A lightweight fixed-gear bike tour of France and Spain

Equipement and Gear

Chrome Shoes

Who would want chrome plated shoes? We do! Not really. Chrome is a brand based in San Fransisco that makes messenger bags and urban cycling apparel. We will be wearing shoes made by Chrome while cycling (not hiking).  We will be wearing them for a couple of reasons. First of all, they look cool. Rob has these ones, and Adie has these. They are also great for cycling. They were designed with a much stiffer sole than most shoes, which helps transfer power from your legs to the pedals. This also eliminates “pedal hot-spot,”  an uncomfortable burning sensation in the sole of your foot caused by continuous pressure from your pedals. We also got them for free!

Adie had been eying the shoes for a while after they came out, then all of a sudden found out from Rob (and various blogs) that Chrome would be giving out free shoes as a publicity stunt! All you had to do was send in a pair of really beat up old shoes, and they would send you a brand new pair of shoes in your size! Sounded too good to be true, but we both sent off some old shoes. A month later we had heard nothing. Our parents had thought it was a hoax all along, but Adie did some research and found out that Chrome had been swamped with shoes people had sent in, many thousands of pairs, in several full UPS trucks, and were still sorting through all the shoes.

A few weeks later, the shoes arrived, and they have been our go-to cycling shoes for the last year or so.

A beautiful (if slightly muddy) shoe on a beautiful bike


Why are we riding the bikes we are riding?


Our bikes are awesome, you may think, but why would we want these particular bikes on a two month long unsupported bike tour in foreign countries, perhaps in remote areas of those countries, and almost definitely in mountainous areas of those countries? They don’t exactly seem like the ideal choice. And they aren’t.

There are a lot of things wrong with them. Well, not wrong, but less-than-ideal. First, we built them ourselves, with little or no prior experience. There are two issues wrapped up in that sentence. Part A is that we built the frames, using a relatively new and alternative technique, one that we had no experience of, and no-one, except our good friend The Internet, to show us the way. Part B is that we built up the bikes ourselves, meaning we installed all the parts, and didn’t go to a bike store once.

The second issue is a similar issue, also one of quality. We built these bikes really cheaply, probably only spending $300-$400 each (not a bad result for that kind of money, eh!), including the costs of materials and tools. That didn’t leave much to spend on parts.

The third shortcoming of these bikes is the way we set them up, as fixed gear bicycles. For those who don’t know, fixed gear bicycles were the original kind of bike. There is only one gear, and no freewheel. This means that you can neither change gears for riding up hills, nor coast (stop pedaling while the bike is in motion) on the way down. Most bicycles used for bike touring have more than 20 gears, ranging from very low, which lets people crawl slowly up steep hills while lugging around piles and piles of touring and camping gear, to very high, which lets them reach high speeds without having to pedal uncomfortably fast.

To summarize:

  1. Issue 1 — Part A) bike frames could fall apart                                                                                — Part B) bike parts could fall off
  2. Issue 2 — bike parts could cease to function because we didn’t invest in good, reliable parts
  3. Issue 3 — we will not cover as much distance as a cyclist on a geared bike carrying an identical load

So…Why are we riding the bikes we are riding? There are several answers to this question, and you can read them in upcoming posts over the next few days.


EEK! Poles

What you saw in the earlier post tittled “EEK!” was a sneak peek into the ultralightweight trekking poles Adie is making. Trekking poles (or hiking poles, whatever you want to call them) are obviously not used much when cycling. Trying to coordinate the pole plants with the pedal rotations, while steering the bike without your hands would just be too tricky. Trekking poles are used when hiking; they help with balance, and take some of the stress off of your legs, especially in hilly areas. We plan on doing about two weeks of hiking in our two month trip, in the Pyrenees and maybe also in other Spanish mountain ranges.

So, you might think, carrying trekking poles when only 1/4 of our time will be spent trekking has got to be overkill. Well, actually, we will use these poles every day. The reason is that the tent we will be using (not homemade, unfortunately; it is the TarpTent Squall 2) is supported at the front by two straight poles. The poles that come with the tent are very thin, and flex too much to keep the tent up in strong winds. So, most people use trekking poles instead. The poles Adie is building weigh about a quarter less than the lightest commercially made poles on the market. So there isn’t too much guilt in carrying them either!

The poles use grips and tips sold as replacement parts by major pole manufacturers, but the actual pole sections are aluminium tube typically used for tent poles. The grips are replacement Leki grips, but to make sure no-one confuses these poles with commercial ones, Adie used a Sharpie to change LEKI to EEK! So now you know! The height of the poles are poles are not adjustable (but since they are custom made to Adie’s preference, they don”t need to be) but the poles will disassemble into two approximately 24-inch long sections for packing and storage.

Here is what Adie has done so far:

 

Replacement grips

 

And tips

Aluminium tent pole sections marked for cutting, there are three diameters which "nest" inside each other

Black pole sections glued into silver pole sections to increase diameter to match Leki grips
Replacement tips glued onto thin diameter pole which fits inside normal diameter black pole
Rob’s steady hand performing magic

 

More to come when the poles are complete!


Making Panniers

Our other main DIY (or MYOG) project, besides our bikes, is sewing our own bike panniers. Panniers are essentially side bags that mount on the metal racks over our bikes’ back wheels. Panniers are great because they keep your gear neatly packaged, out of the way of your feet. They also keep the weight of your gear low down on the bike, compared to piling everything on top of the racks; a low, widespread load is easier to ride with than a high, concentrated one.

Several companies make very nice waterproof panniers by which many bike travelers swear. However, we had a few problems with the  bags on the market. First of all, they were very expensive, about $150 over our budget. Weight and design were also issues. Most panniers tend to have a heavy structural back and layers of hard-wearing fabrics, lots of pockets etc. Since we plan on carrying a relatively small and light load we didn’t feel the need for complex and heavy duty panniers. Instead we opted for a simple design that we came up with ourselves, and are using a very light, strong and waterproof fabric.

We found inspiration for the panniers from designs for lightweight hiking backpacks that other people have made themselves, or made by small manufacturers like these or these guys. We were interested in a design that was adaptable — that could carry a lot or little gear — and was tailored  for our gear and our bikes.

We designed essentially large rectangular sacks with reinforced tie-outs to mount the panniers to the racks, and other loops through which we can run thin cord to help compress the volume of the packs. We have a roll top closure (light, simple to sew, and very waterproof) with a Y-style top compression strap. There is a single back panel with loops for attachment to the rack. The panel  has the upper,”V,” part of the Y strap and a carry handle. The panniers will be seam sealed to keep out all water.

Marking out the location of the various straps, loops and reinforcements

The back panel of the pannier

A tie-out for compression cord

A felled seam on the side of the pannier.

Check back soon for details of the finished pannier, and how we plan to adapt them so we can use them as a backpacks for hiking (or as a messenger bags for train and plane travel)!


EEK!

not any old pole grip!

Modified next to unmodified

More on this in a later post!


Handmade Foldable Bowl

We have been making many of the camping and cycling related items that we plan on taking on our trip (from stoves to bags, both coming up soon in future posts). To test out our new 2.3 ounce waterproof silicon impregnated nylon fabric that Adie brought back from New York, we decided on an easier project to get used to sewing the material. We had heard of foldable bowls on our favorite bike touring sites and felt we could make just as good a design ourselves, and one that weighed considerably less. We designed our bowl “square bottom stuff sack style.” Although the top was round we found it easier to sew the bottom into an 8” inch square. The bowl was also around 8 inches high.

We used extra bicycle brake cable housing as our structure, it formed a ring around the top that was sewn in (above) and formed a 3 sided bracket that fit into pockets on 2 sides and the bottom of the bowl.

Above the almost finished bottom of the bowl. To make it we folded the fabric in half, sewed the 2 seams and then folded the fabric to make a rhombus. Then we measured and cut along the chalk lines. It’s all explained in the square bottom stuff sack link above.  We attached an opened ended tube across the bottom for the bracket  and then Rob hand sewed the side pockets which took a long time! We then used a mix of silicone seam sealer and white spirit (paint thinner) to seal all the seams along the inside of bag so water wouldn’t get out. we had to do this several times to make sure it was water tight.

Now we have a 7 Liter foldable bowl to store food, wash dishes/laundry etc and it only cost us around $3 -4. If you would like to make one of these or just see the process in greater depth, we plan on writing a detailed how-to on the website instructables.com soon. If you have any questions about this or other projects just post in the comments.


About Our Bikes

In our first post, we said that our trip is unique in a couple of ways. To sum up, we are riding bamboo bikes, which are fixed gear (meaning they only have one gear, and it is impossible to coast — stop pedalling while still moving — on them), and travelling ultralight (carrying as few and as lightweight items as we can afford to, both in terms of survival/comfort and also financially). This post will touch on why we are riding bamboo bikes, and how we made them.

Our bikes are a bit special, or at least we think so. We built the frames ourselves for a school project in our senior year. It started like this:

In a hallway at Fieldston, our high school.

Adie: Hey Rob, want to build a bamboo bike?

Rob: Why not?

Adie had seen photos of a bamboo bike built by this guy, fell in love, then saw the price tag. Then he thought “Well, I dont see why I cant build one myself.” So he did some detective work, and found a bunch of people who not only had built their own bamboo bikes, but some of them had published instructions. We decided to build the bikes at school as a so called “senior project.” Senior projects are designed to keep very-bored-second-semester-seniors interested in coming to school. People do all sorts of things, we built bamboo bikes.

Why would we want to ride bamboo bikes? Well, a lot of people ask that. We will definitely talk more about this over the coming weeks and months, but here is a short explanation. We think they look amazing (and we hope you agree). They also happen to be one of the easiest types of bike to build yourself (requiring few specialized tools or skills) and they also happen to be very high quality bikes (light weight, responsive, and comfortable). So that was why, and here is how we did it:

We each took an old bike from Adie’s grandmothers’ shed, where they were collecting dust, to use as a donor bike. This bike would provide some parts but also the geometry of the finished bamboo bike.

We ordered bamboo on eBay, then heat treated the poles using a plumbing torch. Heat treating got rid of extra moisture in the bamboo, and also caused a chemical reaction that strengthened the structure of the bamboo.

green bamboo poles, before heat treating

 

thoroughly blackened, after heat treating

 

We then took apart the bikes, using whatever tools we had lying around, most of which were wildly inappropriate for the job, which yielded several large trash bags and a small pile of parts to reuse.

The art department at Fieldston very kindly found us a space of our own to work in, which is visible in photo above. It was an interior balcony over looking one of the art rooms. It was only about 5 feet wide, and after setting up our workbench (made from some junk cabinets and sheets of plywood) maneuvering was difficult at times.

Once the bikes had been stripped down, we set about cutting up the frames. Then we replaced each section we cut out with a matching bamboo section.

sections cut out

and replaced with bamboo

Each joint was cut, carved and sanded to fit perfectly at each end. Some joints were bamboo-bamboo and some were bamboo-metal. Certain parts of the bikes simply had to remain steel.

Once we had replaced all of the steel sections of the bike with bamboo, and glued them into place, we set about reinforcing the joints. We bought carbon fiber in string form (rather than woven cloth form), and started wrapping the joints. As we added carbon, we painted on epoxy, which is essentially a very strong two part glue. When the epoxy cures, it hardens around the strands of carbon fiber and creates a very strong and light material (fancy road bikes and Formula 1 cars are generally made from carbon fiber). We each wrapped around 2000 linear feet of it on our bikes, so this stage took a while.

Once all of the joints had been wrapped, we sanded them down until they were relatively smooth and shapely. Then we built up the bikes with a mixture of salvaged and newly bought parts. And TA-DA!

Actually, the story isn’t that simple. We both rode our bikes (very briefly) during the summer of 2010 after having trouble getting parts to work. However between finishing the work on bike frames at school, and the day we considered the bikes finished (when the photo above was taken), nearly 10 months passed. For most of it, we were both traveling, but we finally got together again, with our bikes, in England (where part of Adie’s family is from), in early February. We took our bikes for a ride, and about a mile from home, at the bottom of the first big hill, Robert came suddenly to a halt and said something inappropriate. Adie cycled over to him, and immediately saw the problem. One of the bamboo tubes on his bike had cleanly pulled out of its carbon fiber housing, and was skewed off to the side. We carried his bike the mile back home, and then after some manhandling, were able to pop the tube back into place. We knew then that something had to be done if we were going to ride these bikes for two straight months, several countries from home. So a couple weeks later, after gathering the necessary supplies, we set to work rebuilding the bikes. First we stripped all the parts off the bikes, this time with more appropriate tools, then spent several days sanding the bamboo and the carbon joints. Then we re-wrapped the joints with carbon fiber. We aimed to extend the carbon of the joints to overlap the bamboo by at least four inches at every intersection. The problem area on Rob’s bike had an overlap of just 1.5 inches. While we were redoing the joints, we also made them a lot smoother and more shapely.

It is amazing to ride a beautiful, high-performance bike, and even more amazing to know you built it yourself. We hope these bikes will hold up during our trip, as we know this method of building bikes works.