Posts Tagged ‘equipment’

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.

Update: seams failed again on latest Exped. Conclusion: go with Thermorest

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.

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.

Cycling The 6 Equipment Reviews 2011

I’ve been honest, I promise. Yes, some of my gear is sponsored and yes, of course I have a vested interest in promoting the freebies, but on this trip I only approached sponsors who are at the top of their game and I refused kit that I suspected wasn’t up to the job. I haven’t included anything in the lists that follow that didn’t work extremely well in some of the tough and varied conditions I experienced en route. This is a breakdown of what worked and what didn’t, what I really needed and what I could have done without. It’s in no particular order. Hopefully it will be useful for anyone planning their own cycle tour, expedition or outdoor adventure. There´s a full kit list on my website here.

Top ten kit list
(items which cost less than £50)

1.   A Buff




How do you describe a Buff? Maybe ´Multifunctional headgear´ covers it. I used it in a variety of extreme conditions and I reckon I have worn it in every possible fashion (see the video below) including the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’. It stopped me accruing ice crystals in my beard in the Alps, it turned into a sweat band in the Middle East and saved my eyes and nostrils from a sandy oblivion during a sand storm in Sudan. One word of warning though… don’t walk into an Albanian bank wearing a Buff as a full face mask as I did, you will inadvertently terrorize all the staff.

2.    Incognito insect repellent

Cyclists are a vulnerable bunch when it comes to mosquito bites and the diseases they carry. It’s fair to say that as an absolute minimum, a bout of malaria would have really pissed me off. I found Incognito – a non DEET based repellent and gave it a go. Whilst riding through the malarial zones in sub-Saharan Africa it has been incredibly effective and I’ve been malaria free. Plus it makes you smell like lemons, which after cycling 150 km can only be a bonus. You can get some here 

3.   P20 Suncream

This is more of an essential item in my book. Once a day application is all you need – you can sweat buckets, shower or swim and it stays on. No grease, no shine and its fast gaining popularity. After only one application you can cycle 150 km through the Sahara under the scornful, merciless sun and no beetroot hue afterwards. Could this be the end of red and white striped Brits abroad?

4.   Endura Hummvee 3/4 shorts and trousers

It´s a bold statement I know, but I reckon Endura make the best cycling clothing out there. I rode in these almost every day. Loads of pockets with zips, stretch panels and side zipped ventilation. And they look cool, which of course is very important when you’re completely on your own for days at a time in the middle of a desert.

5.   Craghoppers base t-shirt

I alternated between two of these t-shirts whilst cycling through Africa and both look almost brand new today. They cost less than a tenner and are made from moisture-wicking polyester which keeps you dry and not caked in sweat. Bargain.
Craghoppers Base t-shirt and Endura 3/4 shorts
6.   The Nomad Expedition Poncho

Its all about multi-functionality when you’re gram saving to avoid chugging too slowly up those hills. Yes it’s a poncho but I also used it as a tarp and a ground sheet. It got me through the wet season and anything that copes with tropical rain in Tanzania must be worthy of a place in this top ten. Find it here
 

7.   Seal skinz socks
 
The Sealskinz range of waterproof socks keep your feet warm and dry even in the worst weather conditions and definitely worth investing in if you´re planning a journey through a wet climate. Unique patented technology – find out more here

8.   Moleskine journal


A symbol of contemporary nomadism. These are the ultimate, classic, smartest notebooks, used by the legendary explorers and artists of yesteryear. I’m particularly fond of trying to convince strangers that they are actually made from mole’s skin. The Moleskine is where my blog begins and where my book, if I ever write one, will be spawned from. There are several different varieties. I use the large ruled hardback which has loads of pages, little pockets for all the scrap paper I scribble disjointed ideas down on and a reward section at the front. More info here

9.   Park MTB-3 Multitool
I’ve had many bad experiences with multitools. They often fall apart on me or I end up hurling them at something hard in frustration, and then they fall apart on me. But this robust little gizmo has everything you’d need and expect from a multitool, it’s really durable and comes completely apart which is important because you need the Allen keys to operate the chain tool, most other multitool makers forget about this. When you dismantle it you have two tyre levers too. It includes various hex wrenches, spoke wrenches and screwdrivers, a bottle opener, a pedal wrench and a serrated knife.  

10.   Sea to Summit Sleeping bag liner

Washing a sleeping bag is a hassle so these save you the trouble – you just wash the liner. They also keep you even warmer on cold nights. There are various versions including silk and cotton. You can get some here.


Top ten kit list
(items that cost more than £50)

1.   The Santos Travelmaster bicycle

 

I bought Belinda, my bicycle, knowing I needed to spend enough money to guarantee a solid, trusty steed. She hasn’t let me down. Santos allow you to do a complete custom build, so you choose each part of the bike from a range of different components. You choose the frame colour and type of metal, the accessories, the brakes, the chain, the pedals, the rims… everything. This freedom of choice and high quality of the parts doesn’t come cheap but I reckon it’s worth the price tag and would certainly favour a Santos over, for example, a Thorn – another popular touring bike in the UK. The bike came with a Rohloff hub – a device which contains 14 internal gears and holds a solid reputation – most long distance cyclists I came across have one. I wanted a bike that was durable and easy to fix. Mine has a steel frame and isn’t light – perhaps weighing around 20kg – but it’s as heavy as it needs to be and will hopefully last me the five years I plan to be cycling. It came with a Brooks saddle, a handlebar mounted compass, a very strong kickstand and a dynamo hub. 

 I have ridden thousands of miles in relative comfort thanks to Alasdair at MSG Bikes who does an ergonomic bike fitting which is unique to him and not available anywhere else. Their slogan “it’s not all about the bike is right.¨ Check them out here 

2.   160 GB IPOD

Is this the largest music memory of all portable MP3 players? I don’t rightly know but that’s got to be the main draw. 160 GB = about 40,000 songs. That’s over 110 days and nights of listening continuously until you reach the end of the track list. I have almost 30,000 on mine so I doubt I´ll ever get bored. Yes Itunes is annoying and makes accessibility difficult but it still has to be head, shoulders, knees and toes above the other MP3 players out there. 


3.   Leatherman Wave

Fix your bike with it, open tins with it, cut up mangos with it, open beer bottles with it, trim your beard with it, scratch your arse with it… not all of the leatherman’s functions are in the instruction booklet but that’s only because the list is endless. The Wave is the most popular Leatherman and includes a tough pair of pliers, sharp blades and hacksaws, scissors, can opener and more. It’s one solid sexy beast and well worth investing in.

4.   Ortlieb Panniers

Out of the 26 cycle tourers I met between London and Cape Town almost all of them had Ortliebs, and there must be a reason. Immensely durable, watertight and suitably voluminous for starters. They are an obvious choice for most.

5.   Tubus racks

In South America I was once flung far from my saddle when a cheap aluminium rack suddenly bent and jammed into my spokes, obliterating several of them and leaving me rackless with a sore arse in a ditch. So it’s fair to say I did my research this time round, make way for the Tubus. The concensus seems to be that these are the strongest racks out there and well worth the investment, unless you have a penchant for mud in your face and the taste of blood.

6.   Schwalbe tyres

I did almost 16,000 km on my front Schwalbe Extreme, that’s the distance from London to Tanzania. This is another brand the long distance cyclists stick to like glue. Overwhelmingly more popular than the competitors, some cyclists complain of forgetting how to fix a puncture after fitting them. I have the Schwalbe Dureme on now, they might sound like a brand of condom but they do the job and I suppose if either bursts you’re going to have a pretty bad day.

7.   Terra Nova Superlite Solar tent

Camping in thick snow, the Alps
Some would argue that equipment is overrated, that people take off into the wilderness all the time with cheap bits and do fine, but if there’s one piece of kit you definitely don’t want to skimp on it’s your tent. It’s your home afterall. I have camped for over 200 nights in my tent so far. In the desert, in the wet season, in gale force winds and in thick snow (see right) and my Terra Nova is still going strong, still water tight and the poles are still fracture free. The design is great too, there’s loads of room inside, 2 doors and porches and if its hot you can just pitch the freestanding inner. It weighs a miniscule 2.4 kg and for me it was the best choice I could have made. Terra Nova have actually stopped producing the Solar but the Superlite Voyager is a similar price and just as good with a similar design. Be careful with the zips though… treat them well and they’ll do the same for you.



8.   Exped Downmat

Down and air is the combo gives you the warmest night’s sleep. These sleeping mats are also much more comfortable than a thermorest or a simple roll mat. Check them out here.
9.   Shimano SD66 SPD sandals  

Tough sandals you can cycle in, with cleats if you need them. I wore them almost every day I was in Africa and they lasted me all the way. You can pick up a pair from Madison here.


10.   Business cards   

Not just a good way to avoid constantly writing down your email address to people you meet en route on scraps of paper which inevitably get lost but also a good way to promote a blog or website. I´m tired of explaining my route around the world so I have a map on the back of the cards so I can just show people instead.

Absolute essentials

Never leave home without…
Padded Lycra
A couple of good books


Kit I wish I’d brought…

A side mirror
A descent multifuel stove – such as the Primus Omnifuel
Two litre water bottle holders for the bike (still can’t find any)
A decent travel pillow – the key to a good night’s sleep
Presents for people /  thank you cards – maybe some photos from home
A half decent netbook
A decent dry bag for the rack to keep everything together, such as this one pictured from Overboard Africa…

Some kit I wish I had left behind…

MSR stove (I had one, it is now floating around the crocodile infested waters of the Okovango river in Botswana. Good riddance.)
Self sticking puncture repair patches – good for a race when you have to repair punctures quickly but not for touring. They all eventually fail.
Cleats – still not sure if these were behind my knee injury but I no longer take the risk
My crap bike pump without a pressure gauge, always have a gauge.
Tubes with Presta valves – You will never find replacements outside Europe, go instead with Schroeder valves which are also handy because if your pumps breaks, and it will, you can re-inflate at petrol stations


3 things I would never skimp on…

1. Tent
2. Sleeping bag
3. Tyres

So a quick update – I´m currently in Argentina and about to begin the next leg of the journey – The Americas. It will be around 18 months from here to Alaska. Cant wait to get started. My knee has been a problem of late but the MRI scan in Cape Town was better than I had anticipated and the knee has improved a fair bit since, so on I go. More stories from the road very soon.