How To Choose Your First Bikepacking Race
11 March, 2023
Choosing your first bikepacking race can often be a daunting task. With so many offerings of different terrains and different distances, we want to cut through the confusion and provide a guide on what to look for with your first race. A race rookie is a badge of honour, so let’s get it!
Here at DotWatcher, we often start in the middle. The part of the journey where our athletes are already enrolled in the race and have made the decision to tackle their chosen event. We tend to miss the step that got them there.
We’ve compiled a quick guide on considerations for your first bikepacking race. But, remember, it is all down to personal preference and your experience levels.
How long to race for?
Take a look at the race details, including the cut-off time, and see whether you can A) commit to the time for the race, including prep days before and recovery after and B) the training required to be on your bike for that long. It’s all well and good having 10 days to give to a race, but if you can’t commit the time to get your body ready for 10 days on the bike, then it may not be for you.
Multiple factors affect your time out on a race, the distance being the main one. However, don’t let this fool you, the terrain can make for a totally different race and the elevation can make what may seem like a quick 1000km, a real slog.
Some real-world examples which we’ve touched on in our article ‘What is a bikepacking race?’ Are below:
Distance is pretty straightforward. If you’re out for longer, you’ll travel further.
Terrain, for the same rider at Bikingman Corsica (road) and Bikingman Brazil (gravel) it took them almost double the time to finish the race (52 vs 100 hours). The elevation difference was negligible. MTB races can be even longer, especially taking into account riding vs. walking time, but we’ll touch on this more soon.
Elevation can really add to your overall race time. Two Volcano Sprint there are 22.5m climbed for every km. That’s like going out on your local club run and riding 100km with 2250m of climbing, for anyone who has done this, it’s a beefy ride and can take a lot longer. Whereas Race Around the Netherlands only has 4.2m of climbing per km, so your club run would have only 420m of climbing for the 100km ride. This difference can be particularly noticeable if your race is from one location to another. If you do a round trip, your elevation will usually balance out, but with point-to-point races, you could be climbing almost constantly to higher ground.
Weather can play a massive role in your race. We won’t touch on snow races here, but heavy rains, glaring sun and cold conditions can all slow your moving time.
Which terrain do you want to race on?
The second decision you must make is what terrain is right for you. At DotWatcher, we’ve actually added a fourth category of riding to make your decision a little easier. So, there’s ROAD, ALL-ROAD, GRAVEL and MOUNTAIN BIKE, leading from smooth asphalt to gnarly trails that require some strong bike handling.
Road races have their pros, they’re generally faster than their off-road counterparts, and they are normally in more inhabited areas (roads tend to lead somewhere) so there’s lots of resupply and places to stay. They also tend to be easier to navigate on fixed-route races. Conversely, road races can be slightly more traffic-heavy, if you’re someone who finds riding with vehicular traffic challenging they may not be for you. Unlike some bigger sportives or road races, it is likely to be you on your own with the traffic for many hours. Make sure you’ve got a reflective vest and plenty of lights! __ Road bike consideration__ - don’t go for a superfast aero bike. They’re harder to get packs on, the wheels are heavier for the hills and can be uncomfortable over long distances. Go for a bike that is endurance-focused, with light components, accommodates your packs and can fit up to 32mm tyres. The benefit you gain from lower rolling resistance with thinner tyres is completely soaked up by the comfort disadvantage and puncture risk. __ All-road races__ are a variation of road races, they are called all-road to make sure you’re ready for short gravel sections. These are generally only to connect two roads or locations, like the short sections of gravel on the Perfidious Albion or Two Volcano Sprint.
Gravel race can be a little harder to define. Generally, it is a race that you would want to race a gravel bike on. This could be fire roads with no hiking, or it could be something you wished you brought a bit of suspension for. A great way to discern which it is, is to simply reach out to the organiser or search their website for how rideable it is. The Trans Balkans Race is a 98% rideable route, so you’ll be comfortably ploughing along. Whereas, something like GBDURO will often have longer sections where you’ll be on gnarly terrain or pushing your bike.
Gravel bike considerations. We would say think 45-50mm tyres on a slack frame rather than a cyclocross bike. Big cassettes and little gears prevent hills, with added packed weight, from being an insurmountable challenge. We would also say, to look for something that you’d feel comfortable in the saddle for a few days.
Mountain bike race is a bit of a misnomer. Races that are typically called mountain bike races are ones where there’ll be plenty of hiking with your bike and shredding on the way down. On a typical day MTB ride you’ll fly over obstacles unencumbered by a week’s worth of gear, but once you’re packed up you’ll ride completely differently. There are some really great guides for what has been dubbed “shredpacking” but be aware, your bike will feel very different! In mountain bike races, distance means nothing. You could have a day with a 25km road section and cover that in an hour and a half, the next, you could be carrying your bike over the Grand Canyon National Park for a marathon distance (like the Arizona Trail Race). DotWatcher’s recommendation would be to opt for a road or gravel race as your first outing. Unless you’re a verified shredpacker and have done a few solid adventures on your MTB already.
Mountain bike considerations completely depend on the route. However, when you’ve got a pack on your seat post or saddle, the rear suspension is going to cause a big risk of bag rub. Some suspension will compress to shrinking your rear space from a foot to an inch or two over a big feature. Often, opting for a light hardtail with spinny gears and plenty of room for packs is the way to go.
A fixed-route ultra is a race that has a route designated by the organiser, you download the GPX file and head out on your merry way. A free-route ultra is one that is simply a connect-the-dots on the map. You’ll either have a set of Parcours, short sections of mandatory riding, or you’ll have checkpoints. Some will need visiting in a certain order and others won’t, it depends on the organiser.
Often, we would recommend a fixed-route ultra for your first outing unless you’re an experienced route planner or have plenty of familiarity with the area. Often when planning a route things that you’ll learn are non-negotiable at your first fixed-route ultra will guide your decisions later. For example, maybe 20km extra of distance is worth missing out on that 25% hill? Or you know that you’re going to need somewhere comfortable to sleep after a big chunk of riding. However, some races, like All Points North, are offering exciting ways to include rookies in their free-route races.
Familiarity with the area is a big consideration for both types of routes. If you’re heading out for your first ultra, bear in mind that different areas can provide vastly different riding conditions than you’re used to. If you’re from a cool climate, heading out somewhere arid or very hot without prior exposure could heavily affect your riding. You also may find different cultures hard to navigate under stress and this may add to the difficulty faced during an ultra race. We wouldn’t discourage anyone from going on a far-flung adventure, just be cautious and learn everything you can about the new surroundings; riding conditions, local hospitality, cultural practices and anything that could find you up the creek without a paddle. For example, different countries and cultures may have significant differences in their opening hours, their wild camping laws, their road traffic laws. You also want to check on any continental race how the borders are managed. Some borders may be free, whereas others may require visas, checks and waiting times. Factor this into your planning and race choice.
Remoteness can equally play a role in your decision-making. In some races, you’ll be flying through cities and towns like nobody’s business, whereas in others you can be without resupply for days at a time. Take your time to assess the route and see if it meets your personal needs. As a rule of thumb, less remote routes are more forgiving for new riders.
Let’s face it, all of the above can be completely negated by the organiser's decision-making and rules. With many organisers being explicit about whether or not their race is good for beginners it is becoming easier to tell. But here are a few pointers for what to look out for.
Cut-offs - if your desired race has a cut-off that sees you having to ride over 250km per day to reach the finish on time, this may not be a rookie race. If you’re good to ride these distances, then go for it! But remember, riding with a packed bike, under fatigue and with days of riding in your legs, you may not be able to do your personal record every time.
Rules - there are some non-negotiable rules in ultra-cycling, self-sufficiency, all forward travel to be pedal powered and no outside help. However, some races have more forceful rules; not riding with other racers for more than a short period of time, no booking accommodation ahead. These rules are commonplace but may remove some safety net from your racing, so make sure you check the rules before you choose.
If you’re on the fence about the race’s organisation or just want some peace of mind, send them a message (or us!) with some context on your riding and ability and you should be helped along the way!
What does it all mean?
What does this all boil down to?
Firstly, it’s not one-size-fits-all advice. If you are an experienced tourer and have done an ultra in all but name, then go for it! Sometimes spontaneity is key and makes the most memories. We’d also like to acknowledge that bikepacking races can be a huge investment in time, energy, finances and health. If you can only do one, make it the one you want to do!
But if you’re a road biker making the transition from your first century to a bikepacking race then read on.
Pick a race that has an achievable distance, with a lenient or non-existent cut-off. Look for races with familiar riding conditions, plenty of resupply and rest spaces. Keep a keen eye out for races that are purposeful and accommodating of newcomers. Some organisers even have a short version of their main race, a perfect taster of what the real thing may entail. Furthermore, if you’re looking for something less restrained, maybe check out a rally to find out if you do indeed enjoy days of back-to-back riding.
Take a look at our events calendar to see what fits your criteria.
Getting to the Goal Race
If you’ve got a big dream race, for example, Transcontinental Race or the Tour Divide, then instead of jumping in at the deep end, see how you can get there.
Here’s an example journey that you could take to get yourself to a free-route ultra around 4000km over multiple countries. In this example, our rider has regularly been going on 100km weekend rides, done a few audaxes and some back-to-back weekends and bikepacking trips. They’re confident with bike handling skills, their mechanics and how to train.
Race 1. A local <1000km road race or even rally, with a fixed route, early in the season. A great example would be Normandicat, Wild West Country, the Bikingman races, Pedalma or long-distance Audaxes where you’ll need to rest. Here you’ll learn plenty about your tolerance to fatigue, how much weight you can carry, what palette fatigue is and how you manage it.
Race 2. A later season free-route race that is around 500-1000km with plenty of leniencies in the cut-offs. Challenge yourself with a newer location, similar to the one you may face at the goal race. Think Race Through Poland, All Points North, Dead Ends & cake, SUCHBike.
This will allow you to put your previous learnings into practice for your route planning and how you deal with the appropriate culture.
Year 2 - Race Year
Race 3 (optional). Do a season opener, something manageable but tests your legs, packing and tactics. Another race like the last race but maybe with something new added in like a ferry crossing, extra hills or a new country.
Race 4. The goal race.
This sort of structure will hopefully increase your chances of finishing the race and enjoying it. It’ll allow you to feel more embedded in the community and create a lasting relationship with ultra-cycling rather than a fleeting moment.
To substitute for other terrains, or for fixed route races, find out what makes the goal race a challenge and then build up to it. If it’s hilly, choose warm-up races that are shorter with plenty of climbing. If it is an MTB race, maybe choose a gravel race or 200-500km mountain bike race to tackle as your openers.