Monday, 10 August 2015

Equipment Reviews 2015

As it turns out, cycling six continents is a particularly savage way to prove the quality of gear. Things have been fraying and snapping and dissolving, and once, actually exploding. I’ve been busily tossing kit confetti-like into the world’s various dustbins. There’s not much left. Three things actually – My bicycle, a Craghoppers base t-shirt which I have developed a kind of profound friendship with and will sew and patch up and coddle like a comfort blankey until England, and a ‘sleeping bag’ - in bold inverted commas because sometimes I wake up to a scene that evokes a (victorious) fight with a vigorous flock of passing geese.

First off – a caveat. Please don’t feel you need any of this stuff. People who sew together their own panniers and sleep under tarps make me smile. Why delay a bike tour because you can’t afford top kit? That said, if you can afford cool clothes from Endura and the like, then go for it, and if you’re off on an exceptionally long bike tour then investment in extra strong and more pricy kit becomes more worthwhile.

Some general advice

  • Beware of super lightweight stuff: tempting it may be, but often you’ll regret it. On the plus side, it’s nice to have tent pegs that can double as tooth picks.
  • Think multi-functionality, but don’t be obsessed by it. Notice how much more frustrating it is to work with a multitool than lovely solid set of separable allan keys?
  • Think compatibility. Wherever you plan to tour, think about what is available locally. When things break you don’t want to have to get replacements shipped from home. For instance tubes with Presta valves are not available in many countries outside the western world. Widen the hole in your rims before you leave and stick to Schroeder valve tubes.Odd sized wheels and unusual components might be tough to replace.
  • Think of what gear will leave you completely stuck if it breaks, and plan for that – in remote places a busted bike pump, stove or cracked rim may mean you can’t keep riding, other bits of kit can break but not threaten your ability to pedal to the next big town.
  • You can of course skimp on everything and still go touring, but I think there is a rough hierarchy to the kit it's important not to skimp on. Recognise where you can easily save money (I offer: cycle computer, bike chain, clothing, ? bicycle) and when you may well regret going cheap (back tyre, tent, rims, racks).
  • Weight should always be considered in relation to how often something is used, not just in its own right. Some bikers carry foldable chairs - relatively heavy perhaps, but if used every day they are usually touted as indispensable by those who carry them (I don't).

The best of the best


The following annual run down of killer kit has some old favourites and some young upstarts. The affiliate links I've provided are to products offered by popular cycle touring retailers, including the extremely competitively priced Cyclocamping.com - an expert retailer run by expert round-the-world cycle tourers. And if you click on a link and make a purchase, a small bit of money comes my way which helps to keep me pedalling across six continents.

 And so, in no particular order...

Tubus racks – the Front Novo Low-Rider and The Rear Cargo Evo

Well the Indian monsoon did eventually coax rust into the crevices of these exceptionally strong steel racks, but they have lasted so long that they sit proudly on the list once again. They remain a favourite amongst cycle tourers the world over, and their weight to durability ratio is hard to beat.

Ortlieb Panniers

Another old favourite. Though the competition might be hotting up in regards to panniers, I still haven’t seen a competitor that offers the same favourable combination of supreme toughness, low weight and reasonable price tag. Do yourself a favour...

Ortlieb Front Roller Classic
Ortlieb Back Roller Classic


Buff

There are a bunch of alternative multifuctional headwear bits out there, but none have cooler patterns, the in-house design to production, or the tendency not to fray or fade than Buff. There is a headspinning range of items now available, and an equally exciting number of ways to wear them. Peep the video.

Sawyer water filter

There are a range of options if you want clean water and to avoid a ghastly gastro-intestinal Armageddon in your tent on the side of an Indian road. This one is my favouite – it uses nano technology to rid the water of bacteria. Very light, simple to use, no moving parts to break, and no chemicals.

Schwalbe tyres

Another obvious choice. If you’re hitting a combination of rough and paved roads, my advice is to go with the unfoldable classic Marathon Tour Plus which are joyfully puncture resistant. The Supremes are the best choice if you're sticking mainly to paved roads, but the Mondials can fail at the side wall – have they shaved off a little too much weight? Either way, Schwalbe tyres still come recommended by most riders I run into, and I've clocked up more than 15,000 km on one Marathon Tour Plus in the past.

Keen sandals

In hot places sandals clearly win out over cycling shoes, and Keen have a sturdy reputation. I’m using a new pair of Keen Newport Mens sandals so I can’t yet comment on durability, but they look and feel great, so I’ll keep you posted.

Hilleberg Staika Tent

Hilleberg are the Don Corleone of tent manufacturers and the question is not whether you want one, but whether you can afford one. Hillberg use vastly stronger material than the rest, the tents are fast to put up and after two years of use (pitching my tent on the majority of nights) rain has been kept at bay, even amid the torrential downpours of the Asian monsoon. When winds rushed over the Mongolian steppe at over 70 km/hour I waited for the fateful snap of a sheared tent pole but was treated to only the howl of the wind. The Staika is three-poled, and free-standing (a feature I would suggest is essential in selecting a tent for cycle touring so you can do the cool stuff pictured, as well as pitching in gas station forecourts and the like), and if you buy the Staika Mesh Inner Tent you can pitch just the inner, which is a good idea if it’s very hot and dry. It has two doors and plenty of porch room. A great choice for two people, though at 4 kg it’s a bit on the heavy side for one.

I camped on the frozen surface of lake Khovsgol in Mongolia in a Hilleberg Staika

Petzl MYO RXP headtorch

This is the best head torch I’ve seen – you can vary the brightness and the spread of light with the bulb cap. The off-on button is hidden away by a raised plastic bit that means it won’t turn on accidentally in your head bag and run out the battery. And its dazzling enough at full beam and battery to double as a bike light.

Altura Orkney headbag

Mine has been going for two and a half years now and shows no sign of needing a replacement. The Klickfix clip is the best way to secure a headbag to handlebars I’ve seen. There’s lots of space inside the rigid bag, and a decent front pocket. The map case will probably come off fairly quickly, but otherwise it’s a great choice.

iPod

(A real dark horse). 160 GB of music, podcasts and audiobooks do me nicely. Use fleetingly and judiciously, but when you’ve been tangled up in your own boring thoughts for too long, it’s a great escape route.

Brooks B17 saddle

I have nothing to compare it to, but my Brooks B17 is doing a great job. One saddle didn’t make it all the way home, but I’m confident number two will hold out. Again this is another brand tourers fiercely stick to, with good reason.

Cane Creek Thudbuster Long Travel suspension seat post

This little beauty gives you a little suspension in your seat post to dull the impact of those big bumps, and together with the Brooks saddle, this will help ensure that for men, future paternity remains a possibility. It probably also helps prolong the life of the rims and other components, plus its very sturdy and you can rebuild the joints and replace the elastomers if required.

Panasonic DMC G-range Lumix camera

My Panasonic G1 Lumix camera eventually bit the dust in China, but it had made it extremely far and I was so happy with it that I stayed with the same range and upgraded to the G2, although they are now on the DMC G7. These are ‘bridge cameras’ – they fill the niche between very heavy and expensive DSLRs and the more wimpy point and shoot. In other words, ideal for a bike tour if photography is a particular passion. I use both the wide angle lens that comes with the camera and a zoom. The battery lasts ages. If you’re on your own: bring a remote to get the best shots. The following shots were all captured on this camera (click here if this plug-in doesn't function)...





Chris King Headset

You da man Chris. 80,000 km now, and still going strong. With the frame, this is the only component of my bike that has survived this far.

MSG Bikes - Ergonomic Bike Fitting

Alisdair and Shelagh at MSG bikes are experts, they offer an ergonomic bike fitting which I would recommend to anyone UK-based setting off on a cycle tour. They also sell a range of great touring bikes and kit. Check 'em out.

The debate rolls on…


Sleeping mats

I used to run with an Exped, but the seams failed too often to continue with them, and so I changed to a Thermarest Pro Lite which has proved very reliable so far. Exped in the meantime say they have corrected the previous fault and improved the pump, if so (and I have yet to verify this) then this is exciting news indeed as the Exped XP 9 mat is definitely more comfortable than the Thermarest. Another much touted alternative is made by Vaude - I have no personal experience with it, but it's very reasonably priced and in the absence of a clear favourite, it might be worth checking out.

I’ve also used the crazy looking Klymit Inertia O Zone which I combined with a Thermarest when I needed a little extra distance between me and the icy ground as I crossed Mongolia last winter. A major pro is the weight and price tag. Probably not super tough, but if you’re going into cold conditions, why not take one along as well as a thicker mat - it will make all the difference.

Stoves

I’m still a big fan of the screw top gas canisters if you have the option (which these days may be more frequent than you think – abundant now in places like Chile, Argentina, China and in a great number of capital cities). Using propane/ butane is cleaner, easier, safer, quieter, requires no priming and no stove maintenance. Luckily plenty of multifuel stoves now have adapters for gas canisters, which is a case of better late than never.

MSR – why do people still buy them?! Almost everyone I’ve met has a broken fuel pump at some stage. Come on – move to the Primus Omnifuel people (invincibility almost guaranteed).

Rohloff

There is a very well established procedure for dealing with a broken Rohloff – it involves a pained sigh, a great deal of shrugging and a telephone call to Germany. And that’s not exactly reassuring.

I’ve been standing by the Rohloff like you might a criminal in the family. I am on my fifth Rohloff Hub. FIFTH! Here’s how it went down:

First one needed replacing after just 10,000 km when the flange broke (so not an internal failure, but a crack in the shell leaving me unable to tension a spoke). A new wheel arrived within five days to Khartoum. Rohloff report the incidence of this failure is one in five thousand. I know of two more cases. A coincidence? (I don’t know 15,000 cycle tourers).

The next one lasted about 45,000 km, until I lost four gears. The sliding clutch rings had failed. Rohloff replaced the hub in Australia in three days. All for free of course. Then after almost 20,000 km I lost four gears again. A new hub appeared in Mongolia in 4 days, again all courtesy of the company. Recently I’ve developed excessive play in the rear wheel and Rohloff are giving me another entire unit, the cause of the failure is not yet known.

A few things are clear: Rohloff are certainly not the ‘fit and forget’ they’re often considered to be. Plenty of riders are reporting issues. However their customer service remains impeccable. The obvious pros of the hub: No tinkering with front and rear mechs (good for the more reticent brand of mechanic like me), chains last longer as they don’t move between cogs, no need to replace cassettes and derailleurs, no mud or ice to clog up your gear mechs, you have the ability to change through multiple gears without pedaling, stronger rear wheel, no need to worry about broken derailleurs in trucks or on planes.

But…

If one goes one wrong, it will be a major hassle at the very least. And plainly they do go wrong, much more frequently than Rohloff would have you believe, although they will virtually never leave you stuck - often an internal failure means the loss of some gears, not the entire mechanism. They are also very expensive (budget in the regular oil changes as well, not just the hub) and you usually need to use special parts for replacements, and you often won’t be able to find these locally: cables, shifters, oil change kit, sprockets. Of course the reduced range of gears and absence of a very low gear when compared to the standard setup are also drawbacks.

It’s getting mighty tough to defend them, even with the company’s trademark personal touch. If you really don’t like to tinker with bikes, and if you have the money to spare, perhaps it’s still a good investment, then again perhaps not. The jury is still out.

Some Final Tips

  • Thermos Flask: for hot tea when it’s cold, to keep water from freezing when it’s really cold and for cool water when it hot.
  • Firesteel – cos they’re cool, and lighters break.
  • Always use a cheap ground sheet for your tent
  • Don’t use anything that requires a key, which you’ll lose. Bring combination bike locks and padlocks for lockers.
  • Kick stands often snap and can damage the frame. Try out a click-stand.
  • The medical kit: bring what you know how and when to use - If you can’t administer IV adrenaline, then why have it?! My kit has shrunk significantly during my trip because I realised you can buy most things in pharmacies en route as and when you need them without prescription – obviously if you’re going very remote then you’ll need more bits. I'll expand on what to pack in a later post.
  • Tool kit. Clearly what you pack will depend upon your propensity to get into the wilderness and your skills as a mechanic. Quality needlenose pliers which cut cables are a good idea. A simple frame pump is better than a mini-pump. Pumps live hard lives, so keep it simple. Square-taper bottom brackets last a lot longer than outboard bottom brackets. If in doubt: go Shimano. For rims – the Tungsten carbide Rigida / Ryde ones kick ass (I did 55,000 km on a rear Ryde Andra 30 Rohloff specific) – pick some up from MSG bikes or Chicken Cycles.
  • Mud guards – avoid.
  • Mosquito repellent: use something DEET based if you're going to the northern or southern latitudes in summer, where there's a short season and mosquitoes come in clouds. In these circumstances natural alternatives in my experience don’t  cut the mustard, but they might be suitable where there are less insects around, and are less likely to cause adverse reactions.
  • Side mirror – a good idea. The case for mirrors.

As per usual I have to make a disclaimer – some, but by no means all, of this kit came from companies that sponsored my trip. You only have my word that I’ve been honest about what I liked and what I didn’t. Not all my sponsored gear made it into the list, plenty that wasn’t sponsored also appeared and I have even negatively critiqued some of my sponsored kit. I genuinely want tourers to go away with the quality, reasonably-priced stuff and, unless stated, I have only recommended kit I have used and can personally vouch for.