Badlands 2022 : Unsupported Ultracycling gravel on the edge of Europe
The wildest bikepacking off-road challenge in Europe: 800km + 16,000m across the only official desert in Europe, the wild coast of Cabo de Gata and Pico Valeta at 3,396m.
WORDS BY: TAYLOR PHINNEY
DECEMBER 15, 2022
Badlands 2022 kinda just dropped into my lap. The idea came from the bike brand Cinelli who at first thought I might want to "Race Race" the 780km ride around southern Spain. They quickly found out that I wasn't the racer they thought I was, and in fact, they were happy to embrace whatever form I wanted to embody at the event. The challenge sounded pretty astronomical to me at first but I'm good at saying yes to things that I don't understand, so I figured I'd wing it.
Badlands is a bike packing event with over 300 participants, with a maximum time cut of six and a half days. The best riders do the course in around 44 hours with as little as 20 minutes of stoppage time.
My initial approach was simply to bike pack the route and take those maximum six days, however as soon as I showed up in Granada I quickly recognized that the vibe of this event was more "racey" than I anticipated with most people packing "as light as possible", many of whom planning not to sleep at all or to only bring an emergency bivvy. My first question was, have you ever tried to sleep in an emergency bivvy??? It's a metal bag, commonly referred to as a space blanket. I tried sleeping in one on one of my first self supported bike packing trips and I can confirm that they are the worst - there is no breathability, you start sweating, then you wake up soaking and then you're SOL. Emergency bivvies should be reserved for what they're made for... emergencies.
Tangent aside, I decided to bring a footprint, a sleeping pad, a lightweight sleeping bag and a weatherproof bivouac sac that zips open to act as more of a rain blanket (just in case). On top of that I had the MW Acre Series Vest, MW Altosphere Jacket, MW Tech Tee shirts (both long sleeve and short), Mission Workshop cycling shorts - plus of course my trusty Ripton jean shorts. Undies, tooth brush, floss... lights, devices, chargables... tools, tubes, plugs, some para cord, straps... wallet + passport and of course WATER (4.5L of total capacity), FOOD and a first aid kit. My plan was to be comfortable in the night hours - heavy in the day with all the weight in the bags on the bike but comfortable with no straps of a backpack or camelbak or fanny on my shoulders or waist. We glorify discomfort but I felt like what could have been 6 days of riding was going to be enough discomfort so I prioritized my physical comfort in all other areas - even down to the bike and fit for the ride. Cinelli and I designed a custom Nemo Gravel frame specifically for this event which featured a 66.6cm top tube (!!) and a long enough head tube to allow for the flat bar handlebars to be the same height as the seat. This build was radically different from any bike I've ever ridden and definitely fit the bill as Ultra Comfort Cruiser.
So picture me if you will, cruising to the start of Badlands in the wee morning hours with my back upright, in my vans and flat pedals, wide handlebars and fully packed 11 liter custom frame bag + oversized waxed canvas handlebar bag and 2 extra deep stem caddies (courtesy of Wit Slingers and Ron's Bikes)... I felt like an alien, but I knew I was gonna be a comfortable alien for what was to come.
I was the most packed person there, without a doubt... and I felt good about it."
Soon we were off and I could breathe a sigh of relief that finally we were moving and doing the damn thing. The fast people went fast and I went my own speed with no stress about keeping any sort of pace which felt very refreshing. From the start to the finish the whole experience is a bit blurry if I'm being honest... the days were long and hot but not excruciating, there were hints of headaches, a neck ache that went away after day one.
One curious thing I noticed was how you end up yo yo-ing with the same people almost all the way through the event, as if you're connected on the same time without planning it at all.
I ate a lot of Spanish tortilla on white bread with tomato... as well as sardines. I didn't get into the sugars until the end of day 2 and they took me on a trip until 6:30am, my first and only attempt at riding through the night. I didn't plan on riding that late but never felt like I could find the right place to sleep so I just kept on trucking until I could see the sky beginning to brighten and then my body said "no way buddy, put me to rest".
That third day I struggled mentally and felt frustrated due to the lack of sleep and quickly realized that I would have to get a good night of sleep that night to keep the vibe alive. Sustainable happiness became my intention for the "race" and that relied wholly on a good, peaceful sleep in nature. My initial plan of bikepacking the route was quickly modified as I felt very comfortable riding all day and put in two very big first days, putting away 450 km... so by day three I was already chipping away at the "final" 300km and by day 4 I had "only" 120km to go.
The last day and last push was relentless with climbing and heat but I could taste the end. I had gotten a great sleep after my negative day 3, seven hours in the cool hills off the side of the road in my little nest...
The path to the finish is largely climbing with a small descent at the very end and I had ditched my vans the day before in favor of my bedrock sandals."
As I climbed up towards the final mountain pass I felt a surge of adrenaline and excitement and started to JAM. I put music in my ears for the first time during the whole event and had a nearly spiritual experience. Ultra Euphoria was washing over me like the waves of the ocean crashing into the shore. As I began the final descent I was completely overcome by the moment and the music and on the final bump of the final dirt descent I thought I needed a good jump. I ate shit. I almost saved it of course, but then I didn't. I quickly got up and was riding again before even assessing my self or my bike — an old bike racing habit I guess. I was laughing at the stupidity of my excited ways and fortunate not to have hurt myself except for some scrapes.
Well actually, I shaved off a good part of my big toe and toe nail and it was bleeding pretty badly, but luckily I finally got to use my first aid kit."
So with 5 km of downhill pavement to the finish of a 780 km race, I was on the side of the road, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, cleaning, disinfecting and then wrapping my wounded big toe. Ultra Euphoria claims another victim. I learned a valuable lesson about emotion that day. Pedaling into the finish I felt mildly embarrassed about my toe as I proudly rocked my sandals, but I knew no one would care as everyone at the finish would be riding their own high from their experience.
I felt I could stay in the finishing village for a long time but got offered a ride down the mountain and back to Granada and with my battered toe I thought perhaps that was my ticket. Before I knew it I was in a taxi blasting down the mountain and I felt overwhelmingly sad that the ride was over, and that I had extracted myself from the Badlands bubble so fast. Another lesson learned.
In the following days I assumed I was going to be destroyed from the effort but I actually felt somewhat invincible for the 2 to 3 weeks after which was a pleasant side effect. There were some negative body side effects too but I wasn't expecting the energy boost. To conclude, I haven't thought about doing this kind of thing again. I'm so happy that I did it once and may seek it out again but for now I'm just enjoying exploring with bikes in all their forms.
Photos by Juanan Barros and Patrick Delorenzi