As the name suggested, this was the start of a meandering rollercoaster of obscene gradients winding through humid forest amongst staggered hillside dwellings. Riders on this designated cycle route would find themselves hurdling headlands and conducting flybys of secluded beaches, all the while wondering if they were covering more horizontal distance than vertical.
These hills weren’t long – but by god, were they steep.
My last major undertaking on a bicycle had occurred before the word “covid” entered the dictionary. So I was even more delighted to find this gruelling warm-up interspersed with segments of six-lane highway.
Cursing the hills, cursing the traffic, cursing my legs, and occasionally cursing all three at once in a coordinated verbal assault upon that trifecta of cyclists’ bugbears: this was a familiar combination of grievances, one I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in about 50 of those abstract entities we call “countries” (with the notable exception of the Netherlands, where there are no hills to curse).
My intention now was to add a new country to the list. Technically I had already done so in those first ten minutes, but only in the way I have technically visited China because I once spent an overnight layover in a hotel in Guangzhou. No – it would take more than a stiff morning’s climb to be able to say I’d travelled Australia by bicycle in any meaningful way.
(Let’s remember that this is a land so big that to visit a friend in Perth would require a flight of the same duration as from London to New York, or a drive roughly equivalent to a east-west crossing of Europe, or a four-day continuous train journey, or – the dream – a good couple of months of pedalling.)
North of Newport was Avalon – more hills, more sweat – and north of Avalon was the suburb of Palm Beach. One of its many seafronts is apparently familiar to many TV-watching Brits as a principal filming location for the popular Australian soap opera Home and Away. In reality, Palm Beach is an exclusive district of greater Sydney made inaccessible by terrain and distance; the preserve of multi-million-dollar second homes with swimming pools and private jetties; a trove of accumulated wealth hidden amongst cliffs and forest canopies and further concealed by a subtropical loop track of cicadas and kookaburra cackles.
Mid-morning, as the sun rose above the tree-tops and beat down upon the tarmac, the neighbourhood seemed abandoned, except for a trickle of passing utes – the Aussie name for a 4×4 pickup truck with a tool chest or two mounted on a raised rear tray. As I rode north, these vehicles and their occupants dispersed themselves amongst the driveways of their absentee clients in order to dredge the unused swimming pools, tend to the unseen gardens, and construct the extensions and sundecks and boat sheds whose only purpose appeared to be to channel surplus cash into further inflating the market value of these properties.
Rounding the northern spur of those bejewelled hilltops, with only the Barrenjoey headland separating me from the great Pacific, I came at last to my exit point of Palm Beach Wharf, from where the public ferry would spirit me across the bay of Pittwater, out of Sydney proper, and to the Central Coast region of New South Wales.
Lucky timing: the late-morning ferry was just boarding as I rolled up to the end of the wooden jetty, rickety and incongruous among the designer dwellings above.
As the ferry chugged slowly out of dock, the conductor offered me a wireless card reader to pay my fare – but my card inexplicably failed to register. He shrugged:
‘No worries, mate. Have yourself a free one!’
And he moved on to the next passenger, leaving me with a big inner smile, happy to be reminded that – even in a place like Palm Beach – money didn’t always matter most.
By the time you read this paragraph, I’ll have embarked on my latest bike trip, riding solo along the lush coast of New South Wales, Australia.
I haven’t tackled a ride of any significance since before the Covid-19 pandemic – and while I’m relishing the prospect of hitting the road, it’s a tempting moment to look back at the evolution of this blog, TomsBikeTrip.com, and my parallel bike touring career.
You could say it began 17 years ago when I signed up for a free Blogspot account and created a blank page entitled “Semi-Coherent Thought Chowder”. At the time, I simply wanted a space for converting ideas into words and dumping them there. The idea that people might read it never crossed my mind.
That changed in the summer of 2006, when my old schoolmate Andy and I came up with the entirely unoriginal idea to try and cycle round the planet. As classic overachieving middle-class able-bodied white males, we decided to brand the fuck out of the expedition, seeking sponsorship and media attention, launching what today would be called a YouTube channel, and generally turning it into a ‘thing’.
It was, in many ways, the antithesis of the attitude towards bicycle travel I would later evangelise. But it did need a professional-looking website. And so my idle ramblings were reinvented as the official blog of Ride Earth, a high-concept, charity fundraising, environmental drum-beating, only-marginally-interesting, very-long-distance bike ride.
Ride Earth fizzled out when Andy and I realised, far too late, and on a wintry roadside somewhere in the South Caucasus, that our reasons for doing it were fundamentally incompatible.
At the same time, as you’ll know if you’ve read or watched Janapar, I met my future wife and realised there was more to life anyway.
In this period of downtime I quietly rebranded the site as Tom’s Bike Trip, which seemed to better reflect what I was actually doing. And I started to write because I wanted to, rather than because my previous decisions obliged me to.
This had the interesting effect of people starting to read what I wrote. Perhaps, in retrospect, there was something more compelling about the story of someone cut adrift on a bike with a lot of time, a vague sense of curiosity, and something worth coming home for. Perhaps – I repeat the word because this is pure conjecture – this stripped-back version of life on a bike resonated more deeply than the chronicles of another privileged adventurer on a pedestal.
I spent the next four years honing my travel writing skills alongside a series of what felt, on a personal level, like ever more boundary-pushing rides. Beyond my first tidy little ride across Europe came the brutal desert crossings, sketchy checkpoints, and tear-jerking hospitality of the Middle East and northeast Africa. Crossing the East African Rift Valley through the tribal no-go-zone of the Afar Desert, I felt I’d reached a place so distant from the pokey little English village of my upbringing that to go much further would bring only diminishing returns. Yet even that proved wrong when I dragged bike and gear to the Outer Mongolian steppe, where all sense of time and place dissolved into a blur of roadless plains, big river crossings, and wild Siberian forests.
In 2012 I found myself at a book launch in Pasadena, CA, at the end of a long ride down the US west coast. The author was espousing his vision of a world in which people took their passions and moulded them into freedom-generating livelihoods. Much of the advice related to implementation, but the most memorable broad concept was that of focusing on what people asked my help with. Lightbulb moment: could my blog’s comments and contact form submissions be the key to doing this sustainably and forever?
Until then, I’d been funding my travels by taking intensive short-term web development contracts and setting up temporary shop wherever I happened to be. Had it been today I would probably be describing myself as a ‘digital nomad’. In any case, I wanted out of that schizophrenic lifestyle, bouncing from feast to famine. I wanted a stable living that rewarded my skills in a principled way and connected directly with what I valued most in life.
I went through every email I’d received through this blog’s contact form, categorised the questions by theme, and wrote long-form answers to the most frequently-asked of them. The result was a pair of ebooks: Essential Gear For Adventure Cycle Touring and Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions.
Because these books were extremely niche, I followed with a third, How To Hit The Road, which aimed to cover at a higher level the entire subject of that glorious thing known variously as cycle touring, bike touring, bike trekking, bikepacking, adventure cycling, or simply travelling by bicycle. I put this one on Amazon as a Kindle ebook and print-on-demand paperback.
(A friend suggested that this would make for the most interesting book I’d have written to date, but I never got round to it.)
Then, in the summer of 2015, something happened. I went hiking and came back inspired to build a long-distance trail across Armenia and Georgia. This rapidly snowballed into what is now known as the Transcaucasian Trail. It’s attracted over a million dollars in funding through various channels, yet for the last seven years I have worked almost entirely unpaid to make this dream a reality, living off the modest income now generated by TomsBikeTrip.com. The reasons for doing things this way are complex, but might be encapsulated by a desire to make a living in a principled way. Syphoning donor funds into a full-time job of my own creation doesn’t fit that principle.
All this while, cycle touring and TomsBikeTrip.com have been there as a familiar friend I return to when I’m feeling burned out by the emotional demands of wringing a 3,000km-long international hiking trail out of the combined efforts and interests of the growing number of people and organisations involved in the effort.
That’s what’s happening now. I’m riding my modified prototype of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition bike north from Sydney, Australia, following the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail as far as I can – at least, until the date of my sister-in-law’s wedding, the main reason I’m in Australia and something I should probably make sure I’m back for!
The jury’s out on how much of this trip I’ll be sharing in real time – but whatever I do make public will probably be in the form of Instagram stories.
Preparing for this trip has also inspired plenty of new material for the blog, which I’ll be sharing here soon.
In the meantime, I’ve been updating and republishing some of the most well-received content I originally wrote and posted on the blog between 2012–2014, including:
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).
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…
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.
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.
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…)
In September 2019 I was privileged to spend a couple of weeks leading a bikepacking expedition across Armenia, following remote dirt tracks and singletrack trails with a fantastic group of fellow riders.
The goal was not just to have fun but to test out a new bikepacking route across the country – a mashup of Bikepacking.com’s Caucasus Crossing (Armenia), the Transcaucasian Trail long-distance hiking route, and some additional connections I’d scouted out to link the best bits of both together.
With around 90% of Armenia set within the rugged folds of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, it was always going to be a tough place to go bikepacking. The route didn’t disappoint: in the course of riding 800km (500 miles) over two weeks, we ascended the equivalent of sea level to the summit of Mount Everest – twice.
At the end of the post, you’ll find links to a map of the planned bikepacking route, plus GPS tracklogs of the ways we actually took.
But for now, I’ll let the following photos and captions do the talking. Enjoy this rare glimpse into backcountry Armenia as seen from the seat of a bicycle!
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. 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…
Keen to try bikepacking Armenia yourself? Here’s a few trustworthy resources to get you started:
Our planned bikepacking route across Armenia (embedded map above) can be found on the CyclingArmenia.com RideWithGPS profile.