Curious about how ultra-racers prepare for long-distance bikepacking events? We reached out to 2021 Pinyons and Pines top finishers Katie and Andrew Strempke to hear about their tactics for this year’s event in Northern Arizona. Learn more about their preparation here, alongside photos from John Schilling…
Words by Katie Strempke (@katie.strempke) and Andrew Strempke (@strempke), photos by John Schilling (@schillingsworth)
Pinyons and Pines is a 300-mile loop from Flagstaff that showcases the beauty of northern Arizona on singletrack, dirt roads, and minimal pavement. There were 53 starters and 26 finishers in this year’s event. It was the year of the singlespeeds, with 4 of 5 of the top finishers riding singlespeed. Andrew won the race overall, and Katie placed third overall and was the first woman to cross the line. We wrote a full ride report on our personal blog, but the post below highlights some of the ways we prepare for a bikepacking race. This is our process for racing, not necessarily having the most fun or pleasant experience. For example, going without sleep can be pretty uncomfortable.
While this post is about racing, we also value balance in our lives and make sure we spend time riding just for fun, going on leisurely bikepacking trips, and riding with friends. We’ve found personal growth, a wonderful friend-family, and self confidence through racing and the bikepack-racer community.
Since Flagstaff is one of our favorite places we’ve been in our van, we spent about a month in the surrounding area. We were able to pre-ride parts of the course on training rides. Our focus for the weeks leading up to the race was riding almost every day, eating well, and prioritizing recovery and sleep. Aside from that, knowing our bodies’ strengths and weaknesses and training accordingly has been helpful in both improving speed and preventing injury, (for example, Katie has had knee issues in the past due to weak glutes, so that’s something she addresses regularly. Andrew has had back issues, so he makes sure to work on his core. Sometimes.)
Caffiene can be a very powerful tool in endurance events, and to maximize the benefit, we’ve mostly cut out caffeine from our daily lives. That caffeine pill feels pretty great at 2 a.m. when you haven’t had coffee in a few weeks.
Andrew is the king of spreadsheets and we both geek out on going through the route, estimating arrival times at resupply points, roughly counting calories, and making water plans. It’s pretty obvious that knowing your food and water resupply points is extremely important. It can also help to calculate how much food and water you will need at a resupply point and have that written down before you start. A grocery list can be really handy when you’re tired and walk into a store with an overwhelming amount of choices to make. However, most of the time we don’t know what will sound good until we get there, so we keep it flexible.
In races where there are several resupply points close together, we’ll usually skip some and carry extra food/water rather than stopping at every store to save time. At Pinyons and Pines, there was a 24-hour gas station in Camp Verde, which was around halfway. This was the only store either of us used during the race.
We both rode singlespeed Chumba Senderos. One of the most important decisions a singlespeeder has to make before the race is choosing a gear. We selected 32×20 based on our knowledge of the route and experience riding different gear ratios.
While we leave some comforts like a stove and extra changes of clothes behind when we race, we take our safety and obligation to recreate responsibly very seriously, so there are some non-negotiable items that we always carry, such as rain gear and a first aid kit. For Pinyons and Pines, there was only a 20% chance of rain, but we ended up getting rained on for 8 hours. Keeping dry and warm is such an important safety issue. When determining which layers to bring, we look at the temperature lows and consider what gear we would need to keep warm if we’re not able to ride. For example, when fixing a mechanical issue, or if you end up with an injury and have to wait for someone to pick you up. A minor issue can become dangerous quickly without the right clothing.
Andrew’s goal was to push straight through without sleep, so he didn’t bring a sleep kit, only an emergency blanket in case of, well, emergency. It’s easier to ride through the night when you aren’t tempted to crawl into a warm quilt. This strategy carries some significant risk, especially if the ride takes longer than you expect and you have to push through mulitple nights.
Katie brought an SOL bivy and puffy jacket because she wanted to sleep for two hours each night. She was really glad she had it so she could sleep (mostly) comfortably in the cold, wind, and rain. We typically make a gear list for each race, so we look back over gear lists from the past to make sure we have everything we need. It’s easy to forget about important items in your repair or first aid kit without a list.
Completing a bikepacking race is such a mental game. Of course, it’s important to have a strong and prepared body, but mindset can make or break a race. The mental preparation begins way before the race by setting goals and intentions. Our number one goal was to finish the race, secondary to that was going fast. It’s been important for us to keep goals in mind so when we’re at our mental lows, we can reflect back on decisions made when we were thinking clearly before the race.
Katie is a believer in the use of mantras that reflect her values and her why. She always write notes to herself on her handlebars including the mantra “growth > comfort” and also have another note based on what she anticipates being challenging. This time she knew the geared riders would be faster in the beginning flat gravel miles so she wrote “don’t blow up” as a reminder to keep her pace and ego under control at the beginning of the race. Another racer and badass lady, Lindsay, shared that her mantra for the race was “courage > fear.”
Collecting challenging experiences helps build perseverance, and when we got unexpected rain, we were able to draw back on other less than ideal conditions we’ve made it through.
One of the most beneficial things we’ve done after a race is keep a “lessons learned” document. It’s easy to forget some of the important things I’ve learned without writing them down. This time, Katie learned that listening to her body rather than fighting it helped her move faster and keep her spirits up. Andrew learned that keeping his phone on airplane mode helped him focus and minimize unnecessary stop time.
We’ve probably heard or read many of these tips in the past, but often it didn’t click until we experienced bikepack racing for ourselves. The best teacher is experience, so get out and do it!
2021 Pinyons and Pines Results
- Andrew Strempke: 1:18:05
- Ezra Ward-Packard: 2:00:25
- Katie Strempke: 2:03:47
- Nelson Jones: 2:05:25
- Jeff Spencer: 2:05:25
- Liz Carrington: 2:07:08
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