Kit Reviews 2013

An admission – I’m not the kind of all-knowing technical wizard that frequents online communities and opines about the latest products. I don’t spend hours bemoaning the durability of specific brands of pannier. I’m not mechanically-minded or very bicycle savy at all. But I can offer a run down of my personal favourites, of what has performed well and what has left me wishing I had run with an alternative.

My kit is well tested. Not a great deal of the gear I started with has survived the 33,700 miles, 42 countries and three and a half years I’ve been biking. Tents have seen nights of – 20 °C and my clothes have been steeped in sweat in the furnace of deserts. My bike has transported me through humid jungle and windy desert, and over corrosion-inducing salt flats and frosty wastelands. Some of my gear has survived disasters it should never have – a punchy gust of wind heaved my tent skyward and carried it at least 200 metres across the Patagonian plains (my fault). My IPOD fell off my bike and was run over by a car (also my fault) but amazingly still functioned for a year afterwards, albeit with a broken screen. Some gear has even met a gnarly death and in the crocodile infested, roiling waters of an African river resides my MSR stove that one pleasant evening turned into a fireball before and my foot punted it into the murky depths.

So enough about my irresponsible misadventures, let me start with my trusty steed…

Belinda, my bicycle

A custom built Santos TravelMaster



My Santos Travelmaster bicycle came with a price tag roughly the size of a celestial sphere. So the question of course is whether it was worth the colossal dent in my wallet. In a word, Yes.

Generally speaking the Santos has been reliable, sturdy and has lived up to it’s reputation (full spec here). I have had no issues with the strong steel frame (I will be very surprised if this ever fractures) and the Chris King headset is, as anticipated, holding out very well. The weight of my bike has been an issue, 20 kg (44 pounds) is definitely a dose heavier than I’m happy with, Santos will probably say it’s as heavy as it needs to be, but you can decide whether you believe that’s true or not.

I have replaced the Rohloff hub, which houses 14 internal gears, whilst in Africa when part of the shell cracked spontaneously – a fault that allegedly occurs in around one in five thousand hubs. True to form Rohloff and Santos posted a fully built wheel and hub for free to Khartoum within a week so whilst it was frustrating that this problem occurred in the first place, the customer service was exemplary. Personally, even after this, my advice would still be to go with a Rohloff, especially if you’re touring for a significant period of time and if you’re not a champion mechanic, as I’m not. In spite of the obvious drawbacks (principally the price tag, but also the weight, the lack of a granny gear and the complexities of getting it fixed if it does break) the ease of use trumps all of those things and any other criticism you may make of it. If you’re touring for an extended period in more remote locations the draw of the mechanism is even more apparent and when frozen mud in Alaska adhered to every part of my bicycle I was especially grateful to the God of Rohloff hubs.

Perhaps the most impressive components of all have proved to be my rims – which are super strong Tungsten Carbide ones from Ryde (formerly Rigida) and, amazingly, are the ones I started with – so far they have clocked up more than 33,000 miles, a very large portion of which I have pedaled on rough, bumpy roads on a comparatively heavy bike (60 kg of bike and gear and 75 kg of me) – testament to the fact that they do indeed fall into the ‘Bad Ass’ category and are worth the investment, especially considering I have rim brakes. You can get these in the UK through Chicken Cycles or MSG Bikes. I’m replacing them in Australia before they eventually fail in some tiny, dusty Asian village. My front rim is a Ryde Grizzly, rear is a Ryde Andra 30 Rohloff Specific.

I’m on my 6th chain now, most seem to last 10,000 km or so. I started with an expensive KMC Gold (Titanium – Nitride anti-erosion) which lasted 17,000 km, so better than average, but arguably not worth the extra cost. My first set of pedals were Shimano 530 SPD / Normal which lasted 23,000 km to South Africa, a pretty good endorsement. Afterwards a cheap set lasted less than 3000 km. I’m on my third front and rear sprockets and my third bottom bracket.

My saddle is a Brooks B17 – the vast majority of cycle tourers I’ve met use a Brooks and for good reason. I’m still using the original saddle I started with and it’s still comfortable to ride if I regularly tighten the bolt on the underside (I needed to replace the bolt once after it had rusted). The rivets on the upside of the saddle are rusted and the leather is beginning to break so I’m not sure it will last the entire trip, but it may.

The Cane Creek Thudbuster Longtravel gives you a little suspension in the seat and I reckon it’s worth the investment, especially for those determined to ride rough roads as I am. I replaced the rubber corks inside the Thudbuster after an impressive 40,000 km. I was actually wondering whether the Thudbuster had a hand in preserving the rims for so long.
The Canecreek Thudbuster
I have snapped several kickstands – they never last very long – and I can’t recommend the one that came with my bike. I’ve never trialed a double stand, perhaps they fare better. I’ve recently met bikers using a click-stand and I’d love to try one out – if I do I will report back. Anyone with a good experience with a specific type – please post in the comments section below.

My general advice for anyone contemplating a long cycle tour in out of the way places would be to think very carefully about compatibility and what’s likely to be available locally. I don’t regret my Shimano V brakes or my 26 inch wheels after meeting other bikers who couldn’t find parts for fancy disk brakes or tubes for larger diameter wheels. My bike came with small holes in the rim to accommodate a Presta valve – this makes no sense for anyone on a world tour and after Europe it became impossible to find tubes without Schroeder valves so I used a leatherman to widen the holes in the rim. My advice would be to insist on rims that are designed for tubes with the larger car valves (also better because if you have a bad pump or if it brakes you can use gas stations to re-inflate).

Anyone interested in a Santos should contact MSG bikes who will do Ergonomic Bike Fitting for you. Anyone based in the UK who wants to brush up on their cycle maintenance and repair check out the courses offered at London’s Cycle Systems Academy.

Panniers, racks and bags

I use Ortlieb roller plus panniers – I’m on my third set of front panniers and my second set of rear ones and I reckon they did pretty well. The material is extremely tough and waterproof and they are lightweight compared to competitors. I’ve only ever torn one pannier. If I had any criticism it would be of the plastic clips, some of which eventually snapped and I had to improvise replacements. Also the plastic U shaped clips that you insert and which fit onto the rack always come loose and fall out at some point as the clips themselves bend very slightly. Overall though I would definitely recommend these panniers, there’s are plenty of good reasons that they are still the most popular brand around.

I have Tubus racks – a Front Tara which is still going strong and a rear Logo Classic which has just been replaced (after 54,000 km). Tubus racks are the best around and I certainly don’t have any regrets running with these.

For the last year and a half I have used a very large (60L) Overboard dry bag which sits on my rear rack – this has reached the end of it’s days now but has proved itself I think considering what I put it through. I really like my handlebar bag – an Altura Orkney which has a great design and lets me compartmentalize my stuff inside. I would certainly rate this more rigid bag above the soft handlebar bags made by Ortlieb. I can’t really comment on durability yet but it’s one year old and going strong.

Schwalbe tyres have lived up to their high reputation and my record is around 17,000 km on a Marathon Plus tour – from London to Tanzania. I particularly rate the Marathon Plus Tour, The Dureme and The Mondial. In Mexico I cycled over a three inch nail which penetrated the tyre but was deflected by the puncture resistant layer. It came out the other side but didn’t puncture the tube – proof they also reside in the Bad Ass category!

Camping Stuff

The Exped Downmat – These are very comfy, keep you warm and pack down pretty small. I get about 200 nights camping out of one of these – so whilst certainly not as durable as a thermorest which can last for years, they are a lot, lot more comfortable (test both and you will see what I mean). The material is thick and tough to break, with over three years using exclusively these downmats when camping I have only had one puncture. But there is definitely a weakness in the seams, eventually these fail which distorts the mat and down starts clogging up the air release valve, necessitating a replacement. Once the company finds a way to solve this problem, I am sure they will become even more popular. The hand pump is not a great feature either – the idea is that dry air rather than moist exhaled air is better for the mat, but the pump doesn’t really cut it and the mat takes ages to inflate this way.


I’m using the Hilleberg Staika tent, which is a great choice for two people. When I ride solo I always go for a 2 man tent so I can get my gear inside, but the Staika, although marketed as a two person tent, could easily fit three – it’s a palace. So for me on my own it’s a little spacious but for a couple I can’t think of a better alternative. Hilleberg is probably the best tent maker out there so the debate is whether the price is worth it. The Staika has a thick groundsheet, tough material, high quality zips, two doors and a great design. For me it’s important that the tent is free standing so that I have the option of pitching on tarmac / sand / snow should I have to. Ideally it’s nice to be able to pitch the inner on its own as well, especially when biking through hot countries. Overall, if you have the money, it’s a great option.

My sleeping bag is a Marmot Pinnacle – it’s one of the few items that has lasted the entire trip. No zip problems yet and I’m still toasty at night. I use a Sawyer water filter which is certainly the best filter I’ve ever used – its utilises nano-technology so all you do is fill a bag and squeeze the bag so that water passes through the filter into a bottle. Fast, easy, effective (apparently) and much better than pumps with moving (breakable) parts and tablets (which may not kill everything and which require you to wait half an hour or so until the water is potable). I can highly recommend it.


Overall favourites (in no particular order)
  1. Leatherman Wave – good for trimming beards, opening beers and scratching arse
  2. Schwalbe Tyres – I get much fewer flats with these than other brands
  3. Hilleberg Staika tent – Perfect for two
  4. Petzl MYO RXP headtorch – Very cool gadget
  5. Ryde rims – 54,000 km and counting
  6. Endura cycling clothing – probably the best cycling clothing out there
  7. Buff – Never leave home without at least two of these. Great for all conditions.
  8. IPOD Classic – 160 GB of memory so you’ll never get bored of your music, podcasts and audio books
  9. Cameras – Panasonic Lumix G1 camera, the machine with which I won this year’s Adventure Cycling Association’s annual photo contest.
  10. Go Pro – high quality footage for such a dinky camera and the well deserved leader in the field of sports cameras. Make sure to also buy the waterproof housing, spare batteries, plug in mic and figure out a way to attach it to your handlebars.
  11. Tubus Racks – Almost unbreakable
  12. Sawyer water filter – cool new technology

Other stuff I would recommend
  • A thermos flask – I use this not just for it’s more obvious purpose of keeping fluids warm but also for keeping water cold. In the tropics, when you are sick of the taste of warm water, you will cherish the decision to pack one of these. And in sub zero climes it will keep your water from freezing at night.
  • Business cards with your contact details and blog and ideally with a map of your route on one side so that you’re not forever explaining it to people.
  • A combination lock – one for your bike with a cable and one padlock for hostels etc. The less keys you have the less keys you lose. Try and get a padlock that’s big and sturdy enough not to be easy to break but not so big that it won’t fit through the holes in hostel lockers.
  • Handlebar mounted compass
  • P20 suncream
  • Sandals for cycling in hot countries instead of running shoes. I like the Shimano SD66L SPD sandals but they last about nine months – perhaps there are sturdier ones out there. It’s best to get sandals specifically designed for cycling – a rigid sole is important.
  • A side mirror – makes cycling a lot safer because you can manipulate how people pass you. Here’s a great article which describes how – Backward Vision: The Case for Mirrors
  • Something that measures altitude if you’re planning mountain riding so you know roughly where you’re at and don’t get stuck camping higher than you would like.
  • Moisture wicking t-shirts. Get rid of all your cotton t-shirts in hot countries. That seems really obvious advice since cotton soaks up sweat and takes a while to dry, but it’s amazing how many drenched cycle tourers I met in Mexico wearing cotton and suffering because their sweat wasn’t evaporating. I have Craghoppers Base T shirts which wick away moisture and are ace.
  • A cotton sleeping bag liner – easy to wash, stops your sleeping bag smelling of cyclist, adds warmth and you can use it instead of the bag when its really hot at night.
Wish I had packed…
  • Thank you cards – choose your best photo, photoshop a ‘thank you!’ somewhere on the image, print up fifty 4 x 6 inch colour prints and bingo, you have the perfect token of appreciation. I feel bad for not having made the effort until more recently.
  • Specific tools – in addition to a multitool (I have the decent Parks one) it’s useful to carry a Brooks saddle tool, the Rohloff removal tool, a TX 20 wrench for the screws on Ortlieb panniers and for the Rohloff cable case.
  • A card that carries no transaction fees, in the early days I spent too much on ATM charges.
  • A good quality bike pump – I go through these so fast. If anyone has a recommendation of a good quality, lightweight pump please say so in the comments section below.
A note about stoves…

Ask yourself whether you really need a multifuel, in many places in the world gas is easily available.

The pros of a simple gas stove over a multifuel:
  • No maintenance /repair required (my multifuel was forever breaking, esp the pump to the fuel bottle)
  • Quick and easy to ignite (no priming)
  • Safer (if absolutely necessary you can use them in a tent porch in torrential rain)
  • Cheaper (the stove itself, not the fuel)
  • Quieter (useful when rough camping and hiding from farmers!).
The weight of a few gas canisters and a full petrol bottle are roughly equivalent so there’s no issue there. The main problem is that gas is not always available so sometimes you have to stock up with several canisters. I found gas everywhere in Chile and Argentina and then generally just in the capital or major cities in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. In Panama City, huge though it is, I scoured the city for an entire day and left empty handed, though Costa Rica has plenty of places to buy it. It can be a little tough in Mexico too. In Africa I used a multifuel (and had to) for most of the continent but switched to a gas stove for the south (nb the gas canisters there have different valves to the ones in the Americas so you would need a different stove). Gas cannisters are available from camping shops throughout China and the in the capital of Mongolia. (note that most petrol stations will not sell you petrol into a container in China).

The canisters are more pricey than fuel used for multi-fuel stoves, but then the stove itself is a lot cheaper (I picked up a good gas stove in Peru for 20 dollars). Stoves burning gasoline require constant maintenance and white gas is much cleaner but almost as expensive as gas cylinders in some places. Perhaps a good compromise would be a multi-fuel which uses gas as well like a Primus. As I’m riding next through Asia where gas may not be easy to come by, I now have an Optimus Nova Multi-fuel – It’s performed well so far. I will post a review once I have had some experience with it.

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Comments (12)

  • Avatar

    Christopher in Aotearoa

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    Thanks for the reviews, appreciated.

    I particularly like the suggestion about taking 'business cards' and 'thank you' cards to hand out to people. Living in Aotearoa NZ I know I'm going to be faced with endless questions about where it it when I cycle in South America, so putting this information on a card will help!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Chris Crawford

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    The specs of your ride would best be described as "Bike Porn"
    I now have new level of respect for my Chris King headset and KMC gold.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    Thanks for the list – very helpful!!

    For a pump I use the Filzer Mini-zee. It is like a mini-floor pump that fits on your water bottle rack. I usedit for a two week tour with no problems whatsoever. No sure if it meets "world tour" standards, but the early results are promising!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    My experience is a NZ to NL trip on an old road bike…

    For pumps I would recommend a lezyne road drive or lezyne HP Microfloor.
    http://www.lezyne.com/en/products/hand-pumps/high-pressure#!micro-floor-drive-hp-hpg

    The road one lasted the whole year and havent bothered to get a decent floor pump now that I am settled. There's no need. It gave me schrader and presta options on a flexible hose, plus high pressure (up to 8 bar, no issues)

    The one thing I would like to add is to check out thorn-proof tubes. Weigh a lot but worth it. 2 flats in 22,0000km. For example

    http://www.amazon.com/Avenir-Thorn-Resistant-Presta-valve-1-95-2-125/dp/B00165SA0A/ref=sr_1_5?s=sporting-goods&ie=UTF8&qid=1381080699&sr=1-5&keywords=thorn+proof+26

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Mark Swain

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    Excellent list and advice. Most of your stuff I used on my Ireland to Japan trip with my teenage son.
    Our tent was a Terra Nova Laser Large and weighs only 1.7Kg. Excellent tent. Just one thing. My son & I both have Brooks B17 saddle. Mine is the expensive one with titanium rails. I adjusted the bolt every 2,500miles or so and the leather cracked at the back by the rivets after around 8,000miles. Brooks offered to re-cover it (I decided to keep it for now – nostalgia). My son refused to adjust his at all and it still looks great. Recently I was told by an 'expert' never to tighten a Brooks B17. Worth mentioning I feel. I had a Thermarest non-inflatable eggbox type mat which proved very good and would have lasted forever. Folds square. Bigger but sits neatly on rear rack and half weight of an inflatable. Lost it on an Indian train and haven't managed to find another. http://longroadhardlessons.blogspot.com

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Will

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    We're currently touring with Click-Stands. They're a bit more of a faff than a kickstand, but they're very reliable and weigh nothing. The Max 5 has proven to be a good size for us: easily mounted on a frame or kept in a bar bag. As for a pump, we're big admirers of the Topeak Turbo Morph, which is much like the Road Morph Alex mentions but with a slightly larger capacity (and it's a bit heavier).

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Logan

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    Nice tips… I was looking for a filter for an upcoming trip to Africa. I think you sold me on the Sawyer! I used the Mountain Morph pump recently through Central America and had no problems… plan on taking it to Africa this winter as well. Cheers!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Phil

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    Great stuff, Steve.
    We used Greenfield Kickstands and they were fairly strong and robust….. taking the weight of a fully loaded touring bike, plus child asleep in bike seat when needed! We used a Topeak Mountain Morph pump for our trip and it's still going strong to this day.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Unknown

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    Go easy on tightening the saddle – it's quite easy to overdo it causing the leather to break away from the rivets. Have you considered a sprung Brooks saddle (Flyer)? – a bit heavy though.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    frank revelo

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    I carry two Lezyne pressure drive pumps. At 95g each, two of these weigh less than most other pumps. Flexible tube, so you don't shear off the valve stem, and support for both presta and scrader. You might also want to pick up the o-ring replacement kit for these pumps, which weighs next to nothing. These pumps take a long time to pump up my Marathon Mondial 55-559's, but then I seldom pump them up so the time is not a problem. Slow but reliable beats quick but unreliable in my book.

    What's wrong with just laying the bike on the ground instead of using a stand?

    Don't get thorn tubes, they are heavy as hell. Much better idea is to fill the tubes with Stans sealant. The Marathon Tour Plus is NOT indestructible nor a guarantee of no flats. You just got lucky with that nail. Mondial and Dureme plus sealant in the tubes is a better solution.

    Trangia alcohol stoves are the easiest and the denatured alcohol is everywhere, though you have to know where to look (pharmacies, hardware stores, auto parts shops, sometimes grocery stores). Alcohol is non-explosive, so carrying it is easy. Best system combines trangia burner with clickstand stand/windshield plus a 1.3L evernew titanium pot.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Abigail

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    This post has helped me for an article which I am writing. Thank you for giving me another point of view on this topic. Now I can easily complete my article. Cheers
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    Reply

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