Monday, 22 April 2013

I say NO to compulsory gear lists for Thru-Riding events...

Ok, the Mawson Mega Marathon write up is coming which has all the gory details but thought as I've got my own personal soapbox set up then I may as well use it...

There is a discussion thread in the Bikepacking Austral Group on Facebook discussing the merits of compulsory gear lists for thru-riding events (point A to B with an emphasis on speed - just to differentiate it from general 'bikepacking') and rather than write a long response I thought I would put a reasoned argument here and then link to it!

So, as the title says... no I'm not really a fan of the concept - with the exception that I think if you do one of these things and don't carry a Personal Locator Beacon (e.g. SPOT tracker) of some sort then you are, well, stupid.

To date there are three pretty serious bikepacking / thru-riding events that people have hosted... the HuRT (320km ish) BigHuRT (750km or so) in the Hunter Valley, the GDT Race (380km) in Victoria and the Mawson Mega Marathon (870km) in SA.  All of these have had pretty significant failure rates - only 2 people have ever finished the BigHuRT, the MMM had a 100% failure rate and it was about 50% for the GDT.  Given the failure rates then it is perhaps understandable to question whether people are pushing the boundaries of gear / safety in the pursuit of speed and perhaps there is some need for regulation etc to improve this and make the events perhaps more accessible.

My perspective as an organiser (the MMM was 'my' idea) and as someone who has used their beacon when I've gotten into trouble (twice - although Southern Brevet in NZ didn't actually result in search and rescue attendance) is that gear lists can lull you into a false sense of security and may actually do more harm than good!  'Huh?!' you might say... 'why?'

Ok, so lets be clear about what we're talking about here.  These 'events' are not really aimed at newbies - its a endurance test and pretty far away from the concepts about getting and enjoying just being in the great outdoors.  I love that stuff as well but thru-riding is keeping yourself (and kit) going almost beyond where it becomes fun.  There is a reason why the motto of the Tour Divide is 'Eat, Sleep, Ride'.  On any of these events that is what is going on... no stopping to enjoy the vista... no side detours to check out that interesting diversion.  Follow the route, do the miles, find food, find somewhere to sleep and repeat.

I've been a trip leader / organiser for a number of 'organised' bikepacking trips for newbie friends and commercial companies and we ABSOLUTELY have a minimum packing list - it ensures that everyone has at least  basic set of equipment and we're assuming that some people may not know what that is.  If you're fronting up to ride the Mawson trail in sub 3 days... I assume you have a fairly good idea about what you're doing...

As a side note, one of the things I did do (and I know the organiser of the GDT event did as well) was get in contact with people who 'signed up' to the event who I didn't already know to ensure that they knew what they were getting in to.  I have about 5 people on the MMM who initially signed up and then backed out once they realised what it was about.

So, back to the packing list.

I think that having a packing list to follow does 3 things:
  1. It encourages a false sense of security - i.e. I have all of the gear the organiser said I must take so therefore I am going to be prepared and everything will be ok.  This leads me to:
  2. It transfers the responsibility from you (the rider) to the organiser... 'I got into trouble and I followed your list so it's all your fault'.  Even if it doesn't end badly it is the first step down that path.  I think the emphasis should be that it's your experience, your decisions and you need to live with the consequences... a novel concept in today's society!  finally:
  3. Packing lists are a constant source of rule bending... for instance, the first Mawson race had a pretty specific list of items you had to take (as do things like the Ottway Odyssey) and what those who want to go fast do is take the list and work out how to follow the letter of the law and not the intent... for instance... it says you need to carry a spare tyre? At the first Mawson, some carried a 700*38 road tyre... not perhaps what the organiser meant!
I think all that DNF'd from these events would say that it wasn't equipment that let them down but more to do with human error - compounded by the pressures of the need to do the miles and general tiredness that imperceptibly messes with your decision making ability.

On the recent MMM, the errors were all mine.  I chose to ride in the rain for 6 hours into horizontal headwinds.  Yes, more 'robust' gear may have helped but as it was I had a thermal shirt, wind vest, thick arm-warmers and a rain shell as well as a bandanna under my helmet but lets face it... 6 hours in the rain in driving wind is going t make you dangerously wet and cold no matter what happens.

It was also my decision, when I was wet and cold and tired, to head out on a road that was clearly signposted as dry weather only without a good understanding of what hard rain was likely to do to the road surface.  I also stupidly tried to ride even though the drivetrain was clogging up which resulted in forward progress ceasing.

Probably the _most_ sensible decision I made was to know I was done and use my beacon to get help.  I realised I had exceeded my limits and had perhaps gone past the point of no return.  Not an ideal situation but better than the alternative.

Now, had I been carrying a small fuel stove, some coffee, dehydrated food etc then maybe I would have just settled in to have a cuppa, eat some warm food and just waited until I felt better and once the weather had cleared then made another (more concerted) attempt to get the bike working or failing than simply try and walk out (although in this case the rain kept up until the small hours of Monday morning...).  So is the solution that everyone should carry a fuel stove and emergency 'I need my mum' supplies?

No, the thing is to not make the bad decisions in the first place but also, carry the insurance (i.e. Spot tracker) just in case you do!

The other point here is that packing lists are not (and should not be) a secret - most of us blog about our gear and there's a ton of information about what we (and others) carry.  Its up to the individual to make some sensible decisions about what to take and when pushing on is crossing the line between 'tough' and 'unachievable'.  Its a lesson that I'm still trying to learn obviously!

Now, I know a few people who do carry more gear (stoves etc) and still do just fine in these things... once again, its personal choice - I don't judge the choices they're making.  If these things are as much about the experience as the achievement then however you choose to experience it is up to you.

Well, rant over and I guess I'll post this now and let the flames commence!


  1. I agree. Compulsory lists are for knobs. You should know what will be necessary to keep yourself safe but just because it is a race do you turn up with 2 gels and then call in the chopper when things go pear shaped? What if you are a poor personal risk assessor?
    Your "racing kit" needs to reflect the environment you are passing through or we will attract regulation due to our poor personal responsibility.

  2. There is lots of this I agree with...

    However, when I think of Newb in this setting I don't think of 'never been bikepacking before' people. I think of me coming from cycle touring. Done a shitload of bikepacking, but never raced an 'Ultra..' There is a huge difference, and if there was a minimum list, even if I disagreed with it as an experienced bikepacker, I would still abide by it the first time round and see how that went...

    '6 hours in the rain in driving wind is going to make you dangerously wet and cold no matter what happens...' No. I rode through a typhoon in Japan. Minus 2 and epic wind for 2 days... It was hard, but I was comfortable in small amount of well chosen gear I had... There is NO such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment...

    I think the main feeling I have about Ultra racing, is that finishing is the MAIN goal, not maybe going fast if everything goes right... And if some of the examples of interupted or non-finishes I have seen are anything to go buy, the case for carrying extra 'what if' kit is clear...

    None of us are Matt Lee... None of us ever will be... Proper shelter, proper warmth. Everyone has an amazing time.

    Love you.


    1. Hey Adz. I pretty much agree with your points. Perhaps the pendulum is a bit far towards the 'fast' spectrum rather than the 'finish' spectrum.

      Gear wise, I take the point. I've been pulled out twice due to inadequacies of gear... Much better gear for harsher conditions is on the shopping list.

      Back to the original point though, uc there was a packing list theni would have complied - I had a thermal shirt, wind vest, jersey and a rain shell so _thought_ I was ok. Truth is I found my kit is not up to 6hrs of wet and cold and lesson learnt... For this stuff it needs to be