The Bishops Way - a great intro to Bike Packing
by Paul Howard, 15 Sep 20.
A big thank you to all the riders who took part in our first bikepacking weekend, 'The Bishops Way'. You created a fun and friendly atmosphere which was especially helpful to all the first timers taking part. Thanks to the team for making it all happen. Please do post any photos and thoughts from the weekend on our Facebook page.
For those wondering what the event is about, it is billed as;
"A self-supported overnight bike packing event, suitable for both mountain & gravel bikes. With a GPX route to follow mainly offroad, secluded camping in a woodland setting, food, refreshments, toilets & water in an all inclusive entry fee."
Everything lived upto expectation, as it always does with the Gorrick team behind it. But just so readers are aware I'm writing this "from the inside" as it were, albeit as a regular customer bikepacking overnight for the first time. These are purely my opinions and not Gorrick's.
The fun of such experiences is often in the planning. I love thinking over the detail to ensure a trouble free time, so please excuse my in depth mind-dump... hey you might even find it useful. I'll ramble on about equipment choices first, or you can jump straight to the ride.
Planning and Equipment
My only similar experience in carrying loads on the bike was a 7-day European road trip to a cycle manufacturers trade show with enough belongings for a week but staying in B&B's. Now the choices were more complex than using Booking.com! My build up to the event began months ago thinking "tent or tarp, hammock or bivvy, porterrage or camper van?!" I ruled out the last one as cheating ;).
Porterage was offered whereby riders could bag drop their equipment (tents, sleeping bag, clothes, pillows, teddy bears) at the start for onward delivery to the overnight stop. Personally, not an option. I wanted to "take in / take out" everything on the bike for the weekend. Also using the experience as a tester for future sorties into the wilderness (of ahem Surrey) ironing out equipment issues.
Hammock's don't appeal. End of thought process. P.s. there were half dozen hammock's in use so clearly some people like them!
Bivvy bag. Was a possibility, but I'm not ready to sleep in a coffin quite yet, and they don't create a broad shelter.
So... tent or tarp? I nearly plumped for using an old tent from the loft, until realising it weighed a ton, wouldn’t fit into my bikepacking bags and being single skinned would drip with condensation as though raining inside out. Researching modern specific lightweight tents they all looked amazing but I wanted to keep the load weight and space down without spending a fortune. Tent - not ruled out yet.
Tarp. Short for tarpaulin? The thought of lugging a heavyweight plastic sheet more suitable for covering building materials wasn't a pleasant idea. Research was required with the aid of more than a few YouTube videos titled "how to pitch a tarp for bikepacking". Clearly there are 101 types of tarp, and a million and one ways to create the perfect origami shelter. The other decision making factor, what seasons was I likely to use this in? Fairweather was the short answer. So a tarp could easily offer 2 or 3 season overhead protection for sleeping and cooking, even just enough room to share with my 8yr old son in future (I can call it camping practice for Scouts, he might even get a badge). Comparing features of tarps some were little more than a square spinnaker sheet with a peg loop on each corner. Likely problematic for creating a good shelter. My purchase was from DD Hammocks (other providers are available) from their Superlight range. 3x3 metres in Olive Green (kinda stealthy and preferable to the bright orange alternative), plenty of peg and ridge line loops, with guy lines and lightweight pegs included. It arrived two days before the event, so I hastily did a back garden dry run build just so I didn't appear to be a total "all the gear no idea plonker" on the Saturday night. Fortunately it was dark by the time I arrived, you'll see why later.
The simplicity of using the bike resting on it's fork to support the entry with guy lines holding the bike stable. So simple yet very effective.
Whilst the front wheel creates the rear support internally. (Authors sleepy face blurred for sensitive readers).
There were two more key requirements. Firstly, a durable lightweight groundsheet to protect my sleeping bag and myself from spikey things in the ground. Secondly my only concession to sleeping comfort - a small inflatable pillow. Coupled with a 3-season bag I was set.
To carry the equipment, along with clothing, tools, and a little nutrition for the journeys I'm using the (again carefully researched) Topeak Frontloader, Midloader and Backloader bags. The neat feature of the Front and Back bags is the main harness/bag can be left affixed to the handlebar and saddle overnight. Simply remove the compression bags and take them into your shelter. It makes for very little faffing with straps to get going again next morning. Top tip is distribute your loads within the bags for ease of use and speedy setup at the overnight halt. The Frontloader contained everything for the shelter and sleeping. Backloader contained post ride warm clothes and toothbrush. Midloader just for ride accessible tools and food. Some may say a small level of OCD is required, let's just call it good planning prevents a p*** poor performance.
My one rookie error was using the bungie cords on the Back bag to secure, or so I thought, a lightweight packable rain jacket and head torch. It wasn't until a brief stop that I spotted the head torch just hanging by the slimmest cable to the bungee cord and the rain jacket gone. If anyone spots a nice Endura jacket likely between Brookwood and south west of Guildford please get in touch. Thankyou. Either pack everything in the bags or tie on a safety leash.
The main ride headed off from the venue on the southern outskirts of Reading from 9.30 Saturday morning. About 60 riders left at socially distant intervals following a GPX trail. Soon the tarmac was left behind as gravel tracks and woodland trails became the typical surface. The 50 mile route surprised everyone at just how much offroad was available with very short road interlinking sections. Even sweet stretches of singletrack kept the fun factor high. Some was a little more challenging on a gravel bike, compared to those on mtb's and fat bikes. But that was the beauty of the event... it doesn't matter what bike you ride, how fast or slow, if you feel the need to stop for a pub lunch or cream tea, just getting to the finish before the cut-off is the only time constraint.
My day was a little different. Leaving home at 7.30am, the bike fully packed I rode to work the usual 12 miles through the forests ironically on those we'd be riding on Sunday. A days work ensued with the aim of leaving a little early at 3.30pm. Too busy with lots of customers I left just before 5pm. Picking up the route literally just down the road from work meant I missed the first few miles out of Reading but still rode 45 miles non-stop. My target... arrive before my dinner went cold.
I know many of the areas the route went through very well having ridden with Jon from Gorrick in the past, but even as a local it was amazing to learn new tracks and cut-throughs. For the riders who'd travelled quite some way to take part and had never ridden the area they too were astonished at the volume of off-road options Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire has to offer.
Into the last 10 miles west of Guildford it's getting dark and time for the headtorch. Riding familiar tracks that comprised my commutes in the late 90's to mid 2000's I can ride without route checking knowing every turning, root and pothole. Keeping the speed high as the gravel bike and minimal tread 35mm tyres skip along without complaint under the extra load of the bags. Around the outside of Ash Ranges I opted for some cheeky singletrack instead of the road through town. Finally rising to the top of the last main hill, crossing the Old Guildford Road byway and onto the last fun descent. I've only ever ridden and raced the mtb down here so knew the gravel bike would be more challenging. It was certainly on the edge, but shows how capable they can be with a bit of piloting.
On arrival at the overnight site it was amazingly well setup with plenty of space to setup camp. The evening meal was ready to eat and enough ale on hand to satisfy. With everyone gathered round the camp fire only a guitar and songs were missing. It didn't take long to choose a suitable groundspace to pitch the tarp, thankfully the planning exercises had paid off. Fed and watered, time for bed, looking forward to what Sunday brings.
Sunday's chapter to follow...