It’s doubtful there’s such thing as the perfect bike – at least if you’re attempting to shoehorn everything into one machine, as I always do. But right now, I have to say my current setup feels completely dialled. It’s as good as it’s ever been, fine tuned for the kind of terrain and travels I enjoy most. Above all, it’s a blast to ride.
Still, it’s a perennial habit that I’m always tinkering, refining, experimenting, looking for those elusive last improvements. Perhaps they’re not always improvements – just something different. Anyway, with my trip to Peru/Bolivia/Argentina in mind, I’ve jotted down some random gear thoughts while they’re fresh in my mind. Inevitably, these ponderings won’t suit everyone, and take into account my riding style (dirt, dirt and more dirt) and my destination – namely that it will be cool and mountainous, and at the time of year I’m visiting, predominantly dry. Choices might well be different it was, say, predominantly paved, or jungly, humid and bug-infested.
After reverting to derailleurs for much of last year, I’m delighted to be reunited with my Rohloff 14 speed internal hub (thanks GBT for the build!). Despite its few foibles, the Rohloff is ideal for laden, dirt road touring. As omnipresent as derailleurs are, I won’t be leaving home without it again, and definitely recommend one if funds permit. Mine has gone from bike to bike over the last seven years, and has clocked up untold miles in the process.
Similarly, the Krampus/Rohloff combination has proved a real success (by way of a nifty Monkey Bone). Previously hamstrung (for touring purposes) by a 1×9/10 limit, it boasts a full range of gears, without any of the chain/tyre rub issues I experienced previously. Although Surly markets the Krampus as a trail bike, now that I’ve made some tweaks to the frame (namely, a proliferation of water bottle cages), it’s morphed into my favoured roughstuff bikepacking machine. Cranked it up to speed and it feels unstoppable, ironing out every ripple in the road. Full report soon…
As for tyres – always a topic of debate amongst cyclists – its 3in Knards have impressed too, offering such a plush ride that my body is rarely sore at the end of the day, no matter how harsh the terrain. Without doubt, they make a worthy replacement to suspension for more challenging off road touring. Although the extra weight is undeniable, their heft hasn’t proved to be an issue, more than mitigated by near-limitless grip – both up and down the trail. Still, given their price ($90 for the non-folders) and relatively soft compound, I’m not sure that they’re the sweet spot for my own touring needs – I’m thinking a longer lasting 2.4 would suit me better, adding to valuable mud clearance too. But – there’s no denying that when it comes to babyheads, corrugation and sandy patches, Knards are in their element.
Whittling down gear for long distance, pannier-free travel is always a challenge. Still, I’m in no rush back to revert back to racks or a trailer just yet. A combination of a handlebar rollbag, framebag (both from Porcelain Rocket) and a roomy, easy to access saddlebag (Carradice Super C) offers space for gear, food, DLSR and my Macbook Air – without resorting to a backpack. I like the concept of the Bagman2 (with Expedition Support), but I need a tougher version for rock-strewn backcountry riding. I’ve needed to repair the support plate – hopefully the fix will hold out. Otherwise, I might try a small rear platform rack to support the saddlebag.
Finally, I’m about ready to bid adios to my SPD pedals for the next trip. That’s not to say I’m a die-hard convert to flat pedals for all applications, but the current combination of chunky, pin-laced pedals (Performance Bikes Shovels) and Keen hiking shoes is working really well, and rarely leaves me wanting. I’m tempted by a pair of Shimano Saints – of which I’ve heard good things – as my current pedals are on loan.
My full gear list is posted here. These thoughts are related to that list.
Smartwool stuff: undoubtedly comfy, but it’s expensive and I’m just not getting it to last as long as I’d like. For now, I’ve reverted to my old favourite (but sadly no longer made) Ground Effect Robin Hood, a Merino blend hooded top. It’s getting a little threadbare, but hanging onto life. (update: the RHs are back!)
Baggy shorts and merino underwear (Rapha, in my case) work great. No padding required. I don’t miss trousers; I’m fine with shorts, thermals and wool leggings when it gets chilly. As for social occasions, I’ll get by – I don’t mind looking a bit odd.
More trivially, my favourite Indian bobble hat was fatefully shrunk in the wash. I love my hat, so this is a (minor) travesty. I’m on the lookout for a worthy replacement.
I’ve been borrowing a 6 Moon Designs Gatewood Cape, a minimal tarp that doubles up as a waterproof cape. Although the cape transformation hasn’t proved relevant to cycling (I always carry a waterproof shell), it’s an excellent tarp in its own right.
I’d buy one of my own, but I’m thinking of investing in its big brother, the Wild Oasis – which, for just an extra 57g, includes a mosquito skirt, and it’s roomier too. The Gatewood Cape packs away into its own pocket, easily tucked into my handlebar roll bag next to sleeping bag and layers. I barely know its there. Inevitably, a single skin tarp isn’t without its compromises – but for where I’m heading, I think I can live with them.
My sleeping bag is in need of replacement for the big trip; this will be my chance to try out a quilt, most likely from Jacks ‘R Better. I’ve heard good things about them.
I’m not unaware of the irony of paring back clothing and camping gear to the minimum, only to haul more than their equivalent weight in camera gear.
But… I like taking photos. I’m constantly debating the merits of a lightweight mirrorless camera system versus a higher quality, full sensor DSLR. A DSLR may be brick-like, but I’ve come to really enjoy my Canon 5dMk2 with a simple 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens as a general use camera. It’s quick, robust, and relatively speaking, not too obese. Plus, I really like the 40mm angle of view – it’s the same I had on my Lumix GF1. I’ve so enjoyed this single lens setup that if I could drum up some cash, I’d think seriously about investing in a Fuji X100s (with its fixed 35mm lens) and taking just that. (Similarly, if budget wasn’t tight, other contenders would include an Olympus OM-D, a M4/3 camera that comes highly recommended by cycle tourists). All three of these cameras allow you to separate the focus from the shutter release, which, for one reason or another, is my preferred way of taking pictures. In any case, if you already own a Canon Brick Mk2, check out the 40mm pancake – it’s a relative bargain at $150-200.
I’m now joined by an umbilical chord to my iPhone 5 (web browing/reading/music/topo maps/GPS/photos). A downside is it’s insatiable appetite for juice. The Goal Zero solar panel I’ve been borrowing has worked really well. Affixed to my front pouch, it will charge up my iPhone in less then a day, given several hours of New Mexican/Californian sunshine. But… I’m ready for a dynamo, most likely a Schmidt Son, rigged up to a Tout Terrain Plug 2, or similar.
Talking of iPhones, I’ve been experimenting with using mine as a replacement for my Garmin Etrex 20. At $80, Lifeproof cases are hardly cheap, but they’re completely dust and waterproof, and the bike mount works really nicely for onboard navigation. Review soon.
Future ponderings to include:
Observing how the Rabbit Holes fare (they’re single wall rims) over time, and how such wide rims handle 2.25in inch tyres, like a Schwalbe Big Apple, Schwalbe Smart Sam or WTB Weirwolf. Smart Sams would be seem to be bargain at $30, but unfortunately they’re not folders, which I prefer. Weirwolfs are light, have a great tread and ride really nicely, but may not last as long. Chunky Maxxis 2.4in Ardents are also a contender. We’ll see.
Looking into the viability of going tubeless, at least for an initial portion of the trip. Beyond the South West (mined as it is with goatheads), punctures are rarely a real issue on tour. But perhaps more importantly, tubeless tyres feel great at low pressure, offering a very effective alternative to suspension over even the roughest terrain, while eliminating dastardly pinch flats.
If you have thoughts or experience on any of this gear, I’d welcome any comments!