BIKE + GEAR
On March 6 my Surly ECR got stolen in Roma Sur, Mexico City. Just the bike, most of my luggage was stored in my room.
Thanks to sponsors and the generosity of people on social media I got a new rig together within a few weeks. I'll describe the new bike. Below you will find some pictures of the previous bike.
My first journey (Amsterdam to Singapore) was done on a Surly Long Haul Trucker. A great steed, but this time I wanted to try something different. Spending days on unpaved roads through Central Asia, India and Myanmar I often wished I had bigger tyres. A regular touring bike with 1,4″ (35 mm) tyres is not very comfortable on rocky, sandy and loose surface. When returning to the smooth surface of pavement I always uttered a sigh of relief. Pavement is where a touring bike is at its best, and to be honest, the majority of such a long journey is on pavement so a touring bike like the Long Haul Trucker is logic choice. But what I’ve learned is that the most interesting encounters happen on the smaller roads, the more remote areas, the places people rarely come. And many times when I was looking over maps considering those roads, I often choose the paved roads eventually, to save my ass. Literally.
So it was a last minute choice to leave the Long Haul Trucker to rest in my apartment in Amsterdam and try something new: a Surly ECR. It’s a 29+ off road bike with 3″ (76 mm) thick tires. Surly makes a wide range of mountain- and fatbikes and this one in particular is designed for the long distance, with many options and braze-ons to load it to the max. I have the standard factory edition, with a few changes. It's a really comfortable bike and after 9 months on the road with it, I'm still happy with this choice. You might wonder: are the big wheels and tires not slowing you down? Perhaps a bit. It comes down to the amount of air you put in the tires.
On pavement I go as far as 45 psi, which is quite a lot, more than recommended. The real fun however begins downhill on rocky roads. Releasing a lot of air creates a lot of clearance for the tire to absorb pretty rough surface. Although the bike is advertised as 'all-terrain', if you're packing luggage for a year or more, it might be too heavy for the real technical off-road riding like single trails. Something to be aware of. I've been on tracks which would have been fun to ride on an unloaded bike, but were simply impossible to do with all the stuff I'm carrying. Having said that, in most cases it's a very comfortable and stable rig and it still feels like a good choice for this type of journey. In Latin America the quality of pavement is often bad so even then the bigger tires are your friend.
The current saddle is a Selle Anatomica H2 Black Slotted version. Leather is a no-brainder for me, after it breaks in it shapes to your sit bones and becomes really comfortable. This is the first time I try a slotted saddle and I really like it. It allows for more flexibility between the right and left part, plus it reliefs you from pressure on your perineum. This is the first leather saddle which is comfortable right out of the box.
The bike that got stolen had a Gilles Berthoud Aravis Titanium, a beautiful piece of handcraft. My friend Jan Koelstra was raving about this French saddle maker. He is 53 and has toured 300,000 km in his life so has tried a few saddles. The leather is very thick which makes it more durable and maintain its shape longer. That said, it does need some more distance to break-in the leather.
The ECR ships with a Moloko bar which is really comfortably and versatile, but it wouldn't work with the Brooks handlebar bag I'm currently using. Also a wide handle bar might be very comfortable, it's inconvenient in traffic. I've been touching car mirrors while trying it out in Mexico City so I replaced it with a more straight bar and added bar ends. A seconds stem is added to attach the quick-release of the handlebar bag. This way it sits a little lower and gives more space for the brake and gear cables. On the previous ECR I also had aero bars to have a more comfortable position for long stretches of road. The front stems were cut off to make the handlebar bag fit. I couldn't find proper aero bars in Mexico City so I left it for what it was.
The bike I started the journey with in Vancouver, got stolen in Mexico City.
I used to travel with a 4-pannier touring setup. For this journey I aimed for a bike packing style of loading. This means lighter bags, directly strapped on to the frame, with more clearance on the underside of the bike. But because I’m travelling long therm, packing light is a challenge, so I ended with a combination of panniers and cages. The camping gear takes most of the space, but the weight is in the electronics. I have a lot of photography equipment, which include a camera, macbook, harddisk, chargers, cables, and this time also a drone. I’ve considered my packing list over and over. Travelling lighter is always a goal, but this is what I want to bring on a long term journey, nothing more or less.
Most of the valuable stuff is packed in the Carradice saddlebag. It’s made from durable, waxed canvas which is waterproof and it comes with a handy quick-release system. When I do groceries or go to a restaurant I take this bag with me, together with the handlebar bag which carries my camera and wallet. Everything else stays on the bike.
There are many ways to pack a bike and I’m still moving things around. The added top tube bag and frame bag make things more accessible and easy to grab, other than having everything stuffed in panniers. That said, when you need to unpack your bike at a hotel, panniers are the fastest and easiest way. The image below is from my previous journey, but I carry more or less the same things, except the guitar and the axe.
It's probably the most asked question: Which camera do you use? There are many cameras that can do the job. Because I'm traveling by bike, weight and size are an important consideration. A large DSLR with a heavy lens, packed safely in a pannier will capture less moments than a small and light camera, stored in your handle bar bag. Accessibility is important for me. This time I carried a Sony A7r with only one lens, a Sony 24-70mm f2.8 G. It’s stored in my handlebar bag right in front of me (it just fits). No digging in bags which are out of reach and no lens changes, so I can act fast. If I want to make a picture from the bike I could have my camera ready to shoot in 3 seconds, even without stopping. It makes me miss less moments. If my camera is not within reach, I don’t take the picture, it’s as simple as that. Additionally I have a Gopro Hero5 Session for video and a Mavic Pro drone for aerial shots. I’ve been flying the first consumer drones in 2013 and since then the drone technology has advanced rapidly. This drone I can send in the air, connect with my Iphone and it will follow me wherever I cycle and it will stop on itself if it’s about to hit an obstacle. I can even let it fly around me, while cycling. It’s pretty marvellous, and it packs small too.
Halfway the trip I switched to a Panasonic GH5, instead of the Sony A7r. The latter lacked video quality and timelapse features. Also the lenses for the M43 (sensor size of the GH5) system are much small and lighter and I had some good glass from when I used the GH4. A Lumix 12-35 mm f2.8, 35-100 mm f2.8 and a Voigtländer 25mm f0.95. The last one has a depth of field that comes close to full frame. Result is that I carry more than one lens now, but it's worth it.
All together the bike is fairly heavy. I haven’t found a scale yet which fits a bike but it must be around 50 kg in total, excluding food and water. You would think one must be crazy to cycle the world with such a heavy load, but really, after a few days you don’t know better.