Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gear talk: Heroes and Zeros

Now that our big tour is completed, I want to offer up some observations and opinions about the various bits of kit that made this extended cycling epic work.  Overall, our gear choices were solid, but we had some problems, and perhaps others can benefit from our experiences.

The Heroes:

Catrikes:  These held up beautifully and made all those long, hard miles as comfortable and safe as they could be.  As noted elsewhere, Jodi rides a now discontinued version of the "Road," and I crank on the "Expedition,"  both purchased and expertly outfitted by Bent Up Cycles in North Hollywood.  Dana, the owner, is THE man for recumbent gear.  My expedition had a slight advantage when pushing over rough terrain to get to wild camps because of higher ground clearance, so anyone seeking to do this kind of tour, you'll be well served to get this model.  Also, the bigger rear wheel makes sustaining higher speeds easier.  Because of our big loads (doggie!), we both are outfitted with 203 mm discs on the brakes.  I was never at a loss for powerful, controlled braking on those wild mountain drops.  My trike developed a super annoying squeak after about the first 1,000 miles, which I was never able to eliminate.  I'm pretty sure it has to do with the rack, which I'll remove to see if that solves the problem.

Schlumpf mountain drives:  In many ways, this tour was made possible because of our spectacular gearing.

This device fits into the bottom bracket and has a button on each side that the cyclist taps with his heel, giving a low (2.5 : 1) and "high" range (1 : 1).  This means that even the steepest climbs and the heaviest loads are manageable because of the super low gearing.  Our knees were never stressed in an uncomfortable way.  These units aren't cheap ($700), but we wouldn't tour on trikes without them.  My unit did develop a problem, which I'll have to get checked out.  I lubed both drives before leaving home, but mine developed a severe rattly scraping sound as we got into Montana.  Once we figured out the source of the sound, we got it lubed in Helena, which eliminated the problem--until it came back in Wyoming.  The sound only seemed to occur in the high range.  I resorted to using my rather heavy Chain-L lube--not the light grease, which is the recommended stuff.  By setting the trike on its side and pouring a few drops into the lube access port, I was able to stop the hideous grating sound.  Every few hundred miles, I would repeat.  I don't know if there is some sort of alignment problem or if I need a bigger injection of the proper grease, but the noise was worrisome.  Fortunately, it always worked flawlessly, never slipping or refusing to change gears.  One cool advantage of the Schlumpf Mtn. Drive, is that if you forget to downshift when coming to a stop, you can always pop the drive and be able to ride away.  We need a monument to Florian Schlumpf, the Swiss genius who invented the thing.

Exped air mattresses:  I reviewed these in an earlier post before the tour.  Amazing.  They held up under lots of abuse with Django scrambling over them at every camp.  The ability to pump up the pads without getting light-headed at the end of big day was a true blessing.  The only drawback is that they are VERY noisy when the sleeper turns over.  Using the seat-conversion kit dampens this somewhat.  I wonder if some material can be used that would reduce the squeaking?

B.O.B. and CycleTote trailers:   Fantastic, solid performers.  Jodi LOVES the B.O.B., and the dry sack duffel is a neat feature. I wouldn't haul Django in anything but a CycleTote.  The low center of gravity, inwardly canted wheels, and center-pull design make this the most stable unit out there.  They ain't cheap, but our security on the road is worth it.

Coleman Apex II backpacking stove: This, alas, is discontinued, but for us, it's been a very reliable stove, which, unlike most liquid fuel stoves, burns unleaded gas reliably and simmers as good or better than any stove out there.  The only drawback is the sooty flareup when getting started.  The cooking area needs to be well ventilated.  If/when this stove dies, it looks like the Brunton Vapor line fills the niche for unleaded burning stoves.  Other models claim to run on unleaded, but I've heard they clog easily (MSR Whisperlite, for example).  The Coleman NEVER clogs. 

Big Agnes tents:  Not just the product but the company.  We've loved our Copper Spur three person.  It truly became home.  When the zipper started to fail, the company provided a new body free of charge in the middle of the expedition.  As promised, it was waiting in Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado, when we rolled into town.  Thanks, Big A.

Leatherman Blast: 

This multi-tool was the Blast and the bomb.  We used almost every tool on here many times.  On long tours, some tool like this is essential.

MSR Alpine kitchen knife:

Jodi found this to replace the zero-rated blade featured below.  The MSR unit costs a whopping $9.95 and works so well that we now keep it handy in the kitchen at home.  Super light, super sharp, stiff, cheap! and comes with its own sheath.  Can't beat that.


Okay, while not everything listed here was/is a total "zero," we did have some problems, so it's good to know what to watch out for.

Sea to Summit mugs: 
These are JUNK!  Yeah, they're light, but we found them to be expensive dribble mugs.  They don't insulate well, and once hot liquids are put in, the lid doesn't seal well--behold the dribble.  We threw them out in Cooke City, Montana, and replaced them with heavier stainless steel lined mugs.  Whatever you get, don't get these.  Full on zeros.

34 gram knife:  Okay, so it was too good to be true.  The knife was soooo cool looking, but it's performance was mediocre at best.  The thin blade flexed far too much and made food preparation a pain in the butt.  Too expensive.

The seat cover in Jodi's left hand, while not used much, was an excellent tool.

MSR MiniWorks EX water filter:  

While this filter gets high ratings on the REI website AND it was chosen by the US Marines, I was not pleased.  It's slower than other models, and it seemed finicky, not wanting to pump properly on the second time we used it.  The intake valve was staying open so that when I compressed the lever, water went back OUT the intake tube rather than into the bag.  Pain. In. The. Ass.  We had problems, as you know, with the MSR Sweetwater system:

The problems, however, were my fault.  The main issue seems to be that the ceramic filter was wet, and then we had some hard freezing nights, which cracked the ceramic. Note to readers and self:  When the filter ain't totally dried out, keep it close on cold nights.  We've always liked this filter and never had problems in the past, so I returned the MiniWorks EX (thanks, REI), and replaced it with a new Sweetwater.  These are lighter, pump more easily, and have fewer moving parts than the MiniWorks.  With the adapter, it can be attached to virtually any container.  We'll stick with this from now on.  After The Time of Hurling, we never needed the filter again, but we will have other trips.  Check 'em out.

I think that covers some of the key players.  Jodi was very pleased with her sleeping bag system comprised of two ultralite Mont Bell down sleeping bags.  This was handy for dialing in sleeping temps, although Django was known to take a little too much of the cover bag on some nights, the sneaky hound.  I use an REI "Sub Kilo" 20 deg. F. down bag, which I've had for five years.  It seems to be losing some of its loft, but I was generally comfortable most of the time.  Our tires were strong performers too: Schlwalbe Marathon Racers, Performance Series.  I think most of the Racers are of this new style.  We had only six flats for the whole tour, and all of these but one came after we'd put more than 2,000 miles on the skins.


  1. First of all a great big "Welcome Home". Many thanks for the good read!! Will there be another book in the works? On the subject of filters I just purchased a Platypus gravity water filter. No pumping required only gravity to slowly encourage the water to pass through the filter. I have yet to test it out. I'll get back to you with the results.

    1. Hi, Mark: Thanks for checking in. Yeah, I'm slowly cooking some ideas for the book. It will be less driven by the strange encounters with people than by the landscape and interior struggles, but I think I can pull enough material together for a good read. The blog, of course, is a good start. That gravity filter sounds like a good idea. Do post about your experiences.

  2. Great blog, Scott. Congrats on completing the journey! Interesting comments on the Coleman stove. I've used the JetBoil for many tours and, although it requires special fuel canisters, they last a long time. The whole thing fits perfectly in the tube of my Arkel GT54 panniers. My daughter and I are planning on riding the transam with this summer. Your reports were much appreciated! Again, congratulation!

  3. Hi, Jay: Thanks. Glad you like the blog. Best of luck on your own cross country journey. I'll keep the Jetboil in mind for another stove. I'm getting the go-light bug and working on ways to cut weight. Just ordered a Black Diamond Betamid Light that will allow us to backpack with a 3 lb. tent. Can't wait to try it out.



  4. Hi Scott and Jodi,

    Steve Greene here, publisher of Trike Asylum. Having read your journal of this trip, I'm impressed with your adventures. Question for you: I will be pedaling south from Florence Oregon to Apple Valley California (to visit mom and sis) on my ICE Q trike, beginning September 3rd. Sometime around the third or fourth week of September, I hope to be pedaling through Tehachapi (the final 300 miles of the trip are from Morro Bay to Apple Valley). Can you recommend an area campground that would be cyclist friendly? Something fairly close to Highway 58? If you know of a Tehachapi campground, please let me know: wildernessrogue (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!