How Long are Self Supported Bikepacking Races?

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When I was recently starting to think more about bike packing races, I wondered what range of distances are involved in self supported bikepacking races.  So, I did some research to find out the distances and durations involved.

So how long are self supported bike packing races? Bikepacking races vary from as little as 150km for some off road events to 29,000km for the World by Bike Challenge. On average, races are between 1000km and 5000km for road events and between 700km and 2500km for off road events.

When deciding on your event, the length of the race is important but there is a lot more to a bike packing race than just the distance. The terrain, route planning, navigation, availability of food and water, weather and cultural environment all play a part in what it takes to complete a given event successfully.

Race distances and duration

The length of a race is a good rule of thumb, particularly when combined with the amount of climbing and whether the event is on or off road. Riding on the road is generally at a higher average speed so this needs to be taken into account when thinking about how long a race will take. In all events, there is a wide range of finishing times and there is no stigma to taking longer to finish.

For example, a relatively short event such as the 880km (550 miles) Highland Trail 550 (HT550) can be completed in just over 3 days by the fastest and 7 to 10 days for the slower finishers. Average speeds varying from around 12km/h (7.5 mph) for the 3 days to just over 5km/h (3.5 mph) for the 7 or 8 day finishers.

On the road, even a relatively complicated and hilly route such as the 2500km (1500 miles) Transatlantic Way (TAW) is completed in around 6 days for the fastest and up to 2 weeks for the slower riders. Average speeds for vary between 17km/h (11mph) for the 6 days and 7.5km/h  (4.5mph) for 14 days.

For longer road events with more flat sections such as the Transcontinental Race (TCR), the speed is a little higher. The route of the TCR varies from year to year and therefore the distance varies accordingly. The race is typically between 3500km and 4000km (2200 to 2500 miles). This race is by no means flat and requires the riders to devise and find their own routes so distances vary from rider to rider.

In 2017 the TCR was approximately 4000km (2500 miles). The first finisher took just over 9 days, equating to an average speed of around 18.5km/h (11.5mph). The last recorded finisher took nearly 18 days, equating to around 9.25km/h (6mph) based on results from the official TCR website.

These three examples, show that there is a wide variation of distances and many factors contribute to the time it takes to complete the events.

How far do self supported bikepacking racers ride each day?

You can see from the previous section that bike packing riders cover different distances each day. Using the same examples, this varies from just over 100km/day for the slower riders in the HT550, off road, up to distances of 450km/day for the fastest riders in road events. 

These are average values and the actual distance each rider covers in any given day varies tremendously. Factors effecting the daily distance can be more obvious things like terrain, weather conditions, daylight  but also accidental factors such as mechanical issues and navigational problems. Some of these factors are predictable and some are not. 

What is a good bikepacking race daily routine?

Due to the variability and unpredictability of daily distances it is usually better to have a daily routine of riding time and resting time rather than aim to ride a given distance each day.

To work out an overall plan it is useful to have an idea of daily distances, although it is best not to use these as daily goals.

These routines are very much an individual thing with a trade off between riding speed and resting time. Some athletes cover more distance by riding faster and resting more, whereas some riders like to tough it out with less sleep and accept the consequences of slower speeds. It is very much a case of what works for each individual. 

In her recent round the world record, Jenny Graham worked with a schedule of 18 hours nominal riding time and 6 hours sleep/rest. The riding time included some stops for buying necessities and eating, the odd drinks/cafe stop, etc. The 6 hours resting time included some faffing time, unpacking, preparing a campsite and packing things up to get started the next day.

Whatever the schedule there needs to be flexibility and one of the most important things to do is plan for what go wrong and have strategies in place where possible. 

Is it important to finish self supported bikepacking races within a time limit?

Since races are unsupported and generally have the focus on a personal challenge, it isn’t necessary to finish within a given time. 

In many cases there is a finishers party and any manned checkpoints are closed after a certain time, forming the goals for many riders and setting a limit for whether times are officially recorded. 

However, many riders finish well after the cut-off times and there is no stigma associated with this in what is a friendly and inclusive environment. In fact, there is often as much, if not more interest in supporting slower riders get to the finish than there is for the leaders as people get involved in social media stories and get together in supporting the riders’ adventures. 

Am I fit enough for a self supported bikepacking race?

Most people have the ability to train for and complete a bike packing event but it takes commitment and consistency to build strength and endurance as well as determination to get through the event. This is of course the attraction, the challenge and the adventure.

By using the information above, breaking an event into the required daily distances, perhaps with the goal of finishing in time for the finishers party, it is easy to work out an average daily distance goal. With that goal in mind one can train to gain the fitness needed, learning what training works for you and what doesn’t, learning valuable information about yourself and your equipment that will ultimately contribute to a successful ride.

Related Questions

How do women and men compare? Although men are still faster than women, the difference can be quite small and female riders often finish well up the field. 

Are self supported bike packing races dangerous? As with any activity that takes people into the unknown on their own, there is some associated danger. Many races go through wild areas where dangerous animals can be present and there is of course the possibility of issues with the human populations. Having said that, each rider has a tracker to show their location and usually posts to social media and contacts friends regularly so in some respects the events are safer than just going it completely alone. There is a lot of preparation required to successfully complete a self-supported event of any kind and being aware of, and preparing properly for the event is part of the process. The environments and challengers are what make the adventure.

How do I train for a self supported bikepacking race? This is the subject of an article or even a book in itself but in simple terms, the training follows the same basic principles of getting fit for cycling as other disciplines. There is just a change of emphasis. Since most people work during the week, it is good to focus on speed and power during week days and ride long at weekends. So build power with intervals, hill repeats and longer tempo efforts during week days and build the duration of your long rides over the weekends and holidays. Practice everything to learn as much about what works and what can be improved before the event.

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John Hampshire has coached many athletes to completing and in some cases winning self supported bikepacking races and record attempts. John coached Jenny Graham to be the fastest female to ride round the world in 2018 and although being faster than any supported or unsupported riders, Jenny was fully self supported in her ride. If you have any questions about this article or you are interested in working with John for your challenge then please add a comment or get in touch directly.