A lightweight fixed-gear bike tour of France and Spain

General

Disaster!

Look at this photo. Can you spot the problem?

How about now?

It's not meant to look like that.

We went for a ride yesterday afternoon.  Early in the ride Adie heard a clicking coming from his pedal, or he thought it was his pedal. A few miles later, at the base of a hill (why is it always bases of hills? That’s exactly where Rob’s frame cracked too) Adie heard a pop, then a crunch. Those are NEVER good sounds to hear on a bike. He looked down, saw that his crank was folded up like a fortune cookie, and descended into a state of shock.

Adie’s dad drove over and picked us up. At 9:00 AM this morning, Adie ordered a new crank-set, to be delivered overnight by courier. The courier bit was because we are leaving early on Saturday morning (today is Thursday) for the continent, and the start of our trip. It’s awful that this happened just two days before we are to leave, but better than two days into the trip!

We’ll keep you updated on developments.


Training

Over the last month or so, we have tried to spend a bit of every day training. We ride our bikes (10-30 miles each day) or run (3-6 miles) on the Southwest Coast Path. Although we do not have a strict schedule or even a daily mileage that we will be aiming for while on tour, we know that the fitter we are, the less we will moan about our burning thighs, and the more we can enjoy the view.

North Cornwall is a beautiful place to train, hilly but not mountainous, and we have had really great weather recently. We have been taking advantage of local footpaths for running, quiet roads for cycling, and big hills for both!

A few days ago, we biked about miles to the edge of Bodmin Moor, and then locked up our bikes (probably overkill on a dead-end back-road in North Cornwall, but it is hard to get New York out of one’s system) and set out on foot to climb Rough Tor (pronounced raw tor), the closest thing Cornwall has to a mountain.

The rock scramble up Rough Tor

The approach took us over rolling hills, the fields gradually becoming more barren until we reached the moor proper. There were sheep and ponies grazing, and as we got closer, the ground alternated between wet bogs, stubbly pasture and boulders. The Tor itself is a cascade of boulders ranging in size from TV’s to SUV’s. The summit is an amazing rock formation, carved out by wind and rain, with stunning views down over the moor, over reservoirs and fields, and on this particularly clear day, all the way down to the sea!


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.


Bike Portraits

On a sunny day in North Cornwall we decided to capture ourselves pre-trip.

Adie looking sour with his bike the B.F.G.

Rob and his bike Heather.


On Travel

Rob says:

When I traveled to Nepal in the fall of 2010, the leaders of my program gave us each a copy of an essay by Pico Iyer, called “Why we travel.” I found in it the words I had been looking for to describe why I wanted to take a gap year, and why I needed to be away from home.

…the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.

On that note, I try and take advantage of the learning experiences on my gap year that I would find nowhere else. From touching pugliese bread while its still in the oven the check if it’s done, or building a slate wall or listening to a former milk lorry driver talk about his trip to Disney World,  I’ve learned lessons (many of which I think are important) that I would have never learned any other time. In college I can take a business management class, but that cannot show me the day to day experiences of running a business, like I saw at the small artisinal bakery where I worked last month. To me, a gap year is all about learning things that are either beyond academics or seeing in them in perspectives I would never otherwise get.

Fresh Pain de Campagne at the Lighthouse Bakery

Adie says:

I have nothing fancy to start my bit with, so I will say this; I took my first plane flight when I was three months old (unaccompanied! … just kidding.) and have not stopped travelling since then. Such frequent travel could have done two things to me. It could have conditioned me to travel in such a way that it really did not interest me. Or, which is what actually happened, it could have inspired me, driven me to explore more and more. It could have, in short, infected me with the travel bug. I started planning my gap year approximately six years before it actually rolled around, and therefor wasn’t considering how my gap year experiences would or would not differ from college life. It is lucky i had planned to take a gap year, because by the time I graduated high school, i felt most thoroughly unprepared to go to college. So on some level rob and I have the same motivations for taking a gap year, his were just far more thought out.

 

Alone amongst the roman ruins of Palmyra, in Northern Syria


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.


About us and our trip

Our names are Adie Mitchell and Rob Sohmer. We went to high school together in New York City and are both on our gap year before going to college. We both have a love for cycling, the outdoors and creating things.

Adie on the left, Rob on the right, after a cold February night camping on the North coast of Cornwall, England

The things we like to create tend to be beautiful through their functionality. Between us we have built everything from bikes to kayak to bags. We have hiked in around a dozen countries and have been cycling together regularly for about a year.

In a few weeks we are going on a 2 month long bike trip in France and Spain. We hope that this trip will unite our three passions of making things, cycling and being in the outdoors. We are planning on cycling a southerly route through France and into Spain. Our trip is unique in several ways. We will be riding fixed-gear bicycles, the frames of which we built ourselves out of bamboo and carbon fiber. We plan on camping almost every night of our two month trip. Over several years of hiking and camping, we have come to follow the principles of ultra-light backpacking and are applying these ideas in new ways to travelling by bike. Particularly, we love the Make Your Own Gear (MYOG) aspect of the ultralight ideology. We have already built our bamboo bikes and will be making a lot of our own gear for camping and cycling.

This blog will follow our preparations for the trip including MYOG tutorials, and will then become a blog about our trip that we will update as we cycle. We hope this blog will be a reflection of our growth as independent adults, willing to create, adjust, challenge, and be inspired by the world around us.