The UK has a long history of combining cycling with camping. It’s a history that stretches back 130 years, but perhaps, it’s only in the last decade that we’ve fully rediscovered the art of lightweight cycle travel … or as many now call it, Bikepacking.
First, I need to say that people have ‘bikepacked’ for years but it wasn’t until quite recently that individuals started to consolidate under the umbrella term of bikepacking. For me, and I’d like to hope many others, the catalyst was the first ‘Welsh Ride Thing‘ in 2008. It largely happened by happy accident and attracted only a handful of riders but it seemed to fire up the imaginations of many more. Fast forward a year and the number of entrants had trebled and 3 years after its conception, it held the title as the biggest bikepacking event in the world … which does sound far grander than the reality. Although the scene was steadily growing, with more riders discovering the profound joy of riding until they dropped, then sleeping where they lay, it was still very small. When you’re immersed in something, it can be difficult to know what’s going on outside of it. If you’re reading this, then I suspect you would likely consider yourself a bikepacker. The focus of your riding will probably be multi-day or overnight trips. Your riding buddies will be bikepackers, you’ll read about other bikepackers and you’ll buy things that relate in some way, to bikepacking. Lightweight, self-propelled two wheel travel will fill your head, your garage and occupy a fair proportion of your time. It’s not until you stop for a second and take a look around you, that you’re reminded just how few of us there really are. The world in general and cycling at large consider us weird, geeky and odd.
One of the most visually striking things about a ‘bikepacking bike’ is the luggage. We all know the benefits of soft luggage, but in the UK very little existed for quite some time, and certainly nothing specifically designed for the task. There was always the option of importing but it was prohibitively expensive for the majority, so people muddled through with whatever they had on hand. A small but gradually expanding market existed and it needed someone to service it. In my mind, that vacancy was filled on a bitterly cold night, high in the Welsh mountains in December 2010. Six grown men lay huddled in their sleeping bags, watching the stars and talking rubbish. One of those present was Ian Barrington. He talked about his (and Beth, his wife) plans to set-up a small company to manufacture and supply the fledgling UK bikepacking market with luggage. At the time, it was just an idea, the company didn’t have a name or any defined products but a few short months later, Wildcat Gear was officially born. The ready availability of specific bikepacking luggage played a big part in enabling people to identify themselves as bikepackers.
I suppose 2011 was quite an interesting year for bikepacking in the UK. As previously mentioned, Wildcat Gear was launched, a cuddly bear appeared in the shape of Bear Bones Bikepacking and it was the year of the inaugural Bear Bones 200, the first event with an element of competition. The Welsh Ride Thing was, and still is, an event for those who want to ride but the social aspect plays a major role in defining it. The BB200 was an event for those who not only wanted to ride but who wanted to ride fast. Originally, it had started life as the BB400, then the 300, before a distance of 200km was settled upon. The reduction in distance was lead by a desire to create something that would hopefully represent a challenge for all but be achievable by most. In the UK, the laws governing such things are archaic and ridiculous, I won’t bore you with the details but the upshot is – you can’t race, so the BB200 was presented as an Individual Time Trial. In 2011 the BB200 might just have been the toughest thing you could choose to do on a bicycle but if it held that title, it didn’t hold it for long.
The following year attention turned to Scotland and the Cairngorms Loop. The man behind it is Steve Wilkinson, a veteran of both the TD and CTR. It was both longer than the BB200 at 300km and also much wilder. Things were getting harder and riders were getting faster. Unbeknownst to most, Alan Goldsmith another TD and CTR veteran, was busy behind the scenes – crafting what is without doubt the UK’s ultimate route – the Highland Trail 550. A shorter version was employed in 2013 but since then, the full 550+ mile route has been used. It genuinely is a challenge of epic proportions and surely ranks alongside any race in the world as a test of both rider and machine.
While only a small minority of bikepackers ‘race’, it’s something which provides inspiration for the majority who don’t. The increased interest in the competitive side of bikepacking wasn’t (and isn’t) limited to the bikepacking community. Recently, racers from other cycling disciplines have started to line up to test themselves and the ‘race’ lead publicity has drawn previously non-bikepacking cyclists in to investigate for themselves.
Where are we now?
As 2015 draws to an end, I think bikepacking within the UK is in pretty good shape. I don’t see that it’s really any different to anything else happening round the world. The ITT scene is flourishing and more riders seemingly appear to join the ranks of cycling’s great unwashed everyday. You have to remember that the British Isles is a pretty small place, there’s an amazing amount of diversity in terms of terrain, but it’s crammed into an area smaller than the state of Colorado. It’s something which helps generate a real community, almost family feel, but there’s no clique and certainly no elitism or ego present. However, I do wonder whether the average UK bikepacker perhaps views what they do a little differently to how other countries may view themselves? There’s very little romanticism involved – a lot of the imagery generated in other parts of the world appears to show bikepacking with an inspirational tint. Snow capped mountain vistas, flowery meadows and near perfect conditions – but here, you’re more likely to see pictures of people dragging their bikes through knee deep bogs or some such. Maybe it’s the self-effacing nature of the British population? I don’t know, but whatever it is, there does seem to be something peculiarly ‘British’ going on. In my experience, it’s something positive, although I’d also be the first to admit that it might actually be something that puts some people off as well.
I keep saying that bikepacking in the British isles is growing but size is relative, so although bigger than ever, it only interests a tiny percentage of the cycling population. For most, the prospect of bikepacking through a British winter or even typical summer, holds the same appeal as having their fingernails pulled out with pliers. It’s still viewed as somewhat geeky and largely ignored by the cycle press and mainstream manufacturers, who I’m sure realise that their resources would yield better results elsewhere.
Bikepacking isn’t a well kept secret, it’s not an exclusive private club. As I’ve already said, it’s doors are wide open and everyone inside is welcoming and friendly … but it can be hard work. There’s often a level of discomfort, a bit of extra effort and sometimes, even an element of risk involved and that’s why, I believe it’ll never become particularly popular. Please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying this with any remorse or regret, in fact, I’m glad – I think it’s a good thing. I believe that the people out there ‘on the ground’ are the people that have shaped the world of bikepacking and not just within the UK but globally. There’s been very little input from large companies, no interference from governing bodies or even just busy bodies … bikepacking is what it is because the people who do it have made it that way. Obviously there are individuals and companies with a commercial interest within the bikepacking community, but in the main they’re also riders, their involvement doesn’t start and end with a pound sign. I actually doubt that we’ll ever see any real involvement from the mainstream industry, I honestly believe it would be too much of a risk for them. At the moment, any who want to try and capitalise, appear able to do so by adding the term ‘Adventure’ to their products. Adventure is an altogether much safer bet than bikepacking. It is a far more generic term that can be interpreted in many different ways … it produces much better odds.
Although it’s not a term I’m fond of, I think the growth of bikepacking has been largely ‘organic’ with riders, rather than industry producing what we have today. I don’t foresee this changing anytime soon, and as long as I’m right, I think the future is quite bright.