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26th June 2019 / Comments (0)

Confessions of a Bikepacking Virgin

The Distance bikepacking confessions

Fish out of water

What happens when you prise a MTB Enduro rider out of his comfort zone, give him a gravel bike and send him bikepacking in the Lake District?

Purely out of intellectual curiosity of course, and in the interests of science, this is what we did to Tristan Taylor, host of the London’s premier MTB and Gravel festival, Swinduro.

Careful not to frighten him off, we invited him along to The Distance as a gentle introduction to the slightly arcane world of bikepacking. It was created by Focal Events who market it as ‘Bikepacking with Benefits‘, notably gin! Seriously, this is like a semi self supported, two day event where you take your tent with you. Instead of doing a spot of overnight ‘Wild Camping’ the organisers look after you with somewhere to camp, food, gin and company.

After being as excited as the proverbial dog with two tails, here is what Tristan had to say.

Swinduro meets The Distance

Here’s Tristan. Now totally stoked on bikepacking and already planing his next adventure. © Stephen Smith Photography.

Where do I start? How did I end up here? Why am I here?

How many of us have not asked ourselves the same questions as we are about to embark into the unknown?

I had no idea what The Distance had in store for me. There were severe weather warnings and I had driven 300 miles to be here, with only a very small tent to call home. Had I taken leave of my senses? Probably… but deep down, I was excited to see what this was all about.

The Distance Lake District

The Distance is a relaxed affair, a chance to ride with friends old and new. © Stephen Smith Photography.

So what is The Distance?

The Distance is a semi self-supported bike packing event that doesn’t really fit into any specific category. For the full story, you need to visit the website but take my word for it, there is nothing else quite like it.

This year it was held in the Lake District starting from the outdoor mecca of Staveley. Basically, like everyone else who had entered, that is all I knew. Interestingly, we had absolutely no idea where we would be staying that night, how far we would have to ride or how hard it would be.

Lee Cragie on The Distance

Lee Cragie and friends come to the conclusion that they should have turned left 8 miles ago… © Stephen Smith Photography.

The week before…

I knew I had to get some kit together as the organisers had provided a list of mandatory items. I knew that we would be riding between 50 miles and 80 miles (more on that in a bit) and that I needed some rackless packs for the bike and oh yeah – my bike.

Although I had concerns that I might turn up with the wrong machine, the cool thing about gravel is that you simply ride what you like. True to form, there were all shapes and style of bike and bar. For once it really was more about the ride than the bike, and that is so refreshing nowadays.

Bikepacking with Marin

Tristan rode this plucky Marin Gestalt with bags from Miss Grape.

The course

The riders gathered on Saturday morning for a low key rollout. There were no fanfares, countdowns, clocks or fuss, just an unhurried clicking of cleats and the sound of tyres on gravel. The only mild concern I had was that I still had no idea where we were going.

Bikepacking mystery tour

Where are we going? No one knows! © Stephen Smith Photography.

Before the event we all had about 20 GPX files to download. Each one guided you to the next checkpoint. Depending on your speed so far, your next destination would be decided by the marshals. Fast riders were sent in one direction while those content with a more leisurely pace would be sent another. This was ideal as it allowed everyone to ride at their own pace without feeling pressured to push on hard. All in all, it reflected the super relaxed vibe that carried through the whole weekend.

The Lake District walls and walls

More walls than a minatour’s maze…

The Distance was an ideal event to try out bikepacking. Not only were camping and creature comforts laid on, but you did not even have to carry your kit. Bravely choosing the option to have someone else carry my stuff for me, I was able to indulge myself a little. Not only did I send a selection of warm, dry clothes ahead, I also included some little luxuries. Hey…I was not carrying it so why not let the van take the strain!

Rolling fast

Riders have the option of packing for the long haul, or let the broom wagon take the strain. © Stephen Smith Photography.

Sort of half conscious that I might end up on a guilt trip or have everyone think “He’s the guy that bottled it”, I surreptitiously asked around. Fortunately, not everyone was truly hard core, and enough people had chosen to send kit on ahead rather than carrying it. The organisers had obviously done their homework to make it as easy as possible for any newcomers. I was really warming to this event!

The only time there was any real intervention was when the marshalls told you where you were going next.

Different bikes all gravel

Flat bars and drop bars… All are welcome! © Stephen Smith Photography.

Navigation is easy nowadays, what with GPS…except when it fails. Prematurely dead batteries and poor internet connections meant we had to revert to old skool technology. Fortunately, this eventuality had been covered and the organisers had a supply of printed maps. Copies were handed out at each checkpoint and the marked routes guided you to the next checkpoint. Genius!

Map reading bikepacking

Maps prove essential for those times when your GPS talks gibberish at you. © Stephen Smith Photography.

The routes were truly varied. We tackled rocky climbs and descents,  fireroads , forest singletrack and open farm land climbs with stunning views at the top. Mostly though, it felt that every trail pointed up.

At the end of the day

As we rolled into camp we had ridden around 90km with maybe 6000ft climbing. It may not have been the biggest of days but was it fun? Even better was the very smooth Bedrock Gin which greeted us at the end. Thanks to the lovely team from Alpkit who served it all up for us!

Other supporters were All City Cycles, Tioga and Miss Grape Bikepacking, who had bikes, saddles and kit on show for us to look at, touch, see and feel.

I am sure I am not alone when I say that I really appreciated the fantastic effort by those that supported the event! Awash in contentment, not to mention a little gin, I had a shock coming.

Lakeland descents

Loaded bikes descend fasterer.

My post ride euphoria soon disappeared when I remembered we still had to build a home for the night!

Checking out everyone else’s tents, they all seemed far bigger than mine. I had gone light and small and had felt pretty chuffed with my wise choice. It was not until people walked past saying “Hmm, that’s quite small” that I began to worry.

When in doubt, have another beer, so I did. Meanwhile, we all settled down to swap “traveller’s tales” and generally recap on the riding.I would worry about the tent later.

Bedrock Gin

A glass of gin was waiting for every rider at the overnight camp. Thank you, Bedrock! © Stephen Smith Photography.

Today the Lakes, tomorrow the Silk Road?

Pete McNeil was on hand to give us a talk. If you do not know of him, he tackled the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race (maybe one of the hardest Mountain Races in existence). Hearing his trials, tribulations, highs and lows, put our efforts in perspective. Having said that, there was a valuable lesson tucked away in his lecture. Although you might not appreciate it at the time, when you think the tank is empty, there is always more energy to be found. You just have to dig deep to find it.

Setting up camp at Brathay Hall

Setting up camp on the front lawn at Brathay Hall. © Stephen Smith Photography.

Homily over, it was back to the tent. In the end it was perfect. It was an OEX 1 man tent which I bought from GoOutdoors for less than £100. It went up easily, it stayed up and kept me dry through a massive downpour in the night. I am a fan and I think the tent and I will have many more adventures together.

Go Outdoors Tent

A tent and beer. What more does a man need in life?

Next morning we packed up and rode for 30km ride along Windermere which included some cycleways, some hills, a few more gates and a ferry. As usual, the finish came far too soon and it was back home to normality.

Bloody Good Fun

If you are looking for adventure, love the outdoors and own a bike I would definitely recommend signing up for The Distance in 2020. It was a super event, relaxed, well managed, well supported and bloody good fun.

The Distance bikepacking adventure

Patiently waiting for the Windermere ferry. © Stephen Smith Photography.

In terms of the weekend I had a blast and learned loads, I cannot recommend it enough!

If you are thinking of doing some bikepacking here are my “fresh to bikepacking” top tips:

Tristan’s Bikepacking Top tips

  • Do not rely on tech – be confident to navigate if you need or want to
  • Do not buy loads of kit. Where possible, use what you have.If you have to by something, it does not have to be the most expensive out there
  • Know how to fix your bike and carry the essentials (waterproof, layer, compass, first aid)
  • Take it in your stride, have fun, relax and let the modern world do what it needs to do – enjoy nature!

The Distance: What to Take?

As Tristan points out, one of the big draws of The Distance is that you really can turn up on anything. We saw bikes ranging from a canti-braked classic tourer (complete with kickstand) to full suspension mountain bikes. No matter what they were riding, everyone had a good time!

I took a Lauf True Grit. Although it may have been designed for long distance races like the Dirty Kanza, it was just as happy to play pack mule for the weekend.

Lauf True Grit & Miss Grape Bikepacking

Lauf True Grit goes The Distance. © Stephen Smith Photography.

What’s in the bags?

Fully loaded with Miss Grape Bikepacking bags, I had enough luggage capacity to keep me rolling for much longer than two days in the Lakes.

Up front in the Tendril 4.10 handlebar bag, I had an ultralight ‘Exped Mira’ 1 person tent.

The tent poles, waterproof jacket, ride snacks for both days, mobile phone and a multitude of maps all fitted in the medium sized Internode frame bag.

The 20L Cluster saddle bag was packed to the gills. I had clothes for every eventuality, from a Saharan heat wave to a monsoon. I also stowed away my ‘Exped Synmat UL’ sleeping bag and pillow. Usually you might expect some tail waggle from such a bulging bag. No chance! The Miss Grape’s straps cinch up tight enough to combat any movement.

Miss Grape Bikepacking Node 2H

Node 2H – strapless and remained waggle free. If your frame has bento mounts, use them! © Stephen Smith Photography.

Because the Lauf True Grit features ‘bento box’ mounts on the top tube, I chose the Miss Grape Node 2H (2 holes). This model does away with velcro straps altogther and bolts to  your frame. If your bike features these mounts, use them!  Amazingly, I had absolutely no waggle, even when carrying my camera, trail tools and even more food.

Miss Grape Bikepacking Internode

Bags for everything. Everything in its right place. © Stephen Smith Photography.

You don’t have to be a bikepacker to go The Distance…

Having ‘the right kit’ can be expensive. You could spend a lot of money on Bikepacking kit only to find out it is not for you. At The Distance no one will laugh at your 5 man family tent, inflatable air bed and suitcase of clothes. Let the broom wagon take the strain and just enjoy the ride. And if you catch the bug, start making hints that you want some Miss Grape Bikepacking kit for Christmas!

Dates and location for The Distance 2020 are to be announced later in the year. Keep your eyes peeled on ADVNTR for further news.

Fancy a little piece of art inspired by The Distance? Take a look at our limited edition posters.

Last modified: 2nd July 2019

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