How to Prepare for a Bikepacking Race

Riding through the Boreal forest, fully-loaded. Photo credit : Michael Braun
Riding through the Boreal forest, fully-loaded. Photo credit : Michael Braun

Many riders will never find themselves inching up to the starting line for a race. Fewer still will decide that the 45-minute race on local trails is inadequate and sign up for a 100+ mile event to try and scratch their racing itch. For a select few masochists, even a century ride on dirt won’t be enough, and will find themselves looking for a new outlet to satisfy their desire to wring themselves out on the singletrack. Enter the wild and unforgiving world of bikepacking. While not necessarily the newest idea in the cycling world, bikepacking has certainly been #trending as of late, and the racing world has responded in kind with multi-day, self-supported events cropping up all across the country. Having attempted a number of these events myself, I felt compelled to give a quick primer to those who can’t get enough with only one day of racing and need to string on another day or two to feel satisfied.

Since a successful bikepacking adventure depends greatly on an individual rider’s mental and physical fortitude, as well as their gear selection, your results may vary; all advice given hereafter is from a relatively-fit 30 year old male who doesn’t seem to know when to stop beating himself up and is to be taken with a grain (or handful) of salt.

Prepare to be Uncomfortable

There’s truly no way around this one, universal truth of a bikepacking race. You are going to be uncomfortable–greatly so, in fact. Even though the human body is designed by nature to be an endurance machine, it is by no means unstoppable, and after slogging away on challenging trails with an overloaded bike, you will find yourself feeling less than spectacular. Thankfully, a bit of mental wherewithal will do wonders for keeping a haggard rider pedaling forward, and it’s important to keep reminding yourself that all the discomfort that you’re experiencing is just a temporary block on your route to bikepacking greatness. The trick is to find a way to keep your spirits up and keep your feet pushing and pulling on the cranks.

The lead pack of the 2016 edition of the Kenai 250, minutes after the start, soaked through, riding uphill, against a headwind. Welcome to the strange world of bikepacking races!
The lead pack of the 2016 edition of the Kenai 250, minutes after the start, soaked through, riding uphill, against a headwind. Welcome to the strange world of bikepacking races!

During my first attempt at the Kenai 250 Bikepacking Race I found myself at the bottom of an emotional abyss. I was cursing myself for embarking on the adventure, cursing the weather for being less than ideal, cursing my bike for being made of steel, cursing the trail crews that cut the singletrack, cursing the sugary snacks that I had packed, and cursing the bears that were most certainly tracking me and waiting for me to let my guard down so that I would become their next meal. Not only did I later find that it’s a common misconception that bears hunt humans for prey, but I also came to realize that all of the discomfort and ensuing negativity was largely a factor of my own unpreparedness for what a 3-day race through the Alaskan wilderness entails.

After my first descent into cycling-related despair, I made it a point to analyze what led to my downfall and found that I just didn’t truly know how to deal with being uncomfortable. When looking back on the event, I realized that the vast majority of the riding was fantastic, but I had opted to focus on just the saddle sores and not the miles of great riding. Everyone’s heard that old adage of “pain is just weakness leaving the body,” and as trite as it may sound, there is still truth there–in order to successfully complete a bikepacking adventure, it’s important to accept that there will be times when your body will ache, your legs will feel like putty, and you’ll wonder why you put yourself in the middle of some no-good-god-forsaken-mosquito-infested-overgrown forest. Be sure to remind yourself that you do, in fact, enjoy mountain biking, and that any ride worth doing is worth a bit of suffering. A bit of research has since made me realize that malnutrition during physically strenuous activities can lead to mood swings much like I experienced, which makes the next section all the more valuable.

Prepare to Satisfy Your Inner Fat Kid

A bikepacking race is one of the most labor-intensive things that a human can put themselves through over the course of a few days, but it definitely has its perks. Chief among said perks is the fact that you will be burning calories far faster than you can hope to know what to do with. To keep the human engine running there must be fuel, and this means that you will have to eat.

A lot.

On an average day, a normal human will need approximately 2,200 calories just to exist and go about its daily duties (according to the USDA) but after riding over a hundred miles in a single go, I found myself pressing up on the 6,000 calorie mark. If you’re anything like the author, this is an absolute treat because your efforts on the bike have essentially given you carte blanche to shovel as much food as you can handle (and then some) into your deprived-by-cycling body.

One of the events that I raced was structured so that racers would have set checkpoints, and luckily for my then-starving self, one checkpoint happened to be at a roadhouse known for serving sandwiches that would make the Hamburglar blush. After expending over three times the average daily caloric intake during the ride, I treated myself to a half-pound double bacon cheeseburger, a large milkshake, a plate of fries, and two beers, which led to one of the most satisfied full feelings I’ve yet experienced. Better still, I got to do it all over again at the end of the next day’s stage.

A typical meal during a multi-day stage race, if one is fortunate enough to pass though town en route to the finish line. Photo Credit : Niklas Rhose used under the CC0/Public Domain License

Something worth noting is that having variety in your feeding plan goes a long way towards keeping yourself happy on the bike. In a rookie move during my first multi-day race, I packed nothing but gels, energy chews, electrolyte powders, and Clif bars. A wise man once said, and I may be paraphrasing a bit: “Man cannot live on sugar-based energy chews alone.”

I’ve since learned to create a much more satisfying and nutritious mix of sweet and savory fuels that are either ready to eat while riding or simple to prepare once at camp. Some of my favorites from my last expedition were pre-mixed packets of peanut butter, agave nectar, and sea salt; dried mango and papaya; post-ride protein shakes (pro tip: individual soy/almond milk cartons have a long shelf life and pack well alongside your favorite protein powder inside framebags); and spicy jerky. Be sure to experiment though, as some people may prefer having more salt than sugar or vice versa while riding. Also don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try something different, like chugging chocolate milk while power housing pepperoni (this is much more palatable while on a bike, trust me).

Prepare to Haul

A perfectly executed bikepacking rig, fully-loaded with framebags, and designed for resiliency and reliability. ©2016 Brent Knepper, for Everything Will be Noble.
A perfectly-executed bikepacking rig, fully-loaded with framebags, and designed for resiliency and reliability. Photo Credit : Brent Knepper, Everything Will be Noble.

The importance of this simply cannot be overstated enough–it is imperative that any bike destined for a bikepacking adventure be given a complete mechanical check up and be outfitted properly. The industry has responded to the public’s surging interest in bikepacking, and while a bikepacking-specific rig may be tempting, don’t be too quick to discredit your own bike. The key, in this author’s humble and truthful opinion, is that any bike that is to be submitted to rigors of a multi-day excursion be capable, comfortable, and above all else, reliable. Also, I’m of the thinking that the simpler, the better, with my ideal bike being a single chainring-equipped, hardtail 29er with a plush fork, and as few bells and whistles as possible–however this is largely a personal preference.

The main concern of any rider should be that their bike be in tip-top mechanical condition and have plenty of cargo-carrying capability. In my previous article on bikepacking I stated, much to the chagrin of some readers, that utilizing a rack and pannier system was an appropriate starting point for the budding bikepacker, but I have since migrated to the frame bag camp for all but the most mild-mannered tours (think: fat biking across the flat and frozen tundra). The main benefit of a frame bag system is the ability to carry an impressive amount of cargo without having much of a negative impact to a bike’s riding characteristic, as much of the additional weight will be focused around the bike’s center of gravity, rather than hanging out at the extremities.

My past few excursions have been successful due in large part to a full outfitting with Revelate Designs’ gear, including their main triangle-filling frame bag, saddlebag, and “gas tank” top tube bag. While ensuring that all of your gear will fit in your bags is an important factor, an often overlooked piece of the bikepacking equation is the usability and accessibility of said baggage. A full load out for a bikepacking event could find a featherweight carbon-framed race bike weighing more than a vintage steel bike, and it’s imperative that all the extra weight be located in such a way that the handling of the bike not stray too far into foreign territory.

Thanks to modern advances in framebaggery, I was able stuff that entire pile of gear/food/tools/clothing on the Skookum. Best of all, the snappy handling of the bike was largely preserved.
Thanks to modern advances in framebaggery, I was able stuff that entire pile of gear/food/tools/clothing on the Skookum. Best of all, the snappy handling of the bike was largely preserved.

Additionally, if something is going to be needed mid-ride, it’s in the rider’s best interest to ensure that it’s readily available to minimize time spent futzing around. Therefore, it’s important to account for each item’s weight against its usefulness while riding. The likelihood of needing to pitch a tent while descending a steep trail is all but non-existent, so it should follow that anything used for bivying be placed in the saddle bag where it remains out of the way of the rider. Alternatively, the potential for a rider to bonk out increases with every pedal stroke, so all forms of mid-ride fuel should be within arm’s reach so that the cranks can keep turning while you keep your calorie intake on point.

Worth noting, not that the author experienced this during a long-term review of someone else’s bike, is that frame bags are absolutely not stationary, immovable, rigid objects; be nice to your frame and consider taping any contact points where the bags may attach to prevent scuffing and marring of the paint.

Click over to page 2 to keep reading!