Having successfully finished two of the toughest bikepacking races in the world, the Highland Trail 550 and Silk Road Mountain Race, and a trip around the world on a single speed bike, Bikepacking Scotland founder Markus Stitz shares his advice with us on how to prepare for a bikepacking race.
Even if you are an experienced rider, this is one of the toughest decisions. Time is gold in most of our lives, and most races require a lot of time: Time for preparation, transfer time to get to and from the race, and time to recover from the strain of a race. While transfer time will increase the further away you travel, preparation and recovery will often depend on the length and intensity of the race. Personally I prefer off-road events, as they take me away from the busyness of everyday life and, in most cases, challenge my riding ability at the same time. If you love big miles and are concerned about frequent resupply, then a race on roads is possibly your choice.
If you pick your first event, choose something that best fits your experience. A shorter, 3 to 4 day event is much easier to finish than a 14 day odyssey like the Silk Road Mountain Race. Start building your confidence step by step. Challenge yourself to break out of your comfort zone, but don’t become a victim of your own ambition. Built-up your confidence and experience instead of crushing it with bailing from a raceway beyond your capabilities. The more experience you gain along the way, the more you will find out about yourself, and what really makes you tick, so future events are easier to pick.
If you are looking for inspiration for your first adventure, check out our blogs on where to go here.
Bike choices are very personal. Instead of giving you advice on the whole bike, here are some important parts to consider.
Wheels: A dynamo hub on the front makes you self-sufficient. This can be used to charge a power bank by day and run lights at night. If you are getting your own wheels built, remember that conventional spokes are much easier to find in bike shops than those only used by a specific manufacturer.
Tires: Tubeless is a must for me now, but I always carry back-up tubes as well. Base your tire choice on the terrain and the availability of spares. Races are not the right environment for experiments, so use tires you are confident with.
Brakes: There’s no alternative to disc brakes. While hydraulic brakes beat cable brakes in stopping power and the frequent need to manually adjust the pads of cable brakes is a pain, changing a torn cable is a very easy task. Bleeding a hydraulic brake or mending a hose is impossible without the right kit.
Handle bars: Drop bars are great for long distances and become a go to choice on many off-road bikes as well. Considering flat bars, there are two handlebar models that are particularly suited for bikepacking racing. Jones H-Bars and Surly’s Moloko Bar are swept back by 45 and 34 degrees and may look unconventional, but they provide extra space to mount bags, GPS unit, camera and lights. They offer a multitude of hand positions to keep you comfortable and in control over the course of a long day riding over varied terrain.
Drivetrain: 1x drivetrains have become popular in recent years, reducing the things that might go wrong further by eliminating the need for a front derailleur. If you want no fuss at all, try a Rohloff hub or single speed bike.
Lights: For riding on roads dynamo powered lights will likely be sufficient. For off-road races, an additional helmet light is essential when grinding uphill and on fast descents, and is also beneficial when things break on the bike at night. Always carry a back-up head torch with an integrated red light, so it can serve as front and rear light.
What to pack?
There’s one basic principle to stick to when you prepare for a bikepacking race, and that is to take less. For races this is even more crucial. Packing size matters more than weight! Down sleeping bags and an inflatable mattress can both be condensed down to the size of a small water bottle, the lightest tents on the market don’t take up much more room, but will be pricey. Even when a trip doesn’t involve camping from the outset, it is wise to carry this kit.
For some races taking food for multiple days without resupply is needed, so you need a high degree of flexibility. Without going into too much detail, as the packing list will give you exactly that, here are a few items that make the packing challenge easier and give you more flexibility.
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Daypack: Packing down to a bit more than the size of an egg, this will temporarily increase your space by 15l, and is perfect for carrying extra food if needed.
Voile Straps: Made of tough stretch polyurethane, they come in a variety of sizes and colours, and help you strapping extra water bottles etc. on the bike. Voile straps are great to temporarily outsource items like that wet tent that you don’t want to pack with your remaining dry clothes.
Dry bags: A few ultra-light dry bags will give you the ability to strap items on the outside to temporarily increase your food carrying capacities.
Make sure you got the right cover for races overseas. Most travel insurers do not cover the risk, but the Yellow Jersey Travel insurance does. If you own a spot tracker, a device you need for almost every race, you can also purchase GEOS Search and Rescue for as little as £15 per year. GEOS provides S.O.S. monitoring and emergency dispatch through the dedicated International Emergency Rescue Coordination Centre (IERCC) based in Houston, Texas.
How to prepare?
While a good level of physical fitness is required, self-supported bikepacking races are a mental game more than everything else. Give yourself peace of mind by choosing the right bike and the right kit. A race is not a good opportunity to try stuff you never used before. Prepare to get uncomfortable. Most riders at the Silk Road Mountain Race experienced stomach problems at some point, so be prepared that your body will temporarily go into turmoil. Most importantly: Get used and enjoy your own company. During the race, you will quickly find out that cycling is the easiest bit.
Some advice for during the race
Leaving the start line for the first time can be intimidating. Flip the coin and see the positives, and apply the same principle to every situation in the race. At the very moment you leave the start, you need to survive with whatever you have. Races like the Silk Road Mountain Races offer no opportunities to buy extra kit or get it mended without your own tools. No matter how thorough your preparation is, things can and will go wrong. Forget Plan B! You are entering a race to finish it. At the very moment you think about alternatives, you will direct your attention and resources away from what you should really focus on, and that is to finish. Things will get tricky and you will likely face situations that will push you way beyond your comfort zone, but that what is bikepacking racing is about. If you need to make a crucial decision like scratching from a race, never make this at night, or in the heat of the moment. Give yourself time, have a good night’s sleep; things mostly look better on the next day. Be creative when it comes to fixing your bike. When changing a spoke on my tubeless setup I didn’t have spare tubeless rim tape to seal the gap, but a small bit of toothpaste wrapper tied down with normal insulation tape did the trick and saved my Silk Road Mountain Race.
A selection of races
- Transcontinental https://www.transcontinental.cc/
- Transatlantic Way https://www.transatlanticway.com/
- Highland Trail 550 http://highlandtrail.net/
- Silk Road Mountain Race https://www.silkroadmountainrace.cc/
- Atlas Mountain Race https://atlasmountainrace.cc/
- Tour Divide https://tourdivide.org
- Colorado Trail Race
- Race to the Rock https://www.facebook.com/RaceToTheRock/
- Tour Aotearoa http://www.touraotearoa.nz
- Italy Divide https://www.italydivide.it/
- Transalba https://www.transalbarace.com/
Silk Road Mountain Race
Bike and Kit List Markus Stitz
Bike Surly Straggler
- 44t front, 11-42 rear cassette
- Halo Devaura wheels, with SP 8 dynamo front hub
- Schwalbe G One Bite tires, 2.0’’ front, 1.5’’ rear, tubeless
- Fibrax Ultra Light 16omm rotors with Avid BB7 cable disc brakes
- Brooks Cambium C15 saddle
- HT Leopard M1 pedals
- Gusset GS 11 chain
- ESI RCT bar wrap
- ESI silicone tape to protect frame
- 2 spare tires strapped to fork with Voile straps
- Swiss Eye sunglasses case with Oakley Jawbone glasses & clear lenses strapped to fork
- Spare bottle cage and bottle as storage for trail food
- Spot tracker attached with Voile nano strap
- Garmin e-Trex 20x GPS
- Exposure Revo front and rear lights
- Sinewave Revolution charger
- Lezyne Micro Floor Drive pump with pressure gauge
Apidura Expedition Top Tube Bag
- 50ml Factor 50 sunscreen
- Factor 20 lip balm
- Torx T25 key
- Spare space used for food
- Altura Mitts
- Bontrager Starvos helmet
- Giro Rumble shoes
- Chrome Industries Crew Merino Socks
- Aussie Grit Trail Jersey marine
- Aussie Grit Ignite 2 in1 bib shorts (worn for full duration of race w/o washing)
- Aussie Grit Bike Light Gilet black
- Aussie Grit Performance Tee (red, as base layer or warm weather top)
- Rad Trail Long Day Hut cycling cap
- DJI Osmo Pocket camera in plastic case
- Apple iPhone 7s in Lifeproof Next case
- Apple headphones
- Travel wallet with
- Vaccination pass
- Yellow fever certificate
- 80 US Dollar cash
- 30 GBP cash
- Local currency cash
- Brevet card
- 3 credit cards (UK x 2, German x 1)
- Local SIM card
Apidura Expedition Handlebar Bag 14l
- Yeti Passion 3 sleeping bag
- Thermarest Neo Air sleeping mattress
- Thermarest pump sack
Apidura Expedition Saddle Pack 14l
- Petzl Tikka head torch
- Exped Snoozle dry bag
- 45NRTH knee high merino socks
- 45NRTH Risor thick merino gloves
- 45NRTH Sturmfist 5 winter gloves
- Defeet merino arm warmers
- Defeet merino knee warmers
- For Bicy boxer shorts
- Aussie Grit merino beanie
- Tineli thermal skull cap
- First aid kit, including sewing kit
- Gator face mask
- Tineli overshoes
- Aussie Grit Focus Jacket (with hood)
- Yeti Purity lightweight down jacket
- Toothbrush, toothpaste, charcoal powder, dental floss, small piece of soap
- Spare space used for food
- Travel towel
Apidura Expedition Full Frame Bag 7.5l
- Source 2l Liquitainer
- Source Hipster Widepac 1.5l water reservoir
- Source Hydration tube with Sawyer filter
- 60ml Schwalbe Doc Blue tire sealant
- Brooks MT21 multi-tool (incl. chain breaker and spoke keys)
- 2 Schwalbe tire levers
- 2 Schwalbe extralight tubes
- 2 sets of Fibrax semi-metallic pads for Avid BB7
- Weldtite tubeless repair kit in plastic box, which also included:
- Spare cleat
- Various spare bolts
- Adapter Presta to Schrader
- Schwalbe Valve core remover
- End caps for cables
- Schwalbe glueless patches
- KMC 11spd chain link
- 4 spare spokes and nipples (2 front, 2 back)
- Roll of insulation tape
- Sea to Summit titanium spork (lost)
- Opinel knife
- Sea to Summit Ultra Sil daypack
- Purple Extreme chain lube 120ml
- Cotton cloth
- 2 Voile XL straps
Apidura Accessory Pocket 4.5l
- Thermarest repair patch
- Spare Fibrax gear cable
- Spare Fibrax brake cable
- Park Tool tire boot
- Tooth paste wrapper
- Emergency blanket
- Hygiene gel
- Sea to Summit X Kettle, which included:
- Sea to Summit X Cup
- Small sponge for cleaning
- Tub of chlorine tablets
- Sea to Summit 1l dry bag
- Toilet paper
Strapped on Apidura Saddle Bag
- Sea to Summit 2l dry bag with Nordisk Lofoten 2 ULW tent
Apidura Food Pouch Plus 1.2l
- Small tub of Happy Bottom Bum Butter
- Ortlieb Candy B Graveller Dry Bag, including:
- Exposure Diablo Helmet light
- Pixo Charger
- MI 10000 mAh battery pack including cable
- Cable for DJI Osmo
- Cable for Exposure Diablo
- iPhone charger
- Cable for iPhone
- Cable for GPS/Pixo
- 2 sets of AA rechargeable batteries
- 1 set of AAA rechargeable batteries
- Adapter for lighting jack, DJI Osmo Pocket adapter
- Spare 16GB Sandisk Mini SD memory card
Apidura Food Pouch Plus 1.2l
- Spare space used for food
If you want to find out more
The Surly Dunoon Dirt Dash, organised by Markus, is not a race, but a great event to prepare you for a bikepacking race in the future. Markus will be speaking about his experiences on the Silk Road Mountain Race and Highland Trail 550 on 12 November at Summerhall in Edinburgh. For future events and bikepacking workshops visit his website: www.markusstitz.com/talks