Gear: our bikes and bike accessories

By Matt Schiff

This is a blog where we talk specifically about our gear, what we like, what we don’t like, and ultimately the advice we’d give to others doing their own bike tour.

Most of us aren’t gear heads. Once something works, we’re happy. We don’t care what else comes on the market and weighs a few ounces less or won backpacker magazine editor’s choice. I admit, I do tend to think about gear a bit, especially what might break next, and that’s probably why I’m the one compelled to write about it. I like it when my bike runs smooth; I don’t like unexpected breakdowns. I like water beading on the rainfly; I curse when it drips through. Our stoves should work perfectly; I endlessly tinker with them when they don’t. If there’s nothing else to think about when pedaling down another flat pine forest road, there is the possibility I’m thinking about gear.

After 10,000 miles everything has shown some wear. We get stitching coming loose on the panniers, material rubbed thin, rainflys on the tents becoming less waterproof, tires wearing out, clothing wearing out, small parts breaking, you name it. Here I’ll talk about some of the breakdowns we’ve had, and gear recommendations we’d make, if you’re planning to take a long distance trip of your own or just pedal some high miles around town.

All four of us ride bikes that are fairly specific to bike touring. While you can tour with almost any bike if you can attach a rack to the back and some panniers, we all have bikes that are built for adding a heavy load and have comfortable geometry for spending hours on the road. To throw some names around there’s two Surly Long Haul Truckers, a Surly Cross-Check, and a Salsa Vaya. They’re steel as well, but most important is to have your bike fit you. None of us would purchase on brand name alone if the bike didn’t fit right.

We also use tires that are wider than your average road bike tire. This is for several reasons – we can ride dirt roads with no problems, get a longer life out of the tire, it’s a bit cushier, and a little harder to pinch flat.

We have front and rear racks. Rear racks are easy to find and are not all that different from one another. Sara and I have aluminum rear racks and Aaron and Tommy have steel Surly racks. They’re all good. None of us has ever had an aluminum rack break so it’s hard to knock them. On the front we all have Surly racks (generously donated by Surly) which can handle a lot of weight, have multiple positions to mount panniers, and plenty of room to strap stuff on top. In comparison, the front rack market is slim and the options are quite different. We really like our Surly front racks and they’re probably the best option if you have the cash.

Attached to those racks we have an assortment of several brands of panniers. Aaron went with a company, Swift Industries, that hand sews their bags up in the northwest. These bags have lots of pockets and really help you organize your stuff. On the other end of the spectrum, Tommy has a set of completely waterproof welded tarpaulin Ortlieb bags, but these have only one large compartment. Those tend to be the standard in Wet weather. What we also all have is a fifth bag, a handlebar bag, and these are pretty handy for a camera, snacks, wallet, anything you just want access to quickly, or your valuables that you want to remove from the bike when you lock them up. Our take on bags is that almost anything works. Completely waterproof bags are nice, but so are cloth ones that have pockets. Both Sara and I have a mix of bags, where our sleeping stuff and clothes go in the waterproof ones, and everything else in the cloth.

Aaron's Swift Industries bags can be customized with your choice of fabric and even thread color.

Aaron's Swift Industries bags can be customized with your choice of fabric and even thread color.

Tommy's Ortliebs are completely waterproof but lack the compartments of other bags

Tommy's Ortliebs are completely waterproof but lack the compartments of other bags

Another accessory that’s a must for touring is fenders. There’s no sense having a mud splattered back when a downpour hits. We luckily got Planet Bike to provide four sets of these as well as a few other items like rear tail lights, gloves, locks, and a bike computer.

Fenders are a must

Fenders are a must

Lastly, people might be inclined to have clipless pedals or cages. We’re all pretty happy having standard flat pedals because that means we don’t need a second pair of shoes and can adjust where we put our feet on the pedals if some repetitive motion is causing pain or injury.

So what happens to these neat and tidy setups after 10,000 miles on the road? Bikes don’t usually brake and need replacement. There is no engine to fail; you are the motor. The parts wear and over time you can continually replace them as needed but keep your old frame. Our frames are made of made of steel so they can get dented and banged around but tend not to fail like aluminum, or that awful substance called carbon fiber, unless they get rusty. To really increase the life of your steel bike you can coat it with a spray like framesaver if you’re looking forward to passing it down to the next generation. When I was building my Salsa Vaya I figured, what the heck, and had the shop do that for an extra $15.

Parts wear out and two of the first things to go are your chain and tires. Chain wear is the stretching of the chain – not actually the metal itself – but groves wearing into the pins connecting each link. A chain that hasn’t been kept clean and lubed has more friction in these areas and wears quicker. Pedaling harder, and therefore putting more pressure on each link, also wears out a chain quicker. We don’t have too many sprint races, but we pedal in all weather and have gotten our drivetrain coated with some salts during the snowy weather and sand now that we are in the south.

In the winter it was the snow, ice, and salt taking it's toll on the bike.

In the winter it was the snow, ice, and salt taking it's toll on the bike.

Now it's the sand that mixes with lube, creating an abrasive grit.

Now it's the sand that mixes with lube, creating an abrasive grit.

If you don’t replace your chain after a certain amount of stretch it begins to deform the chainrings on the front of the bike and cassette teeth on the back. Once that happens to a certain extent, a new chain will not mesh well and skips over the teeth. At this point you have to keep your old chain and replace all the parts together. From our experience, you can get about 8,000 miles out of a drive train if you never replace the chain. The amount of miles a chain will last really depends on the conditions stated above. My first chain lasted 1,700 miles. If I continued to use it, I would not have been able to use a new chain without it skipping. On the other hand, Aaron replaced a chain after about 5,000 miles and didn’t have problems. Once a chain is worn, any further wear takes place at an accelerated rate. How do you know when to replace the chain? You measure it. Every two links equals an inch when new. The common thing to do is measure 24 links or 12 inches of chain and check for wear. 1/16 of an inch stretch it the first “warning”. I could go on with details and options, but rather, check out this site for a continued explanation.

The point to get across is that your chain will wear out over time. Some people prefer not to change it and let all the components wear out together. I like to change my chain a few times before eventually letting everything wear together and replacing all parts. When touring you have to consider the cost and availability of parts when choosing your “philosophy”. Mechanics at bike shops will argue over the most economical or common sense way to maintain the drivetrain. The discussion of replacing your chain and drivetrain gathers the most opinions of any of the simple bicycle repairs.

Tires wear out. Unfortunately bike tires can cost as much as a cheaper car tire ($80) but last a fraction of the miles. At least you don’t have to buy 4 of them. All four of us are currently riding 700 X 35C tires which are much wider than road bike tires or about the width of a hybrid bike tire. My first set of tires that came with the bike was narrower and consequently was 100% bald, pushed beyond most sensible limits, until the casing showed, after 3,400 miles. I wanted better mileage and therefore went with a larger tire that has more surface area. Going with what others have recommended is usually a best bet. We have used the Continental tires that came on our bikes but when it was time for a replacement bought Schwalbes which come highly recommended in the touring world. As for lifespan, Tommy has 9,500 miles on his Schwalbe Marathon Plus tire that has spent its entire life on the rear wheel. He also has 12,000 on his front Continental Contact. I don’t know how he does it. I have a set of Marathon tires that still have a little life after 7,000 miles. You can’t go wrong buying either of those Schwalbes. Cheaply made tires not only will wear out quicker but might have catastrophic breakdowns. The casing of a tire is the tightly woven nylon threads (someone will correct me on this, but I know they’re made of other things as well) that support the shape of the tire and resists the pressure of the tube. Sara had her casing tear on a tire she left Arcata with. A snake like looking bulge formed and after 2,000 miles she had a big hole in the rubber that had to be filled with multiple candy bar wrappers and old tubes as she limped 100 miles to the next bike shop. Aaron borrowed a tire when he noticed he had a big hole in his current Marathon. It never sat balanced on the rim and after he pumped it to high pressure the casing split, giving it a big bulge. The bottom line is to expect 5,000 miles out of a good set and pray for more, but go with a larger size unless speed is a real issue. Both Schwalbe and Continental make good tires but nothing lasts longer than the Marathon Plus.

9,500 miles on a rear tire. It's worn and square, but few flats, so keep on riding it.

9,500 miles on a rear tire. It's worn and square, but few flats, so keep on riding it.

Other than tires and drive trains, cables and housing needs to be replaced. You can do it preventively or wait until a failure. We’ve pretty much chosen the latter and after 10,000 miles have almost all replaced at least one of the four cable and housing segments that operate the brakes and deraillers.

Typical cable and housing problems.

Typical cable and housing problems.

Okay, you want to ride your bike and thinking about all the parts isn’t really your cup of tea, but having some stopping power is more than just dealing with the clickity clack sound of an old chain, and it’s the last bit of maintenance to mention. You got to stop and dragging a foot does little when your bike is weighed down with 80 lbs of gear. Out of the four of us we have two types of brake systems. The more common type is cantilever brakes that have two rubber brake shoes that press on the rim to slow the bike down.

Cantilever brake system

Cantilever brake system

The other type is disk brakes where a disk attaches to the hub of the wheel and two brake pads squeeze that.

Disk brake system

Disk brake system

Which is better? There is no denying the stopping power of disk brakes and once you use them it’s hard to go back. Cantilever brakes have been used for decades and are tried and true, but wear a little quicker (they are cheaper to replace) and after many miles wear out a rim to the point of collapse (that happened on one of our rims so far). They have to be replaced after a while but they wear sporadically, lasting for miles when the weather is dry and wearing out in matter of weeks when it’s wet, muddy, and sandy. Carrying one set of pads is a good idea when bike touring. On the disc brake setup I’ve yet to replace even one set, although it’s about time on the rears, but the cantilever crowd has replaced the front and rears about twice each.

For how to keep those brake pads from squeaking, check out this link

This should cover most of the questions we get regarding tire life, parts that need to be replaced, and how the bikes are holding up in general. If you do have more questions on the specifics, don’t hesitate to email “bike49 at gmail dot com”

It’s amazing how many people, mostly guys, ask questions about our gear, but specifically, how many sets of tires we’ve worn through. I hope they’re generally interested, but maybe it’s just an ice breaker. I like to give a thorough answer, but midway through begin to wonder, “am I just some gear nut talking, or are they really into this?”

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