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Badlands: My First Bikepacking Adventure

By September 11, 2021 No Comments
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This year local Girona trio Rocket, Cristina, and Laura from Over & Out took on Badlands, by Transiberica. A 750km gravel race, crossing two deserts in Andalusia, with 16,000m of climbing. This was the first ultra-cycling race for all three, and for Rocket, her first ever bikepacking adventure…What a way to start. Read on to find out about how they prepared for this event, and how it went.

Where It Began

Laura and Cristina (Cris) had been preparing for Badlands for a year, whereas I had heard about it through them and decided it would be cool to challenge myself in a new way. Coming from road racing, I’ve been keen to get myself on a gravel, and what a way to kick things off with gravel racing, 750km in Andalusia? Yes please.

I’ll be honest, Badlands was not intended to be my first ever bikepacking adventure, but a series of unfortunate events, and a busy work schedule, meant that it happened that way. 10/10 would not recommend turning up never having backpacked before, but go big or go home, right?

As Laura and Cris were already riding as a pair, I entered solo with all of us repping our Over & Out squad.

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Badlands Preparation

Laura applied her knowledge as a cycling coach and director sportif to look at the route and split it into days. Listing out the climbs, technical sections, villages where we could find water, and hotels along the way. Naively, we split the route into four days, thinking five would be the maximum number of days it would take. I say naively because there’s a huge difference between what’s on paper, and the reality of the route which we quickly discovered during the event…

Training wise I had an event earlier in the Summer, a multi-day stage race in Andorra on the road, and so this was my first focus. I had a large base block prior to this event, some rest after the event, and then began to work back up. Unfortunately, due to work my training began to take a dip a few weeks prior to the event which wasn’t optimal, it meant I began tapering early. With guidance from Laura and Ciaran O’Grady, they helped make sure I was in the best position I could be in the circumstances.

With our route split completed, and training underway, we then needed to think about what we’re packing, which bike bags, and the equipment we’ll need along the way. As both Laura and Cris had some experience with this, they were able to help me with items I would need, and those I wouldn’t. I also reached out to other adventure seeking fanatics who had experience with ultra-riding or multi-day bikepacking adventures for advice.

Kit Choice

I decided to use Restrap bike bags, I’d used them before and was really impressed, they’d also been recommended to me multiple times as the best to use for this type of event. Having reached out to them, Restrap sponsored my bike bags for the event. I settled on the race collection saddle bag, frame bag, top tube bag, and then a canister bag. This was the perfect set up, I was able to fit everything I wanted to pack including having some extra room for food along the way. I also took a camelbak to ensure I could carry even more water, this was vital.

Kit wise, Universal Colours, a British sustainable and ethical focused clothing brand sponsored Over & Out. The kit was perfect, particularly the Chroma cycling jersey which was lightweight and comfortable. I wore the Mono bibshorts in a size up which were perfect for the heat.

For my shoes I opted to wear the Quoc Gran Tourer (which were gifted) over my S-Works MTB shoes, as they are much more supple and wider which meant when my feet were swelling in the heat, I still had room and felt no pressure points.

I refined my kit list with the help Laura, Cris, and Sami Sauri, and have to say I was happy with everything I brought.

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Bike Set Up

With the help of Willem from Eat Sleep Cycle, and input from Daan who did Badlands last year, we built up my brand-new RS Cycles Brusca gravel frame with Shimano GRX from my old cross bike.

We went with a 38t front chainring, and 46t cassette. While this worked well, there were times I wished for the 50t…

My tyres were Rene Herse Oracle Ridge 700C x 48 tubeless. I suffered with not one puncture, at all, and felt secure on the entire route. Never having ridden Rene Herse before I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I am beyond impressed with these tyres!

Race Countdown

We flew to Granada a few days prior to the event, giving us time to sort out last minute situations, as well as having time to recce the first few km of the start of the race, particularly the first climb and technical descent.

The Race

At the start line the nerves were real. I still had no idea what to expect, but we hung at the back knowing we wanted to take things slow.

Day one was epic. It is possibly one of my favourite days I’ve ever had on the bike, it was long, hard, with more climbing in one ride than I’ve ever done. There were some long climbs, one in particular which was all on the road and I was able to keep a strong cadence and spin up to the top. The first 40km were brutal, as we were told to expect, with some technical gravel and sharp gravel climbs. We made our way through, yoyoing with a few other riders with whom we got to know a little along the way.

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We stopped once for an early supper, and then carried on, our eyes set on Gorafe being the town just outside the first desert. Our initial plan was to ride through the desert at night, but arriving late to Gorafe and struggling to find some food without meat, we decided to hit the sack for a few hours.

This was the first time I’d ever slept out with no tent, in a random location, not including those as a child sleeping under the trampoline in my backgarden. We found a number of other rides sleeping outside in front of the only BnB in the town (which was fully booked) and decided the safest thing to do was to crash there also. I use the term sleep loosely, it was mostly drift in an out of consciousness over the course of a few hours. We slept on roll mats, in only bivvy bags, wearing leggings and a puffer jacket for warmth.

At 4:15am we started to pack up and find water getting ready to start the day in the desert. By 5am we were on the “road” hitting the first climb out of Gorafe. We rode for a few hours in the dark, and as the sun began to rise we hit the first village, finding a few of our friends at a café drinking coffee. We sat down to join them and caught up on the previous day. They’d ridden the 30km late last night and had crashed in the village square, having dealt with puncture after puncture for hours on end into the early hours of the day.

After a few cups of coffee, we carried on, enjoying a beautifully paved road to the next town, and last water stop (little did we know). As the day went on we took on some more technical sections of sand, long climbs, rocky sections, steep climbs, and as the day got hotter and hotter, the lack of water, food, and sleep started to become an issue.

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Laura’s ongoing tooth infection was becoming more and more unbearable, taking its toll on her body. We’d booked our hotel earlier in the day, knowing we’d need a bed for the night and this became out motivation to keep moving. With 30km to go before leaving the desert, we decided I would ride on, get to the hotel, and find food for us. During this 30km I had some of my darkest moments, I received word that Cris had crashed and hit her head and was struggling with dizziness. I’d nearly fainted in 49 degrees climbing up the final climb, forcing myself to get off and sit under the shade for a moment. With only 500ml of water left, and still the distance from the edge of the desert to Gor to go, not knowing where the water was, alone, a little scared, unable to keep food in my stomach having been sick, I wondered what the hell I was doing here. Seeing some other riders towards the top of climb lifted my spirits and I kept going.

Those final few kms to the hotel were the hardest of my life, alone, with no water, dehydrated, suffering with head stoke, it took everything to keep the pedals turning. I remember feeling so defeated, shaking feeling cold but hot, and delirious, having exited the desert there was still a way to go to Gor to our hotel and it felt insurmountable.

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That first glass of water at the hotel I will remember for the rest life. Badlands is like this; it pushes you beyond the limits of what you thought you were capable of. Having showered, taken a brief rest, and chugged my weight in water, I changed into the only non-cycling clothes I had and made my way back to the village to find a supermarket to find some food to cook for when Laura and Cris made it back. Another 6km I thought would be impossible, and yet I rode on.

When they arrived later that night, we were broken, hurting, exhausted, dehydrated, suffering with heat stroke but happy to have somewhere to sleep. With Laura in pain, Cris in no state to get on a bike, and with my struggling to get food in my stomach we went to bed planning to have a team meeting the following morning to check in before we decided on the day. The next section of the race was going to be a brutal section over 100km with no food stops, an 18km climb to start (which a friend of ours took 5hrs to get up as it was mostly hike-a-bike), and little water security.

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That following morning, after a long chat, we made the decision to pull the plug on this adventure. I was heartbroken for Laura and Cris who had been prepping and planning for this adventure for so long, but in our current states, we didn’t want to take the potential risks.

Badlands Reflection

Badlands was one of the best and worst rides of my life. Riding on the gravel with two of my best friends for so long, on a completely new adventure, was epic. Seeing them both accomplish things they’d never done before and seeing how strong they had come into this race was beyond awesome. Challenging myself and pushing myself out of my comfort zone to my growth zone was equally as awesome.

However, the lack of water, and water security, the heat, and the issues along the way made this one of the worst experiences I’d ever had on the bike. I suppose that’s the type 2 fun, it was horrible, but I look back and think how epic it was to make it through that.

Badlands challenges every essence of your being, and for those finishers, all of you, whether you completed it in two days or six, my hat is off to you! What a feat! For those who started and pulled the plug whether it was km 60 or 650, kudos to you, starting Badlands is not for fainthearted, and those who take to start do so with courage. You’re epic. And Badlands, perhaps I’ll be back for a re-match…

A huge thank you to Eat Sleep Cycle, Restrap, Universal Colours, and Quoc for your support.

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