All you've ever wanted to know about bicycle gear
In this article, I will try to cover as many details as I can about everything you need to know about cycling gear to travel the world in every possible terrain. If there's something missing or specific you want to know, feel free to contact me so I can add it.
Note that all I know, I learned it from experience. I am neither a cyclist nor a bike mechanic and I am not interested at all in becoming either of those. I only consider myself a traveller who has chosen a bicycle as means of transportation. As a consequence, the nature of travelling by bicycle forced me to learn quite a bit about technical stuff and practicalities which I am happy to share with you. So here we go:
I want to travel by bicycle, what kind of bicycle do I need?
Traveling by bicycle is not very different from travelling in any other vehicle. Any vehicle is able to transport us, you can use pretty much any bicycle, but what may actually change is the degree of comfort depending on the choice we make and how much we want to invest in it. The possibilities are multiple, so I will limit myself to answer at the general level focusing on the essentials.
Types of bicycle
Mountain (MTB): I have travelled with a reasonably priced Merida MTB for about 7 years (on/off) Cost: ~500 US$. While it did the job, over the years I realised that it was not the perfect option. What you need to know is that MTB's are designed mostly to ride downhill, thus making it a problem for riding many long hours every day in different types of roads. The downhill riding position is such that your weight falls towards the front. In my case, my fingers and half of my palms would go almost permanently numb after several days of cycling on flat roads. To make up for this, it is imperative that you avoid using flat handlebars. Choose a butterfly-style one or those with double height. Also, add soft grips and extensions to be able to switch hand position as much as you wish. This will all help reducing stress on your hands. It certainly did for me.
Touring bikes: As the name says it, these are bicycles designed for travelling and they are by far the best option if you go on long journeys. Their design strikes the right balance for your riding position, making it easy to distribute your weight evenly. 50% on your hands and 50% on your butt. Switching to my Boskey Overlander touring bicycle made all the difference to me. With the MTB, no matter how well I adapted it for travelling, by the end of a long day, I would always have some kind of pain, especially in my cervicals and certain muscles. With a Touring bike, I can keep going and going and feel pain-free by the end of the day no matter how hard it was.
The two main materials used for frames are aluminium and steel (Chromoly) both have their pros and cons.
Aluminium bicycles are, put it simply: lighter. These days they are also extremely strong and it is rare that they break. However, this does not mean they don't, and if they break, finding an aluminium welder is harder than finding a needle in a haystack.
Steel (Chromoly) bicycles are arguably more resistant, but they are a bit heavier and they are more prone to rust. However, if they ever break, pretty much any welder in any work shop can weld them, turning a potential disaster into a relatively easy fix.
There are fixed and suspension forks. Fixed forks are lighter and less complex but they make for a tougher riding experience since your hands will be absorbing all the shock on bad road conditions. However, due to their simplicity, they give less trouble. They have less chance of breaking and need little to no maintenance at all.
Suspension forks provide a much smoother riding experience, but they are significantly heavier, more expensive, need frequent maintenance, may break easier and there's no easy fix. I've had both, and I choose fixed any day any time.
There is disc brakes, cantilever brakes and V-Brakes. Disc brakes are undoubtedly the safest and most efficient but they have more complex and delicate mechanisms and they need maintenance. If they break, they are a real pain in the ass and I have met people who ended up stranded due to them. For long periods of extreme and remote roads I would never ever consider them.
V-brakes are the most basic form of brakes. They are as simple as they get, they are easy to maintain, easy to fix, easy to replace and they are safe enough. Their main drawback is that they wear out the rims. Also, on muddy roads, the brake pads can dissolve in just a few hundred meters of braking. But for long trips especially in remote areas where you do not want to have serious preoccupations, they are the way to go. Finally cantilever brakes are supposed to be a more sophisticated version of V-Brakes, and more efficient. I have never used them, but I guess they are alright. All that said, I'm happy with the V-Brakes.
Rear and front derailleurs
It is a very good idea to have a combination of 27 gears so you have the flexibility to adapt to pretty much every road condition. 24 gears should be fine too, but they may not be so comfortable, especially in places with a lot of climbs and if you carry a lot of weight. The most used brand is Shimano, which comes in different models. XT would be like their "best", but it is very expensive and in my experience not really necessary. With the Deore or even Alivio models, you spend a lot less money and maybe even find that not so surprisingly, they last the same or more than the XT. I use Alivio myself and my experience is excellent.
Rohloff system. Those who use it love it and rave about it. They argue that you never have problems because it's a closed and watertight system. That's fine until I met one cyclist who had problems and there was no solution in thousands of miles around and had no other choice than being stranded for a month until getting a spare (with the cost that involves). In my opinion, they are way too heavy, and if they break in a remote place or with little availability of professional bike shops, they can be a total nightmare that I prefer to avoid. But finally and most importantly, at a cost of 1000 US$ depending on which country you are in, for me there is no doubt that a traditional cable tension system is a no-brainer. My Shimano Alivio derailleurs cost 35-50 US$ and I replaced 2 in 87.000 km.
On a long bicycle trip, speed is not really a priority. On the contrary, being the bicycle usually so heavy, you dwell mostly all the time in the lower gears. That's the reason why I recommend a gradient of cogs that go from 12 to 36 teeth from the smallest to the largest. 11-34 is fine too, but in my years of experience, I clearly opt for the former.
Steel rings are recommended for the smallest chainrings because those are the ones that get more wearing. If you are pretty hardcore overall, then steel is definitely better. Other than that, alumnium ones are fine. I use small and middle rings of steel and the biger one of aluminium. As it is the case with the cassette, it is good to choose a gradient that favours the longest extension of the chain. After cycling with several combinations, I have stayed with 22-32-42 as the most practical for long journeys.
As with other components, I stay with the Shimano Alivio range. Again, they strike the perfect balance between quality and price.
The Super Z of KMZ has been my favourite for some time now. They have served me very well over the years and they are cheaper than the good quality Shimano ones. The Shimano HG-53, the cheap model has never really given me real problems, but perhaps a better model, intermediate between that and the HG-93, would not be a bad idea if you want more reliability and a chain that lasts you longer.
I told you, I am not a cyclist and even more, I do not want to look like one. I don't use fixed pedals because I do not like walking like a robot when I get off my bicycle, which happens very often. I don't care that they make the most efficient use of your muscles, because again, I am not a cyclist. I use regular metal pedals. I use a brand called VP which are very good. They are big, which I like because I have big feet, and they have metal spikes to lock my foot. I also put plastic tops on them, so that helps the foot stay in place and perhaps be a bit more efficient.
The most common wheel size is the 26 ". Many use the 28" (700cc) to ride faster and they are arguably more comfortable for good sealed roads. But the 26 " are much more versatile because you can choose widths of 2.0" or even 2.15". These are slower for sealed roads, but way better for tough roads where you have rocks, gravel, lots of mud or sand. The 28 "come in 1.75 'which is very narrow for rough terrain but they indeed are less heavy and go much faster on tarmac. You could also choose to use 29 "(twenty niners), but they are expensive, heavy and mostly mountain specific. Also, you can not get them outside truly professional bike shops. So the routes you choose have a strong influence on the tires of your choice.
The brand par excellence, although the most expensive, is Schwalbe. The Marathon XR model was traditionally the favourite model of all long-time cycle travellers. This model has been discontinued and replaced by the Mondial, which I am absolutely convinced that they are not as good as their predecessors. Anyway, investing in these tires is worth it every penny in my opinion. Having pedalled using all kinds of tires, the best investment in peace of mind and comfort for me, is in my Marathon Mondial.
Make sure that you always keep your Schwalbes properly inflated, because one if their worst weaknesses are their side walls.
I have used mostly cheap tubes in my life. There was a brief period of time during which I bought more expensive ones like Continental and there was one time when I was even given a couple of Schwalbe tubes as a gift. Honestly, I have never felt any difference between an 8 US$ Schwalbe tube and 1 US$ generic one. What I always try though, is to get the ones with Schrader valve, so I can inflate them using any pump, especially those for cars found at service stations.
Notes: 1- There was a time when I used the tape that goes in-between the tire and the tube for extra protection. I found out that quite often I would get punctures results of the pinching that the hard edges of the tape produce at its end, so I stopped using them.
2- Beware of sharp-edged rim tape. I have had many avoidable punctures because of this too.
A wide rim made of steel alloy is much more resistant and stronger than a cheap aluminium one. I have used many rims in my life and so far the best of all, in my opinion, are the famous Rigida (now called Ryde) Sputniks. For me the strike the right balance between strength, performance and price. The "Mavic" are very good too but more expensive. The "Sun" are the best on the market. As the Sputnik, they are tough but they are also lighter. The problem is they cost twice as much.
32 or 36 spokes. Unless you carry a lot of weight and you stay mainly on bad roads, 32 spokes are more than enough and provide a lighter wheel. In my specific case, due to the conditions I mostly find myself in, I opted for 36 for the rear wheel and 32 for the front.
NOTE: Regardless of the brand you choose, the most important of all is the construction of the wheel. It is the quality of the construction (even tension in all spokes) which invariably determines the life and strenght of the rim. A rim of the best brand, built with uneven spoke tension will surely break before a cheap rim built to perfection. Only a professional mechanic doing the manual construction and trueing will secure a professionally built wheel. Machine true wheels do not get even close to those built by a professional wheel builder.