Faster, lighter, happier cycle touring equipment tips

Cycle Touring equipment is a deceptively complex world and one that always creates much debate.  All you really need is a bike and some bags,

so if you have those elements you can get out and ride your bike, but we all know it’s never that simple! There are countless blogs and books to buy that explain an individual’s ideas but there are few genuinely objective pieces of advice. This blog is also unashamedly subjective but I think it’s the best advice for cycle touring!

Personally I cycle tour because I love cycling, it is not just a convenient means of transport nor is it some epic challenge to me. I am addicted to the thrill of being free and effortlessly riding to new and exciting places.

If you read the web, most cycle touring blogs dish out the same traditional kit advice as in the 1980s. Many cycle tourers arinherently conservative and like the traditional approach and why not, but if you challenge that and take advantage of the latest innovations I think it can be so much more enjoyable and way more of a pure free wheeling cycling experience.

These tips come from what I have learnt from cycle touring over the last 10 or so years. I tend not to stick to the same kit, instead I have been lucky enough to try and test lots of bike set ups (Steel, Carbon, Aluminium, 26/29 MTB, Touring bike, CX, Road bike!) and I’ve now found what works for me and hopefully for readers too.

1. You don’t need a touring bike to cycle tour.

So you step into a local bike shop chain and you say “I am going on a cycle tour to Country X”. What is their standard response? “Well we have two cycle touring bikes for you to choose from”. One is a Dawes Galaxy and the other will be something like a Kona Sutra. Both nice enough bikes but are they the best option for your tour? Almost certainly not.

A comfortable sportive inspired road bike is faster and lets you enjoy the freedom, that emphatic feeling of effortlessly flying along the road like a race horse. A standard touring bike on the other hand is built like a carthorse, sturdy, strong and equipped with loads of random ‘useful’ heavy accessories, as a result it feels like you’re riding solely to lug all your worldly possessions from A to B. Riding across countries on an over loaded touring bike, is for the purist cyclist like being punished for doing something you love, gone is the joy and freedom.

So why doesn’t everyone ride road bikes when they tour? I personally think the answer is due to the fact that lightweight road bikes previously weren’t strong, comfortable nor durable enough to last the distance As a result they stick with old style steel touring frames. The latest road bikes however, ARE strong enough and comfortable enough for most tours people with embark on.  Watch the amazing Road Bike Party; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhabgvIIXik …If they can land back flips and 15ft drops onto flat railing fences without issue, then the odd pot hole or miles on rough roads,  isn’t going to break a road bike.  Remember they damaged nothing making that film.

“I am not made of money, I can’t afford these exotic machines” I hear you say, but you can get some great road bikes for pretty decent prices. Especially when compared to the second had touring bikes that can go for a premium on ebay.  On the plus side it will also be saving you buying another bike for road riding when not touring!  You should look for a sportive or Grand Fondo inspired bike with a more comfortable frame set up and geometry built for those long days in the saddle, an out and out racing bike will leave you with numb arms and backside and should be avoided.

When I say comfortable road bike I also include a slick tyred Cyclo Cross bike as they ride pretty similarly and normally come with rack eyelets and better brakes.  For my touring bike in 2013 I chose a Kona cyclocross (CX) bike and loved it. They are built slightly stronger for racing off-road so those rough gravel roads and the extra luggage weight cause no issues. However the geometry and weight are certainly comparable to something purely road based with Paris-Roubaix inspired slacker, shorter geometry (I mean the long cobble based race not an  infringement on Specialized here!). Take a look at a Kona Jake the Snake Kona Jake orange (2014) (Frame size: 59 cm) cyclocross bike or On One/Planet X – Dirty Disco  these are both good options,  the Planet X has no rack eyes so you need one of the great solutions mentioned below.

Planet X XLS

The main issue might be how you attach luggage to a road bike. Some bikes have eyes on the drop outs for rack bolts but on road bikes these are rare. But don’t panic – you can use a rack fitted to the quick release like this Tubus one: http://www.tubus.com/product.php?xn=33 …or check out some cool rackless designs here: http://www.revelatedesigns.com or http://www.apidura.com. These guys are both super innovative and I have heard great things about them and used them myself. P-Clips are the old skool approach these clamp on the frame for a rack, I have used them for long distance tours and not had any issues, but I do prefer other solutions and carry these as a back up. Despite having no issues at all I feel they must place stress on the seat stay.

Are you still to be convinced by not using a touring bike? Look at Mike Hall’s set up as he cycled the world to break the world record, to quote him “it had to be carbon to stand up to the rigours of the trip”: http://normallyaspiratedhuman.com/ or look at the fast around the world set up James Ketchell had. Don’t get me wrong touring bikes have their place on truely epic expeditions but for most cycle tourers they are overbuilt, heavy and just less enjoyable. Use a faster lighter bike so you can enjoy the freedom of flying along the road!

2. A steel bike is not the only solution.

People will tell you cycle touring requires a steel bike full stop, no ifs, no buts. The key arguments are: steel flexes slightly so it is more compliant and comfortable, secondly steel frames can be welded in some far off welding shop when they break.

To challenge this I would point out that carbon bikes are pretty comfortable absorbing the road noise superbly and Titanium is even more compliant, super strong and comfortable. I would also point out that if you ride your bike smoothly and cut down on your kit weight (and personal weight – sorry!) then the stresses on a normal tour are such that your carbon or titanium just won’t break, so it won’t need welding anyway! While strong in normal use carbon does need to be handled carefully on buses and planes etc compared to metal frames so bear that in mind.

Steel bikes do have an enigma of classical beauty and I am a huge fan of cycling tradition. If I had the cash I would buy a custom Stoater or similar custom designed with some bespoke tubing steel frame from http://www.shandcycles.com/ like in the picture below. Buying a custom and British made bike is uniquely satisfying. Those cheaper straight guaged steel-tubed bikes will ride like cruddy aluminium, they will also weigh more and cost more than they should, so think carefully about what route your touring will go down.

Shand Cycles; Stoater

 

3. You do not need more electronics than Apollo 11 had getting Armstrong to the Moon.

Being glued to electronic devices is not what cycle touring is about, it is about pure mechanical simplicity, taking the miles day by day. So take a camera and a GPS, but after that restrict yourself you’ll appreciate the freedom. Personally I carry just a GPS and a camera – we did share a smart phone between us on the last tour but it broke fairly rapidly and guess what we didn’t miss it. A GPS with a decent map uploaded is for me essential, it doesn’t weigh much and it’s detail over such a large area is an improvement on carry loads of paper maps. I can recommend the Garmin E-Trex series GPS units (I love the E-Trex 30) UK version Garmin eTrex 30 Outdoor Handheld GPS Unit Garmin eTrex 30 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator
and also using the brilliant free http://www.velomap.org/ … these are open source maps with lots of extra useful details added, like water sources, public toilets, campsites and other things that are super useful to know about. Once you’re on the road you’ll want to detour to places that Google never even mentioned, so upload more maps than you intend to visit, just in case you want to go with the flow.

Solar panels are popular these days. I have used the Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar panel. Goal Zero Nomad 7m (v2) 8 watt monocrystalline solar panel w/ USB 11800
Older version Goal Zero 11800 Nomad 7 v2 Solar Panel
Whatever people tell you, it needs direct sunlight, despite the Nomad being the best of the best. If it gets direct sunlight it does work really well; it charges our smartphone and GPS batteries surprising quickly. Plus you look super cool with your solar panel shining on the back of your bike and if there’s one thing cycle tourers care most about it is looking cool 😉

4. Light and fast gives a greater sense of freedom, possibility and fun.

The lighter your bike and kit set up, the easier it is to ride longer distances and the more enjoyment you will have on the way.  The lightweight concept is a bit like a reverse snowball effect, as you start losing weight more and more flings off your setup. A bike with less rider weight and less kit can be a light road bike with lighter panniers, lighter racks, which then allows lighter wheels, lighter tyres, light carbon seat posts, carbon bars etc. how far you take it depends on the budget and sadly your personal weight. This guy takes it a bit far but he has some good advice: http://ultralightcycling.blogspot.fr/

So start with the pannier rack: light (sub-500g) and narrow, a wide rack = more wind drag. A light rack is normally rated to carry 20 to 25kg of kit, I aim for a maximum of 15kg here to be safe. As per the link Tubus Fly Rack Tubus make some great racks like the Fly that fit this idea. I use an Axiom one Axiom DLX Streamliner Road Cycle Rack, Black NEVER take a trailer unless you have kids then I’ll let you off. Trailers add weight, drag and mean you load the kitchen sink and then don’t even realise because you never dig that deep into all the junk you brought along just because you could. Oh and another wheel dragging you down sucks even when empty.

With the rear panniers look for smooth lines, no flaps and no loose pockets. Weight and wind resistance are your enemy you’ll remember that on the empty windy plains of Kazakhstan, trust me! They should be waterproof as a wet pannier is heavy and annoying, again I have learnt the hard way! These have lifetime warranty and have done me OK; Axiom Monsoon Aero DLX Waterproof Pannier Set: Gray/Black or in UK check out these  Panniers

Next up a tent. Lots to choose from so I won’t go into specifics much, but 2.3kgs maximum for a 2-man tent is a good target, the poles should be carried on the bike frame somewhere so the fabric can be stowed in the panniers. Personally I love the build of Terra Nova and Hillenberg, a tent from these guys costs a lot but spread it over 15 years and it seems much cheaper than that MSR or Vango one!   Terra Nova Voyager Tent: 2-Person 4-Season One Color, One Size

As for roll mats, the new air-filled tube designs are a must, like the Therm-a-rest Neo Air Lite;


or Karrimor X Lite.  Foam roll mats are cheap, but huge to transport .

For your sleeping bag, duck/goose down is obviously preferable as it has a great weight to warmth ratio although you need to look after it. A decent bag weighting around 950gm is ideal. If your budget stretches Mountain Hardwear are superb I love this one Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32 Sleeping Bag-Vivid Blue-Long

My biggest bugbear with cycle tourers is front panniers, there is just no need. Remember that the rack and bags can weigh an extra 3kg when empty!  The bike will ride out of balance with just rear panniers I hear you say? Well just use a large bar bag and store tent poles or something else heavy on the downtube to distribute weight. Again follow the rule of less is more, less stuff on the back means better handling. No front panniers means you can also now run standard carbon forks and carbon forks are the cats whiskers for touring. Your arms will thank you! Try to get get cyclo cross or 29er MTB ones with bosses for disc or V brakes.

How lightweight Wheels can you get away with on the bike? I ran Shimano 18 spoke wheels on my wife’s bike during our last tour to Istanbul partly  to prove a point, these race wheels were rated to 95kg; she weighs 60kg and add 15kg total luggage – there’s still margin to jump curbs and plough into potholes without issue. They were as true as new after 3000 miles on all kinds of road surfaces. Although strong enough I wouldn’t recommend these particular ones, as the spokes are unique to Shimano; you really do need universal spokes to make repairs easier, but the point stands…

Marion’s lightweight Franken bike is on the left parked up in Italy, while we ate pizza

5. Don’t buy a mountain bike to tour on and try not to use one if you can.

No no no no – never buy a 26inch mountain bike nor a 650b for touring, however great the salesperson says they are. A 26 inch wheel will feel like some one is permanently applying a brake just ever so slightly. Road bike 700c wheels have been around for decades, because they rock, and roll better – it’s simple physics.  Strong 29er MTB wheels are good on the rougher stuff if that is where you plan on heading.

If you have a MTB and can’t afford a change then great – get out and ride it and you’ll still have fun. But trust me I learnt the hard way: 26 inch wheels are less enjoyable in every scenario on long tours! If you can get 26 tubes normally you can get 700c too or stretch 27 inch, I never had a problem although carried many spares. I hear much of Africa is known to be hard to find 700c tubes and tyres.

6. You do not need wide tyres with super-thick tread.

Why would you want 35mm or 40mm tyres, every one recommends schwalbe marathons or other epic tyres but only during truly ‘off the beaten track’ adventures is this necessary. So why do people still always use them, is it more comfortable? Ride both a 28mm and 35mm for a week then let me know if you can genuinely tell any difference in comfort. Even on gravel stretches I don’t notice much difference in comfort.

Lots of experienced cycle tourers use ‘durable’ tyres with thicker treads so they don’t wear out. Well that’s like wearing heavy cumbersome thick-soled shoes so they don’t wear out. Why lug all that extra rotational weight when most road tyres last long enough to cycle halfway around the world – you will eventually pass a city selling bike tyres, or somewhere that can take delivery of some new tyres so plan ahead.

Narrow tyres will puncture more infrequently as there’s less surface area to puncture (logical when you think about it!) but looking at the structure and quality, tyres have moved on a lot – a decent set of well-designed all condition Continental or Schwalbe road tyres will almost never puncture. I have used these specific Continental tyres in a 25mm or 28mm for long tours.

The majority of cycle tours people do are on decent roads,  we found Albania with its notoriously poor infrastructure had decent enough roads for us using skinny 700c x 23mm tyres.  I spoke to a Dutch chap on my last tour, he cycled around China for a whole year using just skinnier tyres and he had no issues, except finding spare 700c tubes in some very remote places.

 

Wow this really got to be quite a long post if you made it this far well done, but now go out and have some fun! Any questions please just leave a comment below and hopefully I can help.

Finally some of the links I have used are to Amazon mainly for illustration, I wouldn’t recommend buying from them over your local bike shop. Some of the kit I recommend is quite expensive but it lasts, you really do get what you pay for and all that. If you are buying online and in the UK I personally like;









 

2 Comments
  1. GPS?!?

    Whatever happened to following your nose?

    😉

    Great article. Less is more.

    Reply
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    • Thanks, and I would have agreed with you about no GPS but I am now a convert, especially in cities where my nose doesn’t get me past the first cake shop!

      Reply
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