Bikepacking – supposedly cycle touring’s trendy sibling with far less gear and far more off-road cycling – was a simple enough concept which had really taken off since I left home on my more traditional, heavily loaded world cycle. Strangely though, despite travelling and mountain biking being two of my biggest passions in life, bikepacking was something that I had still not dipped a toe into since arriving home all the way back in January 2018.
Perhaps it was burnout from cycling for three years straight, the snow, wind and rain of my final continental crossing – a rough European winter – having whittled what had once been a burning passion for adventure cycle travel down to a dim flicker. Or maybe it was the daunting readjustment to normal life since returning home, my simple day-to-day routine of food, water and shelter having been replaced by the trappings of a nine-to-five job and the whirlwind of stress, bills, career goals and everything else that comes with it.
Perhaps I was afraid that if I went off alone on another cycling adventure, I would come back home and struggle with how much my current life differed from the total freedom I had been privileged enough to experience for three whole years. Whatever the reason, since returning home I had mostly avoided the hobby that I had once loved.
That was the case until I made the impulse decision to sign up for the TransAtlantic Way, a 2,500 kilometre self-supported cycle race along the west coast of Ireland. Despite having turned away from cycle travel, I had thrown myself head first into mountain biking again and was regularly entering races, from simple hour-and-a-half long cross-country races to twenty-four hour races. My ultimately ill-fated attempt at the TransAtlantic Way was the culmination of this.
Unfortunately, several months before the race, I fell while doing some outdoor bouldering. The fall was minor, but an awkward landing resulted in a herniated disc in my back, and I would face a long road back to recovery, bringing my TransAtlantic attempt to an end before it had even begun.
Altogether, I was unable to cycle properly for five months. With rehabilitation through my physiotherapist not having the desired effect, the best course of action was an epidural injection into my spine. This, combined with continued physiotherapist work, finally allowed me to start cycling again. But by that time the damage had been done; five months with minimal exercise had left me 10kgs overweight, and turned my core muscles into a pudgy, doughy, frighteningly weak mess (apparently so bad that my physio gave my belly a disbelieving stare during one session and cut straight to the chase, saying, “Your core has gone to pot!”)
After having injured myself in January, it wasn’t until June that I was finally getting comfortable cycling again. It was at this point that Sarah, an old university friend, and her boyfriend John invited Elana and I to spend a few days with them at Sarah’s family holiday home on the west coast of Ireland. As it turned out, this holiday home lay along the Great Western Greenway, a 44-kilometre long cycle trail along a long decommissioned railway line.
This gave me the perfect chance to finally test out my Podsacs (the charmingly named bikepacking bags I had bought for my Trans-Atlantic Way attempt). Our group cycle along the greenway went exceptionally well and afterwards I decided that the Podsacs would be suitable for a proper bikepacking trip. That chance came sooner than expected, perhaps sooner than sensible considering the fact I was still recovering from a back injury.
With Elana and I both fully vaccinated by August, we decided to visit her family over in Winchester, England. The last time we had seen them was over twenty months ago, back in a simpler time when this virus hadn’t reached Europe, and when we didn’t have to listen to repeated advertisements with the nauseating phrases “the new normal”, “now… more than ever” and “navigating these uncharted waters”.
As it transpired, Elana would be visiting a separate part of the country with her family, which left me with four days to spare in Winchester. Rather fortunately, Cycling UK had just launched a 350-kilometre off-road bikepacking route in the summer of 2020, starting and finishing in, you guessed it, Winchester! Four days seemed like the perfect amount of time to tackle this predominantly off-road route, assuming that my back held up against the strain of four near ninety kilometre days of off-road cycling in a row.
With a plan in motion I contacted Bespoke Biking in Winchester and booked a mountain bike for these four days. All that was left was to download the official GPX file from Cycling UK’s website and figure out how I was going to pack all my camping, cooking and bicycle gear into two ridiculously small bikepacking bags and a backpack.