Making Time for the Trail
Earlier this summer, RJ Sauer set out on his first family bikepacking trip on a section of the BC Trail. A year prior, RJ had ridden the entire route during the BC Epic 1000, an annual bikepacking race from Merritt to Fernie. This time, with his wife and nine-month-old son Oliver in tow, he was out to see it with a fresh perspective…
“Those are some big tires you have there…”
This was the standard greeting any time we crossed paths with non-cyclists along the trail. I was used to odd looks and even judgement when riding fat bikes, but my ego took immediate umbrage when it was followed up with, “How do you like your e-bike?” Clearly, an assumption was being made based on our fully stuffed frame and saddle bags, or maybe most onlookers couldn’t appreciate the logic or even the physics of towing an infant behind a fat bike without some sort of artificial assistance. Either way, my pride was quick to assert that we were fully human powered.
One curious observer was startled when our Thule Cross Chariot attached to the back of my bike suddenly stirred. “Oh, there’s something living in there?!” Yep. That something was our nine-month-old son Oliver. It was fair to forget he was in there at times, buried within pillows and sleeping bags wedged around him for extra comfort and protection. He definitely preferred it when the chariot was moving and he verbalized his annoyance if we loitered too long. Like his parents, he’s not much into small talk.
This was Oliver’s first multi-day bikepacking experience and also our first as a family. My wife Sarah and I have done several bikepacking adventures and even raced in bikepacking events but Oliver was a bikepacking novice. In fairness to him, he had only just developed the critical neck muscles that made safely popping on a helmet and propping up his head possible. Baby books and blogs have yet to cover the appropriate timelines for infant bikepacking. Besides, who were we to follow the rules?
Oliver had shown early signs of bikepacking acceptance and even prowess on our local day-long test rides. Whether nature or nurture, our bike carrier appeared to play a pivotal role in our early success through its uncanny powers of narcolepsy. Oliver’s propensity to sleep while on the move made him an ideal co-pilot, albeit a lousy navigator. While some dads drove circles on the city streets at night, we simply plopped Oliver in a moving chariot.
We continued to build up time on the trail and test gear configurations as we wanted to ensure we weren’t biting off more than we could chew or projecting the idea of fun onto a helpless infant. Oliver was more than just another wriggly stuff sack, he was part of the team. Although I wasn’t expecting him to pull his own weight physically, we hoped he could at least carry his own weight emotionally. And although I desperately wanted him to love bikepacking, we had to be open-minded and understand and embrace his limitations.
We pencilled in a loop starting and finishing in the town of Oliver, British Columbia. It seemed like a symbolic waypoint for our inaugural family ride. It didn’t hurt that this region is also renowned wine country. Dreams of Pinot Noir made for a thirst-quenching finish line for the parents.
The route was also a known entity, which provided a bit of a safety net. Only a year prior, I had competed in and finished the BC Epic 1000, a bikepacking race across 1,000 km of backcountry gravel and trails from Merritt to Fernie. The repurposed rail lines were now a converted network of bike trails, including the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), one part of The Great Trail that spans across all of Canada. As far as my muddled memory served, it seemed like ideal terrain for pulling a chariot behind fat bikes.
We carved out a scenic 300 km section of that route, half of which I had covered in a state of sleep deprivation under the darkness of night during my race. While racing, I could only barely recall the tiny wake of textures rushing under the light of my headlamp: a blur of gravel, tarmac, wood, water, and mud. Retracing this route would be all at once familiar and new again.
This trip also developed into something of a personal bikepacking science experiment. For me, it was a chance to compare solo bikepacking racing with family bikepacking touring under the same set of environmental controls. In moments of weakness or fatigue during some of my recent races, I began to question my choices and wrestle with some inner emotional turmoil. Why was I inflicting all of this pain and suffering on myself? Why didn’t I ride these routes with friends and family and take the time to relish in the experience? How should I be spending my time on the bike? Maybe this trip would provide the perspective I needed.
DAY 1: LIFE IN THE SADDLE
Our first afternoon was a short 30 km ride to our first campsite. It was a chance to test our bike set up before getting too far along the trail. There’s always something freeing about those first pedal strokes, transporting me onto some other ethereal plane. The world around me was simplified and cast into a different hue.
The first rain storm rolled over us just before pulling into camp, immediately testing our infant, pit crew capabilities, and ability to combine the critical powers of delegation, speed, and tent building dexterity. So far, we proved up to the challenge.
Bringing an infant didn’t impact our kit list dramatically, although certain tweaks were made in the name of safety and comfort. We had no desire to skimp on quality, avoiding unnecessary risks sometimes deemed acceptable while ultra-racing. The biggest of these tweaks was upgrading to an MSR MiniWorks Ex water filter to avoid nasty bacteria mixed with Oliver’s powdered formula. I could take a little gut rot but Oliver’s daily diaper change proved his constitution was unpredictable, among other things. Aside from the formula, Oliver could eat most of what we would eat. Mashed up vegetables and fruit, dehydrated meals, and most importantly, Cheerios. We carefully counted out enough units to last us months. The Cheerio is the infant equivalent to duct tape. A cure all. A fix all. Blessed be the Cheerio.
Something else that could be shared between bikepacking parents and infant was a fastidious care for the bottom. Saddle choice wasn’t relevant for Oliver but we all needed to care for our seats. Father and son quickly bonded over the morning dab of baby cream, liberally applied to the rear of both parties.
At home we traditionally use a cloth diaper service, but after much debate and some environmental guilt, we opted for disposables on our trip. The sustainable solution just seemed… unsustainable. This meant we had one item that didn’t deplete, but instead expanded daily. The once dry material, now soiled with passed provisions, doubled our daily load. Whatever we fed Oliver seemed to reproduce itself ten fold and our chariot quickly transformed into a glorified port-a-potty. As they say, pack in, pack out. But they likely didn’t have an infant.
DAY 2: BEST LAID PLANS
In the morning, our journey began in earnest. We were able to tide Oliver over with a few hits of formula before riding the beautiful shoreline trail along Skaha Lake. As we veered off the trail and into the outer town limits of Penticton, I came to a sudden, jarring stop. The arm of the chariot was wedged into the spokes of my back wheel. The bolt holding the chariot arm to the frame of the bike had popped off. This was a clear case of poor testing on my part, although I wasn’t quick to admit this.
The chariot had worked perfectly on all of my other bikes back home so I made the assumption it would work just as fine on my fat bike. The extra long rear wheel axle I had ordered to accommodate the wider tires had only arrived a day before our trip and I didn’t allow any time for due-diligence. Clearly something was askew. Bikepacking fail 101: never assume anything.
Thankfully, I had devised an emergency plan for just this situation. I grinned wryly at my wife and with what must have been a look of smugness, I reached into my handlebar bag to grab the key for our Thule RideAlong bike seat that was stowed on the back of the chariot. This additional bike seat was my clever back up plan if something went wrong with the chariot in a remote location. Simply clamp it on any bike, plop Oliver in, and away we would go.
My pride quickly dissolved into shame. It helps if you bring the key, a critical component for attaching the seat. Bikepacking fail 101.2. I made another pre-trip faux pas, performing a last minute bike bag change, which left the bike seat key at home in my other handlebar bag.
Truly, one of the secret joys of bikepacking is imagining all of the things that could go wrong before you leave and coming up with all of the clever fixes. My imagination was already being tested.
A few carabiners and extra straps later, we were able to drag ourselves 10 km into town. Walking the isles of the automotive parts store Lordco in skintight lycra in search of industrial bolts was not how I had envisioned day one of our off-road adventure. I’m not sure the Lordco staff had envisioned this either.
Another customer at the counter unexpectedly smiled at my bike set up while Sarah distracted Oliver in the parking lot. “Hey, how do you like your electric fat bike?” I summoned a smile and buried my pride. “It’s great.”
With an interim bolt fix and particularly nasty streetside diaper change complete, we started our slow, human-powered climb up the Naramata Bench along the KVR trail towards Chute Lake. Slowly chugging up the 4% grade we could finally fall into our little family adventure. We were moving. We were on our own, back on track and back on the rails.
We stopped at Chute Lake Lodge for a hot meal and set up camp for the night. This was one of those moments I appreciated the compromises made when racing. I had blown by this place in the middle of the night during my BC Epic race. I didn’t even know that it was there. Now I could reflect on a day well spent with my family, cut firewood, build a fire, and simply relish the moment and the simplest of expectations.
DAY 3: WHATEVER THE WEATHER
From Chute Lake we wove our way along the trail, crossing bridges, passing through tunnels, fording streams, clambering over rock slides, past farmland, and through forests, some still charred from recent wildfires. The KVR trail provided a splendour of diversity with a convenient balance of remote environments and small towns for resupply. I couldn’t believe how well the Chariot navigated the terrain and seemed to fit through impossible spaces. Only once did I come to a dead stop and looked back to realize the carrier was laid over on its side amongst a rocky landslide. I rolled it back upright and did a pulse check inside. Snoring. The powers of narcolepsy endured.
As much as the weather wasn’t a determining factor on our trip it was certainly a variable. A mix of scattered rain, unexpected temperature dips, and one buggy campsite meant extended time hunkered inside our beloved Big Agnes two-person tent. In hindsight, we made the mistake of not denoting Oliver as an actual “person.” A child miraculously grows exponentially when confined to tight quarters. With cooking, feeding, diaper changes, and laundry lines for wet clothes and diaper liners, it didn’t take long for the nylon walls to close in around us. Our sleeping pads became Oliver’s personal bouncy castle and each night our campsite turned into a traveling circus tent. I calmly pulled out the home away from home improvement list and my pen and scribbled four-person tent at the top of the list. Underlined. Exclamation point.
It dawned on me that bikepacking with an infant is like the weather. Expect anything and plan for everything. Read the forecast but know that it can and will change in an instant. Most importantly, don’t complain about it. Relish in the moment and embrace what comes your way. If it was perfectly mapped out ahead of time it wouldn’t be any fun. Sharing this trip with Oliver offered a new perspective for me. It slowed things down. Made things uniquely relevant. Literally turning over stones (and his trying to eat them) provided a fresh perspective on the world around us, including what was and wasn’t edible.
DAY 4: ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
As the journey continued over dirt and gravel trails, we found our rhythm and I relished in the role of team domestique. The grunt. I was no longer riding solo for selfish reasons, but providing one long, sustained pull at the front. Behind me, from inside the palatial comfort of the chariot, my coxswain-son garbled directives in his broken infant. Bahhhhh. Bahhhh. Bahhhh. It was oddly motivating. His little wavering tongue like the lash of the whip, spurring me forward. It was amazing, the reciprocal wattage generated from a toothless grin. There was a pride being able to propel us forward. Everything we needed was right here, moving alongside me; a modern day frontiersman, swapping the nostalgia of horse and wood carriage for evolutionary carbon frame and full-suspension chariot.
As I redundantly chopped firewood and stoked the fire at our final campsite, I watched my wife quietly and deftly maneuver through a hundred and one critical tasks to keep Oliver alive and happy. I may have been physically pulling Oliver’s weight behind me each day, but there was no doubt Sarah continued to carry so much more weight of responsibility for our family. I appreciated that it was easy to fall into gender-based tasks and tropes and although it made sense to take advantage of our strengths I realized I shouldn’t assume these delegations of duty.
DAY 5: ALL COMING TOGETHER
I grinned ear to ear as I turned over one crank at a time, sweat dripping from everywhere, each pedal stroke barely defying the power of gravity on a 15% gradient, weaving side-to-side to produce an artificial switchback that would get Oliver and me to the summit of the road to Mount Baldy. In that moment, as space and time and even movement seemed to come to a stand still, I came to realize a new sense of scope and scale that was opened to us. Rather than our opportunities being narrowed or the world shrinking through the perceived limitations of smaller distances, slower speeds, and frequent stoppages, everything expanded around me in a way I could have never imagined. I came to see that it’s not about distance travelled but time spent.
In the end, we completed our inaugural bikepacking loop with time to spare, allowing a half day of touring local wineries in the town of Oliver. For all of the little things that went wrong, so much more was right, elevated by the wonder and curiosity of our infant son. He reminded me that that’s what bikepacking is all about.
My little racing versus touring experiment reinforced my appreciation of balance. The training, pride of achievement, and challenges faced through bikepacking racing allowed me to truly relax and enjoy and relish these moments with my family. The lessons learned when faced with adversity as the clock ticks gave me the confidence that I was prepared for challenges when it really mattered. They also provided me the fitness required to willingly and blissfully pull the extra weight.
Conversely, riding with my family meant no longer blowing through terrain, head down, eyes glazed over from fatigue, sleep deprived, and with a single focus of devouring as many miles as my fitness and my emotional odometer allowed. Sharing the trail with an infant made every twist and turn a new adventure, every mile gained a heroic achievement, and every break a chance to savour our surroundings. In a long-distance endurance race, every second stopped at the side of the trail is a moment lost. While bikepacking as a family, however, it was a moment found. In races, there was an underlying stress pushing me forward. Now, there was a new energy forcing me to stop.