Bikepacking What is the attraction?


Most of you have probably heard the term ‘bikepacking’ thrown around. But how much do you know about it? I caught up with local Golden Bay man, Brian Alder, about the evolution of bikepacking and some of his personal experiences with the sport. “It’s an unsupported bike race where the clock never stops and there’s no outside assistance,” he told me. “You can buy things, go to a shop and check into a hotel. It needs to be publicly available to everybody.”

The most comparable sport is expedition adventure racing, except with bikepacking it’s usually on a set course.

Bikepacking events are bare bones, no media, no prizes. It’s no frills adventure, for those who seek some structure of an event that offers camaraderie and a shared experience but remains low-key. These events provide inspiration, a focus to work towards and a good excuse for participants to geek out on gear. There are no trophies, no race media and usually no entry fees.

Bikepacking is becoming more popular all around the world. Every year new grassroots events are popping up. “It can be bog to bog, or through the tussock carrying bikes,” Brian explains, “a few scenarios which are mentally challenging and sections which are mind-bogglingly awesome.” 

Brian dabbled in many outdoor sports during his younger years, with a strong focus on mountaineering and rock climbing. He has been a mountainbiker since the sport started in the 1980s.  “Myself and a mate, Dave Fearnley, started doing multi-day backcountry missions on our bikes in the 90s.”

They used to just put a backpack on and start pedalling. Once they did a circumnavigation of Nelson Lakes National Park, outside of the park. In 2005, Brian rode from Dusky Sound to Kakanui, across the 45th parallel, off-road. 

The first official bikepacking event was the Tour Divide (but with a different name then) in the United States, in 2008. That event triggered the birth of many similar events around the world, including the Kiwi Brevet, organised by Simon Kennet in 2010. Two years later the inaugural Great Southern Brevet was run.

Bikepacking has taken Brian Alder all over the world, including high above the glaciers in Xinjiang Province, China.
BRIAN ALDERBikepacking has taken Brian Alder all over the world, including high above the glaciers in Xinjiang Province, China.

That was the event that first inspired Brian. “I came across it a week before the event and was so pissed off I didn’t know about it in time to enter.”  Two years later he was on the startline for the 2014 Great Southern Brevet, his first bikepacking event.

“I rode with a friend of mine from Christchurch. It was 1100km with around 20,000m vertical elevation gain. We finished in 4 days, 6 hours. One day we rode 270km. I’d never ridden more than 130km in a day before that.” He found himself standing on the top of the Crown Range in the evening on the second day.

“I was so rooted it wasn’t funny. Someone said, ‘we could get to Alexandra tomorrow.’ It was 300km away! I couldn’t even conceive of it, it was beyond comprehension. But we made it. It totally reframed what was possible in my mind.” Brian came from a hardcore mountaineering background.

“Quite often you scare yourself shitless and you nearly get killed.”

He turned to bikepacking, which seemed less risky. “I could push really hard because I didn’t have to keep much in the tank. I could stop and bail, even stay in a motel. Bikepacking is a mental and physical adventure. You don’t know what will happen and you don’t know whether you’ll be successful, but there’s no major risk, not like in mountaineering.”

He enjoyed the Great Southern Brevet so much that 10 days later, he completed the Kiwi Brevet. “A few people were heading off to the Tour Divide after that. I had 10 days spare and my body felt relatively okay so I decided to join.

“We’d ride quite hard. In New Zealand you’re allowed to draft whereas on all the overseas bikepacking events you aren’t. We’d go so hard riding, then get to town knackered. Then we’d go off and ride really hard again. I looked back through our stats and realised I could save 6 hours by stopping for half the time.”

In bikepacking events most people have a particular style that works for them and often that plays to their strengths.

The top riders almost never stop, eating on the move and barely sleeping for days. Others take a more relaxed approach, stopping to eat at cafes and staying in motels along the way. Bikepacking events are usually a race against the course, not people. 

Finishers of the Tour Divide 2016. All finished within half a day of each other after riding the length of the US within hours of each other and often together?
JEFF SHARPFinishers of the Tour Divide 2016. All finished within half a day of each other after riding the length of the US within hours of each other and often together?

In 2016, Brian did the Tour Divide in the New Zealand winter, finishing 5th overall, riding 4500km in 16.5 days. That’s an average of 270km per day, for 16 consecutive days! For many participants, a bikepacking event is the most adventurous thing they have ever done.

“The uncertainty is exciting for people. Especially when in the back of their minds, they know they’re not putting themselves at risk. The exploration of yourself in what is a low risk situation keeps pulling people back.

“There’s a really unique fellowship, a sense of belonging and camaraderie that is unique to bikepacking. Most bikepacking events, for the vast majority of participants, are about finishing the event. Most bikepacking events outside of the Tour Aotearoa have less than a 50 per cent finish rate.” 

He’s inspired by Lael Wilcox. “She seemed to have an ability to enjoy herself in the midst of hard work. I need to work out how to have fun in the middle of what is seemingly not fun.”

Live tracking adds an extrinsic motivation to many bikepacking events. “It’s revolutionary and has fundamentally changed the sport,” Brian said, “the number of hits live tracking websites get is unbelievable.” 

Last Monday, the first wave of Tour Aotearoa riders set off from Cape Reinga on a 3000km journey down the length of New Zealand, ending in Bluff. All the riders are tracked live. Check out the Maprogress Live Tracking page to see where they’re at. Watch out – dot watching can get addictive!

first published