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.
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…)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Шаг 1. Раздобудьте велосипед.
Какой именно — не имеет значения. Главное, чтобы он был удобным и исправным. В любом случае, без велосипеда вы далеко не уедете.
Шаг 2. Увольтесь.*
На путешествие потребуется несколько лет, так что напишите своему начальству в заявлении на увольнение о том, что вам, конечно, очень жаль уходить с работы, но у вас есть более важные дела.
* если вы студент, пенсионер или безработный, то этот шаг можно смело пропустить.
Шаг 3. Отправляйтесь в путь.
У вас не получится объехать весь свет, если вы никуда не поедете. Поэтому закрепите на велосипеде палатку и спальный мешок, попросите соседей приглядывать за вашим котом и начинайте крутить педали.
Как только вы пройдете эти три шага, все остальное получится само собой.
* * *
Необязательные дополнительные шаги
Вы можете потратить несколько месяцев, изучая информацию о правилах пересечения границ, визах, необходимом оборудовании, временах года, бюджете и прочем. С тем же успехом вы можете отправиться в путь прямо сейчас и день за днем узнать всё, что нужно, по дороге. Поверьте, собственные инициатива и интуиция (и бесплатный Wi-Fi) послужат вам большим подспорьем, нежели энциклопедические познания в международной бюрократии.
Вы можете записаться в тренажерный зал с персональным тренером или получить членство в местном велоклубе и потратить несколько месяцев, чтобы, как говорится, «прийти в форму». Так делают все настоящие спортсмены. С другой стороны, вы наработаете такую же (или лучшую) форму в первые несколько недель путешествия, если будете ехать на велосипеде каждый день целый день.
Вы можете сэкономить десятки и сотни тысяч рублей (долларов, фунтов, евро и т. д.) и положить их в банк — это создаст чувство некоторой защищенности. А можете продать все, что вам не нужно, прямо сейчас и ничего больше не покупать. Конечно, иногда придется ночевать в спартанских условиях, питаться хлебом, водой и фруктами с деревьев, заниматься поиском жилья на различных couch-surf сайтах (и принимать любые приглашения). Да, еще придется отказаться от экскурсий по достопримечательностям — займётесь этим, когда выйдете на пенсию.
Когда у вас нет денег — пользуйтесь навыками, о наличии которых у себя вы даже и не подозреваете, чтобы заработать хоть что-то там, куда вас занесло.
Купите крутое снаряжение.
Можно потратить очень много денег на самый совершенный туринг-велосипед, легчайшую палатку, надежнейшую походную печку, самые непромокаемые вещи и т. д. и т. п. С тем же успехом можно найти велосипед на помойке (буквально), взять палатку в дар по объявлению, сделать горелку из пивной банки и купить все что нужно в местном супермаркете (кстати, таким образом вы сэкономите денег на огромное количество хлеба и воды, см. предыдущий пункт).
Потратьте некоторое время на планирование маршрута, штудируя дома карты и атласы. Так вы будете точно знать, куда вам надо ехать каждый день. Или поезжайте куда глаза глядят, ориентируясь только по компасу и примерному направлению — ведь вся прелесть велопутешествия заключается именно в свободе выбора.
Зарегистрируйтесь на фейсбуке, в твиттере и создайте свой сайт.
Вы можете поведать всему миру о своем путешествии в режиме онлайн: на сайтах, в блогах и социальных сетях. Но точно так же вы можете не пользоваться интернетом и наслаждаться своей жизнью на Земле. Свою историю вы всегда можете рассказать, уже вернувшись домой.
В безрезультатном обзвоне компаний и написании просьб о спонсорстве можно провести несколько месяцев. Те же несколько месяцев можно поработать сверхурочно (или на второй работе — как будет угодно), чтобы заработать те же самые деньги. Вот только без спонсора вы сами вольны принимать решения в дороге: куда ехать, как ехать, ехать ли вообще. Можете даже влюбиться и сыграть свадьбу по дороге — все зависит только от вас.
Озадачьтесь освещением путешествия в прессе.
Подробностями вашего планируемого приключения можно поделиться с местной (а то и национальной) прессой. Но опять же, подумайте о той свободе, которой вы достигаете, когда никто за вами не наблюдает (и когда вам не надо посылать отчеты о поездке из своей палатки, а можно спокойно почитать книгу перед сном).
Вы можете продать свою квартиру, уволиться со скандалом, развестись, бросить семью и детей и уехать, послав всех и вся далеко и надолго. Но можно попробовать так изменить свою семейную и рабочую жизнь так, чтобы пережить путешествие без потрясений и вернуться к ней когда (если) оно подойдет к концу.
Стремитесь к рекордам.
Никто не запрещает поставить новый мировой рекорд в кругосветном велопутешествии. Еще никто не запрещает вспомнить о том, что вы не спортсмен, а сама суть вашего начинания — независимость и свобода выбора. Возможно, стоит задуматься о том, что в путешествии надо радоваться дороге, а не планировать закончить его как можно быстрее.
Каждый день можно пытаться записывать сколько вы проехали, какая средняя скорость была достигнута, какое изменение высоты накопилось… Или можно понять, что количество километров в день примерно так же важно для успешного путешествия, как цвет вашей все сильнее и сильнее запотевающей и пылящейся футболки. Без цифр в голове гораздо проще сконцентрироваться на своих ощущениях от проделанного пути.
Назначьте дату возвращения.
Для того, чтобы вернуться домой к определенному времени, стоит обозначить некоторые промежуточные цели на своем пути. А еще стоит осознать: всё, что вы узнаете в дороге, скорее всего как-то повлияет на вас, и все цели, так скрупулезно расставленные, в какой-то момент перестанут иметь смысл. Возможно, даже сам факт возвращения потеряет смысл. Или — какой ужас — вам напрочь надоест крутить педали.
На самом деле совершите кругосветное путешествие.
Вы и вправду можете целенаправленно завершить свое путешествие (так наивно названное «кругосветным» за несколько лет до старта), объехав весь мир. Это будет потрясающим примером торжества идеи над здравым смыслом. А можете позволить дороге заводить вас туда, куда, казалось бы, вам совсем не по пути. И ваш путь по глобусу будет напоминать детские каракули, нежели красивую линию, проходящую через все континенты.
* * *
Существует множество способов сделать долгое путешествие много более сложным, чем оно является в действительности.
Для кого-то все сложности могут быть вполне осязаемыми. Например, мне самому семь лет назад казалась полностью очевидной необходимость завести блог: я хотел писать, блог был тем средством, которое помогало мне бороться с собственной ленью и чувствовать значимость моих заметок.
На данный момент, я пишу именно потому, что мне нравится сам процесс. Я вдохновляюсь путешествиями. Мне полюбилась каждая минута тех двух лет, которые я писал свою первую книгу (и даже когда мне, казалось, надоело всё это, в глубине души я всё равно наслаждался моментом). Наверное, даже если бы интернета не существовало, я все равно писал хотя бы в простой бумажный дневник.
На каждого будущего велопутешественника, которому действительно нужны дополнительные шаги из списка выше, приходится сотня-другая тех, кто шел по простому пути и никогда об этих шагах не думал, тех, у кого нет блогов и аккаунтов в твиттере и инстаграме, тех, кто раз в пару недель пишет своим семьям из интернет-кафе.
Эти незаметные путешественники, идущие по своему пути, в действительности составляют основную массу всех «велодальнобойщиков». О них не узнать в сети. И именно поэтому для каждого будущего путешественника интернет в какой-то мере опасен.
Собственно, основная опасность всех этих дополнительных шагов заключается в том, что они часто упоминаются в сети, тем самым обманчиво усложняя суть приключения и делая каждое конкретное путешествие мечты все менее и менее возможным.
Часть проблемы — сам интернет. Так просто загореться идеей долгой дороги! И точно также просто отказаться от нее, потому что какой-то из именитых велосипедистов очень красочно пишет о том, как же всё это было сложно.
Всё это я имею честь лицезреть воочию каждый ноябрь на неделе, которую я провожу на конференции под названием «Explore», посвященной планированию экспедиций Королевского Географического Общества в Лондоне. Моей неофициальной работой на этой конференции является необходимость рассказывать всем будущим велопутешественникам о том, что для начала путешествия им не стоит посещать эту конференцию. Им надо просто брать велосипед и ехать.
Это кажется несколько фантастическим и даже гротескным, но такая работа приносит свои плоды — я периодически получаю письма благодарности от людей, которые уже несколько месяцев находятся в дороге. Мне говорят спасибо только за то, что я лишний раз повторяю проверенный временем постулат KISS-принципа1.
Также мне сложно не замечать всё большее количество очень серьезно подготовленных и оснащенных велоэкспедиций, которые оказываются провальными (по их собственным критериям успешности). Создаются общества, намечаются великие цели… и сложная концепция всё равно разваливается и оказывается менее жизнеспособной в реальных условиях, чем обычный жизненный опыт и понимание того, что путешествие может быть не сложнее повседневности.
Большая часть успешных путешествий начинается с мечты и ее немедленной реализации: сели на велосипед, поехали — по пути разберемся, что делать дальше. Ненужные усложнения слишком часто не позволяют мечтам сбыться.
В общем, не пытайтесь повторить в своей жизни то, что вы так часто видите в интернете. Если у вас есть мечта, пройдите шаги с первого по третий и радуйтесь дороге. Дополнительными шагами озадачивайтесь только в том случае, если они правда-правда-правда кажутся вам осмысленными.
Over the last few years we have seen the rise of a new sub-discipline of bicycle travel.
It’s called ‘bikepacking’, and it’s become such a hit that almost every mainstream bike manufacturer now produces at least one ‘adventure bike’ or ‘bikepacking rig’, or includes the word in their marketing spiel for bikes that might fit the bill.
Specialised bikepacking luggage, too, has proliferated, from a few cottage industries turning out bespoke, hand-stitched frame bags to pannier giant Ortlieb launching a line.
Someone I know who helps run a bikepacking website told me they get over one million hits per month. (For comparison, this blog has been getting a steady 50,000 monthly pageviews for the last several years, or about 5% of that.)
So today, unlike in days gone by, I think it’s a fair bet that when a newcomer happens upon the idea of going on a bike trip, one of the first things they find is a dichotomy between ‘cycle touring’ and ‘bikepacking’.
In this piece I want to explore the difference, as I see it, between these two different versions of the same basic idea. Because while the difference seems to be portrayed mainly in terms of equipment, I don’t think it actually has anything to do with bikes or luggage at all. And I want to help those newcomers who get sucked into all that stuff about bikes and gear to understand what’s actually going on beneath it all.
(At 2,942 words, you might want to get a cup of tea for this.)
I’m a mountain biker first and foremost. Back in 2006, when I was 22, me and my mates bought 1‑berth ultralight tents from Lidl, threw them in army-surplus backpacks and set off on full-suspension mountain bikes to ride across the Scottish Highlands.
After a couple of days we strapped our luggage to the bike frames to lighten the load. So we were mountain biking with stuff strapped to our bikes. But we weren’t bikepacking. That hadn’t been invented yet.
(It’s funny how similar this photo from 12 years ago looks to what bikepackers are doing today. Check out the Gaffa Tape seat-pack.)
I was inspired. And a year later I set out to cycle round the world. By now I had come across ‘cycle touring’. People had, I discovered, been going cycle touring for years. Decades. That’s why it sounds slightly old-fashioned. ‘Touring’. So Victorian.
At this point it is customary to mention Thomas Stevens’ bicycle odyssey across America and Eurasia of 1896. But preceding that by some 18 years was the founding in 1878 of the Bicycle Touring Club of Great Britain (now Cycling UK).
My point is that ‘cycle touring’ – the phrase, and the activity it described – has been established for at the very least 140 years.
And how long has ‘bikepacking’ been around?
To take a crude measurement I looked at Google Trends. This tool uses the entire history of Google’s indexing of the contents of the internet to calculate the relative interest in any given phrase over time.
It gives the term ‘bikepacking’ a rating of zero as recently as April 2010.
From that starting point, the data shows an exponential upward curve, from 15% in June 2013, to 49% in 2016, all the way up to the benchmark of 100% it has today (March 2020).
In other words, bikepacking has never been more popular than it is right now, yet less than a decade ago, basically nobody knew what it was.
It gets more interesting when you overlay the popularity ratings for ‘cycle touring’. Taking again April 2010 as the starting point, when bikepacking could be argued to have begun its rise to popularity, the same dataset shows cycle touring’s popularity as a linear line, maintaining more or less steady popularity throughout the decade or so. Bikepacking seems to have surpassed cycle touring some time in the middle of 2015.
(If anything, cycle touring has seen an ever-so-slight decline. I think I know why that is, and I’ll come back to it later on.)
The data would seem to support anecdotal evidence.
Today, my social media feeds are awash with images of happy, tired, mud-splattered faces astride lightly-loaded off-road bikes with big, knobbly tyres, with yearning mountain vistas or forest singletrack in the (slightly out of focus) distance.
They drown out the images I used to see a lot more of – tanned, weathered people astride heavily loaded touring bikes in places entirely unrecognisable – or more often, images that were not of the riders at all but of the people they’d been hanging out with and the curiosities they’d encountered on the roadside.
There is something telling in this, too, which feeds directly into what I think the difference between cycle touring and bikepacking really is. But more groundwork still needs to be done.
Superficially, the difference is obvious. Bikepacking looks different. The bikes look different. The stuff people strap to them look different. The places they ride them often look different.
Bikepacking looks like a different kind of experience.
“Simply put,” says Bikepacking.com’s introductory paragraph under the heading ‘What is Bikepacking?’, “bikepacking is the synthesis of mountain biking and minimalist camping; it evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike.”
Cycle touring is a bit more abstract.
“Cycle touring is whatever you want it to be,” I wrote in the first chapter of my beginners’ guidebook. (I can quote myself, can’t I? Is that OK these days? Just the literary equivalent of posting a selfie, right?) “And you can call it whatever you like – cycle touring, adventure cycling, bikepacking, even simply travelling by bicycle; these are all nuanced terms for the act of getting on a bike and going on a journey with it.”
There’s a formula for how the regular form of cycle touring looks, too. Again, a photo or two makes the difference obvious. On the surface, I mean.
(OK, extreme example. But you know what I mean).
But the popularity graphs – the changing social media trends – even the nuances of the language used in the descriptions above – all of these are pointers, in my opinion, to a deeper motivation for what is essentially the splitting of the adventure cycling community into two distinct camps.
One camp really just wants to go travelling.
The other camp really just wants go biking.
To me, this is what defines the split.
And of course, there is a middle ground between the two, and loads of overlap, and exceptions that prove the rule, because we’re talking about generalisations here, and life’s not really that simple. And I’m not suggesting that the emergence of two camps suggests any rivalry or conflict, and certainly not any mutual exclusivity. The people who inhabit this scene generally aren’t like that.
But this is the internet, and so before anyone starts to formulate an emotionally charged disagreement to post in the comments, let me explain the reasons why I think this is generally true.
The running theme I have seen over more than a decade of being involved in all this stuff is that people who choose the bicycle as a means of seeing the world tend to do so because of the many advantages it confers upon the traveller. It is a tool, and a very good one at that. It is a mode of transport. And the world these people imagine travelling through tends to be that of people and the roads that connect them and the cultures that spring forth when they meet, settle and grow into that thing we call human civilisation.
Cycle touring is about enabling one to practice the art of travel, to live life on the road.
It consequently tends to attract those who see travel itself as the end, to which getting on a bike is the means.
That’s also, in my view, why their social media feeds are not of themselves or their bikes but of what they saw and who they met along the way.
Bikepacking, too, absolutely involves a big element of travel, adventure, exploration, or whatever you wish to call it.
But bikepacking is primarily a way of going on a longer bike ride.
Bikepacking is for bikers – bikers who want to get away from busy roads and the man-made world and ride their bikes in nature, or something approximating it. They always have wanted this. Now they can ride further, for longer and with less fuss. The community’s prime obsessions are bikes, gear to attach to bikes, and riding bikes.
And there is a point to all this obsessiveness. It is to tailor and to optimise the ‘rig’ to deliver the best possible ride under conditions often far more challenging than those encountered on a regular cycle tour. Off-road biking requires skill, and just as in other specialist discipline requiring skill, the tools involved must be designed and honed to allow those skills to be maximised.
This emphasis on bikes and gear has made bikepacking the lucrative niche for the bicycle industry that cycle touring never was. Trek doesn’t noisily launch a 2,500-dollar “bikepacker’s dream” unless the executives think it’s going to sell. And check out the top posts on Instagram for #bikepacking. At the time of writing, the subject of each of the nine featured photos was a either a bike or someone riding one. Manicured. Artistic. Posed. Paid-for.
Touring bikes, on the other hand, tend to stay the same year after year after year; always there, rarely noticed, usually buried under some other ill-fitting category, and probably not making much money.
There is nothing particularly wrong with any of this. Mass consumption funds research & development which in turn makes products more tuned to the priorities of their buyers. And this matches the bikepacking ideal just perfectly. The holy grail is a bikepacking bike with so little baggage that it has basically reverted back to being a mountain bike.
The industry will eventually help deliver something approaching this ideal if people keep pumping money into the machine. This will, in turn, benefit enormously the members of the bikepacking community who spend more time riding bikes than talking about it on the internet.
Cycle tourists, on the other hand, start out in the knowledge they’ll just have to lug a big bunch of stuff around with them, probably in a set of Ortliebs. It’s just as inevitable a compromise of travel as a suitcase or a backpack. And while some may occasionally curse the weight on the way up a big mountain pass, I’ll bet the only people who actually switch to bikepacking for this reason are those who, all along, really just wanted to ride their bike.
Please don’t get the impression I’m pro-cycle touring and anti-bikepacking or taking any kind of partisan stance.
I love bikepacking. Not because I’m also jumping the bandwagon, but because, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I was a mountain biker long before I was a traveller. I spent years hucking bikes off-road through woods and muddy fields in England before I did anything more interesting on a bike. But, as noted above, bikepacking as we now know it didn’t exist back then.
In the meantime I went cycle touring, fell in love with the act of travel and consequently missed the bikepacking boat while I was riding around in far-off lands and making films about my love life.
And today I am discovering the joys of bikepacking retroactively (though I can’t afford the posh gear). It’s not a replacement for cycle touring. It just ticks a different set of boxes which were there waiting to be ticked. I wish it had been invented earlier!
I’m hardly alone on this.
Look hard enough and you’ll find plentiful examples from back in the day of mountain bikers trying to wrestle cycle touring to fit their priorities.
In fact, one of my inspirations to take cycle touring to places like Mongolia was Cass Gilbert, whose evocative photos of trailer-laden mountain bikes in the Himalaya I remember distinctly from the first edition of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, which I read back in 2006. He went on to become one of bikepacking’s progenitors, doing the same thing before it was even a word, all in pursuit of being able to go mountain biking for longer. (Do they even make the Bob Yak any more?)
Logan Watts, whose travel blog Pedalling Nowhere later became Bikepacking.com, also played an instrumental part in developing bikepacking into a ‘thing’. He too was a mountain biker forced into the cycle touring mould until he started tinkering with options that better suited his preferences. Now he runs what is probably bikepacking’s most successful community website and has written a full-length manifesto on the topic.
And I will never forget reading about Janne Corax’s mountain bike crossing of the Changtang plateau in northwest Tibet, which remains the single most extreme-sounding wilderness bicycle journey about which I have ever read. That was 15 years ago and I can’t find the article any more. (I wonder how such an expedition would look today?)
These and many other bikepacking pioneers are doubtless somewhat baffled at the explosion of bikepacking’s popularity. They probably can’t help questioning whether or not it’s a good thing, and probably come back to the conclusion that it is – a sentiment I share, because it ultimately means more humans falling in love with Earth again at a time when we’re collectively screwing it up.
I think I can offer some thoughts, too, on why bikepacking’s sudden popularity.
Sure, there is today an element of corporate hijacking. (Trek, for god’s sake.) But the wagon was already rolling, and I think at least some of it – at least in the UK – can be attributed to the rise of the microadventure in combination with that of cycling in general. Bikepacking neatly merges both.
These two trends express the yearning of an overworked, overstressed society (with plenty of cash) not to think, say or post on Facebook but to do something to disconnect from so-called ‘reality’ and rediscover what had always been there: a world we can see, hear, taste and smell, and a body that can sweat and strain in order to change its environment from one of dull, nagging discomfort to one which at least satisfies our romantic vision of being at one with nature, however misguided, and if not on the daily commute then at least on a big escape at the weekend.
The focus on gear makes bikepacking a hobby that can be practiced online during lunch breaks and through tinkering in the garage after work. This can be fun.
And the extremely active community – not just discussing gear ad infinitum but proactively developing and sharing new routes – imparts the sense of tribal belonging that so often underscores people’s life choices.
In short, bikepacking ticks a lot of boxes past which traditional cycle touring has tended to swerve around.
Cycle touring will always be there.
There will always be people who want to travel the world, and who figure (correctly) that the bike would be the best way of doing so.
Some will be seduced by bikepacking’s shiny trinkets and end up wishing they had more space for home comforts and noticing none of the advantages they never needed in the first place.
But others will figure that there’s no need to change the tried and tested formula and set off to explore the world on a bog standard touring bike with panniers and a tent strapped to the rear rack, rarely thinking again about their bike or gear because their journey was never about that anyway.
And bikepacking is unlikely to be just a passing trend.
Beyond the commercialisation and the rabble of noisy opinion that comes with anything new and popular, the ability to ride a bike off-road deep into the wilderness with ever fewer compromises holds a deep attraction for a great many people – including me.
But does this fully explain the bikepacking boom?
Not quite. A final suggestion, then. I think the bikepacking obsession with whittling the experience ever closer back towards ‘pure’ biking is also what pushes people who are already cyclists over to bikepacking – people who would never have considered cycle touring because of the many ways in which they feel it would compromise the act of cycling itself.
In other words, I would wager that many of those swelling the bikepacking ranks are, weirdly, cyclists. Bikepacking is a natural step forward from what they already do into something slightly more adventure-tinged. It is now less of a leap for someone with a cyclist’s priorities to choose bikepacking over cycle touring – which might explain why cycle touring’s relative popularity is dropping slightly.
It’ll be interesting to see where it all leads. Perhaps one day every bike will be sold with a tinny bell, a crap saddle, cheap reflectors and an emergency overnight seat-pack. Just in case.
Heck, if I’m moving, I’m learning, and if I’m learning, I can make myself useful in the world. The rest is secondary. Cycle touring? Love it. Bikepacking? Love it too. I’m lucky enough to spend much of my time trying out new ways of exploring, and certainly not defined by any one discipline. (Check out that ill-advised packrafting expedition or that snazzy Land Rover I borrowed.)
So what’s really the difference between bikepacking and cycle touring?
I think people ask this question to understand where they fit into this rapidly diversifying collection of adventure cycling subcultures.
But I think a better question is – do you really just want to go travelling, or do you really just want to go biking?