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Bikepack Racing 101

By Lynda Wallenfels

I’m sure you have heard about this bikepacking thing. Interest and participation has recently exploded. It is new and exciting! Most bikepacking races have seen field sizes double and new course records established this year. I had the privilege in April 2011 of establishing a women’s course record at Arizona Trail Race 300 being the first woman ever to finish that event. In August 2011, LW Coaching athlete Eszter Horanyi slashed an amazing 24 hours off the current course record for Colorado Trail Race finishing the 500 mile course in 5 days, 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Here is our LW Coaching Primer on bikepack racing. What is it? Where can you do it? How will you prepare for success? OK that one is easy, follow an LW Coaching Training Plan 😉

BIKEPACKING: Self supported, off-road bike touring.

BIKEPACK RACE: Self-supported off road race requiring at least one overnight.

BIKEPACK RACING RULES: Race self-supported, under your own power, along the entire route with no pre-arranged support.

BIKEPACK RACING CALENDAR: The 2745 mile Tour Divide, 500 mile Colorado Trail Race and 300 mile Arizona Trail Race are the big three on the bikepack racing circuit. They have been established the longest and draw the largest fields. 82 racers started Tour Divide in 2011 (I think 31 finished).

Newer bikepack races are Coconino Stage Race, Trans North Georgia and Huracan 300. An exciting new race is being developed in the California Sierras for 2012. maintains a race calendar and course records.

Technology has undoubtedly fueled the growing interest in bikepack racing. and the mobile site map bikepacking races and follow racers carrying Spot satellite trackers in real time. Thousands of armchair spectators now follow bikepacking races live, cheering, heckling and speculating on forums from their offices and day dreaming of being out there too.

Is it time to turn your day dreams into your own bikepacking race adventure? Here is a primer to get you started.

Your Bikepack Racing Primer

#1 Choose your Race

Your first task is to choose a race. Once you have your race picked out, do your course homework. Pre-ride if possible, study maps, fly over the course in Google Earth and look at historical weather patterns. Build your stoke about the race and the route by reading race reports and learning about the route.  Watch the race unfold on Trackleaders or if you have over a year to prepare.

#2 Select  your Equipment: Bike-Bags-Lights-Navigation-Clothing-Hydration-Sleep system

Any mountain bike will do! Some are better than others. Wheel size, weight, suspension and gearing are all options to debate against the demands of the course. Each course and each rider will have a different best bike set up.

When bikepacking, the best option is to carry as little as possible on your back and put most of the weight on your bike. Setting up the weight distribution on your bike is a trial and error process. Too much weight in the rear makes your front end squirrely and too much weight on the bars leads to sluggish cornering.  It is important to balance the weight around your bike to keep your bike handling nicely in technical terrain. A loaded bike can still be fun to ride if set up correctly. If done poorly it can be a difficulty beast to handle. A handlebar bag, frame bag, top tube bag and seat bag are all options.  Relevate Designs is a high quality one-stop shop for bikepacking bags.

Unless you are racing on the summer solstice with a full moon you will need lights to bikepack race. How much light you need is highly individual. I like to have a lot of light. For me, night riding is a ton of fun when I can see well and feels tense and dangerous when I can’t. The bottom line is I ride faster and farther and it feels easier when I am having fun. For me, lumens are ergogenic and worth the extra weight. Some other very successful bikepack racers excel with a minimal light system. Bikepacking race course records have been set with a single Princeton Tech EOS light.

Maps, cue sheets and a GPS are the basics here. If your goal is to finish and you are unfamiliar with the course you should carry all three. If your goal is to set a personal record and win and you are confident you know the route in the day and nighttime you can ditch the weight and go without any of the above.

Like any human powered backcountry travel activity, the best clothing choices are light weight and packable with high tech synthetic fabric. Wear the same clothes your entire trip to save weight and space in your bags. Fresh shorts and socks can be a good choice as these cover your key bike-body contact points and are the first places skin usually breaks down. Blisters and saddle sores can and do cause DNF’s in bikepacking races.

Bladders and bottles in your backpack or frame bag and bottles attached to your bike are the places to store fluid. How much to carry depends on your speed, time to next resupply point and temperatures. It is not unusual in bikepack races to have an 8-12 hour span between water sources. Often these sources require treatment with purification tablets or a water filter.

Sleep system:
Light weight and packable are the keys. The basics are a sleeping pad, bivvy bag and sleeping bag. A lighter and riskier option is to take nothing! A heavier and comfier option is to add a tent or tarp.

Review bikepacking personal set ups on

#3 Build Bikepacking Experience

Take your loaded bike out bikepacking for an overnight trip. Start your own trial and error process of equipment selection. Did you sleep well in your sleep system? Did you have enough light to ride at night? Did your bike handle well in technical terrain? What broke or fell off your bike? Did you use everything? What can you remove from your gear list to save weight? Make notes post trip, refine and repeat.

#4 Build Fitness

16 weeks out from race day is the time to get serious about your fitness. Spend the first four weeks focused on aerobic base riding then 9 weeks increasing threshold, VO2max and neuromuscular power. Racing shorter and faster events fits nicely into this 9 week period. Use the last 5 weeks before race day to hone in the specifics required for your bikepack  race. This will include overnight trips with a loaded bike and may include hike-a-bike practice if that is a large feature of your race course.

#5 Mental Preparation: Goals-Carrots-Mantras

I highly recommend finishing is your #1 goal. Other goals should speak to your heart when the going gets tough and your brain comes up with reasons to quit. Rest assured the going WILL get tough!

Find a particular feature on the route such as a view point or a historical site you must see and will act as a carrot to keep you going. Preferably find a carrot near the end of the route to keep you committed and on course when you are tired.

On the Arizona Trail Race 300 (AZT300) course, at mile 257, is the Artesian Well. Before the race I had scoped photos on Panoramio and read the water coming out was warm and crystal clear. I had never seen an artesian well before. I wanted to see and taste that water! It was a real carrot to keep me on course. Most importantly the last bail out point on the AZT300 course was at mile 253. Once I’d made it to the artesian well, finishing the course was the best way home. During a hard spot and a lull the day before, I visualized the well. It motivated me to keep going so I didn’t miss out on seeing it. My carrot worked nicely.

Photo by Scott Morris.

Sing to yourself and be playful! Create a list of rhythmic mantras. “So long, so strong, I keep on going on”. Rhythmic chanting is a process used in activities from prayer to military marching to rail road chain gangs. Chanting can alter consciousness and calm the mind. In a long duration repetitive event like bikepack racing it can remove the focus from the enormity of the task and lull you into a happy place.

#6 Go Time!

Arrive at the start of your bikepacking race fit and rested with confidence in your race course homework, equipment selection, mental preparation and fitness. When the gun goes off, start like a turtle not a hare. Turtles cross the finish line in bikepack races and sometimes even win them! Going too fast will reduce your ability to fuel, break down your muscle, and increase the risk of dehydration. Too much speed increases the risk of crashes and mechanicals. Be conservative. Look after yourself and your bike.

Most of all have fun. Absorb the scenery and relish in your adventure. Smile to yourself when things get intense knowing you had signed up for a flash of intense living and you are getting exactly what you asked for!

By Lynda Wallenfels Google+

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