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Cory Ostertag: Becoming an Endurance Bikepack Racer

Cory Ostertag: A Journey Into Self-Sustained Bikepack Racing

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Cory Ostertag (@full_beans) is a bikepack racer who recently won a grueling 420 km race, known as the Buckshot, in interior British Columbia. He will also be racing this year's BC Epic 1000, and fundraising for an emergency relief effort for the city of Princeton, which was greatly affected by last year's flooding.

Lately, I find myself increasingly interested in the bikepack racing scene. The first time I ever heard about unsupported bikepack racing was through Wild Horses, a video about the 2019 Silk Road Race organized by PEdALED in Kyrgyzstan. To label the Silk Road race an “adventure” would be akin to calling a fighter jet a kite. Everything about this race contrasted with the ideas I'd been adopting over the past few years: “slow is ok'', and joining the “party pace” crowd. The Silk Road race was bikepack nerdery, exquisite remoteness, and endurance racing all lumped together. It blew my mind.

Closer to home, I started paying attention to the races, as well as the people doing the racing. British Columbia is ground zero for some serious races, including the formidable BC Epic 1000—which a few friends will be competing in this year.

One racer that I have been following closely is Cory Ostertag, from Squamish, BC. Last week, Cory won a race called the Buckshot—a 420km loop out of Kamloops, boasting a whopping 6000 m of elevation. Not only did Cory come in first place, but he did it in under 25 hours(!!). When I reflect on my own performance in the saddle and do some simple math on Cory's time and distance, the whole thing seems astronomical to me. How do racers eat, sleep, and train? I have so many questions.

I'm in awe of racers like Cory. This is why I was super excited when he agreed to chat—to discuss his journey, the win at the Buckshot, and even provide some advice on how to start with bikepack racing. Let's go...

How and when did you get started with self-sustained bikepack racing?

Through my adult years I spent the majority of my time road racing, for better or worse. I've always been inclined to do longer, more destination-oriented rides. When I became a father I was no longer able to keep up with the training rhythm of road racing; I started riding less frequently, but doing more long endurance rides.

In 2020 I learned about the BC Epic 1000 event, bought a Surly and had my heart set on trying this bikepacking thing out. As with everything else, the race was canceled that year, but I ended up making a couple trips to tour the Kettle Valley Rail Trail on my own and with my family. I kept searching out other events in the pacific northwest—The Big Lonely, the AR700 to name a few—but everything was being canceled that year, so I had some pent up enthusiasm.

Kamloops Countryside

By the time Lennard (the route master of the BC Epic) announced that the 2021 grand départ was a go, I was fully committed and absolutely nothing was going to stop me from starting or finishing that race. The 2021 edition ended up being a nightmare for so many participants, as most folks couldn't handle the extreme heat, but I didn't mind it too much. I was so fixated on getting to Fernie, I just figured out how to manage the conditions and press on. It was my first race; I made so many mistakes and was very inefficient, but I've since learned from this experience. This year's Buckshot was only my second race. I'm still very inexperienced, but I'm proud of myself for fixing quite a few of my deficiencies from last year, which translated into a win in my second race.

How do you prepare for a race?

So much goes into preparing for races. There's the training, nutrition, logistics, equipment, route intel, and mental preparation. I love the fact that there is so much to consider in the lead up to a race, as if it were some complex and dynamic project. It's part of the fun.

Training is obviously pretty important, and I'll get into that, but I also spend a lot of time looking over the route and learning as much as I can about the conditions and resupply options. I create a table with all the resupply options along the route, the hours of operation and some relevant metrics including distance, projected average speed, and arrival time. This helps me visualize and plan what I will need or want at each stop, so that I can be as efficient as possible when I'm there.

I also increase my fluid, electrolyte and caloric intake in the week leading up to a race. If you're going to dig yourself into a big caloric deficit during the race, you might as well start from higher.

How is your racing setup different from a regular bikepacking setup?

It's not really, I just leave a few of the camp luxuries behind. No stove or fuel and no sleeping bag or thermarest. I just bring extra food in lieu of these items. I don't plan to sleep so I don't really need sleeping gear, and I expect to do most of my eating while riding. I also use aerobars in order to have an alternative position. Most bikepackers don't usually think much about aerodynamics, but I actually think that the aerobars do provide a slight speed advantage on faster rolling sections.

What type of bike do you ride?

I'm very fortunate that this year I'm riding a Panorama Taiga EXP. Panorama is a Canadian company from Granby, Quebec, and their focus is making bikes specifically for backcountry touring, whether it be gravel, mtb or winter fat biking. They are also the only climate neutral certified bike company, which they achieve through auditing their business practices and offsetting their carbon footprint through various initiatives.

The Taiga EXP is a drop bar mountain bike that can accommodate up to 29x2.6” tires. It's a huge upgrade over the Surly Karate Monkey I was riding before. It's so comfortable and very stable. The spec is mostly stock, except for a few changes thanks to supply chain shortages. I'm using the Gevenalle GX shifter linked to a Sram GX eagle drivetrain. It's a bit of a quirky system, but I love the simplicity and it's very robust.

What does training look like for you?

After the BC Epic last year I started working with Leborne Coaching out of Arkansas. Consistency is really key with the training program they developed for me. I typically ride 6 days a week with shorter, more intense rides during the week and a longer endurance ride on the weekend. I did lots of base miles through the winter, including a long block of training almost exclusively at tempo. Getting closer to races I've been doing a bit more intensity, like long 20-30 minute tempo efforts with threshold surges sprinkled in to simulate riding a long sustained climb with a few random steep pitches.

I do all of my training outdoors. I don't own a trainer. This was pretty hard with the La Niña winter we've had here in British Columbia, but I think it's important to also train your ability to endure tough conditions. Squamish had an unusual amount of cold and snow this winter. I put on some gripy 3” tires and bought some bar mitts.

I also try to do some regular core exercises all year round with some weight lifting during the fall and winter.

How long do you typically sleep for?

I'm still figuring out the sleep thing. The buckshot was only 416km, a sort of sprint as far as bikepacking races go, so most of the racers planned to ride straight through the night.

The 2021 BC Epic was an anomaly. Because the temperatures were as high as 48 celsius during the day, most folks adapted to an irregular schedule doing most of their riding in the evening, night and morning, and taking breaks during the afternoon. I rode for about 32 hours straight then got a room in Christina Lake when the heat became unbearable. I slept for 2 hours and then started up again at 8pm and rode for another 32 hours, then slept in my bivy for another 2 hours.

How do you get used to riding at night? Sleep deprived?

I didn't do anything to adapt to riding at night. I know some people will go out for all night training rides, but I don't see the point in doing this. In an event you have adrenaline and a race atmosphere that helps propel you through the night, but without this I don't have the motivation to ride all night.

Caffeine certainly helps, but you need to be careful not to overdo it and get strung out and jittery. I sort of microdose caffeine throughout the night using gels or drink mixes that have small amounts, say 20mg, so that you stay awake. For reference, a cup of coffee has about 90-120mg. The nights can also be really peaceful and calming as the wind and noise fade away and the nocturnal animals come out.

“...I had some pretty vivid hallucinations that stick in my mind to this day. I don't want to experience that again…”

That said, by night 3 of the BC Epic, reality did get pretty shaky for me. I took a couple of advils to soothe some saddlesore pain and it sent me for a loop. I had some pretty vivid hallucinations that have stuck in my mind to this day. I don't think I want to experience that again.

What is your fuelling strategy? How, what and when do you eat while racing?

I like to eat a variety of things when I'm racing so I plan to bring a mix of stuff. I have celiacs disease, so my options are somewhat limited at resupply spots, and I think I tend to carry a bit more food than most people because of this. I have to be a bit more self-sufficient since I can't just eat anything. I'll eat a variety of bars (Hornby, Next Level, Lara bars, Picky bars, etc.), gels, candy, vegan jerky, and chips. I eat these things almost constantly, taking small bites every 15-30 minutes. In my water I mix some Tailwinds Nutrition Powder, which has a few hundred calories and a solid mix of carbohydrates. I will also start the ride with a substantial meal in my bag, like a Subway sandwich.

I carry lots of sweets, but I tend to start craving salty things after many hours, so I'll try to hit up an A&W when available. I'll get a double beyond burger (lettuce wrapped for gluten free) and two orders of fries. The second order of fries gets dumped into my feedbag for later.

It's really important to stay hydrated and on top of electrolytes, otherwise your body won't be able to process the food properly, and you'll either be sick or just won't be able to get the food down to begin with. I plan to maintain a ratio of 50grams of carbs to 1000ml of water, or simply 1 bottle of water for every bar eaten.

What type of race should beginners consider for their first race?

I think a new racer could take a couple approaches. One way would be to work their way up to bigger distances by starting with some local gravel races like the Fernie Gravel Grind, Forbidden Gravel or Blu Moose.These will help people get familiar with pushing their physical limits on rougher, unpaved terrain, but without all the extra logistics and considerations of a multi-day bikepacking event.

The other way is to just jump into the deep end and do the BC Epic 1000 or a similar race in other areas of the country (I'm thinking BT700 and the Log Drivers Waltz in Ontario). For the Epic, although the route is long, it is actually very approachable since it's almost entirely on decommissioned rail trails that link smaller towns. Resupply is very easy and predictable as there are towns with restaurants and stores every 50-100 km. Navigation is also straightforward since you are basically riding the same trail the majority of the time. We are so lucky to have this incredible route in BC, and it's a great way to travel the Southern Interior of the province whether you choose to do it fast or tour it over a week. There are so many new races popping up all over the world, but I think it would be wise to stay close to home to learn the basics rather than heading abroad and making mistakes that could be very costly or more critical in a foreign environment.

Any other advice for other beginners?

I'm still a beginner, so I feel a bit strange providing advice. Everyone's experience will be different depending on their base fitness, riding background, outdoor recreation background, etc. Lots of people start bikepacking with limited biking knowledge, but they bring lots of helpful experience from other sports such as ski touring, climbing, backpacking. Don't underestimate how valuable this can be. The sport is all about enduring, and that can be trained in so many ways, not just on the bike.

There are a lot of resources available today to learn from the real pros. There are so many podcasts where legends like Jay Petervary, Lael Wilcox, Sofiane Sehili, Josh Kato and RJ Sauer share their knowledge. I'd highly recommend listening to some of these interviews. Check out these podcasts: MyBack40, Bikes or Death, Bikes Bikes Bikes, and The Hidden Athlete.

What's in the future for Cory?

I just finished the Buckshot in Kamloops. It was so much fun. I traveled there with some friends from Squamish, and this really made the weekend for me. My next event will be the BC Epic 1000, later in June. It remains to be seen how much of the route will be rideable since the trail sustained some damage from the severe floods back in November. The entire Tulameen River section, from Tulameen to Princeton, has had some serious erosion and a few bridges are gone. This part of the Trans Canada Trail will require some serious restoration, but obviously the priority is helping those directly impacted by the floods first—this is why I've organized a fundraiser to bring in a bit of cash to help the residents of Princeton that are still displaced or recovering from the devastating flood. Some people still don't have safe drinking water or are living in temporary accommodations. I would really appreciate it if people would consider making a small donation to my GoFundMe called “Pedal for Princeton”. My goal is to raise $1037 or $1 for every km of the BC Epic. Donations receive a tax receipt, which is a nice bonus.

After that I'm planning to race the Log Drivers Waltz, which departs in Almonte, Ontario on August 20th. It's an 800km loop that goes through the Ottawa Valley and Gatineau. I lived in Ottawa for my undergrad and I always look forward to returning to this area of the country to ride my bike. I'm also excited to race in a different landscape; rolling hills vs. mountains. That'll be three races this year, which I think will be enough. If I have any energy left in the fall I might head to Bend, Oregon for the Big Lonely. That route looks really nice and Bend is rad.

I have a bunch of ideas for 2023 and beyond but will have to see how everything transpires this year before making big commitments. My long term goal is to do the Tour Divide, but I'm taking a long and steady approach to build up to that.

Thank you, Cory and best of luck in this year's Epic 1000! 🙇‍♂️✊
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