the hours spent pedaling that dictate a finishing time–it’s also time spent sleeping, resupplying in stores along the way and doing bike maintenance.
For most competitors in these events, success is rarely measured by just the finishing time. For some racers, finishing is a major lifetime accomplishment. For others, enjoying the ride, maintaining a positive headspace, being efficient along the way, or riding all day every day are primary goals.
In order to be successful in these events, no matter the goals, extensive training and preparation both on and off the bike are required. These aren’t like single-day races where riders can just jump up off the couch and have the potential for a strong ride. And preparing by simply putting in big hours on the bike isn’t necessarily a recipe for success, either. Doing homework about the race course is important. Including intensity in training is important. Honing a nutritional strategy is important. Strength training and flexibility work are important. And mental training is important. Below, we’ll explore briefly why each of these preparation components can significantly contribute to reaching goals and being successful in a bikepacking race.
Put in the Big Hours
Long rides are the meat of training for bikepacking races, especially big back-to-back-to-back days. It’s on these that your aerobic fitness and endurance grows and grows. There’s really no getting around the need for these long hours, but they don’t have to happen every single week. Spend some of this time on a loaded bike, spend some of it on rugged terrain, some of it on roads, and some of it at night to become more comfortable riding with lights. Making some of these long rides bikepacking trips is my preferred way to get in big hours without them feeling like “training” per se. This is also the best way to test your camping setup and clothing choices in all different conditions to make sure that you can have complete confidence in your gear.
Keep Training Enjoyable
The reason that most of us ride bikes is because it’s fun. But in training and preparing for races, the fun of simply riding bikes can get lost. When training for ultraendurance events, long hours in the saddle are mandatory. But early mornings, foul weather, ample solo time–too much of any of this, combined with other life stress, can wipe out that excitement. One’s mind and heart need to be excited and focused at the start of a bikepacking race. If you sense this happening, it’s time to back off. Take a few days (or more) away from the bike or skip “training” and simply go out and ride your favorite trails.
Include intensity in your training
It may seem a bit counter-intuitive to include a substantial amount of high-intensity training when preparing for a race that’s completed at relatively low intensities. But high-intensity training will increase how fast you can go at a given heart rate. For example, say you normally can chug along at a 7 mph average on a day of mostly singletrack with an average heart rate of 135 beats per minute. After adding a variety of higher-intensity workouts into your training, you might be able to ride that same stretch of singletrack at 7.5 mph with the same average heart rate. You’ve become more efficient. And efficiency is key in bikepacking races. Including intensity in training also means that those short, steep sections of trail where you have to dig deep won’t be quite as taxing on your body.
Do your homework for the race route
Knowing the race route doesn’t mean having pre-ridden the whole dang thing, but rather it means spending time learning what to expect. What’s the terrain like? How technical is the riding? Will there be much hike-a-bike? Where are the water sources and food resupply options along the way and how long might it take to get from one to the next? All these factors affect how you plan and set your goals–how much food and water to carry, how to set up your bike, what kind of shoes to wear and so on.
Know the food that works for you
When needing to scarf down 200 to 300-plus calories per hour for days on end, you need to know what foods keep your stomach happy, sound appetizing, can be eaten with ease, and can be found at gas stations or grocery stores along the race route. This takes experimenting, and most of us love any excuse to try new ride food. Don’t just look for energy bars and candy bars that are often rich in sugar and not much else. Your body will need protein for recovery, slower-burning fats, and carbohydrates for fuel; the more real food you can get in, the better.
Be strong and limber
Strength training should be an integral part of every cyclist’s training. This can include body weight exercises, exercise bands, weight machines, or free weights. No matter how you strength train, you will benefit enormously from it. A few of the important reasons to strength train more specific to bikepacking races include:
• Developing muscles that are not recruited by cycling; this is important for preventing over-use injuries.
• Improving core and general upper body strength for more control and long-term comfort on the bike.
• Improving the ability of tendons and other connective tissue to support loads; this is also important for preventing over-use injuries.
• Becoming stronger for pushing a loaded bike up unrideable climbs.
Athletes with greater muscle flexibility are also less likely to develop overuse injuries. Because of the repetitive motion our bodies experience during training and ultraendurance races, overuse injuries are particularly common. Knee pain, inflamed Achilles tendons, iliotibial band pain, and general joint inflammation are among the most common reported overuse-related ailments in bikepacking events. Regularly include static stretching, yoga, or other flexibility routines after training rides.
Train your mind
Mental training should be an integral part of every athlete’s routine, and for endurance cyclists, mental preparedness is as important as the physical preparation. This mental training involves building confidence, creating and maintaining a positive outlook, managing your thoughts, remaining focused and goal-oriented, nourishing your motivation, and overcoming setbacks with grace. Your attitude, self-belief, and ability to persevere in the face of challenge will dictate your performance in any ultra-endurance event. To strengthen your mind:
• Set attainable goals that motivate and push you.
• Spend time visualizing and “imagineering,” see yourself in your mind achieving your goals as well as overcoming the tough times that you anticipate while racing.
• Develop mantras for yourself: “Just keep moving forward,” “it always gets better,” “just make it to sunrise” and “I’m doing it” are my personal go-to mantras.
• Recognize the factors over which you will and will not have control during a race. For factors that are beyond your control (weather, mechanicals, bad course conditions, etc.), acknowledge and accept that there is nothing you can do to affect them, and commit yourself to not becoming stressed about them.
Give it a go–you won’t be disappointed
I’ve been racing bikes for 20 years now–mountain, road, track, and ‘cross–and bikepacking races have been the most rewarding events that I’ve done. They’ve literally changed how I approach numerous aspects of my life even when I don’t have any racing plans on the horizon. They’ve changed how I think about limitations in my life. They’ve changed how I look at the importance of public lands. And they’ve given me so much more awareness about how my mind and body work and work together. Give one a go: prepare well, be excited (and a little bit nervous) and get out there. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
About the author: Since falling in love with bikes as a kid while sporting a “MacGyver”-inspired mullet, Kurt Refsnider has bikepacked in countries across the globe and has won numerous bikepacking races. He is a geology professor at Prescott College where he teaches Geology through Bikepacking and coaches the school’s Division II cycling team. He is also the founder of Ultra MTB Consulting and offers coaching and consulting for endurance cyclists and bikepackers.
Read more installments of ‘Fully Loaded’ here.