Now is obviously not the time to be setting off on a globetrotting bike trip.
But as we’ve all been discovering over the last few weeks, disruptions create space for thinking… differently.
Amid much uncertainty and, yes, real hardship and trauma, we also have a priceless opportunity to reimagine the path we’ve been travelling through life, and to redirect those parts of our futures we can control towards newly-reconsidered destinations.
That’s why – even if our departure dates remain to-be-confirmed, and even if the places we’re thinking of going are closer to home – I would argue that there is no better time to be planning a dream bicycle-mounted adventure.
If you’ve been sitting on such a dream for some time, it’s likely it and others have recently resurfaced with a new sense of urgency.
So why not start laying the groundwork? Why not get some of those big decisions made, those big questions answered, those big obstacles overcome?
Why not commit, right now, to beginning your journey to the starting line?
I am willing to bet that you have, over the last few weeks, 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 just a couple of months ago 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.
Every morning during the last six weeks of lockdown I have got up at 6am and spent several hours rewriting and updating my newcomers’ guide to cycling adventures.
Spring is usually the time to be planning summer travels, but this year we’re suddenly thinking further ahead. I decided it was more important than ever I do all I can to help the adventure cycling community – and most of all those who’ve just discovered it – to travel the long road towards realising their ambitious dreams.
How To Hit The Road is now available as a Kindle ebook on all Amazon platforms. (A much-requested paperback edition will follow shortly.)
You can head straight to the Kindle store to download the free sample, or check out this page for more information about what you’ll find inside – and I’d be more than happy to answer any questions about the book in the comments below!
Header photo by Carl-David Granbäck. Used with permission.
For the last few weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches to a project I’ve been working on for many years – and with so many of us in isolation and looking for things to do, the timing could not be better!
Yes, that’s right – the story of my award-winning documentary Janapar: Love on a Bike has finally been adapted for video game format!
Mixing both role-playing and action genres, Janapar: The Game will take you on a failed journey around the world by bicycle, teaching you tough lessons about life and love in the process.
You’ll start Level 1 by riding your bicycle around the rolling country lanes of the English Midlands, in search of the answers to a series of existential questions. Every answer you find scores you valuable Enlightenment Points, depending on how well it supports your conviction that you should just burn all your bridges and hit the road forever.
Once you’ve collected enough Enlightenment Points, you’ll be able to upgrade your bicycle and advance to Level 2! Your objective will be to pedal across Europe to Istanbul before winter arrives. But life on the road isn’t that simple – you’ll face a series of obstacles, including fixing mechanical problems on the roadside against the clock, being distracted by beautiful women in every city you pass through, and winning childish arguments with your riding partners via a series of Monkey Island-style multiple-choice questions.
The difficulty really ramps up in Level 3, where you will be fighting to keep your Morale-O-Meter above zero in the face of rain and snow, steep hills, vicious dogs, and the complete breakdown of your relationship with your riding partner. Every Turkish tea shop you reach will replenish your Morale-O-Meter to 100% – but you can get up to 200% in bonus morale by convincing the tea-shop owner that you’re too poor to pay your bill!
In Level 4, you’ll be presented with your biggest challenge yet – overcoming lifelong social awkwardness in order to persuade a beautiful Armenian girl to join you on your big life-changing bicycle adventure. Don’t say the wrong thing, or else she’ll leave the bar and the game will be over!
Level 5 is another race against time to reach your girlfriend’s hometown of Tehran on your bicycle before your her Morale-O-Meter reaches zero and she goes back to the perfectly decent life she had before she met you. As every aspect of life on the road is revealed to be utterly shit, you’ll have to come up with ever-more-ingenious things to say to keep her going, before facing up against the first big boss of Janapar: The Game – the Angry Father-In-Law.
In Level 6 you’ll be back on your own, having lost your fight against the boss of Level 5. Your mission is to pedal into a constant sandy headwind for six months as you cross the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. As you do, you’ll have to negotiate corrupt traffic police, undercover Syrian intelligence agents, and a hellish wild-goose-chase from embassy to embassy to apply for visas, all the while accompanied by a voice in your head repeatedly asking ‘what the actual fuck are you doing here?’.
Level 7 is an action-packed rollercoaster of a ride across the highlands of Ethiopia. In each mountain village, you’ll get a special speed boost power-up if you find a way through without being seen – a tough challenge for a white bloke on a bicycle. But if you don’t, you’ll get pelted with rocks by huge gangs of barefooted children. Don’t get brain damage!
Level 8 is a mystery-solving level, in which you have to find a way to cross the Gulf of Aden without simply getting on a short-haul flight like everyone else. Which Arabian dhow captain will take you across these pirated waters for the least amount of money? How will you survive the nights when you’re too tight-fisted to pay for a hotel room? Only one way to find out!
In Level 9, your mission is simple: cross the entire southern Arabian peninsular in high summer while avoiding the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, dying of dehydration in the Empty Quarter, or your bicycle breaking catastrophically in the middle of the Omani desert. Replenish your Morale-O-Meter by finding air-conditioned petrol stations with fridges full of ice-cold orange Mirinda. Earn bonus points for convincing the owner to let you stay the whole day!
In the final level of Janapar: The Game you’ll face your toughest adversary yet – the Iranian secret police! You’ve arrived in the middle of a massive political demonstration and they’re convinced you’re a British spy. Answer one question incorrectly and both you and your father-in-law will be thrown in jail and the game will be over – but get through the interrogation successfully and they’ll give you a cup of tea and send you off to be reunited with your girlfriend, with whom you’ll live happily ever after. You win!
The end credits feature loveable scenes of you and your girlfriend cycling back across Europe to your parents’ house in England, before those existential questions show up once more – and the whole game starts all over again.
When visiting the UK earlier this year, I popped over to Oxford Bike Works to catch up with Richard Delacour and to check out a prototype of the new Expedition Disc touring bike he’s been working on.
This disc-equipped specification will be part of Richard’s custom-built bike lineup as of 2019, so I wanted to share some insights on what else makes this new touring bike different from the original Expedition and, perhaps more interestingly, why he decided to go down the disc brake route after years of steering clear of them (neither pun intended).
Why Put Disc Brakes On An Expedition Touring Bike?
First and foremost, lest riders of the original Expedition be alarmed, the Expedition Disc is not a replacement or an upgrade over the Expedition. It’s just a bike for a slightly different type of rider and tour.
Richard and I originally conceived Tom’s Expedition Bike, which became the Oxford Bike Works Expedition, as the ‘ultimate expedition touring bike’, in which simplicity and durability were paramount for a ride of months or years through the back of beyond. The original Expedition remains absolutely my go-to bike for this particular type of tour.
The Disc, on the other hand, was born out of a growing demand Richard was experiencing for a bike that would suit a rider who also had a lot of long-distance riding in mind, but perhaps over a series of shorter, more adventurous trips. They might also be considering throwing some dirt-road touring into the mix, and could therefore feel comfortable with a little more mechanical complexity in exchange for better braking performance in specific situations.
Given the changing priorities of many of today’s bicycle travellers, therefore, it made sense to tailor a bike to better suit this growing community of riders.
The Durability Of Disc Brakes On Long-Distance Cycle Tours
As longer-term readers might remember, part the rationale for sticking with rim brakes on the Expedition was the relative lack of proven durability and reliability of any particular model of disc brake on ultra long-distance tours in the developing world.
The picture today is different: cable-actuated disc brake technology has come of age. Models such as the Avid BB7, Hayes CX and TRP Spyre have been showing up on the spec sheets of disc-equipped world tourers from the big commercial manufacturers for several years, with few significant issues reported, and spares are a lot easier to find as a result of the increased global availability of high-end bikes and parts.
Some riders will no doubt chime in here to say that they’ve been running discs for much longer than that. I too was touring on hydraulic discs – of all things – as far back as 2007, perhaps ill-advisedly (though I still use that same set of brakes on my bikepacking rig today).
But that’s the point: these disc brakes have proven themselves over enough time and miles for even the most conservative bike designers to now consider specifying them on flagship touring models like the Expedition Disc – the TRP Spyres, in this case.
There’s also the option for early adopters to try out the rather amazing-sounding Juin Tech R1cable-actuated hydraulic calipers that have recently found huge favour with the cyclocross community.
With discs, the tolerances involved mean that they tend to rub on occasion, especially when the frame flexes under stress. The rotors can be rather vulnerable, especially when the bike is disassembled for transportation (fixing a bent rotor is almost impossible). It’s also true that, in the majority of regular touring scenarios, they don’t actually offer significantly improved braking over rim brakes. Let’s not forget that rim brake-equipped bikes have been taking people round the planet for over a century.
But I see the ever-increasing popularity and accessibility of shorter, more adventurous tours off the beaten track as a good reason to offer them. A set of properly set-up and bedded-in disc brakes offer significantly better modulation, slightly more power, and generally better performance in the mud and wet. I’m also much more confident in the durability of the components and the availability of spare parts than I was just a few years ago.
Disc-Specific Frames & Forks For Touring Bikes
Disc brakes do, of course, call for a frame and fork that are built for the job. This isn’t just about having bolts in the right places. Because the position of the brake calipers is much closer to the axles, the act of braking exerts a stronger rotational force on the wheel attachment points of frame. So it’s not just a case of welding new disc brake mounts onto a frameset that was designed for rim brakes.
To that end, the new Oxford Bike Works Expedition Disc frames will be individually fillet-brazed from Reynolds 525 and 631 chromoly tubing by a UK-based master frame-builder.
To keep prices from soaring (as tends to happen with made-to-measure framesets), they’ll be batch-produced in Richard’s already-popular range of four sizes, so he can continue to offer value for money while at the same time customising and fitting each bike to order (which was what impressed me most about his approach in the first place). The frames themselves will continue to come with the same 10-year warranty as before.
While both the 26-inch and 700c frame geometries will be essentially the same as those of the Expedition, the stiffer disc mount-equipped fork and rear triangle will make for an ever-so-slightly less springy ride, as is the case with disc-specific frames in general (though if you can accurately tell the difference in a double-blind test I will personally mail you an extra-large Snickers as a prize).
Three frame colours are available: the ever-popular red gloss, a new semi-matt khaki green, and anthracite grey. Custom colours and decals have proved surprisingly popular on the Expedition – maybe because if you’re buying a bike for life, you might as well really make it your own – and so this will continue to be an optional extra.
A final reminder that each of Richard’s bikes is fitted in-person to each customer’s size and body shape and built to their preferences, so if there’s anything you don’t like or you have any special request, you can just ask him, and – if it’s possible – it shall be done.
Yes, it’s the time of year when every author needs to come up with a gift idea…
Not wanting to break tradition, I’ve got a handful of paperbacks of my first book Janapar: Love on a Bike to autograph and sell at a discount. I do think a signed edition would make a nice Christmas present for an armchair traveller, don’t you…?
To keep things manageable, I’m limiting it to 100 copies (of which 95 are left at the time of posting) to UK addresses only, so get your orders in ASAP if you’re interested.
Click here for full details and to place an order. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
The very first edition of Trailblazer’s Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, compiled by veteran bicycle traveller Stephen Lord, didn’t just help me plan my first big journey; it actually inspired that ride’s very conception.
I can barely believe that that guide has just seen the publication of its third edition. Have I really been doing this for that many years?!
Now with Neil and Harriet Pike (of Pikes On Bikes fame) at the helm, the new edition has been totally revised and updated in light of the changing nature of what’s possible on a bicycle, given a map of the world and a limitless imagination.
It’s still packed full of pre-trip planning advice, as well as the guide’s great strength, which has always been the comprehensive worldwide route planning guide.
They’ve very kindly allowed me to reproduce here my own contribution to the third edition of the guide – a new section dedicated to cycle touring in the little-visited nation of Armenia:
Armenia is sometimes perceived as an unnecessarily mountainous alternative to Azerbaijan when it comes to getting from Georgia to Iran, but it’s actually a worthy cycling destination in its own right. Visas on arrival for most nationalities, stunning mountain landscapes, numerous scenic detours, a rich and tumultuous national heritage, and some of the best-preserved Soviet architecture around are all reasons you might choose to pay this little Caucasian republic a visit.
Routes through the country are more varied in the north, with multiple crossing points from Georgia and several options from there onwards. Maps indicate that stunning road via Noyemberian crosses Azeri territory; with the border conflict a stalemate for decades it’s rarely a problem to travel this route, though you’d be well advised not to venture into no-mans-land. The land borders between Armenia and both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain firmly shut, so overland routes are only possible between Georgian and Iran, whatever your maps may suggest.
Up-and-coming Yerevan is worth a visit; the Genocide Museum sheds lights on the country’s historical woes. As well as possessing a small handful of bike shops and mechanics, it’s also a reliable pick-up point for Iranian visas. If you don’t want to lose an entire kilometre in altitude, however, you can bypass the city on a scenic route via the eastern shore of Lake Sevan, and maybe spot an old Silk Road caravanserai or two on the way over from Martuni to Yeghegnadzor.
The route south to the Iranian border is fairly non-negotiable; only one through route crosses this formidable territory. It’s shared with the trickle of goods traffic to and from Iran, as well as bus services between Yerevan and Tabriz/Tehran, so there are hitching opportunities if the climbs get too much. Expect to tackle five extremely long and challenging mountain passes, the biggest of which is a non-stop ascent from 700m to over 2,500m in altitude.
Detours are usually worth taking; the minor roads are often in a state of disrepair, but they’re much quieter, and as usual it’s here that the memorable and unexpected of Armenia is to be found: lush mountainside forests, naturally-carbonated mineral water springs and thermal baths, ancient monasteries perched on the most unlikely of precipices, and a rural welcome as warm as any you’ll find in the Middle East.
If you’ve time, a side trip to the Mountainous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh in the local language) will unearth an isolated, time-warped version of Armenia proper; a de facto independent nation unacknowledged on any maps other than Armenia’s own. Decades of fruitless territorial bickering have resulted in a stunning mountain landscape left to flourish with little in the way of modern development, and people even warmer and more receptive to tourists than those in Armenia itself. Watch where you camp; minefields do still exist and are marked as such.
Visas for Karabakh are easily procured at the country’s sole embassy on Nairi Zaryan Street in Yerevan. Having any evidence of a visit to Karabakh in your passport will exclude you entirely from entry to Azerbaijan. Don’t be tempted to try any route in or out of Karabakh other than the prescribed one between Goris and Stepanakert; at least not unless you fancy looking down the barrel of an Azeri-wielded Kalashnikov.
In terms of national and international transport, Yerevan is now well-served by budget airlines from Europe, Dubai and various Russian airports. Minibus services – mashrutkas – can usually be persuaded to carry bicycles, running all over the nation from a variety of bus depots in Yerevan, as well as to neighbouring capital cities. The sleeper train between Tbilisi and Yerevan is an experience all of its own, and relatively easy to wangle a bicycle onto too.
Get your copy of the 3rd edition of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook from Amazon.co.uk*.