Categories
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!

Categories
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
Bikes News Personal Updates

Oxford Bike Works & Tom’s Expedition Bike: The Story So Far

Just before I flew out to Bangkok for my current trip, I paid a visit to Richard Delacour at Oxford Bike Works to collect Tenny’s newly upgraded tourer. Based on a vintage steel Trek frame, the lovingly recycled bike is a tidy piece of work, naturally — but it got me reflecting on the story of my acquaintance with Richard and his company; a tale of serendipity and good timing that still elicits a smile.

I first met Richard in 2014 when he wrote to me asking if I’d promote a new range of touring bikes he was launching. At that time I was publishing a lot of gear reviews, so I suggested he lend me one for a write-up, to which he responded by promptly driving a hundred miles from Oxfordshire with an early version of the Oxford Bike Works Model 2 in the boot. We had a cup of tea, did a quick fitting session in the basement, and off he went. I spent the next month pootling around the backroads of the Midlands, putting the bike through its paces, before he came back to pick it up. (The resulting review is here.)

Beyond the bike itself, which had impressed me with its thoughtful, unorthodox design choices, my curiosity had been piqued by Richard’s story. Previously a schoolteacher with a passion for cycling and bike-building in his free time, he’d taken what must have been a daunting leap of faith, especially with a young family to support: quitting his career, designing his first touring frameset, and investing a hefty sum in the manufacture and shipping of a first batch of frames, which he stored in his garage while seeking out a local paint shop to do the coating. The Model 2 was one of three initial offers launched under his new Oxford Bike Works brand, each one built to order in an outbuilding behind his house repurposed as a workshop. Now Richard was doing all he could to get the word out with a marketing budget of precisely zero.

A while later, as I was riding the delightful riverside trails of Germany and Austria on a cumbersome Frankenstein’s monster of a bike, dreaming of the perfect do-everything tourer I wished I’d been riding all these years, I had a lightbulb moment. What if…?

That evening I fired off an email to Richard with the idea of actually prototyping “Tom’s Expedition Bike” with his frameset as the starting point. He liked the idea, so I drafted a brief and a spec, went over to his workshop, and spent a day bouncing around ideas for component combinations, fitting options for different riders, and extra touches that would make the most of Richard’s ability to customise each bike to order. The goal would be a bike built ground-up for long-haul expedition touring, customised for each rider, and at an accessible price point. No small ask.

A little over three years later, the slightly less narcissistically-named “Oxford Bike Works Expedition” has not just debuted but matured and carved out its very own niche, with a veritable fleet of happy riders now doing the rounds. Of course, the spec has been tweaked in line with the ever-shifting bike industry (excuse the pun), and the pricing and options have been tuned until they work consistently for both Richard and his customers, but the package as a whole remains as we originally envisaged, and it’s now a core part of the OBW line-up.

Critically, these bikes have now been inching their way across the globe for long enough to be scattered far and wide and prove that they’re up to the job. Time and miles: the only test of a expedition touring bike that really matters to a buyer with a journey of several years ahead of them. Ironically, most of the road-testing hasn’t been on my watch, instead on that of riders like Renee Rowland and Adam Sultan — not to mention the effervescent Anna McNuff — who have put many more thousands of far more arduous miles under their wheels than I have. No transcontinental tour is without its mechanicals, of course, but the reports Richard’s been getting back from his customers indicate that they’re inevitably of the predictable, easily fixable kind we anticipated in the design from the word go. Phew!

Here in Thailand, where the going is rarely that tough, I’m still riding the original “Tom’s Expedition Bike” prototype. My only issue so far is no fault of the bike: a bent front fork as the result of an abrupt and unhappy fusion of dog and bicycle while riding across Burgess Park in South London last year (the red replacement fork adds a nice splash of colour to the original beige). Otherwise, it’s a total dream. As I ride the thing, I still catch myself thinking on an almost daily basis:

“Man, this really is the bike I wish I’d been riding all those years…!”

(Which probably says as much about my bad first choice of bike as anything else.)

Richard reckons he’ll hand-build around a hundred bikes in the coming year, of which a dozen or so will be Expedition spec, and while there’s constant pressure to scale up, he’s deliberately resisting doing so. Bike building is what he loves, he says; he didn’t start this to end up as a business manager, and as long as he can pay the bills, he’ll be happy. It takes courage to stick to principles like that, and I have a huge amount of respect for him for doing so.

Staying small doesn’t mean stagnating. Richard’s proactive with his obsession, enthusiastically showing off a prototype disc-equipped adventure bike, born in response to growing demand and being put through its paces right now. And he talked me through some of the smaller components he was fitting to test models for research purposes, including new generator hubs priced to appeal to those who want on-the-go power but without the Schmidt price-tag, and some Microshift 3x8 thumbshifters that would — if durable enough — bypass the current Shimano bar-end shifter hack, and add barrel adjusters to boot.

So that’s the story so far. And I’m proud to have played a tiny part in helping a fellow idealist and lover of all things cycle touring to get a dream off the ground and make it a sustainable reality, beating the big players at their own game, and helping more people see the world from the seat of a bicycle.

Speaking of which, I’m off to ride mine

Categories
Personal Updates

Tom’s Bike Trip Continues

A couple of years ago I had a big idea. I felt compelled to realise that idea, and it quickly consumed my life. One of the side effects was that I stopped writing this blog. Suddenly all my time and energy was being channelled into something new which had very little to do with cycle touring. This wasn’t planned, but it happened anyway. Circumstances dictated it.

I’ve had mixed feelings about this. For many years my blog was the focal point for my creativity, my means of contributing to society, and the source of a large portion of my income. On the other hand, I’ve never seen life as a steady-state endeavour. Progress and change and the continual renewal of ideas seem to either follow me or pull me along. So in a way it felt natural to leave this blog behind. I didn’t even notice when the 10-year anniversary of the departure of Ride Earth – my first big transcontinental trip – ticked over on the 17th of June last year.

But this wasn’t just a blog, was it? It became a community project, built around a shared, romantic notion of exploration by bicycle and all the many topics that spiral outwards from that simple concept. As time went on, the proportions and the focus swung towards the contributors, the riders, the shared ideals and the debates, and the blogger became a guide.

Hence my mixed feelings. Is my disappearance having the unintentional effect of disbanding that community? Of course the words and ideas are still here, but what’s a museum without a curator? Judging by the contents of my inbox, I could easily fill these pages with paid advertorials disguised as guest posts for the sake of having new content, but wouldn’t that undermine the personal and nonpartisan foundation on which it’s all been built?

Anyway. This is all a long-winded way of getting to the point, which is that my ‘big idea’ has grown wings and is learning to fly, leaving space for me to drift once again towards the two-wheeled life I used to know. There are huge parts of the world I have never been to; times are constantly changing; the allure of discovery for its own sake has never diminished; and I feel it’s about time I let the winds of travel take me somewhere new again.

So the bike has been dragged from the basement, the panniers patched up, and a mental map of potential adventures is once again beginning to form. Because I can, and because it makes me feel alive. And with a return to the bike – and I can feel this tangibly – is coming a return to writing about it.

On a more selfless note, I was wrong about that ‘big idea’ having nothing to do with cycle touring. Working on the hiking trail in the Caucasus has shown me how I can marry the love of bicycle travel with an intimate knowledge of one small corner of the world to create opportunities for other riders. I can see this blog evolving in that direction too.

These aren’t New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not promising anything, making public commitments to create false accountability, or anything like that. I’ve only ever done this out of love, and if that’s not enough of a motivator, I probably shouldn’t be here.

So yeah.

But most of all, it’s just nice to be back.

Categories
News Personal Updates

The Future Of TomsBikeTrip.com

Tuesday’s announcement appears to have resulted in mild confusion about the fate of this long-running cycle touring blog.

Allow me to set the record straight:

TomsBikeTrip.com is here to stay!

The launch of TomAllen.info reflects the fact that I have interests and stories beyond bicycle travel. But travelling on two wheels remains the thing that’s most precious to me – and I’ve got plenty more to write about, not least because I continue to go on regular cycling adventures.

Simply expect this blog to continue in a more focused way from now on.

So, if you’re more interested in personal philosophies, tales from on the road and off, insights into independent filmmaking and publishing, and notes on life as a compulsive world wanderer and storyteller, TomAllen.info is where you’ll find them.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested specifically in cycle touring, TomsBikeTrip.com will remain your source of news, insights, how-to’s, and the occasional trip report on this wonderful and life-changing way of travelling.

I hope, of course, that many of you will fall into both categories.