All you've ever wanted to know about bicycle gear

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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

  1. 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.
     

  2. 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.

Bicycle frame

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.

Fork

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.

Brakes

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.

Cassette

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.

Chainrings

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.

Chain

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.

Pedals

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. 

Tires

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.

Tubes

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.

Rims

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.

Hubs

 I have always used Shimano Deore hubs and I have not had any major problems. It is very important to clean them and re-grease after long stretches of mud and rain. In addition what I learned recently, is that it's a good idea to bring 2 extra sets of bearings for replacement.
There are also hubs that generate energy while you cycle and through a USB connector you can charge your devices throughout the day, which is great for places like Africa where electricity is scarce. I have never had one because they are very expensive, but I think they should be very handy.

Handlebar

Ideally, you want a handlebar that allows you to switch to as many different hand positions as possible while retaining good control of your bicycle and its operation. This is something very relevant in my opinion because when you spend so many hours a day cycling, you want to be able to relax your hands and overall upper torso muscles. Restricting them to one single position not only makes you tired quickly but also your hands and fingers will tend to numb in some areas which is very annoying. For that reason, you constantly switch position as yougo along, which in turn will also change your riding posture affecting a lot of different small muscles and your back's bones. 

That's why once I switched to a butterfly handlebar there was no way back for me. The butterfly handlebar allows me to place my hands in as many positions as it's physically possible while still having full control of the bicycle. I can also go higher or lower and still be able to shift gears or brake quickly and comfortably with confidence.

Saddle

  A classic among travellers are the English Brooks. It's a saddle made of leather, which you have to soak when you buy it and cycle on it afterwards. In that way, it fully adapts to the specific shape of your butt and that's why people say they love them so much and find them so comfortable. The problem with these is that if you spend too much time cycling under the rain or in very wet conditions, their shape will begin to change again, thus you need to protect them from the water, which to me, it defeats the whole purpose.

I have never cycled on one tailored for my ass but judging for how hard they are, I'm happy to stick to the silicone ones. They are cheaper, softer and they can get as wet as you want, but you have to be careful not to cut them because once that happens, they won't last you much longer.

Panniers and drybags

The two leading brands are Ortlieb and Vaude but now there are a few others like MSX. All of them are very good. However, after a lot of research and my own personal experience, I keep choosing Ortlieb hands down on top of any other. They are the toughest and most resistant panniers ever and they have been with me along the most extreme conditions imaginable. They have survived it all and when I needed to fix them they were always easy to patch.
I choose the Backroller Classic model in its traditional version, not the Plus, which despite being lighter, I've heard from other cyclists that they are less resistant. I usually carry a lot of stuff, so I use Backroller classics for the front (instead of front rollers which are very small for me) and for the back. Although I have recently upgraded to the Backroller PRO, which are bigger than the regular ones. I like having more space because for long remote stretches I can carry more food and things like spares.

In my opinion, the Vaude have one advantage over the Ortlieb which is a rigid plate on the back wall of the panniers. This helps the pannier to stay rigid when it's very heavy. My Backrollers on the front extend beyond the bottom bar of the rack, so they bend on the bottom due to heavyweight, sometimes even touching the spokes. That wouldn't happen with the Vaude.

For the handlebar, I use the Ortlieb Ultimate Classic Large. It is a fantastic bag, but because I carry too much weight in it, I need to place something below as support so the bag wouldn't bend and bounce too much.

On top of the rear panniers, I carry a drybag. For many years I had a 68L Chinese drybag design for acquatic sports. It was fantastic. When it broke, Ortlieb sent me their massive X-Tremer of 113L that has straps to carry as a backpack. That is extremely handy, but I noticed that the size is way too big so I will replace it with another 70-80 L one.

Finally, there's the final and main reason why I choose Ortlieb, and that is their extremely superb customer service. Ortlieb has offered me immediate support when I needed it the most. They have always helped me solve every problem I had even when being on the road far away from everything. This proved invaluable to me as an adventurer.

First bike - Mérida MTB

 Second and current bike - Boskey Overlander adapted to 26"

Second and current bike - Boskey Overlander adapted to 26"

Racks (carriers)

The good ones are made of steel or aluminium tubes but there are also titanium ones. I don't consider the last ones for being too expensive. As with bicycle frames, the steel tube ones are the best in my opinion because they are more resistant, especially to bending, and most importantly, they are easy to weld anywhere in case they break.

Tubus is possibly the best brand in the market. For the rear, I have their all-time classic, the Cargo model. That thing proved to be indestructible for me. I put it through everything and I never ever had a problem with it.
They have another model that offers two different bars from where to hang your panniers from. This is very handy if you go very loaded because you can hang your Ortliebs on the lower bar so when you place your drybag on top, it does not bend on top of the panniers.

Funnily enough, they don't have a good alternative for the front racks, like one that has a shelf on the upper part to place more things on top of it. I think a shelf is essential. I usually place my foam mat, bottles, jerry cans, and sometimes even my tent. So My choice for this is an LKLM rack that it's also made of steel tubes. It's a Chinese brand and of very good quality, but only available in China.

Surly offers very good quality racks too, including a front one with shelf, but they are heavier and expensive.

Spares & Tools

The number of spares and tools you carry with you depends mostly on two factors. 1: where in the world you are cycling 2: how interested you are in repairing things yourself.
Certain regions of the world require taking with you more spares than others but also more tools and more knowledge in bike mechanics in order to repair the bicycle. 

As a base, considering I spend most of my time cycling in developing countries and/or remote regions, I carry the following:

Spares:  1 or 2 folding Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres EVO.  2 to 4 tubes. 2 Brake cables. 2 gear cables. 1 pair of handlebar tape. 1 chain to swap with the one in use, every 2500-3500 km. 5 spokes. A bag full of all the nuts and bolts present in the bicycle, at least 3 or 4 of each. 4 pairs of brake pads. Ball bearings for both hubs. 1 Bottom bracket (Hollow tech). Plenty of Ortlieb pannier patches and glue. 1 set of pannier hooks.

In extreme circumstances far away from everything (like in Africa) at times I carried 2 extra rims or one full extra wheel with me. For some time I also carried a full set of chainrings and cassette.

 Maintenance : Chain oil for extreme/wet conditions ( I use green 'Finish Line' ). This one is stickier and not so good for dry weather, but I still prefer it because it lasts longer.
Grease for hubs, bottom bracket, seat post, bolt screws and inner threads. WD-40 for general cleaning.
Old rags and toothbrushes for scrubbing.

Tools: Leatherman Wave (indispensable), 3M Duct tape (indispensable), Full set of Allen keys (indispensable). Phillips screwdriver. Spoke adjuster tool. Cassette remover tool. Cone wrench with multiple size. Chain remover tool. Plenty of plastic ties of different sizes (very handy, life saver sometimes). A decent piece of wire.