Non-stop gravel riding from Norway to Portugal: Meet the European Divide Trail

Andy Cox has left his home in south Wales in 2017. Since then he's been linking gravel tracks around Europe

This article was produced in association with Velocio

Imagine leaving everything behind – your home, your possessions, your friends – and starting cycling for days, weeks, months, and years. Imagine cycling, your passion, becoming your purpose. You wake up in the morning, cycle, stop, eat, and sleep. And the next day, you do it all over again. Forever. 

Wouldn't that be the dream?

One person who can answer that question is Andy Cox, who has been doing this since 2017. He'd decided he needed a break from the same old routine and wanted to get on his bike and discover Europe on two wheels – and since then, he hasn't stopped. "I was just a bit bored of the UK," he admits. "And then Brexit came along. And I thought, well, I better just go and see what Europe was like before I didn't have a chance to travel so easily."

However, his initial mission, simply wandering, has also become a service for the growing gravel community. It's also become a project backed by bike companies, like Velocio, Komoot, Bombtrack, Hunt Wheels and Tailfin.

"I left my home in South Wales in the UK in 2017, and I've just ridden randomly around for two years trying to find nice places and ride different routes," says Cox.Cox – who has worked as a bike mechanic, MTB guide and bike shop manager in the past – started by renting out his home to get things going. Those funds helped him for the first four years of his adventure. Then he decided to sell his house to keep cycling.

"I've done some rubbish jobs in the past, and I've made this job myself," he says. "So I figured, well, if I'm spending some money now on doing this, this thing that I love, then, you know, so be it."

Cox had originally decided to cycle without real purpose for eight months of the year and rest for the other four, which is still his routine these days.

However, his rides across Europe started to connect and link somehow. The random unpaved tracks Coz was cycling on evolved, bit by bit, into a long parcours dividing the European continent, north to south. That was the beginning of the European Divide Trail, a 7.500 km of unpaved roads stretching from Grense Jakobselv, a small village on the Barents Sea in the far north of Norway, to Cabo São Vicente, Portugal's and Europe's southwesternmost point.

Yet, despite having been on the road since 2017, Cox – courtesy of the pandemic, too – was only able to finish its own European crossing last year. 

"Last year, I finished it and released it, but only one person wrote the whole thing, a Czech woman named Jana Liška," he says. "But it didn't go that well because I had some issues with the routing. I was making sure that all of the turnings were right. Still, when you have 7,500 km, inevitably, some turnings will not be perfect."Cox left Norway in August and arrived in Portugal in November, but he says it was already a bit cold. That's why he suggests people start the trail in late May or early June (if beginning in Norway) or – if they kick off from Portugal and then head up north – from late March or early April.

The goal of his trail – which takes its name and inspiration from the relatively non-technical Great Divide MTB trail in the USA – was to find easier and more accessible routes. He had ridden several single-track trails in the past (or even hard gravel ones) and found them too hard to enjoy with a heavy bike and bags. And that's why he first and foremost avoided going through the Alps.

"I've been a mountain bike guide in the French Alps, and I liked riding single track, but it's not a sustainable day in and day out. The bike will take a pounding; you're going to take a pounding. It's quite dangerous," he says. "So I wanted to find quiet roads, cycle tracks, and a bunch of dirt roads that were relatively straightforward to ride.

He started to map his track by riding an off-road motorbike route called the Trans Euro Trail, which crosses several European countries for a total of 37,000 km. "I thought, well, if you can ride it on a motorbike with luggage, you can definitely ride it on a relatively normal off-road bike," he says. But it's still no walk in the park. It's a long, often remote off-road track for expert riders."I wanted to make the challenge more about the logistics, finding food and water, and finding a way to sleep," he says. "The track crosses so many different time and weather zones, and the highest parts are in eastern Spain, up to 2000 meters. So they can still be freezing in the middle of May, and then there can be snow by October." 

Cox also wanted to avoid major tourist destinations. Although the European Divide Trail goes through towns, he tried to avoid them whenever possible.

"But I also wanted to go to more empty places in Europe and less of the kind of tourist hotspots," he says. "So the route might go through a few cities, but they're normally not on people's radar as a holiday destination. And if there is one, I tend to miss them out."

Divide, a popular name in trans-continental cycling events, also stands for crossing different countries and cultures, together with their distinct political and economic differences. Cox sees it as an alternative way to "weave the history of this varied land" and "try to dispel the reality of the international borders, and create an adventurous route with a European style to it."If you're daunted by the sheer length of the trail, you can take it in smaller chunks. The Northern Section will lead you through the Scandinavian forests, lakes and rivers in Norway, Finland and Sweden; the Central Section passes through flat lands and high plateaus in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and France; and the Southern Section will provide dry and rocky scenery through France, Spain and Portugal.

And if so far only two people have ridden the whole thing, more will become finishers by the end of the year, as Cox says there are at least 30 other people on the trail as we speak. More will also join the shortlist in the future because Cox is still pedalling to find and link new off-road tracks. It has become his job and mission. He wakes up, cycles 8-10 hours, stops, eats, sleeps, and repeats. Monday to Friday, eight months per year.

Will it be forever?

"I'm 44 now, and I'm in the right frame of mind and fitness level to ride a heavy bike around," he says. "So I'd like to keep doing this. I still have many plans and places I want to go to."

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