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Bikepacking Armenia 2019 Bikes Philosophy Of Travel

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

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

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

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

Then something happened.

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

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

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

No, I did not actually need another new bike.

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

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

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

Assessing The Original Bike: Which Bits Still Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Changed, And What Stayed The Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened When I Actually Rode It

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

Until Day 4, that is.

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

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

Three thoughts flashed through my mind at this point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third mechanical was the really catastrophic one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly? I still don’t know…

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

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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!

Categories
Philosophy Of Travel

The Curious Truth About How Bicycle Touring Extends Your Life

I was over at the Adventure Pedlars bunkhouse the other day, chatting with the owner Pete about all things long-distance cycling, when he told a story that really resonated with me.

When he and his wife Alice were nearing the end of their big honeymoon ride from the UK to New Zealand, and were crossing Australia with not an awful lot to do, he said, they’d gone back over the journey that had got them there and found that they could mentally ‘re-run’ the entire trip, remembering each and every day’s events: where they’d cycled, who they’d met, what they’d eaten and where they’d slept. Amazingly, they’d been able to do this with no memory cues whatsoever.

It reminded me of similar experiences I’d had while writing Janapar back in 2012–13. Next to my writing chair I’d had a stack of hand-scribbled diaries to refer to whenever I wanted. Not just that, but I’d had thousands of photos to look back on, and hundreds of hours of video footage to play back in search of things I’d forgotten.

But I barely touched any of them. Instead, the 3½-year journey played itself back in my mind’s eye with sparkling clarity. I wrote the vast majority of that book from memory alone. Only later in the process did I fact-check a few things against the records I’d taken at the time. Practically all of it was bang on.

Now, in case you’re under the impression that Pete, Alice and I are blessed with remarkable memories, consider this possibly more familiar scenario:

I have been attempting to learn the Armenian language for over ten years. While I’m able to understand the gist of most conversations, I still cannot quickly recall simple words such as ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘give’, ‘take’, etc. There are still several letters in the Armenian alphabet which I get mixed up and, try as I might, simply cannot commit to memory.

Why exactly is that? Why is it that can I recall the minutiae of a million roadside encounters that I made no attempt to fix in my mind, yet hours of diligent study and practice are unable to make a permanent register of the association between a shape on a page and the sound of a simple consonant?

This question has been bubbling away in my head for a long time, but I think I’ve arrived at a speculative answer – with curious implications for the bicycle traveller. (You might want to get a cup of tea at this point.)

Road kill

Your Memory: An Evolutionary Perspective

When it comes to understanding why things are the way they are, especially in the case of our species, it’s often useful to turn to evolutionary principles.

We humans have evolved this fantastic capacity to conscript our past experiences for an internal record we call ‘memory’. Memory is the foundation of our identity, underpins our every daily decision, and is drawn into all our future planning. Since too little time has passed to make us biologically distinct from the last era of hunter-gatherers, it makes sense to assume that our memory evolved to serve the needs of that primitive type of society.

What kind of memory would offer the best chance of survival to our forebears, whose lives depended on finding food and identifying hazards?

It might sound obvious, but it would probably be one that was adept at spatial and visual learning – in other words, remembering where things were and what they looked like.

A thought experiment clarifies the point. Imagine visiting a friend’s house for the first time, and being given a couple of minutes to visit every room in the house. Would you recognise that house the next time you visited? Would you be able to remember your way to the bathroom? I’m willing to bet that you probably would, because even with the most limited exposure – and without any conscious effort – we are incredibly good at committing places and images to memory.

You might argue that you’d struggle to pick out any particular one of a row of Victorian terraces after a single visit, which is why we invented house-numbers rather than typing ‘the house with the dark blue door and the recycling bin perched on the wall to the right and the pink fairy lights in the living-room window’ into the delivery address form on Amazon.

And you’d be right, because we evolved to live in an environment carved by geological processes; one without our modern sense of orderliness imposed upon it, and one in which almost every landscape was in some way unique.

No stopping here

The Parallels Between Bike Trips & Memory Palaces

So it should be no surprise that I can still clearly remember the nameless Romanian gypsy village in which I stayed the night in a small house belonging to a one-eyed lady with a side-parting and her mushroom-hunting husband with a huge mural of Christ crucified on the wall and a badly-tuned television blaring the most awful Balkan Pop long into the night – but that I can’t remember how to pronounce Զ.

With the slowness and awareness engendered by riding a bicycle, I had plenty of time to take in the hugely varied landscapes through which I passed, and the never-ending stream of unique faces, places and happenings that I encountered every day.

These are precisely the things that my memory evolved to store – not the abstract sounds of a second language or writing system, or the even greater abstraction of random strings of numbers that telephones, calendars and credit cards have given us.

It might also explain why my memories are less pronounced in the emptier, not-so-visually-exciting places. Much of the Nubian desert has blended into a compact series of sandy, rocky and rather warm impressions, and northern Scandinavia has become a much more succinct tract of spindly pine trees, vast snowfields and frozen lakes than the month-long ride actually encompassed.

Joshua Foer writes in Moonwalking with Einstein* about the vast and ancient body of knowledge surrounding the limitations of our memory – and, more poignantly, how it might be worked around.

Many of us will have heard of the ‘memory palace’ concept, perhaps through the mainstream media. The original BBC series of Sherlock had Benedict Cumberbatch depicting our favourite sleuth’s descent into a memory labyrinth from which he was able to pluck the most archaic of facts. The mentalist Derren Brown cites it in Tricks Of The Mind* as one of his most commonly-used devices for committing abstract information – numbers, dates, lists of words, an ordered list of every English king or queen together with the dates they reigned – to memory. Tony Buzan has built a megalomaniac’s empire based to a large extent on these ideas.

The memory palace is not a fad. Records of the technique exist from Ancient Greek society almost 2,500 years ago, at which time — with writing still being at a very early stage of development — it appeared to be such a fundamental part of of every thinking person’s toolkit to the point that it was barely worth mentioning.

The point of bringing up the memory palace concept is the astonishing parallel it has, in my view, with bicycle travel.

The user of the technique begins with a location that they are familiar with – a direct play to our innate skills with spatial memory – and then scatters unique, often outright bizarre, occasionally provocative, and therefore memorable images at particular spots, thus taking advantage of our excellent visual memory.

This journey, of course, is one of the imagination, but by virtue of imagining this palatial sowing and reaping as a full three-dimensional multi-sensory experience – featuring not just sights but sounds, smells, textures and tastes – the resulting memory is just as strong as if the journey had happened for real.

A journey by bicycle – or, for that matter, by foot, or any other slow and engaged style of travel – leaves precisely the same impression. We become intimately familiar with our surroundings by virtue of our ambling and exposed mode of transport. In them, we encounter an endless string of new and unique faces, landscapes, cultural artefacts and random occurrences. Simply put, a cycle-tourist’s daily routine is practically identical to a well-realised journey through a memory palace.

Is there any wonder our experiences stick in the mind so stubbornly?

In a society where memory has long been marginalised in favour of external records in books, websites and other directories, which can be accessed at any time through any number of ever-more invasive devices, we now pay little attention to how our memories are actually set up to function. We use them increasingly little, and when we do, we use them badly. We repetitively hammer our brains with foreign vocabulary in an attempt to bludgeon it into sticking there. Our education system blasts our children with facts to remember, but gives them not an ounce of guidance on how to remember them.

Above the treeline

Live Longer. Ride Bicycles.

Modern society places the preservation of life at the very peak of its objectives. Authorities plough countless millions into health and safety. We have never been more obsessive about diet and fitness. The institution of medicine is constantly looking to cure yet more killer diseases in order that our physical longevity might be extended yet further.

In my view, our subjective sense of longevity has much more to do with richness of memory than with candles on a cake. We are all aware of how a month (or a year) can seem to zip by in a flash, and how, conversely, a week or two of the right kind of activity can feel like it lasted for months (or years).

Especially as we grow older, we look back and consider the way in which we’ve spent our lives. It’s doubtful that we’ll spend much time counting our birthdays. More likely is that we’ll think about the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met and the things we’ve done.

I have no problem with the belief in the value of living longer. Life is the greatest privilege of all, and has the potential to be endlessly fascinating. But I want to question the unit of measurement. What is the point of living a hundred years if the memory of it has become a blur of routine interspersed with brief moments of respite?

I have come to the conclusion that the 3½ years on the road that became Janapar lasted longer than the previous 23. This is my subjective truth. I cannot imagine how short the same few years might have seemed had I followed an office-bound career as a web developer.

It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to put my finger on just how the life I chose had such an effect, and there must be countless other ways in which to achieve the same thing.

If nothing else, though, I hope I’ve convinced you that travelling by bicycle will, in a very real way, extend your life.

Categories
Budgeting & Finance Equipment Inspiration

How Far Can You Go On A Scrapyard Touring Bike? (Short Answer: A Very Long Way)

A few years ago I was invited to be a guest on the 2nd episode of The Cycle Show, which aired on July 15th 2014 at 8pm BST on ITV4.

(ITV billed me as ‘comedian Tom Allen’, which is actually another Tom Allen entirely. I’d just like to take this opportunity to confirm that I possess absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever.)

Anyway. One of the other guests on the show was James Cracknell, former Olympian rower turned cyclist and endurance-athlete-adventurer extraordinaire.

When my segment came up, I talked about the beauty and freedom of bicycle travel; about how it’s one of the most accessible and fulfilling ways in which to explore the world.

Then James (quite rightly) asked me how it could be truly ‘free’, given that bicycle touring still costs money. Doesn’t the cost of gear and the travel expenses put it out of many people’s reach?

Excellent question, James. Allow me to elaborate…

Getting Geared Up For The Price Of A Round Of Drinks

The previous year I’d done something that had been on my to-do list as a writer and adventurous traveller for a long time. I put together an experiment to see just how cheaply I could assemble all the gear I’d need for a long, low-budget bicycle journey, to try and debunk the myth of expensive gear being a non-negotiable part of cycle touring.

It proved the point better than I could possibly have hoped: the total bill for the bike, luggage, tools, spares, accessories, camping gear and cooking gear was £25.14 – or, as I put it at the time, the price of a round of drinks.

I wrote a detailed article about the experiment, and then made an actual bicycle journey in the same spirit, using that same equipment that I’d sourced from scrapyards and friends’ sheds and recycling networks and all the rest of it.

That journey went beyond simply proving that the bike and kit was up to the task, and inadvertently ended up proving that not only do you not need money to get geared up for a cycling journey, but that you can actually travel entirely without money as well.

Seriously – I’d have been happy if I’d pulled off the ride for less than £100. But the total bill for my trip from Land’s End to Edinburgh – including train travel to and from the start and finish – came to £0.25.

Yeah… that’s not a typo. My three-week adventure cost me twenty-five pence. That’s what I remember a packet of crisps costing when I was at school.

In another post I’ve explored exactly how this worked. But in this one I want to talk about the trip itself, which was designed to put this next-to-nothing haul of equipment to the test.

How Did The Free Bike Actually Fare?

I boarded the train for Penzance wheeling a hybrid bike which I found discarded at a household recycling centre. It was missing a front wheel, pedals and grips, it had no luggage-carrying features, and it was utterly filthy, but these were quickly remedied with a scout about for free parts and a few hours’ tinkering.

Then I set off. I pedalled hard. And if you’re hoping for tales of mechanical misdemeanour, either for entertainment or to bolster your brewing argument that nobody could possibly, seriously, actually go touring on a junkyard bike and enjoy it, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed to hear that the bicycle ran reliably well for the 700-odd miles, needing little more than a bit of chain lube after the rain.

But then there is no reason why it shouldn’t have done. The moving parts were all basic, rugged and reliable ones, made by Shimano before they joined the arms race of perpetual upgrades and diversified product lines, back when a derailleur was just a derailleur. It’s a perfectly good bike. Just because someone had decided it was trash doesn’t change that.

Few would choose integrated shifter-brake levers for a long tour, but these particular ones (no longer made, of course) were described by the professional bicycle renovators at Life Cycle UK (whose mechanics see thousands of second-hand bikes passing through their workshop) as among the most reliable ever made by Shimano.

The 7‑speed cassette with a triple chainring provided standard gearing for a hybrid, and while yes, some smaller gears would have been nicer, it was ultimately my legs that got me up the one-in-five Cornish gradients and over the Lakeland and Midlothian passes, not the tooth-counts of my sprockets. (You’re going to sweat sometimes, regardless of what drivetrain you’re running. And it’s all good training.)

It was extremely tempting to make a concession for the purposes of comfort by swapping the existing saddle for my Brooks. I am glad I didn’t: not only would it have been ‘cheating’, but the original saddle turned out to be surprisingly comfortable, even after 80-mile days — which just goes to show that even the most basic assumptions about what gear is ‘best’ for touring can be wrong (I’m guilty of banging on about Brooks saddles as much as the next person).

One relatively common ‘serious’ breakage on a loaded touring bike is the broken spoke, always on the rear wheel, always on the drive side. I recently finished reading Julian Sayarer’s book about his round-the-world record attempt, in which he was, on one particular day, riding across the eastern States with eight broken spokes clattering around in his rear wheel.

I suffered just the one; the first in all my years of adventuring. Bang… halfway up the hill between Kendal and Windermere. I rode the rest of the way to Edinburgh with a slightly wonky rear wheel. Big deal.

Punctures… yep, I had a few. More specifically, I had two ‘normal’ punctures (pretty much inevitable) and two complete innertube blowouts (very unusual).

These blowouts, it transpired, were the fault of the front wheel I’d found and fitted; an old steel-rimmed specimen. Apparently such old rims don’t get on well with modern high-pressure tyres. On both occasions the edge of the tyre fell off the rim altogether, causing the innertube to bulge out — and go bang. The second time, the explosion was sufficiently powerful to physically buckle the wheel.

The remedy? New innertubes. Given that I had no money, these were kindly donated by Rockin Bikes in Yelverton, by Tom at Biketreks in Ambleside, and by a passing cyclist near Dartmoor whose name I never learned. (Thanks, guys!)

In the longer term, I clearly needed to find another free front wheel that wouldn’t send my innertubes to oblivion every few days, and, so after the journey ended I visited the Bristol Bike Project, who donated a wobbly but fixable second-hand front wheel that was a little better suited to the bike. They also let me use their truing stand to straighten it out. I took the opportunity to replace the rear wheel’s broken spoke at the same time.

Oh, and some of the bolts worked themselves loose. I tightened them. Same as I’ve done on every other tour.

And the brake pads eventually wore down. I replaced them. Like everyone else did, on every tour, ever.

Look: the bottom line is that the maintenance and repair demands of my scrapyard bike were no different to those of bikes I’ve ridden in the past costing over a hundred times as much. Price-tags have no relationship to reliability, ease of maintenance, comfort, or indeed anything, save perhaps for shininess and wow-factor in front of people whose opinions shouldn’t matter.

Of course you could convince yourself that there’s a real, perceptible difference to be felt when you’re riding the thing, and that you’ll absolutely, definitely notice this difference every second of your ride. But I’d wager you’d mostly just be believing the story you’ve previously convinced yourself is true.

This is, of course, a great thing to know if you have been delaying your pedal-powered adventures in the belief that only an expensive bike with cutting-edge components is sufficiently comfortable and reliable for a long bicycle journey. I’m very pleased to be able to report, with evidence, that not only is the opposite true, but that by riding a cheap, old, reliable, comfortable bike that fits you and is appropriately shaped and specced for riding all day every day, you also won’t have to worry about your expensive bike getting nicked either.

The Truth About Cheap Camping Gear

I’ve used some pretty high-end camping gear in my time, too. I once believed it necessary to match the ‘serious’ nature of my undertaking with equally ‘serious’ equipment.

This time, I took with me a tent, sleeping bag and roll-mat that had cost me a combined total of £6.

Tesco, as you’ll probably agree, aren’t particularly well known for their ultralight 2‑man tents. It wasn’t just that there was nothing wrong with the tent, it was also actually nicer to sleep in than many of the other tents I’ve used. It was bigger. Simpler. A single wall design made it ultra-easy to put up. It was well-ventilated, with a mesh door and a mesh panel in the roof. And it was waterproof, with nylon walls, taped seams and a floor of the same coarse-woven nylon that tarpaulins are made from (no expensive ‘footprint’ required). Yes, it rained, so I did get to put it to the test, and no, I didn’t get wet.

This dark blue free-standing monstrosity — bought and put on a shelf at the back of someone’s garage, never used, eventually discarded in a clear-out and bought by me from the local tip for £3 — is absolutely all you’d need for a pleasant summer of camping on a bike tour. I’d probably give it a miss in heavy rain or high winds, given the choice, but then you’re not really obliged to wild-camp unless you’ve committed to doing so. Rare is the evening there isn’t an alternative, as I was reminded on this trip.

And as for the sleeping bag and roll-mat? When the temperature is in the mid-teens and the weather fair, how complicated do you need a slice of foam and a bag of fluff to be? Needless to say, given how knackered you’ll be after a day of cycle touring, the only two things you’re likely to care about are being warm and being horizontal. At least, these were the only things I cared about as I slept behind hedges on my way up the country.

I didn’t do much cooking. Cold food has as many calories as hot food. When I did want to heat something up, though, I used the trusty DIY stove made from a Russian gin & tonic can that I’d been given in Armenia. The resulting instant coffee was just as mediocre-tasting yet strangely satisfying as it would have been if I’d used a swanky Jetboil or Whisperlite stove to make it.

Though I was treated to a spell of fantastic summer sun at the beginning of this trip, the weather wasn’t always on my side. The second-hand TK Maxx waterproof jacket proved as rain-proof as a sieve, and the trousers I’d got from Freecycle (complete with full-length broken zip) weren’t any better.

But it turns out that a black plastic bin bag — with the addition of three head- and arm-sized holes — makes for a stunningly effective overcoat. Totally waterproof, lightweight, well-ventilated; and when it wears out you can get a new one for free by simply asking someone for a bin bag.

(Mildly entertaining side story: I filmed my friend Armen making the stove and posted the video online. It’s been watched 3.5 million times and become a minor viral sensation. Seems good ideas are worth sharing!)

No Money? No Problem.

What’s the point of me relating all of this to you? Well, I spend an inordinate amount of time telling tales of bicycle adventures, encouraging people to try this liberating lifestyle out for themselves, and helping out those in the planning stages of trips great and small. It’s basically why I exist. In doing so, I come across many people who seem convinced that this kind of journey is beyond them, and one of the main excuses is a lack of available cash.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think it seems ironic that — for all the arguments in favour of a free-market economy and a consumer-driven society — there are so many people who think they can’t afford to go and ride a bicycle somewhere and have fun doing so. You might not be one of them, but the phenomena is very real.

It’s ironic, but it is also easily explained. Every sport, hobby and leisure pursuit you’d care to mention is courted by commercialism. We’re surrounded, daily, by runners running in expensive running gear, cyclists cycling in expensive cycling gear, hikers hiking in expensive hiking gear. This has nothing to do with available cash, and everything to do with us seeing a new and unfamiliar activity and assuming that there must be a mountain of expensive gear involved. The assumption that we can’t afford to do it follows logically.

Yes, it is nice to ride an expensive touring bicycle. I rode one down the West Coast of America two years ago: a Kona Sutra with my trusty Brooks mounted atop its seatpost.

It was nice.

But I can promise you that I had no more or less fun on that bike than I did riding the length of England on the bike I rescued from the tip.

Why? Because the enjoyment of bicycle travel has nothing to do with the bike, and everything to do with the spirit in which you engage with it.

This reminded me of something else James Cracknell said. His chat with Matt on The Cycle Show ranged widely, but eventually touched on the original appeal of riding a bicycle in the first place.

“For most people,” he said (and I paraphrase here from memory), “riding a bicycle is their first taste of real freedom.”

This, I think, encapsulates perfectly the beauty of travelling by bicycle. The stabilisers are off, the reins are cut; the world is yours! You are unbound, unrestricted by time and space; free to go where you want, do so at your own speed, experience of life on the road entirely on your own terms.

You don’t have to ‘be a cyclist’, or model your trip on anyone else’s experience.

You don’t have to spend money on equipment, or even spend money on the trip itself.

Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise – or that there’s a ‘blueprint’ or some kind of standard formula for wandering the world on a bicycle – is a liar and a fraud. And that’s probably the single best piece of advice I have for you about bicycle travel.