The Yomp Rally might be bikepacking’s best idea yet

The Yomp Rally asked what bikepacking – typically a solo pursuit – would be like as a diverse, community endeavor.

Rapha’s inaugural Yomp Rally was a glimpse of another approach to bikepacking. Photo © Gretchen Powers

by Emily Schaldach 08.06.2023 Photography by
Gretchen Powers, Rue Kaladyte, and Sean Greene
More from Emily +

Bikepacking is generally a lonely endeavor. I’m accustomed to the final bikepacking flurry taking place in a quiet parking lot, fielding stares from locals as a few friends and I strap Pringles to the outside and shove puffy jackets to the inside of our previously light bikes. “Where are y’all off to?” is followed by amazement when we answer that we will be out here for a week. 

Rapha’s Yomp Bikepacking Rally, however, was a collective laugh at loneliness. When we arrived at the Santa Barbara REI parking lot, it was already swimming with cyclists: dozens, in fact. We were given a route, a celebratory send off, and the goal of arriving for an afterparty five days later at the Santa Monica Rapha store: be there at 5:00 pm for ice cream, drinks, and dinner. 

Seasoned bikepackers and complete bikepacking newbies packed their respective fears onto their bikes. Meg Fisher, a four-time Paralympic road and track medalist and seven-time paracycling World Champion who has now taken up gravel racing and adventure riding, entered in search of a CO2 cartridge, grinning as usual. I also saw palpably nervous folks holding two different-sized fuel canisters, looking back and forth, knowing they faced cold, half-rehydrated spaghetti in a few nights if they picked incorrectly. 

That mix was unusual for such a hefty event: five days (or less), 388 miles and 42,000 feet of climbing, much of it in deep backcountry over washed-out roads, fallen trees, even snow patches. But the inaugural Yomp Rally challenged the definition of bikepacking as a mostly solitary pursuit, offering a space to ride together without the expectations of a race. In its place, we found community care and shared understanding. 

A rally, not a race

It was raining, or possibly just really foggy, as we rode to the start at 6:30 the following morning. Coffee from Handlebar Roasters slowly rumbled our groggy, damp bodies into gear. We side-eyed our computers, which showed the first climb, a 5,000-foot ascent up Gibraltar, a Santa Barbara classic that had offered a show during the 2018 Tour of California. 

Up Gibraltar in the mist. Maybe it’s better you don’t know how far it is to the top. Photo © Gretchen Powers

I’d planned to ride the route alongside my old friends and teammates Johanne Albrigtsen and Avra Saslow. We all raced together in college and could add this to the lengthy number of hours we’d spent pedaling side by side. As the group stretched out and the chatting slowed, I noticed my lower back was acutely aching. Then a minute later my hamstrings were throbbing, then my left wrist began to hurt as if the pain was just bouncing around my body. I grabbed my bottle and dread came storming in as I realized my jaw was incredibly stiff and would barely open. I wiggled my water bottle into the one inch gap and took a gentle sip.

Although she was ahead of me, Johanne knew something was wrong and pulled over. We’d both experienced concussions and months of TMJ problems afterwards. Johanne shoved her hand in my mouth to help release my jaw just as the Yomp media team pulled up in their Rivian, cameras ready. We laughed as I tried to explain the situation, Johanne’s hand still in my mouth. Someone yelled from behind the camera, “Good thing it’s a rally and not a race!”

We continued moving, and I began to feel the implications of the “rally not a race” energy. Johanne and Avra slowed down to check on me, sticking with our plan to ride together. My friend Henry Nadell rolled up behind us. He told us this was his first bikepacking trip and now that we were riding loaded bikes, riding 135 miles tonight was feeling seriously hefty and arguably impossible. “I don’t know about finishing in three days, guys,” he said. 

We shrugged, “Well, you just keep riding until you don’t want to. Surely other people will be in the same boat.”

Ahead of us, a dozen people with incredibly minimal setups pulled ahead, hoping to finish the route in 2-3 days. Behind these folks came the majority of riders, starkly divided from the three day-ers by our bulkier bags and lack of bikepacking race experience. This divide was also evident by our camp shoe decision. Seasoned three day-ers knew there was no time or energy for walking around at camp. The rest of us had Crocs flopping along behind us, with the wishful thinking that we might do more than sink right into our sleeping bags that night. 

At the top of a narrow climb, two fellow riders passed us and we jumped into tunnel formation, cheering for them as they dipped underneath our outstretched arms. We continued to leap-frog these two, each of us making a tunnel for the other, or at least some jazz hands to keep us grinning.

I started picking up dropped items, a glove, a bottle of sunscreen, a lone camp shoe. Then I’d ask the next dozen Yompers we saw if it was theirs before returning each item to its very grateful owner. Rally-not-race meant we each had a little more time to care for one another, knowing we would need that spirit – and that sunscreen – as the days and miles rolled on. 

When the fog rolls off, the California coast reveals itself as one of the most breathtaking backdrops on earth for riding. Photo © Gretchen Powers

As we moved, my pain and stress slowly dissipated with the fog. Bikepacking is simple once you start; there’s nothing to do but keep pedaling, eating, and hydrating despite feeling pretty horrible sometimes. Bit by bit I pulled out of my own discomfort by knowing 100 other folks were on their own journey of confidence, discomfort, doubt, and joy. We moved along like a stretched-out snake, each crossing the same patches of snow and catching the same ocean views. 

My two friends and I took an extended lay-down on the side of the road before finishing the climb up Figueroa Mountain. A man named Louis pulled over and, in a quintessential English accent, inquired to make sure we were intentionally resting. I rode the final chunk of the climb with Louis, where he told me his mantra for the week: “I am a tourist.” As in: I will chill, appreciate the view, not race, not stress, and remain curious. I taught him the wildflowers I knew and we rolled into camp, after 72 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing, feeling deeply grateful for the company and the short night of sleep ahead of us. 

The spirit of ‘Yomp’

Yomp is old British military slang for a long-distance march fully loaded with gear, which seemed appropriate. But around day two, the word took on new meaning. It  filled in just about any part of speech as it became a way to encourage one another and lean into the spirit of the event. As someone left camp that morning, we’d call out “Enjoy the Yomp!” or “Go Yomper, go!” We stopped at water refill spots and when someone else popped up with dusty, empty bottles, we said things like, “Yomp! Hi! How are you?” and, “Yomp! Is your knee feeling any better?” or, “Yomp! That descent was wicked!” 

On day two we left the pavement for our longest stretch of dirt, 85 miles through the Los Padres National Forest. This trip felt like solely climbing or descending, and so we began climbing again. The gravel was rough and my legs were unamused with Brandon Camarda, Rapha North America’s head of marketing and Yomp organizer; Camarda and Dillon Osleger of Santa Barbara’s Sage Trail Alliance had crafted the route.

California’s historically wet winter had dramatic impacts on the route. Photo © Sean Greene, courtesy Rapha

But we gradually understood. The following day, we descended the 7,000 feet back to the ocean. “Okay, Brandon, I see you! This is the coolest road I’ve ever ridden!” we yelled into the abyss, ripping around the shale hills and feeling so grateful to be flying along, our little tracker dots finally picking up some speed.  

Camarda had ridden the route last year and the biggest descent took him 40 minutes. But the road had been jumbled due to California’s record-breaking winter precipitation, as the earth fell, shifted, and generally disagreed with our notion of a smooth road. Even the fastest folks were taking four hours to cover the same ground and, despite a drastic last-minute route change, we were still off our bikes nearly 100 times over the course of the ride, hiking a loaded, 50-pound bike, again. 

Our collective willingness to put up with the hike-a-bike varied. We came around one corner to see folks cheerfully climbing a pile of debris to filter water as it ran across the road. An hour later, we found a woman named Crystal who was heaving her loaded bike over a huge log, letting it clamber onto the snow below. Her eyes were wide as she asked, “Do you think we will make it to town before dark? I wanted to do laundry.” 

Our shock was palpable. It was 5PM; town was 30 miles away with an additional 2,500 feet of climbing and another few hours of technical descending. Mustering gentleness, we told her we would happily share our dehydrated meals if we all made it to the river campground we were aiming for. As the sun set and we continued carrying our bikes over rock slides, we wondered how Crystal was and hoped she had found someone moving her speed. 

Just before 1AM, we woke to 10 cyclists squeezing their bikes under a gate, their lights illuminating our parking lot camp. “Yomp!?” we yelled. “We got Yomped up there,” one of them said. In the sporadic light of headlamps, we saw Crystal’s bright pink bike disappear with the group as they continued moving forward. 

Ride for each other

By day three, a few folks had finished the route in Santa Monica, namely Chris Burkard and Lael Wilcox, two well-known and highly accomplished bikepackers, while most of us were just emerging from the Los Padres mountains. Some folks opted to ride along the coast, others continued following the route, knowing we had additional massive climbs ahead, as Brandon consistently picked the tougher option.

I had conveniently convinced myself that the ride would get easier as it went along but, by day four we had fallen behind our plan and it looked like no matter what we did it would be a push to get to Santa Monica. Fortunately, some particularly sweet friends we had met on the route dangled a carrot: they would be at a Motel 6 that was a full 107 miles and 10K feet of climbing away. 

With a goal for the day and hopes of a bed, we started riding at 6AM and hoped to finish by dark. Just as it began to feel impossible, about seven hours in, photographer Gretchen Powers passed us in her truck, supporting her partner Meg Fisher. She pulled into an extended turn lane and offered us snacks, shared stories, and assured us she had been watching our little dots the whole time. We talked about the folks we had met in the Los Padres. We’d come across a rider named Kit who had a shockingly inflamed Achilles and was still determined to ride. Gretchen said she would keep an eye on Kit’s dot too. 

We asked about Crystal and learned that just a mile below our last camp, Camarda had met Crystal’s group and rerouted them to Santa Barbara on a more direct route, avoiding the technical climb we had taken on at 6AM the following morning. I looked at my phone and just then saw Camarda’s text at midnight telling us about the changed route. This complicated inaugural event had inevitable hiccups. Organizers, support crews, and riders were up through the night, pedaling, shuttling their friends, sharing food or sharing advice. It was clear from start to finish: at this event we would all look out for one another. 

From the start of the Yomp Rally it was apparent that while everyone would ride at their own pace, they’d also look out for everyone else. Photo © Rue Kaladyte courtesy of Rapha

After leaving Gretchen, we rounded a corner and two residents stood up from their lawn chairs with hand-painted signs reading “YOMP!” They cheered and we cheered back. “Who was that, do you think?” one of us asked. “No idea, I loved it though.” 

Day five, to our delight, did actually feel short and sweet: only 68 miles and 6,300 feet of climbing. We had successfully slogged through the 107 miles and were thrilled to ride with a group of women who laughed their way through the day. Starting with ten creek crossings in two miles, we flew down to the coast before turning back up Mulholland as vehicles rigged to film car commercials zipped by. Throughout the day we picked up Yompers and we collectively grinned as we arrived, continuing to share stories and high-fiving with tired, dusty hands. We rolled into the Rapha store at 5:03 pm, just as the gigantic lasagnas were being carried in.

This rally was both exceedingly simple and jarringly complex. Make it from point A to point B, but along the way care for your needs and your increasing hunger. Tend to your body, field calls from family, don’t miss that turn, and make sure all the people around you do the same. 

Had I been alone or with just a few friends, I would honestly not recommend this route at this speed. The days were far longer than I liked and the terrain was intense. However, the community made this something I can’t wait to do again.

My favorite part of cycling is riding alongside people. I often feel that races can take away from that joy. I’d argue the community feels it too – it’s clear which events are growing rapidly (ahem, gravel), and after Yomp, I can see why. Being out there together, rattling over the same ridiculous roads, lending a hand, and slogging along together feeds a specific need for community connection. I’m not sure if Brandon Camarda was trying to fundamentally change bikepacking with the Yomp Rally, but this event certainly offered a new sense of what’s possible. I can’t wait for year two. 

What did you think of this story?