Manzanita logo

Preparing for a bikepacking race

Around May this year I get it in my head that it’d be fun to do a bikepacking race. Type II fun for sure, but something that’s worth trying, at least once. I’m getting to that age (42) where my body is starting to break down. I have a Morton’s neuroma, creaky knees, my hearing and eyesight are getting worse, and I’m definitely not as mentally sharp as my 20- or even 30-year-old self. While my body is still relatively strong, I want to keep challenging it.

So when June rolls around, I am ecstatic when I discover that the inaugural Tru Lassen Tour will be held this September. The race will start and end in Truckee, a 30-minute drive away. Plus, I’m familiar with many sections of the route, having ridden large stretches on previous trips. I’d already have a logistical leg up.

The first thing to do is to start training. I have about 12 weeks to improve my fitness. That’s not a lot of time, but it’s what I have, so I dive right in. I get a Wahoo smart trainer and a subscription to Trainer Road, create a training plan in the app, and begin the suffer fest.

Meanwhile, I begin to plan what kind of bike and gear will be best for the route. Early September in the Sierra is typically hot during the day and chilly at night. It’s also usually dry and free of mosquitos. I likely won’t need rain gear or a tent. A simple bivvy sack with clothing and gear that can handle 30º-90º F temperatures will do. I’ll need to be able to carry at least 3 liters of water and 1 day of food to make it between resupply options. The route is almost entirely on paved and unpaved roads. No technical singletrack that I’m aware of.

Having years of experience bike touring and bikepacking, it’s easy for me to whip up a pack list in my head to guess its overall volume and what types of luggage will be appropriate. I envision a drop bar bike with aero bars to maximize my efficiency. The bike will carry my trusty Revelate Viscacha, a 16L bikepacking saddle bag, that will house my bed roll and spare clothes. A full-frame framebag can carry bike maintenance stuff, a water bladder, and food. I can use a pair of Revelate Feedbags, one to carry a water bottle and the other to store my electronic gadgets. And finally my J-Paks SnakPak top tube bag will store my on-the-go snacks.

The bike

Because I’m a framebuilder, I also take the opportunity to make myself a new bike for the event. Whenever I make a bike for myself, I like to test new ideas. In this case, I want experience what its like to run 700×53 tires and drop bars with a 50mm stem.

Gravel 29er with custom frame bag width=

From what I understand, large and wide (aka heavier) tires increase the wheel’s rotational inertia. The increased inertia adds stability to the handling and helps maintain speed over bigger bumps. That’s why nearly all downhill and enduro racers run a 29er wheel up front, even if the shorter riders need a 27.5″ wheel in back for butt-to-tire clearance.

But since I’m not racing a downhill course, I don’t necessarily need ultimate stability and momentum. I can get some advantage from the larger wheel but use a lightweight tire and rim to trade some stability for a little more steering liveliness.

Maintaining that liveliness also means that I can use a relatively normal width drop handlebar and a short stem. I choose the Enve Gravel Bar in a 44cm width. On the tops it feels almost like my 42cm road bike position. Then the drops flare out for more control on the rougher dirt road descents.

Running the 50mm stem allows me to push the front end of the bike out further than a normal road bike. This has huge benefits for a drop bar dirt bike. First, I won’t have any dangerous toe overlap on the large front tire. Some people don’t mind toe overlap. I hate it. Second, I can build a larger front triangle that provides more capacity for a frame bag. Third, the longer front end puts the front wheel further ahead of me, making it harder to endo on steep descents and increasing the wheelbase, both of which add confidence when you’re high posting and hunched over your bars going faster than you should.

BikeCAD drawing of the monstercross bike width=

Aside from the longer front end, the geometry of the bike is fairly standard for dirt bikes with drop bars. A 70.5º head tube angle combined with the Enve Adventure Fork’s 55.5mm fork offset provides a mid-60mm mechanical trail figure that I like for this type of bike. This adds some steering stability over a standard road race bike, which is usually in the mid-50s, but no where near as stable as a modern mountain bike, which usually has a mechanical trail figure around 100mm. That way my 44cm bars can still easily control the front end. I’m of the mind that mechanical trail and handlebar width need to be in sync. The lower the trail the narrower the bars and vice versa.

I placed the bottom bracket about 1 inch higher than a typical road bike to let my pedals clear small rocks. It’s about half way between a road bike and what I use for mountain bikes. I like to keep bottom bracket height as low as possible. It increases standover clearance, lowers the rider’s center of gravity, allows the saddle and bars to be closer to the same height, and increases the size of the front triangle for more frame bag capacity.

I really want to try the SRAM AXS system on this build, but the parts shortage makes it impossible with such short notice. Instead, I pull together a Sram 12s mullet build. I use the clever Ratio 1×12 kit to convert a Force 11-speed shifter to 12-speed and to persuade an X01 rear derailleur to work with the shifter. Combine that with a 32t chainring and a 10-50t Garbaruk cassette and I will have all the gearing I need to drag myself up any mountain.

The cockpit with aero bars, a Wahoo computer, two Revelate feed bags, and a Spot tracker. width=

Although I prefer hydraulic brakes for all dirt bike applications, I go with some Paul Klampers. This is partly due to the fact that I can’t secure some Sram hydraulic shift levers in time, but I’m also curious about the performance of the Klampers. They have a reputation for exceeding expectations. After bedding in the brakes, I love how they feel. Wow, they’re seriously great!

But I’m not a fan with how the front caliper works with the Enve Adventure Fork. The fork has internal routing for the brake line. The brake line pops out on the inside of the fork blade really close to the top of the caliper. Because the housing stop on the Klamper is positioned outboard, the brake line has to make a tight jog around the blade to reach. This may cause excess friction as the housing liner wears out from the cable making tight bends. Right now it feels fine, but this could become a reliability problem with use.

The whole bike is designed to work with the relatively new Rene Herse Fleecer Ridge 29×2.2 tires. Almost all of the bikes I make end up getting designed around a certain tire, whether for myself or my customers. I use Rene Herse tires on all of my non mountain bikes. They’re extremely comfortable, they roll fast, and they’re well made. I’m convinced that tires are the second most important aspect of bike performance, other than fit. That’s why I will pay top dollar for what I think is the best tire for the application.

Since aero bars are a must on a ride like this, I grab a set of Zipp Vuka clip on bars. With the additional 30mm riser blocks under the arm pads, I’m able to get in a comfortable position without an extreme hip angle and without feeling the need to shove my saddle forward. The aero bars are less for aerodynamics and more for providing relief to my hands while pedaling for up to 16 hours a day.

I built the front wheel with a Son dynamo hub so I can charge my electronics during the day and power a Son Edelux II headlight at night. The headlight is paired with a Sinewave Cycles Revolution USB charger. The wiring for both the headlight and USB charger are spliced at the spade connectors. It’s a caveman dynamo setup, but it works. As long as I remember to turn off the headlight when not needed, all of the electricity will flow to the USB charger.

Instead of running wires through the frame for a dynamo tail light, I found a nice bolt-on USB rechargeable tail light sold by a former framebuilder in Portland. I machined a little M6 threaded braze-on and mounted it to the seat stay. This is a nice little detail that’s not necessary but a fun part of making a custom frame.

A USB tail light mounted to a custom seat stay braze-on. width=

Since there’s not enough time to send the bike out to get professionally painted, I get some black Spray.Bike rattle can paint and spend a few days painting it to the best of my abilities. The vinyl decals come from a local signmaker who I’ve used in the past. I go with matte black so I don’t have to paint the Enve fork to match. It’s quick and cheap and looks about 80% as good as what a pro will do. That last 20% is so worth it though. If I continue to love this bike I can always strip it down and send it off for a proper paint job.

A turn of events

After getting the bike built up in August, Carrie and I leave for a 2-week tour in Vermont. It’s a great opportunity to get in a lot of saddle time, to adjust my butt to long days in the saddle. During the trip, the fires back in California continue to wreak havoc. The Dixie Fire burns through a huge portion of the Tru Lassen route, so the event organizer wisely decides the cancel the group start.

After spending so much time building up a new bike, after grinding through 10 weeks worth of indoor training, I still want to spend part of September doing some kind of bikepacking ride. A quick search reveals that the Smoke ‘n Fire 400 in Idaho starts at about the same time as the Tru Lassen Tour would have. Excellent! Boise is also a half-day’s drive away from Reno. Nice! Plus, the route goes through a similar climate to the Sierra and is mainly dirt roads. Perfect! The bike I made will still be ideal for the event. Now it’s time to refine the pack list and to review the route to create a ride strategy.

The pack list

Riding clothes

The jersey and bib shorts will provide a little extra aerodynamic efficiency. The jersey pockets give me just a little more storage space. I’ll use flat pedals and mountain bike shoes to help prevent hot foot and keep my Morton’s neuroma from getting feisty. After years of fussing with clipless shoes, I’ve yet to find some that are comfortable for long rides.

Spare clothes

The Ketchum and Stanley areas can get down to freezing even if the daytime highs are in the 90s. I can slip out of my riding clothes into some warm dry clothes to hopefully keep me comfy while I sleep. I’m not one of those maniacs who will ride for 24 hours without sleep. Give me 4-6 hours of sleep per day and I should be fine for the race. If it’s really cold in the wee hours when I’m riding I can also ride with all of the above clothes layered over my riding kit. In the highly unlikely event that rain is forecasted, I still have room to stash a rain jacket and an extra set of bib shorts.

Camp kit

Many bikepacking racers eschew a ground pad and pillow to save weight. I’m not that crazy. The emergency blanket will work as a ground cloth. I’m bringing the bear bag kit to be a responsible person while in bear country. Hanging food is annoying, so I’ll first try to stash my food in secure places like national forest pit toilets. But if there aren’t other options then my food will hang.

Electronics

During the day, the Revolution can charge my battery bank or any of the devices. At night I’ll switch on the Son Edelux II headlight and combine it with the Exposure helmet light for maximum visibility. I’m going with a Wahoo computer instead of the more popular Garmin eTrex series because I’ve had issues with past eTrex computers being unreliable. The Wahoo is really nice to use and hasn’t let me down yet.

Personal care kit

With this kit I should be able to keep my skin, teeth, and butt happy.

Bike repair kit

I prefer to use separate tools over multi-tools. They’re easier to use and less fiddly. Although I am bringing a multi-tool with allen wrenches for convenience. The goal is to only use the chain lube and rag. Let’s hope the rest of the tools stay buried at the bottom of the frame bag.

Hydration and nutrition

The first half of the SNF400 mainly follows river valleys. It’ll be a piece of cake to keep topped off on water. I probably won’t carry much water until I pass Stanley. Then it starts getting pretty dry. When it’s time to fill up at a water source, I can fill the 1.5L Nalgene and add Aqua Mira drops to it, since I won’t be drinking it right away. Then I can use the BeFree to filter the rest of my water. I hope that’ll save time during pit stops.

I’ll rely on the Scratch Labs hydration mix to keep my legs from cramping. I suffer from nasty leg cramps. Here’s hoping the hydration mix will keep my electrolytes topped off. Pre- and post-ride, I plan to shake up a little chocolate recovery drink. This is an experiment that I hope works well.

The race plan

Planning how to ride the race is easily the hardest part of preparing for the race. In fact it’s downright intimidating. Making a frame, building up a bike, creating a pack list, that’s the fun stuff. Now it’s time to analyze the route, try to create a realistic schedule to follow, and to make sure I survive this thing.

The first thing to do is to upload the latest GPX file of the route into RidewithGPS. In the app I add points of interest (POIs), like convenience store locations, water resupply locations, and reminder warnings that I’m about to enter a long stretch of the route with no services. RidewithGPS will also give me an elevation profile and will list the length and average gradients of the major climbs. I can then share the route to my Wahoo GPS computer to provide me with turn-by-turn directions on route. It’s an indispensable digital tool for safely navigating remote locations. I also have the route imported into the OSMAnd GPS app on my phone as a backup.

Now that I have the route ready for navigation, I have to guess how far I think I can ride each day. My goal is to complete the ride in 4 days. That’s an average of 106.25 miles and 9,200 feet of climbing each day. Dear lord! What am I getting myself into? The guys and gals that put in 200 mile days during these kind of races are superheroes.

My stretch goal will be to get to Ketchum on Day 1 (152 miles), Stanley on Day 2 (93 miles), near Garden Valley on Day 3 (112 miles), and to the finish (68 miles), ahead of my arbitrary 96-hour deadline. This schedule will give me the option of sleeping indoors the first two nights and sleeping near the last reliable food resupply the last night.