Categories
Films Microadventures

Howies Microadventure Competition — The Winning Videos

Just got a note through to say that this video I made (with some of Andy’s camerawork) has been selected by Howies as one of the four winners of their micro-adventure competition! Yay!

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/28991462[/vimeo]

What does this mean?

Categories
Country Guides

Five Reasons To Go Cycle Touring In Armenia

Cycling in Armenia isn’t on many people’s to-do lists. All the better, then, for those who turn up in this tiny Caucasian nation. And since more and more low-budget European carriers have opened routes to the region, travel costs from Europe have plummeted.

Off road cycling in Armenia

Dreaming of returning and carrying out a proper adventure in the nation, I thought the time was ripe to publish a few reasons to make it your next cycling destination. Of course there are more than five good reasons to cycle in Armenia, but here are those I’ve focussed on:

1. Mountains

If you love slogging for hours up 40km ascents and burning down the other side, then repeating the process over and over again for days on end (yes, some people actually do enjoy this!), then Armenia is absolutely perfect for you.

Riding off the beaten track in Armenia

There is literally no route through this tiny nation that doesn’t involve serious mountain passes. The highest on the through-route to Iran is over 2,500m in altitude, and rides in areas such as Aragats can reach over 3,000m. Heading off-road will take you higher still. The gradients are unforgiving and the climbs very, very long, but luckily the traffic is very mild.

Ouch

If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, a couple of anecdotes may help:

While I was living in Yerevan I offered to host a couple of bicycle-world-circumnavigators over Christmas. They’d been on the road for more than a year and had cycled across Europe, South America (including crossing the Andes) and the breadth of the Asian continent (including crossing the Tien Shan range). Little Armenia, then, should have been a doddle — right?

Late afternoon on December 23rd I received a ‘phone call:

“Tom, mate, I think we’ve just about had it. These hills are f****** killing us. We’re thinking of getting a bus from here and then returning after Christmas to finish it off.” Little Armenia had done her work. (These cyclists did indeed summit the final pass and complete their ride to Yerevan, motivated by the promise of hot mince pies in reward for doing so!)

Another veteran cyclist once contacted me for advice on routes in the country. Later I asked him for an account of his trip. He told me that the climbs in Nagorno-Karabakh were the most difficult he’d ever experienced. And this was a guy who’d previously cycled across Tibet.

Snowy mountain range

Plenty in Armenia, then, for those looking for a meaty physical challenge!

2. Size

Armenia is small and the population is low. While it’s possible to cover the country end-to-end from Georgia to Iran in a week, it’s really worth taking the time to explore the minor routes that lead off the road down to the Iranian border. Many of these are unpaved and will see very little in the way of foreign tourists from year to year. This, in fact, is at the core of my recommendation for cycling here.

Looking out over Hrazdan valley

Resistant sheep

Armenian family party

The even-more-mountainous Nagorno-Karabagh represents a unique opporunity to travel in an autonomous and stable yet still internationally disputed territory, with the same currency and language as Armenia itself and a permit easily obtained in Yerevan. (The only catch is that you’ll be banned from entering Azerbaijan for the remainder of your passport’s validity.)

3. Sevan

Lake Sevan, a large high-altitude lake at nearly 2km above sea level, is one of Armenia’s natural wonders. Although a popular destination for summer day-trippers from the capital, much of the lakeside is quiet and accessible away from the tourist beaches around the peninsular — perfect for wild-camping and swimming in its chilly yet clear waters.

Marking the course at sunrise

And if you’re heading south to Yeghegnadzor, the mountain road there from Martuni, via the ruined silk-road caravanserai, is one of the most dramatic you’ll find this side of the Pamirs.

4. Isolation

Armenia, on paper, sounds dangerous and difficult. It’s still officially at war with Azerbaijan, the borders are closed on the Turkish side as well, and there’s no end to the reports of tension between these nations. Georgia (remember that ‘war’?) is to the north, and Iran is to the south.

Stopping for a drink in the Armenian highlands

But none of this need put you off — the reality of Armenia is very stable; transport by bus and train from Tbilisi is easy and cheap, as is coach travel to and from the perfectly-safe Iranian cities of Tabriz and Tehran. As a foreigner, you’ll still be a relative novelty — most foreign visitors still come from the Armenian diaspora, particularly its American arm, and this usually works in your favour. (Except with taxi drivers, who’ll try to rip you off.)

Echmiadzin church porch

Cave monastery

5. Ararat

The national symbol of Armenia now lies ironically on Turkish land, but the iconic sight of Ararat on a clear day really is one that will stay with you forever, however clichéd that might sound.

Sunrise over Yerevan and Mount Ararat

It alone is reason enough to visit the up-and-coming capital of Yerevan during your time in the country, and to spend some time relaxing in the modern city centre, marvelling at the contrast between the superficial glamour on show here and the shambolic make-do lifestyle out in the provinces — typical of the region and of the former Soviet Union. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a strong undercurrent of progressive culture, as well as plenty of the historical sort.

Reincarnation outdoor concert in Yerevan

Khachkars

Yerevan velodrome

Ararat over Yerevan in the evening

Hello

Interested in cycle touring in Armenia? Check out the collection of free planning and route resources at CyclingArmenia.com.

Mountain-biking pictures by Andy Welch.

Categories
Inspiration Scandinavia 2011

5 Reasons To Go Winter Cycle Touring (& 5 Reasons Not To)

Cycling Scandinavia in the winter of 2011 was an intensely memorable experience, ticking all the right boxes at that time in my adventure cycling journey. Here are five reasons I’d urge other adventurous riders to give it a shot:

  1. Challenge
    Winter cycle touring throws a lot of new considerations into the mix. After 18 months on the road in more temperate climes, I needed to push myself, broaden my experience and learn some new skills.
  2. Beauty
    The ethereal sunlight and snow-clad lands of the far north might be as familiar to locals as grey skies and patchwork fields are back home, but for me this harsh spectacle was rarely short of breathtaking.
  3. Solitude
    This region is sparsely populated, and the back country is all but deserted during winter, save for a few skiers and skidoo enthusiasts. Need a place to unwind and reflect? Head for the Arctic.
  4. Hospitality
    “We’re as cold as the weather”, said one Norwegian lady. But, although a world away from the hospitality of the Middle East, I was often taken in from the bitter cold for food and a place to sleep.
  5. Safety
    If you do get into a pickle, the fact is that you’re still on the road, probably in range of mobile phone signal, and therefore never far from help. You’re not so far from home. It’s not a polar expedition, even though your clothing, camping setup and ice-beard might have a lot in common with one.

Sleigh riders

Not convinced? Excellent! Here are some handy reasons why it’s a really silly idea:

  1. It’s cold. Really cold
    Frozen toes, cold-aches, numb buttocks, oozing nostrils producing giant snotty icicles, permanently fiddling with zips and hoods and gears and brakes whilst wearing massive mittens — and this is supposed to be fun?!?
  2. It’s dark. Really dark
    Go north at New Year and you’ll notice that the sun doesn’t bother rising at all. A little later and you get only a few hours of pale light in which to accomplish your daily distance. Otherwise you’ll be riding at night at minus goodness-knows-what-temperature, which is fine if you’re a masochist, but not if you aren’t.
  3. It’s expensive. Really expensive
    Norway’s reputation for high prices is well-earned. Expect supermarket food to be twice the price of back home; accommodation three or four times more.
  4. It’s slow. Really slow
    This can’t be overstated. You can’t ride at a clip without getting hot, sweaty, cold, and motionless, in that order. Everything has to be done with painstaking methodology, in acute awareness of temperature, sunlight, wind-chill, gradient, exertion, food intake and caffeine level. It’s exhausting.
  5. Camping sucks
    Sleeping bags suck up body moisture and freeze solid. Stoves, lighters, matches, cameras, laptops, tent-pegs and a host of unpredictable bits and pieces stop working properly. Forget to change into a down jacket immediately and you need half an hour of star-jumps to get warm again. Condensation freezes inside your tent and you get a shower of ice crystals every morning. Your food freezes on it’s way to your mouth, to the sides of the pan, and to your Edwardian-explorer-style moustache.

Sunrise in Lapland

Like many such endeavours, the memory of an experience like this is far sweeter than the reality from which it draws. But if you detect a rogue thought wandering your mind, craving irrational challenge, and you’re already well-versed in the routines of life on two wheels (or even if you aren’t), I’d highly recommend giving a winter in the outdoors a little consideration.

Find out more about the equipment I used when cycle touring in the Arctic Circle, or read about how to stay warm when camping at thirty below…

Categories
News

Bicycle Traveller Magazine Just Launched (From A Nepalese Hotel Room!)

It was half a year ago that fellow bicycle adventurers Paul and Grace emailed me from South-East Asia to ask me to write a piece for their upcoming international bicycle touring magazine, the snappily-titled ‘Bicycle Traveler’.

Into the mist

After six months in the making, and featuring pieces from the now-legendary Peter Gostelow, the ever-productive Travelling Two and the aptly-named Cycling Gypsies,  their first edition has been launched from Paul and Grace’s current location in the Himalayan foothills, and the feedback so far has been very positive. It’s part-entertaining, part-informative, and required reading for anyone planning a cycle tour (or nursing their withdrawal symptoms at home (yes, I’m talking about myself there)).

Head over to the magazine’s website to download your free copy. It’s reminded me that I need to set aside some quality trip-planning time…

Categories
Gear Reviews

Review: Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro Studded Winter Touring Tyres

At the end of January 2011 I took myself and my bicycle to Oslo, Norway. My plan was to ride 1,600km north through Eastern Norway and Swedish Lapland before popping out of the mountains at Bødo in Arctic Norway. This is a review of how my Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro 26x2.1″ tyres performed during that journey.