The history of modern bikepacking races is short, with the first races in the current format existing since the Great Divide Race in the USA started in 2004. Between 2015 and today, many more events have been started, which can be partly attributed to the first Transcontinental Race in 2013 raising awareness and interest significantly. However, near the origins of cycle sport in the late 1800s there were people recording times for riding ultra-distances solo and self-supported.
- Elements That Define a Modern Bikepacking Race
- A Brief History of Bike Racing
- The Birth of Modern Bikepacking Races: Great Divide Race & Tour Divide
- The Earliest Road-Based Bikepacking Races: World Cycle Race & Transcontinental Race
- The Expansion of Bikepacking Races
- Typical Statistics of Bikepacking Races
Elements That Define a Modern 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 format described in the previous paragraph.
A Brief History of Bike Racing
Soon after the bicycle was invented and evolved into it’s modern form during the 1800’s, people tested how far they could ride and how quickly they could get between certain locations. The early record attempts were often done as solo, self-supported efforts. Cycle sport was booming by the 1880s and organizations like the British Road Records Association were established to keep records for times to complete specific routes. Such attempts were being made by people in Europe, North America and Australia.
Certain point-to-point records still exist today, the most famous being Lands End to John O’Groats in the UK (see Wikipedia). However, many early attempts and all modern attempts at these records are done with a full support crew in motorized vehicles.
Mass-start races also began in the late 1800s, some of which still exist today. For example, the Paris-Brest-Paris race started in 1891 and is still run today as a single-stage, 1200 km-long audax ride (see Wikipedia).
Despite teams existing ever since the earliest days of professional bike racing in the late 1800s, initially the rules 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 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 involve large teams that support riders in every possible way.
There are currently no top-level professional, mass-start bike races that cover more than 300 km in one stage (see Wikipedia). Longer professional races in which the clock doesn’t stop are raced as solo, individual time trials or team relays with full support crews. The most well-known of such races is the Race Across AMerica (RAAM).
In contrast to professional cycling and how it has evolved over time, audax or randonneur events have existed since the late 1800s, are still popular today, and have changed very little in that time. These involve distances of about 200 to 1500 km and the organizers typically offer basic support to the riders at checkpoints along the route, but riders must be self-sufficient between those points and very few riders have dedicated support crews. Riding in groups is allowed in audax rides and they are not officially races although they are normally timed.
The Birth of Modern Bikepacking Races: Great Divide Race & Tour Divide
After self-supported bike racing and record attempts had disappeared for about 100 years, the Great Divide Race (GDR) was the first race that followed the format that we now call “bikepacking racing” or “self-supported, ultra-distance bike racing”.
The GDR required riders to follow the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route over the Rocky Mountains in the USA, from Montana to New Mexico. The route was created by the American Cycling Association in 1997 for bike tourers and is mostly along unpaved roads and some trails. After John Stamstad in 1999 and Mike Curiak in 2003 tried to set a time for completing the route on their own, 2004 was the first time that a ‘Grand Depart’ or mass start was loosely organized, by Mike Curiak, and 7 people started (source).
In 2008, Matthew Lee announced the Tour Divide (TD) version of the race, which followed the same route and principles 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.
The code of ethics and loosely-stated rules developed to govern behavior in these races were used as a basis for subequent bikepacking races. The only role of the race organizer is to outline the route, provide a start date and time, 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. Despite their common roots, each race organizer uses a slighltly different version of the rules and the interpretation differs slightly.
The main technological breakthrough that allowed this style of racing to be feasible is the availability of satellite trackers that provide fequent position updates of the riders that can be viewed online. Avid followers of the tracker information are known as “dot-watchers” because the riders are shown as dots on an online map as they slowly progress along the race route. Riders and organizers have embraced all forms of social media to better engage with a growing community of race fans.
The Earliest Road-Based Bikepacking Races: World Cycle Race & Transcontinental Race
In 2012, The Adventurists launched the World Cycle Race (WCR). The principles were the same as Guinness’ around the world cycling record. The modern rules for the circumnavigation were established in 2003 and several people had attempted it individually (most famously Mark Beaumont in 2008), but it had never before been run as a mass-start event (source).
Whereas most of the 10 inaugural competitors of the WCR were using a traditional touring setup: a touring-style bike equipped with a rear 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 his equipment, but the bags had worked well for Mike during the Tour Divide that he’d done the previous year and 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 and he beat the current Guinness record by a significant margin but his attempt was never ratified by Guinness (source).
Mike 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 a couple of significant places in bike racing history along the way. In 2013, the inaugural Transcontinental Race (TCR) happened with 30 people taking the start.
The Expansion of Bikepacking Races
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 has also grown rapidly, with numerous films and print media coverage of the race throughout Europe and around the world.
Unfortunately, the WCR was only held once more, in 2014, with only four starters, but people were inspired to create many new self-supported bike races with distances between 500 to 7000 km and the number of events grew rapidly between 2015 and today.
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) and the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia (started in 2017 by Jesse Carlsson). 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).
Important off-road races now include the Tuscany Trail in Italy, the French Divide and the Arizona Trail Race in the USA. Most of the more major races are listed on the Bikepacking Races page.
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.
Although early attempts at Guinness’ around the world cycling record were done self-supported, Guinness has no rules about support so most recent attempts have been done with a support crew for all or some of the ride. In 2017, Mark Beaumont had a well-organized team and rode extremely impressively to reduce the record to under 79 days. Unfortunately, this puts the record for the event that started modern road-based bikepacking races out of reach of self-supported riders unless Guinness creates a new self-supported category. That is something that Mike Hall argued for, among many other people, but it doesn’t appear likely to happen.
Typical Statistics of Bikepacking Races
As mentioned above, bikepacking race distances range from about 500 to 7000 km. In road-based events, race winners average 400-450 km per day, spending 18+ hours per day on the bike. 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 over 300 km per day.
Due to the length and nature of bikepacking races, there are a lot of things that can go wrong, so scratch (DNF) rates of 25-50% are typical. In most races a fixed, mandatory route is used, often without any specific checkpoints. The Transcontinental Race’s format of allowing riders to choose their own route between various checkpoints is still quite exceptional and provides an extra logistical challenge.
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 bikepacking racing is a niche sport that is here to stay for a while.
Last minor page modification:
Last significant page update: January, 2018
This page is in Ride Far, Part III: Bikepacking Race Information.