An Ode To Bikepacking
Written by James Noorkõiv // Photography by Ben Read
Ignorance is bliss – until you see what’s waiting on the other side.
For years, I’ve watched rolling warriors whiz past me on their bikes while out on morning runs, walking in town, or enjoying a lazy afternoon pitstop, but never once did I think, ‘Yeah, that looks fun.’
The rebranding of bicycle touring to bikepacking is genius. No longer is a cross-country trip on a bike just for weird bearded humans with questionable hygiene who battle the roads and chase cycle paths, bouncing between campsites and B&Bs. Now it’s been blown wide open. Any route goes as long as it’s forward. Avoid the roads, search for that trail which has been almost nearly maybe completed. Lighter bikes, burlier kit, and a whole lot of imagination have opened up my world again…
I never imagined travelling in such a simple way would open up so many new pathways. We’d grind for hours up Austrian Alpine passes, then with a flip of the coin start descending endless singletrack, calling on all our senses and skills to get us down. Grinning constantly from ear to ear. No longer is forgetting a gas canister for morning coffee a problem. Now it’s an excuse to ride the 20km round trip to Schladmin to pick one up, and in the meantime collect new friends who share hidden routes across their valley with a bizarre stranger – a stranger who seems to be carrying either too much for a day out riding or too little for a two-week Alpine odyssey.
As the morning sun rises and the scent of freshly brewing coffee engulfs our nostrils, we meet the thought of another day in the saddle with an eager, childish anticipation of the world ahead.
It’s the pace of life on the bike that opens up this new world. In a car you see so much and experience so little; no connection to the world outside your motorised steel box, just a silent film rushing past. By foot you soak up each individual step, gaze across every mountain vista, but with this comes the curse of confinement and a meagre distance each day. But the bike bakes you the cake, pours the tea and insists you finish it. On the bike you roll vast distances across mountain tops, Alpine meadows, winding valleys, and secluded hamlets all before lunch – whilst still having the time to stop, share, reflect, and gaze mindlessly into the distance. Or just enjoy that impromptu beer in the local brewery because it’s there and so are you.
Years of painstaking runs and races, gritting my teeth to get to the top, seem totally foreign after a trip like this. This ride is just for the journey. Feeling tired? Let’s stop. Want to keep going? Then keep going. There’s no need for time here; we answer only to the sun these days.
Yes, the 10% climbs for 12km off-road are tough, but those moments are soon forgotten as we gaze into the distance to see last night’s camp disappear behind another mountain spur. Before we know it the sweat is drying as we hammer Slovenian switchbacks. Slovenia, how we love Slovenia: clear rivers brimming with trout, meadows of wild flowers, beer so good a swift half before camp often ends up delaying camp more than we’d planned.
As each day draws to an end our minds wander towards the evening treats that are yet to be unwrapped. Time to find that view for beers, that table for dinner, and finally the spot for camp. As the night sky creeps in, we revisit the banter and adventures from the day – it’s a final moment of rest, accompanied by a natural silence disturbed only by the barking deer, or perhaps thunder booming on the mountain pass, or waves crashing on the rocks below. My final thought is one of thanks to the bikes that gave us all this and asked for nothing but a bit of chain grease in return.
But it’s the people that make this way of travelling something else. Even the sternest warning on ‘forbidden trails’ from Austrian Mountain Patrol can be turned into a warm smile once a story is shared. Even he couldn’t help but share advice for adventures still to be had. Strangers who feel compelled to say hi, to discover what these strange bikes are doing rolling through their village. Doors are opened, drinks are poured, and meals shared. Moments that would never exist had we not pedaled across their path.
Over 1,000km off-road carrying all our gear seemed ambitious 12 days ago; now it seems like the only way to travel. Now it looks fun.