Big Rides | Why You Should Try Bikepacking

Bikepacking is good for your soul, your spirit and your physical fitness. Writer and cyclist Alf Alderson makes the case for adventures on two wheels.

3rd November 2023 | Words by Alf Alderson

I think every cyclist should do at least one big ride in their life. But before I start blatting on about ‘big rides’, I guess we should define what exactly a ‘big ride’ is. Personally, I’d consider it to be more about the time it takes than the distance covered, for two reasons.

First off, distance isn’t necessarily an indicator of just how ‘big’ – or challenging – the ride is. For example, bikepacking a hundred miles off-road through wild terrain is likely to be more challenging than doing, say, three hundred miles on easy, flat cycle paths. It may well also take as long, if not longer to accomplish.

Secondly, the time you spend away from home on your bike is an essential element of a big ride, since the longer you’re on the road, the more you leave behind the humdrum predictability of day-to-day life, which is for me what really defines a big ride.

Adria above Lac Moiry

That said, my own big rides are rather pathetic when compared with many. The longest ride I’ve yet taken on involved just shy of a month cycling across France from the Channel coast to the Mediterranean (and around 1000 miles of riding, so a quick mental calculation will reveal that it wasn’t especially physically challenging).

But I’ve also done a couple of two-week rides in France and California, and several multi-day rides both on and off-road, in locations that have varied from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the Alps to Cornwall and the Greek islands. So, I like to think I’ve at least earned a right to a half-baked opinion on the matter.

They all posed their own challenges and provided their own rewards. For instance, the Baja Peninsula was – no surprise – hot, dry and dusty. I also rode alone. This meant there were inevitably times when, overheated and discombobulated by a culture, landscape and language that was all new and very different, I wondered exactly what I’d got myself into. But then one evening I found myself camped on a deserted beach, watching a comet trail its way across the sky whilst the moon glistened in the still waters of the Sea of Cortez, and I realised that it was worth enduring said heat and discombobulation for what was essentially a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A long ride needn’t be quite so exotic or remote to be memorable, however. I cycled the Rievers Route across the north of England last year with a mate and it was all very relaxed – we knew exactly where we were going and what to expect along the way, thanks to numerous previous visits to the region. That didn’t detract from the sensation of being away from the tedium of everyday life and the appreciation of the understated beauty of Cumbria and Northumberland.

Adria riding above Nendaz

What I’ve learned from these rides, particularly the longer ones, is that by heading out into the wild blue yonder on your bike, you effectively step into (or cycle into) a kind of parallel universe, which is shiningly good for the soul and spirit, as well as your health and fitness. And that’s why I think every cyclist should do a multi-day ride at least once, whether it’s a fully self-supported bikepacking adventure or a credit card-funded pub to pub cycle.

The first couple of days tend to be all about getting into a rhythm and a routine – becoming accustomed to the handling of the bike when it’s loaded up with gear, adjusting to riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road if you’re abroad and thinking ahead to pit stops, water stops and where you’ll be staying for the night.

There’s also the thrill of discovering new places – the sights, sounds, smells and tastes are all so different from everyday life that it’s an exciting bombardment of the senses. With luck, that should continue – and change regularly – as the ride progresses.

Adria riding above Nendaz 2

When I cycled from St. Malo to Nice last October the changes encountered along the route were subtle but obvious. From the cooler weather, rainy days and leaf-strewn lanes of the north to the warm sunshine and languid feel of Provence and the south, no day was even remotely similar to the one before or after, unlike everyday life.

Eventually you’ll find yourself getting into a simple routine of waking, eating, riding, eating (eating becomes a major consideration by day two), sleeping, repeat. As the ride progresses, you’ll obviously get fitter, sometimes fitter than you could ever have imagined. I recall summiting a 16km climb in the Alpes-Maritime on the penultimate day of last year’s French ride and feeling disappointed that the hard work was over. After so long on the bike I felt like I could ride uphill forever, as opposed to the usual “please let it stop soon” feeling on tough climbs.

The morning after we completed the ride, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling as I Iistened to the cacophony of noises that was Nice going to work. There was no need to get up and get riding any more, but I seriously considered simply cycling on, west along the Mediterranean coast into Spain then still further west across the Pyrenees to Bilbao and the ferry home. Life got in the way of that plan, of course, but the lure of long-distance riding becomes addictive. I had no real difficulty in understanding why the likes of record-breaking, round-the-world cyclist Nick Sanders are drawn to bike rides that last for months and cover thousands of kilometres.

Gorge de la Nesque, Provence

The simplicity of life on a bike, on the road, day after day, makes for a kind of Zen experience (I guess today you’d call it ‘mindfulness’, but let’s not go there…), where the pressures, hassles and irritations of everyday life get forgotten as long as you’re riding.

It helps to keep the outside world at bay if you try to keep phone contact and involvement with social media to a minimum. They’re annoying and usually irrelevant influences that take away from the purity of the riding experience and bring the ‘real’ world crashing in to intrude on your parallel universe.

If I’m riding with a mate, we seem to develop an unconscious ability to move between making conversation and riding alone with our thoughts on and off throughout the day, without either feeling offended if the other chooses to ride ahead or drop behind to spend some time with their own thoughts.

Conversation flits from the serious to the mundane, with always at the back of our minds the consideration of – usually in this order – next coffee stop, next food stop, next overnight stop. We ride towards the unknown, safe in the knowledge that each stop will be a mini-adventure in itself since we’ll be drinking, eating and sleeping in places that we’ve never visited before and will probably never visit again.

No cafe today

We’ll also automatically take on the daily tasks that we’re better suited to. My regular riding companion Mark, for instance, enjoys cooking, whilst I hate it, so whilst he’s preparing a meal, I’ll be planning the following day’s route (which I enjoy and Mark ain’t too fussed about). No discussion is needed, we just get on with it like a relatively well-oiled machine.

I’ve tried taking music along for when I’m riding alone, but to be honest even that can become an intrusion. I’d rather listen to the sound of the wind whistling past, the birds in the trees, rivers tumbling towards the sea and the eighteen-wheeler thundering up behind me (seriously, headphones ain’t always the best idea when riding along busy and unfamiliar roads). In contrast, music invariably reminds you of home and the past.

And when it’s time to crash out for the night – oh man, after a few days on the road you sleep the sleep of the righteous, particularly if you’re in the mountains. I rode from Chamonix to Zermatt on my e-mountain bike three years ago, a six-day off-road adventure, much of it at relatively high altitude, and I’ve rarely slept so well in my entire life.

There will regularly be occasions when you don’t actually know what day of the week it is (and, even better, you don’t care), yet you can tell the time and the direction you’re heading by the sun. You’ll immediately know what sort of fettle your bike is in by how it feels and sounds as you hop aboard each morning; and you’ll be able to repair punctures and adjust gears faster than a Tour de France mechanic.

I’ll close with a quote from the Irish author Flann O’Brien, in his novel The Third Policeman: ‘The gross and net result of it is that people who spen[d] most of their natural lives riding… bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles...’

That is why every cyclist should do at least one big ride in their life. Because what could be better than to be half human, half bike?

Alf Alderson is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about adventure travel for 25 years, with his work appearing in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and websites globally. He divides his time between the Pembrokeshire coast and Les Arcs in the French Alps.

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