A Beginner’s Guide to Bikepack Racing


, by Chris Case

Photography by: Maygutyak

We explore training principles, nutrition strategies, and psychological tools that will help you complete ultra-distance bikepacking events.

Have you ever dreamed about racing across a state, a country, or, for that matter, a continent? If you love the thought of being entirely self-sufficient on your self-powered adventure, and don’t mind giving up a few creature comforts and conveniences, then you’re ready for your first bikepacking event.

Bikepacking races (e.g. Tour Divide, Transcontinental Race, Silk Mountain Race, among many others) have exploded in popularity as people seek to combine challenge and adventure into one long bike race. Regardless of the terrain—road, gravel, singletrack; flat, hilly, or mountainous—the expectation should be the same: You’ll be on your bike for a long time, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. And you need to take care of yourself.

To prepare for the rigors of such an undertaking, you’ll need a new approach to training, a good grasp on nutrition, a healthy and resilient mindset, not to mention a working knowledge of the gear and skills it takes to keep your bike and equipment rolling.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the fundamental skills you’ll need to survive, and hopefully thrive, in your next bikepacking event.

RELATED: The Transcontinental Race: a Supreme Bike Riding Test

Building a diesel engine

Creating endurance that burns for days rather than hours takes a special approach; it isn’t enough to start with a training plan built for a four-hour road race and double it. There’s much more that goes into preparing physically for an ultra event than just slogging through massive mileage.

The best preparation comprises both a consistent volume of slow miles and interval training. That has to do with physiological concepts that are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, though, that doing some interval work raises your top-end. To simplify, by raising the roof, you bring up the floor.

Photography by: John Danow

The more top-end you have access to, the easier it becomes to punch up over hills or outrace a storm to the nearest town.

Effectively, a bikepacking race, like any ultra-distance event, dictates operating at a lower percentage of your functional threshold power (FTP) for much longer than you’re used to. Thus, if you can make improvements in your FTP, then operating at 60 percent of it is going to help you go faster, and more efficiently.

An abridged version of training for a bikepacking event goes something like this:

  • Do the same things you’ve always done, in terms of general riding, and occasionally add in some longer rides. Slowly work up to a target distance that exceeds what you’ve done in the past.

  • Incorporate threshold intervals into your plan. Not only does this create beneficial physiological adaptations, it also helps you understand how it feels to suffer.

  • Remember that the longer the race, the less important the physiological aspect becomes. (That’s not to say that training isn’t necessary.) However, the mental strength it takes to get more out of your body is an acquired skill that is critical to ultra events.

Which brings us to mental skills.

RELATED: Why Riding Slow Will Make You Fast

“Chunking” is your friend

Before you take on any ultra-distance event, get familiar with the concept of chunking. In practice, this means breaking a massive, intimidating objective into digestible bite-sized nuggets.

Before you take on any ultra-distance event, get familiar with the concept of chunking. In practice, this means breaking a massive, intimidating objective into digestible bite-sized nuggets.

When you’re out there all alone, inevitably there will be times when you are tempted to ruminate on that overwhelming number: the hundreds of painful miles you have left. Chunking helps you cope with the magnitude.

Don’t forget that you will probably be in a sleep-deprived, malnourished state. Be kind to yourself: break things into 30- or 60-minute blocks.

RELATED: How to Plan Your First Bikepacking Adventure

Here are a few more tips to help you chunk:

  • Compartmentalize by looking only so far ahead, and leaving the ghosts of miles ridden in the past. Your ability to compartmentalize the suffering is critical to staying calm and forging ahead during those lonely, challenging moments.

  • If there are checkpoints on the course, let every one of them initiate the beginning of a new ride.

  • Map out the route into short segments. For example, create route files that display only the day’s route—or even two per day (one for the morning and one for the afternoon)—rather than one map for the entire event.

  • Use a timer to eat on a set schedule. A “dinner bell” will not only help you stay fueled, but it can also break up the monotony with frequent rewards.

Feed the beast

Experienced ultra-cyclist Nick Legan, a veteran of three Tour Divide bikepacking races, among many other events, likes to say that bikepacking and ultra-distance races are, to no small extent, an endeavor in gut training.

Photography by: Fotokon

The first challenge is to consume as many calories as possible without overdoing it. The next challenge comes immediately after you finish the first: finding the next batch of calories that will keep you moving forward.

How best to feed the beast depends on myriad factors: personal preference, the strength of your gut, food availability, the weather—will it be super hot or freezing cold?—and a host of other factors.

Here are a few general rules to help you form an initial plan:

  • Eat as much real food as possible. Palate fatigue comes on quickly if all you eat are sugary snacks and chocolate-covered cardboard masquerading as “sports nutrition.”

  • Find the foods that work for you. It’s not enough to know what you like, and what your stomach will tolerate, in moderate temperatures after six hours. Experiment until you know what you can tolerate three days into a weeklong race when it’s over 100 degrees.

  • Feed your cravings. If you walk into the convenience store and you’re craving Frito’s, go get a bag—or two. It’ll be a psychological boost to give your body what it wants.

  • Sometimes your only choice will be the foods you can find at a gas station or convenience store. Remember that there are higher quality calories and lower quality calories. It isn’t just a calorie game—if it’s a really long activity, you need nutrients as well.

  • Finally, a clean mouth is a happy mouth. Being able to occasionally brush your teeth will feel like paradise.

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