For a list of the variety of bike races that can be labeled as ultra-distance or ultracycling, visit the Wikipedia page. The main races in certain categories and the differences between those categories are summarized below.
The number of self-supported, ultra-distance bikepacking races is growing rapidly. The following list contains some of the more major events that traverse a country or continent (in addition to the Transcontinental Race, Trans Am Bike Race and Indian Pacific Wheel Race which each have their own pages on this site). A more complete list of races is maintained as a sticky thread at Bikepacking.net.
- The Tour Divide is a mountain bike race across the Rocky Mountains from Canada through the USA to the Mexican border. It is regarded as the first bikepacking race of this nature, having first been run as a mass-start race in 2008 (Wikipedia article).
- The Tuscany Trail is the most popular MTB bikepacking race in Europe and is around central Italy.
- The French Divide is a mostly off-road bikepacking race across France.
- The North Cape 4000 goes from central Italy to the northern tip of Norway, with a few checkpoints along the way and a free choice of route in between. This is the race that is most similar in format to the Transcontinental Race.
- The TransAtlanticWay generally follows Ireland’s Atlantic coast.
- The Baa Baa Bikepack is scheduled to be first held in 2018 and will go all the way around Great Britain.
- The TransAfrika stays mostly in South Africa, but with small sections in Swaziland and Lesotho.
- The Japanese Odyssey visits several checkpoints around Japan, but is not a timed race.
Audaxes are a type of long-distance cycling event where riders may receive external support from the organizers at regularly-spaced checkpoints and group riding is allowed. Audaxes range from 200 km up to 1500 km, with the most important such events being Paris-Brest-Paris in France and London-Edinburgh-London in the UK. See the list on Wikipedia for other audax rides.
Upon first hearing about bikepacking races, many people compare them to the more famous Race Across AMerica (RAAM) or other supported ultracycling races (many of which are listed on the website of the UltraMarathon Cycling Association). The general length and the fact that the clock never stops are similar, but the nature of those races is very different due to needing support/follow cars. Unsupported and supported races typically attract quite different types of people, although some people have done both.
Ride Far focuses on self-supported/unsupported races in which support cars and all other forms of organized support are prohibited. This focus is mainly due to cars being quite unnecessary in most people’s everyday lives and the world would be a better place if people used them less – we would be healthier, the planet healthier, and cyclists safer. Cars are definitely not needed to assist someone who is riding a bike, even when they’re riding very far.
Considering the distances that unsupported cyclists can ride per day without a vehicle behind them, I cannot see why support vehicles are needed in ultra-distance cycling. The fact that riders with a support vehicle can stay on their bikes for a few hours extra per day (due to not needing to search for supplies, find somewhere to sleep, or do maintenance on their bike) and ride slightly faster due to carrying no extra equipment doesn’t make the racing any better to watch.
The effect that small decisions that are constantly being made by racers in unsupported races (about fueling, rest, navigation, etc.) have on the race outcome is one of the most fascinating aspects of these races. In supported races, the rider’s support team makes most of the decisions and so the differences between racers becomes more physical than mental (even though the mental aspect is still very important). For me, this makes supported races less interesting to follow than unsupported races.
Another reservation about supported races is that the cost of doing them is significantly higher than it is for unsupported races due to the support team and vehicle costs. Supported races are therefore more elitist and less inclusive than unsupported races. In unsupported races, it is possible to compete very competitively on an extremely limited budget (see the pages on Equipment Costs and Race & Training Costs).
Some people may try to argue that having a follow vehicle and support team makes ultra-distance cycling safer. However, as reported in a guide for RAAM support crews, support vehicles have hit their own racers on multiple occasions. In addition, the presence of support vehicles has not prevented two racers from being killed during RAAM and others seriously injured when hit by other vehicles (see RAAM’s Wikipedia page). Finally, having the perceived safety net of a support crew may make racers push their physical and mental limits further, thereby endangering themselves more than they would if the crew wasn’t there. There is therefore no evidence that having a support crew increases a cyclist’s safety.
Having support vehicles does make sense in relatively short, fast-action professional bike races on closed roads. In those situations, the style of racing may be very different without the support vehicles and the sport would probably not be as entertaining or financially viable. It’s only in ultra-distance racing where I see support vehicles as being unnecessary, and so Ride Far focuses on unsupported cycling.