When Englishman Thomas Stevens became the first person to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle in the late 1800s, completing his two-year adventure in 1886 on an early model known as the penny-farthing, little did he know that hundreds of fellow adventurers would follow in his tracks more than a century later.
But sure enough, bikepacking has kicked into a whole new gear as of late, as legions of hardy cycling enthusiasts embark on self-supported, long distance trips powered by pedal. Generally, bikepacking takes place on dirt roads and backcountry singletrack, while randonneuring—another version of long-distance excursions—refers to trips on paved roads only. But both require riders to make the most of their mental and physical abilities while tackling long distances, varied landscapes and altitudes, and weather.
Today, adventure-style races such as the Trans-Am and Tour Divide have helped foster a growing interest in the sport. The trend is taking root in Alabama, too, and long-distance aficionados can pick from many gateway bicycle adventure routes around the state.
Here, we take a look at a destination near the outskirts of Tuscaloosa: a bikepacking adventure on the gravel and dirt roads that lead to Lake Lurleen State Park.
Like many cities throughout Alabama, once you navigate beyond the Tuscaloosa city limits, gravel and dirt roads along the rural countryside abound. Deason Camp Road is a fine example of this type of roadway, which is perfect for two-wheeled travelers seeking a respite from heavily trafficked highways. The slight elevation changes, weight restricted bridge crossings, and lack of motorists make this route ideal for a shakeout ride with new gear.
A key recommendation for route planning is keeping the mileage manageable. As with any new bikepacking rig, additional weight is part of the formula, and learning the new behavior of your ride takes a little getting used to. Planning a route that caters to these needs is important. Bicycle preparation is, too: The additional weight on the frame means more air pressure is needed in both tires to avoid a pinch flat. Additional adjustment of the suspension could be required, too, as well as a smaller gear ratio to make pedaling up inclines less taxing. If it's your first excursion, heading to a good bike mechanic beforehand to get all this sorted out is highly recommended.
Lake Lurleen State Park, named after the first and only woman to have served as Alabama governor, is home to everything from mountain biking trails, beaches, paddle-boat rentals, and, of course, a 250-acre lake. The 15-mile mountain biking loop takes riders around the lake on a complex trail network that has everything from technical, rooty sections to flow-trail and buttery smooth singletrack.
On a bikepacking trip, the quality and abundance of the primitive campsites is also an important consideration. Here, the primitive campsites are clean, relatively bug-free, close to bathrooms and showers, and wallet-friendly at $15. The beach is also a popular destination within the park on hot summer days and an ideal way to cool off after a day's ride. Bonus: Both staff and other visitors are some of the friendliest folks around.
As with any self-supported adventure, what you choose to bring on a bikepacking trip is extremely important. The fact that you’ll be pedaling the weight of everything strapped to the frame of the bicycle up and down hills, along trails, and back home means that very often less is more. A few tips and tricks to keep in mind:
Food: As with camping, bringing food that's easily transportable and a cinch to cook is your best bet—bonus points if it's healthy. To save weight, you can forgo the camp stove and fuel in favor of cooking (or heating) your grub on a campfire, especially if you're just getting used to hauling extra pounds on your bike. But keep in mind that you'll have to do your homework to make sure campfires are allowed (and that bad weather might scrap those plans).
Water : Bringing along enough water is equally critical—as with any outdoor adventure, you don't want to be caught miles deep into the wilderness with an empty water bottle and no reliable water source. If your end point is a campsite with drinking water, plan for enough to get you there, so you can fill up again on the way back. Amounts vary wildly depending on body weight, but experts recommend consuming about 16 ounces of water per hour while riding in cool weather. And hydrating before you hit the road is also recommended.
Keep in mind that you'll be hauling extra gear, too, which will require additional H20 intake. Temperature also plays a significant role in terms how much water you'll need—always plan to bring more when it's hot and you'll be sweating more (and in the Alabama humidity, you can count on that).
Tools: Standard with any bikepacking rig is at least one spare tube (preferably two), a multi-tool, tire lever, air pump, tire boot, headlight, and taillight. These tools are available at every bike shop and should be tested prior to departure, even on a shakeout ride. Knowing how to change a flat, boot a tire, and adjust a derailleur is extremely valuable when out on your own.
Apparel: Proper cycling apparel has real advantages when spending a long day in the saddle. The chamois, or padding, that comes with almost every variety of cycling bibs or short helps keep your butt comfortable, your muscles looser, and your trip way more enjoyable.
Many elite touring cyclists, however, choose to wear more casual clothing. Either way, finding what works best for you is only possible with practice and experimentation. This is yet another reason why taking a single overnight there-and-back trip is very helpful prior to planning a more extensive trip.
Bikes: There are seemingly endless opinions as to what makes the best bicycle for any type of trip. Working within a budget is possible while still getting a bike that will suit your needs on the road. On our recent Lake Lurleen excursion, we chose to ride road bikes with enough tire clearance to make traversing the gravel a little more manageable while not limiting speed on paved surfaces. But figuring out what works best for each individual rider is a process best learned in the saddle—and there's no better time to follow Stevens' lead, pack up, and hit the road.