Let’s talk Gear (and find out how it’s worked)
I’ve been meaning to do this more on a regular basis – but I’ve just realized that I’ve traveled the exact same amount on my new bicycle as I did my last one after retiring it in 2010 so what perfect time to not only write about what’s working, what’s not working, how things are holding up, and so on. If you take a peek at my gear page you’ll see what I’m touring with, give or take a few items. I think it’s best that I go through the list and speak briefly of each – this should appeal to the gear nuts out there and the ones wondering how long term bicycle travel affects gear in the real world, as opposed to in the labs – I beat the snot out of my gear on a daily basis, stretching every last bit of usage out of it as much as possible not only for the cost savings, lack of availability in 1st world counties, but also satisfy my own craving to see how long a part actually lasts.
Some of this may be repetitive as I’ve mentioned some of it in posts here and there, and I’m going to go all the way back from when I first started purchasing my gear in 2008. This is how gear that has been used for 3 years and 34,460km fares:
OK, maybe not 34,360km, but 17,230km give or take a couple hundred where I’ve not been touring and deem it necessary to log the statistics. I bought the Thorn Nomad MK II in February of 2011 and started riding it in April, making it across the remainder of Canada, the United States, and Southern Africa where I write this in South-Central Africa/Malawi.
The decision to upgrade was the right one – the bike is going strong – A few odd creaks here and there from riding and being jostled around on dirt roads but the frame is showing minor signs of wear from scratches (I can’t use a kickstand so opt for leaning against a brick wall/tree which sometimes results in a tip over situation). All of the components are working as expected with a few wrinkles along the way.
Small wear is happening on the Ergon Handlebar Grips which I have been using since leaving on the tour. The top grey section that contained bumps for better grip have worn smooth, and I notice that in hot weather the grips get sticky and often leave a mess on my hands if riding without gloves. All in all they are incredibly comfortable and the handlebars themselves perform as advertised – little to no pain in the shoulders or arms from long term riding sessions due to their wider stance. Headset bearings are still OK and smooth.
I’ve replaced 2 tires since I’ve left, both in the rear. The first Schwalbe Marathon XR 26×2.25 became out of round with a nasty hump each revolution and I swapped it out in New Mexico only 7194km in. I expected it to last much longer – I replaced with a Schwalbe Marathon 26×2 which was replaced at 6053km after some pretty nasty roads in Southern Africa. Schwalbe was nice enough to replace the rear wheel with a Marathon Extreme 26×2.00″ which I now run for the past 2000 kilometres. It rides smooth, quiet, and I prefer them to the XR’s. The front Marathon XR is out of round as well, and after alerting Schwalbe with a video they also sent a replacement – yet I’ve decided to deal with the minor hump (it seems that it starts up when I move from dirt roads to asphalt and subsides lightly which could be related to the tube being not thick enough). The front tire is going strong with lots of wear left, and it’s now turned into a challenge to see how long I can ride it for. I’ve had approximately 20 punctures, and went as far as putting Slime into my tires to avoid the punctures – I found that they would seal a hole quickly until I rode through a puddle which softened the goop resulting in another flat. I had one blowout of a tube upon inflating in the past 100km – slime exploded everywhere when inflating the tire after a problem with the wheel.
The rims are showing little to no signs of wear. When I touch the rim I can’t feel any depressions from the brakes, thanks to the Carbide coating on the rims. The brake pads have a healthy set of life on them as well, and I hope to get another 10,000km to replace them with new Swissstop blue pads. They are pricier than traditional pads but run quiet and don’t squeak when the rim has recently been wet and offer good braking control. I expect these rims are going to last at least another 30,000km before replacement at which time I should be in a location to pick up parts. The problem I’ve suffered however has been broken spokes – 5 to be exact all on the rear wheel. I had neglected to repair the first break properly in Botswana Africa and then lost 2 more shortly thereafter. Recently I have broken two more in Mozambique and Malawi after some dirt roads which leads me to believe I need to have an expert true my wheels as there is a bit of wobble and my skills aren’t the greatest. I was able to get some replacement spokes from a kind reader in Botswana and ordered 24 more that were waiting for me 5 months later when I reached Malawi. You can’t buy these length of spokes (238mm) in Africa, so a word to the wise – bring as many spokes as you can in the event of spoke blowouts.
Inside the wheels are what most people seem to be interested on the bicycle – the hubs. I run a Son 32 Dynamo Hub that has exceeded my expectations and paid for itself in less than a month of touring. I don’t notice the small amount of resistance it creates, and benefit from always having my components charged. I do notice the terminals connecting to the hub sometimes shift (they rotate separately from the hub) and sometimes have to loosen the front wheel to get them back to the right position, which sometimes causes stress onto the wires connected to the Hub. Connected to it is a B&M Dynamo Light, which when used works great, although it was used only 2-3 times throughout 8000km of touring before the bike took a tumble and broke the reflector off. I ordered a new reflector for my arrival in Malawi, but the unit still doesn’t work, likely the diode or wiring has gone bad from being exposed to the elements. The other component connected to the Dynamo is the B&M E-Werk which completes the puzzle piece of charging all of my electronic components while riding. Other than a few incidents of the terminals coming loose the unit has performed without a hitch giving voltage at 5v and 13.3 volts to charge various components. It won’t charge an IPhone right from the unit, and when you stop you might have a component complain its lost battery power (Like my Garmin 705) so my solution was to put a battery in its place and use the battery to control when I charged the components. I use a Tekkeon MP1860A which is enough to charge my components 4x each before it runs out, and it works well off the bicycle too. I once used a USB Hub to control the charging but found it to be of cheap quality, more hassle than what it was worth and ended up tossing it. While the setup is costly, as I mentioned it paid itself off in less than a month and I am now able to keep multiple electronics components charged when in remote areas or where power isn’t available.
The rear Hub is the Rohloff Speedhub 500/14 – an incredibly costly unit, but after doing the math on using a traditional derailleur based system vs the Hub the Rohloff won on the value front. There are other benefits as well – the unit is sealed and doesn’t suffer from major wear and tear on jockey wheels, require constant adjustment, and has the ability to shift while stopped. 14 speeds is more than enough for this hub and only in deep sand have I had to push the bicycle – making it up any hill with the 17 tooth rear cog and the 40t front chain ring. Other benefits are longer lasting accessories, like the chain that lasted for 15,000km much longer than a traditional derailleur based system which should be replaced much sooner – often requiring a replacement of the cassette/freewheel or worse the chain rings as well. I was surprised that the new KMC-Z51 chain didn’t slip even on the old chain rings – they show a bit of wear, but can be reversed when the time is needed and I hope to get the same amount of usage from the other sides before moving onto a different unit. I did have some problems at the 5000-7000km mark when I had some tire punctures – it seems that the chain was worn so much that it liked to be back on the same tooth as it was before removal, otherwise I could feel resistance travelling through the bicycle to the pedals and hear a ticking sound. It would take 600km to get the ticking to stop and I since solved the solution by dabbing paint on the chain ring and the chain itself for when I have to remove the rear wheel. Eventually after time the chain will become stretched and one must rotate the bottom bracket by means of two bolts at the bottom of the frame. I run the chain slack almost to the point where it will fall off for less wear and it has worked well in this regard. I have never greased the bottom bracket exterior but plan on it in the next 2000km. The Rohloff Hub only requires changing the oil every 5000km, something which I haven’t followed entirely to the book. The first change at 5000km was done without the recommended refilling kit and I probably put less than the required 16ml / recommended 25ml into the unit. The last change at 13,000km was done properly and I expect to change at approximately the 21,000km mark based on other riders reports. When the oil is changed the unit rides smoother, quieter than the last change, as the unit becomes more responsive with the more usage it gets. Sometimes I found it to be difficult to put the shifting box back onto the frame – due to particulate matter and sand getting stuck on the area. A bit of tweaking of the tension cables solved a lot of problems with shifting and while I should be cleaning the exterior of it a bit better it is performing as I had hoped. One thing of note that I am in talks with Rohloff is that I have a bit of side to side play with the hub, not much, but enough for me to notice. I’ll keep you readers posted how it works out.
The pedals are likely to need a bearing repack or replacement at some time based on my prior experience with the type I use, the cheapest ones available. I ripped one of my Powergrip pedal straps at the 13,000km mark on the new bicycle and have since replaced, waiting for the other side to rip. I stand behind using these straps as they allow you to have full motion when riding in all types of shoes, which I ride in heavy hiking boots with great success.
All in all other than a few items of wear and tear the Bicycle is performing well.
I’ve been using the same Ortlieb Panniers, trunk bag and handlebar bag since I began in 2009 and while the attachment system is still working as planned the panniers are starting to show some wear especially in the bottom likely from dragging. I tried patching with some glue which didn’t work out as planned and have since lined the bottom of the panniers with extra strong tape – Gorilla ape which is a black duct tape. The mesh on the outer pockets has ripped from parts poking through and I’ve broken 2 of the zippers and don’t rely on putting important components inside. The stitching of the closing strings has come loose on two of the panniers and one of them has been fixed by an upholstery shop at the 29,000km mark and the Handlebar bag seems to be showing wear at the side corners of the lip from repeat open and closings – I expect these panniers to last another year at least and while they are discoloured from dirt, grease and the sun still keep my gear inside dry. The tightening bolt of the Ortlieb Handlebar bag snapped in early 2011 and I’ve gotten around it by using zip straps to hold it up – not wanting to pay the $25 for a new mounting kit when it is 1/4 of the cost of a new bag.
My water bottles which have been with me from the start while discoloured and softer than from the start are still working great other than the fact that one of the plastic lids shattered after a near death experience screaming down a hill in Cape Town South Africa. I haven’t been able to find a replacement lid and get pretty grossed out from the crud that collects on the mouthpiece regularly. Things like bungee cords that have been with me since the beginning are starting to snap, but the real champion is the Topeak Cargo Rack Net which I previously wrote about. It’s stretched beyond belief but hasn’t broken anywhere. I will replace as soon as I can receive mail from North America, but I expect this component to last another 10,000km at the very least. I’ve given up on replacing any small flashing red lights on my bicycle as the attachment mechanisms either wear out or the units become waterlogged and stop working. I don’t ride at night anyways, and if I need to I can use my rear rack mounted Cat Eye LD 1100 which still works well and doesn’t collect water like the old Planet Bike Super Flash I once used. The rubber buttons of the light are come loose and will likely allow water in at some point in time, and my efforts to get them firmly attached haven’t been successful without punching a hole through the delicate rubber.
I mentioned the bicycle getting scrapes from leaning against a tree – in 2011 I decided to try using the Click-Stand, a folding kickstand for holding up the bicycle. After 3 tries I can no longer recommend the usage of the units as they would bend or in some cases snap in two after periods of time. Once I make my way up to the Thorn offices in England I plan on sitting in the front lobby of their store until they give me a good kickstand that will work with their bicycle.
Other than wear and tear, scuffs and a small amount of surface rust the Surly Racks are standing up strong as expected – I rode with a front rack on my old bicycle and the performance is strong for these 3 pound racks. I have all the confidence these racks will get me around the world unlike some aluminum racks I have used in the past which are prone to breaking. Other wear and tear includes the Brooks B17 Imperial Saddle I have been riding since 2009 with more than 35,000km on it. It was a test unit that Brooks sent out to 100 riders to get commentary on how it felt on their behind. I’m not sure what number mine is, and how different it is from the production model but it is still working, although sagging on one side which either means I have a sit bone that protrudes more, or the leather is starting to fail. I experienced some nasty issues with my testicles in 2011 and relate it to the saddle being too high and not firm enough. I can no longer spin the tensioning nut with the Brooks tool, and have to resort to using vice grips – Will buy another B17 when this one fails and suffer through the break in period – where the last time I got a haemorrhoid while riding – painful stuff.
I’ve had good success with my Filzer Air Pump, as opposed to the poor performance of the Topeak Road Morph G that I carried through 2010 and most of 2011. After no response from Topeak on some basic technical support issues I’ve given up on their products for the most part other than the cargo net as mentioned above.
I’ve gone through many iterations of electronics changes along the past 3 years – I’ve broken 2 Amazon Kindle units, which have been replaced by Amazon at no charge a nice gesture for a device that gets me through each and every night alone inside a tent, and smashed an LCD screen of my laptop. Earlier on in the trip I used to use a Sansa E260 Mp3 Player which started to fail due to the headphone jack coming loose. I then turned to an Apple IPhone 3G which was used until I sold in Texas at the 22,000 mark. A kind reader donated an Apple IPod but I found having both units were causing too much strain on keeping recharged and combined the two to move to an Apple IPhone 4. The device works well for receiving email and playing Mp3s and it has only been 2 weeks since I finally put service on the device. Frustratingly the unit is unlocked and requires some hassles to get working when resetting the power on the unit and I will upgrade to a different phone without these restrictions sometime in the near future. My laptop other than the cracked screen still performs well but sees its age in terms of processing power where it cannot edit High Definition video properly, as witnessed in the “Live at YVR” video I worked on in the summer of 2011. I rode with a Canon G9 Camera from 2009-2011 before selling and upgrading to a smaller more compact Canon S95 which is taking fantastic shots although I’d more like to upgrade to a mirror less larger bodied camera, although cannot justify the extra space for lenses in my bags at present. I went from using a Zoom Q3 video recorder in 2010 which worked wonderfully as an audio recorder yet recorded subpar video although offering a great macro mode for riding and capturing my mug – speaking while riding. in 2011 I rode for a short time with a Drift HD170 unit but the unit was too bulky, had frustrating connections for connecting microphones and eventually cracked the lens. At the end of 2011 and at present I ride with a cheap Kodak ZX3 waterproof/shockproof camera which is mounted on my handlebars using the old Drift HD170 mounting kit. For a $99 camera it produces OK picture quality at 1080p suffering from a ‘Jello’ wobbly effect when riding, but produces great video at 720P. I can use the unit for an hour before recharging with my external cache battery mentioned above – If Zoom came out with a High Definition Camera that was rechargeable I’d switch to it in a second.
The Garmin Edge 705 GPS i have used since 2009 still works but the buttons have worn through and are now covered with rigid glue to keep water out. I have an RMA open with Garmin and will eventually have it replaced for $150 which is far less than its $499 list price. Since 2010 I have been riding with Ihome HM77 speakers and now on my second pair after losing one of the earlier units in a graveyard in Ohio in early 2011 and then accidentally ripping the speaker from the unit in 2012. I carried an extra pair of speakers with me for when the time came to replace and will order the new generation as I just can’t ride without music for long periods of time. I’ve put these speakers through hell and back often soaking them with rain, dropping them on the ground and having them run over. Other components like cables are frequently ordered and shipped to locations from China (Dealextreme.com) and I carry two Long range Alfa Wireless Antennas for better wireless range for getting on the internet, usually open or unencrypted wireless networks (and sometimes even encrypted, but that’s a whole other story in itself). I feel that sometimes I am maybe carrying a bit too much electronics as the charging situation can get a bit much but have yet to find a universal unit that will take good photos, capture good video, take a good beating and be able to log my statistics like the way I do.
Believe it or not after a short 3000km stint with looking ridiculous wearing lycra shorts I’m wearing the same pants the whole time. That’s not to say they haven’t gone through a massive overhaul over 1 dozen times with seamstresses and helpful hosts who felt sorry for me for having a hole ripped in my bottom while riding. I actually own 3 of the Showers Pass Hybrid pants – and while I don’t ever use the long leg attachments I can’t find a better pant to ride in that offers a long leg, mobility on and off the bicycle, and zippered pockets including a thigh pocket. I want to buy a few more pairs before they discontinue the product line. I still wear strictly Merino Wool – and have gone through 5-6 shirts along the way, often of the same colour – just to set the record straight I do have extras I’ve tried the MEC, Smartwool and Icebreaker brands and prefer Icebreaker although the price can be a bit of a turn off. The downside to the shirts is that when they go they seem to fall apart rather quickly such as this red shirt which I’ve been carrying with me in a bad state since 2011. It’s now May of 2012 and I’ve decided to no longer hold onto it and wear it until it falls off of me – estimated date: June 1, 2012. I have all the original pairs of cycling shorts with me as well, while they have holes in them the elasticity is still there but now prefer riding with a small cycling liner due to the fact they breathe better and aren’t as thick. One day I’ll take the same approach as the shirts and wear them until they fall off to lighten the bulk on my clothing pannier. Socks I’ve gone through a few different brands and types along the way and now use solely DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks – they are thick Merino Wool socks that I can wear for 5 days straight before they start to smell rudely, and I still have the original pair I bought in 2009 with me still going strong, only with a small hole in the bottom of them.
Shoes I’ve been riding with Timberland Boots the entire time, and am just at the end of life of my 2nd pair. Timberland likes what I do and are interested in hearing how far that I can take their shoes and have been nice enough to continue supplying me with replacements along my travels in return for some photos and some stories on their website which I’m happy to do. Some would shake their head at riding with hiking boots, but I’ve found them to be incredibly comfortable, watertight and there isn’t much different in the stiffness in the soles and sometimes are lighter than traditional cycling shoes. I also don’t look like a knob while wearing them and don’t have to constantly scrape sand and mud out of cleats that are on bike only cycling shoes as I regularly hang out in the woods at night.
I’ve lost 4 pairs of sunglasses but since purchasing Bobster Street and Sport Glasses in the end of 2010 always keep them around my neck with their included straps. Bobster sent me a different model of their glasses after I broke the arms of one of my sets and I have nothing but good things to say about the construction of their products and quality of the lenses. I can’t say the same about my hats however. I’ve gone through 4 hats of the same style, losing them in random places around the world before having the manufacturer discontinue the line – I’ve since switched to handkerchiefs which I’ve lost just as many but are easier found.
Gloves are quite hard to find in Africa and I’ve been wearing a pair since July of 2011 which now look like this – I’ve a few pairs of full finger gloves that I’m not quite prepared to chop off yet, but luck had it that in Malawi a Peace Corps Volunteer took pity on me and donated me a brand new pair of unused gloves – although a bit small they keep the sun off the tops of my hands and the muck from the handlebar grips off my palms.
Camping and Living
I can’t seem to find the right tent for the situation, and am now on my fourth tent – this one a Hilleberg Soulo free standing unit from Sweden. Freestanding it works ok, unless it gets wet where the outside walls can stick to the inner walls resulting in a mess inside the tent. It’s small and light – but I think I would have been better off with the previous MSR Hubba Hubba I used in Africa – although I didn’t have much nice things to say about the tent when I reviewed it last year. I’m running out of options of good tents, and will be shopping for a new one in early 2013. My sleeping bag that was with me from 2009 – 2011 still has lots of life left in it but is too much for Africa and will be brought back into service once I reach Europe. Instead I’ve been using a $40 sleeping I picked up from Amazon which has worked surprisingly well for all the time I have been inside of it. When it gets too cold I use a Silk Liner, although after 3 years the liner is now torn in pieces and a new replacement awaits my arrival in a country in July 2012. My sleeping mat is on its third run – Exped has been kind enough to replace the mat twice after two strange occurrences of it wheezing, leaking air, and leaking some of the insulation. Each time the product has been more and more refined and I still think its a good choice for Bicycle Touring although it does take quite a while to pump up at the end of a long day. It’s not often you find a company that gives a 5 year warranty on what they produce and from what I understand my cases have been rare occurrences surprising even their technicians – again recall I wrote I beat the snot out of my gear more than the typical average user.
Cooking gear like the MSR Dragonfly is still working although I repeatedly rip the rubber plunger inside the tank pressurizer and need to come up with a better solution as I only have one replacement left, they are usually good for years so the problem lies elsewhere, perhaps dirt and sand is getting into the chamber as the fuel tanks are kept outside all day long attached to a bottle cage on my bicycle. The other cooking gear like the spork, the pot and lid are working great other than the wind screen becoming worn from constant usage and the carrying bag tearing with many holes in it. I’ve yet to use the MSR Miniworks Water Filter after all this time and will sell in the near future to a traveller who needs it. Things like the cheese grater and flipper get little to no use and are about to be gifted to someone who needs it.
I can’t live without my two knives, even though I snapped the tip off of my Spyderco Mini Manix in June of 2010, too ashamed to send it back to the company to have them berate me before replacing. I found a diamond cutter in Yellowknife NWT Canada to reshape the blade and will continue to use it. Although I spoke negatively about the Leatherman Wave‘s knives in an old review the unit is surprisingly versatile and I use it daily getting me out of situations that require a multi tool. Both of these knives get quite dirty and I solve it by dumping them in boiling water, scrubbing with a nail brush and then placing in a zip-loc bag filled with vegetable oil for the night before wiping them clean dealing with a bit of a greasy hands situation for a day afterwords. The Petzl headlamp I have been using doesn’t give as bright of a light as I want for too long with new batteries, but works fine for in the tent reading, although the elastic strap is starting to fall apart and I hope to find a replacement in the near future.
Tools for repairing the bicycle are rusted due to lack of use but I still carry as much as I can in the event that failure occurs. They take up considerable space and weight but serve a purpose. All stuff sacks and protective bags are still performing as per day #1
OK, it’s not technically gear, but is a part of the equation to riding a bicycle around the world. I’ve gone through major bouts of weight loss and weight gain, likely due to the temperature and humidity in the area. Sometimes it approaches up to 30lbs at some points in time, but seem to level out at 170 on average. I’ve broken 4 toes, my wrist (same, twice), and had 16 stitches after a bicycle fell out of a tree with the chain ring going through my face but still manage to move on a regular basis. My muscles and bones can be achy at times but a short rest usually gets them functioning again in short order but most importantly my mental state is at 100% partially due to being content with the way I am living, being able to deal with stressful situations in a far effective manner, and knowing my limits.
The only thing that visibly shows on my body of the day in day out bicycle routine has been the sun – I’ve managed to pick up some nasty sunburns along the way, and walking down a beach with my shirt off looks absolutely ridiculous – but if that is the only thing I have to complain about from riding this far I guess that seems to be ok!
Fire away any questions in the comments about you have on the gear and I’ll do my best to reply!