Gear Fix

October 21, 2010

This info first appeared on my original blog waaaaay back in October 2010, and is entirely out of date at this point. BUT-it's still a good starting point for understanding gear selection. I hope to get to a full update soon.

 

Hardly a hardcore cyclist or shop-talking gearbuff, I began planning for the CWU project with the vague notion that I would have to buy a touring bike with racks, some bags and a few other odds and ends. After wearing out my credit card and spending countless hours in gear shops and reading product reviews online, I finally have the bike outfitted and ready. I'm still looking for a scale, but I reckon that the fully loaded Surly Long-Haul Trucker (including 3 full water bottles) weighs-in at almost 100 pounds-before I sit on it.

This post is for those of you interested in understanding some of the technical issues involved in living on a bike for 5+ weeks and traveling 1,700+ miles through all types of weather and terrain. It's a breakdown of the gear attached to the bike, and also describes some of the equipment I'm taking along. While none of the listed manufacturers (nor any unlisted manufacturer, for that matter) is sponsoring the project at this point, I am humbly and enthusiastically accepting applications for such, and will cheerfully place your brand and product name in hot pink italics (along with a smiley face icon) upon signing a contract and accepting your generous and lucrative support.

 

I suppose the bike itself is a good place to start:

 

2010 Surly Long Haul Trucker

My ride is a Surly Long Haul Trucker, 54cm frame with 26" wheels. These pics show the bike as naked as it gets without having to cut or unscrew anything. This bike has a superb reputation among bike tourists. I chose the LHT because: it has a strong steel frame which is *easily* weldable/repairable if it happens to break (but it won't break), it's mid-priced as far as tourers go, it has an extended wheelbase so that I can mount my rear panniers without worrying about my heels hitting the bags as I pedal, and it has plenty of bosses and eyelets (places to screw stuff onto the bike). I bought the bike assembled, meaning it came with handlebars, gear shifters, etc (but not racks). 

 

 

I liked the fact that I could get a 26" wheel on the 54cm frame, since that's the size of wheel that is most common around the world, and if I ever take the bike on overseas tours it should be easy to find inner tubes and tires that fit. Also, smaller wheels are generally stronger than larger wheels.

 

 

 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

If I had it to do over, I would have paid for a professional fit before buying the bike, and I would have bought only the frame, to which I would have separately researched, purchased and then added myself all of the components that worked best for my type of tour. That takes a really, really long time, though, and I was in a bit of a rush at the time (so if you plan on going this route, be sure to get started months in advance of your tour). The 54cm frame is a bit small for me, so I've had to modify the seatpost. Also, I think the drop handlebars that come with the LHT pre-built are much too uncomfortable for long-distance touring. I've replaced them with a Nashbar trekking bar. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lights

                                                                                                                                        Front Navigation

The handlebar-mounted Planet Bike Blaze 1-Watt LED headlight should be useful when I'm trying to squeeze in those last few miles at the end of the day. I don't know how well it works since I actually haven't had to use it, as all of my night-riding thus far has been under streetlights. The light can be easily removed by pressing a clip, with the mounting bracket staying in place. The mounting system is so-so. It has a cam-locking system that allows it to be easily removed as well, but that's somewhat redundant since the light itself is easily removable from the bracket. Also, I've hit the quick-release on the mount three times already by accident, causing the clamp to loosen and the bracket to come close to falling off the handlebar. It has three modes: low, high and flashing. The latter is probably too intense, so I use a different light for safety, with the Blaze acting only as my navigation headlight. 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

It's a nice light, but there are much brighter, lighter and longer-life LED lights out there nowadays. I'm too cheap to upgrade, though. 

 

Front Safety (blinking)

 

This little flashing light made by Planet Bike has a unique place among my gear, as it was not by my choice but at the behest of providence that it became part of my setup. That's because I found it on the ground one day as I was walking along the National Mall. It had no mounting hardware, so I almost threw it away, but my zeal for thrift and jury-rigging made me reconsider. My patented attachment system consists of a hose clamp, Gorilla glue and a zip tie, and has worked great so far. It's actually the perfect complement to my over-achieving navigation headlight, which works great as a spotlight but is simply too bright as a flashing safety light. I surely endorse safety, but don't think it's fair to drivers that I look like an emergency vehicle in order to do so. 

 

*Update (after tour #1)

This bad boy is still going strong. 

 

 

 

Rear Safety 

Also a Planet Bike light, this LED flashing red light, the "Blinky 3" model, is designed to mount on a seat post or (I think) clip to a helmet. Since my sleeping bag and pad blocks the seat post, and I can't find anywhere else to mount it, I just clip it onto the strap on the back of my helmet at night, and that seems to work out just fine. 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

That was a decent idea but not the best. I've since cut a slit into my plastic rear fender through which the light mount permanently sits, turning the Blinky into a fixed tail light. I've also updated my helmet to a much safer MIPS-equipped bright orange mountain bike style. 

 

 

 

 

Panniers

 

I tried calling the bags that hold all of my gear "saddlebags" one time at a bike shop, just for fun. The icy stare that I got in return taught me that I had to respect the lingo. I heard somewhere that they're called 'panniers' because the French traditionally used them to haul around bread (au pain) on their bikes. That's cool, I guess. Maybe one day, in honor of me, they will be called "Tonsofrandom****iers".

 

Probably the first decision to make in selecting panniers is waterproof vs. non-waterproof. Seems like an easy choice at first, but what's best for you will depend on how you want to pack. The advantages of waterproof bags are obvious, but in order to be waterproof, a bag can't really have any zippers or multiple pockets, so what you get is generally just one big compartment that loads from the top. This can be annoying when searching for your toothbrush that happens to be at the bottom of the bag. A non-waterproof bag with multiple pockets and zipper access means you can pack lots of little things and get to them quickly without having to unpack the entire bag. I decided on a combination of the two styles. 

 

Front

 

I spent hours and hours looking for the perfect panniers online. Prices ranged from $15 to $150+ each for front bags. I finally settled on the rather expensive but purportedly top-of-the-line Arkel Grand Touring series for my fronts. These guys seem really well built: the fabric is tough, the zippers feel solid and the mounting system works well (though I think I prefer the Ortlieb's locking system). They aren't waterproof but have the multiple pockets I mentioned, and come with a permanently-attached internal (supposedly) waterproof bag that is quite spacious. One of my Arkels is the special backpack model which has backpack straps stowed under velcro flaps so that it can be carried as soon as you take it off of the bike. My plan is to use that pannier as my kind of overnight-bag, meaning it's packed so that it's the only bag I necessarily have to remove each night when I pull into my sleeping location (wherever that happens to be). I chose different colors for each pannier so that I could easily distinguish between the two when everything is in a heap on the ground. 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

The internal waterproof bag for these panniers is useless. Even if your stuff inside the waterproof bag stays dry (it won't in a downpour), everything else in the bag gets soaked. I ordered Arkel's yellow external waterproof covers and had them sent to me mid-tour. They've worked okay.

 

 Rear

 

Described alternately as bomb-proof, bullet-proof and the pannier, the Ortlieb Bike Packer Classics I have on the rear rack are definitely solid bags. They are completely waterproof and have a great system that locks them onto the rack but that comes unlocked with a simple tug of the lifting strap (similar to the Arkels). They also have big reflectors on the sides, which I like. The only complaint I have so far is that their secondary stay system, essentially just an adjustable plastic hook-like clip, has not done well in staying in place (it comes away from the rack if I hit a big bump), but this may be an issue I can resolve by adjustment of the clip. 

 

*Update

Highly recommend these tough little suckers. Once I had them filled up and adjusted the clips, I think they only bounced off of my rack once during a fall. Only downside thus far is that the plastic side-clip is eating through my aluminum racks.  I suspect that's more a problem with the rack than the pannier, though. 

 

 

Racks  

 

After lots of research, I finally threw up my hands and let the local bike shop choose my racks. The rear rack is a Jandd Expedition. I like this rack, especially the flat top which makes it easy to carry my tent. Some of the weld points seem like they are in the perfect place to block my pannier hooks, but that's easy to work around by re-positioning the hooks on the pannier itself. The front rack is the Jandd Low, and I'm fairly satisfied with it. I would have liked to have found a rack with a flat top (but maybe it's just as well I didn't, so that I don't load it up with more stuff). The big design oversight I find with this rack is that it fails to take into account that many front panniers use a hook attached to a bungee as their secondary lower stay. I'd seen other racks that have two knobs spaced about 2 inches apart that are designed to keep that hook from sliding up the side of the rack. The Jandd lacks these knobs and, surprisingly, the hook on my panniers sometimes slides up the side of the rack. 

 

 

 

 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

These Jandd racks are aluminum, which makes them light but also not very strong, and impossible to fix (weld) in a pinch. I noticed halfway through my first tour that my pannier stays were grinding down the metal at an alarming rate. I'm afraid they will break pretty soon. To prolong their life, I wrapped the problem areas in fiberglass and epoxy reinforced plumber's tape, which itself was a pretty bad idea. The tape doesn't really conform well to the small diameter of the rack tubing. My next fix will be twofold: 1) coat the damaged areas with a healthy dose of JB Weld to reinforce, and 2) cut lengths of vinyl or rubber tubing and slit them vertically to glue onto the rack tubing to prevent further damage and stave-off impending catastrophic failure.  I do, however, very much like the platform/shelf on top of my rear rack. Summary: get steel racks with at least one of them having a platform top. 

 

 

 

 

Strapped to the rear rack

 

Using two high-tech special-issue bungee cords, I have fastened to the rear rack, between the Ortlieb panniers, a Sierra Designs one-person tent (very lightweight...also dark in color in order to avoid drawing attention when stealth camping), a simple foam pad to isolate myself from the cold ground, and my Teva sandals, which I will gladly wear with socks in the cold—despite the stigma of looking like a suburban refugee—when wearing my biking shoes isn’t practical. 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

The Sierra Designs tent has been fantastic. The generic blue pad was a horrible idea--much too thin to be of any use. I've since replaced it with a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad. 

 

You'll notice that the gear on the rear rack was generally exposed to the elements. I had the tent wrapped in a plastic tarp inside the tent bag, with the tarp serving as a protective layer under the tent when set up. Another stupid idea. A number of times on the first tour I had to spread-out my tent to dry in a hotel room following a pouring rain while riding. I've since purchased a marine-grade drybag from Dick's sporting goods. It has thick, tough clear vinyl walls and a rolling top, and my tent fits in there perfectly. To protect the bag from UV damage, I put it inside an REI stuff sack before strapping everything to the rack. 

 

Additionally, I finally realized that a dedicated pair of sneakers weighs the same as those Tevas, which I had originally chosen as my sole set of alternative footwear because they were "light" and could be strapped to the rack and exposed to the elements without suffering damage. Now that I've added a waterproof bag to the rack, I may swap-out the Tevas for a more versatile set of shoes, if I can get them to fit. 

 

Auxiliary Brake Levers

 

 As an erstwhile mountain biker, I am not used to handlebars that curve downward with the brake levers in a vertical position far away from the stem, which is the typical setup for a road/touring bike. Instead of trusting my ability in an emergency braking situation to quickly remember and adjust to the different lever position, I thought it prudent to put a pair of levers where I was used to finding them: horizontally right next to the stem. After logging about 300 miles on the bike with this setup, I can’t say enough about the wisdom in doing this if you are also making the transition. These auxiliary in-line levers by Giant don’t replace, but compliment the primary levers, in that they install along the brake cable between the primary levers and the brakes, such that you have four working levers. I find that –even after becoming more accustomed to leaning forward and riding in with my hands on the curved part of the bar—I still almost always ride upright with my hands on the horizontal part of the bar, and I probably use these little levers at least 90% of the time. Definitely worth the $32 I paid for them. 

 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

I've completely revised my handlebar setup. These Grant levers earned a promotion to my now primary, and only, brake levers. I'll have pics and a review up soon. 

 

Phone/Navigation/Entertainment

 

I am continually impressed by the pace and scope of the changes in our lives brought on by the exponential growth of new technology. My new smartphone is the quintessential example of this trend. Doing what would have been impossible just a few years back, the HTC Evo that I will be carrying along will serve as my GPS navigation unit, voice recorder and audio editor, direct internet connection, wireless hotspot for my netbook internet connection, sometimes camera and video recorder, email manager, flashlight (in a pinch), mp3 player, and FM and internet radio. I will also use it, via GPS and cell phone tower triangulation, to track and log my rides and record the distance covered, average speed and altitude profile of my route.  I may even make a phone call from time to time. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a dozen more things that I’ll be doing with the phone but, suffice it to say, it’s an invaluable resource for pulling together the project into something I can share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found this generic case on eBay, and I think it's going to work better than the cockamamie phone-mounting scheme that was starting to hatch in my head. The mounting hardware will stay on the bike (after being sanded down to allow for brake lever clearance), and the waterproof case, through which my touch screen functions almost perfectly, can be removed and also swiveled around. Glare from the sun, which is primarily a phone problem, renders the entire setup virtually useless for on-the-go navigation and operation, however, and I and going to have to figure this one out. My current idea involves a  sleeve that I cut off of an old t-shirt that is supposed to act as a shade, but it's still in Beta. 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

That holster worked pretty well, but a much better solution is to get a waterproof phone, a shock-absorbing case that fits snuggly around its perimeter, and a handlebar mount that takes advantage of the fact that you can leave the phone exposed to the elements. I still haven't figured out how to beat the glare, though. The phone continues to be just about useless for a few hours in the middle of the day. 

 

Fenders

 

Though not a sexy subject, the utility-to-weight ratio of fenders is quite favorable; i.e. they weigh next to nothing but go a long way in improving the quality of your ride in wet conditions. An encounter with a leaky fire hydrant by an un-fendered front wheel can spray dirty water all over your white shoes and linen pants on the way to a gaudy summer Sunday brunch. The back fender is even more important, unless you enjoy looking like something of a reverse-skunk with a dark stripe of water up your back.

 The fenders I have are the Cascadia model from Planet Bike, and are working well and staying in place. The Surly is designed to have room for them; be sure to check your bike's wheel clearance before you go out and buy a set. My only complaint is that the fenders didn’t have any added reflectivity incorporated into the design; a little reflective patch added to the back of the rear fender would be ideal.

 

*Update(after tour#1)

No complaints-still love 'em. Watch out when riding over asphalt that is melting in the 95 degree sun, though, as it will start to build-up along the inside of the fenders as your tires peel it off of the road, and then rocks will get stuck up there. 

 

Tire Liners

 

I have no idea if these things are going to work or not. Although I am too lazy to deal with flat tires, I couldn't bring myself to fill my inner tubes with that gooey slime business, so I bought these plastic liners, made by the same company. They are supposed to form an impenetrable barrier between the inner tube and tire. My gut-skepticism is tempered by the simple logic of the system, but is then revived when my common-sense buffer kicks in: if such a simple system works so well, why don't all cyclists use it? We shall see.

 

*Update (after tour#1)

They didn't work very well after all. After multiple flats, I gave up and bought some puncture-resistant tires, the Armadillo model by Specialized. They've been so-so. I've read that Schwalbe Marathons are the best, and plan on switching to those as soon as the Armadillos wear out. Some cyclists like tubless tires filled with slime-I have no experience with that system. 

 

Pedals & Shoes

 

One of the toughest decisions I faced when planning my setup was selecting a pedaling system. The cyclist has an absurd range of options, but essentially the choice breaks down into four large areas. The first--normal platform pedals that everyone is familiar with--was easy to rule out. That’s because I was already used to the second option, which is a kind of strap-in system, either what I’ve always called ‘toe-clips’ (a kind of plastic cage that you put your foot into) or simpler straps that crisscross the pedal. I like this system better than platforms because the toe-clips keep your foot from slipping off of a wet pedal, and also allow you to convert some of your lifting force into forward motion instead of wasting it, as happens when your foot can't pull the pedal upward on a normal platform. The third option was to use what are non-intuitively called ‘clipless’ pedals, aka ‘eggbeaters’, which are tiny spring-loaded clips (I believe they are called 'clipless' because they are not toe-clips) popular with racers because they are light and clip into the bottoms of special shoes, providing a benefit similar to the toe-clips, but supposedly better, since the attachment is more secure. The problem with these is twofold: some say they are harder to get out of in a pinch (such that you fall down with your bike) and they require annoying shoes with metal cleats on the bottom that are useless for anything but biking—just as the pedals are useless without the shoes. The fourth option, which I didn’t know existed until I started researching, is the use of both a hybrid shoe and a hybrid pedal. I chose this option and have been happy with it. It didn’t take much to get used to, and I can certainly tell that my pedaling seems easier and more productive than with regular platforms. I’m not 100% convinced that there is a significant net benefit over toe-clips or straps, however, especially if you factor in the extra cost and maintenance of the clipless pedals, the extra weight of the hybrids, and inconvenience of needing special shoes. In any event, I’m sticking with the hybrid system, described below.  

 

Pedals

These Shimano PD-A530 dual-sided pedals are pretty rad. They have a platform on one side, which works just like a regular pedal with regular shoes. Flip the pedals over and you are now a serious cyclist with clips for your biking shoes. Although heavy, these pedals offer the best of both worlds, and I definitely endorse them for tourers who like the clipless system and who aren't too uptight about weight. Incidentally, toe-clip or strap pedals have a similar design by default, since the straps/toe-clips are only on one side of the pedal. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shoes

The natural complement to a hybrid pedal is, of course, a hybrid shoe. To be clear: the shoe/pedal combo is not specifically designed to only work in unison. Any biking shoe with a cleat (and SPD-type cleat, I believe) will work with the pedals above. But these Shimano SH-MT42NV shoes are nice because they have that cleat recessed into the tread of the shoe, allowing the wearer to walk around with only minimal clacking as the metal cleat occasionally hits the concrete, as opposed to a racing-style cleat shoe where the cleat is fully exposed. The rigid soles and the metal cleat mean that these shoes are not appropriate for use as a hiking or athletic shoe, or probably not even for walking around all day (certainly not on polished, granite, hardwood or linoleum floors), but they are fine for an hour or two off of the bike, and they look basically like a normal sneaker. My reasoning for choosing these shoes is that I don’t have to bring a separate pair of shoes on tour, which would add weight and especially volume. Instead, I just pack my Tevas as my extended off-bike footwear, which are light and can be strapped to the back of the bike since they’re essentially weather-proof.

*Update (after tour#1)

I have really liked these shoes. They're perfect for rides to the neighborhood bar when at home, too. I may swap out the Tevas for normal sneakers, though. 

 

 

Water

 

At first I was going to use only two water bottles, but during a 100-mile test ride from DC to Baltimore and back I realized how quickly I can go through a bottle of water, and so snagged the cage off of my mountain bike and affixed it to the bottom of the frame. The three cages (holders) I have are from Topeak, Planet Bike and Specialized. One of the plastic guides has already broken off of the Planet Bike cage, but it’s holding up fine. The other two are working well.

 

*Update (after tour#1)

I found that even with three bottles a touring cyclist can come up short when camping, so I bought a 1.5-liter Nalgene bottle and managed to stuff it into the Topeak adjustable cage with some cutting, grinding and bungee-ing. 

 

 

Saddle 

If one is going to splurge, I suppose one’s crotch is the place to do it. That hallowed maxim has served me well, at least in my purchase of the Brooks B-17 Flyer Special upon which my bottom will be sitting for many thousands of miles by the time it finally needs replacing (the saddle, that is).  Research in different fora concerning the best bike seat always led to the same place: a Brooks leather saddle—so that’s what I bought. While the Brooks costs about as much as one might spend on an entire kid's bike, I have yet to regret the expenditure, because my couple of weeks with the Brooks suggests that the hype is spot-on. My previous training rides of 14 miles or so per day with the stock saddle would leave my bottom sore, such that getting on the bike on the following day for another ride took a bit of courage and resolve. With the Brooks, even after a 100-mile round-trip test ride to Baltimore, I noticed very little discomfort in that sensitive area. I should update this after my 1,500 mile upcoming ride, but my hunch is that I will still be a very happy customer.

 

The B-17 is Brooks’ flagship model for tourers so, once deciding on a Brooks, the only real questions are color and springs or no springs. Springs add weight, but I read that they also do make a difference in improving comfort, so I opted for the springed Flyer model. In riding the bike, I couldn’t really tell if the springs were doing any work until one day, cutting across the National Mall to test the off-road handling of the loaded bike, I noticed it was a much smoother ride than I expected. My buddy George Place, who was riding behind me, reminded me why I was so comfortable: he saw that those springs were compressing and decompressing with every bump. 

 

I’ll wrap this up by pointing out that the Brooks’ simplicity is part of its beauty. It is essentially a piece of leather formed and stretched over a metal frame (with springs, in the case of the Flyer). I suspect that the smoothness of the leather is one factor in its comfort—it reduces friction and allows the bottom to move more freely along with the overall mass of the body, instead of slowing down the movement of the shorts and skin with friction as the body mass shifts around above. In any event, it works, and I highly recommend it. My standard caveat/complaint would only be that the Brooks—as with any leather item—can be a little fussy, and you will need to keep it dry and properly cared for in order to make it last. Also, I won't leave the bike sitting outside in the city without locking the Brooks using a cable and small padlock, so that's an added inconvenience of having a nice saddle as well. 

 

*Update (after tour#1)

No complaints, except that I think the brown seat would have looked sharper. 

 

The Flag

 

I fashioned this flagpole from one of those long-stemmed reflectors that folks who live in the country stick into the ground next to their driveways, but I sawed off the reflector. I ordered the six mini state flags online and was so happy when I realized I could just pull them off of their little cheap plastic flagpoles and slip them onto the....big cheap plastic flagpole, since the diameter of both poles was roughly the same. The pole is held to the bike with a zip tie and a hose clamp, such that it can be quickly removed in tight spots or unpatriotic areas.

 

*Update (after tour#1)

I moved the flagpole to the left side of the bike so that the fronts of the flags would be more prominent, and moved the overall pole up 6 inches so that more states would be visible. I also rigged up a more permanent flag-pole receiver using a random piece of plastic pipe.

 

 

I hope this info has helped you to better understand some of the technical issues that bike tourists have to take into account and resolve before setting off. If you have questions about anything here, or anything you didn't see, just send me an email (conversationswithus@gmail.com) and I'll do my best to answer.

 

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