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10-02-2022 | Marcel van Herten

Bikepacking racing – the ultimate level of madness?

If, after reading Part #3 of our series on ultra cycling, you thought it couldn't get any crazier: It does! Of course, "crazy" is a subjective term here, but for the average cyclist, bikepacking racing will be seen as the ultimate level of cycling madness.

While for some the adventure ends at camping in a tent, for the bikepacker the ultimate goal is precisely to know what is beyond or even beyond the horizon. And once you've taken that step, the most fantastic views and untouched nature are within your reach. You bridge distances that are not possible on foot and come to places where vehicles cannot come. And you do this over great distances, up to thousands of kilometers.

Off the beaten track

Let's start at the beginning. The origin of the word bikepacking. This can be traced back to a corruption of the word 'backpacking'. Where the original concept of backpacking is to travel into the world with a big backpack and be self-sufficient, bikepacking is about hanging up your bike with bags full of gear and hitting the road. And preferably, as Lonely Planet calls it, off the beaten track. To places that are not obvious, where no one has been or tours that no one has ever ridden. In this capacity, many people link bikepacking to off-road cycling. But the name refers to the bags and not (necessarily) to the type of terrain ridden. Therefore, it is also correct to call events on the regular road bikepacking. Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, bikepacking has taken off. On the one hand strengthened by the fact that travel was difficult for a long time and cyclists started to discover their world by looking with new eyes. Bikepacking was the perfect tool for that. On the other hand, by the attention of, among others, the popular cycling platform GCN and the adventures of EF-Pro Lachlan Morton in Badlands, GBDuro and the Alttour.

Is it a race?

People do tend to seek out and/or engage in challenges with each other. So add a competitive touch to the concept of bikepacking: Et voilà, the bikepacking race is born. And yes that is a race in that sense of the word. But where the ultrafondo and the randonneuring can easily defined in terms of rules, that is a bit less well defined in the case of bikepacking. CycloWorld would not be CycloWorld if we did not formulate a number of basic rules:

  • The event should have an ultra-distance character (> 300km).
  • The clock never stops between the start and the finish line, even if it is 7,000 km away.
  • It is a solo effort; stayering or riding in a group isn't allowed.
  • Riders (m/f) are self-supporting; meaning all equipment is carried by the rider and the bike. Support is not allowed. Riders are on their own, but they can use restaurants, supermarkets, hotels, bike stores, etc.

Also within these basic rules, the diversity is enormous. The race can take place on any surface from asphalt to gravel or even snow and ice. Any type of bike is allowed, as long as it is suitable for the challenge. And there are short versions of roughly 200, 300 km. But also extreme ultra-long events of up to 7,000 km. And from a race through the mountains of Central America, transcontinental through Europe or snowplowing through Alaska. Too much to mention and the list of events is growing steadily! Because of the adventurous nature of the bikepacking race, we also see a different type of participant. Of course, there are men/women who compete for the win. The great thing is that, just like a gran fondo or randonée, you don't have to race. Because of the ultra-long nature, the common sense of camaraderie and the social behavior, it makes for many friendships.

That sounds like randonneuring. What's the difference?

The randonneur is indeed also on his own and drags his own stuff, but may do so in a group. And helping each other is also allowed. With randonneurs, however, the distance will be roughly between 200 and 1,500 km. And although the clock doesn't stop here either, the main goal is to finish within the set time limit. You can read more about it in part #3 of this series.

Events like the 4,800-mile Race Across America (RAAM) are often thought of as a bikepacking race. However, that is a misconception. Both professionals and amateurs compete in RAAM where support teams with follow cars are mandatory for every participant. Other events of a similar format, called Supported Ultracycling, are now held around the world under the auspices of the World Ultra Cycling Association.

Need to know facts

  • Bikepacking racing is not a cheap hobby. Whereas riding a gran fondo costs between €50 and €100 for a day's racing, the costs for a bikepacking race can be quite steep.
  • Specific gear and equipment is needed. For road races, you can get by with similar equipment to the randonneur. But if you go off-road (or even in the snow), the equipment definitely requires some extra attention. Good bags are crucial. For ideas check again part #3 about randonneurs and the website of bags specialist Apidura.
  • Despite the limited support by the organizations, participants are tracked via a tracking device with GPS (often including the route). But of course for the home and fans super handy. Warning! Can be addictive! The best known sites are DotWatcher and MAProgress.
  • Interesting fact: in bikepacking races women generally perform well if not better than men. The more extreme the event the better the women perform. Why? Scientist Asker Jeukendrup and ultra athlete Meaghen Brown provide some insight into the (possible) background.

Must do rides

Within all the disciplines on CycloWorld's calendar, we see the so-called holy grails, the rides you must have ridden. One of the big three in gran fondos, Tour de Mont Blanc in ultrafondo, Paris-Brest-Paris if you're a randonneur and Race Across America for the supported ultracyclist. Bikepacking is so broad that there's something for everyone. We collected 10 fat events and gave them a "Level of Madness score" on a scale of 1 to 5 stars! Maybe that potential holy grail for you is among them?

Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000
Alaska, USAOver the course of the world famous sled dog race in Alaska. Temperatures as low as -45°C, blizzards, medium-depth snow, mud, glistening ice and clear sunny skies. Due to the extreme nature, deep-winter survival skills are mandatory and you must finish first the short version (ITI350). Writer/photographer R.J. Sauer created a wonderfully beautiful report.
1600 km*****
The Tour Divide
Canadais often regarded as the 'Godfather of bikepack racing' and an absolute bucketlist ride. From Banff in Canada through the Rockies to the border with Mexico across the continental divide.
4400 km****
Transcontinental Europe
among others France and BulgariaEach year a different, self-designed route through established checkpoints. In 2022, from the cobblestones of Flanders to the Black Sea. 
4000 km****
Silk Road Mountain Race
Not to be confused with (almost) similarly named randonneur race in Uzbekistan. A fixed route, time limit of 2 weeks. Known for its many and ridiculous mountain passes up to 4,000m.
1800 km****
Tassie Gift
Australia'A scenic route to hell' the organizers call it. Criss-cross Tasmania through real wilderness and cleanest air in the world at the edge of the world. From snow to swimming to hike-a-bike, everything is available. No date for 2022 known yet!
1800 kn***
United KingdomFrom Land's End to John O'Groats over asphalt, gravel, singletrack and everything in between. In other words from north to south in 4 stages.
2000 km***
Tour Te Waipounamu
New ZealandThe reference to the Maori name of the South Island says it all; from north to south across the South Island through the settings of the Lord of the Rings films. River crossings, high mountain passes and vast wilderness guaranteed.
1350 km***
Three Peaks Bike RaceAustria, Switzerland, Italy, France
Bikepacking race over three predetermined mountain passes. The rest of the route you have to plan yourself, but it will certainly not be flat. Start in Vienna, finish in Nice.
2200 km***
SpainOff-road bikepacking race on the edge of Europe. Through Europe's only desert, along rugged coastlines and through the Sierra Nevada. Popular in the gravel scene.
725 km**
Race Around The Netherlands
NetherlandsRace Around The Netherlands against the clock (in). On the one hand because you ride anti-clockwise, on the other hand before a set limit date and time. 
1900 km*

Race around the Netherlands

Although certainly not the toughest bikepacking race, it is very popular in the Low Countries and surroundings; the Race Around The Netherlands (RATN). On April 30, 2022 already the fifth edition. The RATN is organized by Adventure Bike Racing as a self-supported bikepacking race. The basic rules also apply to RATN, so you cycle under your own power and may not be in each other's wheel. Except, and this is a nice extra, if you ride in a duo. The route follows almost entirely the border of the Netherlands, a total of 1,900 km with 6,800m+. If you want to finish officially you have to do it in maximum 8 days and ten hours. Curious about experiences in/about RATN, CycloWorld sought out Richard Frans. Richard participated in both 2020 (winner duos) and 2021 (3rd solo in 4 days, 13 hours and 57 minutes).

Just over 4 days in 2021. That's a whopping 400km per day. Not bad!

"2021 was a tough edition. For those who followed the race, know that the weather was an additional adversary on almost all fronts. Lots of rain and strong winds, around force 5, which also changed direction and were therefore against us on large parts of the route."

But why do you choose bikepacking races?

"I'm always curious about what's ahead. An excellent motivation to cycle a little further. In addition, a long trip offers the perfect opportunity to seek out and push your limits. How far can I cycle in one day? Could I do that two days in a row or even three? For me, cycling long distances is a great adventure every time."

But then why a bikepacking race and not an ultra fondo?

"In fondos, also the ultra's, you often ride in groups and a lot is arranged for the participants. In bikepacking races you are on your own. There is no service, you arrange your own food and lodging. You are also not allowed to stay behind when participating solo. Sometimes you determine the route between the various measuring points yourself. All this asks more of you mentally. How well can you deal with setbacks? How do you solve problems with your bike? Planning in advance is therefore very important. For me, this is the purest form of cycling. You have no team tactics and it comes down to you. The strongest and best prepared participant will finish first."

What do you advise others who are now wondering if it's something for them too?

"You have to like cycling alone and push your limits. As soon as you can, start with 200 km rides and then increase the distance. Ride through the night. If you still like it then you can do multi-day tours of 1,000 kilometers and more. I also want to say that you should think carefully whether riding in a duo suits you. It seems easier, but it actually isn't. Everyone has difficult moments during such a trip. Everyone has a difficult moment during a race, but as a duo you rarely have them at the same time. In short, as a duo you're on the road longer.

Besides pushing the limits, do you see any other motivations for participating?

"Another reason to participate is the other participants. The group of people who take on this kind of challenge is relatively small. As a result, the contacts among them are very friendly. In the end, everyone goes through the same ordeal, which creates a bond. It also strikes me that women are just as good at this as men, or maybe even better. How is that possible? I haven't done any research into it, but I think women dose better which makes them perform more consistently during the days on the ultra long distances.

Have you got any bucket list rides?

"On my wish list are still the Three Peaks Bike Race or the Trans Continental Race Europe. In any case, bikepacking with a lot of altitude. I'll have to train for that which is difficult in the Netherlands."

To conclude

Are you in for an extreme adventure? With this fourth part, CycloWorld closes a look into the world of ultra bikes (for now). If you are also someone who is looking for a different or new challenge and an ultra, randonnée or bikepacking seems like a good idea to you?

  • Step 1 - Check out the calender of CycloWorld. For ultrafondos, use the CWiX index to determine if the cyclo is tough enough for you. For the image: the 'regular' Marmotte has a CWiX of 100, the Tour du Mont Blanc tops the list with a CWiX of 153.
  • Would you like to do some randonneurs and get certified? Then check the calendar on our site (search category: bikepacking) or look at the website of the randonneurs associations in The Netherlands, Belgium or Germany for tours in the neighborhood. When choosing a randonnée, you will mainly make your choice on distance, course and altimeters.
  • And do you also want to go "off the beaten track" by means of a bikepacking race or event? Then you can also use the search term "Ultra" to visit the calendar of CycloWorld. The calendar of bikepacking races is growing very quickly and there are now hundreds of ultra bikepacking races around the world.
  • Please also browse the events on the sites of BikePacking, RideFar, Apidura or AdventureBikeRacing. There is something for every (bicycle) adventurer to expand your horizons!

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