Bikepacking to worlds: Rob Britton’s 1,000-mile journey across western Canada
Earlier this year, several pro riders embarked on multi-day bikepacking adventures across Europe to escape the stress of pro cycling. Not to be outdone, Canadian pro Rob Britton completed his own multi-day adventure across a rugged and wild stretch of western Canada as preparation for the UCI Road World Championships. Below, Britton recounts the highlights from his trip.
I am soaked and chilled to the bone. The sun went down an hour ago, the rain is still falling, and right now, my body temperature is plummeting. I dream of a hot shower and a dry change of clothes. Yet my friends want to go straight to the pub to eat dinner and celebrate the end of our epic journey. I am on the verge of losing it.
I think about reasonable ways to protest this situation. Why aren’t we checking into the lodge?
“Dude! Are you serious right now?” My protest falls on deaf ears. I am voted down, and we head to the bar in our wet clothes to drain a few pints. My friends are patient.
This was the final ride of this journey, and the rain fell all day, for all seven hours of our ride. The temperature hovered around eight degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit). At one point I put on all of my riding clothes to stay warm. After a few hours, every layer was completely soaked. And then, perhaps to add insult to sogginess, my Di2 battery went into sleep mode. So for the final 70 kilometers, I pedaled along in my 34-tooth chainring.
We shuffle into the Port Renfrew Pub and slump down into a seat. Slowly, our shivering transitions to a mild tremor, helped along with each sip of Dude Chilling Pale Ale, the local brew. With every sip, the reality dawns on us: we are done. Our nine-day bikepacking trip from Calgary to Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island’s southwestern tip has ended. I have pedaled 1,650 kilometers and racked up 90 hours of ride time in two weeks.
For weeks, this ride had seemed like an epic trip worthy of tall tales, not something you actually finish. I smile. This was an extremely unorthodox way to prepare for the UCI World Championships.
Damn, this first beer tastes good.
Origins of the journey
You may be asking why I chose to prepare for worlds with a bikepacking trip across some of Canada’s most rugged terrain. Normally, this type of adventure is for the free spirits and weekend warriors of the cycling world. I’m a professional cyclist, after all, and my world revolves around watts, kilojoules, TSS, and, generally speaking, very little unadulterated fun on the bicycle. Cycling is my job. I love my job, but like any job, there are both good and bad days at the office.
Usually, the end of the racing season brings fatigue and general a general feeling of malaise. Worlds was all the way at the end of September, which meant several additional weeks of training. In my eyes, the bikepacking adventure was the best ticket I had to enduring a massive training load while also keeping myself happy (and keeping my TrainingPeaks account active).
I got the idea the morning of the Canadian national time trial championships. I woke up with a clear thought from that night’s dream. I wanted to ride my bike from my home in Calgary to my former home in Victoria on Vancouver Island. I had never ridden my bicycle that far, and I hadn’t slept in a tent for years. And, if I’m totally honest, a long-distance cycling trek with tents and campfires is something I’d make fun of.
Plus, I wanted to coordinate the trip with my own personal dirty fondo, The Last Ride, which I hold on Vancouver Island in late August. If I could ride to the Last Ride and completed it with my friends, I figured that would be all the worlds prep I would need.
I spent two months planning my route; my effort verged on the edge of obsession. I researched gear, read and watched everything I could about bikepacking, and messaged friends who had embarked on similar adventures.
After I finalized my route I had a big first step to accomplish. I needed to recruit some friends to accompany me on this journey. To give you an idea of my friends, let me just say that a two-week bikepacking trip across mountains, forests, and rivers is hardly the most reckless thing we’ve done. Not by a long shot. After a few email conversations, I recruited three: Nic Hamilton, Jamie Sparling, and Taylor Little. None of the three were in the least bit prepared. Bikes had to be sourced, time off from work needed to be secured, and bags needed to be packed. Also, their legs needed to be able to withstand between 7-10 hours of riding time each day over hard, mountainous terrain.
Other than that, Nic, Taylor, and Jamie were good to go.
Of course, my three buddies weren’t the only ones with homework to do. For weeks I researched the various ways to pack gear onto a bicycle watching videos and reading blogs on the subject. I learned that there are two basic types of bikepacking bags: fully integrated one-piece bags and the two-piece variety. Each bag type had its advantages. Knowing that we were bound to hit wet weather and face long, rugged days, all four of us opted for two-piece bags. We each chose bags made by Revelate Designs.
But what to put in these bags to help us survive two weeks of adventure? The answer, of course, is plenty of gear, tools, and food. The above photo will give you a sense of the massive amount of gear we brought.
The next step was to load all of this gear onto a bicycle. How do you make a Ferrari feel like a Panzerwagen? Strap a swimming pool to the roof; now, drive it across the Canadian Rockies in a rainstorm. This illustrates how my cyclocross bicycle was transformed from a 16-pound racing machine into a 67-pound behemoth. While Taylor, Jamie, and Nic opted for bikes designed for gravel and adventure, I decided to modify my racing bike for this trek. Gone were those 33mm tires and 40-tooth big ring with its 11/28 sprocket. I replaced those with Kenda’s gravel-specific 40mm Flintridge tires and a spintastic gear ratio: 50/34 up front with a huge 11/32 in the back. Surely, this was enough gear to propel me over the steepest climbs I would see. (Hint: I was wrong.) Luckily, my over gearing simply served to level the fitness gap between myself and my companions. Who likes riding more than 50rpm on climbs anyway?
The journey begins
The first few miles of our 202km journey from Calgary to Elkford, Alberta, were some of the most stressful of my life, far more stressful than the start of a pro bike race. Why the nerves? My experience in bikepacking was going from zero to 100, so the possibility of failure was very real. I knew I would not be back in Calgary until my flight to Austria for worlds. And, the very real thought of being eaten by a grizzly bear in the Canadian wild was particularly concerning.
A few hours out of Calgary my friends from 4iiii intercepted me in the town of Bragg Creek to deliver me a power meter for my journey. This was my worlds prep, after all, so no kilojoule would go uncounted, no rpm unregistered.
In those opening miles, Jamie and I began to grasp the scope of our big ride. We repeated a few phrases to each other: “Wow, look at that!” “Dude, this is amazing!” “F—k this washboard is brutal” and, finally, “These bikes are slow.”
Near the day’s highest point we connected with Nic Hamilton, who lives in Canmore and rode out the day before to meet us. Near the summit of the climb, we saw Nic sitting under a tree. We linked up, pointed our bikes west, and rode downhill for nearly 70km, which took nearly four hours to complete on our heavy bicycles.
We reached our campsite for the evening, and my lofty position as the strongest rider in the group quickly evaporated. Within five minutes my two companions quickly unpacked and built their tents, inflated their air mattresses, and changed into warm clothes. Meanwhile, I stared at my girlfriend’s tent, trying to reverse engineer its construction. It took me 45 minutes to get the thing up.
That night, I felt confident about my bikepacking adventure. It was a huge day on the bike — our ride time was nine hours — but we felt decent at the end. How hard could the next few days be?
Days of suffering
As it turns out, the next few days served up plenty of suffering. We rode over steep mountain passes, hiked our bikes up and over rough double-track that was best suited for mountain bikes, and pedaled over lots of washboard dirt roads. During our 200km ride from Elkford to Cranbrook, a missed turn and lost time meant we had to pedal along the highway and adjacent to semi-trucks, in the dark and rain. When we finally got to our destination, we learned that Cranbrook had been taken over by the BC Senior Games, and thus hotels were in limited quantity. We finally found a $200-a-night room that was a theme room. Okaaay?
What was the theme? New York, New York — the room had shag carpet, an extra-large jacuzzi tub, and vinyl furniture.
During our 165km, eight-hour ride to Nelson, British Columbia, I started to feel the deep-in-your-bones fatigue that sleep simply cannot erase. Partway up another burly mountain pass, we rode up next to a guy in a Hyundai Accent, who asked us if the rugged road we were on went through to the town of Kimberly. Given the off-road capabilities of that car, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still out there.
By day four, which at 6.5 hours was our shortest, it was just Jamie and me (Nic departed on day 3) and we received a much-needed boost of enthusiasm. We rode on smooth pavement for much of the trek from Nelson to Castlegar. We found a strip mall with a full bakery that had delicious sandwiches, great pastries, and pour-over coffees. Then, the recently lifted fire ban in the area allowed us to enjoy our dinner by the warming glow of the campfire.
The nutritional low point of the tour hit on day five, which featured a 195km ride from Christina Lake to Keremeos. Jamie and I were met by our friend Taylor, and we chugged along for 12 hours or so on a mix of paved road. That evening we were treated to an amazing descent into Keremeos. After one final climb we layered up, switched on our lights, and flowed down a twisting and fun road. We rode through vineyards and lavender fields under the light of the stars, which is something I will never forget. Unfortunately, our late arrival time meant all of the restaurants were closed. After some begging, the local pub agreed to serve us dinner off of the appetizer menu. So after 12 hours of riding and 6,500 kilojoules, our recovery meal consisted of beef nachos, a hummus and pita plate, and a couple bottles of Kokanee Gold.
Unfortunately, my personal low moment of the trip hit the next day. I felt like a head cold was creeping in. I bashed my knee into my can of bear spray. And the road was nothing but washboard for hours. It hit me: I was sore, dehydrated, tired, and grumpy. And while some might argue that this is my regular demeanor, my attitude that day made me not fun to be around. Again, my friends were patient with me. Of course, they had to be, as I was the only one with the route in my GPS and access to the campsites!
Our spirits rise
The final few days of this trip taught me an important lesson about bikepacking. Simple things like a sunny day, a tasty meal, a beautiful sight, or some unexpected humor can lift your spirits. I awoke one morning in a beautiful farm field surrounded by cows and chuckled as I watched Taylor fumble to pack his tent. Later that day the sun came out. Our route was a fun mix of smooth dirt and pavement, and we also had a ferry crossing and a great pizza dinner. My batteries were recharged.
My recharge came at the right moment because I had some intervals to accomplish. This was, after all, a training trip for the world championships. During the 190km ride from Lillooet to Squampton I had to ramp things up and pedal some unannounced hard tempo. Taylor was the casualty, and when we regrouped a few kilometers later I asked him if we were still friends. “No,” was his answer.
That evening we descended from Whistler down to Jamie’s house in Squamish, where a treat was in store. We had real beds to sleep in, a hot shower, and a home-cooked meal. Jamie’s girlfriend Lauren made a feast for our arrival.
Day nine, our grand finale, was another monster. We faced 200km of riding, a ferry ride, and rainy, cold weather. To make matters worse, the first half of the journey was along the famous Sea to Sky highway from Whistler to Vancouver. Now, the Sea to Sky is world famous for its gorgeous views, but it is not the best place to ride due to cars and trucks. It felt like an aerobic version of Russian Roulette, even if we got some friendly honks.
The ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver Island delivered us into the rain and cold. And seven hours after disembarking the boat, we finally made it to our final destination in Port Renfrew. We had completed nine days of riding. Just like that, it was done.
My next adventure was the Last Ride. A quick word of advice: if you organize a participatory bike event, I would advise against doing a 10-day bikepacking trip beforehand. I’m certain I lost a few years of life due to stress while pulling it off.
The world championships test
It took five days of recovery from my trip until my heart rate returned to normal. By that time, I had boarded a flight from Vancouver to Munich and met my teammates for the world championships.
During a recon ride before worlds, I rode with Mike Woods up the brutal Holl Climb in Innsbruck, which hits sections at 28 percent. My heart rate was 200 bpm as I chased Mike, who just floated up the climb. I remember thinking that he had a shot at something special.
Many people thought that my bikepacking preparation would be detrimental to my form at worlds. Even I was uncertain about it. But 27km into the road race I had my answer. I attacked into the early breakaway and spent the next six hours chugging away in the front group in a tactical move to take the pressure off of Mike.
I was eventually caught by the group, and I nearly stopped in the feed zone on the final lap. My teammates and friend Zach Bell encouraged me to keep going. I debated quitting perhaps 1,000 times — but turning around would look stupid. I made it this far, so I should finish, right? All I had to do was climb the Holl Climb and it would be over — that’s easy, right?
Riding up that final climb, about 150 meters from the finish, was perhaps the hardest moment I’ve ever had on a bicycle. I dug into dark places just to make it to the top, and still wonder how Mike was able to sprint up it.
I descended and rode across the finish line, and when I looked up, I saw Mike standing on the podium in third place, representing Canada. I was proud. I had never started a world championship road race, and I had my doubts that I could finish a 280km race. I also never thought Canada would step onto the worlds podium. The day changed my expectations forever.
My journey was over. I had huge thanks for my riding partners, Jamie, Taylor, and Nic, and to Mike Woods and the Canadian national team for creating some lifelong memories.
Two days later, I woke up in Calgary to freezing temperatures and fresh snow on the ground. I wondered, had the last three weeks been a dream?
It was real, and it was time for the offseason.