Armenian adventures: behind the scenes of Ascend Armenia

This summer R&D Division rider Jay Petervary had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Caucasus region to scout the Ascend Armenia bikepacking route along with Rodeo Labs founder Stephen Fitzgerald. This is his story of the trip, the reasons behind the development of the route and the plan to turn it into a new ultra-endurance race.

Why Armenia?

The idea for Ascend Armenia came about when Stephen’s dad, Tom Fitzgerald, moved to Armenia and started dreaming up a bikepacking experience that would show off the country’s beautiful scenery, people, and culture. He has explored almost every dirt road, shepherd’s path, and double track in the country, and when Stephen visited with some friends to bikepack around the area in 2021, it sealed the deal: this is a great place for a long-distance event. Together they put together a cool route; then, I got to join in on the action this August to ride every bit of the proposed course alongside Stephen. 

The best thing about traveling for bike races is immersing yourself in a new place. Armenia has a rich history and you get to see glimpses of it on the route, from archaeological sites to very early Christian missions. Armenia is a unique country in the Caucasus region, surrounded by neighbours with differing religious and political views, and there has been tension on the borders for over a century, but it felt very safe with only some military presence, and the route avoids border checkpoints. As an isolated, ignorant American I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the country from the people who live there. 

There are farms everywhere, even on the steep hillsides, and we were traveling during harvest season, which was really cool to see. Because Ascend Armenia will take place in the growing season (the race begins on June 25, 2023), the whole country will be jaw-droppingly green with tons of wildflowers. 

We considered the ride from the viewpoint of both the first-place finisher and the last-place rider. We made some changes to improve the experience for everyone (mostly removing any excess hike-a-bikes and bushwhacks). The final route is 700 miles with 81,000 feet of climbing. So, a ton of vert. But it’s almost entirely rideable–we really weren’t looking to put on an endurance hike-a-bike race or make people wade across raging rivers. 

Gravel bike or MTB for Ascend Armenia?

We have had many people ask us how Ascend Armenia compares with a race like the Silk Road Mountain Race. The answer is it will be quite different. There won’t be a lot of enormous mountain passes and also no long flat valleys. You’re either going uphill or downhill the entire time. Because there is a lot of agriculture in Armenia, most roads are made of dirt instead of rocks. I rode a hardtail mountain bike with 29 x 2.1″ wheels/tyres, and Stephen rode a drop bar bike with 650b x 2.35″ wheels/tyres, and I don’t feel like one bike had a significant advantage over the other, so people should ride what they’re most comfortable with in Armenia. 

Unique Armenian experiences

At one point, after we left the busy capital and rode into the remote countryside, we saw a drunk driver tearing toward us across the tundra. I had a pretty good idea of what this guy wanted from us: drinking buddies. Turns out I was right, and although we declined the vodka, we did find out from talking to him that he was fluent in Spanish because he had spent time herding sheep in South America. There were lots of shepherds up in the hills, along with their sheep and their dogs, something I am familiar with from the Rockies but is a good thing to be aware of. If you don’t run away from the dogs, behave erratically, or act like you’re threatening their herd, they probably won’t give you a problem. 

I don’t usually have digestive issues when I’m travelling but for people who might be concerned: through the whole trip, none of us got sick, even though we weren’t even being overly paranoid about cleanliness–we ate fruit, drank tap water, and were totally fine. There are many water sources on the route, and there aren’t any super remote segments where you ride for days without resupply opportunities. 

Obviously, be prepared and be flexible, but also be ready to meet people along the way and enjoy their hospitality and great conversation. Some Armenians speak English; many are multilingual, well-travelled, and well-educated. We stayed at several guest houses and were always treated with extreme generosity–even when we got moving at 5 a.m. and insisted we didn’t need breakfast, our host would still get up and heat water or cook for us, using ingredients from their garden or just down the road. 

So many people use bikepacking races to explore somewhere unfamiliar that they wouldn’t otherwise go. On top of solo and duo categories, Ascend Armenia has a relay category so riders can still be part of the event and see the area while only competing in half the race. 

The point of Ascend Armenia is to build the cycling community and prosperity within the country and make it a destination for bike touring. My favourite part of the trip was watching a local cross-country bike race on our last day and seeing how much passion and enthusiasm there was for cycling. 

The Ascend Armenia team is led by Tom and a native Armenian, Tatev, who is key to this whole endeavour. She’s tough and smart and super detail-oriented and has really taken the reins on the ground. The team is communicating with government officials, investing locally instead of sending event money to Western banks, getting permits, connecting with people in even the most remote villages on the course, and thoroughly vetting the route. 

Nothing matches the experience of attending a first-year event–it’s so cool to be a part of and isn’t something you can ever repeat. But even though this will be a first-year event, it will not be chaotic or disorganized. Never have I witnessed such a dialled event with so much taken into consideration–there are always surprises in race organizing, but they’ve left nothing to chance.

I am humbled and proud to say that the team has asked me to be a part of the pre-planning process leading up to the start and to act as, for lack of a better title, “Race Director” with boots on the ground while the race is in motion. I feel I have a lot to offer with all my varied racing experience and personal event organizing, and I’m excited to be on board with Ascend Armenia.

For more information on the Ascend Armenia race and to register for the inaugural edition in 2023, head to the Ascend Armenia website.