When the 750km Badlands Unsupported Bikepacking race by Transiberica began in Granada, Spain, Olivia Dillon was there. Having never partaken of an event as long or challenging, the former professional rider and current Director of Sales for Velocio was ready for the beauty and pain that followed. She answers questions about Badlands.
What prompted you to this event? Where'd you learn of it?
A year ago, all the talk in Girona was of a race called Badlands and I was confused because I know Badlands is a National Park in South Dakota so why would people in Spain be traveling to the US for a race in 2020. Eventually more details emerged and I started to look into it and even did some online dot watching to follow the riders on their journey. Post race, I heard stories of both heroics and horror, I watched the race videos and thought oh yes this is a challenge for me. Once registration opened, I signed up and made it my main event for 2021. In hindsight, I really did not grasp the enormity of the commitment I had made. The appeal also centered around the course which covers an array of extraordinarily unique landscapes including the Sierra Nevadas, the Cabo de Gata National Park, the Gorafe desert, and the Tabernas desert with its Mediterranean type sand covered gullies known as Badlands.
What's the longest thing you've done prior to this?
The longest distance and hours in the saddle was Klassmark's The Traka 360km in May, which took about 16 hours. Over the last few years, the distances I ride and the time in the saddle has been creeping up, especially on gravel, but I always maintained that I'm happy to ride all day as long as I can go to bed at night. I'm not quite sure what took me from that comfort zone to embarking on a multi-day event with zero comforts and so much unknown. I love to go bikepacking and, until recently, I knew where I would be sleeping at night on those adventures, which was both reassuring and somewhat goal-oriented. But this is a whole different ball game when the ultimate goal is so far off and all the interim steps are completely unknown.
"This event was always going to be a battle with the heat, we are in southern Spain and in the desert where it will be over 100 degrees during the day and where you long for higher elevation and night time riding in cooler temperatures."
- Olivia Dillon
Jersey: CONCEPT Radiator in White
Bib Shorts: CONCEPT Bib Shorts in Black
Spare Bib Shorts: Ultralight Bib Shorts in Black
Bra: LUXE Bra in Black
Socks: Signature Socks in White
Spare Socks: Signature Socks in Night
Gloves: Ultralight Gloves in Night
Bandana: Delta Bandana in Night
Frameset: Moots Routt RSL
Wheels: Astral Cycling Wanderlust
Tires: WTB Resolute 42
Handlebar: ENVE Gravel Bar
Aerobar: VAP Cycling Butterfly
Drivetrain: Shimano GRX 40 Chainring, 11:46 cassette
Pedals: Shimano XT
Frame: Apidura Expedition Frame Pack
Seatpost: Revelate Terrapin System
Top Tube: Apidura Expedition Pack
Handlebar: VAP Cycling Butterfly
Bivy Sack: Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
Sleeping Pad: Sea to Summit Ultralight Mat
Navigation: Wahoo Elemnt Roam
Battery Pack: 2x12,000mAh
Lights: Exposure Lights Six Pack; Biolite Headlamp 330
Talk about the challenges. When was it super tough? When did it feel manageable?
I often struggle with staying in the moment and always want to quickly get to the finish of what I start, which is both a curse and a blessing. In this scenario, you can't think of the finish at all. You have to break it down into sections or stops for water or breaks to take off my shoes. This event was always going to be a battle with the heat. We are in southern Spain and in the desert where it will be over 100 degrees during the day where you long for higher elevation and night time riding in cooler temperatures. The first day was going really well and I felt super strong but I was likely riding for a one-day event instead of multi-day. After a stop for a coke, an aquarius and a bocadillo, we had to battle a horrendously steep climb at a really hot part of the day. After that my stomach turned and I had vicious nausea for nearly 24 hours. I could barely eat and had to slow down and convince myself that there was plenty of fat to burn if I just kept turning the pedals. Somehow I decided that chewing gum would help the nausea and miraculously it did go away by the 2nd half of day 2. From there on I had such a better experience. I didn't do this event to be miserable and hate every pedal stroke so that turn to feeling better was just crucial to actually enjoying the ride and taking in all the cool and unique landscapes and trails.
My Day 3, while still brutally tough, was just one of the best days I have had on the bike. Starting at 4am in the peace and tranquility of the night with a not for the faint of heart hike-a-bike in the desert, endless sand riding and unparalleled coastal views. I finished after midnight so exhausted that a bivy sack in a parking lot felt like luxury. I had a goal that day to get to a point where I could then conceivably get to the finish in the daylight on Day 4. It was Day 3 when I finally understood I could actually have a strategy to execute, and that was a cool learning experience. Going into Badlands, I just had a vague idea of how long it might take and was really unsure of how to plan my days and what points I could get to.
The course on my Day 4 was the most difficult terrain I have ever encountered and while we were warned in the handbook, there is no way to truly get that reality across. The steepest of climbs and the most technical of descents surrounded by terraces of fruit trees all made for such slow going. I had to make deals with myself to keep progressing if I wanted to finish in daylight because stopping often for cokes, fanta and ice-cream is all I wanted to do. It felt like the organizers put the hardest terrain at the end, especially when I hit another hike-a- bike section that was so steep and loose that I literally feared I would fall off the cliff. I had some guys offer to help me get my bike up but I said "hell no, I didn't get this far on my own to have you carry my bike up a hill". About 10km later, which took a long hour, I was descending to the finish with the most overwhelming sense of relief and also disbelief that I had finished this extraordinary event.
How do you feel now?
Well, I can honestly say that post-Badlands the level of exhaustion I experienced was beyond anything prior. There was a post-race high with a surge of energy and then a crash combined with an inability to form complete sentences. I went for a short hike 4 days after and had to take a nap when I got home. Other than that, I have not exercised for a week. I have lingering numbness in my feet but, thankfully, no hand pain, which is often common.
What would you advise to someone doing this?
I would not actively advise someone to do this, but I would guide someone who wanted to do this to be extremely prepared, including being in top physical condition, equipment absolutely dialed and tested in tough terrain and overnight, and mentally tuned to encounter and overcome all sorts of challenges and obstacles.
Anything else to add?
I am proud of being able to take on this challenge, complete it and overcome some pretty uncomfortable situations. Not just the physical demands of these events but just being so removed from normal daily life with the lack of coffee in the morning, hot meals at normal times and the insecurity of where I would sleep at night. You didn't ask if I would do it again? Yes, I probably would. But might look at something similar in a cooler climate first.