Interview: Adventurer Rickie Cotter Talks Freedom, and Almost Snorting Energy Powder

We all know about touring, but how about bikepacking? A bit like touring, for people who travel really light - bikepacking means sleeping under the stars in a bivvy bag, and leaving home comforts behind.

We caught up with seasoned rider, Rickie Cotter to find out what it’s really all about. Cotter is the current 24 hour MTB National Champion, and Highland 550 record holder.

She's also a 29-year old painter from the Cotswolds, who has seen the sun rise in places you couldn't imagine, and may have eaten dog food somewhere along the way...

TWC: What brought you to bikepacking?  

Rickie: To me riding a bike is many things, it’s therapy, it makes me happy, it helps when I’m sad or mad, I like the solitude, I like the friendships, I like the journey, the suffering , the success,  being in nature, self-sufficiency, seeing new places from the saddle.

I like leaving work on Friday with a bivvy bag and a map and doing what I WANT TO DO.

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It makes me feel wild and free when life is so safe and full of rules. After the relatively serious business of racing 24hr mountain bike races [Rickie is the current cahmpion and has been runner up multiple times] I wanted to push further and challenge myself

What do you like the most about bikepacking? 

 Pure freedom and adventure.

Taken on Rickie's Highland 550 ride, by Markus Stitz

Tell us about your first bike packing trip, or race?

Bikepack racing and bikepacking are two different things.

My first bikepack race was the Transcontinental [Rickie rode the race from London to Istanbul in 2014] and looking back now it’s a miracle I finished. I took a foil blanket and no other sleeping kit and went as light as I dared on kit.

I was challenged beyond my wildest dreams and held on for dear life. It was a relief to arrive in Istanbul but after that I realised that I can control my fear and use it too drive on. I learnt to trust my instinct and that if you train hard and look after your engine then really anything is possible.

Bikepacking trips are a joy. It’s the best way to visit a country. There are no rules you can ride as far or as short as you like. Do a detour, have lunch by a lake, swim, watch the sun rise and set. Your options are endless and you can make a trip to suit you.

Rickie (in the white shirt) after finishing the Transcontinental

Being out for long periods of time, in potentially changeable weather must require careful packing – what’s your set up like?

I always ride a 29er mountain bike. Sometimes I ride it rigid or with suspension depending on the technicality of the race or route. My components are not usually top of the range because I’d rather have slightly heavier components that are stronger and can take all the abuse.

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As much as it pains me to say the iPhone is a great plan B, you can upload maps to use off line, make emergency calls, check the weather, see where bike shops are and if you run a dynamo then you can charge it while you ride. It can get you out the shit but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And of course, never leave home without at least a tube, tool and pump.

Is there any special tech that really helps you along the way?

There is no denying the GPS is an amazing piece of kit. Taking enough maps in paper form is just not possible and it is very inefficient in bad weather or navigating while moving. To pin point your exact location is such a useful tool especially when in high risk terrain. Saying that a map doesn’t break and for a better overview you can’t beat an OS.

Dynamo hubs mean you can charge electrical items as you pedal – they open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Spot trackers are great, too – they enable your friends and family to keep track of you. They do worry and make a fuss – this will keep them quiet!

Taken on Rickie's Highland 550 ride

It’s got to be tough to keep yourself well fuelled, what do you eat on the ride?

If I’m bike pack racing then its simple FOOD=ENERGY=FORWARD MOTION. I shut my brain off and I put food in my mouth when the opportunity rises, often eating while riding and trying to get as much in as possible. It’s impossible to eat enough when doing a 3,000 km race so you take what you can and try to keep good digestive health.

Bikepack touring is far more civilised. I often take a tiny stove for coffee, brewing up on a mountain tastes so much better.

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Europe is the home of the patisserie where you can get the most delicious baguette for 1euro or an Italian gelato on the beach of a flavour you never knew existed for about 2euros.

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Trying new food and fuelling yourself so you can travel further is all part of the adventure although in times of desperation I have stooped quite low…

Once I ate a tin of something that tasted very much like the smell of dog food, and I have been so hungry I contemplated snorting some energy powder (because I ran out of water). It’s best to avoid hunger at all costs – it slows you down and makes for a grumpy cyclist.

How do you get around the lack of sleep, do you need to train yourself in advance of a big trip? 

Sleep deprivation is a strange thing – your own mind goes a bit crazy but you can function effectively on far less sleep than you’d imagine.

The prolonged fatigue is harder to deal with and during a race you do go through periods where you feel ready to collapse anywhere but it does pass. If you’re the type of person to have a go at long distance bikepack racing then you’re likely to be the type that will just crack on and work through it. I’ve slept in brothels, log sheds, abortouirs, petrol station forecourts, graveyards and bushes.

Is there much of a women’s bike packing community, do you get a chance to ride with many women?

I’d say the majority of bike packers tend to be middle age men, although the community is becoming more diverse as it grows.

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People are starting to realise it’s not as they might think, it doesn’t have to be a macho show of survival – unless you’re racing – then it is the craziest, toughest nutter that wins.

What do you think would attract more women?

I guess most women are more cautious, and a lot of people think because you’re a woman your more vulnerable. Actually if you take logical steps, like using a spot tracker, telling people your route, checking in by phone and so on – you’re just as safe as any other rider. I suggest for your first trips go with a friend and share the adventure and decision making.

Psychological barriers for women cyclists

If things aren’t going to plan – the weather is bad or you’ve overestimated the route then just relax, book a bunk house or hostel, or catch a train – there are no rules. Make it fun for yourself.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before you started – that potential new riders should be wary of?

Less is more! Most the stuff you take on your first trip you probably don’t need. And it’s always a good idea to spend money on a good sleep system – sleep deprivation sucks.

Be prepared for a change in weather. Have a sneaky safety pocket with a spare bit of cash and useful phone numbers (on paper, paper doesn’t run out of battery…). And always, always have a plan B.

What does it take to be a good bikepacker?

You need to be be prepared. You need to be able to adapt, learn to navigate, and carry out the odd basic fix.

You’re probably a thinker, and problem solver. Somewhere along the way, you’ll find your inner tough cookie. Above all: be an adventurer.

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