Words and Photos by Chris Case @chrisjustincase

Chris Case is a journalist, adventurer, and founder of Alter Exploration, guiding cyclists on transformative journeys in some of the world’s most spectacular locations, including the Dolomites, Iceland, Piedmont Alps, and Colorado.

Bikepacking Shimano gravel

After 21 hours of pedaling, I decided I might try to take a nap. I slowed to a crawl, which wasn’t hard to do on this deserted, precipitous incline of chip-seal road in Ireland’s wild County Donegal. Scanning the dark verges with a single beam of dynamo-powered light, I looked for the least lumpy patch of grass. Thankfully, the night was dry, and the stars were magnificently radiant. But, really, all I cared about were the lumps, or lack thereof.

After several indecisive moments, I reasoned that the potential roadside sleeping spots were all going to be about the same. I just needed to pick any spot, throw down the bivy, brush my teeth—oh, how nice it feels to clean your mouth after gobs of sugary snacks and gallons of sweet liquids—and snooze.

But slumber played coy. I couldn’t sleep. I felt restless. I tossed, I turned, I got hot from the frustration. And so, it wasn’t a hard choice to get up and ride on into the night. After all, this was a race. The clock was ticking.

sunset during a bikepacking trip

The TransAtlanticWay, which roughly follows the splintered western shores of Ireland, is like many other bikepacking races. There’s a start, a finish, and a fixed route you must follow. It’s up to you to get there, self-supported, under your own power, as fast as you can. At the TransAtlanticWay, you have the option of a long course, measuring almost 1,500 miles, and a short course of about 1,000 miles.

Because I’m foolish, arrogant, or masochistic, I chose the long course. While my riding style and physiology are best suited to steep climbs in the Dolomites, in recent years I have been drawn to rides and events that allow me to explore the edges of my physical and mental capabilities.

I compete in races like this not because of what they take from me, but because of what they give. Each event is an experiment—and no matter the outcome, experiments always lead to discoveries. I get to hone my perseverance and resilience, which helps me build to be stronger. And, yes, I also just like to move through wild places under my own power.

Bikepacking shimano GRX gravel bike

At 5 a.m. on June 8, I gathered with 80 like-minded riders, donning reflective ankle bands, powering up our GPS devices, and then setting off across the Peace Bridge in Derry, Northern Ireland, heading northwest toward Malin Head, Ireland’s northernmost point.

After I failed at my first attempt to sleep—21 hours after starting—I rode through the night. In the eerie stillness, with only the crashing Atlantic Ocean for company, time ceased to exist. I just kept turning the pedals, and the bike kept lurching forward.

It took another 15 hours before I decided to try and sleep again. I was filthy from sweat—despite Ireland’s reputation for upside down rain, it was experiencing a heatwave, and sunblock was more important than Gore-Tex. To the sweat stuck a thick layer of road grime, bugs, and the remnants of “meals.”

I could try to bivy again. Or, I could treat myself to a bed. The choice—call me soft—was easy. I found a cheap room in a student housing complex in Sligo, 367 miles (600km) and 28,000 vertical feet (8,600 meters) from where I started in Derry.

It was arguably an idiotic way to start a bikepacking race, especially since I’d never before ridden more than 205 miles in one dose (I’ve done this twice at Unbound 200), and I’d never ridden through an entire night. But I didn't really mind the idiocy, because those were two of my three goals for the race. I wanted to start with a bang. The detonation was deafening.

My mood and well-being never climbed higher. Unfortunately, I ceased being able to find a comfortable position on my bike. Shifting on a saddle for 18 hours a day leads to many things, none of them good.

Having started the race with a minor knee issue, it soon began to ache with every bend; I was in great pain. I considered quitting the race because I couldn’t see the point in causing permanent damage to my knee for some fiction of glory after riding a long way through a foreign country.

But then another competitor rode by. “Hmm, I need to get moving,” I thought. I took off my leg warmers and started pedaling again and, through the miracle of wishful thinking, my knee felt “better.” I rode on for another 160 miles that day.

By the end of my traverse of Ireland, I had spent countless hours perseverating on the thought that this was really hard. I had spent gobs of energy convincing myself that I just needed to pedal another hour. Another hour. Another hour.

Shimano bikepacking gravel bike

For all our intelligence as a species, humans’ underlying lizard brain isn’t that sophisticated. As such, it is easily tricked into the gimmick of chunking, or breaking big things into small pieces in order to manage the magnitude. I did this over and over and over again. It was exhausting.

Ultimately, after 7 days and 6 hours, I reached the finish in Kinsale, utterly elated to be able to stop wriggling on my saddle. I was consumed by a profound sense of satisfaction from completing something I didn't know I could do—and only a few days earlier didn’t think I should do given the knee pain I was feeling.

I fought through many moments of agony on the lonely roads of western Ireland—it wasn’t anything the race did or that Ireland did, it was simply a function of what I felt compelled to do to get through it.

Which is why it’s so shocking (but also maybe a bit predictable) that I’m ready for the next one. Yup, I want to do another bikepacking race. I’m nothing but an arrogant fool who firmly believes I can do better next time. Change this, fix that. I want another shot. I want redemption. I want to prove that I can be far less naive the next time around and escape the pain and suffering.

Shimano GRX GRavel bike bikepacking

So, instead of giving a detailed description of the rest of my experience—which, in my opinion, would only serve to scare you, or bore you—I’ve distilled my first bikepacking experience into three lessons that I learned the hard way. And that I hope to put to good use at my next race in the not-too-distant future.

Lesson 1: Chunking is Your Friend

The practice of chunking allows you to break a massive, intimidating, overwhelming objective into more digestible bits. Out there on the road, when part of me wanted to obsess over the hundreds of painful miles I had ahead of me, chunking was the best tool I had to cope with the magnitude. In my sleep-deprived, malnourished state, I segmented the day into 30-minute blocks. The fact that part of me knew that chunking was just a stupid ploy by my primitive brain to keep me pedaling didn’t matter.

Sometimes I chunked based on terrain. “I only need to get over that climb and then I can coast.” Sometimes I chunked based on nutrition. “I just have to go 20 more minutes and then I can enjoy another scrumptious Snickers bar!” Sometimes I chunked based on mileage. “I’ve already hit 150 miles for the day, which is a big day. So, everything I do now is bonus miles—make it a big bonus and impress my Strava followers!”

Shimano Gravel bikes bikepacking

Again, it’s all a mechanism to help you keep pushing. It’s not unlike a mantra, which can be a powerful tool used to focus your mind on a particular goal and create calm during challenging situations. My mantra? Transformation begins where comfort ends. Sometimes that sounds masochistic. Sometimes it’s a humorous take on how hard things can get. Whatever style works best for you, use it.

Lesson 2: Maintain Momentum

You’d think that during the course of a 1,500-mile race, ridden over the course of 6-10 days, you’d have plenty of chances to stop, take photos, have snacks, and simply linger. And that is possible. It’s certainly a choice you can make. But beware.

Momentum is a meaningful determinant of your pacing strategy and overall race attitude. Are you pushing to finish as fast as you can? If so, then forward progress becomes everything. If you stop once, it makes it slightly more likely you will stop again.

Once that habit forms—and it’s easy to let it form if you’re already struggling to hold pace or you’re not feeling motivated for any number of reasons—it just makes it easier to keep stopping, for photos, snack breaks, to adjust this thing or that thing. Five-minute stops become 10-minute stops. 10-minute stops become 30-minute lunch breaks, and so on.

Shimano GRX gravel bikepacking

Then, it’s possible that all these breaks throw you off your pace entirely. Soon, your average speed is way down, and the 160-200 miles you want to cover that day becomes an improbable goal. Your 7-day finishing goal quickly becomes an 8- or 9-day likelihood.

So, pack your bike in such a way to minimize the need to stop in order to reach key items. Think ahead about what food items you want to buy in the next convenience store, otherwise it’s very easy to start browsing and lingering due to indecisiveness. (Alternatively, consider dehydrating food/meals beforehand and bringing them with you. Then there’s no need to stop as often—and you cut down on packaging waste.)

If you do have to get off the bike, keep the bike upright and your butt off a flat surface—meaning, don’t lay your bike down and don’t sit down. Doing so will only tempt you to linger longer than necessary.

Lesson 3: Feed Your Needs

Is there anything better than satisfying your cravings—be they food, sleep, or cleanliness? While bikepacking is often defined by its lack of creature comforts, sometimes the psychological boost you get from wolfing down that second [fill in the blank… Coke, sandwich, banana…] or taking a dip in that swimming hole to rinse the grime away is well worth the sacrifice in speed.

While this tip seems to contradict the last lesson on maintaining momentum, it’s not about making frequent stops to buy food or take naps. It’s about satisfying that massive itch that you have, the one that is actually distracting you from focusing on pedaling and progress. Don’t fight those needs—feed them. Do it efficiently, do it infrequently, but do it if you believe that it will ultimately make you faster.

This can be true for sleep, too. In Ireland, in the early afternoon after I’d already been pedaling for 12 hours, and a warm sun was beating down on me, I had the powerful urge to sleep. It was getting dangerous to carry on. So, I pulled over in a quiet spot, propped myself against a stone wall, closed my eyes and waited. It didn’t take long to feel the glow of satisfaction for giving my body what it sought so badly. Two minutes later, I wasn’t falling asleep, I was standing up and pedaling on. That’s all it took to stave off the sleepies.