Getting Ready: Gear

When my friend Jesse asked me in January to go with him on the annual Ragbrai ride, the answer came out easily and without hesitation, “Sure I’ll go with ya!”  I had heard about the granddaddy of all annual event rides for decades, and had always wanted to see what it was about.   The prospect of going to this event with Jesse defined my riding plans for the summer, and really psyched me up.

When my friend Randy asked me in April to join him for a few weeks on his cross-country tour, my adrenaline started to flow faster still.   An exciting idea, but one that I felt needed some detailed consideration.  We soon met at IHOP in Gilbert to discuss his riding plans.

I learned that Randy’s plan was for a self-contained solo tour loosely following Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier route from the Pacific coast to Williston, ND, then loosely following the Lewis & Clark Trail to Sioux City, IA.  From there he planned to visit Omaha, then return to Sioux City to link up with the massive Ragbrai flotilla across Iowa, continuing east after that.

I immediately sensed that meeting him in Williston would be a stellar opportunity.  This plan appeared to offer around 2 weeks of riding prior to Ragbrai, and then a couple of rest days in Sioux City prior to Ragbrai’s start.  Riding with Randy, an experienced touring cyclist, would be a real treat for me, one that would surely teach me many things.  And I also reasoned that the plains of the Dakotas might be just the time in Randy’s tour when he might benefit from having a steady riding partner to share the day’s thoughts with.

My final thought was that the opportunity to ride with Randy would be an excellent prelude to trying my own cross-country sometime in the future.  If a ‘bucket list’ exists for me, I suppose this cross-country idea is on it.

Linda thought the riding sounded great, and offered to pick me up somewhere in southern SD or northern NE a few days prior to Ragbrai.  She then would drop me off at Ragbrai, visit friends and relatives and sightsee in Chicago and then pick me up following the week of Ragbrai.  After that, we’d continue on an extended road trip returning to AZ.  Perfect!

Within a day or two, Randy generated a riding schedule which we considered as very loose, to serve as a long term planning guide.  July 6 seemed to be the right day to meet in Williston, timed to put us in southeastern SD area in the 7/21 or 7/22 timeframe.

In the days that followed my commitment to do this ride, it began to dawn on me how ill-equipped I was.  My Trek 1800c road bike, a well-ridden aluminum and graphite steed, was conceivably adequate, but my initial attempt at installing fenders was a complete bust (insufficient clearance).

During this time, I also began to consider what the term “self-contained” actually meant.  I did not own a tent, nor a sleeping bag, or anything related.  I did own a light-duty Delta rack and 2 Ortlieb front panniers, previously used only as small rear panniers on supported tours.   And my camping experience?  Nada for several decades, only a small amount as a teenage Boy Scout.

Time for some serious research.   I spent at least several weeks in April and May reading everything I could find on the subject, studying photographs of touring cyclists’ rigs, their equipment, reading touring forums, and studying vendor data.  My engineering background is often both a blessing and a curse.  Well-informed decision-making is in my blood – to make a hasty or impulse purchase always seems a bad idea.  But it does bog down the process.  I felt fortunate that I had so much time to narrow down my choices prior to ordering.

A list of my primary purchases:

Bicycle: Surly Long Haul Trucker, 58 cm Cr-Mo steel frame.  For the money, one of the best values out there.  Beautifully capable for loaded touring, and an amazing machine.  I purchased the stock bicycle (about 28.25 lb), replacing only the seat and adding SPD pedals.  I really wanted the olive green paint and was surprised to discover they’d discontinued it in 2010.  I ended up getting the black, a choice I am very happy with.

Brand new Surly LHT from Landis bike shop
Brand new Surly LHT from Landis bike shop

Racks & Panniers vs Trailer: I struggled for at least several days on the panniers vs. trailer tradeoff.  The trailer option really has some nice attributes to it, and I’d like to try it someday.  However, in the end I reasoned that the trailer seems to make more sense for higher loads (because the trailer itself weighs a lot), and that panniers make more sense for lighter loads.  This is not entirely true, but it is how I resolved this decision.

Racks: Tubus.  Clean design and a reputation as indestructible.  Against the black bicycle frame, I thought maybe the stainless steel racks would look cool, and so ordered a Tubus Cosmo rear rack and a Tubus Nova front rack.  Unfortunately, the Nova rack was not available in my timeframe, and so I settled on the trusty Cr-Moly Tara (in black). By the way, I ordered these through a really helpful guy named Wayne at an online site called The Touring Store.

Panniers: Ortlieb.  I really wanted all black panniers and so ordered 2 Ortlieb Back Packer Plus rear panniers in black.  These are lovely huge bags, and access to them is easy and sweet.  For the front panniers, I considered ordering the Ortlieb Sport Packer Plus front panniers in black as well, but in the end, it was just too damned logical to use my existing Ortlieb Front Roller Classics, albeit in ugly yellow. All from a very helpful and knowledgeable Wayne at The Touring Store.

Other containers: Ortlieb Ultimate 5 Plus Medium Handlebar Bag (waterproof).  REI rear trunk (not waterproof) – fits on top of rack.

Tent: Nemo Morpho 2p.  Nice and roomy for one.  For its size, very slightly heavier than competitor’s models of similar size, but I was intrigued by its air-tube frame technology and promise of quick set up.   Also purchased a footprint for this tent.

Sleeping Bag: Marmot Never Winter +30.  After several trips to REI, I decided I liked the feel of down, with all its advantages and disadvantages.  Also grabbed a silk liner for this bag.

Sleeping pad: Thermarest Neo-Air Sleeping pad, large.  3” thickness is VERY comfortable, and rolls to a very small size.  A bit of a splurge, but I reckoned that if there is a place to spend dough, it is on your bicycle and sleeping pad, the two places where you’ll spend the most time.

Bicycle Seat: Brooks B-17 in honey.  In the same vein, I figured a minor splurge for this saddle would pay dividends.  Everything I read about it told me this saddle was a joy to use for touring, at least for most riders.  And the honey color looked GREAT with the black frame.  My only concern was breaking it in sufficiently in the few weeks I had prior to the tour.

Shoes: I struggled with what shoes to bring.  My SIDI road shoes were clearly unsuitable (terrible to walk in).  My Specialized mountain bike shoes made sense, but they weren’t exactly great to walk in, clicked a lot, and so might not be suitable for restaurants, etc.  Only a few days before I left, I purchased some Keen SPD shoes, which walked great.  They’re sold as “commuter” shoes, but I tried them on my Trek and they seemed OK, although slightly flexible for riding shoes.

Rain Gear: Already owned a Performance Cycling Ultra rain jacket which I think is a great product. Lightweight, mostly waterproof, pit vents, a great windbreaker, and it keeps you warm, too (sometimes too warm). I also bought some Performance Nanaimo Seam Sealed Rain Pants. What I’ve read about these is that they’re cheap and don’t breath, so are good for wet and cold conditions but nothing else. That’s OK – that’s why I got ’em.  If it is wet and warm I’ll just wear cycling shorts.  Got a pair of Garneau Neo Protect waterproof shoe covers. These are neoprene booties that fit over cycling shoes.  I’m not pretending that they’re fully waterproof, but at least the neoprene fabric is, and so should greatly limit the intake of water during riding.  These are especially nice to have to sort of protect the Keen SPD shoes, which are cowhide.  Finally, I also picked up a Sugoi helmet cover to shield the old noggin.

Kickstand: A debate in itself among touring cyclists, but having a kickstand is undoubtedly quite convenient. My research told me that conventional kickstands often loosen off the frame, so I took a chance and purchased a Click Stand, which is basically a segmented tent pole with a customized end that cradles the top tube.

Other items purchased: Bookeen Cybook Opus e-reader  (like a lightweight Kindle, can hold hundreds of books), Mammut Lucido TR1 and Ambient Light Set, second set of bicycle tools (chain tool, multi-tool, tire irons, TR kit, tubes, spoke wrench, etc.), Blackburn AirStik 2Stage Bicycle Pump, 3 water bottle cages, 3 Camelbak water bottles, Cateye Mity 8 cyclometer.

(Actually, I read a very sensible article about NOT equipping a touring bike with a cyclometer, that there is no need to get bogged down in mileages. However, they’re fun, occasionally useful for navigation, and I rarely look at mine anyway except at the end of the day.)

Fully loaded for touring
Fully loaded for touring

To me, the bike looks much less loaded than many pictures I’ve seen of touring bikes, although I have a complete stash of gear in it. Attributable to the absence of cooking gear, and the compactness of my sleeping bag and air mattress.

So…4 weeks and more than $2500 later, I was barely beginning to get ready. For considerably less I probably could have flown to Florida and spent 2 weeks cruising the Caribbean.