The bike and the gear - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

August 16, 2011

The bike and the gear

I wrote a lot about what I was bringing with me before I left. Here's what I think of everything after riding across America and living with it every day for four months. My original words are in plain text and my post-trip thoughts are in bold.


  • Tent: MSR Hubba Hubba. A two-person tent because I like to keep my gear inside with me. With all the poles, stakes, and rain fly it's under four pounds. I've used it enough that it permanently smells like a biker who hasn't showered in three days. One section of the poles cracked in North Carolina. A few days later the jagged metal that was left behind sliced through the elastic cord that held everything else together, leaving me with six separate groups of poles that had to be pieced together every night and barely stayed in place at the top. (When I contacted MSR about replacement poles they refused to send a full set, instead offering only to mail one section and a new set of cord, which they would deliver to an outfitter who would have to do the repairs. I was having too much fun to head off-route and spend a day or two screwing around with the problem, so I decided to deal with the wonky poles the rest of the way instead. I spent an extra five minutes mucking around every time I used the tent.) The farther I traveled, three or four small holes appeared in the mesh, to the point that I had to use my glueless tire patches on them to keep bugs from crawling through. The worst problem happened as I traveled through Montana, Idaho, and Washington, when the stuff sack tore and the hole slowly expanded, no matter how careful I tried to be. By the time I reached Neah Bay, the only thing keeping the goods inside from spilling out onto the highway was a collection of four paper clips that I poked through the surface on both sides of the tear and then joined like stitches. Those sound like enough reasons to swear off the MSR Hubba Hubba forever, but here's the thing: it's a fucking awesome tent. It's spacious, it's light, it kept me warm and dry and bug-free, and the only time I ever spent inside wishing for something else was during a few awful hours of blowing dirt in Pubelo, Colorado. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that all of the problems I had were at least partially self-inflicted—and even if they weren't, the amount of value I've squeezed out of my tent over the last three years was far more than what I paid for it. I'm going to buy another one.
  • Footprint: REI makes a tent with nearly the same dimensions as the Hubba Hubba. The footprint for the REI tent was cheaper so that's what I use. The footprint, on the other hand, was flawless.
  • Sleeping bag: Kelty Light Year XP +20, regular. Simple to pack, folds up pretty small, and really keeps the heat in. Smells much, much worse than the tent. I'll probably burn it after this trip is over. The problem with sleeping during a trip across America is not the sleeping bag, but America. Throughout Florida and Georgia, and from the middle of Kentucky through Central Colorado, the weather was so hot and humid that even if I laid on top of the sleeping bag I still spent all night drowning it in sweat. However, in the cool of the Carolinas and Virginia and the mountains of the West, when the nighttime temperatures were reasonable, it kept me warm and happy. Never in my life have I slept so well. The hood that covered my head and most of my face was the best thing in the world on the really cold nights in the mountains. The bag smells awful after four months of bad showering and laundry habits, but even though I really want to burn it I can't, because it's still such a great piece of equipment with years of use left in it. I'll have it cleaned and take it with me on my next trip.
  • Sleeping pad: Therm-a-Rest ProLite. A pain in the ass to pack into its stuff sack, but it's really comfortable. After only a couple of weeks on the road I started sleeping better outside, on the ground, on top of the Therm-a-Rest, than inside on a bed. It's sweat-stained and filthy, but with a little cleaning it's still got hundreds of nights to go before it wears out.
  • Flashlight: Has a clip at the end that attaches to loops inside the tent, making it easy to read and find things in the dark. I never used it—not even once. Whenever I had to walk around outside or find things in the tent in the dark, the light from the screen on my iPhone was enough. During the last half of the trip I used the laptop as the world's most powerful and expensive flashlight when I needed to write journal entries or get ready for bed in the dark.
  • Bear-resistant container: Garcia brand. I know I'll only be in bear country for the last month or so of the trip, but there are hungry critters of all sizes along the way. This will keep them from chewing through my panniers or the sides of my tent, which is a wonderful thing. I spent a number of nights camped on my own, in bear country, in the middle of nowhere or close to it, with food and smelly things like toothpaste and shampoo and sunscreen. Having the bear-proof canister didn't make me feel protected—my goods were safe; I was still fair game behind a millimeter of tent mesh and rain fly—but I would have felt even more anxious and had greater trouble relaxing and falling asleep without it. I'll continue to carry it whenever I travel in bear country, but if I ride elsewhere it'll stay at home.


  • Helmet: Giro Indicator (with mirror). My head hit the ground hard when I crashed in Virginia, but I walked away without an injury. Only a fool would ride across the country without a helmet. Same goes for a mirror. I only had four or five close calls out of tens of thousands of opportunities, but I still don't trust any driver. I'd rather know what's coming than take it on faith.
  • Shoes: Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek. Comfortable on the bike, but enough like a normal shoe that I don't have to hobble around like an old man when I'm off it. Dirty and scuffed, but otherwise perfect.
  • Bike shorts: Only two pairs, both Canari Velo. This seems borderline unhygienic. I saw the border, crossed it, and descended into the depths of dirty. With the exception of one day in Florida during the first two weeks of the trip, I used the same pair of shorts every time I rode, because the padding on the older shorts was too thin to be comfortable. I washed the one pair when I could, which was not nearly often enough. It spent so much time wedged between the saddle and my ass that the gel padding no longer exists. I feel disgusted just writing this.
  • Outer shorts: Two pairs. One is made for mountain bikers, is a little thicker, and has roughly 35 pockets. The other I bought four years ago for $7 at Wal-Mart. Both do a great job of covering up my junk. I wore the Wal-Mart shorts all but one or two days, too. The best seven dollars I've ever spent.
  • Boxers: Two pairs. Somewhere around Kentucky or Illinois I started going commando and never stopped.
  • Socks: Three pairs. They're cotton, not synthetic, so they smelled and turned crusty and transitioned through hundreds of shades of brown during four months on the road, but they worked fine. If I'd gone through more rain I might have had to try something else, but the weather turned out to be amazingly good.
  • Short sleeve synthetic shirt: Zoic brand. Doesn't look totally ridiculous. The weather was consistently warm enough that I didn't wear it very often after the first few weeks on the road.
  • Long sleeve synthetic shirt: North Face brand. Keeps me warm and Desiree thinks it makes me look sexy. Sold. Kept me both warm and sexy, from sea to shining sea.
  • Sleeveless t-shirts: Two, both Under Armour brand. Helping me win the battle against my farmer tan. Now I have the world's most ridiculous sleeveless t-shirt tan, but otherwise these shirts were perfect.
  • Rain jacket: Cheap but nice Novara jacket from a few years ago. Mostly used in the cold as a windbreaker, but also worked very well on the few days it rained.
  • Rain pants: Somewhat expensive with a fancy-sounding French name. They're one or two sizes too big, so if I walk around without the ankle area unzipped they bunch up and look like M.C. Hammer's parachute pants. I'm ok with it. Same story as the jacket.
  • Cotton t-shirts: Two, for off the bike. I lost both of my sweat rags within the first ten days, so my green t-shirt was demoted. I went all the way across America with one t-shirt and that was enough.
  • Gloves: Cheap fleece from Gap. I've had them forever and only use them in the morning when it's cold. The rest of the time I ride without gloves. I hardly used them, but on the cold mornings they were amazing. They stink something awful from spending four months at the bottom of a pannier.
  • Flip flops. They took up a lot of space, but were absolutely worth it. After a long day of riding, wearing anything but bike shoes felt like high luxury.


  • Tire pump: Topeak Road Morph. Best pump ever. Great design, compact, works better than anything else I've used. Still the best pump ever. I wouldn't ride cross-country without it.
  • Tire levers: Four or five. Vittoria Randonneur tires are really stiff, especially when they're new. I've broken levers with them before and am happy to carry extras. Only needed one.
  • Patch kit: Park Glueless Patch Kit. Two of these. I only used one or two as tube patches. The rest were used to patch together a failing sidewall through Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri, or to close holes in the tent mesh.
  • Spare tubes: Three to start. Each time my rear tire started breaking down I went through several tubes. I bought spares three or four times along the way and only once was in danger of running out—and even then I could have patched an old one if needed.
  • Multi-tool: Park Rescue. Not fancy, but it always worked.
  • Chain lube: Tri-Flow. Still the king. I ran out in Illinois and was guilted into buying some kind of red-colored wax lube that was a mess to put on and that I cursed all through Missouri, Kansas, and half of Colorado. I couldn't buy Tri-Flow fast enough when I found it again at the bike shop in Pueblo.
  • Spoke wrench. Never had to use it—which is good, because I have no idea how to adjust spokes.
  • Extra spokes. Never had to use these either.
  • FiberFix spoke. Or this. The combination of 36-spoke Mavic A319 wheels, a bike mechanic who knows how to true them, careful riding over bumps and cracks, and a little luck helped make broken spokes no issue at all.
  • Zip ties. I can't remember ever using these.
  • Duct tape. Used on tire sidewalls, tent poles, pannier latches, holes in the side of the panniers, the rear rack, the helmet mirror, and probably half a dozen other things. Amazing stuff.


  • Laptop: No netbooks here. This one does everything. This journal wouldn't have happened without it. The long battery life was a huge plus, letting me do a lot of writing, photo editing, and iPhone charging from some very remote places.
  • Laptop sleeve. Kept the laptop well-protected and scratch-free.
  • Laptop charger. Relatively lightweight and never failed. Great success.
  • Cameras: A digital SLR and a small point-and-shoot. I used the point-and-shoot one time, on one day, in Southern Georgia. I sent it home with Desiree in St. Louis. On the other hand, I used the digital SLR (a Nikon D40 with the standard 18-55mm kit lens) all day, every day. I took more than 8,000 individual shots over 126 days, and roughly 1,300 of those were formatted and appeared in the journal. The self-timer feature was very helpful for taking pictures of myself and for capturing images in low light. A tripod wasn't necessary back east, because I could always find something near the road to position the camera on, but once I hit Kansas the garbage cans and mailboxes and fence posts disappeared or were set back from the road, which made the self-portraits almost impossible. I might bring a lightweight tripod on future trips.
  • Camera charger. Rarely used, but necessary. I charged the camera battery four times between Key West and Neah Bay.
  • Polarizing filter: For keeping those blue skies blue. Improved the appearance of many of the photos that appeared in the journal. It doesn't work well in low light, so for several months I had to unscrew it whenever I took pictures inside or during darker times of the day. Then, just before I photographed myself at the Kansas-Colorado border, I dropped the camera while it was still in its case from a few feet off the ground. The impact was strong enough to freeze the filter in place, with no amount of twisting able to break it loose. I used it on every picture from then on.
  • Camera lens cleaning kit. Worked well on the outward-facing part of the lens, but eventually dust spots formed on the inside and no amount of cleaning could make them disappear. I had to edit them out in Photoshop later.
  • Small notepad & pen. I filled two-and-a-half Moleskine notebooks full of notes and went through six ball-point pens. I never expected to write so much.


  • Towel: Maybe the most versatile piece of equipment on the trip. It's my pillow, it cushions the laptop while I'm riding, and it's also, you know, a towel. The towel performed all three of these jobs amazingly, although it was a lot thinner by the time I reached the Pacific.
  • Cell phone & charger. The iPhone was the most helpful accessory I carried. Having a Web browser, GPS, and email just a few taps away made the logistics of finding food or libraries or campgrounds in unfamiliar places so much easier. I used it every day when the signal was strong enough, which turned out to be nearly everywhere, with the exception of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the remote sections of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Washington. Some day I'm going to take a long trip without a computer or magic phone to see what that feels like. I'll probably lose my mind.
  • External battery for phone. Incredibly valuable during the long isolated stretches on the Blue Ridge Parkway and out West in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Battery life is an issue now that my iPhone is more than two years old, especially when using the Web browser for more than a few minutes a day.
  • iPod & headphones. Before I started I decided that I wouldn't listen to music while I was riding, because I wanted to experience everything about riding cross-country, and the sounds of the wind and traffic and animals scurrying through the brush along the side of the road are all part of that. It was a great choice. As a result, I hardly used the iPod. Instead I listened to music on my laptop while writing or editing photos, and I used the headphones in that way often.
  • USB charging cable. Barely made it through. I would have been in a bit of trouble if it had failed completely, because it was the only way I could charge the iPhone's weak battery.
  • Maps & directional notes. I spent hours upon hours using Google Maps and its Street View feature over the winter to try and find interesting, low-traffic roads through the parts of the country where I'd be traveling away from established Adventure Cycling Association routes. Those roads gave me some of the most satisfying riding of my life—so much so that I probably won't use ACA maps again on future tours. They're incredibly helpful for people who don't want a huge planning burden, or who aren't comfortable taking a chance on riding into the unknown, but I'm a mapping nerd and consistently had a great time when I jumped off the beaten path. The directional notes worked out great, too. I only made three or four wrong turns in more than 6,000 miles of riding.
  • Water bottles: Four of these. They claim to be insulated and able to hold in the cold; so far I call bullshit. I'd rather take one-liter bottled water containers instead, because they can fit more water and never seem to break, but I can't find any new ones that fit in the bike's bottle cages. This bothers me an unreasonable amount. The bottles didn't keep water cold, but they helped it stay not hot. On a long, hot ride across America in the middle of the summer that's enough. I didn't wash them once in my four months on the road, which gave my water its own unique flavor. I'm going to miss it.
  • Bungee cords. I've now used the same two bungee cords to strap the tent to the rear rack for almost 10,000 miles worth of loaded touring.
  • Cable lock. I never felt compelled to use it in small towns during the day. If the people who lived there were ok with leaving their church or fire station unlocked, or setting the keys to the post office mailbox right next to the lock, I figured my stuff would be safe. It took awhile to get used to it, but by the end of the trip it didn't seem strange at all. That said, I almost always locked my bike up at night, and locked it in any larger city when it would be sitting out of my sight.


  • Rear panniers: Ortlieb Back Roller Classic. I've used the rear panniers for nearly 13,000 miles of riding and they're starting to show their age. Three of the four adapters that allow the bags to rest tightly against the rails of the rack have broken off, a few of the screws come loose more often than they should, there are a few crash-related holes, and the exterior material is dirty and scuffed and creased. But it's easy to let all of that slide, because both panniers still do exactly what they're supposed to: keep my gear clean and dry and safe. With some patches and a couple of replacement parts they'll be with me for a long time yet.
  • Front panniers: Ortlieb Front Roller Classic. The front panniers still look like new, even after more than 8,000 miles of touring, one crash, and being leaned up against buildings and fences and the ground hundreds of time.


I love my bike. Some people have different bikes for different needs, but I only have one and I use it for everything: touring, commuting, day rides, heading down the street to the grocery store, whatever. It's just as good at climbing a mountain pass as it is dodging cars in the city, and whether I'm grinding over a hill at four-and-a-half miles per hour or bombing down the other side at 45, it's smooth and solid. It's a Novara Randonee, designed specifically for loaded touring. I bought it new in the summer of 2008 for just over $1,000 and since then I've put almost 6,000 miles on it. I've changed the tires a couple of times and I get it serviced once or twice a year, but that's all it seems to take. It's never let me down.

These specs are only relevant if you're really into bikes: bulletproof Vittoria Randonneur 700x32 tires; equally solid Mavic A319 rims; Shimano Tiagra brake levers/shifters, front derailleur, and front hub; Shimano LX rear derailleur; Shimano Deore 48/36/26 crankset; SRAM PG-950 11/32, 9-speed rear cog; Shimano Deore Octalink bottom bracket; Shimano M324 SPD pedals with clip-ins on one side and platforms on the other; Shimano R550 cantilever brakes; FSA Orbit X head set; Ritchey angle adjust stem; Ritchey BioMax handlebar; Ritchey Comp V2 seat post; Brooks B-17 saddle; factory-installed no-name rack on the back; Tubus Tara Lowrider rack up front; Planet Bike Cascadia fenders; Cateye Enduro 8 cycling computer; Planet Bike Superflash head and tail lights; and Novara water bottle cages that will break if I ride down a gravel road longer than a mile.

I still love my bicycle—more than ever, in fact. Back when I was first looking for a touring bike, the Randonee was all I could afford. Now I could buy almost anything, but I won't. It's tough and comfortable and well-balanced when fully loaded. I plan to ride what I have until the frame falls apart.

I intended to have the bike tuned and replace some key parts during the trip, but mostly out of laziness that never happened. It turned out not to matter too much. The chain and cassette are getting worn, but I've traveled more than 8,000 miles since I last replaced them, and they still crank without skipping. I started with new brakes, but even though I rode down hundreds of hills with lots of weight the pads didn't come close to wearing all the way down. The wear strip didn't start showing through the front tire until a few days before I reached the coast. Even though the bike was placed under plenty of load and stress, I didn't break a single spoke. And despite riding in all kinds of weather and road conditions over the past three years and nearly 13,000 miles, the original headset, bottom bracket, derailleurs, crankset, brake levers, and shifters performed without a problem. Modern bike parts are awesome.

That's not to say the bike was flawless. Neither I nor the mechanic who inspected the bike before I left noticed that the face of the rear rim had turned slightly concave over the years, to the point that failure was only a matter of when, not if. Thankfully I learned about the problem in Georgia and was able to have an identical replacement ready by the time I reached Virginia. Because I was only able to order a set of wheels, and it was prohibitively expensive to mail the front rim home, I swapped out the front even though I didn't need to.

I'm convinced that if I'd replaced my rear tire every 2,500 miles like I planned, I would have traveled across the country without a single flat. But shipping problems meant that the replacement tire I ordered in Virginia didn't show up in Kentucky like it was supposed to. Then it failed to arrive in Illinois. The sidewall slowly but steadily broke down while I tried to sort out the shipping, leading to a string of flats before I gave in and picked up a Continental Touring Plus tire from a shop in Missouri. That tire carried me to the ocean, but it also started to pick up flats in the last week and a half. 2,500 seems to be the magic number for the amount of weight I carry. I'll be less lazy about replacing tires in the future.

The rear derailleur cable snapped in Colorado. I was fortunate to find a great bike shop less than 40 miles up the road. The other brake and shifter cables are just as old and I'll have them all replaced before I take off on another trip. I also need to learn how to do the job myself.

The only major change I made to the bike before I left was to replace the original foam seat with a black leather Brooks saddle. The first three weeks of riding were a bit uncomfortable as I tried to break in the seat while also getting my ass used to spending five or six hours a day in one spot. But eventually the saddle settled and my ass toughened up, and by the time I reached the West I didn't have to worry about either of them. I won't need to buy another seat for a very long time.

Long story short: the Novara Randonee is great bike. I recommend it completely.

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