I dream of doing epic linkups, pushing all day and night. I love the feeling of going deep into my mind-body connection while covering technical terrain with a lot of vertical change. But I’m not an alpinist, and I’m not an ultrarunner. I’m a bikepacker. I train to ride my mountain bike over hundreds of singletrack miles through wild places, often in a sleep-deprived state.
You won’t find my passion—bikepacking—covered elsewhere on the Uphill Athlete website. But I believe there are clear links between it and other mountain sports, with the similarities ranging from the foundational muscles used to the importance of understanding your equipment. Uphill Athlete’s training methodologies have allowed me to push my personal boundaries, enrich my experiences in the wild, and nudge my physical capabilities into another tier.
In 2018, after bailing at mile 330 of the Colorado Trail Race (CTR), I felt I’d hit a plateau. My decision to DNF is one I reflect on almost daily. I set a goal to return in 2019 and finish in the five-day range. With that mindset, I knew I would need to augment my training to address the weaknesses that had come to light.
Life moves fast, though, and my wife and I were thrilled to find out we would be having a little girl sometime in December 2019. Shortly after we learned we were expecting, we also got the news her job was being terminated, so we moved from Dillon, Colorado, to Bend, Oregon, in the summer of 2019. It was a wildly hectic one and a half years. Paired with the demands of my full-time job, my annual time spent biking, running, and splitboarding took a nose-dive from around 550–625 hours to 350–400 hours. I had to back-burner the CTR, with a return planned for 2022.
During this transition, starting in January 2019, I prioritized Training for the New Alpinism’s strength and core sequences, periodization, and heart rate zones in my training regimen. I saw improvements that I couldn’t believe, both in shorter, hard efforts in the 1-to-2-hour range (e.g., cross-country races, which I’ve never really cared for) and in longer, overnight efforts in the 100-plus-mile range.
Most cyclists are big-time data nerds and think that if you can’t quantify your power output, you aren’t really training. I’ve personally never had a power meter, in part because I’m a cheapskate but also because I prefer to gauge my fitness with runs or hill repeat tests. If I’m showing improvements there and I’m building up on the strength training side, I have faith it will translate to better performance on the bike.
My increased fitness really became apparent during the 2020 Cascadian Crossing Route (CCR), a 325-mile self-supported backcountry bikepacking “event” in Central Oregon that boasts 36,000 feet of elevation gain and nearly 250 miles of trail. It is truly some of the best riding I’ve found anywhere, though I may be biased since I helped organize it through my work with the Oregon Timber Trail Alliance. In short, I was able to finish in 68 hours feeling outstanding, albeit with numb hands and some motion sickness from a bizarre night-riding situation. (I lost my handlebar light and had to rely on only my helmet light for about 4 hours. My helmet’s visor cut into the beam, casting a disconcerting 10-foot shadow in front of my tire. Mile after mile, I continued to roll into this eerily blacked-out space.)
Despite that gear snafu, the CCR was likely the best ride of my life because of how strong I felt in the last 120 miles. I went from trailing the two leaders by about 7 hours on Bunchgrass Ridge to finishing within one and a half hours of them. These folks I was chasing all weekend are serious riders that put in 180–200 miles on the bike each week to my 40-to-50-mile weeks. (For context, I did one 50-mile ride and one 100-mile midnight-start ride in my training leading up to the race.) In the 68 hours I was out there, I even had time to stop for numerous pictures, sleep for 7 hours (compared to the 3 hours the leaders got), and jump in a few lakes—all while soaking up the experience.
My focus for 2021 is to ride the 670-mile Oregon Timber Trail as fast as I can, hopefully in under seven days (as part of the Grand Depart event). It is going to require all of my free focus to get into the physical shape needed to do so.
There is a wave that is building around bikepacking races across the globe, with the rise in races in the US alone blowing me away. These adventures offer a completely different experience—and pose a range of different challenges—than your typical 100-mile “ultra race.” With this growth, I anticipate we see more world-class riders, such as Lachlan Morton and Payson McElveen, attempt FKTs on some demanding routes.
When it comes down to it, the same training principles hold true for bikepacking as for any other endurance pursuit in the mountains. It’s not enough to just put in the time. You have to be smart about how you structure that time. Integrating the Uphill Athlete methodology into my preparation for these long-distance mountain bike adventures has opened my eyes to how far and fast I am truly capable of going.
-by Mike Wingerstahn
All photos by the author