2022 December-January Analysis Featured

Cycle Georgia – a guide to biking Tbilisi and beyond

Bike paths have continued to pop up around Tbilisi in recent years, offering city-goers a greener way to get around. But those looking for more of an adventure need not look much further than the city limits to experience stunning views and courses of varying difficulties.

With its many mountains, stunning lakes, and rolling hills, Georgia is a country that begs to be explored. Whether traversed by foot or explored at speed in an all-terrain vehicle, the breadth of Georgia’s landscapes offers tourists and locals alike an unparalleled view into the beauty of the natural world — complete with plenty of stops for local wine along the way.

One of the most interesting ways to see Georgia in its fullest is on the back of a bicycle. While beginners may opt for a path between towns on Georgia’s increasingly developed roadways, the more adventurous might select a daring trail through its slick-mud passes and rocky downhills.

Until recently, information about bike paths through Georgia has been limited to online forums and maps passed mostly between those already ‘in the know.’ Now, numerous people in Tbilisi and beyond are making efforts to spread awareness about Georgia’s bike trails, offering maps, knowledge, and tours to anyone interested in hitting the saddle and going for a ride.

One of those figures is Beka Kiknavelidze, founder of the Vake-based Bikes.ge. Launched in 2017, Bikes.ge claims to be one of the first bicycle shops in Georgia founded by, and for, cyclists. At their Vake storefront, customers can pick up a wide range of cycling equipment and get advice about the best spots to hit both in and outside the city.

Cycling near the city

In conversation, Kiknavelidze stresses that beginner and intermediate riders can have plenty of biking fun without leaving Tbilisi.

“From Turtle Lake, you can go to Udzo Monastery,” Kiknavelidze says. “It’s very physical with some technical sections. It’s single track, and you can have a good challenge there.”

Turtle Lake provides a central meeting point for many trails around Tbilisi, Kiknavelidze notes, with plenty of paths in the surrounding area for bikers of varying skill levels. However, given the manifold difficulty levels of these trails, it’s advisable to consult with a guide about a potential path before simply setting off to Turtle Lake.

For beginners, Kiknavelidze offers another option.

“There’s also another side at Lisi Lake,” he continues. “You can start up the mountain on the right side, and then go over to the Turtle Lake village. It’s a beginner to pre-intermediate level trail. In short, in Tbilisi, in our small town, we have wonderful mountain bike trails for beginners and intermediate riders, and also for advanced riders and experts.”

While Bikes.ge offers tours throughout these trails, Beka takes pains to note that Bikes.ge is not just a store or tour agency, but a community. To that end, the store has recently begun its own weekly bike meetup.

“All of our customers were asking, ‘where can we ride? Where can we use these bicycles?’” explains Kiknavelidze. While the company made efforts to chart out certain trails, they soon realized that they would need to do more to fully engage with their clientele. They quickly came up with their solution: group bike rides.

“Every Sunday, we’ve started to make bike trips to Turtle Lake,” Kiknavelidze details. “The main goal is to show customers different trails every week. Our reason, our ‘why,’ is to explore the unexplored trails around Tbilisi. With this, the community can grow together; we can start with ten people, and in time, it will transform to a hundred, two hundred.”

“All riders, beginners and above, will get a taste for new trails every time, either with an E-bike or a normal mountain bike,” he concludes. These trips begin in the morning between eight and nine o’clock and last three to four hours, Kiknavelidze says.

However, seasoned riders may be craving more than just a one or two day trip. For those with a truly adventurous spirit, they might want to consider heading to Saburtalo’s Mplus, founded by British immigrant James Dean.

Biking plays an important role in Dean’s life; after all, it’s the reason he ended up in Georgia in the first place. In his telling, Dean’s journey to Georgia began after he decided to travel from the UK to Hong Kong by bicycle. Upon arriving in Turkey, he met a Georgian woman named Natia who convinced him to visit her native country — a place he confesses he knew next to nothing about at the time.

Once he arrived in Georgia, he was in love – both with the country’s extraordinary nature and the woman who brought him there. The rest of the bike trip was canceled, and after joining with some local adventurers to run a small outdoors equipment rental shop, he grew the company into what is known today as Mplus — marrying Natia along the way.

Much like Kiknavelidze, Dean notes that there are plenty of trails around Tbilisi for riders of all skill levels looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Kojori, he says, is a local favorite.

“You can ride lots and lots of single track all the way back down from Kojori into Vake Park,” he explains. “There’s actually a ropeway where you can put your bikes in at Vake Park, and they give you preference [as a cyclist]. You can jump the queue, throw your bike on…and then you can cycle up to Kojori. If you’re a strong cyclist, it probably takes you three hours to get up to Kojori, and then about half an hour to get back down. And then you can do multiple trips up and down different ways.”

This trip can have an almost poetic quality, he says. “It’s quite strange, because once you get over the ridge, all the city noise completely stops,” he states. “It’s like a barrier between you and the city, and it’s just super peaceful. Then, when you’re coming back down, you’ve got all this nice peaceful forest to come through: lots of twisty, rootsy, single track, And then you come over the ridge again and all the horns and noise of the city starts again. It’s quite bizarre, actually. It’s like an on/off switch.”

Biking beyond Tbilisi

Outside of Tbilisi, Dean raves about the biking opportunities in Tusheti, a largely-preserved natural area in northeast Georgia.

“I think they get between 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year,” he says of the region. “On the trails that we work on, that we do tours on, you don’t see anybody for a week, apart from shepherds and maybe some border guards.”

Dean and the Mplus team offer numerous tours through the region, ranging from fast-paced downhills through winding ravines to multi-day treks that include portions in which bikes must be carried on horseback.

“We throw the bikes on horses, and we go up to the Atsunta Pass,” he details. “That’s at three and a half thousand meters, so it takes us a few days to get up there, and then we ride from that…It’s about seven hours riding downhill.”

As the location is a place dear to the company’s life and work, Mplus has made efforts to give back to its economy and preservation.

“One percent of our turnover goes directly into the Tusheti National Park. We give that to the Caucasus Nature Fund,” Dean explains. “It’s an important thing from our perspective. We also obviously bring money in from tourists with the local guest houses — we’ve got a very good connection with the local guest houses, local guides, and local drivers, so there’s a lot of money that we put in there.”

And for those riders who aren’t exactly sure what they want, Dean says that while the company has set tour routes, local biking guides throughout Tbilisi are always happy to help when it comes to trip preparation, assisting interested bikers in planning their own custom treks through the Georgian wilderness.

“We get a lot of people who are coming in on business and they say, you know, ‘I’ve got a couple of days at either end of my business trip and I’d like to do some mountain biking. What have you got?’ And we just organize,” he shares. “We speak to them and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we can offer you.’”

While the cycling and mountain biking community may have been small only a decade ago, the interest area appears to be hitting its stride, with numerous other cycling groups and bike rental shops popping up over the past few years. Now, it’s clear that no matter the season, no matter the skill level, Georgia has the perfect path for any cyclist.

Interested bikers can visit Bikes.ge in Vake at 51 Irakli Abashidze Street, or Mplus in Saburtalo at 25 Vazha Pshavela Ave. Bikes.ge is available via Instagram at @bikes_ge, and Mplus at @shop.mplus.ge. If you are interested in a tour, reach out to Bikes.ge by phone at +995 551 26 37 37, or Mplus at (+995 32) 2319101. Bikes and other bike-related gear are available for rent at both locations.