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What’s The Best Camping Stove For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking? (2020 Edition)

Last updated in March 2020.

Every cyclist loves food. In fact, one of the pleasures of bicycle travel is the ability to eat whatever you like, and as much as you like. Your body becomes a calorie-burning machine, and it’s very vocal about what it wants!

When it comes to cycle touring and bikepacking trips, a stove is not essential. There are other ways to fuel your body than cooking your own food. (Bakeries! Supermarkets! Cafes!)

But many adventurous cyclists find it convenient to have the ability to cook, or at least to boil water for hot drinks. I’ve always carried a stove on my bike trips for these reasons, from multi-fuel expedition stoves in Outer Mongolia, to cheap and cheerful canister gas stoves in Europe, and alcohol stoves in the Middle East and former Soviet Union.

In this detailed article, I’ll help you figure out how to choose between the many different types, makes and models of stove on offer.

To do that, we’ll look at the main categories of camping stove preferred by cycle tourists and bikepackers, discuss how to choose between different basic types of stoves, and look at the best tried-and-tested camping stoves circling the globe as I type.

I’ll include buying links to UK and USA retailers, but many of the stoves mentioned in this article are available globally.

Ready? Cup of tea to hand? OK – let’s begin.


3 Basic Questions To Help You Choose A Camping Stove For Cycle Touring

As with all equipment choices, clarifying a few simple facts about your cycle tour or bikepacking trip will make your decision easier.

So I want to start by asking three basic questions that will help you identify which type of camping stove will suit you best on your cycle tour or bikepacking adventure.

Question 1: Where Are You Going, And For How Long?

This question is partly about continent, country and region, but it’s also about how far from the beaten track you’re planning to ride.

It’s important for camping stove choice because you’ll buy a stove once, but you’ll buy fuel for it over and over again – every few days if you use the stove regularly.

Fuel availability is the biggest factor in choosing a stove – so knowing where you’ll be riding is critical.

If you are riding through parts of the world with a strong camping culture and therefore plenty of outdoor shops and campsites – eg: Europe, North America or New Zealand – you’ll easily be able to find butane/propane gas canisters for camping stoves.

If you’re heading further afield and/or off the tourist trail for longer periods of time, denatured alcohol (eg: methylated spirit or surgical spirit) and liquid fuel (eg: white gas, kerosene, petrol/benzine and diesel) are likely to be easier fuels to find – and to carry in bigger quantities.

We’ll cover fuel types in detail later, as they also define the main categories of camping stove for cycle touring and bikepacking.

But for now, just take a moment to think about where you’re going, and how easily and frequently available these different types of fuel are likely to be – remembering also that you cannot bring compressed gas canisters with you when flying, either in checked baggage or in the cabin.

Where you’re going will also affect how often you cook.

Good, fresh food is so cheap and abundant in some regions (South-East Asia being a good example) that cooking your own food will cost more and taste worse!

Question 2: What Do You Mean By ‘Cooking’?

When you say ‘cooking’, do you really mean ‘boiling water for coffee and noodles’?

Just boiling water can be accomplished with minimal gear or with an integrated system like the Jetboil (on which more later).

But if you do want to do proper cookery (see Tara Alan’s excellent Bike. Camp. Cook* ebook to see what I mean by this), you’ll need a versatile, adjustable stove or stoves; lots more pots, pans and utensils; and perhaps even a folding sink!

So think about what’s going to be important to you on your cycle tour or bikepacking trip: quick and simple fuel; or slow, tasty and varied meals.

Equipment for proper cookery also affects your luggage setup. Fully-loaded riders with big panniers and lots of rack space will have more options than ultralight bikepackers.

Question 3: How Many Mouths Are You Feeding?

It might sound obvious, but more people means more food, bigger pots, and a more powerful stove to heat them.

Just as domestic stoves have burners of different sizes, camping stoves are available with a range of different pot supports, flame spreaders and heat output ratings, from soloists boiling a mug of water to gourmet couples and groups spending hours preparing three-course meals with frying pans and steamers.

It’s important to answer this question well, because it might not be possible to change your setup on the road. It’s also crucial to match your stove to the rest of your kitchen setup – a big pot on a wobbly top-mounted canister burner will not just be precarious: with lightweight tents or dry tinder around, it could be dangerous.

So consider how much food you’ll be cooking on an average night, and how much flexibility you’d like when it comes to using pots and pans of different shapes and sizes.


All done with the three starter questions above?

Great! Let’s look in detail at the different types of camping stove for cycle tourers and bikepackers.

What Types Of Camping Stove Are Best For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

I’ve mentioned camping stove fuel a couple of times already. In fact, there are three main types of camping stove suited to cycle touring and bikepacking, and they’re categorised by the three types of fuel they are designed to burn.

Each type of stove (and fuel) has its own strengths and weaknesses, so let’s look at each in turn.

1. Canister Gas Stoves

Gas is the ideal fuel for cooking, which is why most professional kitchens use it. It burns cleanly and efficiently, the flames are highly adjustable, and the use of pressurised canisters means that getting the fuel moving is easy and stove design therefore simple.

Stoves of the type we’re interested in come from the backpacking and hiking departments of outdoor stores, as they tend to be the lightest and most compact. They can be further subdivided into top-mounted burners, such as MSR’s classic Pocket Rocket*; remote burners (aka: ‘spider’ stoves) with short hoses to connect to an external canister, such as Alpkit’s Koro; and all-in-one integrated stove systems such as the Jetboil series.

There are two main types of canister. The most common type worldwide is the Universal Threaded Canister (UTC) type (using an EN417 standard 7/16-inch Lindal B188 screw valve, in case you were wondering). You screw the burner or hose onto the top of the canister and it automatically seals when you disconnect it. You’ll find these widespread in the USA and Europe in particular.

Another common type of canister you’ll often see in Western Europe is the blue, unthreaded, valve-sealed CV system by long-running camping stove brand Campingaz, to which the burner clips on, rather than being screwed on. (These are not to be confused with the old-fashioned pierceable cartridges that are still made for older stoves).

Most stoves fit only one type of canister. Which type is quite likely to reflect where you bought it. A few stoves are compatible with both. (We’ll look at examples later.)

Regardless of valve type, it’s stoves for the the smallest sized canisters you’ll be interested in, which are designed for backpackers rather than caravans or car-campers.

UTC canisters are made by lots of manufacturers including Coleman, MSR and Primus and typically have a capacity of 110/230g/450g (4/8/16oz) and a diameter of 110mm (4.33″). Some have a narrower diameter of 90mm/3.5″ and are usually designed for integrated stove systems such as the Jetboil (see below). These smaller canisters tend not to be as widely available as the larger-diameter ones.

CV cartridges made by Campingaz come in 240g (90mm diameter) and 450g (110mm diameter) sizes.

Much marketing noise is made by canister manufacturers over the specific blend of propane and butane and thus how efficient their fuel is. I can promise you right now that unless you are camping in winter conditions, timing each boil to the second and weighing your canister between uses, you will not notice the slightest difference. The best brand to choose is the one that’s available when you need it.

Importantly for riders flying to their starting points, pressurised gas canisters cannot be transported by air, either in the hold or in cabin baggage. If you’re flying to your starting point, you’ll need to make sure suitable canisters can be bought on arrival.

2. Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are designed to burn high-strength liquid alcohol, of which methylated spirit and surgical spirit (aka: medical alcohol or rubbing alcohol) are probably the most common, though it’s also available in other forms.

The key is a very high alcohol content – at least 90%, preferably 95% or higher. Even the strongest homemade vodka will not work. Because of the many and varied uses of alcohol, some form will be available pretty much anywhere you find civilisation – even in ‘dry’ countries such as Iran. (There’s a very detailed list of stove-compatible fuels at Zenstoves.net.)

Alcohol is slower to cook over than gas or liquid fuel, but its wide availability and relative cleanliness is what makes it viable. Because the fuel does not need to be pressurised, these stoves tend to be even simpler and lightweight, making alcohol stoves a favourite with ultralight bikepackers. They don’t do well in very cold temperatures, however, and the unpressurised flame can be vulnerable to wind – hence why many alcohol stoves have integrated windshields.

The classic example of this type of stove is the Swedish-made Trangia, which is often referred to simply by the brand name. As 3.5 million viewers have so far discovered, it’s also possible to quickly and easily make your own alcohol stove from an empty drinks can. We’ll look at other models later on.

Consisting of little more than a fuel pot with a few holes in it, alcohol stoves burn simply, cleanly and efficiently, needing no complicated mechanisms for pressurising the less volatile fuel. The fact that there are no moving parts to worry about makes them the most simple and durable stove you can get for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip – not to mention the lightest.

Some people are put off by the thought of having to find fuel in remote areas, and/or figure out what it’s called in the local language. But this is largely a hangover from when Google Translate didn’t exist and information on locally-available fuels wasn’t as easily available. In reality, alcohol stoves have happily taken people round the world and into the back of beyond, and will no doubt continue to do so.

3. Multi-Fuel (Liquid Fuel) Stoves

Multi-fuel or liquid fuel stoves are the most complicated and expensive type, designed to pressurise and vaporise many types of liquid hydrocarbon including paraffin (or kerosene), jet fuel (kerosene with additives), diesel, unleaded petrol (aka: benzine), and white gas (aka: Coleman fuel, which is a highly refined kind of petrol).

Two of these fuels are, of course, extremely common on the roadside – petrol and diesel – and it’s this that makes the multi-fuel stove a common choice for long-haul expeditions across many countries or continents.

The liquid fuels are ‘hacked’ into a cooking flame using a pressurised fuel bottle and pump, a remote burner with a hose, and a complicated delivery system that vaporises the fuel by heating it within the fuel line using the stove’s own heat – which is why they need to be primed before use.

This has the side effect of making multi-fuel stoves the best choice for extreme cold, which is why high-altitude mountaineering expeditions always use them – but also means the learning curve for priming and lighting them is a little steeper.

The result is sometimes a bit smelly and messy, but for many decades the multi-fuel stove has been single most reliable way of producing a cooking flame on a round-the-world expedition in all conditions.

The classic example of a multi-fuel camping stove for cycle touring is the MSR WhisperLite International*, which has a whopping 35-year heritage.


Now we’ve looked at the three main types of camping stove for cycle touring and bikepacking, let’s look at specific examples in each category, and see how they can be further subdivided by budget, size & weight, and type of use.

By the way, this is a very comprehensive list. It includes more or less every commonly-used stove I’ve come across in 13 years of riding.

In other words, it is practically impossible that the stove you need for your trip is not in the list below.


Canister Gas Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

This section highlights a range of tried-and-tested canister gas camping stoves throughout the price spectrum. All of the stoves in this section work on extremely simplistic principles: take in pressurised gas via one hole, and then blast it out of another hole, on fire.

Many of these stoves come in two versions – with or without ‘auto-ignition’, which is basically a built-in spark generator button that eliminates the need for matches or a lighter. Neat idea, but they do have a reputation for being somewhat unreliable, so for long and/or remote trips in the wilderness my advice is to avoid these ‘upgrades’ and pack matches, several lighters and perhaps even a fire steel* instead, so in the worst case scenario you can always light a fire. (If you’re purifying drinking water by boiling, as I once was in Outer Mongolia, this could be critical.)


Cheap & Compact Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Solo Travellers

Small, simple top-mounted burners are a good choice for the solo cyclist on a budget. They work best with smaller pans and coffee pots.

If your tour is confined to Western Europe, you’ll easily find canisters for the cheap and cheerful Campingaz Twister Plus (RRP £25 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*), pictured above. At 263g it’s relatively heavy, but it will support slightly larger pots than the competition. For comparison with the stoves below, it has an output of 2900W.

For UTC canisters, Coleman’s 77g/3600W FyreLite (RRP £25 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*) is a basic and relatively powerful burner that does the same thing as stoves three times the price. It’ll last just as long if properly looked-after. Similar is the 3000W Vango Compact (RRP £20 / Amazon* / eBay*), which I occasionally throw into my own bag for short, solo trips.

Of interest to bikepackers looking to minimise weight is the very affordable titanium Alpkit Kraku (RRP £27), which at 45g is the lightest stove in this section, though less powerful at 2600W.


Cheap & Powerful Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Couples/Groups

Bigger pots are best paired with stoves that have broader supports, wider flame spreaders, and a higher heat output. I’d advise you to find or make a stand to stabilise the base of the canister as well.

Powerful top-mounted stoves do exist, but if size and weight are not critical I would consider a remote burner which attaches to the canister by a hose and sits on the ground for maximum stability.

A good choice in the top-mounted category is the Coleman FyrePower (RRP £39 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*) pictured above, with a big burner and pot stand and a massive 7000W of heat output for rapid boiling.

Another good option here is the Primus Mimer (RRP €28 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Ellis Brigham* / eBay*), big and stable but with a significantly lower heat output at 2800W. The Duo version burns both UTC and CV canisters and is a versatile option for tours including Western Europe.

Among remote burners in the budget category, the 2600W/200g Vango Folding gas stove (RRP £30 / Amazon* / Blacks* / Millets* / eBay*) is a solid option and comes officially recommended for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, though it’s not particularly powerful. You might also try the relatively new but favourably reviewed 3800W/314g Coleman FyrePower Alpine (RRP £50 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*).

Among affordable ultralight remote burners, the 124g/2800W titanium Alpkit Koro is incredibly compact and light, but also much smaller overall than the stoves above – a good choice for two bikepackers sharing gear, though I’ve also used it solo with a MyTiMug and windshield.


Compact Premium Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Solo Cyclists

An expensive stove will not improve your cooking skills, nor decrease the boiling point of water. But the peace of mind that comes with the manufacturer’s reputation (and warranty) may perhaps justify the additional expense, especially if you see this purchase as a long-term investment.

A classic among premium top-mounted gas burners for cycle touring and bikepacking is the 73g MSR Pocket Rocket 2 (RRP £35/$45 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / GoOutdoors* / eBay* / REI*). It fits UTC canisters, and the burner is best suited to fast boils in narrow-diameter mugs and small pots. The Pocket Rocket is among the most dependable and trusted minimal top-mounted canister burners ever made, particularly among backpackers and thru-hikers, and it’s often favoured by ultralight bikepackers.

Alternatively, the 75g Snow Peak GigaPower 2.0 (RRP $50 / eBay* / REI*) is also recommended for its light weight, build quality and durability. Like the Pocket Rocket 2, it’s on the minimal end of things, suiting smaller pots with a narrower flame diameter; again on UTC canisters only. It’s not so easy to find in the UK, but if you’re in the USA it’s a good bet.


Powerful Premium Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Couples/Groups

As I mentioned earlier, the best stoves for bigger pots and frying pans are remote burners, which are more stable and can put out more power without overheating the canister. These are ideal for feeding more people (or cooking more complicated meals).

What differentiates these premium stoves from the basic models listed above is typically power output, weight, cold-weather performance, and of course brand assurance.

From Primus, the remote-burning 3000W/346g Easy Fuel (RRP £90/€100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) with auto-ignition is good value for money, designed for cooking for up to four people (or a couple of hungry cyclists).

For a little extra money, the 385g Easy Fuel Duo (RRP £100/€100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) has a multi-purpose valve attachment for both UTC and CV canisters, which you’ll want if you’re riding in Western Europe.

A similar stove from the USA is the 290g MSR WindPro II (RRP £100/$100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Trekitt* / eBay*), which loses CV compatibility but gains a canister inverter stand and a windshield – two useful features in winter conditions. It’s also a fair bit lighter than the Easy Fuel. As usual with MSR, it can be found cheaper in its native USA than elsewhere.

My final suggestion is the 3700W/178g Optimus Vega (RRP £80/$95 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Trekitt* / REI* / eBay*), pictured above, which is the most powerful of the stoves in this list, and also has a built-in canister inverter and windshield, as well as a pre-heated fuel line, pointing again to suitability for cold conditions. It’s smaller than the alternatives, however, and for more than two people a bigger stove might be a better choice.

Lastly, consider that some multi-fuel stoves (see below) can also burn canister fuel, don’t cost that much more, and may prove more versatile in the long term.


Integrated (All-In-One) Canister Gas Stove Systems

Integrated stove systems, aka: all-in-one stoves, have been popularised in recent years by Jetboil, whose Flash (pictured above) is the classic example.

These systems combine canister, burner, windshield and pot, maximising efficiency and convenience of use at the expense of versatility: you can only use the supplied pot or mug, and only specific sizes of canister will fit (usually 90mm-diameter ones, which are not always as easily available as the larger sizes)

As Jetboil’s name suggests, they are mainly designed for rapid boiling rather than cooking, prioritising the needs of hikers in the mountainous backcountry. Just pour in the water, press the ignition button and you’ve got a hot, insulated mug of tea or coffee (or a dehydrated meal) within a couple of minutes. These systems deconstruct and pack into their own pots/mugs, so they’re relatively compact and simple to store, too.

If all of that appeals to you and you’re sure you’ll be able to find canisters – go for it. Remember, however, that many riders grow to appreciate the versatility of a traditional cooking setup in the long run. If you’re bikepacking with frame luggage, their shape and size when stowed also need careful consideration and testing.

The original Jetboil Flash (RRP £110/$110 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Cotswold Outdoor* / Snow + Rock* / REI* / eBay*) has a mug capacity of 1 litre, no flame regulator (it’s either on or off), and claims to boil 500ml of water in 100 seconds. The packed diameter of 104mm is just about bikepacking framebag-friendly, and as with most of these systems it takes 90mm-diameter UTC canisters, the 100g capacity of which fits in the mug for packing. Assuming you can get the fuel, it’d be good for a short solo trip in which you just want to boil water and be done with it.

Also from Jetboil, the MiniMo (RRP £145/$150 / Amazon* / Cotswold Outdoor* / REI* / eBay*) has a shorter, wider pot and a flame regulator for simmering – good, perhaps, for cyclists who want a little more versatility, but to me it seems overpriced considering the competition, and its packed shape won’t suit bikepackers with frame bags.

MSR Windburner components laid out on the ground for display

Other manufacturers have, of course, launched competing integrated / all-in-one stove systems.

MSR’s 1l-capacity WindBurner* (RRP £135/$150 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI* / eBay*), pictured above, is roughly the equivalent to the Jetboil MicroMo, but can be used with the larger sizes of UTC canister, and it’s cheaper (though still not cheap). Beyond the basic model, you can choose from a variety of upgrade kits* with different sizes and shapes of cooking pot and pan.

(By the way, MSR’s very expensive Reactor* series is oriented towards mountaineering groups and I can see little logic to considering it for a bike trip.)

The Primus Lite+ (Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) is the minimalist’s option, with the smallest packed size and weight but only 500ml of water capacity.

At the budget end is Alpkit’s BruKit, which is heavier and bigger when packed, but then it does cost half the price of even the cheapest ‘premium’ integrated stove system – plus you can use the bigger 110mm-diameter UTC canisters. (It doesn’t come with a canister support.)

You can spend a long time ploughing through the specifications to find that these integrated stoves all do more or less the same thing. The differences to watch out for are capacity (ie: how many people you can feed in one go), canister size compatibility, and, if you’re using bikepacking frame luggage, packed dimensions.


Alcohol-Burning Camping Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Alcohol stoves aka: spirit burners run on methylated spirit, medical alcohol, and other forms of high-strength (90%+) liquid alcohol, which is widely and cheaply available worldwide from pharmacies and hardware stores.

The classic Trangia is, for many, synonymous with spirit-burning stoves, but let’s look at the range of camping stoves in this category you might consider for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip.

The D.I.Y. Beer Can Alcohol-Burning Stove

One of the best gifts I ever received on the road was a stove made from a single empty Gin & Tonic can. More than ten years later I am still using the same stove, having taken it on bike tours, overnight trips closer to home, festivals, and even used it in city parks while waiting for trains in order to save money on hot beverages.

In 2013 I tracked down the creator of the stove and filmed a short ‘how-to’ video in which he demonstrated in detail how to make it, far better than I’m able to do in words here. It’s had an amazing 3.5 million views, and will probably be the most successful film I’ll ever make.

Making the stove will take you about 10 minutes and requires nothing more than a pocket knife and one empty drinks can. You also get that priceless smug feeling that comes with having a) pulled off a really cool DIY project and b) saved yourself a hundred quid on a WhisperLite.

Other home-made stove designs exist, but this one is the quickest and simplest to build in a pinch. ZenStoves.net is a goldmine of stove information online.

More than one of you? Get a bigger pot, then make three burners and arrange them in a triangle. Windy? Use your cheap foam roll-mat or a couple of panniers as a windbreak.

Compact Alcohol Camping Stoves For Ultralight Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Alpkit have recently entered the alcohol stove market with the 150g Bruler (RRP £30). As with all Alpkit’s gear, it’s simple, lightweight and very good value, and pairs up nicely with (and fits inside) their 120g MyTiPot 900, resulting in a frame bag-friendly packed diameter of 123mm and a total weight of 270g. The main advantage over the DIY option is the addition of a windshield and a flame regulator. This is a great option for a solo rider looking to save weight and pack size.

Almost as light and slightly cheaper is the 330g Mini Trangia (RRP £30 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* Alpine Trek* / eBay*) (more on Trangia below), in which a 0.8l pot and a small nonstick frying pan are included. Designed for mountain marathon competitions, it also prioritises light weight and small pack size, occupying just 67mm of width in your frame bag.

Full-Featured Alcohol Camping Stove Systems For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Trangia have made their name from alcohol-burning stove sets, supplying them for military as well as civilian use – a sure mark of durability. The brand is now synonymous with this type of stove, and there are few alternatives worth mentioning in this category.

Trangia stoves are modular systems, in which you choose the most appropriate size and combination of pots and pans, plus a choice of bare aluminium, hard-anodised or non-stick finishes, to suit your budget and cookery ambitions (you can also buy all the components separately and assemble your own system). They’re far from the smallest and lightest cooking systems, making them a better bet for fully loaded cycle touring than ultralight bikepacking, but they are extremely reliable and time-tested.

Each system includes the burner itself, a windshield and pot stand, and the cookware, and it all fits together for packing in a rather pleasing fashion. Basic systems include two 1‑litre aluminium pots and a frying pan. The most comprehensive packages include 2 hard-anodised pans, a non-stick frying pan and a kettle.

The Trangia 27 series sets (RRP from £60 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) are advertised for solo or couple travellers in terms of capacity. Given the size of the cyclist’s appetite, however, I’d recommend this series for solo travellers only.

The Trangia 25 series sets (RRP from £70 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* Alpine Trek* / eBay*) are more or less the same except that everything is upsized for more people. This is a better bet for couples; you could also feed three in a pinch.

A final point about the Trangia systems is that you can swap out the alcohol burner for an optional gas or multi-fuel burner – perfect for those looking to cover all fuel types with a single stove kit.


Multi-Fuel (Liquid Fuel) Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

The MSR DragonFly on breakfast duty in Swedish Lapland, February 2011.

Multi-fuel stoves are usually considered expedition-grade equipment, made by companies specialising in mountaineering and polar gear. They are expensive but extremely durable and versatile, the default choice for journeys involving extreme conditions (particularly the cold), and can be considered once-in-a-lifetime purchases. It is not uncommon to hear of multi-fuel stoves lasting decades, their owners taking the same trusty old stoves on trip after trip after trip.

Of course, most bicycle journeys are not expeditions. Food and water is globally available on the roadside, and many tours take place in countries where canister gas is widely available.

Usually, then, it’s long-term journeys on the road less travelled – when cooking is more important and fuel is restricted to petrol and diesel – that makes these stoves attractive to the cycle tourer or bikepacker.

Like anything with lots of moving parts, multi-fuel stoves need maintenance to keep them performing well in the long term. This could mean anything from unblocking the fuel jet to cleaning soot from the burner, lubricating the pump cup, or replacing seals and O‑rings.

Although they are simple to disassemble and come with the basic tools and instructions, it is well worth practising routine maintenance before embarking upon a trip of any length.

Fuel bottles are generally not included with stove purchases, the idea being that you’ll choose the size(s) that meet your needs.

As a rough guide, a 600ml bottle will give one person about a week’s worth of evening meals and morning brews. For a pair, the same bottle might last 3–4 days. If you plan on hot breakfasts, more brews, or more elaborate meals, your fuel consumption will increase.

It’s important to note that you’ll need a special fuel bottle designed to be pressurised and fitted with a fuel pump – it’s best to go with one from the same manufacturer as the stove, or to buy a ‘combo’ kit in which stove and bottle are included. Plastic soda bottles can work well as spare fuel bottles, but you’ll still need the pressurised bottle to actually run the stove.

You’ll find plenty of complaints on the internet – always from newcomers to multi-fuel stoves – that the flame is tiny or spluttering, that they singed their eyebrows in a massive fireball, or that they cover everything in soot. Around 90% of the time this is user error; the other 10% is poor quality fuel. Faulty or badly-designed stoves probably account for around 0% of such anecdotes.

This is explained by the fact that there is a steeper learning curve using them (especially priming and lighting them and purging the fuel line after use) than there is for other types of stove. Watch a few Youtube tutorials to save yourself from future embarrassment, fuel leaks, singed eyebrows, and obnoxious rants on the internet.

How Do Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves Differ From Each Other?

Multi-fuel camping stoves diversify into two broad subcategories: those designed to boil water rapidly, and those designed to provide an adjustable flame for actual cookery.

The latter are generally heavier, involve more components, don’t produce quite as much heat, and take longer to learn how to use.

Another difference is the availability of spare parts. On ultra-long-term, round-the-world rides, MSR is probably your best bet in this regard, and your choice is between the WhisperLite International (boil) and the DragonFly (simmer).

What Types Of Liquid Fuel Can Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves Burn?

Most of the stoves in the list below can burn petrol, diesel, kerosene (liquid paraffin), jet fuel, white gas (aka: Coleman fuel), and perhaps more. But the best fuel for your multi-fuel stove is the one you can most easily find on the road.

Being a cyclist, as opposed to a hiker, you will come across far more petrol stations than camping equipment suppliers. And so, globally speaking, the two fuels most easily available to you are going to be unleaded petrol (aka: benzine) and diesel.

Of these, petrol is the cleaner-burning and easier to light. It’ll feel odd the first time you cycle up to a fuel pump, especially if you have aspirations towards zero-carbon travel, but you’ll soon get over it. Diesel and kerosene should be considered your slightly dirtier-burning fall-backs. In remote places where agricultural vehicles and machinery predominate, diesel might be your only option.

Fuel will vary in quality and fragrance the world over, but the only meaningful difference it’ll make will be how often your stove needs cleaning.


The Best Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Boiling Water

The following stoves have limited or no flame adjustment features, though you can ‘hack’ them in all sorts of clever ways. (My favourite is to bend the windshield around the pot supports and place the pot on top, as pictured above.)

The simplest in design of all multi-fuel stoves, they are highly versatile, designed to burn almost any liquid fuel, and will boil water in the most demanding conditions.


MSR WhisperLite International

The MSR WhisperLite International* (RRP £105/$100 / eBay* / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI*) is the flagship model in MSR’s multi-fuel stove range, with an incredible track record of more than 35 years, and can be found on the kit-list of many a world cyclist.

Why is it called the WhisperLite? Because, unlike most other multi-fuel stoves, it burns really quietly.

The design is easy to take apart and clean, and while basic tools and spares are included, MSR make an expedition service kit for the stove, which if you’re likely to be on the road for more than a few months is a worthwhile investment.

The flame spreader of the WhisperLite International is large in comparison to some of the other stoves in this list. This makes it better for wider-diameter cooking pots. For the smallest solo cooking pots it’ll spill heat around the edges, burning fingers and melting handles in the process.

If you want to cook simple meals anywhere in the world, to invest in a stove that’ll last a lifetime, and if ultra-minimalism is not your goal, look no further than the WhisperLite International.

If you want to cook anything complicated, however, keep reading…

Important note: Do not confuse this stove with the regular WhisperLite (ie: non-International), which looks the same but burns only white gas, a highly refined type of petrol with a different name in every country and which almost nobody has ever heard of. It’s designed primarily for backpackers in North America.


MSR WhisperLite Universal

The WhisperLite Universal* (RRP £160/$140 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Cotswold Outdoor* / REI*), also from MSR, is a WhisperLite International (see above) that burns canister gas with a change of fuel jet and hose valve attachment, and doesn’t burn diesel.

In gas canister mode, it allows more flame adjustment than when running on liquid fuel, and could be categorised as a ‘cooking’ stove.

If you’ll be travelling where UTC gas canisters are available (see above), and you don’t mind the extra upfront cost, the only reason to get the International instead is if you’ll be going where diesel is the only available fuel. The Universal is a few grams heavier, but hey, you’re buying a multi-fuel stove, which means you probably have plenty of luggage space, so it probably doesn’t matter.

(I reviewed this stove back in 2012 after using it on a two-month group ride down the West Coast of the USA. The design hasn’t changed since then, so it’s as relevant now as when I first wrote it.)


MSR XGK-EX

The MSR XGK-EX* (RRP £160/$160 / eBay* / Amazon* / REI*) takes the functionality of the WhisperLite International, focuses the heat into a smaller area, and turns up the power to eleven. The result is what for 35 years has been the undisputed king of mountaineering stoves.

The sole purpose of the XGK-EX is to incinerate your noodles as fast as possible in any conceivable weather and circumstances.

While MSR describe it as “the number one choice on expeditions worldwide”, let’s not forget that you’re riding a bicycle, not climbing K2. It’s a somewhat blunt tool, leaving room for little else than noisy, rapid boiling, but it’s included it here in case you’re planning a minimalist bike trip in remote, mountainous, high-altitude backcountry where only low-grade diesel is available. (Which does occasionally happen.)


The Best Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Real Cookery (Simmering)

The longer your ride, the more you’ll crave variety in your diet. The following stoves all feature flame adjustment, allowing you to cook an omelette, simmer some vegetables or rice, reheat a takeaway, or do something far more clever and elaborate*.

(In the photo above, we were cooking a chicken curry with sautéed vegetables on the side, using both a WhisperLite Universal and a DragonFly side by side.)

Similar in packed weight and size, multi-fuel camping stoves designed for simmering are slightly more expensive than the stoves above, and they tend to have slightly longer boiling times, though this is unlikely to bother most bicycle travellers.

It is worth noting that liquid fuel (in particular diesel) is not well suited to delicate cookery, and so there is a physical limit to how low a flame you can achieve. Below a certain temperature, the vapourising mechanism will stop working and the fuel will be emitted as liquid, resulting in yellow flames which will cover your gear in soot and make your clothes stink of exhaust fumes even more than they already do.


MSR DragonFly

The MSR DragonFly* (RRP £140/$140 / eBay* / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI*) is a noisier, slightly more expensive stove than the WhisperLite International above, with the same fuel compatibility plus the all-important ability to simmer via an additional flame adjuster control between the fuel hose and the burner.

It functions identically to the Optimus Nova below, and it’s a tiny bit cheaper and significantly more popular worldwide. It’s similar in packed size and weight to all the stoves in this list.

Although it has a slightly narrower flame spreader and a slightly longer boil time than the WhisperLite, it’s built to support a bigger range of pots (up to 10″/25cm diameter, according to MSR).

In other words, the DragonFly gives you options.

Amongst world cyclists in it for the long haul, the MSR DragonFly is one of the most popular stoves of all. I started out with a DragonFly myself back in 2007, and if I was touring alone and out of range of gas canisters, I’d still pack it in my kitchen pannier today.


Optimus Nova

The Optimus Nova (RRP £145/$150 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Moosejaw*) does the same thing as the MSR DragonFly, except that it looks slightly cooler, is slightly more expensive, and some people will shout on the internet about how much better it is (it isn’t).

Optimus bill their flagship multi-fuel stove as ‘legendary’, which I personally think is more about what its users have achieved than anything about the stove itself, but – like the DragonFly – it does come with the peace of mind of a long-standing reputation.

Why you’d buy the Nova instead the DragonFly comes down to availability, whim, and whether or not you can find a good discount online.

(If you’re craving some specification sheets to look at and compare, you’re wasting valuable time you could be using to brush up on omelette-cooking skills or to teach yourself to tell the difference between diesel and petrol by fragrance alone.)


Optimus Polaris Optifuel

The Optimus Polaris Optifuel (RRP £150/$180 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Moosejaw*), on the other hand, does manage to squeeze in a meaningful extra feature: the ability to simmer both on liquid fuel and on UTC gas canisters with the same fuel jet – like a more intelligent and better-looking mashup of the MSR WhisperLite Universal and the Dragonfly.

Of course, you’ll pay handsomely for these features, and it doesn’t have MSR’s 35-year reputation for faultless long-term reliability – or that of the original Optimus Nova, for that matter.

I’d choose this over the time-proven alternatives only if you’re comfortable with having a relatively untested piece of gear at the centre of your cook kit, and/or the stakes really aren’t high enough for it to matter.

Otherwise, if you’re buying a stove-for-life, perhaps best to go for a tried-and-tested one rather than something this new.


Primus OmniFuel

The Primus OmniFuel (RRP £190/$170 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Primus USA / Backcountry.com*) does exactly the same clever new thing as the Optimus Polaris Optifuel: it simmers on both liquid fuel and UTC canister gas. It costs a bit more, weighs a bit less, puts out a bit less heat, and is slightly more readily available.

The OmniFuel is of sufficient renown to have become the staple expedition stove for British Exploring (formerly B.S.E.S.) excursions, winning the OmniFuel a plus point for proven reliability.

If you want the simmering functionality and assured reliability of the DragonFly plus the ability to burn canister fuel and money is no object, this is probably your stove.

Otherwise, save money by getting a DragonFly plus a cheap top-mounted canister burner (see above).

Bonus: How To Get An Expensive Multi-Fuel Camping Stove For Cheap

Multi-fuel camping stoves are a great example of expensive pieces of equipment that people convince themselves they need when they actually don’t.

It doesn’t take long for some buyers to realise that canister gas is much more pleasant to cook with, and that they’re not really going on a massive round-the-world expedition anyway.

The result is that barely-used multi-fuel stoves turn up pretty regularly on eBay, Gumtree, Craigslist, climbing and outdoor forums, Facebook gear exchange groups, etc.

If you do actually need one of these beasts, and you want to save as much money as possible, you’ve little to lose by buying second hand. Even a relatively well-used stove, if it’s been looked after, will keep going for years.


Suggested High-Street Retailers For Camping Stoves

As with most things, camping stoves are usually found cheaper online than in stores. The lowest prices are usually found at eBay* or Amazon (.co.uk* / .com*).

Visiting a physical retail store can, however, be a good way to understand the physical differences between stove types and the options available in each category, even if you then make your purchase online.

In the UK, the basic stoves listed above (from Campingaz, Coleman, Vango, etc) can be found in high-street outdoor shops such as Blacks*, Millets*, Go Outdoors* and Decathlon* in the backpacking/hiking/trekking stoves section. For brands such as MSR, Primus and Optimus, check out the upscale chains like Cotswold Outdoor*, Snow + Rock* or Ellis Brigham*.

In the USA, you probably already know that REI* sells almost everything outdoor-related, usually at the lowest prices, at 100+ locations nationwide, and that becoming a member gets you cashback in the form of a dividend. What you might not know is that they have an outlet for factory seconds and an online used gear store, both of which will save you yet more cash towards your trip.

In Canada, the equivalent to REI is, of course, MEC.

Considered Going Stoveless?

This seems like a good opportunity to remind you that the simplest way to feed yourself on tour is to buy food from supermarkets and bakeries, eat street food and restaurant meals, and skip cookery altogether, losing about half a pannier’s worth of gear in the process.

It’s often a more expensive way to feed yourself – but just for good measure, here are a few simple ways of keeping costs down in the no-stove scenario:

  • Subsist entirely on cold picnic food. It’s all calories at the end of the day.
  • Make extensive use of Couchsurfing or Warmshowers: your host(s) will almost certainly let you use their kitchen, and may well even feed you (though you shouldn’t take this for granted).
  • Most budget hostels have cooking facilities, as do many campsites. Rustic campgrounds in the USA provide fire braziers and might sell firewood.
  • Take a single pan or mug and get good at lighting cooking fires. If this immediately makes you concerned about your environmental impact, know that it’s possible to leave no trace if you know how.
  • As a compromise, consider a Kelly Kettle or similar wood-burning camp stove.

So here you are, 7,480 words later, at the end of my guide to buying a stove for a bike trip. Well done. Give yourself a pat on the back.

Now grab whatever’s closest and go cycling already!

Categories
Bikes

What’s The Best Touring Bike? (2020 Edition)

Last updated in March 2020.

The number of touring bikes on the market – that is, bicycles built to serve the needs of cycle travellers – can be bewildering. So it’s no surprise that the most frequently-asked question I get through this blog is some variation of this: 

“Help! Which touring bike should I buy?”

Trouble is, it’s one of those questions which is meaningless without context. Let’s get that pinned down first.

(Now might be a good time to put the kettle on.)

Two Questions You Should Answer Before Choosing A Touring Bike

1. What kind of bike trip are you actually going on?

The details of the ride you’re planning will dictate your choice of touring bike. Resist the temptation to go deeper until you’ve decided exactly what kind of cycle tour you want to go on.

What different kinds of bike tour are there? Well, styles of cycle touring vary in several ways:

  • Do you want to travel fast or slow?
  • Will you be going ultralight or packing for a fully-loaded tour?
  • Is your route mostly on-road or off-road (ie: on dirt roads)?
  • Are you travelling short-term or long-term?

These are the variables that will feed into your choice of touring bike. If you’re not clear on the answer to each of them, it’s time to stop reading about bikes and go back to first principles.

A lot of bike trips land somewhere in the middle. That’s why mainstream, off-the-peg touring bikes are relatively popular, as manufacturers want to serve as broad a range of customers as they can. As a result, they’re relatively easy to find for a test ride.

Later in this article we’ll look at some specific examples of mainstream touring bikes.

2. What’s your budget?

Short of cash? It is perfectly possible to use any old bike for touring, as long as it’s about the right size. You will (eventually) get from A to B on the rusty heap that’s been sat in the garage for the last decade. This isn’t just rhetoric: read how I actually put together a complete touring bike (plus gear and luggage) for £25.17.

Got a bit of cash but still on a budget? Good quality entry-level touring bikes can be had for well under a thousand pounds. In the long term, bits of it will probably wear out a bit quicker, so expect to more maintenance and repairs than someone making the same journey on a new bicycle. Read on for a detailed list and images of the most popular bikes in this category.

Got a big budget for a flashy new bike? Accepted wisdom is to get the best quality bike you can afford, as it’ll pay off in the long term. This is the domain of the premium or expedition-grade touring bike or fancy bikepacking rig. I’ve detailed some of the most respected bikes in each of these categories below.


OK – now we’ve got the basics out the way, let’s have a look at some examples of tried-and-tested touring bikes throughout the range of budgets and touring styles.

Popular & Reliable Sub-£1,000 Touring Bikes In 2020

If you’re just getting started, there’s a growing range of good-quality touring bikes, luggage-enabled and ready to roll, that can be had for less than £1,000 – a lot less, in some cases.

Here are some of the most often-recommended options that have also proven themselves over time and miles. (A more comprehensive list can be found in this dedicated article.)


Adventure Flat White (£440)

At an RRP of £439.99 the cheapest off-the-peg touring bike in the UK, the Adventure Flat White has a lugged steel frame with all the frame features you’d expect, a basic but solid 14-speed drivetrain, mudguards and a rear rack to get you started with undemanding, lightly-loaded road tours close to home.

Launched in 2015, it’s a relative newcomer to the market, but you can read a guest review of the bike on my blog right here – scroll down at the end to read some helpful comments from owners of the bike who’ve taken it on longer trips.


Dawes Galaxy 2020 (£700)

Dawes Galaxy 2020 Touring Bike

At the entry-level end of long-running UK firm Dawes’s well-respected touring bike range is the Galaxy. Previously known as the Galaxy AL, it’s built on the same design principles as the rest of the range, but with an aluminium frame and a budget 24-speed Shimano Claris drivetrain. 36-spoke wheels and Schwalbe Marathon tyres reinforce this bike as a heavy yet durable road tourer. Since 2019 there’s been a step-through frame option for riders with reduced mobility.

The Dawes Galaxy is one of the most widely available touring bikes in UK high street bike stores. You can find the 2020 model online at Tredz* for £699.


Ridgeback Tour 2019 (£800)

The Tour – the cheapest of Ridgeback’s touring bike range – has much in common with its more expensive siblings, but with a cost-saving aluminium frame and a basic Shimano Claris/Acera 24-speed drivetrain. Ridgeback have slowly bumped up the spec (and therefore the RRP) of the Tour over the last couple of years, putting it today at the upper end of the low-budget category.

Ridgeback touring bikes are widely available from UK high street bike shops. Online stockists of the Ridgeback Tour include Tredz, who currently have a discount on the 2019 model.


Best & Most Popular Premium (£1,000+) Touring Bikes In 2020

Most cycle tourists are not breaking records, but they do want to feel like they’ve got somewhere at the end of a day. They’ll carry all the essentials but pack a few personal luxuries too. Roads will comprise the majority of their trip, but they might find themselves on a dirt track every now and then. They’ll usually travel for a few weeks, make a few shorter trips closer to home, and occasionally go for a Big Ride of months or more.

This broad space is the domain of the premium touring bike.

Almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of the following bikes. They’re all mature, capable machines, tried and tested and with sensible price-tags, in need of nothing more than a nicely broken-in Brooks B17 saddle and a rider.

Expect to spend between £1,000-£2,000 ($1,250-$2,500 USD) on a new, fully-featured premium tourer, and for it to last many years (if not a lifetime) and handle most touring scenarios very well.


Ridgeback Panorama 2019 (£1,400)

The Ridgeback Panorama is a steel-framed, disc brake-equipped touring bike with a durable selection of drivetrain components drawn from both road- and mountain-biking ranges. Though lacking a front rack, its road-oriented frameset places it well for fully-loaded, long-haul asphalt touring. It’s very much tried and tested, too: read Tim & Laura’s detailed guest review of the Panorama after a 6,000-mile road test (they subsequently completed their round-the-world trip on the same bikes).

The Ridgeback Panorama is widely available in UK high-street bike stores, and online from Tredz* with a £200 discount on the 2019 model right now.


Kona Sutra 2020 (£1,400)

Kona Sutra 2020 Touring Bike

Kona have long inhabited the left-of-centre in cycling, producing a fascinating range of bikes. The Sutra, too, is progressively-minded, with  powerful disc brakes, bolt-through axles, and a nimble and sporty cyclocross-inspired steel frameset (shared with the firmly dirt-oriented Sutra LTD) all pointing to a happy blend of on-road and off-road use. I’ve been riding one since 2012 and I love it; you can still read my original long-term road test review here.

Kona have a handy list of UK dealers where you can test-ride the Sutra. Find it online at Tredz* and Cyclestore.co.uk* (with £140 off RRP right now).


Surly Long Haul Trucker 2020 (£1,400)

While not as easy to find in the UK as the Dawes or Ridgeback ranges, the Surly Long Haul Trucker is perhaps the most renowned of the bikes in this list. It’s a supremely versatile and well-balanced on- and off-road adventure touring bike at a price affordable to many, also available in a 26″ wheel size for smaller riders or other cases in which that’s preferable. You’re left to choose your own racks and mudguards.

Distributed in the UK by Ison, there’s a list of global retailers on Surly’s dealer locator. The new 2020 model comes with either a blue or black paint job.


Surly Disc Trucker 2020 (£1,600)

Back when the jury was still out regarding disc brakes as a realistic option for touring, Surly went ahead and produced a disc-specific version of the Long Haul Trucker anyway, the cunningly named Disc Trucker. Everything else about it is the same as the LHT — tried, true, and one of the most versatile touring bikes on the planet – and as with the LHT it’s available as a complete bike or a frameset only. In either case, racks and mudguards are for you to retrofit.

Read my full review here. To buy one in the UK, start with Surly’s dealer locator page.


More Premium Touring Bikes Available Worldwide

The following bikes from have been recommended by my blog readers as also fitting this category. Some of them are on the budget end, some straying into the top end, but I’ve listed them for the sake of completeness:

Note: How to choose between premium touring bikes

What I’m hoping is pretty clear is that the touring bikes above are pretty much the same bike.

They’re all priced within a couple of hundred pounds of each other. They all have steel frames, wide gearing, drop bars but with non-aggressive riding positions, pannier racks or at least rack mounts, hybrid drivetrains cut from the middle of Shimano’s mountain-bike and road-bike ranges, and boring saddles (because they know you’ll swap the saddle for your favourite but can’t sell a bike without one). They’re all built primarily for paved roads, but could handle a dirt track or two if need be. So which to choose is largely a matter of taste.

How will you know, though? Simple: go down to your local bike shop and take a few bikes for a test ride. You’ll soon know what’s right for you.


The Best Expedition-Grade World Touring Bikes In 2020

I’d like to draw attention to the existence of ‘expedition’ bikes, as opposed to ‘touring’ bikes. It’s by no means an industry standard term, but it’s a distinction that needs to be made.

The majority of cycle touring takes place relatively close to home, in the developed world, and for limited periods of time (a few weeks at most).

But occasionally a bike will need to survive for months on end in parts of the world where modern Western parts, spares and mechanical help are simply unavailable.

This is the domain of the ‘expedition’ bike. These bikes are usually characterised by having 26-inch wheels for maximum compatibility with the tyres, tubes and wheel parts ubiquitous in the developing world, allowing for much fatter tyres to be fitted for unpaved roads, using old-fashioned standard components such as 8- or 9‑speed drivetrains, square-taper bottom brackets, V‑brakes rather than rim brakes, etc, and having steel frames built for even heavier duty service in the long haul.

They don’t necessarily cost more than a top-end touring bike, but they have a slightly different focus in mind. Does this apply to you?


Ridgeback Expedition 2019 (£1,000)

Launched in 2014, tweaked in the years since and now thoroughly tested on longer trips, the Ridgeback Expedition is a strong contender for best value expedition-ready touring bike on the market. Read my full review here, and do check out the comments for more recent opinions from long-haul riders.

Like the rest of Ridgeback’s range, the Expedition should be available from any good Ridgeback dealer.


Surly Long Haul Trucker 2020 (£1,400) / Disc Trucker 2020 (£1,600) (26-inch models)

surly-lht-2014

Surly have shown their versatility by producing expedition-ready 26-inch versions of the already super-versatile Long Haul Trucker and Disc Trucker models — near-perfect expedition bikes by all accounts. All the same praise goes here as for the 700c versions above. Again, you’ll need to add your own racks and mudguards. (Photo is of the 2017 model.)


Thorn Sherpa (from £1,368)

thorn-sherpa

Thorn’s 26-inch steel tourer, the Sherpa, starts at well over a grand and depending on specification could be double that, but the Somerset-based company have established themselves as creating ultra-reliable expedition bikes on an individual basis. You’ll need to book an appointment with St John’s Street Cycles in Bridgewater to get yours specified and fitted to your needs.


Oxford Bike Works Expedition (from £2,299)

Oxford Bike Works Expedition Bike

My expedition bike of choice is an Oxford Bike Works Expedition. But then it would be: I designed it down to the very last bolt.

Originally a one-off ‘ultimate expedition bike’, Richard Delacour, the founder of Oxford Bike Works, has been building these out of his UK workshop since 2015, and the spec sheet for 2020 has evolved significantly. As standard, each bike features a hand-built Reynolds 525 cromoly steel frame, a choice of 26″ or 700C hand-built wheels, the best Tubus racks in the business, rim or disc brake options, thumbshifters, and tons of other expedition-specific touches. He’s gradually moving all frame production to the UK, too, minimising shipping emissions and allowing yet more individual tailoring.

The only way to get one is to request a (free) consultation with Richard, either by phone or at his workshop in person, to determine exactly what your needs and preferences are. All the details are on the Oxford Bike Works website.


Where Next?

You’ve probably got more questions about cycle touring, so do check out my absolutely massive advice & planning page for dozens more articles on every aspect of planning a tour.

If all the free content I’ve published still isn’t enough (or if you’d prefer to read it in some kind of logical order), you’ll be interested to know that I’ve written a total newcomer’s guide to cycle touring, which is available on Amazon as a low-cost Kindle ebook.

Finally, if you’ve reached the end of this article realising that you’d never be able to afford any of the bikes in this list, but you still want to go cycle touring, check this article out to find out how…

Categories
Bikepacking Armenia 2019

5 Lessons From Leading A Bikepacking Group The Length Of A Country

Over the last decade or so, I’ve become known as someone who cycles alone on unknown roads for vast amounts of time. This year, however, I broke the habit of a lifetime and went on a very different kind of ride.

The biggest difference wasn’t that I’d pre-designed the route, or that it was entirely off the paved roads. No – it was that I would be joined by a team of bikepackers from around the world. As the route designer and resident expert on Armenia, I would – for the very first time – be playing the role of a guide.

I’ve told the story of what happened in photos in a previous post, and discussed in excruciating detail the process of upcycling an old mountain bike to do it on.

In this edition of my retrospective series on the ride, I want to talk about the unexpected lessons I gleaned from taking on this role.

Because doing something for the first time is always challenging. And it’s when you’re challenged that you find the best opportunities to learn. Right?

Lesson 1: I actually like riding with other people

By most measures I score pretty highly on the introvert scale. So while I do enjoy the company of other people (because introvert ≠ misanthrope), it quickly drains my energy, and if I don’t adequately manage my energy levels I bottom out. The result is a burning compulsion to run away and hide.

This is especially true when I have to ‘keep up’, so to speak, with extrovert personality types. So I was apprehensive about spending two weeks with a bunch of total strangers. I would have to be present and available at all times to deal with any situation that might arise, as well as being hopefully decent enough company. A daunting prospect, then, and perhaps one reason I’d never been particularly keen to guide a trip before.

Of course, it wasn’t that bad at all. Cycling is still an independent activity, even when you’re doing it with other people. It was pretty rare that all eight of us were within sight of each other. And, this being Armenia, we spent vast amounts of time huffing and puffing over yet another steep and unforgiving mountain pass – ample time in which to rest our social muscles and give our bodies a good workout. The ride quickly organised itself into a slightly stop-start series of mini rides. We’d regroup every hour or so but otherwise do as much or as little interacting as we wanted.

A couple of pre-emptive measures helped. In the first place, I figured I wouldn’t be the only one in the group who’d prefer a bit of space when they needed it. So I set the ride up as more as a loose tribe of companions than a tight-knit peloton following a leader. Everyone had the route on GPS units and phones, and could stay with the group as little or as much as they wanted, as long as we regrouped at overnight stopping points. The average experience level of the riders was high, so this approach worked well.

The second factor was that I only advertised the ride to my followers. After 13 years of blogging, I’ve noticed that my style of writing retains the attention of like-minded readers who resonate not just with what I say but how I say it. So I was pretty sure that the people who signed up for the ride would naturally include a fair proportion of quiet introverts, and that if I took measures to manage my own energy levels, it’d probably suit them pretty well too.

Finally, I didn’t involve anyone else in organising the logistics of the trip. Route planning was entirely on me, as was organising accommodation and planning resupplies. I did this in what I think was a more or less invisible manner, planning long for a variety of scenarios and having my fixer on the end of the phone to finalise arrangements. I love the idea of collective decision-making as much as any other lefty liberal, but I knew this aspect of the trip would work best if I did it on my own – which is generally how I prefer to operate in any case.

The group turned out to be a real mixed bag of personalities, but the one thing we all had in common was the ability to operate independently. This meant that the routine aspects of the trip – riding, navigating, camp-craft, bike maintenance – just happened. In the meantime we could all enjoy each other’s company – or, if we wanted, fall back and ride alone.

And what that meant for me was that – in spite of my misgivings and worries – I really enjoyed riding with the group. For a long time I’d seen bike trips as a way to maximise my independence, unshackled from the demands and differing opinions of others, able to craft my direction precisely as I wanted it.

Turns out there’s another way to do it, involving a lot more camaraderie – especially as the trip matured and we all got to know each other a bit better – yet retaining the sense of freedom that makes travelling by bicycle such a beautiful thing in the first place.

And a big part of that is, of course, having a well-developed route like the Transcaucasian Trail to follow.

Lesson 2: Riding with others provides (much-needed) motivation

Now. I will confess. Another of the reasons I love to ride solo – or with one very close companion – is that I can get away with being really lazy.

For quite a long time I found myself in the top five slowest cyclists in Tim Moss’s Long Distance Cycle Journeys database. This is because I tend to view the bicycle as a means to an end. And if that end is spending long mornings over coffee, or snoozing under a tree after an epic lunch, or taking three weeks off to go Couchsurfing in a new city, then so be it.

Though I could easily blame other commitments, the reason I didn’t ride the route sooner was a lack of urgency and motivation. Don’t forget that I’ve been actively designing it since the RGS and Land Rover-sponsored Transcaucasian Expedition of 2016, in which I mapped out large chunks of what I one day hoped to ride. But it was always something I would do in the future. It took seven other people coming to Armenia to actually get me out the door.

The itinerary I’d set for the ride also wasn’t an easy one. Sure, the statistics pale into insignificance compared to adventure races and the achievements of those who win them. But it kept the team very busy – particularly before the unconditioned (me) had begun to catch up with the seasoned athletes.

So thank you, fellow riders, for giving me a reason not just to organise this ride for you, but to ride it myself. Because it’s no joke to say that you gave me the motivation to ride the trans-Armenia mountain bike route I’d spent literally years imagining.

Lesson 3: Off-road biking is way more demanding on gear than I realised

I knew this style of riding would place a lot more stress on my bike and gear than a road tour. However, as I wrote in my previous post, I was entirely unprepared for the extent to which this would be true.

This wasn’t just my hilarious string of bike-based tribulations. Oh, no.

Rich’s lustworthy Prospector, which drew admiration on a daily basis, suffered a broken Rohloff shifter mount that had to be fixed with zip ties and Gaffa Tape.

Chris’s beautiful Dragonslayer developed a worrisome amount of play in the sliding dropouts (which later necessitated a warranty replacement), and also lost its rear braking power altogether.

Pete’s tubeless Transmitter suffered a large number of messy punctures which eventually had him reaching for the emergency innertubes.

And Ed’s old-school 456 got well and truly taco’d on a thumping rocky descent, for which I had to dust off my wheel-building skills and get all twangy on the spokes.

The bike that suffered least was, in fact, Nick’s Oxford Bike Works Expedition, which suffered nothing more than a damaged sidewall when the tyre was scraped too closely past a rock, easily booted with a square of toothpaste tube (classic fix).

The Expedition wasn’t originally designed for this kind of off-road bikepacking, but it was designed to be a tough-as-nails generalist, cut from the same cloth as my own classic cromoly mountain bike – and it absolutely showed on this trip.

Lesson 4: Even the most independently minded travellers sometimes like guidance

Back when riding (and writing about riding) was my full-time occupation, I’d often be asked if I’d consider becoming a guide.

And the answer was always ‘no’, because one of the inherent attractions of travelling by bike – at least from my perspective – was venturing blindly into the unknown and… not just surviving, but experiencing a journey unclouded either by your own preconceptions or by other people’s interpretations of what you experienced.

After a few years of this, I learned that you always carry your preconceptions with you, by bike or otherwise, and that they run a lot deeper than the superficial, sensory impressions most people mean when they talk about preconceptions.

And in the absence of other people’s interpretations of your experience, you often invent your own hopelessly naive explanations to fill the void. These rarely tend to be exposed for what they are until you spend quality time with someone with a lot more knowledge and a much broader perspective – after which you feel enlightened, and perhaps find yourself wishing that person were there more often to help you make sense of things. In other words, you wish you had a guide.

What this trip helped me realise is that the best kind of guide is the one who might as well be another member of the group, but with the crucial difference that they can – when appropriate – help others interpret and understand their experiences.

This is a world apart from that more visible and widespread kind of tour guiding (about which I find it far too easy to be cynical) in which tourists are herded around like livestock between a series of sights, experiences, buses and hotels, with zero autonomy and with most explanatory spiel recited from a script.

Indeed, there seems to be a generous amount of space between guided tourism and independent travel – a space I can see the value in exploring.

Because – trip logistics aside, and while I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth – there seemed little doubt that my presence enhanced the experiences of everyone who participated because I could help them make sense of it.

It seems that living on and off for more than a decade in Armenia, speaking the language, and literally writing the book about the country made me quite well qualified to play this role.

This could even become a skill with which I could – gasp! – actually earn some money.

Lesson 5: The hard work paid off

Some tweaks are still required, but I can say in all truthfulness that this route – while tough – is in fact an absolute blinder.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Logan at Bikepacking.com for providing the proof of concept and for allowing me to input on his plans. The route he recce’d overlaps in several places with what we eventually rode.

While I’d eventually like this to be part of a mountain bike-friendly version of the full Transcaucasian Trail, I’m also hopeful that the Bikepacking.com page can be updated with the improvements we tested and grow into the classic trans-Armenia route.

Whichever way it goes, look out over the winter for the resources needed to replicate the ride. If you’ve even the slightest inkling to ride out here next year (perhaps because Ryanair will finally be flying to Armenia?) and you’ve got 2–3 weeks to spare, I really can’t recommend it enough.

On a related note, many readers have asked if I’ll be running the same trip again next year.

I would love to reply with a resounding ‘yes’, but the truth is I cannot. You see, I’m drawn to experimentation, rather than repetition, as I feel this is how progress is made in the world, at every level from the personal to the global. I rally against doing the same thing again on principle. So it’s time for others to take the route we’ve created and do what they will with it. And I’m more than happy to help facilitate that.

What I’d really love to ride next year is something similar but in southern Georgia, following the Lesser Caucasus Mountains from Batumi to the Armenia–Georgia border and resulting in a true Transcaucasian Trail mountain-bike route being along the whole range. That is something that well and truly passes the ‘hell, yeah!’ test.

Decisions, decisions. I’ll let you know in the New Year…

Header photo by Chris Goodman. Used with permission.

Categories
Bikepacking Armenia 2019 Bikes Philosophy Of Travel

About The Time I Upcycled A Vintage Hardtail For Bikepacking & Rode It Across Armenia

In the months leading up to Bikepacking Armenia, I thought long and hard about whether to get myself a shiny new ‘bikepacking rig’ for the trip.

Since I was in the UK for a few weeks in May, I took the opportunity to test-ride a Sonder Frontier with Adventure Pedlars in the Peak District. I tried out a Surly Karate Monkey at the Cycle Touring Festival, and I began mentally drafting my friends at Kona an email to see if they had a spare Unit X lying around.

These bikes all fitted the current vogue for adventure bikes – all-terrain geometry, tubeless fatties on big wheels, mounts and braze-ons aplenty. They were all damn fun to ride. And deliciously tempting. Because, as every cyclist knows, the number of bikes you need is always n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have.

Then something happened.

A friend of mine, who happens to be an environmental campaigner as well as a long-distance cyclist, collared me after my talk about the time I’d rescued a bike from a scrapyard and pedalled the length of England on it for £0.25. My friend thought it was a great example of minimising wastefulness by reusing discarded products, and how the world didn’t need any more new stuff; that our hobbies and passions shouldn’t be exempted from the principle of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.

Yes, everyone who doesn’t own a bicycle should probably get one, as the world needs more people riding bikes, she said. But people like us would do well to ask ourselves – whenever the moment comes – “do I actually need another new bike?”

I found myself nodding in agreement as we wandered back over to the Ghyllside Cycles gazebo to drool once more over the Karate Monkey. And then I saw my own hypocrisy.

No, I did not actually need another new bike.

Four months later, in September this year, I rode the length of Armenia off-road on the 2007-vintage Kona Explosif steel hardtail I’d originally built for my first big bike trip, way back before this whole bikepacking thing blew up.

So this article is going to be a bit of a nerdy one.

Because I’ll be going into a vast amount of detail about how I rebuilt this old Explosif for a tough bikepacking expedition, and how it actually fared on the ride itself (spoiler alert: a lot of things broke), with the goal of answering the question – how far can you push an old bike like this before it really does need replacing?

Assessing The Original Bike: Which Bits Still Work?

As you might imagine after so much fully-loaded world touring over so many years, the bike wasn’t exactly in mint condition.

The chromoly frame had accumulated a good share of dents and chips, including a big dent in the head tube from a memorable over-the-bars moment in eastern Turkey.

I also found a crack in the rear drive-side dropout, probably from jack-knifing my trailer too many times. But because it was a steel frame, I could get it repaired and resprayed (by Argos Racing Cycles in Bristol, if you’re wondering, who did a very professional job).

The bike suffered big crash a couple of years back when I broke my own unbreakable rule of never letting anyone ride my bike. It came back with the gear hanger bent and the derailleur smashed into several pieces. Oops.

It was then that I discovered – unsurprisingly – that Kona had stopped making spare gear hangers for this frame… ooh, about seven years ago?

Cue a lot of hunting around on internet forums, whereby I found a fabricator in Israel who specialised in one-off replacement gear hangers for old MTB frames. It wasn’t cheap, but that CNC-machined piece of metal meant I had a frameset which was was once again ready to ride Earth.

What I Changed, And What Stayed The Same

I was impressed by how many of the bike’s original components still seemed serviceable after 13 years – testament to choosing durable parts in the first place when building an expedition bike.

The wheels were almost entirely original: Sun Rhyno disc rims on Shimano XT disc hubs using 36 plain-gauge DT Swiss spokes per wheel, hand-built by Leisure Lakes Bikes in Coventry.

I do remember replacing the rear freehub body on a roadside somewhere in Turkey, and the loose ball bearings have been replaced many times. Unfortunately the rear hub races were pitted and rumbling, but I figured the hub would still make it from one end of Armenia to the other.

The only thing I replaced on the rear wheel was the rim tape, which had become misaligned and warped over time: I found some heavily discounted Nukeproof stuff at good old Chain Reaction Cycles that did the job.

And the front wheel was as good as new; it didn’t even need truing.

Sure, the wheels were way heavier than they needed to be for a ride like this. But did I really need a new wheelset? No, not really: they still went round when I pedalled.

I took off the old Marathon XRs – may they rest in peace – and fitted Schwalbe Hans Dampf 26x2.35” tyres – not because they were the perfect bikepacking tyre but because they were the fattest compatible knobblies at the biggest discount I could find at the time.

Really, these were enduro tyres, prioritising traction and puncture protection over weight and longevity, but I figured they’d actually be pretty appropriate for the kind of terrain we’d be covering.

Almost unbelievably, much of the original drivetrain was still going strong.

The Shimano 8‑speed trigger shifters hadn’t been touched since the day I installed them – the rear one skipped a shift occasionally when it was cold, probably because the grease was old and gummy, but no big deal (and I couldn’t find replacements anyway).

The ISIS crankset and two of the chainrings had now done tens of thousands of miles, as has the front mech, but seemed to be in good nick. The middle chainring – by far the most used of the three – had worn too much to play nicely with a new chain. With the ISIS system dead and buried, I had to very carefully file down the inside edges of a new Shimano 32-tooth chainring to make it fit the crank bolt mounts.

At the rear end of the drivetrain, the XTR derailleur had been running as smoothly as day one; I think I may have once replaced a bushing in one of the jocky wheels. The cassette – an 8‑speed titanium XTR model that cost a fortune but proved incredibly durable – had a little play in the rivets yet barely any discernible wear.

But the crash had not only smashed the derailleur but snapped off several sprocket teeth. Game over for the cassette.

Off it all came. Onto the freehub went a Shimano 8‑speed Megarange cassette with a 34-tooth big sprocket and a long-cage Alivio derailleur. Re-cabling was necessary, so I fitted full-length Jagwire outer sheaths, and finally got the opportunity to fit the Alligator inner gear cables I was given in 2013 while on a press trip in Taiwan.

I’d removed the original Chris King headset to install on Tom’s Expedition Bike, putting in a generic cage-bearing replacement to tide me over. Big mistake. When I removed the fork, fragments of the bearing cage literally fell out of the head tube.

In went a brand new FSA cartridge bearing headset, with a little help from a DIY headset press. The FSA was considerably more expensive than a generic headset, but would last years longer than a throwaway model.

The fork was the only really expensive new component on the bike.

For years I’d been running a Magura Odur 100mm coil-sprung fork, heavy but bombproof – it had helped considerably with comfort and control off-trail in places like Mongolia. In retrospect I should never have sold them on eBay, but I needed the money (I was living in London, riding the frame as a city single-speed while failing to make a living as a travel writer out of the RGS Members’ Room).

In any case, I found the perfect replacement: an end-of-line Fox Float 32 L. This used to be a top-end cross-country fork with a price tag to match. I was lucky to pick up a new 2015 model at a massive discount, the industry having moved on to wider-diameter bolt-through axles and tapered steerer tubes and other such new-fangled gubbins. It was lighter and plusher than the Odur, and (being air-sprung) easy to adjust the sag for different loads – all the better for bikepacking.

The brakes were the same Magura Louise hydraulic disc brakes I set out with from England in 2007 (against all standard touring advice, I should add).

I’d attempted to bleed the front brake once, more out of curiosity than necessity, and only succeeded in making it more spongy by the time I gave up. I’d replaced the rotors once, and the brake pads perhaps two or three times, but aside from that they’d been running for over a decade and survived all the touring I’d done without issue. The pads looked like they had plenty of life in them, and the Fox fork was a disc-only model, so I kept them as they were.

The handlebars, stem and pedals had been changed so many times over the years I’d lost count. I never seemed to get it quite right, and was beginning to suspect that my body may have been mutated in some unreconcilable way.

For this trip I mounted some generic XC riser bars on a short-ish stem atop a stack of spacers, raising the handlebars for comfort and making space for a decent sized cockpit bag. I borrowed the Ergon GP‑1 Biokork grips off the expedition bike – they’re expensive, and I’m too stingy to buy two pairs when I can swap one pair of lock-on grips between bikes.

Build complete, I took it out on a few test-rides in Armenia in the weeks before the expedition, adding a full suite of Alpkit bikepacking bags and tweaking the rig as close to perfection as I could.

And you know what? Despite being more than a decade old and composed mainly from obsolete parts, that wizened old Explosif was as much of a joy to ride as it had ever been. Loaded up, it felt light and nimble yet reassuringly sure-footed on the challenging trails of the Lesser Caucasus. And I can honestly say that it was far more satisfying to recycle this sentimental old hardtail than to splash out on a swanky new one. Cheaper, too. Bonus!

When the time comes to ride, of course, a bike like this needs to do its job and stay out of the way while the adventure unfolds.

In the case of Bikepacking Armenia, that isn’t what happened at all.

I knew from experience that off-road riding increases wear and tear on a bicycle by orders of magnitude. Shocks and vibrations dislodge bolts and fixtures and expose weak points in any luggage setup; abrasive mud and dust eat away at exposed mechanical parts; technical riding introduces forces of a type and strength entirely unlike road touring.

But I was still unprepared for the extent to which this ride would completely trash my bike.

What Happened When I Actually Rode It

The expedition began pretty well. All of our bikes made it to the start line by Lake Arpi National Park, undamaged by transit. And though the early-September weather was unseasonably crap, with wintry winds bringing sleet and hypothermia and the team wearing every available layer beneath their waterproofs, my newly rebuilt bike took it all in its stride.

Until Day 4, that is.

I’d been spinning uphill for a few hours along a wet gravel road when we reached a junction. Beyond the junction, the road dipped for a hundred metres or so before continuing its climb. I let go of the brakes to freewheel, enjoying the sudden momentum. Then came a loud metallic crunch, followed by an ominous clockwork clattering. I braked hard and adjusted my pedal position in order to stop – or at least I tried to, but the cranks were locked in place. And I knew immediately what had happened.

A twisted tangle of metal greeted me as I squatted. Bits of my new Alivio derailleur were distributed between the spokes of the rear wheel in an attractive and unusually symmetrical pattern.

Three thoughts flashed through my mind at this point.

The first was mystification: how could this have happened while freewheeling on such an unremarkable stretch of road?

The second was a quick calculation: we were too deep into the mountains to turn back; it was just as well to continue over the pass and down to the next town, even if that meant pushing uphill for a few hours.

And the third was the memory of imagining this precise scenario when I’d very deliberately selected, for my original round-the-world adventure, a frame with sliding dropouts.

Within an hour of the incident, I’d got a singlespeed bike, a few spare chain links, and a mangled rear mech as a souvenir. And we packed our tea-making equipment away continued to ride.

Of course, the bit between the junction and the pass was by far the steepest section of the climb, and I did indeed end up walking most of it. But descending slip-and-slide down the rain-sodden valley on the other side, through ‘the most mud I’ve ever seen’ (as one rider put it), endless cattle wades and multiple river crossings, my low-torque singlespeeder – ironically – fared better than the fancy 1x drivetrains and Rohloffs the other riders were running.

And in the next town, my man-behind-the-scenes Ashot met us with a brand new 8‑speed derailleur he’d picked up in Yerevan for $25, along with the crate of workshop tools and spares we’d prepared earlier.

My second serious mechanical issue reared its head as we climbed out of the Aghstev valley and traversed the ridgeline towards Lake Sevan, topping out at a respectable 2,700m.

As the altitude increased, so, it seemed, the performance of my front brake decreased. It took a little while for me to make the connection between braking power and elevation. But over the course of the day, this inverse correlation became obvious.

I am sure someone will offer an explanation of what happens inside a poorly maintained hydraulic brake line as outside air pressure changes. As a layperson, my best guess is that my previous attempts to bleed the brake had in fact put more air in the system, and somehow this was causing a loss of power at altitude. Pumping the lever eventually became second nature, and longer stints of braking seemed to bring back a little bite, perhaps due to heat causing the hydraulic fluid to expand. But in any case, I ended up tackling many of the highest and most remote sections of the route on the rear brake alone.

(When I was eventually reunited with the tools and spares, I did put a new set of pads in, and this seemed to help a little as the pistons pushed back and forced out a little of the excess air.)

The third mechanical was the really catastrophic one.

In retrospect, it was long overdue. I mentioned that I’d last replaced the freehub body in Turkey with a generic Shimano-compatible unit. That had been 12 years ago. Since then, I’d flushed the internal grease out with petrol to avoid it solidifying on a winter ride through Arctic Lapland – after which, these units not being user-serviceable, I’d forced some light oil through it and left it at that.

I guess you could say I’d got my money’s worth out of that freehub body when, on the morning of Day 8, the internal ratchet system gave up and ceased to engage altogether, causing my pedals to spin fruitlessly on the driveway outside the Sevan Writers’ Residence where we’d been staying.

Now, there is a roadside fix for this. It involves tying the cassette to the spokes with cable ties or wire, losing your bottom gear, and riding fixed-gear until you get to a bike shop. But we were about to embark on a four-day backcountry traverse of the Geghama Mountains, which would be by far the most remote and high-altitude stretch of the route. And I really didn’t fancy doing it on a fixie.

Luckily, I’d arranged a resupply that night at the mountain lake where we planned to camp. Off went the riders, with Pete taking over guiding duties, while I strapped my broken bike to the roof of a passing Volga and took a lift to Yerevan with a single mission: find a new rear hub – or, failing that, a new rear wheel – and be back with the group by nightfall.

Once again, the outcome would hinge on decisions I’d made years before. Back in 2007, 26-inch wheels were the default choice for global expeditions, mainly because cheap bikes across the world also used this wheel size, and thus compatible – if low quality – parts would be easy to find in a pinch.

While the picture has changed since then in that high-end bikes and parts are now more widespread, the same rule still applies: the cheapest and thus most commonly found bicycles in places like Armenia are still the same Chinese ‘spam bikes’ with 26-inch wheels, because what’s new doesn’t reflect what people in poorer countries still ride.

The first shop I went to, MyBike, is actually one of the best in Armenia for high-end bikes and parts. Of course, they still had a few generic 26-inch rear wheels lying around in the back of the workshop, because people still want them. In the time it took for me to go and get a pizza for lunch (sorry team!), they’d disassembled my broken rear wheel, rebuilt the rim onto a Shimano-compatible 8‑speed rear freehub, re-indexed the derailleur, repositioned the brake caliper, and put it all back together – all for the equivalent of about $40.

Which is exactly why I’d specified a 26-inch mountain bike wheel with mid-range Shimano hubs in the first place.

The final unexpected mechanical issue I experienced on this ride came down to a simple error of judgement on my part. I’d underestimated how much extra work the brakes would have to do on this challenging off-road route. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I began to hear that dreaded scouring-scraping sound from my rear brake caliper on the descents. Now I was riding with a flaky front brake and a rear brake that would destroy itself in minutes if I used it!

In the end, I settled for the technique of deliberately overheating my front brake to bring back a little of its failing power and control the final descent of the trip – but then, with an elevation drop of over 2,000 metres as we plummeted down to the Iranian border, my front brake had magically returned to service by the time we reached the valley floor, pedalled along the river, and found the guesthouse in Meghri that signified the end of Bikepacking Armenia.

So what did I learn from all of this? More pertinently, was my decision to upcycle an old, obsolete mountain bike for such a tough endeavour a wise one?

In the end – and I’ve written about this before – it’s about your wit, not your kit. By definition, on an adventure, your circle of control is limited: you can do all the planning and preparation you like, but in the end you have to submit to the whims of the world and deal with what’s thrown at you.

There is a spectrum of preparedness, I think, on which different individuals feel comfortable at different points. And where you fall tends to be related to the level of confidence which will allow you to begin the endeavour in question – the point at which you accept that you’ve done all you reasonably can and just go.

Over the years, I feel I’ve traversed much of this spectrum, from excessive over-planning on my early trips to somewhere near the other end, where I am more or less happy to grab what’s lying around, walk out the door, and see what happens.

What happened on this trip illustrated that gradual change in attitude quite neatly. On one hand, my obsessive attention to detail when building the original bike paid off when, over a decade later, so many things went wrong, as I was able to fix the problems on the roadside or with a quick dash to the nearest bike shop.

On the other hand, it was making peace with uncertainty later on that allowed me to reappropriate this trusty old bike for a task that was – quite honestly – way beyond its designed capabilities, and ultimately to complete the expedition alongside riders on much ‘better’ bikes.

So now, in retrospect, and with more bikepacking trips coming up – do I actually need another new bike?

Honestly? I still don’t know…

Huge thanks to Chris Goodman for the fantastic additional photos. (Which ones exactly? Well, if I’m in it, he probably took it…)

Categories
Bikepacking Armenia 2019

In Photos: Bikepacking The Length Of Armenia On The Transcaucasian Trail

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!