Saturday, 14 January 2012
Dubai (5000 mile) Equipment Review
My approach has been to choose and fit parts for reliability and simplicity, cheapness, and hopefully universality, so I can get replacements easily when things do go wrong. As nothing has failed dramatically [I]yet[/I], I can't say how realistic the last element is, but hopefully that will help to explain the decisions I made when buying and fitting the equipment.
Tyres: Schwalbe Marathon XR 1.6". I fitted these in Istanbul to replace a pair of Schwalbe Marathon 1.75" tyres. I had no problems with those but they were a bit worn.
I don't especially like these tyres: they do give a bit of extra grip over the vanilla marathons, but they feel sluggish and I've had a few punctures since Istanbul. The roads haven't been that bad - they just seem to be susceptible to damage and penetration by glass, thorns, bits of wire and other miscellaneous bits I've pulled out of the casing. Finally, they are a pig to fit; they don't sit correctly on the rims, so the ride usually feels a bit up-and-down where the tyre stands proud of the rim. Still, they were on offer so I got them cheap and I'm going to persist with them.
Wheels - front is a 32-hole Shimano DH-3N71 which I built into a Mavic rim and have used for commuting and touring for two and a half years. The bearings sound dreadful and there is a distinct amount of play in the hub (which the guy in the Tabriz bike shop didn't notice, which rather sucked away my faith in his skills). Now serviced by the lovely folks at the Cannondale bike shop here in Dubai.
The rear is an XT Parallax 36-hole hub (second hand when I bought it and I rode about 5000 miles on it before this trip, and I serviced it before I left the UK) built into a Rigida Sputnik rim by the LBS and which I rode for about 600 miles before the trip. No problems. Double butted spokes all around, DT or Sapim, I think.
26" (559) wheels are as close to a worldwide standard as you get, so in the event of catastrophe I could hopefully get replacements wherever I am.
Frame is a 531 Peugeot Dakar from about 1984. I had it resprayed and v-brake bosses added and crappy u-brake bosses taken off. Then, when a crack developed around the seat clamp, I had the seat tube replaced (a 75-something tube, I think it was: Kevin Winter, a local framebuilder, did the repair, and I'm responsible for the paint job) and downtube lever bosses added. All a bit much for a factory Peugeot, but it fits and has performed admirably and I love it. I've treated it with Framesaver.
Forks: steel Kona P2 with a 1" steerer. I was also incredibly lucky that they came with bosses for low-riders. The one minor issue I had was that they came with really inconvenient lawyer lips which made removing the front wheel an utter pain until I got around to filing them down. They make for a good ride and seem utterly reliable.
Saddle: Brooks B17 special. Say no more.
Seatpost: I only mention this cos my mate Kat gave it to me before I left, as the one I had kept slipping. It's from Bontrager, and it's been fine since I fitted it on a rainy morning in Beverley, ninety miles into this journey.
Bars: Salsa Bell Lap 46". I really like these bars, I have the same on my other bike. The width suits me, and I love the shape of the curve.
Brake levers: Tektro v-brake levers. Brake OK and are OK comfort- wise. They are the best solution I've found to the issue of using v-brakes with drop bars. The hoods have started to disintegrate in the rain (this pre-dates the trip, and in fact little on the bike was new) and with wear, but electrical tape is a good enough bodge.
Shifters: Shimano Ultegra 9-speed downtube jobbies. I have them set to friction as I'm using a 7-speed cassette. I've tried to pick my parts to be simple and reliable, and these epitomise that approach: they just work.
Brakes: Shimano XT on the rear and LX on the front. They've been fine. I'm using Koolstop brake pads front and rear, which are simply excellent. I replaced the front pads in Istanbul, after many many miles of use. The only problem I've had is that I lost the pin on one of the rear pads, so it fell out if I braked when holding the bike on a hill. I became quite adept at slotting it back into place, though, and I can't really blame Mr Koolstop for this. I put a new one in when I was in Istanbul.
Chainset: Truvativ something-or-other which I found at Darlo tip. I have replaced the chainrings since then, though. The middle ring, which I use the most, is a Middleburn ring and one of the few things I bought new before this trip. The outer ring is TA and the inner is Shimano. The spread is 26-36-46, and I spend most of the time in the middle. The cassette is just a Shimano HG 7-speed jobbie which I've had a while, combined with a Sachs 8-speed chain. I think the largest sprocket is 30-tooth, and I haven't had to walk anything yet, apart from where the grip has failed on mud or sand.
Mechs: the rear is a Shimano LX 9-speed. I've been using it for some while now, so it must be approaching 15,000 miles. It has worked uncomplainingly so far. Front mech is a Shimano something-or-other which I bought for a quid from Chain Reaction before I left, and shimmed out with cans of Stella I blagged from my neighbour. I don't really drink lager, except where there's no alternative, and I felt slightly guilty for enabling his alcoholism. It shifts fine.
Rear rack: Tubus Cargo. Sturdy and solid and trustworthy.
Front racks: Nitto thingummy which attaches at the brake bosses and the fork crown. The fork crown snapped when I was descending the rough track on Sleightholme Moor (before it was resurfaced), and though I contacted the shop where I bought them, I didn't get a reply so I bodged a repair with heavy duty cable ties and decided to use it anyway. All proper cycle tourists' bikes have some sort of repair with a cable tie or toestrap, otherwise it marks it as the steed of a dilettante.
Also, Tubus low-riders which have been fine.
Rear panniers: good ole Carradice Super Cs. A classic. I had the seams replaced before I left, and though they're not entirely waterproof, they're big and rugged and lovable.
Front panniers: Ortlieb. Awkward to fit and they have a tendency to sway about, making the steering juddery. The hook adjusters on the left have gone west somewhere, so I've padded the low-riders out with electrical tape and clamped them down with more cable ties to stop them rattling. But they're waterproof, and quite easy to get on and off. At least, when they're not cable tied down. The shoulder straps are handy and I like the inner pockets.
Excepting the front hub, I've had very few mechanical issues: there was an annoying knocking sound which developed in Austria. I thought it might have been the cassette, so I tightened that, but it persisted through Hungary, to the point where the French couple I was riding with commented on it. But it went away by Serbia, so I'm not worrying about it, despite its occasional reappearance. I've had to re-wrap the bar tape and bodge the brake lever hoods with electrical tape. I've had to tighten the bolts on the low-riders. The usual punctures. I adjusted the headset in eastern Turkey when I noticed a bit of play in it (actually, I first noticed this in Serbia but it took me a while to bother fixing it). The pop rivets on the front mudguard popped out off when I was dragging my bike through the bush to a campsite, and I fixed this with a cable tie. I can't think of anything else - it's all been very minor stuff.
I am carrying plenty of spares - a spare rear mech is probably an extravagance, but I already had it, so I'd rather carry it than have to buy another XT mech on the road. I'm also carrying a spare headset, which is ridiculous, but since 1" threadless headsets are bastard rare, and I had to buy the whole headset to get spare bearings, I thought I may as well carry the whole thing. Other than that, I have a spare tyre, tubes, inner cables, spokes, brake pads, patches. Nothing extraordinary.
I'll be replacing the chain in a couple of days, and I may replace the jockey wheels in the rear mech. That's it.
Tent: Hilleberg Akto. Very good indeed - light, easy to pitch or strike camp quickly, pretty roomy inside (though I do occasionally yearn for more headroom) and very sturdy. also a subtle shade of green which is useful when camping stealthily. It's not freestanding, but you can use rocks and bungees to peg it out, in a pinch.
Mat: Exped Downmat Pump. Heavy at a kilo and pumping it up is healthy exercise, but the comfort factor outweighs everything else. It is probably more comfortable than most beds I've slept in. One of the seals can make a weird farting noise at times.
It did start spitting feathers at me in Turkey, but it has lasted through Iran despite this, and the very lovely people at Lyon (the UK distributors) have arranged a warranty replacement for me.
Sleeping bag: Snugpak Softie Kilo. Officially a three season mat, though I've had no problems down to -20 (on a different trip) with the addition of a silk liner, a bivvy bag and most of my clothes. No comments, as no problems. It packs away nicely and doesn't yet stink.
Bivvy bag: Alpkit Hunka. It's been great on the three nights I've used it when I didn't want to pitch my tent, such as sleeping rough in Wiener Prater. No problems with condensation despite the damp, and it was warm and roomy. It's not so heavy that I've resented carrying it, either. It has also served a secondary purpose as a sleeping bag outer when the nights got cold across eastern Turkey and northern Iran.
Stoves (yes, plural): firstly, an Optimus Nova Plus which I bought to be the solution to travelling in remote areas. Sadly, it refused to get any hotter than a Dutch Oven for most of the way through Europe. I like things which just work, which is one reason I brought the Trangia, and I am very glad I did, as I found myself relying on it. I did fix the Optimus stove in Istanbul and it worked OK after that (it's quicker than the Trangia, and you can fry chips on it), but it's temperamental. The Trangia is a classic but it can be difficult to get fuel for it. I only saw fuel once in far eastern Turkey so I'd have been stuck without the multifuel stove (and the intervention of the meths fairy). It packs away nicely, is very sturdy and I'm happy to use it just outside the porch of my tent, which is not true of the Optimus. I think they complement one another well so I'll continue to carry both.
Sporks (for what would a camping trip be without sporks?): I was actually carrying two titanium sporks, one attached to the Carradice with a cheap carabiner for easy access when eating yoghurts and emergency coffee, but the carabiner broke and deposited the spork somewhere in Bulgaria, so I am now down to one spork. I am (semi) bereft. Both sporks are things of beauty and a delight to use.
I also carry an iPod and a Sony e-reader, for entertainment and to ward off madness. I also have an iPhone which I bought second-hand in Istanbul - charging these devices was always going to be the issue. Now read on...
Charging devices: Portapow USB battery, which I charge from the mains whenever possible. Works well.
Secondly, a Freeloader which I used to charge my phone or iPod or ereader when the sun was hot. Not powerful enough on its own for everything I have, but useful.
And the Dahon Biologic Reecharge, which I only got cos it would directly charge my iPhone (lost in France after PBP, so even more of a waste of time). It did work, but it came with a serious flaw, compounded by a couple of secondary flaws.
Firstly, the battery had to be set to take a charge, meaning it had to be on when it was connected to the hub dynamo, or there was a chance of frying the innards at high speeds.
(the use of the past tense here should be giving you an idea of what's coming)
Fair enough. Unfortunately, the only way to tell that it was on and charging was to lift the front wheel and spin it, and look for the green light to come on. The designers had clearly never tried to use this in a bicycle touring situation, as the on-off button has no clear difference between on and off, and the green LED is only marginally brighter than the green plastic covering. Imagine trying to check this: lift the heavy front end of the bike with one hand, spin the wheel with the other, check that the green light is coming on, but the daylight's too bright so you can't tell and drop the wheel.
It was only a matter of time: I set off without checking one morning, it was wet and miserable and I was convinced I had left it on the night before. I stopped at the bottom of a huge, fast, wet descent to check, and there was no response. Bastard. As I said, I like things that work without too much intervention, and such a huge flaw as that makes the Reecharge utterly inappropriate for touring. I did dry it out, hoping that it might have been the wet which it disliked, but no. It's dead, and I suspect the innards are fried.
I sent a sharp e-mail to Mr Dahon along those lines, and though they didn't comment on my feedback, they have agreed to send me a replacement thingy which was waiting for me in Dubai.
But in general there have been relatively few problems. With an iPhone I have a greater power demand, but I have kept everything charged so far with occasional access to mains electricity.
Anything I haven't mentioned has probably just worked without me thinking about it. For maps, I had the Michelin road map of western Europe to start, which I thoroughly disliked, though I managed. I didn't find the distinction between a-roads and m-ways especially clear, so I had a hell of a time avoiding prohibited roads, and the level of detail was disappointing. I bought maps of Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria en route. Freytag and Berndt was the mapmaker and they were PDG. The scale was 1:400,000 and I found that OK for everything except dirt roads in Serbia where the tracks I was using probably wouldn't appear on the local version of OS Explorer, and in cities, where much more detail was useful. But all the roads I would use were on those maps. The Marco Polo map of Turkey was excellent - I especially liked having spot height at the top of the passes (although not every pass was marked, which caught me out a couple of times) and I miss this on the Gizi map of Iran, which is otherwise fine.
Feel free to ask about anything else, or for more details. There isn't a great deal I'd change, except to have a more reliable multifuel stove and power supply, and different tyres, and possibly different front panniers.