Canadian endurance cyclist Rob Britton knows his way around a podium, but admittedly knew nothing about bikepacking. When he emailed us this summer looking for bikepacking gear recommendations, we were eager to see how his years of road racing translated to off pavement. Ambitious by nature, he bit off a 10-day trip through British Columbia, exploring the marvelous Vancouver Island, as a first.
“We shuffle into the Port Renfrew Pub and slump down into a seat. Slowly, our shivering transitions to a mild tremor, helped along with each sip of Dude Chilling Pale Ale, the local brew. With every sip, the reality dawns on us: we are done. Our nine-day bikepacking trip from Calgary to Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island’s southwestern tip has ended. I have pedaled 1,650 kilometers and racked up 90 hours of ride time in two weeks.” ~Rob Britton, Velo News.
There are two things you come to realized as a professional endurance athlete:
1) You’ll confront few situations of a physical- or endurance-based nature that you’re unable to get yourself out of. By bike, skis, or by foot, one way or another, you’re going to be OK (or at the very least, you’ll be of the mindset that it’ll be OK).
2) It’s that same endurance background that’s probably responsible for 90% of the jam-ups you get yourself into.
I give you cause and effect. You decide which is which.
In mid-June of this year I decided to ride my cyclocross bike on back roads from my home in Calgary, Alberta, to Port Renfrew on the southwest tip of Vancouver Island, B.C. I had never done ANYTHING like this in the past, and the idea of putting it all together then pulling it off really excited me. Fortunately, I also have some amazing friends who are every bit as physically capable and adventurous as I am when it comes to things like this.
Starting with the question, “What the heck is bikepacking, and where do you find this stuff?” we spent weeks, that turned into months, planning everything from bikes and gear ratios to routes, rest stops, and campsites. Not your dad’s 1980’s ride across Canada on the #1 highway with panniers and Ray Bans, this would be a nine-day, 1,600-kilometer trip on mostly dirt or backroads – a western Canadian Rocky Mountain journey of epic proportions. At least that’s what we told ourselves.
Everything I had read suggested to start off with something small, an overnight trip, or an out and back on a weekend. Pretty much nobody suggested something of this magnitude as a first attempt.
We obviously disregarded any of that noise.
Head first, first. Right?
The trip went a little something like this…
My friend Jamie Sparling flew from Vancouver to Calgary (where he grew up) on a Tuesday. Calgary is massive, and neither of us wanted to ride more than needed, so we connected the next day in Bragg Creek, Alberta, 40 km outside the city. We both had the same “oh shit” look in our eyes, and we both chose to ignore it. We started the ride. As the miles stacked up behind us, our nerves relaxed and comfort levels returned to normal. Midday we connected with our third party member, Nic Hamilton.
“During our 165km, eight-hour ride to Nelson, British Columbia, I started to feel the deep-in-your-bones fatigue that sleep simply cannot erase.” ~Rob Britton, Velo News.
On our perfect first day, we suffered no mechanical issues, no detours, great road conditions, decent weather and a solid vibe. The next few days were not so kind. Flat tires, lost water bottles, a three-hour hike-a-bike over a mountain pass, hours spent in the wet, cold, and dark, as well as general fatigue all took their toll on us. Bikepacking was not as easy as the internet and Instagram made it appear.
Nic parted ways with us partway through the third day. While he went on a solo journey back to work, Jamie and I had 300-400 kilometers until we connected with our friend Taylor Little halfway through day five. During the first half of our trip we were adamant that we would ride trails over dirt roads, dirt roads over paved, and at all costs avoid the use of any major highways. But by the fifth day, we were pace lining down the 3A Crow’s Nest highway for about 50 kilometers before we met up with Taylor. Sure there WAS a parallel rail trail beside us, but after the last two days of washboard and blast rock we decided smooth roads and a wide shoulder was just fine with us.
Jamie and I both packed a dehydrated meal each, which we kept as our emergency “oh shit, we’re stuck on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere” dinner. But for the most part we got bike food from gas stations and convenience stores along the way, anything from Oh Henry to homemade butter tarts. We lunched most days at a town bakery or café with the highest rating on Google, and we chose dinner under the same scrutiny (if there was a choice, mind you).
By some stroke of luck the meals rarely disappointed us, except the night we ate nachos, ice cream, and beer for dinner because literally everything else had closed for the night. Though that was a nutritional rock bottom, we found many gems along the way, too. Honestly, looking back, I have absolutely no idea where I could have put more food on my bike if I had too!
“The final few days of this trip taught me an important lesson about bikepacking. Simple things like a sunny day, a tasty meal, a beautiful sight, or some unexpected humor can lift your spirits.” ~Rob Britton, Velo News.
As we neared the West Coast and the route began to take us more north than west, our time on the dirt also began to fade. Still, we ended up on some absolutely amazing and quiet paved roads through central B.C.
Take note, if you have control over your schedule, hit the busiest roads mid week and off-peak hours. We rarely started before 10a.m. and would then be coming into towns and cities after 7p.m., well past rush hour. We also only rode through one weekend and adjusted our route accordingly to avoid potential heavy traffic in the area.
“This was the final ride of this journey, and the rain fell all day, for all seven hours of our ride. The temperature hovered around eight degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit). At one point I put on all of my riding clothes to stay warm. After a few hours, every layer was completely soaked.” ~Rob Britton, Velo News.
As we boarded the Horseshoe Bay ferry (North Vancouver) to take us from Mainland B.C. to Nanaimo on Vancouver island, we looked forward to the end of our trip. But, just like any great story, the finale of this journey would not come easily to us. With rain, wind, and less than balmy temperatures waiting for us on the Island, our final push was anything but comfortable. On top of all of this my Di2 shifter battery finally drained enough to go into sleep mode, leaving me with only the 34 front ring to work with.
As we poured ourselves into the pub in Port Renfrew and began to down our first beer of the day, I don’t think any of us could have been happier. We spent the last seven hours of our day, the last seven of the entire journey in heavy West Coast rain, and now we were DONE. Tomorrow we’d get to take our bikes out naked without any baggage on them, and it would be a feeling of utter bliss.
Powered by nothing more than our own two feet, a little caffeine, god knows how many snickers and an ample supply of ambition for adventure, we made it from Calgary to Vancouver. I wouldn’t suggest this as the best way to start your own bikepacking adventure, but it was our way. When it comes down to it I don’t think there’s any real right or wrong way to do this stuff. Just get out there and see where the road (or lack there of) takes you.