Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Bikepacking Part 3: Ride On!

Assuming you have already bought your bike and gear, the next stage is to start testing it, and yourself in the process. Genuine testing that pushes you to your limits, and raises those limits in the process. 

For those of us who have spent decades cycling and racing, consider starting your prep by doing yoga or pilates. Veteran muscles become shorter and less supple, which means they are resistant to a full range of movement. By building your core strength and stretching your leg muscles, you’ll be much less likely to suffer injuries, and you’ll become surprisingly more efficient on your bike. Some describe yoga as the “Antidote to the cycling position”

Make a list

Next comes the experience of combining your bike, body and gear on a bikepacking trip. Choose somewhere new, and carefully write a list of everything you take with you. After the trip, you can revise that list, adding the few things you forgot and deleting the many things you didn’t really need. But have a column for ‘cold trip extras’ – beanie, extra top, warmer sleeping bag, etc.

The comfort testing

Contact points come next. You might think that’s all about the bike, but the flip-side to your seat, shoes and handlebars are your butt, feet and hands. There is a delicate balance between front and rear pressure. On the front, it is hands, shoulders and neck that are affected. On the rear, it is mostly the butt. With a good, balanced position, a subtle shift from the aerobars, to the main bar, to the bar-ends, all create slightly different pressure points. By constantly varying your pressure points you can travel a long way in comfort. 

What works for 200 kilometres may not work so well after 4 days, and be untenable after 10 days. Keep an open mind, and be prepared to adjust your position. This may mean flipping your stem, or putting on a shorter stem, or adding gel padding to your bars. Your butt needs time to get used to the seat you’ve chosen. 

It takes around 3 days continuous use for ‘saddle rejection’ to occur when it is a poor fit. Saddle rejection means pressure point damage, either to your sit bones, or right between your legs. Even when you have a good saddle it may take a few weeks for your butt and your saddle to reach a mutual understanding. To help that frictious relationship, choose a good chamois cream and the best shorts you can afford. 

The next bit of hardware your body needs to get used to is aerobars. As weird as these things look on a mountain bike, they are highly recommended as they give your hands a complete rest – otherwise, nerve damage to your hands is highly likely. Dropping down onto the aeros and then tracking a smooth line takes a bit of skill – if it’s a rough road, quite a lot of skill. And you have no brakes on the aeros, so learning to quickly move back to the brakes is critical. Also, leaning down on the aeros can lead to lumbar pain. If that happens then you’ll need to raise your bars, or spend more time doing yoga.

The final contact points – feet – aren’t generally such a problem, although your feet may swell during long days. Choose a shoe with plenty of space, and a wide flexible sole that will be good for walking over rough terrain. This is no place for narrow, lightweight racing shoes! Also, cut your toenails a week before any big brevet, to avoid another potential pressure point. Despite all this preparation, on a big tour you will almost certainly discover additional problems with your contact points, simply because of the longer time in the saddle.

Get packing

A big part of bikepacking is being able to load your gear efficiently and handle your bike when fully loaded. Every bit of gear should have its place and be packed in a certain order that you’ll formulate while training. A lot of people put their tent/ sleeping bag and mat in their handlebar roll; tools in a small bag on the top tube; then first aid kit into the seat bag first, followed by clothes in a dry bag. It’s really up to you to work that out.

Getting a reasonable night’s sleep becomes more and more important, the longer the trip. If you plan to camp out, then a tent will be invaluable on a rainy night. You’ll need to know how to pitch it quickly in dark and possibly stormy conditions. Alternatively, if you are taking a bivy bag, then the emphasis will be on choosing the right time and place to doss down and away from mosquitoes. Spend at least one night in your bivy bag to discover how much condensation builds up in it.

Staying in cabins or a motel certainly saves time, and is a lot more comfortable. Finding accommodation at the last minute is becoming harder and harder though, as the tourism industry booms, and travellers disperse into the smaller towns. Try to book ahead as early as possible. 


It’s also important to get used to the sort of food you can buy on the road. Pies, chocolate milk, bananas, and muesli bars are all staple foods for bikepackers, but on long rides you’ll need to knock back some fresh fruit and veggies to ensure you stay healthy. Discover what you like from dairys and service stations. You’ll probably burn four times as many calories as normal. Food should not just be fuel, it should be pleasure too!

Mental preperation

The toughest parts of a brevet are the challenges of the mind. Attitude can make a big difference, and preparation helps a lot. Study the course, so you have many manageable goals. Visualise reaching those favoured locations, savouring your favourite foods and beverages when you really need them, socialising with new friends, and tucking into a dry warm tent or cabin for a revitalising night’s sleep. Accentuate the rewards.

Now...close this page and ride on!

New Zealand Mountain Biking magazine 2/2017

Ride On!

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