September 15, 2010

Health & Sports

Two Wheels to Freedom Part II: Gearing Up for a Bike Tour

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Bryan Schatz.

Leaving off from the previous post on the nature of bike-touring and what to expect, the following is a basic overview of equipment and things to consider in order to prepare for a bike-tour. Invariably, the particulars of each tour will vary depending on your particular style. As outlined previously, dirt bag travel is quite different from the more comfortable variety. That being said, there are a few basic aspects that should be understood by all would be adventurers when preparing for an extended trip aboard your trusty, two-wheeled machine…

Terrain, Climate, and Duration

The components and equipment you ultimately purchase will depend on the type of trip you are going to take. The most significant factors of any trip are the terrain and climate of your chosen destination, as well as the duration for which you expect to be riding.

Say, for example, you will be pedaling on dirt roads, rock and root-laden single tracks, or deep in the backcountry; your needs will be quite different from the road cyclist. You will want knobby tires, forks with shocks, resilient components and perhaps most importantly-hauling-equipment with sufficient capacity and durability to carry a high volume of food and water to sustain you while exploring (or getting lost in) remote regions of the world.

In general, choose components that are simple to work on, durable, and designed specifically for your manner of travel.

Road cyclists have a lesser need for high-volume saddle bags, with frequent grocery stores in towns and cities being the providers of sustenance and therefore reducing the need to stock up as much.

Bicycle Components

Frame: Your frame needs to fit, and it should be made of steel. Being more rigid than aluminum, steel is less likely to crack, and if it does, you are more likely to find someone who can weld steel rather than aluminum. Road cyclists may want to look into frames such as the SURLY’s Long Haul Trucker, while backcountry travelers should choose a strong mountain bike frame.

Forks: Strong, steel forks for the road or coil-spring suspension forks for the backcountry.

Seats: Just looking at a seat after awhile on the road makes your ass scream in misery. Get a good seat. Brooks seats have an excellent reputation; however, they require hundreds of miles to be broken in. Ideally, break your seat in before leaving so that when you are on the road all day, you’ve already dealt with the worst of the punishment.

Handlebars: Make sure they are at a comfortable height and if possible, get some that offer multiple positions such as H-bars, or you can attach L-shaped bar ends.

Pedal Cages/Clipless (Cleat) Pedals: Pedals that are not at least equipped with cages should be avoided. Cleat pedals (preferred) and pedal cages allow for pulling up, around, and down, therefore using your muscles in a well-rounded way while also applying far more power and control. Simply having pedals without cages means you can only push down, which with daily repetition becomes overly exerting on isolated muscles, not very efficient, and will put you on the fast track to injury.

Gears: Unless you want to get injured like me, have functioning gears. The number is up to you but having at least eight is advisable. On a trip through New Zealand, my girlfriend and I rode 1,000 miles on bikes with eight gears, and it worked just fine.

Replacements and Tools

Allen Wrenches: I’m lucky in that most of the components on my bike can be adjusted with one of three Allen wrenches: a 4mm, 5mm, or 6mm. Make sure you bring all that you will potentially need.

Crescent wrenches: A 15mm crescent wrench is perhaps the most common size necessary for bikes. Having a 15mm and one adjustable wrench will generally be sufficient unless your components have unusual sizes.

Also bring a patch kit, a pump, tire irons, two spare tubes and one spare tire. You’ll need them for those times when the bike lane is nothing more than a pit of glass anxiously slashing at your tires, or when the singletrack is littered with sharp rocks. Other essentials include chain lube and a chain tool, as rain and dirt can ruin them without proper maintenance. A few spare spokes and a spoke wrench should also be brought.

Hauling Equipment

Bike Racks: Bike racks come in several forms. The first (as seen in the picture) are the more common models made by companies such as Blackburn and Tubus, and then there are Xtracycles. I’ve never used an Xtracycle, but they receive rave reviews from long-haul riders who require the extra carrying capacity that the Xtracycle provides. They come with a high price tag though, so you may want to look into a used one that is still in good shape.

Trailers: I’ve heard arguments for and against B.O.B trailers, though having the nickname “Beast of Burden,” doesn’t necessarily sound like something I’d want to be involved with. Some of their trailers are designed to attach to your rear axle and trail behind you. It seems like it would be nice to have that weight off of your rear wheel, but I wouldn’t know.

Saddle Bags: Pretty simple here, make sure they are waterproof and can adequately carry all of your things. Mine have waterproof covers that surprisingly work very well.

Handlebar Bag: A handlebar bag is great for carrying cameras and small snacks to munch on while you’re riding. Most of them also have a clear lining at the top where you can insert a map of your route for the day.

Food and Water

Cooking Equipment: This is all a matter of preference. If you are planning on camping most of the time, bring at least a backpacking stove that uses white gas, a knife, and a spork. Useful accessories that tend to make life on the road a bit more enjoyable include roll-up plastic cutting boards and plastic coffee cups. Coffee or tea is key on those frigid early mornings.

Water Storage: Avoid water bottles and use water bladders instead, such as CamelBaks or a Platypus. Some companies—such as MSR’s Dromedary Bag– make water bladders that actually attach to your bike. They have a high capacity and are sturdy as hell according to the guys over at Riding the Spine. Bring some sort of water purification as well, especially if you will be taking alternative routes. SteriPENs have worked well for me, but they need batteries that aren’t always easy to find internationally, which means you’ll be carrying them.

Sleeping Gear

Tents: Your tent should be lightweight, easy to set up, and as waterproof as possible. It is pretty rare to get a tent that is actually waterproof; heavy rains have an evil way of pushing through most tents.

Sleeping pads: Depending on how comfortable you want to be, a simple foam pad is often sufficient, cheap, and lightweight. While the comfort provided by a ThermaRest may be worth the cost, also be wary of the fact that inflatable sleeping pads can and will be punctured unless you are tremendously careful with them.

Sleeping bags: If you know for a fact that you will be exposed to little rain, then opt for a down bag. They are light, comfortable and very warm. That being said, they retain almost no heat when wet, so most likely a synthetic bag will be the way to go in any region with the possibility of heavy rain.

Beyond these basic guidelines, the rest you will learn while on the open road, making adjustments as you learn what works for you and what does not. In general, keep the weight load down, stay hydrated and well-fed, be willing to suffer, and enjoy every moment of it.

You’ll know you’ve been riding too long when…

you’re in the best shape of your life, can ride for eight hours straight day-in and day-out, yet a simple 3-mile jog will leave you sore for days. The muscles used in cycling are different from those you use for running, and you will be amazed at how hard hiking and running is after a long time in the saddle.

cars make you feel as if you are riding in rocket ships with break-neck speeds and built with a claustrophobic construction.

your ass resembles a steel cushion of hardened calluses yet is still tender to the mildest glance.

…you are capable of doing all sorts of things with one hand, from opening cliff bar wrappers to rearranging the contents of your handlebar bag for accessibility purposes.

you can’t stand being inside, ever. Air-conditioned and stuffy rooms make you nauseous and sleeping inside feels like imprisonment.

Read Part 1: Thoughts on Bike-Touring if you missed it!


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