Andy Cox: blazing a trail through Europe’s double tracks

Andy Cox (@doubletrackfanatic) is one of Tailfin’s real world testers. A true adventurer, he has been riding around Europe since 2017 and has clocked up 65,000km on his bike. While on the road, he hasn’t wasted his time and has put together the European Divide Trail – an 8,000km off-road route that links the north east of Europe (Norway) to the south west (Portugal). Check out @europeandividetrail for more about this incredible route.

We caught up with him to find out more about his life on the bike and how it’s been affected by lockdown. 

How did you get into bikepacking? What started you off?

I started bikepacking after several years of short cycle touring adventures but feeling a bit disillusioned with riding a heavy and unwieldy bike around. I love riding off-road where I can, so I got a Bob trailer for my mountain bike but in many ways that was even worse than the touring bike: even heavier! 

I loved the freedom of bike travel and being able to just pitch my small nylon home wherever I wanted, but I just didn’t enjoy the cycling aspect, as the bike was always so heavy. I then saw some pictures in Singletrack magazine of someone’s bikepacking bike, with luggage that fit the frame better, was lighter and more capable, so I bought a sewing machine and made my own bags. 

For me, bikepacking needs a different mindset to touring as you have less space for equipment, but the bike is more fun to ride, so you can be more ambitious with your route selection. The bike feels more like a bike and less like a tank. 

How did your bikepacking journey around Europe come about?

After moving from Oxford to south Wales for easier access to the wild outdoors, I then became somewhat disenchanted by working in bike shops, which is as close to a career as I’ve ever had. I was able to buy a cheap house there and made the best move of my life up to that point, going part-time at my job. 

This made me realise what I had been missing most in my life, time to do what I wanted more, which was to ride my bike. I had always dreamt of living somewhere with better weather, big mountains, and more to explore, so when I had the opportunity to rent out my house, I then decided to find a new place to live, by bike, in Europe. I christened it “A Grand Adventure.”

Tell us about the European Divide Trail

The EDT was the route that I was looking for when I left on my adventures, three years and 65,000km ago. It didn’t really form in my mind as a possible route until last year when I was in northern Finland, and was in a way looking for a reason and for something to continue to motivate me to ride to Portugal, and keep with this idea all the way there. 

After looking at maps, I realised that I was not that far from the most northeastern point of Europe, Grense Jakobselv in Norway, and that the opposite end of Europe, Cape St Vincent in southwestern Portugal, was approximately 8,000km away. These were in a way just arbitrary points I chose, but also they weren’t the obvious ones, which would be Nordcap in Norway to Tarrifa in Spain. 

I had ridden several of the more established bikepacking routes in Europe and found them too challenging for long term travel. What I really wanted to create was an off-road touring route, more akin to the Great Divide MTB route in the USA, where the distance and logistics were the most of the challenge, rather than the technical trails and terrain.

The EDT was always going to be bigger than just one person though, so even though it’s completely self-financed, and it’s my own route planning and I’ve ridden it on my own, it’s all thanks to the messages of encouragement through social media, the nights hosted by strangers and the generosity of Tailfin and Bombtrack, that the project is now close to completion. 

Tell us about your kit – bike and luggage

My equipment has been, and still is, an evolving process. I’ve got less than I started with; less clothes, less clutter, more multi-use items, but it’s never a finalised set-up. Even day to day, I will change things around on the bike; so they fit better, are easier to access, or give me more room for food or more clothes. 

I ride a Bombtrack Beyond+ bike with a carbon fork, 1×11 gearing, Jones H-bars, and 27.5 x 2.8 Schwalbe G-One tyres. For luggage I have a homemade frame bag, a simple 20L dry bag strapped to the front and a Tailfin AeroPack Alloy S on the rear, with cargo cages on the front forks and the AeroPack support arches. 

I carry a Fujifilm XT-20 camera, with a kit lens in a hip pack, a phone, GPS, tripod and Kindle. I use a 28w solar panel for charging my electronics and a large cache battery, plus a bunch of other chargers and miscellaneous items. I use an old Hilleberg Akto tent and sleeping bag and mat by Forclaz (Decathlon). 

My other equipment changes as things wear out, so I’ve been shopping in Decathlon quite a bit as their outdoor equipment is generally cheap and good quality. Good equipment is a must, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be expensive. 

You work with both Bombtrack and Tailfin testing our products. In the course of the thousands of miles that you cover, what does that testing look like? What have you learned about testing gear?

For me, testing gear is more about just using it everyday than it is anything specific: what works every day is key to helping keep the journey going more than anything else. Testing is about finding out how a product feels to use it constantly, how my use evolves over time, and how a small change can make a big difference, to make it more useful. Also when you use something everyday it’s easy to see how a subtle change can have a big difference; one that the designer would potentially never think about. A bolt in a different place, or a wider hole for a strap can really help when you’re overloaded with food, or it’s raining and you’re tired, or when you have to lower the bike off a wall or lift it over a fence. 

Filling up the AeroPack right to the top with four days’ worth of food and then riding some technical trails really shows how weight distribution affects the handling and how strong the materials are. Bouncing down a 1,000m rocky descent and taking faith in your equipment is a great feeling, especially knowing that you’ve had some meaningful input into it to make it better for everyone.

Lockdown’s been a strange time. Can you tell us how it has impacted your plans?

I had planned to ride from Madrid to Oxford for Easter lunch but was stopped in my tracks by the lockdown here in Spain. Thankfully I was only a day and a half ride from some friends near Barcelona when the travel ban came into effect, so I was able to get to theirs in time. I have been staying in a teepee in their forest since. 

I’ve been keeping myself busy by cutting more than 2 kilometres of footpaths through their woodland, and building steps up through old olive terraces to access views from the cliffs nearby. I’ve also been helping with their website and social media marketing for their accommodation here in Pontons. 

The ban on exercise outdoors was really frustrating while it lasted, but I was able to ride once a week to the shops, taking the long way round to make the most of it. I’ve also discovered the joy of running for the first time, which is a great bonus. Being in nature and staying active are the only things that have kept me sane over the last few months, so I’m thankful to be where I am, with access into the forest directly from the teepee, while still staying on their land. 

I still have some route finding and making to do for the EDT, as I’m not happy with the parts through France and Germany yet. I hope to be able to finish this off this summer, but it’s going to be a slow and complicated process with borders being closed still. 

It sounds like you’ve got big plans for 2021. Can you tell us more about them, and how you’re preparing for them this year?

I’m planning to set up a race along my route next year, but I’m not keen on the way other races are getting abused by some people, with performance-enhancing drugs being used and outside assistance being sought. I’m thinking about a more relaxed approach, in an Audax/Brevet non-competitive style, where the onus is on fair play rather than the fastest time. People will always want to race and push themselves, but it needn’t be dangerous or excessive. I’m not sure quite how to approach this concept in the right way yet, but I’ve got some help from my supporting partners, so I’m sure we’ll work out a good way to run the event. 

I plan to make a film of the route to inspire people to ride or race it someday, so now I’ve got to work out how to get to northern Norway while there’s a travel ban across most of Europe! Some lateral thinking will be required. I’d like to extend the EDT route to the south east and north west of Europe in the future, so I’m looking into ways to continue this process over the next few years, as I really don’t want to go back to the 9 to 5. 

Some people have said that I’m “living the dream”, but to that I say: “Forget dreams, make plans.” 

Andy rides with Tailfin’s AeroPack Alloy S for its reliable and rigid seatpack capabilities.

Thanks again Andy for talking to us, and sharing your experiences.

@doubletrackfanatic | @europeandividetrail

For more information on the AeroPack Alloy S rigid seat pack, including features and reviews, click the link below.

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