After his return from a cycling trip to Colombia, I had the opportunity to chat with Matt, and find out more about a passion of his: BIKEPACKING.
Matt, you're an avid bikepacker with various trips around the world under your belt. What is bikepacking?
"Yes, I’ve been traveling on two wheels long before “bikepacking” was even known as a word. So I would say that traditionally I have been more of a cycle tourist than a bikepacker. In my mind bikepacking is all about seeking out the backcountry on two-wheels via gravel roads, dirt paths and forest trails. I think there is more of an emphasis on unpaved surfaces than traditional touring. Advances in bike, bag and navigational technology have made this a lot easier to accomplish."
Before you started bikepacking, you must have been riding bikes for a while. Do you remember the first ride where you realized you loved cycling.
"I’m going to frame this question in terms of bike travel and go back to my time in New Zealand. Twenty years ago I landed in this country for my first cycle tour and by the end of the three months, was hooked on this form of travel. You soak up so much more of your surroundings when on the saddle and it breaks down life into its simpler components. Trips to New Zealand and other locations like Sri Lanka and Myanmar have definitely helped prepare me for the challenges of more current bikepacking experiences."
Have you raced bikes before? If so, which disciplines (MTB, road, CX, track etc). Which was your favorite?
"For a few years I raced cross country mountain bike in the Ontario Cup series. I enjoyed the challenge and atmosphere at the races, but when I started focusing more on adventure and exploratory style riding, this fell out of favour."
How did you get into bikepacking and when did you get hooked?
It really came down to the desire to spend more time riding on dirt than pavement. I’d say the first trip my partner Tabi Ferguson and I took that we would define as “bikepacking” was to Costa Rica. It was great to get off the pavement and explore the dirt roads and beaches that this country has to offer. I think at this point we’d be hesitant to plan another trip that involves mostly paved touring. There are so many amazing places that backcountry touring can take you. People can find our Costa Rica bikepacking loop on bikepacking.com"
How many bikepacking trips have you undertaken?
"I’ve taken numerous cycling trips to different countries but just a few that would be defined as “bikepacking”. Of course, there is the BT700 route that I developed and have cycled around. We recently returned from a big bikepacking trip to Colombia and that was wonderful. They have so much stellar gravel terrain in the mountains. Without question definitely some of the most challenging riding we’ve ever done."
Do you prefer doing those alone or with others?
"Always prefer to take on these adventures with my girlfriend Tabi. We both have different strengths that help make a trip run more smoothly. Although, I did a run around the BT 700 last year on my own and at times enjoyed being lost in my own thoughts when in the backcountry. "
What equipment / gear do you need for bikepacking?
"There are no rules. If you have a bike rack and panniers you most certainly can bikepack. Of course, it’s helps to have a bike that can handle rougher terrain. This can be a gravel-style bike or a mountain bike. The newer bikepacking style bags can make handling your bike on off-pavement surfaces easier and forces you to be more minimal with your packing which keeps your set-up lighter and more nimble. Bikepacking.com is a great resource for help on getting you started."
What does training look like for bikepacking?
"I don’t really train specifically for bikepacking. Just regularly riding your bike can keep you in good enough shape to take a multi-day tour on two wheels. It’s also important to remember that there is a mental aspect to bikepacking and it’s not just a physical task. We all have times when we battle our heads when things are getting tough."
Let's talk about your latest bikepacking trip? Where was it?
"This winter we spent six weeks riding in Colombia. With so much dirt riding to choose from and a bounty of postcard-worthy scenery this country is poised to explode in the bikepacking scene. The climbing was pretty intense but it was rewarding to take on that challenge. Some of the downhills were pretty crazy. I’d say that we never had a boring day of riding and we felt safe during our travels, save for a few dogs giving chase. Using Ride with GPS to plot routes and then uploading them to our Garmins made for rather effortless navigation. For this trip we decided to tackle the mountains with a little less weight so left the camping gear at home. Accommodation are very inexpensive in Colombia so you can stay under a roof each night without blowing up your budget. I’m working on writing up our route so others will be able to take advantage of the time we spent scouting it out."
About the BT700....What does BT700 stand for?
"BT stands for Butter Tart and the 700 is the distance of the route, although route changes have bumped that up to 770 kilometres. When scouting the route we ended eating our fair share of butter tarts – nearly every country store has their version of these things – so we thought it would be a good idea to pay homage to this quintessentially Canadian sweet treat by naming the route after it. I have a soft spot for the butter tarts offered up at Giffen’s Country Market in Glen Huron. That store is legendary among BT participants."
What inspired you to start an event?
"In recent years, I noticed an uptick in bikepacking routes and events throughout North America but there wasn’t really many options in Ontario. As we explored more gravel roads and forest paths it increasingly became clear that we had the terrain to create a top-notch bikepacking loop. So Tabi and I spend a lot of time piecing together gravel roads, unmaintained
backcountry roads, trails and just a whisper of pavement into what became the BT 700. I wasn’t prepared for just how popular the route would become including the Grand Depart which saw about 65 riders line up on the start line for the inaugural year. The atmosphere during this event was amazing and there was such a great mix of riders, some who were “racing” the route and those just touring it a much more casual pace. I guess there is a big appetite for this type of cycling route in Ontario as people look for alternatives to paved touring. I’m expecting an even bigger year for the BT 700 in 2020. I’ve even created a secondary bikepacking loop called the Grand Nith Ramble (GNR) which runs 350 kilometres and takes in a fantastic amount of trail riding in the Waterloo-Dundas region. For the grand depart this year I am offering the BT XL where riders can take on both routes at once. People can find out more about these routes at www.bt700.ca"
Any special tips for first time bikepackers?
"One tip I have is to be aware of impostor syndrome. There is a lot of press directed to bikepacking races and riders like Lael Wilcox who can do an unbelievable amount of mileage in a short time. But for the majority of riders it’s better to be more realistic about what can be achieved on a route and what type of trip you want. I noticed on the Grand Depart that some of the less experienced bikepackers who went out too hard at the start were not able to complete the route for various reasons including injuries."
What's the most challenging about the first bikepacking event?
"I’d say trying to figure out the best set-up with regards to bike choice and what to carry on the bike. There are just so many options these days which is great but can also complicate the process. To this date, I’m still guilty of packing too much stuff and stressing about the type of bags to use. "
Outside of cycling, you are a dietitian and author of a sports nutrition book "rocket fuel, power-packed food for sports + Adventure". What have you applied from your M-F life to your adventure cycling?
"I glean a lot from my experiences reading nutrition science and developing recipes to help shape my riding diet. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to properly fuel my active lifestyle.I’ve noticed that in recent years athletes, both professional and weekend warriors, are taking a greater interest in nutrition and the type of fuel they put in their bodies. And also there is a greater desire to rely less on packaged sport nutrition products and fuel with real food. That got me to thinking that a book which provides approachable recipes geared towards helping to fuel active pursuits could be well received. In Rocket Fuel, I have
broken down the book into three sections – recipes geared towards pre-workout, during a workout and post-workout. So everything from DIY gels to bars to recovery toast. There is a recipe I call Enduroballs and I bring those on every bikepacking trip I take."
When you travel (for cycling trips), what do you do for nutrition? Do you adapt to the local foods/cuisine?
I don’t have any dietary restrictions so can fuel up on the type of cuisine available in the destination. For instance, the corn-based breads called arepas are everywhere in Colombia and I must have eaten those everyday. When riding in Thailand it’s all about noodle dishes, fiery papaya salads and whatever awesomeness is being served up at night markets. Being exposed to new foods and cooking styles is one of the great pleasures of traveling by bike. I recommend riders on the BT 700 sample a good selection of butter tarts.
What would recommend cyclists eat during ultra endurance rides (and bikepacking trips)?
It’s all pretty individual, but a good strategy is to eat frequently to help keep your legs powered. Some riders seem to need more carbs than others. It’s trial and error. A lot of ultra-endurance riders rely pretty heavily on whatever they can get their hands on at convenience stores and gas stations, but those who are traveling more leisurely are better served by finding healthier options.