The history of modern bikepacking races is quite short. The first races that can be given this label are some off-road races in the USA in the early 2000s: the IditaBike race on the Alaskan snow and the Great Divide Race across the Rocky Mountains. Road-based bikepacking races started with the World Cycle Race in 2012, then the first Transcontinental Race in Europe in 2013 started to bring much more attention. In addition to the more modern style of bikepacking races, near the origins of cycle sport in the late 1800s there were many people recording times for riding ultra-distances solo and self-supported.
Elements That Define a Bikepacking Race
In a modern bikepacking race, riders are self-supported, no drafting is allowed and the clock never stops between the start and when the finish line is reached, which can be up to 7000 km later. Being self-supported / unsupported means that all equipment must be carried by the rider, no outside support is allowed, so no team cars, riders are on their own, but they can use all commercial services along the way (restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, bike shops, etc.).
Some people reserve the name “bikepacking” for off-road cycling, but the name refers more to the type of Bags used than the type of terrain ridden, so it’s also correct to call road-based events “bikepacking” if they follow the self-supported, ultra-distance format.
It’s interesting to review the history of bike racing to discover how the bikepacking race format evolved. Bike racing was heavily influenced by how the technology of the bicycle developed, so we must start all the way back at the beginning when the bicycle was invented in 1817.
Early History of the Bicycle
The first two-wheel machines that we now identify as precursors to modern bicycles were very simple. They had two wheels aligned one in front of the other with a beam connecting them that riders were partly supported on while they kicked along the ground with their feet. They were a curiosity, but nothing revolutionary.
It wasn’t until cranks were added to the front wheel of bicycles in the 1860s that cycling really started to gain in popularity (Wikipedia). People naturally started to test how far they could ride and how quickly they could get between certain locations and so became competitive about it, as explained in the racing section below.
If the cranks are attached directly to the front wheel axle then riding speed is limited by the size of that wheel, so bikes with as large a front wheel as possible were developed, which we now refer to as “high wheelers” or “penny farthings.” Riding a high wheeler takes some skill and accidents were quite common.
The next significant evolution came in the 1880s with what at the time was marketed as the “safety bicycle.” Those bicycles strongly resembled modern bicycles in that they had two similarly-sized wheels and the rear wheel was driven by a chain.
Early Bike Racing
1868-1900: The Dawn of Bike Racing
As mentioned above, as soon as bikes that could be pedaled were available, people wanted to see who could pedal one the fastest. The first organized bike race was held in Paris in 1868. That was only 1200 meters long but it was only one year later that the first race was organized between two cities, traveling from Paris to Rouen, France, a distance of 123 km. 120 people started, including two women, but only 32 finished. James Moore, an Englishman, won in 10 hours 45 minutes.
Safety bicycles made riding longer distances more achievable and race distances continued to grow. The 560 km-long Bordeaux-Paris was first raced in early 1891 (won by the Englishman George Mills in 26 hours 36 minutes) and the first 1200 km-long Paris-Brest-Paris just a few months later (won by the Frenchman Charles Terront in 71 hours 22 minutes – only French men were allowed to compete).
1900-Today: Professional Bike Racing Continues to Evolve
Following the media success of the second Paris-Brest-Paris in 1901, Henri Desgrange launched the Tour de France in 1903 to promote magazine and newspaper sales. The Tour was the first race in which the clock stopped after each stage instead of the racing being continuous. Even so, many of the stages in the early editions of the race were 400-500 km long. The Giro d’Italia started in 1909 and followed a similar format.
Mass-start races involved some teams almost since the earliest days of professional bike racing in the late 1800s, but many people rode as unaffiliated individuals and initially the rules in many races stated that riders had to be self-sufficient. The most famous example of this is when Eugène Christophe broke his fork during the descent of the Col de Tourmalet while leading the Tour de France in 1913. After he carried his bike to the next town, race officials controlled that he re-welded the fork by himself and even gave him a small penalty due to having a boy pump the bellows (see Wikipedia). The Apidura blog has an article that addresses the similarities between these early bike races and modern bikepacking races.
Women were generally not allowed in professional bike races but in 1924 an Italian woman Alfonsina Strada got her name onto the starting roster of the Giro d’Italia by pretending to be a man, but was eventually allowed to participate anyway. The Paris-Brest-Paris race also initially didn’t allow women, so it wasn’t until 1931 that the first woman completed that race.
The rules and organization of the sport have gradually changed over time until we arrived at the current state of affairs in which professional races both on- and off-road exclusively involve large teams that support their riders in every possible way. People making serious attempts at solo records also use support crews. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when racers and record-breakers stopped being self-supported, but it was certainly quite early in the history of bike racing.
In addition to races moving away from being self-supported endeavors, the distances ridden in professional races have generally decreased, particularly since television coverage became important. There are currently no top-level professional, mass-start bike races that cover more than 300 km in one stage (see Wikipedia).
Other Styles of Supported, Ultra-Distance Cycling
In contrast to professional cycling and how it has evolved over time, audax or randonneur events have existed since the late 1800s, are still reasonably popular today, and have changed very little in that time. These involve distances of about 200 to 1500 km. Although the clock never stops, they are not officially races; finishing within the time limit is all that matters to most people. Outside support is not allowed between the checkpoints, but riding in groups and helping other participants is allowed, so they are not solo, self-supported rides.
The most famous audax ride is Paris-Brest-Paris, which stopped being a professional race after 1951 and became purely an audax ride. Although there is now no official winner or standings, the battle to have the fastest time to complete the course is intense.
In addition to the mass-start races, people in Europe, North America and Australia tested how fast they could cycle between two cities or locations. Organizations like the British Road Records Association were established in the 1880s to keep records for specific routes and certain records still exist today, the most famous being Lands End to John O’Groats in the UK, a distance of about 1400 km (see Wikipedia).
The American Thomas Stevens became the first person to encircle the globe by bike. He rode approximately 22,000 km between 1884 and 1886 on a high wheeler bike. Another American, Annie Londonderry, was the first woman to complete a trip around the world with a bike in 1894-95.
The very first ultra-distance cycling races were held on short tracks, which developed into velodromes. In the very first six-day track race, which was held in the UK in 1878, the winner rode over 1700 km (source). Six-day racing became even bigger in the USA in the 1890s, but soon a two-man team format emerged and subsequently races were only held during part of the day instead of non-stop.
Although there are no professional races in which group riding is permitted that are longer than 300 km, there are such races that are ridden as individual time trials with mass starts. The most well-known race of this format, which is often referred to as ultracycling, is the 4800 km long Race Across AMerica (RAAM). The first version of the race was held in 1982 and was organized by John Marino, who was one of the 4 starters. 1984 was the first year that a woman finished.
Both professionals and amateurs compete in RAAM and full support crews with follow cars are mandatory for each participant. Other events using a similar format are now held all over the world and are sanctioned by the UltraMarathon Cycling Association.
There are also many 12- and 24-hour time trial races that are held on roads, velodromes, race tracks, and mountain bike trails and tend to involve full support crews. Whether drafting is allowed depends on the event.
After self-supported bike racing and record attempts had disappeared for possibly 100 years, the format that we now call “bikepacking racing” or “self-supported, ultra-distance bike racing” evolved from long-distance off-road bike races, the first of which was held on snow.
The birth of mountain bikes and races in the 1970s lead to some longer-distance races being organized in the 1980s. In 1987, Joe Redington Sr. arranged a 200 mile race on part of the snow-covered race course used by the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska and called it the IditaBike (source). The sled dog race had started in 1973 and was 1000 miles long. Bikes designed for riding on snow didn’t exist at the time, so competitors used standard mountain bikes of the era (there were also categories for people on snowshoes and on skis). 26 people started the race, 6 of whom were women, and 13 people finished.
In 1997, an “Extreme” version of the IditaBike race was added, which extended the route to 350 miles and was won by John Stamstad. In 2000, an “Impossible” version was added that followed the full sled dog race course to Nome on the Bering Sea, a distance of 1000 miles. 12 people completed the race, the fastest of whom was Mike Curiak at just over 15 days (source). The first woman didn’t complete the “Impossible” version until Kathi Merchant did so in 2008 (source), by which time the race was named the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Competitors in these races are basically self-supported, although prior to the race they mail food supplies to themselves by using the small post offices along the route because there are virtually no commercial services.
Great Divide Race & Tour Divide
The American Cycling Association created the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) in 1997 over the Rocky Mountains in the USA, from Montana to New Mexico, which mostly follows unpaved roads and some trails. John Stamstad recorded a time for riding the GDMBR individually in 1999. In 2003, Mike Curiak also tried to set a time individually and in 2004 decided to organize a mass-start event, which he called the Great Divide Race (GDR), which 7 people started, 4 finished, and Mike himself won (source). In 2005, Trish Stevenson became the first woman to complete the race (source).
After Scott Morris started the Arizona Trail Race in 2006 (the first mostly-singletrack bikepacking race) and Stefan Griebel started the Colorado Trail Race in 2007, Matthew Lee (one of the 7 starters in the inaugural 2004 GDR) announced the Tour Divide (TD) version of the GDR in 2008, which followed the same route as the GDR, but was longer due to starting in Alberta, Canada (source). The Ride The Divide movie followed the 2009 TD and helped to increase the awareness of the event and the Tour Divide soon took over from the Great Divide Race, which was last held in 2010.
A few off-road events began to be organized in Europe around this time, including the Czech race Loudání Českou krajinou (“dawdling around the Czech countryside”) in 2008, which will soon have it’s 13th edition.
The Earliest Road-Based Bikepacking Races
Following Thomas Stevens’ inaugural ride around the world mentioned above that was completed in 1886, many others did similar trips but Nick Sanders in 1981 was the first modern attempt at doing it as fast as possible (Wikipedia). Nick repeated the feat in 1984, again remaining in the Northern Hemisphere throughout, riding about 22,000 km in under 80 days and published a book about his adventure. Some people cite this as the start of the modern era of self-supported bike racing.
Guinness established the modern rules for the circumnavigation in 2003, requiring riders to pass through both hemispheres and two antipodal points and to ride a distance of at least 29,000 km. Unfortunately, there is no distinction made between riders who ride self-supported and those who ride all or part of the route with a support crew. Mark Beaumont brought a lot of media attention to the Guinness record when he established a new benchmark in 2008 of 195 days and again wrote a book about it (Amazon).
World Cycle Race
In 2012, The Adventurists launched the World Cycle Race (WCR) as a mass-start race between those who wanted to chase the record (source). Whereas most of the 10 inaugural competitors of the WCR used a traditional touring setup with a sturdy bike, a luggage rack and side panniers, Mike Hall opted for a racing bike, aero’ wheels and Bikepacking Bags that attached without racks.
People were doubtful of the suitability of Mike Hall’s equipment, but the bags had worked well for him during the Tour Divide the previous year and he was aware that the efficiency of the bike would be important over such a long race. Mike rode self-supported and won the race by a long way. Mike finished in 107 days, which beat the current Guinness record (which by then was 125 days) by a significant margin but his attempt was never ratified by Guinness (source).
Mike Hall decided that this style of racing could become far more popular if it was designed to fit into people’s holiday/vacation time. The first leg of his journey was from London to Turkey and because he saw how impressive the cultural and geographic changes were in that relatively short distance, he decided to create a self-supported bike race across Europe from London to Istanbul, visiting some significant places in bike racing history along the way.
In 2013, the inaugural Transcontinental Race (TCR) happened with 30 people taking the start, 20 of whom finished. Kristof Allegaert won, and went on to win 3 of the first 4 editions of the race. Juliana Buhring was the only woman to start and finished in 9th place overall.
Mike’s idea worked. The interest created by the 2013 TCR meant that the 101 starting places for the second edition were filled within a week. For the third edition in 2015, 350 applications were received for the 250 starting places, and the number of applications went up to over 1000 by the next year. Media coverage also grew rapidly, with numerous films and print media coverage of the race throughout Europe and around the world.
The Expansion of Bikepacking Races
Unfortunately, the WCR was only held once more, in 2014, with only four starters. Even so, people were inspired to create many new self-supported bike races with distances of up to 7000 km and the number of events started to grow (see the Calendar of Bikepacking Races). In 2020, a new race called the World By Bike Challenge was being planned using a similar format to the WCR, but had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Transcontinental Race remains the most popular race in terms of registration numbers and media coverage, but other road events that receive a lot of attention include the Trans Am Bike Race in the USA (started in 2014 by Nathan Jones, see the Ride Far blog post about the first 3 editions: Trans Am Bike Race 2014, 2015 & 2016), the TransAtlantic Way Race in Ireland (started in 2016 by Adrien O’Sullivan) and the Indian Pacific Wheel Race/Ride in Australia (started in 2017 by Jesse Carlsson, see the Ride Far blog post about the first edition: 2017 Indian Pacific Wheel Race). Events that had previously only allowed participants with full support crews also began to introduce new categories for self-supported riders (e.g., the Race ACross Europe, RACE, in 2018).
The expansion of bikepacking races does not appear to have been slowed by the tragic deaths of three participants in three major events in a span of four months in 2017. That included one of the pioneers of the sport, Mike Hall. Some race organizers have chosen to continue running the events partly as a platform to promote driver awareness of cyclists and to try to make the roads safer for all cyclists (see the section on Rider Health & Safety).
Despite round-the-world attempts helping to attract early interest in modern self-supported bike racing and records, the Guinness record is probably now out of reach of any self-supported cyclist. In 2017, Mark Beaumont had a well-organized support team and rode extremely impressively to reduce the record to under 79 days.
Technological & Equipment Developments
To monitor progress in early bikepacking races, participants could phone a central number and leave a voicemail message when they reached a pay phone in more major towns. By 2005, these messages were transmitted in podcasts on the MTBcast website (source).
The main technological development that allowed this style of racing to be more feasible and increase in popularity was the use of satellite trackers that regularly transmit the position of each rider. Trackers were first widely used in the 2008 Tour Divide (source), but the information was not publicly viewable in real-time until the website TrackLeaders.com was created in 2009 by the Tour Divide’s founder Matthew Lee along with the founder of the Arizona Trail Race, Scott Morris (source). This lead to the phenomenon of avid “dot-watchers” who watch the online map that shows each rider’s position as a dot.
Race organizers and riders have embraced the rise of social media, smartphones and cell phone coverage spreading to more remote regions. This has allowed everyone to engage better with a growing community of race fans.
Despite many self-supported races having started by 2010 and ultralight bike touring being around for many years beforehand, it still wasn’t being referred to as “bikepacking”. However, the bags used by many people had already evolved from traditional touring gear and backpacks into what would subsequently become to be referred to as bikepacking gear. One of the earliest pioneers of the frame bags and saddle bags was Epic Designs in Alaska, who soon had to change their name to Revelate Designs. You can read about the first 10 years of the company in their blog post.
General Characteristics of Bikepacking Races
Rules & Organization
The code of ethics and loosely-stated rules developed to govern behavior in the Great Divide Race were used as a basis for subsequent bikepacking races. The only role of the race organizer is to outline the route, give a start date, record the timings and handle disputes over the rules, no support or assistance is given to riders from the organizers and is not allowed from third-parties.
Women’s Abilities, Participation, & Organization
Many of the achievements of women in ultra-distance cycling and bikepacking are mentioned above. When women and men have been given the same opportunities, women have shown that they can be as capable as men in a variety of ultra-endurance sports (see this Outside magazine article), occasionally winning such events overall or setting overall records. The same is true in bikepacking races, with women occasionally being in the Top 5 overall and in 2016, Lael Wilcox won the overall in the Trans Am Bike Race (see the Ride Far blog post: Trans Am Bike Race 2014, 2015 & 2016).
Even so, normally only about 5-15% of bikepacking race participants are women, so most organizers do their best to try to correct this. After the death of Mike Hall in 2017, the organization of the Transcontinental Race was taken over by a team of individuals, which is now headed by two women, Julian Buhring and Anna Haslock. In addition, Kathi Merchant is one half of the team that organizes the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Distances & Goals
Ultra-distance bikepacking race distances range from about 500 to 7000 km. In road-based events, race winners average 400-450 km per day by spending 18+ hours per day on the bike and in the first 24 hours they often do 600+ km. Even average participants typically ride at least 250 km per day with 11+ hours on the bike. In off-road events, distances per day are reduced depending on how extreme the route is, but the winners often still average 300+ km per day.
Due to the length and nature of bikepacking races, there are a lot of things that can go wrong, so typically 25-50% of starters don’t manage to finish.
Many participants don’t enter a bikepacking race to win, but merely to challenge themselves and to take bike touring to a more intense level. Other people enjoy the format because it is somewhat similar to bike racing returning to its historical roots. Whatever the reason, the recent popularity suggests that despite bikepacking racing being a niche sport, it is here to stay for a while.
Last significant page update: November, 2018
This page is in Ride Far, Part III: Bikepacking Races.