Words and photos by Richard Abraham (@richard.a.abraham)
The founding principles of l’Esperit del Bikepacking are fun, integrity, athleticism, community and respect. Besides organising ultra-endurance events, the first of which will take place in Catalunya this October, the organisation aims to promote bikepacking amongst under-represented groups of people.
Acknowledging that taking part in an off-road bikepacking trip can be a daunting prospect for a newbie—the inaugural Esperit event later this year will cover 800 kilometres and 28,000 metres of climbing—the organisation held their first off-road “bikepacking experience weekend” this April, a three-day, two-night gravel bikepacking ride comprising 200 kilometres and 4,000 metres of climbing.
It was definitively not a race. Instead, the event aimed to provide an inclusive and secure opportunity for people to talk, share, learn, and push themselves beyond their comfort zone together, led by James Hayden and Quinda Verheul.
The former is an experienced ultra-distance racer addicted to pushing his own limits, having twice won the Transcontinental Race before focussing on off-road races, coming fourth at the Silk Road Mountain Race in 2019, winning Further in 2020, and finishing third at the Highland Trail 550 in 2021.
“It’s not simply about racing, but even just riding and bikepacking,” Hayden says. “The difficulty and the consequences increase when you head off-road. The distances between resupplies increase, the remoteness increases, the possibility of issues increase. It can be hard to leave the safety blanket of tarmac and civilisation.”
Quinda Verheul is an artist from the Netherlands whose adventures in bikepacking began with a trip of several months across Europe and have taken her to the Atlas Mountain Race and Hope 1000. She explains that she was inspired to create an experience that didn’t intimidate women, in particular when it came to issues such as having your period during a trip and dealing with mechanicals “without having them mansplained.”
“I hope that by having this fun environment of camaraderie, and by creating a safe space to ask silly and non-silly questions to those with experience, that step into this adventure riding can be more inclusive,” she says. “I was really pleased to see that originally we had eight women out of 10 participants who signed up. That showed me that there is a need for this kind of thing for underrepresented groups.”
On the subject of making ultra-distance bikepacking more approachable, Verheul said, “I truly think anyone who has a sense of preparation and appreciation of the outdoors can do it. But it’s also important to educate people about how to behave in the outdoors, how to be self-sufficient and respectful, how to leave no trace.”
The Spirit of Bikepacking
The event comprised three days of riding around the Catalan city of Girona. On the opening morning, riders could build confidence on some of the easier gravel tracks heading north out of the city before the group headed towards Rocacorba and Besalú.
The first night’s camp spot was found up in the hills of the Alta-Garrotxa, with camping outdoors a new experience for many of the participants. The second day of riding was the longest and the most remote and included a hike up to the Puig de Bassegoda. A gentler third day brought riders back to Girona along the plains of Emporda. As ever with off-road bikepacking, there was rain, GPS misdirection, anxiety and new experiences aplenty.
“The weekend wasn’t about physical training,” Hayden explains. “But mental training, and with the weather and planned route we were all provided with multiple opportunities for learning.”
For some riders, it was an adventure in itself and an opportunity to explore the off-road riding around Girona and the Catalan Pyrenees.
“I wanted a break from my normal routine and to get away from my desk job for a long weekend,” says Joel McAllister. “I also wanted to explore the amazing area of Catalonia.”
“I’ve always thought of Girona as a road riding destination and quite a fancy one at that,” adds Claire Holmes. “It was great to discover how beautiful the off-road riding is, and that there are plenty of great tracks for ditch dwellers.”
Other riders had a specific goal in mind. Henriette Lauridsen rode her first on-road ultra-events last year and has her sights set on her first off-road event in 2023. She explains that, due to her lack of experience on technical riding terrain, she was unsure whether she could safely enter her ultimate goal, the Silk Road Mountain Race.
“There is something about a group environment that both adds a level of comfort and at the same time pushes you to step out of your comfort zone to keep up and stay with the others,” she says. “I purposely delayed a change of brake pads to give myself the experience of changing those ‘in the field’. The crash and punctures that followed the next day were not planned, but nonetheless gave me valuable experience of how to fix flats while trying to avoid filling the tyre with sand in the process.
“Having to spend two nights under the stars also allowed me to face another insecurity: sleeping outside. I have minimal experience with camping and still struggle to fully relax and get a proper night’s sleep when not surrounded by four walls. Being surrounded by other sleeping humans makes that situation slightly less scary.”
Quinda Verheul believes that no issue is too small to create insecurity, anxiety, or difficulty. “Henriette punctured both tires in a small off-road crash in the sand and so we had to change inner tubes, leaving us with no spares,” she says. “It was drizzling and I could see she was cold. Together we took a moment, got her a snack, and faced the mechanical issue. And we did it. This maybe sounds silly for something very easy thing to fix, but a crash and two flats can be intimidating and I’m glad to have been there to give some comfort.”
Hayden acknowledges the lack of women and people of colour in bikepacking, making the event a learning experience for him as an organiser and regular racer. His motivation was to create a group environment where riders could help each other, experience the spirit of bikepacking together (the meaning of “esperit” in the Catalan language) and learn according to their own individual needs. It was about having fun, “as it’s through having fun we enjoy ourselves and create good memories.”
“Maybe you think in the beginning, ‘I can’t do that,’ says JoAnn Lynne, who rode the event. “And then you find out you can do that. I think I feel unqualified to do certain things, and then I realize I can hang in there with the best of them.”
“Just do it: grab the opportunity when it shows itself,” adds Henriette Lauridsen. “Most people are capable of so much more than they think.”
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