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Bikepacking Armenia 2019 Personal Updates

#BikepackingArmenia: Why, After 12 Years Of Cycle Touring, I’m Finally Riding For Charity

In 72 hours’ time, I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before: embarking on a charity fundraising cycle challenge.

Yes, I’ll be riding for a cause, raising money by means of a bike trip – in spite of much previously published cynicism.

The challenge? To bikepack the length of Armenia, off-road, by a new and (mostly) untested route.

And the cause? The Transcaucasian Trail, of course – an ambitious and largely voluntary trail-building effort, of which I am one of the original founders. It’s largely because of the last four years of work on the Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia that the route we’re riding has been made possible.

As with so many things, this project began accidentally, starting with a yes/no Facebook poll and quickly snowballing into a full-blown expedition. Now, starting on Sunday, I’ll be leading a group of 8 riders who’ll be joining me from all over the world to ride more than 800km over the mountains of Armenia in just 14 days. As we do so, we’ll collectively aim to raise $10,000 USD for charity – specifically, for the Transcaucasian Trail Association.

This is a major step for me; something entirely new in almost every way.

For years I’d been wondering how to reconcile the TomsBikeTrip.com community with this new project that had always advertised itself as a trail for hikers.

I’m not sure why it took so long to simply invite a few people to come and ride the trail with me and tell the story of how it worked out!

This is the thing. Many readers have asked – and continue to ask – if the Transcaucasian Trail will be suitable for biking. I’ve always wished I could simply say ‘yes’. But the truth is that while I’ve talked about building a bike-friendly route many times with the Transcaucasian Trail team, the work being done on the trail continues to focus on the hikers. I’m aware that bikers and hikers sharing trail space doesn’t always make for a harmonious co-existence. But it seems to me that this is a problem that has been solved many times before.

So. Through this short and sweet expedition (which I have, for the convenience of Instagram and Facebook users, christened #BikepackingArmenia) what I’m really doing is declaring my intentions.

I intend to pro-actively broaden the Transcaucasian Trail vision to accommodate the growing popularity of bikepacking and mountain-biking through the brand we’ve built – while at the same time recognising the differing needs and perspectives of the two-wheeled trail user.

As a starting point, while we’ll be attempting to stick as closely as we can to the route of the proposed hiking trail, we’ll be diverting onto more bike-friendly routes where necessary (much credit to Logan at Bikepacking.com for scouting many of these re-routes and incorporating them into the site’s own trans-Armenia route).

If all goes well, what we’ll end up with is a bikepacking variant of the Transcaucasian Trail route across Armenia – a route we can then refine, develop, expand into Georgia and Azerbaijan, and publish as the ‘official’ mountain-biking counterpart to the long-distance Transcaucasian Trail hiking route.

And that, I believe, will be a big win for everyone, including the hikers – and not just because they won’t have riders careering towards them on narrow downhill trails.

Because the fundraising target attached to this ride – $10,000 USD – has been designed to meet a very specific goal.

The way I see it, the best way to get the Transcaucasian Trail up and running for bikers is, counterintuitively, to first get it up and running for hikers.

There are a couple of reasons for this. A greater number of visitors to any rural region will spark local interest in finding ways to serve them (which is already happening), and one of the means to this end will be (and already is) developing trails and supporting services. Focusing on hikers first is the easiest way to initiate this process, because hiking is – like it or not – far more popular than biking, and therefore easier to pitch in terms of economic benefits to potential supporters in a developing country like Armenia.

Once the international hiking community has established the Caucasus as the next big thing (again, this is already happening), other industries will line up to diversify the region’s offer. Mountain biking will naturally be one of the first. At that point, those with the clearest vision for what a mountain bike trail network should look like will be best placed to lead the effort to build it.

In other words, the route we’re testing over the next two weeks will likely form the backbone for a much broader biking trail network in the region.

I already have a detailed map of a potential future national trail network for Armenia, featuring dozens of long-distance hiking and biking routes, each with its own theme and focus, each delivering a unique experience while making a human-powered journey through a region of immense depth that needs to be appreciated slowly and gradually.

That’s why the goal for this fundraiser is to waymark Armenia’s first national hiking trail, and the first country-wide stage of the international Transcaucasian Trail. It’s the next logical step in a process that began with deep exploration, continued with the curation of a single flagship route, and in the future will grow into a world-class network of trails for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, trail runners – you get the idea.

Lest the cynical among you get the wrong idea, this is not about raising money to pay myself to do this work.

I have had to become very strategic about my role in all of this.

Someone with a bigger ego, for whom personal glory was the driving force and all else mosly rhetoric, might choose to sit indefinitely at the top of the hierarchy to ensure that their name was stamped all over everything that was done. That isn’t my style.

Yes – protecting the fact that I will have been responsible for creating a country’s first long-distance trail is important for my future professional credibility.

But my ultimate goal – as soon as I feel that Armenia is ready to take ownership of its stage of the Transcaucasian Trail – is to step aside and move on to other things.

The funds we’re raising, therefore, will be dedicated to supporting a local team of Armenians to carry out all of the waymarking and maintenance needed to complete this section of the TCT. The people I have in mind are already working here as trail-builders – indeed, many of them began their careers as local trainees through our volunteer trail-building camps. They already have a personal connection to the trail. And they are the ones who will shape its future.

Well! Most charity fundraising bike rides dedicate a paragraph or two at best to the ‘cause’ and why it’s important. I now realise that I’ve written a thousand-word essay about mine. Apologies that I couldn’t make it shorter – but I wanted to explain exactly why I’ve chosen to make fundraising a core part of this ride, and why I’m reaching out to you, my readers and followers, for donations to help us reach our goal.

This is not a crowdfunding campaign. There is no reward or perk, aside from the feeling that you’ve contributed to something good (and, in the very near future, having the ability to bikepack what’s turning into one of the most spectacular long-distance trails on Earth).

The Transcaucasian Trail is a labour of love, being created in good faith, for altruistic reasons, and in a part of the world almost certainly less fortunate than yours which stands to benefit broadly and for a very long time from what your donation will help achieve. Yes – this is a charity appeal. And yes – the cause could not be dearer to my heart.

So if you’re sufficiently inspired to make a donation, please do so now. If not, no problem. Either way, I hope you enjoy following the expedition via the #BikepackingArmenia hashtag. We leave on Sunday – wish us luck!

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Bikepacking Armenia 2019 Personal Updates

#BikepackingArmenia: The First Ever Transcaucasian Trail Fundraising Ride Starts Next Week!

Ever since my vision for the Transcaucasian Trail took shape, I’ve been wondering how to get the adventure cycling community involved in bringing it to life.

Exploring new places on a bicycle is, after all, where I cut my teeth as a traveller. Long-term readers will remember that it was a bicycle that brought me to Georgia and Armenia, way back in 2008. The experience of pedalling across the region created a deep connection that continues to this day.

Well, I think I’ve figured it out!

Next week I’ll be getting back on the bike to ride the length of Armenia off-road, accompanied by 7 riders from the Tom’s Bike Trip community.

This charity fundraising ride, born out of a couple of Facebook posts back in February, will help raise funds to complete the hiking trail, but it will also help me adapt the route for bikepackers and mountain bikers, and publish a parallel version of the trail with these riders in mind – something people are asking for with ever-greater frequency.

It’ll also satisfy a long-standing personal ambition.

I’ve been wanting to do this ride for as long as I’ve had a connection to Armenia. The privilege of leading a fundraising ride in the company of cyclists who’ve been supporting my work since the beginning will make the trip all the more special.

Finally, an expedition-style fundraiser like this – short, ambitious, and with a classic “will they make it?” story baked in – is a sure way to draw attention to a place’s adventure potential. I hope that #BikepackingArmenia will go beyond just raising funds, creating social media content and pioneering a new bikepacking route, and convince more of you to come and ride in Armenia and the Caucasus region as well.

I started this effort by setting up CyclingArmenia.com, and by pestering Cass and Logan from Bikepacking.com to come and ride here (which Cass did in 2017 and Logan and his partner did last year). Now it’s time to shine the spotlight on what a journey along the route looks and feels like. Because this is a place with endless overlooked potential. Armenia deserves to be better known – and hopefully the story of this challenge will help it become so.

Riding for a cause is not something I’ve done before, and I have certainly held some skepticism about the concept in the past.

That’s because I’ve seen too many high-profile rides with a charity tacked on as an afterthought; a kind of guilt-induced justification for dropping out and going cycling somewhere, as if such a justification was needed.

The picture is very different when the charity or cause occupies a central role in the rider’s life.

The Transcaucasian Trail now does so with me. Above all else, beyond any of the expeditions I’ve done, blog posts or books I’ve written, or films I’ve made, it will be the thing I look back on and say: “that’s what I spent my time on Earth bringing into existence”.

Though I’m all for giving credit where it’s due, it doesn’t particularly matter whether anyone remembers my involvement. What does matter is bridging the gap between vision and reality – a gap which in four short years has already diminished by an astonishing amount.

If we reach our fundraising goal of $10,000 (a little over £8,000), we’ll be able to close the gap completely, bringing into existence the first fully waymarked border-to-border trail across Armenia by the end of 2020.

As with all charity appeals, the effectiveness of this campaign will be a cumulative one. Though it may sound trite, it really is true that no donation is too small.

So please give what you can – and know that you’re helping make a positive change in the world.

Click here to donate now, or at any time throughout the duration of the ride.

And don’t forget to tune in to the story of the ride by following my Instagram or Facebook feeds, or via the hashtag #BikepackingArmenia. We start next week!