Trail treats or bikepacking bliss? In this report from the UK, Cass wrestles with his love of bikepacking and equal fondness for trail riding. Do you stop and go, or flow? Perhaps, he concludes, the answer is to do both, on the very same trip. Find his story here…
When it comes to that hallowed intersection twixt our wanderlust and the joy of self-propulsion, nothing comes closer to perfection than bikepacking. I bet we share similar reasons as to why our inner beings tingle this way, but I’ll list a few of my favourites anyway.
Let’s start with a classic. Bikepacking allows for progress but at a digestible pace. In other words, it’s quick… but not that quick! A gentler pace of travel allows eyeballs the moments they need to observe subtle details lost in the excited blur of a trail ride. Instead, a bikepacking trip puts heads in a less hurried, more inquisitive state of mind.
Related, bikepacking forces me to slow down. And even pause. Maybe it’s as simple as needing to catch my breath, given the heft I’m hauling. Perhaps climbs feel more hard-won and thus worthy of off-bike celebration. Or this: if I’m riding slowly in the first place, there’s less resistance to coming to an actual standstill! Whatever the reason, within this introspective space of non-cycling blooms a deeper appreciation of where it is I’m actually riding to. Communication is also encouraged, be it with my travel companions or anyone I might meet along the way. In short, it’s good to stop!
And yet… when I’m aboard my mountain bike, the dropper’s down, and I’m riding trails at full pelt, I feel flow course through my veins. I can’t help but to chase it. I challenge myself to clean every climb. I revel in the thrill of every descent. Photos fall by the wayside. Conversations come to an abrupt end. Blackberries are left ignored and untasted!
In fact, the connection I feel with my touring bike can be quite different to the way I feel about my trail bike, even if the two are in reality the same. When I look at the former, festooned in luggage, I revel in its ability to carry me far and wide, for days on end, as long as there’s tread on the tyres and food in my belly. I look lovingly at it and I think, “I could go anywhere on this beautiful machine, and maybe I will!” When it’s svelte and unladen, on the other hand, I appraise it through a different lens. I ride this bike to be in the moment. It’s an almost transcendental experience, in that I’m transported to a different realm, one that can be harder to reach with a ballast of bags. And, a lightness in riding fast singletrack that goes beyond the physical weight of a bike.
You could say that one puts me in a stop-and-go state. And the other, a flow state. Sure, I can appreciate that there can be a time and a place for each. Or maybe, there can be a time and a place for both: loading panniers onto a bike and stopping mid-journey to shed them can dovetail surprisingly well, and offer two complimentary sides to one enriching adventure.
Take the Quantocks, for instance, a local stomping ground here in UK, where the terrain flies the flag of natural, old-school British mountain biking, offering a condensed network of thrilling bridleways into a parcel of land that’s just twelve miles by four.
Picture a knot of steep-sided hills bisected by an old drovers’ road, so ancient its hollowed deep into the earth by eons of hooves and footfall. These hills are close enough to reach by train and bicycle in just a couple of hours, but far enough – and certainly of sufficient beauty – to feel deserving of a weekend’s exploration.
So, together with Alex, I load up my bikepacking rig, ride to the station, detrain a half hour later, then pedal my way into the Quantocks with water in my bottles, food in my bags, and the mystique of travel in the air. Now, imagine a tortuous, laden climb that emerges onto broad, open heathland speckled with gorse flowers, and clumps of thick ferns, under which we might stash our gear to best savour the fruits of our labour. We look around. No one. Quickly, bags are unclipped from our bikes and stowed out of sight. We pedal off, not looking back. We’re now trail riders.
Light-wheeled and unladen, we swoop down a narrow, grassy singletrack that quickly steepens as it channels us into an idyllic coombe – as these narrow valleys are named in South West England. In turn, this propels us through ancient woodlands of mosses and oaks that twist and spiral. Help from a locomotive apart, travelling under our own steam to best discover this magical world is just the way I like to do it… until suddenly the trails are loose, rocky, and plain fun. Slipping, sliding, and launching our now feathery bikes off gnarled roots becomes our purpose in life.
No sooner than we’ve negotiated our way down the first of these rip-roaring, tree-lined chutes, splashing across clear streams that cool our brakes, we’re winching back out again on a coombe climb that has our chins buried in our handlebars. The ascent back to heathland, whilst short, somehow feels unending. It’s almost a pleasure to ride it unladen but would certainly be a slog to push up with a loaded bike.
Thankfully, we need not fret about cargo weighing us down – both physically and figuratively – so instead we while away the hours repeating this dive and winch formula, trying one coombe after another as we yo-yo up and down the hills. There’s Sheppard’s Coombe, Somerton Coombe, Smith’s Coombe, Slaughterhouse Coombe, Vinny Coombe, Bicknoller Coombe, and Hodder’s too, a checklist for the Quantock day rider. Until, that is, the sun sinks low on the horizon and a golden light glints across the heather. It’s time to return to our safeguarding ferns and find ourselves a quiet spot to dine, sleep a night under tarp, and wake up to a new day.
Morning comes, coffee is made, and unrushed conversations are savoured, as are blackberries. Then, with bags camouflaged again in the bracken, our beloved coombes call once more; our bodies flowing through the trees, our spirits soaring, our bikes light and carefree. I could keep riding forever, it seems, but eventually the train beckons. We return to picnic on the last of our supplies stockpiled within our panniers, and reload bikes with our well thumbed, worldly possessions. My bike feels solid, dependable, and sure-footed. It’s a companion I can always rely on, that will carry me as far as I dare go. We’re bikepackers again, and we have everything we need and nothing more.
It’s because of this wonderful duality that I find myself planning, of late, bikepacking and trail riding combination tours. Rather than trying to mix the two together into one recipe, creating time for them both means I can enjoy each for what it brings to the table.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve even purchased a new trail hardtail. I’ve ridden out from my home to a camping spot in the woods, for the simple purpose of spending a night in a tent and relishing sunrise singletrack.
I’ve ridden this bike, leisurely, to an enduro event in a national park, following a meandering bikepacking route to get there. And, although I was marshalling rather than racing, I found equal delight in quickly jettisoning my belongings to ride much of the course’s steep trails, ones that I’d never have ridden otherwise.
The yin and yang of gentler-paced bicycle touring and the wanton abandon of trail riding would appear to make my biking world whole. Perhaps on your next trip, you too can both stop and go… and flow!
As a gear aside, my new bike is a Merida Big Trail. I haven’t had a hardtail in years and I poured over its charts long into the night. With its modern numbers, I reasoned they were close to the ones I wanted to try, its build kit was solid, there was a mount for a cargo cage within the frame… and the price was right!
I’m not trying to coerce this bike into becoming a full-time bikepacking rig, as I want it to preserve its big trail DNA, and I already have my Jones LWB for that. But, I have made a few changes to make it a little more long-distance-friendly for me.
So far, it’s just a shorter 35mm stem, some Ergon GA2 grips, and a riser bar with more sweep – ultra comfy 17-degree Stooge Motos. For now, my favourite pedals are borrowed from my Jones, and I expect some discreet SQ Labs inner bar ends may find their way onto the cockpit too. Other than that, the 140mm fork, four-pot stoppers, and 11-50T gearing are just what I want for riding in the UK. Bristol-based Tailfin lent me some prototype gear that attaches quickly and removes effortlessly so I could ride to the Ex Enduro, shed gear, and let loose on the trails there.
Some first impressions. Firstly, a long dropper is a boon on hurly-burly descents! Secondly, a steep seat angle makes a bike feel spidery on technical climbing! And thirdly, a buttery fork goads rowdy lines on the steeps! Colour me impressed. This bike will likely stay in the UK when I return Mexico, but I’m already looking forward to similarly-styled trips next year!
Also, if you do stash your bikepacking gear to enjoy some unladen rides, be sure to drop a pin for the location on your phone! Or camp in an established spot and stow your gear safely there. I bikepacked to the Ex Enduro, a fantastic event that’s as much about riding fun trails in Exmoor National Park with friends as it is about racing. If you do want to bikepack in the Quantocks and Exmoor, be sure to check out Lars’ excellent route below, which I followed. And thanks to Alex Gist for sharing in the Quantocks magic too!
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