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.
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.