Last month I was privileged to spend a couple of weeks bikepacking the length of Armenia on remote dirt tracks with a fantastic group of fellow riders from all over the world. The goal was not just to have fun but to test out a newly developed mountain-bike route across the country, which I’ve spent the last 3½ years putting together in parallel with the Transcaucasian Trail long-distance hiking route.
With around 90% of Armenia set within the rugged folds of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, it was always going to be a tough old ride. The route didn’t disappoint: in the space of 800km (500 miles) we climbed the equivalent of sea level to the summit of Everest – twice.
I’ve a lot more to say about the ride and the route, but not a lot of time to write right now, since I’m still spending most of my time in the mountains exploring potential improvements while the autumn weather holds out. So for now I’ll let the following photos and captions do the talking. More to come…
Early September. It was supposed to be dry, sunny and mild. Instead, we got hit by a week of freak weather which took the mercury down to 2ºC with black skies and cold rain for five days solid. Cue freezing extremities, more mud than any of us had ever seen (actual quote), and early-stage hypothermia in one case. Despite all of this, I was reassured to see that there were no sense of humour failures among the group.
(Pro tip: rubber dishwashing gloves work incredibly well in these conditions. Second pro tip: always drybag your biodegradable Firepot meals!)
After what seemed like an eternity the sun began to reappear, the trails dried out, and we turned south on a mix of perfectly graded gravel roads and off-trail hike-a-bike – not that anybody minded on such a spectacular ridgeline traverse. As the sun began to set, we were treated to one of the most stunning temperature inversions I’ve ever set eyes upon, ending up at the Soviet Writers’ Residence on the shore of Lake Sevan.
Next came the remote Geghama Mountains, for most of which we followed the excellent route set last year by Logan and Victoria for Bikepacking.com. Massive sheepdogs, thunderstorms, millennia-old petroglyphs and the occasional glimpse of distant Mount Ararat were the order of the day, as we traversed what is probably my favourite mountain range in Armenia, popping back into civilisation at the 14th-century Selim caravanserai on the border of Vayots Dzor province.
In Vayots Dzor, with the summer weather returning, we departed from my planned route and tried something completely different. I’d shied away from using trails I hadn’t previously scouted out in person, but I was by now confident enough in the group’s ability (in fact, let’s say enthusiasm!) for tackling new and untested routes. The dice-roll paid off and we found ourselves crossing between a series of magnificent gorges, all traffic-free, ending the segment at the Jermuk, whose thermal springs have long made it Armenia’s premier health spa destination.
We needed to add four days of riding to complete the route, and I was happy to find three of the group were able to change their plans and continue all the way to the southern city of Meghri. The vibe was very different for this last stretch; less of an organised group and more like a handful of riders who’d met on the road and decided to ride together. Our conversations got me thinking about next year – about whether or not I’d run this ride again and what I might change if I did so. Before we knew it, we were riding into a setting sun alongside the River Arax, Iran to our left and the whole of the Republic of Armenia to our right – a long-time ambition achieved, new friends made, and perhaps the framework of a new national mountain biking route laid down…
In coming posts I’ll be detailing the route we took, the bikes and gear we used, the mistakes we made… and finally the details of how you – if your curiosity has been piqued – can join a group ride along this trail next year. Watch this space!