Just What’s Needed: Lessons From A Black Hills Bikepack Racing Rookie

This is part two of a series from our sponsored rider Greg Gleason about turning his pedals into the new-to-him world of bikepacking. New tricks to bikepacking reveal themselves every time you head out, and Greg shares what he’s learning as his journey begins and he prepares for the Tour Divide.

All photos courtesy of Randy Ericksen: legendaryrandyericksenfilms

“Life is a journey, with problems to solve, lessons to learn, but most of all experiences to enjoy.” - Ritu Ghatourey

Four years ago, sitting comfortably on my sofa watching Mike Dion’s documentary “Ride the Divide,” I made the decision that I was going to ride the Divide when I turned 50. Many of you reading this might be thinking: “Good for you,” “That’s awesome!”, and “Way to go!” In my mind, I was thinking, “Are you crazy?!” You see, up to this point in my cycling life, I had only ridden a handful of centuries; I wasn’t riding year-round and didn’t even know what it meant to bikepack. I was starting from ground zero. I needed to learn how to build endurance for such an event. What gear I needed to stay comfortable. How to stay nourished for long rides. And how to pack my bike correctly.

With so much to learn, I came up with a plan to create experiences that helped build confidence as I started preparing for the 2770+ mile journey across the Divide. My first-year plan was to build endurance by riding my bike as much as life allowed. I also started riding year-round which allowed me to figure out what gear worked best for me during the different seasons South Dakota has to offer. After the first year of riding and training, I felt it was time to add some long endurance events into the mix like Dirty Kanza and Trans Iowa. These events were intended to test me both mentally and physically. With the endurance side of training going well, it was time to start training my bikepacking skills.

Bikepacking is a different experience altogether. I not only need to make sure I have the mental and physical endurance to complete the ride, but I need to know what gear will work best for the region and climate, where water and food are located and how far between each refueling point, how to filter water for safe consumption, how to navigate the course (What if that fails? Do I need a backup?), where to distribute the weight on the bike and my body to allow the best agility crossing the terrain, what tires work best for the region, and what tools I’ll need if equipment failure occurs. The logistics to me are a little overwhelming, so I need to make sure to practice bikepacking on challenging courses as often as I can to be prepared to race the Divide.

Heading into my fifth year of prepping, I needed to start planning which events I wanted to use as my playground to practice bikepack racing. I needed a challenging enough course so that everything I practiced became second nature and I could focus mostly on racing rather than equipment. As it turns out, I have the perfect playground right here in South Dakota - the Black Hills. I grew up in the Black Hills, so I feel very comfortable exploring the area. I came across an event created by AZT 750 finisher Jason Thorman called the Black Hills Expedition; a self-supported, self-timed, 430-mile bikepacking race with 50k of climbing starting in one of my favorite towns, Spearfish, South Dakota. In fact, the race starts and finishes in front of local brewery Crow Peak. One thing I like about this event is that Jason allows individual time trial (ITT) or a mass start. I could do this event as many times as I needed to practice and not consume all my vacation time traveling the U.S. in search of such events.

The Black Hills Expedition comprises many different terrains. While there’s blacktop, gravel, and grass-covered fields, most of the route is awesome Black Hills singletrack. Seven percent of the course is hike-a-bike over super rocky trails. There are 50+ stream crossings, many fallen trees to hop and of course, some boulders to jump, climb, or scale in some rare cases. With 50,000 feet of climbing, it is safe to say you are either going up or going down.

The course winds through many local attractions like Mount Rushmore, The Pigtails Highway, The Mickelson Trail, Custer State Park (riding with Buffalo), and the Crazy Horse Memorial. All this scenery is connected via favorite local trails like the Dakota 5-0’s Tinton Trail, the notoriously difficult Trail #89 (the Centennial Trail), Foster Gulch (the views are incredible, but fear of heights might get you), and super-rugged Trail #40 (the Deerfield Trail).

Black Hills Expedition course…

To be honest, doing this has been a real eye opener. I had no idea that bikepacking involved such rugged terrain. I have attempted the course twice now, failing to finish the entire route both times. This journey has taught me many things about personal garb and bike gear. On both attempts, I physically felt good, but I found that mentally, I have some work to do.

Chapter 1 – Attempt 1

Attempt Number One - Start line photo…

On my first attempt, I made it 135 miles before calling it. At around 100 miles it started raining and hailing on the course. This alone did not stop me, but it slowed me because the trails began to get slippery. Because it was mostly sand at this point, I was able to keep pedaling forward. One thing I did not know is that I was heading into an area that had received six to eight inches of hail and five inches of rain in less than an hour. About 10 miles from the town of Nemo, the trail turned to total mud because of the soaking it had taken an hour before. My bike started to gum up and quickly became unusable. I couldn’t even roll it forward, and there was nowhere to go but the trail, so I dragged my bike by the handlebars in one hand and by the saddle in the other for seven miles covering one mile every hour or so. I remember thinking to myself (or maybe even out loud) as it rained on me, “Pavement soon please! I’m not sure how much more of this I can take!” I looked for places to bivy but could find nothing suitable, so I kept moving forward. Finally, at three a.m., I reached pavement, cleaned my bike and rode to the little town of Nemo where I bivyed down for the night.

Riding the Tinton Trail…

Rain, hail, and mud…


Waking the next morning at six a.m., I decided to go check out the trail to see if I could move forward at a reasonable pace or if it was still super muddy. After my short recon, I decided it was too muddy to continue. I could have waited several hours or days for the trail to dry so I could continue, or I could have just kept moving forward, but I decided to save my valuable vacation days to fight another day. With the venue so close to my house it would be easy to take my lessons learned and schedule another attempt later in the summer.

In my first attempt, even though I had not gotten too far, I learned several very good things.

Lessons learned from my first attempt:

First, I needed different gearing with all the climbing and the extra weight added on the bike, so I changed my 32 tooth front chainring to a 30 tooth. Second, I had the wrong kind of shoes for all the hike-a-bike, so I purchased a pair of all mountain shoes. And lastly, I had left my sleeping pad behind thinking the weather was going to be mild enough, but the thermal transfer from the ground made it difficult to sleep.

Chapter 2 – Attempt Number Two

With the corrections made from my first attempt, I felt it was time to schedule another. In prepping for this second attempt, I needed to plan for multiple 100+ degree days. This was different from the first attempt, and I knew I would need extra water and some type of liquid diet if possible. I planned to carry three-liters of water, two 22 oz. bottles of electrolytes, and several bottles of Ensure meal replacements. With my bike all packed, it was go time.

Start day sunrise…

Crow Peak start line selfie…

The 6 a.m. morning start was a sunny and perfect 70 degrees. My plan was to ride a couple days straight, but the 100+ temps during the day gave me a mild case of heatstroke. At 130 miles, I reached Nemo and decided a change of plans would be best. After a few hours of sleep, the nauseous feeling had subsided. Feeling refreshed, I topped off my water and hit the trail.

In search of trail but all is good…

No trail…

The second day proved to be very difficult covering 35 miles of some of the most difficult parts of the Centennial Trail and 20+ miles of the Foster Gulch trail. I broke my tire levers while repairing one of four flats that all happened in 100+ degree temps. There were tons of hike-a-bike sections, boulder hopping, and 200-foot drop mountain side hikes. All the hike-a-bike took a toll on me mentally and physically, so I bivyed down at Iron Creek trailhead at the 215-mile mark for a few hours’ rest.

Feeling refreshed, I started my third day thinking I had a majority of the hike-a-bike behind me. Boy was I wrong! My day was filled with 100+ degree temps, 60+ creek crossings, boulder scaling, more Centennial Trail hike-a-bike, 30+ fallen tree hops, a message that I had missed six miles of the course at mile 175 earlier that day, and one very large wash out buried in the grass that launched me over my bike and landed me on my head. After 125 miles of crazy, it all came to rest on Trail #40 at 6,000 feet where I bivyed down under the stars. I will admit it was magical. The stars were so bright, and the mountain top was so peaceful, the experience made everything pretty darn good. After a few hours rest, I took off again down Trail #40.

Trail #40…

Trail 40 sunrise…

On this day, I was going to finish, and that was all I had on my mind. (Maybe I was thinking a little about my aching feet and swollen hand.) The trail landed on some gravel that went on forever, so I was feeling at home, and I developed a very nice pace. That’s when I realized I lost my battery cache during the night. This was not good. I had used all my other caches, and my power hub doesn’t charge my Garmin or caches at speeds less than 7-8 mile per hour. Luckily, being on gravel now, I could hook the Sinewave direct to my Garmin and hope it charged enough to get me to the finish. The next 90 miles was a mix of nice trails and gravel, so the pace was good, but not good enough to keep a constant charge going on my Garmin. At mile 413, I flatted again, but this time my patches were not holding. I had to make a decision to go on or to call it. With my Garmin about to die, no way to navigate, no spare tube to use, the six missing miles of the course back at mile 175 that disqualified me from scoring, and no way of repairing my tire, I decided to reschedule another day. I had learned so much. It was time to go home and reflect on all the mistakes I had made and come back better prepared.

Lessons learned in chapter two. Are you ready? This is a long list!

  • I need better tires that have a fairly loose bead so they go on easier and don’t break my tire irons
  • I need to bring Stan’s to fill my tubes if I get a flat (believe it or not I had it in my hand before I left and threw it back)
  • Bring a better tire patching system
  • Bring my spare Garmin with course loaded
  • Learn to navigate better so I’m not disqualified for missing part of the course
  • Set up a better battery cache system that allows for low speeds
  • My bivy is thin, so I need a thermal layer between me and the outside air
  • I need better padding on my hands; they took a beating!
  • Wear better hiking socks and something else I need to figure out for my feet (any ideas?)
  • Consider pre-riding the course like many others do to become familiar with tougher sections
  • Embrace all the hike-a-bike sections with a super-positive attitude and create experiences that build confidence in gear
  • And finally, take the time to understand what bikepacking events really entail

“Sometimes you need to fall before you can FLY!” Author unknown

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Greg Gleason Mountain Biking Spearfish Sponsored Riders Ultra Racing

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Rob Moyers | November 22nd, 2016

Nicely done! I just recently saw a video about the divide trail and it looks amazing.  It’s one I’d like to do as well ( although I’m hoping that our Centennial Trail is more technically difficult!).  Thanks for posting your experiences.

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Matt Baumer | November 22nd, 2016

Tire levers - have you tried prestalevers? They work really well for tight tubeless beads. Good luck - your persistence is commendable!

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Tom C | November 23rd, 2016

Nice writeup Greg.
Great to see you returned after the challenges of the first try and rode again.

What did you learn about your setup (what is it, bike and gear?) from attempt 1 to 2 and will you make more changes if you decide to do it again?


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Jeff Hehn | February 15th, 2017

great read - thanks.  Coming down for the Black Hills Ultra 30km and want to attempt some of this course the following week.  Is the course passable in late june or streams roaring instead of running/trickling?

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INT | August 14th, 2017

Great article, thank you!

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שביל ישראל | September 9th, 2017

NICE! What do you say about the divine trail? is it worth the time?

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Kyle | October 12th, 2017

Try a performance compression sock like the ones from Dissent Labs. They make a difference.

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