Training for Bikepacking the Colorado Trail

As bikepacking adventures go, the Colorado Trail is no ride in the park. At a length of more than 540 miles and 70,000 feet of vertical gain – at an average altitude around 10,000 feet – it’s a formidable route bound to challenge riders physically and mentally. Yet, when it comes to training for bikepacking, discussions seem to be few and far between. Maybe it’s a hesitancy to apply structure to an activity that encourages us to disconnect and “live in the moment,” but it makes bikepacking (and planning for it) feel more challenging than it should be, creating unnecessary barriers to the activity we enjoy.

Considering the time, effort and money invested in gear and logistics for a trip of this type, disregarding the engine before a trip like the CT just seemed shortsighted to me. I’ll be the first to admit: I’m a recreational rider to the core. My weekly mileage is nothing special. I don’t race much anymore (or ever). Most of the time, I rarely think about my own fitness unless I’ve unintentionally buried myself on a big group ride, so structured training would be a first for me as a cyclist. Personal perspectives aside, “training” can have any number of meanings depending on your outlook, fitness and experience. In my discussions with other riders about the CT, I’ve heard suggestions ranging from “climb a lot of hills” to customized, detailed weekly plans – and everything in between. So what does it look like when you actually set out to plan for a ride like the CT?

Start with a plan.

It is possible to find generic training plans for long distance cycling events online, even the CT specifically. Having issues with self-motivation at times, I decided to go a different direction: working with a coach to build a training plan. I’d chatted previously with Nick and Kristen Legan, the coaching duo behind Rambleur Rising, for an episode of the Dropper Post podcast. I reached out to see if they had interest in working with a casual rider such as myself – as luck would have it, they were excited to help me get from casual commuter to CT-ready.

I met Kristen and Nick on a relatively warm spring day at a local bike-shop / brewery to talk details. Our conversation centered around my goals: briefly stated, I wanted to finish the entire CT in around 12-14 days without completely wrecking my body or encountering a trip-ending injury. Together, we walked through the foundation of a good training plan, which Kristen describes as, “talking about your history with cycling, your goals that year, and your ability to train.” Riding history aside, my goals were a far cry from the sub 4-day record for the CTR course – this is technically a vacation for me, so I want to leave enough time to have some fun.

Kristen then took me through her coaching method and approach, which required only an old GPS unit (Garmin 500) and a heart rate strap. Kristen would be crafting a weekly plan, and all I had to do (aside from pedal) was upload my ride files using Training Peaks, after which Kristen would evaluate my progress and develop the next week’s plan based on my results. Training Peaks lets you enter comments on rides, to which Kristen would respond promptly to ensure I was staying on track. More about that in a minute.

Recommendations:

  • Start with a strategy. Whether that is a plan to extend of your regular riding or something more rigorous, don’t make the mistake of approaching this ride with no miles in your legs.
  • Consider mapping out a more rigorous plan if you lack self-motivation (like me). Training Peaks offers a “find a coach” feature, or find someone you trust locally.
Sizing up a stem-swap after my fit

Get fit before you get fit.

Of all the places to spend money when you’re staring down gear costs for the CT, a bike fit might seem a tough sell. Fits can range from $50-$350+, with cost highly dependent on who is doing the fit. Not all fitters are going to do the same job. My last fit was around 5 years ago for an aggressively-positioned road bike, so my older and less flexible self was due for an update. At Kristen’s recommendation, I scheduled a fit with a local shop (Pro Peloton), where the fitter (Sean) quickly noted that I was running my saddle too high. He also made the observation that I could use a bit more room in the cockpit to get my position dialed for my specific bikepacking loadout in order to keep the handling responsive. A height adjustment and stem swap later, it was off to the races…er…rides.

Recommendations:

  • If you haven’t had a bike fit (or it has been a few years), it’s worth the money to eliminate any major fit issues before you get into the bulk of your training
  • Fitters range from inexpensive to very expensive. Seek reviews before you reach out – not all fitters follow the same philosophy or methodology and some are going to be better than others.
  • Expect to make a few adjustments as you get into your longer rides. Small bumps to saddle adjustment are generally OK, but make sure to discuss with your fitter if you’re having pain or comfort issues afterward.
One of many gear tests, a quick overnight bikepack

Fitter. Happier.

Five weeks into my training plan, the effects of the daily training rides were starting to manifest. The regularity and structure of the rides was slowly increasing my capacity. I found myself riding further and with significantly less fatigue. Most of my rides were 2 hours or less, which Kristen said was by design – during our podcast recording, she described her philosophy as, “trend[ing] more toward lower volume and higher intensity, mostly because we work full times jobs – trying to do a 25-hour week on the bike is not going to happen.” While the riding in the first month wasn’t necessarily challenging for me, it was clear the plan was going to squeeze my social life a bit (fewer happy hours) as well as my personal resolve, as riding in spring rain was a regular occurrence. Luckily, my excitement for the trail and newfound fitness was more compelling than either.

As the weeks continued, my training became more varied and the intensity increased. On the weekends, I would ride farther and harder, testing the limits of my fitness and using the following day for an easier recovery “fun” ride. What was actually surprising to me was that I wasn’t riding hard all the time, but instead I found myself riding moderately-challenging intervals in between base-intensity efforts. In speaking with Kristen later, she mentioned this was not by accident. “For bike packing, there’s less of the intensity, it’s not quite so sharp…you’re still going to be going really deep, really hard out there, just less snappy than a gravel or road racer.” I soon developed a few “go-to” rides that fit each type of workout to make sure I was maximizing the time I spent on the bike and following the plan to the letter.

Knowing that I’m doing everything possible to prepare for the CT erased the nagging concern in the back of my head that I was prepping myself for a mid-trip bailout for lack of fitness. Is it still possible I won’t make it? Absolutely. But at least I’ll know I did what I could to prepare, a point Kristen reinforced we recorded the show, noting that “…the confidence you have from being out and being like, ‘hey, I’ve done a 100-mile ride on this already, I know what it’s going to make me feel like’ is really helpful.” Mind over matter and whatever…right?

Recommendations:

  • If you’re like me, you might not fully understand how to best train in a way that increases fitness safely and effectively. A coach can be a huge benefit here.
  • Your training can be a key part of your physical AND mental fitness. Don’t disregard the second half of the equation.

Shakeout before you head out.

One of the most surprising benefits I’ve found during training has been the time and attention you’ll spend dialing in your gear and nutrition. Training forces you to consider everything from your preferred tire pressure to your favorite drink-mix. Fine-tuning the setup just for you instead of relying on what works for other people will save you valuable time (and grief) when you’re on the trail. During my training, I developed a new strategy for how I’d carry my water/sports-drink, solved a few nagging rattles and tested out multiple tire options. Along with shaking out your setup, assembling and disassembling your bike for cleaning is a fantastic exercise and a great way to check-in on your rig to make sure it’s trail-worthy.

A month out from my ride, a minor disaster struck when I found a significant crack in the seat-stay of my bike. While it’s incredibly frustrating to run into something like this while in the thick of training, it would be far worse to find that 100-miles from nowhere. Since I found the issue early, I was able to procure a replacement quickly so the issue won’t affect my ride plans.

Recommendation:

  • Leverage your ride volume to figure out what works for you. Try out different food options on longer rides, try out a few different packing-methods if you’re training with weight, and generally get a feel for all of your gear – especially if it’s new!
  • Cleaning is a great way to inspect your bike before you head out. If you’re training, you’ll be cleaning your bike a bit more than usual – take the opportunity to inspect.

Listen to your body.

A few months in, I noticed some persistent knee pain after a particularly spicy week of training. I called up the guy who helped with my fit (Sean) and he explained that it’s not uncommon for cyclists to run into “spring knee,” or patellar tendinitis, when your fit is slightly off or volume ramps up too fast. Kristen had been very intentional about scaling my riding slowly to avoid volume issues, so I turned my attention to fit – where I quickly noticed that my saddle had slipped slightly out of position over the miles due to a poorly-designed seatpost clamp. I believe this put my hip-position too far forward on the pedals and put unnecessary pressure on my knee, likely causing the pain.

Even after I adjusted the saddle, the knee pain continued, at which point I gave Kristen a heads up through my post-ride comments that I’d need to throttle my training back. She was quick to adjust my plan in terms of volume and intensity to allow me to recover, and sent recommendations on stretching, rolling and strengthening exercises, which I’ve followed closely over the last month. At two weeks out – and still dealing with the effects – we made the decision to scale my training back completely to rest and focus on recovery while I wait for my departure date. Not quite the ending I wanted to my training for the CT, but I’m staying positive and doing what I can to accelerate recovery.

Recommendation:

  • Your fit is critically important. But so is rest – listen to your body and take time off when you need it. If you are having pain while riding, don’t waste time waffling about – seek a professional opinion immediately.

So, was the training worth it?

New frame makes a debut on a final training ride in Salida, CO

When I started my training back in April, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. Thinking back, I was a bit scared of the time and effort…and wasn’t entirely sure it would pay off. But if you take the potential fitness gains in combination with the other benefits – dialing in your gear, preparing yourself mentally, and learning how to address injury – training can be a beneficial activity for bikepackers, even though it might not be the most exciting part of the preparation. Kristen said it best when we recorded: “It’s the day after day side of things – back-to-back bigger rides or bikepacking trips, just so that you have the feeling of getting up after the morning of doing a big day of riding and going again. It’s important to be mentally and physically ready to be fatigued and go for another day of riding.”

I want to thank Kristen and Rambleur Rising for the coaching. Full-disclosure, Kristen and Rambleur Rising provided me with a discount on training fees as a partnership with the Dropper Post. That said, I always strive to provide an honest and objective review of products and experiences, and the same applies for the training experience described here. We’re big fans of Rambleur Rising and enjoy that we can help support a great local business.

 

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