Zen and the Art of Bike-Packing

In retail they say convenience is king. That’s what global retail giant Amazon built its brand around. It bet that if it could make shopping more convenient it would trump almost all other factors. When it comes to bike-packing my mantra is this - comfort is king....

I’m fast discovering that you can conquer almost anything and ride for almost any distance if you can just stay comfortable, and so Tour Aotearoa preparation for me has become less focussed on grinding out miles with the goal of building leg strength, but grinding out enough miles to trigger the next factor of discomfort.

Take your average beginner cyclist. They get on a bike having never ridden before, and likely it’s a cheap bike with a nasty seat. Within five minutes they are complaining about a sore bum. That’s typical, and they have triggered the first round of discomfort that they need to conquer before they can move forward. They can either suffer till they get well-formed callouses on their butt-cheeks, or they can buy a pair of padded bike shorts. If you’re interested in long distance bike-packing such as the Tour Aotearoa, you have probably been around bikes long enough that you have accumulated a few items that can help keep the comfort levels high on your normal one to two-hour ride, but what I’m finding surprising is the strange things that start to crop up when you start to go for extended time in the saddle.

That good seat you bought that was comfortable for two hours of mountain biking turns to agony at the three-hour mark. Those SPD shoes that have kept you going for the last eight years force shooting pains in to your feet after the 100km mark. Your hands go numb, your shorts chafe and your helmet feels like an oven.

You can conquer almost anything if you can just stay comfortable, but that is no easy task in this game. Going in to this I had read up about people finding their hands going numb. This sounded a bit strange. After all, I had been mountain-biking for 20 years and surely the rough jarring of mountain bike terrain would be harder on your hands than anything else? We didn’t even have suspension then! But sure enough, my hands started to go numb too during training rides. A switch to the Jones Bar, a set of aero bars, and an extra layer of bar tape over the grips seems to have solved this problem. Next thing to tackle was the chafing. Riding for one day was no trouble at all in the chafe department, but only an hour into a second day and all of a sudden it’s like my lycra is lined with sandpaper. Strange. The aptly name Butt Butter quickly sorted this out, but no sooner has one irritation gone away than another seems to arise. The last two training rides I went out for were a perfect example of this. For some reason at the 40km mark my left foot started to get intense shooting, cramp-like pains. I had to get off the bike, take the shoe off, and wriggle my toes for five minutes before I could continue. Strange. It came on with no warning, and went away just as fast. A few days later out on another ride and as I look down at my speedo tick over from 39.9km to 40.0, all of a sudden the same shooting pains return. I was off the bike in the grass wiggling my toes in the exact same middle of nowhere spot as the time before. Weird. On top of this you have the strange way sleeping in a tent on a one-inch mattress can leaving you feeling as stiff as a plank, and now you’ve got to get dressed and jump on the bike for another eight hours. A little yoga and stretching goes a long way as it turns out!

And this is what has surprised me most about all of this. I am far from being at any sort of extraordinary level of fitness, but I’m surprised at just how many kilometres I can crank out if I can just stay comfortable. When I talk to people and tell them I’m riding the length of the country, they have this kind of astounded look on their face like I am some sort of Olympic athlete or something. Actually maybe the astounded look is because they look at me, sum up my mediocre-at-best physique, the combination of the task and the distinctly average human specimen they see before them. Maybe it’s more of a quizzical ‘has he actually gone a bit mad’, extrapolating out the five minutes of pain they felt last time they sat on a bike seat out over 25 days continuously. But I soon find out that they don’t know what I know. You can conquer anything if you can just stay comfortable.

So right now I’m actually in this kind of sadistic training mode. Literally. Yes, I’m trying to get a little bit of tone, a little bit of definition in the calf muscles, but more than that I’m actively looking to ride long enough, far enough simply to trigger the next round of pain, the next round of discomfort. Because at this stage of the Tour I can do something about it. I can buy Butt Butter, I can fit aero bars, I can tweak and adjust and make minute alterations in the hope of creating the ultimate Zen bike set up upon which all riding is good, all riding is calm, all riding is at peace.

Of course then I might start to notice that my legs are actually really really sore.


Words & Images: Lance Pilbrow

Originally printed in Issue 88 of the NZ Mountain Biker