This past weekend tragedy struck in the cycling community. During the 2nd day and third 3 stage of the Enduro World Series in Crested Butte, Colorado. Will Olson, a 40 year old man from Eagle Colorado, passed away on the descent of Star Pass/Trail 400. Will was one of the best in his category, and was expected to do very well in this event. While this is not a bikepacking event, nor a cross country event, it still hits home in the mountain biking community, and it was on my mind all week, especially when I was riding. It had me thinking about the dangers of cycling and how it all relates to bikepacking. We all understand the risks of traveling into the backcountry by bike, yet it’s scary to think that sometimes you have zero control over the outcome of your ride. For example, the past year alone I have noticed a handful of viral videos of people having road rage over cyclists. Whether you are a road rider or need to ride the road on your MTB in between trials, it is a scary situation and one you can likely relate to. Other risks are mechanicals, the terrain, and even just getting to the trailhead in your car.  Whatever it may be, we can all understand that cycling has its inherent risks and is categorized as a dangerous sport. This summer has been the biggest as far as the amount of bikepacking events are concerned, and while some of us are more race oriented than others, these bikepacking routes go deep into the backcountry, far away from civilization and help for that matter. I think back at how many close calls I have had and how many injuries I have sustained. After thinking of it that way, I feel like I have been lucky. Danger could mean a sketchy downhill, being above treeline during a lightning storm, or fighting the sleep monster and hallucinations. We all choose to put ourselves in these situations and I would go on to say the normal person would not think it is such a great idea. Are we getting too comfortable with the terrain, these races/events, and our ability? What is pushing us to go so much faster than those in years past? Should we consider taking a step back once in a while? Say something does happen on your next bikepacking trip, a broken leg or collarbone, a respiratory issue, or something worse. Are you prepared to get you, your friend or loved one out safely? Do you have medical training that could help splint that leg or deal with an allergic reaction? Many people are now using personal beacons that transmit your location. Many of them also come with a SOS button or something of the sort. Backcountry events such as the Arizona Trail Race, Tour Divide, or Colorado Trail Race all have spot tracking on trackleaders.com for a fee. This is a great feature for loved ones to track you when you are out for days on end, but could this be the root of the danger? IMG_9685 Despite the fact that these devices are helpful when it comes to ranking who is first and who is last, and searching for your loved one, can the clock be detrimental? This past Tour Divide was the largest field yet, and maybe the best race we have ever seen on the GDMBR. In turn this brought out a number of individuals that came to “stalk” the blue dots. While these individuals seemed few and far between, could they (and other blue dot watchers at home) be the reason for someone going too far or pushing it beyond their limits? I know I have pushed it a bit too hard to “show off” for photographers in shorter races, and I have found myself in similar situations during bikepacking events. Maybe worse is the racers knowledge of the fact that there is a running clock, ticking every second you are out there until the finish, maybe pushing you down that technical descent a little faster than you normally would, knowing there could be hundreds of people online pushing you on. All of these variables seem to bring up the question of safety and what can happen out there. While there has yet to be a true backcountry accident like Will Olson’s, there was a death on the Tour Divide in 2010. That year Dave Blumenthal passed away a run in with a vehicle coming into Steamboat Springs. A truly heartbreaking story. Dave was a family man and a true adventurer. So at this rate with more people participating in these events can we expect more heartbreak like Will and Dave? What about the race/event organizers, sure there are only a handful, but again these races are growing. Will they need to start purchasing insurance for these so called “underground” events to cover their backs? Will we finally need to charge racers a small fee to cover the folks that put in hours and hours of planning and preparation?  We are already willing to pay for tracking, why not insurance. Just look at the Transcontinental – maybe the first solo-self supported bikepacking race that charges a race fee. What is there to say about that? In the end, bikepacking is slowly growing, much slower than enduro, but it is growing and we need to think about the future and how we can protect ourselves. I have just one piece of advice for your next ride, stop and think about Will and Dave, then think about what you’re goals are and be present and conscious of your every move. Make sure your goals are realistic and ride your heart out. Next time you sip some water from your bottle or drink a post ride beer, pour some out for for those two. untitled (1 of 1)-5

9 Comments

  1. Michael Smith

    Great posting Neil and good thoughts too. I think these ideas and considerations must be thought out, and its good a person of your experience and abilities make them. Love the website and you guys keep up the great work. I was surprised to hear that there was grumbling at Tour Divide over the spot tracker fees.

  2. Good perspective Neil. Part of the allure of bike packing is the self-sufficiency and reliance that riders must have to participate in bike packing events. There is of course a tradeoff to this in that we must handle all eventualities, including potentially dealing with injury, illness and debilitation out on the trail.

    I must self experienced this first hand on the TDR this year when I was struck by a falling tree. At first my thoughts were only about the level of damage to my bike and whether I could continue. But after I had time to think clearly it dawned on me how lucky I was to be in relative proximity to help.

    I think all bike packers should think long and hard about scenarios that they might face off the grid and what they will do in case a problem arises. I am not sure that is always the case.

    Ride on! Jeff

  3. Great thoughts and questions! I hold a great deal of respect for your presence and contribution to this sport, Neil. Kudos! Many, many miles I have ridden my bike through a lot of different states thinking about these issues from many different angles. The overwhelming conclusion I have come to is that the beauty, to me, of this whole experience of bike packing is the small, underground nature in which it was rooted. Remembering that in the midst of my goals–those achieved, those that I did not and those yet to achieve–has lead me to really see the things that the rapid growth and popularity has fostered. Some are great, but some are what I wanted to step away from in mountain bike racing. I guess that leaves the question: Are we going to ruin it for ourselves by getting too big and too publicized?

  4. Thanks for remembering Dave. For those who would like to know more about Dave and his 2010 run: http://teamkaker.com/david-blumenthal/

  5. Great article, Neil. Thanks for a well thought out piece that makes us think.

    I also spend a lot of time pondering stuff like this. Of course, Trans Iowa isn’t anything like the TD, or AZT300, but it ain’t no picnic either. (Witness the weather shortened T.I.V11, as an example, where we had some close calls with exposure.) I think a lot about some banter I read back around ’04-’05 about “knowing when to pull the plug” and how that was a rider’s responsibility. To be able to know where that line is and to be able to get yourself extracted before it gets too far along. How that is an honorable thing, and not “failing”, as our culture likes to look at that as.

    It isn’t an easy conversation, but I think it is one that needs to be revived amongst this newer generation of adventurists. Many of whom were in grammar school yet when this was first getting kicked around. Of course, we also have to be thinking about things outside of our control as well, but some of this stuff we get ourselves into has to be carefully considered. We all should be conscious of what we can do to prevent ourselves from getting too far down the rabbit hole and then having to rely on someone to bail us out. What the balance point is between “doing more than you thought you could” and “pushing it too far” is very difficult to pinpoint. But, I think that balancing point is important to consider for all of us involved in these exploits.

  6. great article and important topic. Two points… 1st …The Enduro and downhill racing scene seems to be looking for ways to go faster; bigger tires, more travel and bicycles that look and function more like motorcycles.With all this comes increased speed and more risk of injury. It seems like the sport has gone too far. We have lost the true sport of riding a bicycle in the mountains and greatly increased the cost both in terms of equipment and life.
    2nd point. Bikepacking has drawn a whole new group of participants into the backcountry. In the past the climbers and backpackers who were exploring the mountains were generally more experienced in backcountry medicine and rescue. This new crop of backcountry explorers on bicycles can cover further distances making evacuation even more difficult. Spot trackers certainly help but there needs to be more education in emergency 1st aid, carrying the right emergency supplies and general backcountry knowledge.

  7. Adventure always comes with risk of course, a cliche I know but it’s true. I’m an alpinist, and the last couple years for mountain climbers have been very very deadly. I’m not immune to the risk I take every time I climb a mountain, whether it be a Colorado 14er that’s “just a hike”, or a glaciated peak, things happen and people die sometimes. Bikepacking is really no different, as many of you have commented here already. Bottom line, you have to walk the difference between knowing your limits, and testing them a little to have true adventure and to get better. Ride on

  8. There are also less obvious risks at play that are routinely overlooked: http://velonews.competitor.com/cycling-extremes . Time for reflection for some.

  9. Most mountain bike adventures start and end with a car ride. People are killed by the thousands on the roads. In the US in 2013 [last year I found stats for] ~90 people died each day driving. Yet we rarely give a second thought to piling into a car for a multi-thousand KM drive to Moab.

    I’m far more concerned with my safety getting to the start and back from the end of a bikepacking trip than I am while I am riding my bike in the backcountry.

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