Every year, the list of touring bikes gets shorter.
First we lost bikes that were relatively obscure. One that comes to mind is the Revolution Country Traveller made by the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative. This was a fantastic value entry-level tourer and earned great praise as a result. But it was very limited in its distribution, and I’m guessing it didn’t turn much of a profit because it was just so cheap for what it was.
For those unfamiliar with the brand, Dawes are a British outfit who have been making touring bikes for decades. Indeed, when the first Galaxy was launched in 1971, it could be said that Dawes had created the first mainstream off-the-peg touring bike, at least in the UK. When the originator of today’s archetypical touring bike pulls their entire range without warning after almost 50 years on the market, you know something’s up.
The following year, something similar happened Stateside. Surly, who since 2004 had built the reputation of their Long Haul Trucker into a firm favourite of the North American cycle touring community, announced that the “LHT”, too, would cease to be manufactured. Their webpage for the bike and frameset has since been updated with a cute image of a gravestone reading ‘gone but not forgotten’.
These are two striking examples of a trend I’ve noticed while keeping that blog post updated over the 10 years since I originally wrote it.
But the list of discontinued touring bikes doesn’t end there. We’ve also lost the Ridgeback Tour, the entire Co-op Cycles touring bike range by REI, and the Adventure Flat White, all of which used to be manufactured at scale. At the bespoke end of the spectrum, Roberts’ truly legendary Roughstuff was another British classic whose story came to a slightly quieter conclusion. The picture is even more grim when you look at bikes designed for worldwide expedition touring, where the market is even more of a niche.
And the retailers have followed suit. As I write, the two big online bike retailers in the UK, Chain Reaction and Wiggle (which have now merged in any case), between them list a total of two touring bikes – or, more correctly, two versions of the same bike, the Fuji Touring. In fact, Chain Reaction have deleted the touring bike category from their website altogether. And across the industry the phrase “touring bike” is rapidly being replaced with “adventure bike”. Some of the bikes sold under this banner bear little resemblance to anything I’ve ever listed on that blog post.
This all begs the question ‘why’.
You might think the answer is obvious: the coronavirus pandemic has effectively cancelled the type of free and unrestrained travel exemplified by cycle touring, and manufacturers have simply cut their losses as a result, focusing on bikes for short adventures close to home.
But while there’s little doubt that the pandemic will have hit the cycling industry hard at the crossover with international travel, the downward trend in touring bike sales and availability had already begun before the pandemic.
There’s another easy target here, of course: the rise of bikepacking. I’ve written extensively about my views on this in another post. If you can’t be bothered to read it, the short version is that – in my humble opinion – today’s bikepacking boom is the result of an industry-wide campaign to make what were previously the concerns of a tiny cohort of time-rich mountain-bike travellers appear relevant to people who would otherwise just have bought a touring bike.
I might take some flak for holding this position, but I’ve been watching this industry for a long time, and I’m acutely aware that bikepacking was a thing long before it was a thing, even if its absurdly niche status meant we’d never quite needed the language to describe it. A good example of this is the Rough Stuff Fellowship. Today we would call them a bikepacking club, but they were officially founded in 1955 and they sure as hell didn’t call themselves bikepackers. It would be another two decades before the mountain bike was even invented. All that’s happened is that what they’ve been quietly doing for 70-odd years has suddenly become trendy.
So much for obvious explanations. The truth is that I haven’t conducted an industry-wide survey to gather empirical data on the matter, and I have no intention of doing so. Instead, I’d like to offer the community a few observations on the topic of what this all might mean for us:
1. Let’s first remember that we are experiencing a decline in the manufacture and sale of new touring bikes on an industrial scale. This is not the same as the death of cycle touring itself. It doesn’t mean that every touring bike already in existence suddenly vanishes, nor that smaller manufacturing operations won’t continue. (I just went down to my workshop to check, and my 2012 Kona Sutra is definitely still there.)
2. Let’s also remember that while we’ve lost bikes of real pedigree, none exhibited any major mechanical differences from each other. That’s because the core design principles for a good touring bike are tried and tested; no longer unique to any one brand. In any case, almost all manufacturing is outsourced to the same handful of factories in Taiwan, some of which I’ve visited and watched all the brands roll off the line together. In other words, what we’ve seen is the closing of a few chapters in the story of the bike industry, not the loss of some essential body of engineering knowledge.
3. Because touring bikes tend to be “forever” purchases, they’re intrinsically bad for business, so none of this should be a surprise. Most of us spend a rather large amount of money on the one touring bike we intend to ride for the remainder of our touring careers. These bikes were probably never particularly profitable for their manufacturers anyway, but they’re even less of a compelling product when you consider the unlikelihood of repeat purchases. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the touring bike would be an easy target for cost-cutting in times of financial duress.
4. Good news – limited choice should make it easier to choose a touring bike. Some personality types (I believe they’re known as “maximisers”) want to see all the options and spend endless hours picking over the most trivial of differences in order to somehow divine the best possible purchase. On the other hand, I recently received an email from a reader complaining that the only bike she could find in her local bike shop that fitted her was an extra-small Salsa Fargo, and that she didn’t want to buy it just because it was the only choice. I suggested that it being the only choice might actually be the best reason to buy it.
5. There’s probably never been a better time to buy a custom-built touring bike. Especially if it’s a “forever” purchase, and even more so if you have diverse physiological requirements, there’s a strong case for shunning the mainstream altogether and getting yourself a one-off touring bike that’s finely tuned to your individual needs. While expert touring bike builders can be found throughout the land, I shall cheekily take this opportunity to recommend to UK readers Richard at Oxford Bike Works, whose workshop is open to anyone within visiting distance, and whose flagship expedition touring bike I helped design.
What do you think? Is the touring bike dying out? Or are we just seeing a spurt in its evolution?
Bogged down in research for your next big bicycle adventure?
How To Hit The Road is here to take the pain out of planning a bike tour of any length, duration or budget, with contributions from 50+ veteran riders. Available now as a low-price ebook or classic paperback.
Now is probably not the best time to be setting off on a globetrotting bike trip.
But as we’ve all discovered over the last few months, upheavals can create the ideal conditions for change – including changing the way you think.
Amid much uncertainty and, yes, real hardship and trauma, this year has brought with it a priceless opportunity to reimagine the paths we’ve been travelling through life, and to redirect those elements of our futures we can control towards newly-reconsidered destinations.
That’s why – even if your departure date remains to-be-confirmed, and even if the places you’re thinking of going are closer to home – I would argue that there is no better time to be planning your big dream bicycle-mounted adventure.
And if you’ve been sitting on such a dream for some time, it’s likely it has recently resurfaced with a new sense of urgency.
So why not start laying the groundwork right now? Why not get some of those big decisions made, those big questions answered, those big obstacles overcome?
I am willing to bet that you have, over the last few months, overcome a challenge you never imagined you’d have to face, or solved a problem you previously considered unsolvable. Whether financial, existential, philosophical, or spiritual; the details don’t matter. What matters is that you have experienced the necessity of thinking in a way you’ve never had to think before.
Your mind is primed for doing it again – but this time for something you’ve chosen to do.
What is happening right now should be a source of empowerment; a reminder – if you needed it – that we are all more resourceful and adaptable than the routines of our former lives might have suggested.
It should be a lesson that whatever rationalisations or excuses or pain points have been standing in the way of that dream can be overcome, so long as you make doing so a condition of necessity.
The easiest way to achieve that necessity is to commit. Make a promise to yourself. Ignore those tropes about publicising your goals and having an audience hold you to account. Social media parted ways with reality a long time ago. This should be a deal you make quietly with your soul.
There has never been a better time to do so.
Because you’ve finally remembered that the best time is always now.
For the last few weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches to a project I’ve been working on for many years – and with so many of us in isolation and looking for things to do, the timing could not be better!
Yes, that’s right – the story of my award-winning documentary Janapar: Love on a Bike has finally been adapted for video game format!
Mixing both role-playing and action genres, Janapar: The Game will take you on a failed journey around the world by bicycle, teaching you tough lessons about life and love in the process.
You’ll start Level 1 by riding your bicycle around the rolling country lanes of the English Midlands, in search of the answers to a series of existential questions. Every answer you find scores you valuable Enlightenment Points, depending on how well it supports your conviction that you should just burn all your bridges and hit the road forever.
Once you’ve collected enough Enlightenment Points, you’ll be able to upgrade your bicycle and advance to Level 2! Your objective will be to pedal across Europe to Istanbul before winter arrives. But life on the road isn’t that simple – you’ll face a series of obstacles, including fixing mechanical problems on the roadside against the clock, being distracted by beautiful women in every city you pass through, and winning childish arguments with your riding partners via a series of Monkey Island-style multiple-choice questions.
The difficulty really ramps up in Level 3, where you will be fighting to keep your Morale-O-Meter above zero in the face of rain and snow, steep hills, vicious dogs, and the complete breakdown of your relationship with your riding partner. Every Turkish tea shop you reach will replenish your Morale-O-Meter to 100% – but you can get up to 200% in bonus morale by convincing the tea-shop owner that you’re too poor to pay your bill!
In Level 4, you’ll be presented with your biggest challenge yet – overcoming lifelong social awkwardness in order to persuade a beautiful Armenian girl to join you on your big life-changing bicycle adventure. Don’t say the wrong thing, or else she’ll leave the bar and the game will be over!
Level 5 is another race against time to reach your girlfriend’s hometown of Tehran on your bicycle before your her Morale-O-Meter reaches zero and she goes back to the perfectly decent life she had before she met you. As every aspect of life on the road is revealed to be utterly shit, you’ll have to come up with ever-more-ingenious things to say to keep her going, before facing up against the first big boss of Janapar: The Game – the Angry Father-In-Law.
In Level 6 you’ll be back on your own, having lost your fight against the boss of Level 5. Your mission is to pedal into a constant sandy headwind for six months as you cross the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. As you do, you’ll have to negotiate corrupt traffic police, undercover Syrian intelligence agents, and a hellish wild-goose-chase from embassy to embassy to apply for visas, all the while accompanied by a voice in your head repeatedly asking ‘what the actual fuck are you doing here?’.
Level 7 is an action-packed rollercoaster of a ride across the highlands of Ethiopia. In each mountain village, you’ll get a special speed boost power-up if you find a way through without being seen – a tough challenge for a white bloke on a bicycle. But if you don’t, you’ll get pelted with rocks by huge gangs of barefooted children. Don’t get brain damage!
Level 8 is a mystery-solving level, in which you have to find a way to cross the Gulf of Aden without simply getting on a short-haul flight like everyone else. Which Arabian dhow captain will take you across these pirated waters for the least amount of money? How will you survive the nights when you’re too tight-fisted to pay for a hotel room? Only one way to find out!
In Level 9, your mission is simple: cross the entire southern Arabian peninsular in high summer while avoiding the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, dying of dehydration in the Empty Quarter, or your bicycle breaking catastrophically in the middle of the Omani desert. Replenish your Morale-O-Meter by finding air-conditioned petrol stations with fridges full of ice-cold orange Mirinda. Earn bonus points for convincing the owner to let you stay the whole day!
In the final level of Janapar: The Game you’ll face your toughest adversary yet – the Iranian secret police! You’ve arrived in the middle of a massive political demonstration and they’re convinced you’re a British spy. Answer one question incorrectly and both you and your father-in-law will be thrown in jail and the game will be over – but get through the interrogation successfully and they’ll give you a cup of tea and send you off to be reunited with your girlfriend, with whom you’ll live happily ever after. You win!
The end credits feature loveable scenes of you and your girlfriend cycling back across Europe to your parents’ house in England, before those existential questions show up once more – and the whole game starts all over again.
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…)
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!