It was during a fairly standard lunchtime internet browsing session that I stumbled upon www.bikepacking.com with it’s tales of adventure and a plethora of inspiring pictures of bikes, complete with luggage, nominally in front of some gravel track disappearing into a one of those perfect picturesque valleys beneath a clear blue sky. Thus the seed was sown and I began planning my first ever epic adventure (note – levels of epicness and adventure may have been relative to the immediate situation of sitting, somewhat bored, at a job I was soon to be leaving….. ahem).
Having read many of the guides from various websites I decided to follow the recommended “first bikepacking trip” format of a short two day, one night trip, which turns out even has a fancy bikepacking name of a S24O or sub 24-hour overnighter. With a few weeks off between jobs, I had the perfect opportunity to do a midweek trip away from the typical weekend rush.
I’d read that the best bike for the first foray into the world of bikepacking is the bike you already have, and as bikepacking is really an extension of mountain biking, a mountain bike suits best. That’ll be my trusty Whyte 801 hardtail then. I’ve had it now for about 5 years, though it has undergone a variety of upgrades over the years to improve it’s trail riding abilities, leaving only the frame, seat post and rear gears as standard components. With the prospect of some steep climbs and luggage weighing me down, I had the perferct excuse (like I really needed one) to finally upgrade the gears to get a wider range. Out went the 9 speed 11-34 setup and in came an almost dinner-plate-esque 11 speed 11-42 (for interest, I was already running a single 32t chain-ring). With my summer road bike being out of action over the summer I really grew to love the Whyte and it’s sheer versatility, riding old railways in Dartmoor one week, bikepacking through the Peak District the next and bombing down some downhill runs at Bike Park Wales the next. In the world of N+1 biking and needing the perfect ride for every activty, the Whyte may not be considered the “right” bike for any of the activities, but I enjoyed all of them, so therefore it was “right” for me.
In terms of specific bikepacking kit I had discovered www.adventurepedlars.com. Who, alongside supplying training and guided expeditions, provide hire of bikepacking luggage from their base in the Peak District. The kit provided is all Alpkit gear, made in the UK and designed to fit any bike. I corresponded with Pete at Adventure Pedlars and he was really helpful, ensuring the bags provided would be the right size for my frame as well as discussing some finer route details based on his local knowledge. If you’re looking at your first bikepacking experience and don’t want a huge outlay for a set of luggage, they’re really worth getting in touch with. Beyond this I was actually fairly well set for gear, a combination of existing mountain bike equipment and a range of camping and expedition equipment built up over the years would get me through. With some of it being older kit, it wasn’t the most lightweight setup, but for a first trip I guessed it would do:
- Vango Banshee 200 Tent
- Thermarest camping matress
- Marmot sleeping bag
- Casual cycling shorts with removable lining
- Loose-fitting comfortable jersey
- Base layer
- 2 pairs of socks
- Shimano MTB shoes
- Cycling gloves
- Mammut Softshell Jacket
- Rab down gilet
- Waterproof jacket and trousers
- Jetboil Stove, gas and cutlery
- Granola bars for snacks and some Tuna pots for lunch
- Wetwipes, toothpaste and toothbrush
- 2 spare inner tubes (I run tubeless, but always carry some just in case)
- Tyre levers, multi-tool, hand pump
- Garmin Edge 800
- Small power bank
Using Adventure Pedlars solved two issues in one, as I would have to pick-up and drop-off the luggage from Hathersage on consecutive days, the ride would be best located in the Peak District itself. This was not an issue for me as I’ve ridden, walked and climbed in the Peak District for many years, so know the area fairly well though I still managed to devise a rough route along some trails that I hadn’t actually travelled before, so would still provide the oh-so-important levels of adventure and discovery. To ease myself into the bikepacking experience (and given that, technically, wild-camping is not legal in England) I had booked a campsite in Hayfield and found a car-park in Ashbourne that allowed overnight parking by purchasing a 3-day parking pass. The route would take in a mix of converted old railways, roads, wide bridleways and some more technical singletrack paths.
On the first day I travelled up to the Peak District, picked up the bags from the Alpkit store and began the task of getting everything loaded onto the bike. This seems like a fairly simple task, I had allowed for the 3 ½ hour drive to Hathersage to collect the luggage, plus the further hour to where I intended to park. Unfortunately I hadn’t allowed for the time to organise, pack and attach my gear and luggage to the bike. Combined with my eagerness and desire to reach the campsite in good time and to actually be out riding (because that’s the adventure part right?), this resulted in a stress level I was not anticipating from a getting away from it all sort of adventure. I’d therefore suggest to any other bikepackers-to-be to familiarise themselves with their luggage prior to standing in the car park anxious to set off. Looking back now, this “delay” was actually all part of the adventure, but at the time it really didn’t seem it.
Once everything was (finally) loaded, I excitedly turned my first few pedal strokes towards the start of the Tissington Trail. Having never ridden with anything heavier than a packed lunch and my work laptop, I was immediately taken by how different the handling felt, a combination of slow to start turning then “oh god I didn’t mean to turn that far” meant I oscillated my way across the thankfully quite quiet car park. I soon settled into the change in responsiveness of the ride and it didn’t alter my ability to ride until the most tricky sections later on.
My route on the first day involved the White Peak area on parts of the converted railways of the Tissington, High Peak and Monsal trails before making my way up into the Dark Peak. I always enjoy the old railway lines that have been converted, the surfaces are usually good with no need to worry about traffic and I often take pleasure in noticing the features that suggest of it’s industrial past. Old Lime Kilns fascinated me on my first visit to the Monsal Trail as we have a modern equivalent at work, the old freight waggon at Middleton Top restored in pristine condition and the tunnels eerily quiet except for your freehub merrily ticking along behind you. I could go into great detail about them all, but I leave you to explore them yourself. Of course, being England, avoiding roads altogether is impractical so some tarmac was required to link up the various sections, a necessary evil. The most noticeable of these was between the end of the High Peak Trail and Darley Dale. I understand that work is ongoing to improve the link between Matlock and the Monsal Trail near Bakewell, part of which I enjoyed just south of Rowsley as a tourist steam train of the Peak Rail attraction rolled by into the station.
The terrain was easy going until the final sections towards the campsite which were more like the typical mountain bike trails I’ve previously experienced in the Dark Peak, rocky technical descents that are a far throw from the flat forest trails of Norfolk. It was at this point I really noticed the difference to an unloaded bike, it didn’t remove the enjoyment, but I was definitely not carrying the same pace down the descents I often would. Overall the first day was 47 miles with just under 4000ft of elevation gain.
I reached the campsite and after a jovial discussion with the man at reception resulting in a refund as I had overpaid, I was soon setting up my tent much to the bemusement of the other campers on the site. Suitable food is definitely something I think will come with further bikepacking practice, my dinner of chorizo, beans, rice and chilli sauce was great, but i’m sure more weight efficient choices are available. One reason for choosing Hayfield was that I had visited the pub here about 10 years before and wanted to return, so that evening I duly headed over with a map for a pint and to review the next days route.
The following morning with the experiences of the first day behind me I was able to take a more relaxed and logical approach to packing the luggage, possibly aided by the lack of Spanish meat and Mexican beans. With everything in a more suitable location than the day before, I set off, once again another railway trail, the Sett Valley Trail, started the day. Being further from the tourist hubs of the central Peak District this trail is clearly less trafficked but was pleasant none-the-less. After a short stop at an intrigued looking Alpaca who, to my suprise, was not overly put off by the smell of my gloves, I reached the Peak Forest Canal. There are no canals in Norfolk, so I’ve never really ventured onto their towpaths, but I was greeted with a serene flat ride, just make sure you slow down and smile to any walkers! After this I followed a few road based climbs back to the head of the Tissington Trail, which led eventually back to the car. Without the same time pressures of the day before I felt able to take a more leisurely pace, stopping for a few coffees and to admire the views along the way. A shorter day at only 37 miles and 2500ft of climbing, though the more relaxed pace meant only an hour was knocked off the total time.
Looking back, the trip was a total success, even if at the time some parts may have seemed to be completely ruining the experience. I think it’s important to remember that those situations are part of that experience and adventure. In planning the next trip, which is likely to be somewhat longer, I have decided on some “practice” days local to home to iron out any of the small niggles, so that rather than worrying about time pressures, I can be more relaxed, enjoy the view or chat to an Alpaca or two.