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Selection And Preparing A Bike For Remote Areas (abridged *)

 

 

 


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by David Mozer

Sifting Through The Hype

If you read all the bicycle advertising you may have more questions than answers about what equipment to buy: a few years ago many bikes had elliptical chainrings -- you can't buy a replacement now; several times in the last decade sealed bearings have been declared the final solution to hub maintenance but they have never caught on in a big way because of a variety of limitations; one year handlebars are real wide, the next year they are very narrow and then they return to about shoulder width; 'roller-cam' and U-brakes work fine -- if you can get them adjusted and if you don't ride in mud -- but if you are in a remote area you will probably encounter mud. Bicycling has its fads! Selecting the right equipment is very important if you are going to be using a bicycle in remote places where the supply lines are long. This means separating fad from function. In the end your selection will depend on your personal situation. Here are some issues to consider when choosing a bike.

Genotype

A bike is a bike is a bike, right? Well, no, but at some levels yes. Just like economy sedans, luxury sports cars, and long haul trucks are different, there are differences in bicycles: children's fancy bikes, bicycle moto-cross (BMX), track racing, road touring, city, cross, hybrid, roadster, cruiser, delivery, folding, recumbent, tandem and mountain or all-terrain bike (MTB). The factors which distinguish the 'genotype' of bicycle are the type of frame, wheels and tires, and drive-train. But the factors you need to consider in selecting a 'genotype' best suited to your needs are the trip distances, load characteristics, road quality and terrain you will be encountering. The longer the distance, assuming you are not going to be racing, the more desirable a frame with tour-geometry; the heavier the load the more important the quality of the tubing and welds and width of gear range; the rougher the roads the more important a sturdy tire; and the hillier the terrain the more important the width of gear range and reliability of the brakes.

For more on touring bike specifically see Selecting a Touring Bike -101.

If you are going to a remote location and plan to use your bicycle extensively, your first consideration probably will be a touring-type frame, wide-sturdy wheels and tires, and a crank with three chainrings that will give you a wide gear range, i.e. an MTB -- it doesn't matter whether there are 6, 7, or 8 cogs in the rear. Nine and 10-speed rear clusters need special chains, which can be a disadvantage in remote areas.

A disadvantage of MTB is almost all of them come equipped with heavy suspension systems, which you may not need. Many older MTB rolled out without suspension system, which gives them an advantage.

It is not that you can't ride a road touring bike in remote areas. I rode one in Africa for ten years before MTB's were on the mass market. Road bikes have strong frames, they can be bought with triple-cranks and if you look hard, there are a few models with beefy tires. They also have the advantage of drop-handlebars which is a real plus if you are in a windy area.

Cross-bikes and hybrid-bikes (narrow tires and straight handlebars) on the other hand have a very limited application in remote area, but can be great for some urban riding. For heavy touring, hybrids are "crossed" the wrong way. Instead of taking the strong stable wheels from MTB's and multiple hand positions from touring bikes, the hybrid lets you sit-up and plow the wind on narrow tires. If you are looking for less rolling resistance and straight bars, put narrower tires on an MTB. (Bar end extenders are one way to get multiple hand positions on straight handlebars, but they still keep you high up.)

Hybrid-bike Buying Guide (external link)

A better cross is fat tires for increased stability and durability and drop bars for increased control, a lower center of gravity, multiple hand positions, and reduced wind resistance. This is especially nice if you know you will be doing some big mileage on paved roads, or challenging terrain on dirt roads.  There are a few companies that manufacture bikes with these specifications.

So if your are looking for a touring bike your guidelines are:

  • Frame size: one that fits
  • Frame material: steel or aluminum, with the edge to steel (with a top tube greater than 1 inch)
  • Frame geometrics: 17.5 to 18 inch chainstay generally takes care of the rest
  • Gear range (for mountainous terrain): 20 to 30 inch low gear and 100 to 115 inch high gear.

There are also folding bikes with touring geometrics, sturdy tires and handlebars with multiple positions.  Some of these are offered by Bike Friday.  

Phenotype

So with all the different types of bikes, all bicycles must be different? Well, not as different as you might think, especially within a genotype. We will explain! Although there are dozens and dozens of brands of Tabs in the $350 to $450 range in North America and Europe, the major difference among most of them is the decal. Almost all of these bicycles (including those with brand names associated with being 'American') are made in less than a dozen factories in a few newly industrialized countries around the world. Here is roughly how it works: A 'manufacturer' (actually the 'importer') goes to one of these factories to 'spec out' their line of bicycles from lists of frames, derailleurs, wheels, saddles, paint colors, etc. Typically the manufacturer specs out bicycles for $450, $650 and $850 price levels -- each level having a more expensive, though not necessarily functionally different, line of components. Then the next 'manufacturer' does the same thing. Not surprisingly, bicycles at any price point often have the same components and are generally similar, if not exactly the same -- except for the decal. Because bicycle sales is a competitive market you get what they pay for. If there are bargains to be found they are often on the lower profile brands with lower advertising budgets and/or simpler paint jobs. The important decision for the purchaser is to pay enough so they are not getting junk and to not pay too much for marginal improvements that aren't useful to them.

Frames

In addition to the geometry and size of the frame, there are other important factors: the size (diameter and thickness) of tubing; the quality of the workmanship; the kind of metal; and the size of wheel that the frame uses. Many of these factors play more of a role in how comfortable the bicycle is to ride than how durable it is under normal use. It may surprise you to know that the issue of 'men's' or 'women's' frame is more about of aesthetics than function. Under normal conditions there is little to no performance difference between frames with high top tubes (men's bikes) and slanted top tubes (women's bikes). Bicycles with slanted top tubes are worth considering because they are more versatile in the size of rider who can use them.

Collectively, in terms of geometry, tubing, tire availability and workmanship, this suggests a modest MTB as a starting point.

Size

A bicycle that is too big or too small for the user can be a safety hazard. Bicycles are sized, in inches or centimeters, by the measurement along the seat tube from the top tube to the bottom bracket (theoretically, it varies by brand.) The final determination of a safe size comes when the bicyclist straddles the top tube, stands with both feet flat on the ground, and checks the clearance between the top tube and his/her crotch. The recommended clearance depends on the type of riding you will be doing -- 1 to 2 inches for road riding and double that for off-road riding. Your crotch and 3 inches below it is a fixed distance above the ground. But because the bottom bracket isn't the same distance above the ground on all bicycles and 'sizing' varies by brand, the 'right size' may be different from bicycle to bicycle. Typically, people use MTB's 2 to 3 inches smaller than they use touring bicycles. Here is a rough guide for MTB sizing based on a person's height: under 5'4" - 16" (40cm); 5'4" to 5'8" - 18" (44cm); 5'8" to 6 feet - 20" (49cm); over 6 feet - 22" (54cm). One way to get around some of the sizing problem is to use a bicycle with slanted top tubes. One size (17", 42cm) fits almost everybody from 4'10" to 5'10".

For a discussion on children's bikes go to "Choosing and Buying a Children's Bike"

Saddles

You are going to have an intimate relationship with your saddle -- get one that is comfortable. Those that are too narrow or too wide may not support your pelvis bones comfortable. Cushy saddles may feel comfortable initially, but as time goes on they get hot, sweaty and very uncomfortable. Take a lesson from experienced bicyclists who select a saddle because it supports their bone structure -- not cushions it.

Speeds

Once upon a time there were only one speed bikes, then there were 3 speeds, and that expanded to 5, 10, 12, 15, 18, 21 and 24 speeds. Is there a difference? Sometimes. Is it important? Sometimes. Between 1, 3, 5, 10 and 15 speeds there are functional differences that can be important. In a flat area, with short trip distances and no loads, a one speed might be sufficient and cost effective. In hilly terrain, on rough roads, over long distances and/or when hauling a load, 15 speeds are advantageous. Each additional chainring (front gear) you combine with a basic five-gear freewheel cluster (the rear gears) creates a substantial increase in range of gear ratios. It's the range that is important! The same is not true for changing from a 5, 6, 7 or 8 gear freewheel. The incremental difference between speeds is smaller, but the range is unchanged. At the efficiency level that most people ride, the benefits from reducing increments between gears is unmeasurable. In fact, the fancy freewheels can cause new problems.

Freewheels, Hubs & Axles

There are two systems for attaching the gears to the rear hub; traditional threaded freewheel units which screw on to the hub, and rear hubs with built-in freehub mechanisms that use cog cassettes. These are not interchangeable. To change from one system to the other you must change the hub, which requires rebuilding the entire wheel. In terms of remote area maintenance, the main is likely to the rear axle. Both hubs generally use a standard rear axle similar to those in the Chinese bicycles (and local knockoffs) found around the world. If you break this axle you can get a replacement axle almost anywhere.  If your freewheel or freehub should self-destruct you are more likely to be able to find a fill-in freewheel than a freehub cog cassettes. The gears become an issue if you break a rear spoke.  With the right tools a freehub tends to be easier to remove the cogs from, but more delicate to reassemble, than the process of removing a freewheel.

Protecting Freewheels & Hubs From Dust, Grit & Rain

Ordinarily the manufacturer's instructions say to lubricate most of the ball bearings on a bicycle (the headset, bottom bracket and hubs) with grease, but lubricate the freewheel with light machine oil. In some extreme climates and cycling conditions it also may be practical to protect the bearings in your freewheel by packing them with grease.

On models of hubs (usually older) where the dust cap doesn't rotate with the axle, you can keep some foreign material out of your bearings by wrapping the exposed part of the cone with a pipe cleaners and then twisting the two ends back on each other so that it is snug. This technique can also sometimes be used on bottom bracket.

Chains

It used to be that all chains pretty much fit all bicycles. No longer! The new seven speed freewheels require narrower chains and some of these chains require their own special tools, replacement rivets, and service techniques for maintenance and repair. The high-tech chains are hard to repair if they fail on the road. Unless you have a certified mechanic working on your bike you may want to stay away from some of the advanced technology. You will keep your options widest if you stay with 5 or 6 cog freewheels and the standard chains that fit these assemblies.

Derailleurs

Derailleurs are now built to close tolerances so that a specific movement of the shiftlever moves the derailleur to a specific gear (indexing.) To use this system the derailleur and shifter have to be matched. Generally, most models of derailleurs from one manufacture are interchangeable. The main differences between the derailleurs in a manufacturer's line are weight, price and quality. As the weight goes down the price goes up. But a higher price doesn't necessarily mean better quality. Grams are shaved by using more plastic or more alloy metals, this can compromise strength. Generally at the level of performance MTB's are ridden a few ounces of weight is not as important as durability. Unless you are certain of its durability, derailleurs with plastic parts should be avoided. For remote locations, a high quality, inexpensive, all metal derailleur can be sufficient and preferable. To continue to use an index system, any replacements should be the same brand as the original equipment.

Gear Shifts

For years gear shifts have been disks with a lever sticking out. The shiftlever rotates through a continuous range of settings. To shift gears the user moves the lever to the desired setting and the disk stays in place by friction. Any shifter worked with any derailleur. Engineers have now calculated the distance the disk needs to rotate for a specific derailleur to shift gears and have put stops (indexing) at these locations on the shifters. As long as the index systems kept over-the-bar shifters with both 'index' and 'friction' modes, even if the system came out of calibration from cable stretch or some other reason, or if you needed to replace the derailleur with an incompatible model, you could move a lever, release the indexing, return to the friction system and operate in the traditional way.

Bottom Brackets

The bottom bracket is the mechanism inside the frame, between the two crankarms that hold the pedals. There are bottom brackets with sealed bearings and bottom brackets with freebearing. The former are more expensive and harder to service. In contrast, the latter can be serviced worldwide and the bearings are available in many remote areas, if there are bicycles in the area.

Brakes

It is said that a bicycle will always stop -- brakes just let you determine where. If you want that choice mind the selection and maintenance of your brakes. The heavier the loads and the more downhill, the stronger the brakes need to be. Among the strongest type of brakes are disk, cantilever, u-brakes, roller-cam and drum brakes. Drum brakes are expensive and usually found only on tandems. Disk brake sets are heavier than cantilever brakes, but are more powerful and have some other advantages. If you are a heavier person, expect to be carrying a particular heavy load and expect to have long or steep descents they are advantageous for solo riders and strongly recommended for tandems. U-brakes and roller-cam brakes have tended to be problematic and clog with mud very fast under those conditions.

Wheels & Spokes

There are alloy rims and steel rims. Alloy rims are more effective when wet, easier to keep true and easier to tap dents out of, but they dent easier. Steel rims are strong, but they are dangerous in wet weather and when they start having problems they can be tough to get true.

Spokes are available in different gauges. 15g spokes are standard. 14g spokes are stronger. Double butted 14/15/14 spokes are strong and light. The preferred material for spokes is stainless steel.

Tires

One of the major features of MTB's is their durable wheels and tires. The wheel is a small diameter and the rim is wider, so they are stronger, more trouble free and more stable than comparable touring bike wheels. The beefy tires on MTB's are also relatively trouble free and if properly inflated they are very effective at protecting the rims from dents. The wider the tire the higher rolling resistance so if you will be doing a lot of riding on smooth roads this is a draw back. If you will be cycling on both paved and unpaved surfaces consider combination knobby tires with a solid raised center bead. The center bead makes easier rolling on paved roads and the knobby tread will help you in the dirt.

Though the supply line for good tires may be long, the longer life, less down time and additional versatility usually makes them a good choice. With a little planning ahead it is not hard to keep a sufficient number of spares on hand.

Tubes

Inner tubes can be made out of a variety of materials and there are at least three types of valves. There are also some airless tubes on the market. The construction material of pneumatic tubes may affect its puncture resistance and will determine what type of glue and patches you need to repair a puncture. The most common inner tube material is butyl rubber. Butyl rubber can be repaired with the glue and patches found in patch kits around the world.

Airless tubes solve some problems but they have a harsher ride, are 6 to 10 times as expensive as regular tubes, are at least twice as heavy, have twice the rolling resistance and don't carry heavy loads well. It is still probably most practical, for remote sites, to use butyl compound tubes that are repairable.

Tube Protectors

Some people praise tube protector strips. I know of several cases where the edge of the strips wore a line of holes in the tube causing unrepairable punctures (before anyone using regular tubes and no protective strips had any flats.) The jury to still be out on the effectiveness of protective strips for off-pavement riding.

Pedals & Toe Clips

If you are likely to be dismounting in dirt (in any of its states from dust to mud) it is best to stay away from any pedals that have hardware on the bottom of your shoes that can clog. This pretty much eliminates cleats and clipless pedals. Conventional pedals give you the flexibility to use multipurpose shoes, which cut down on the number of pairs of shoes you will have to pack. Toe-clip can be a great cycling aid and help you gain some efficiency as you pedal, though they tend to make novices feel uneasy. If you are trying them for the first time or don't have a high level of confidence, don't tighten the straps initially and when you are in urban traffic, sand, mud, rocks and other technical situations. They are not essential, but once you learn how to use them you can ride much more efficiently. The further you ride the greater the benefit.

Accessories

The best advice on accessories is, be sure they are strong enough to take the beating they are sure to get. And attach them securely. If accessories fail while in use it may not be fatal but it can be very frustrating. Buy equipment that is properly designed and sufficiently durable for its intended use. One way to minimize lost screws is to apply Loctite (grade 242, medium strength, blue bottle) or tire patch cement to the threads before bolting on racks and cages. Loctite is available at hardware stores.

Racks & Packs

Do not carry anything on your back in a rucksack or backpack. Your back will ache after a few miles. Waist-packs are manageable. Some people prefer them to handlebar bags.

To carry large loads you need a sturdy rack and saddlebags or panniers. Racks and packs can wear fast and screws loosen quickly when used on a daily basis. Choose racks and packs that are sturdy and stable enough to handle the conditions they will be subjected to. The weak points on racks tend to be the welds and eyelets. The weak point on packs tend to be where to hooks screw into the backing.

Handlebar bags, frame packs or waist packs are not a must, but they are very convenient for cameras, snacks, sun lotion, note pads, etc. Do not carry too much weight in a handlebar bag.

The advice on water bottle cages is the same as for racks -- they should be sturdy enough to handle the conditions they will be subjected to and it's best if they mount into braze-ons on the frame.

Fenders & Kickstands

Fenders and kickstands can be more of a disadvantage than an advantage: On trains, planes, buses and during the coarse of a normal day fenders get knocked out of alignment. They are inconvenient to detach, reattach and keep adjusted. In dry weather they keep a little sand off the chain. In rain they will keep your smile fresh and the chain from being washed, but if you ride off paved roads, they can quickly clog with mud and become a major aggravation. If you have a rear rack a less fragile and less thorough protection is available from snap-on commercial products or by lashing plastic (as in milk cartons) to the top of the rack. The short-coming of kickstands is they often aren't designed to support the weight of a loaded touring bike.

Mirrors

Rear view mirrors are not a substitute for good cycling technique, but they are a nice convenience. They tend to lead a rough life on tour. Whether they are attached to handlebar, helmets or glasses they tend to get bumped a lot and have a short life span.

Lights

Lights are necessary for night riding, but if you don't expect to be riding at night often, you won't need as elaborate a system. You will have a choice from four kinds of power sources. In ascending order of initial cost, they are: battery, generator, rechargeable battery and combo generator/rechargeable battery. The price can range from $2 to $100. Your budget, location and pattern of use will dictate which is the best system for you. A versatile solution is to use a headlamp. These strap around your helmet or head and provide hands-free light on or off the bike. If you selected battery power, choose a model that uses batteries that are easily replaced ("D" is most common worldwide). Rechargeable batteries need electrical current or a solar cell to recharge.

Locks

It seems that the further you are from the New York Cities of world the less sophisticated the bike thieves, the rarer bolt cutters and the less need for heavy locks and chains. While on tour, my bike is usually loaded and conspicuous, securely stored at the hotel, or left for only a few minutes while I run an errand. In the latter cases it's locked. I use a rather ordinary lock and long cable. The long cable is it to a fixed object to prevent snatch-and-ride crimes.

Helmets And Gloves

It is common to see people involved in sports wearing head protection. For good reason, many sports present a risk of head injury. Bicycling has similar hazards and warrants similar precautions. Scrapes and broken bones heal, but scrambled brains may not. Helmets won't prevent an accident but they can reduce the severity. Compared to the lifetime cost of a head injury or the finality of death, the cost of wearing a helmet is small.

In sunny environments a helmet also serves to protect your head from the sun, which significantly reduces fatigue.

The value of gloves is similar to that of a helmet. Gloves don't prevent accidents but they can reduce the amount of gravel embedded in your palms. They are also invaluable in dampening road vibration.

Summary

When choosing a bicycle and accessories, you should take a number of factors into consideration, including: the frame; size; gearing; drive-train; brakes; wheels; tires; and versatility. All-Terrain- Bicycles (MTB) have a number of advantages for use with heavy loads, in rugged areas and where supply lines are long:

  • MTB's have wide gear ranges (15 to 27) which are extremely useful in hilly terrain and when carrying or hauling heavy loads.
  • The heavy duty tires are long wearing, have very few punctures and do not damage easily on rough roads. This means less replacing of tires and tubes, lower maintenance costs and less downtime. With proper treatment the operating costs of the bicycle are less and the productivity of the machine is higher.
  • The advanced design of the frame, handlebars, seat and pedals makes this style of bicycle very efficient and comfortable to ride.
  • Though the initial price is higher than some other bicycles on the market, because of the efficiency and strength of the bicycle, the life-cycle cost of an MTB may be considerably lower than life-cycle costs of the traditional roadster style one-speed.

A mid-range MTB can be sufficient. Cheaper bikes tend to sacrifice strength and quality. More expensive bikes are available but they tend to include costly and esoteric features that don't significantly improve the basic functioning of the bicycle and may be difficult or impossible to repair in remote areas.

Bon Voyage!

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