…In which Skyler dangerously ventures into the hemisphere of the ‘Opinion Piece’…
In our travels of North and South America, we’ve noticed a sort of uniform among the ‘common’ touring cyclist. It varies depending on the rider’s nationality. The uniform ridden by North Americans, and an increasing number of Europeans, on tours outside of North America is a bicycle model that has been around for over a decade – the Surly Long Haul Trucker. This bike is usually adorned with Tubus front and rear steel racks, four bursting Ortleib panniers, road-style drop bars, extremely stiff, puncture-resistant Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires, high spoke-count 26″ wheels, rim brakes, and a Brooks leather saddle.
Even among those that don’t wear ‘the uniform’, of which there are many, the common wisdom behind this bicycle set-up for touring is widely accepted without challenge. To understand why this particular vehicle is so popular, a look back in the pages of adventure cycling points to an answer – this bicycle looks remarkably similar to the hacked-together road bikes qua touring bikes of the 1970s, that Golden Age of adventure cycling. Indeed, all these above-mentioned pieces of kit are a refined version of those 1970s and ’80s touring rigs that so proved their worth 40 years ago. Each item on the list offers a solution to the classic problems of a long-distance cyclist: flat tires, sore butt, sore hands, broken racks, broken wheels, wet luggage. (That these are mostly mediocre, band-aid solutions that generally fail to tackle the root of each of these problems is beside the point.) According to popular knowledge, they are proven, trust-worthy. A safe choice.
Dropping a few thousand dollars on a touring bike and luggage can feel like a high-stakes game. In our risk-averse society, the ‘uniform’ gets offered as the only safe, rational choice over and over again, online and especially by sales people in bike shops. No, it’s not always a Long Haul Trucker, but it usually looks the same.
Many people who buy into this marketing are genuinely seeking adventure. A few are even wildly successful in finding it. But, without risk there can be no adventure. Since the 1970s we have witness the slow strangulation of adventure cycling in the hands of a heavily prescribed, low-risk cycle tourism. It’s not that people stopped exploring by bicycle these past decades, but those trips, partly due to the short-comings of these bicycles, often equated adventure with suffering, and have been overshadowed by millions of kilometres ridden on highway shoulders. I’ve met many cyclists who go to great lengths to avoid unpaved roads, yet complain about traffic, a few have ended trips early out of boredom of riding paved roads, and many others who have only have horror stories about their forays onto unpaved, rough roads. Seriously, blame the bike.
Part of this prescription has been the wide acceptance of a sort of anti-technology or “Luddite” attitude. (Yes, I know this is a narrow, and misleading understanding of the Luddites. Forgive me.) And this attitude is what grates me, particularly when taken to an anti-social or egotistical extreme. The condescending scowls direct toward my fat tires – “isn’t that slow and inefficient?” they say, without asking for an answer – the incredulity and skepticism toward thin-casing, tubeless tires are not helping inspire anyone. Generally it is those who haven’t travelled by bike since the touring craze of the ’70s and ’80s who express genuine interest at my answer to their usual question “how many flat tires have you had on this trip?” (Only one that required a patch in 8000km of off-pavement tubeless riding, by the way.)
In the last few years, a few unassuming personalities on the “fringe” of the cycling world have been ignoring convention, riding previously unimaginable routes, and, by all indications, having way more fun than the rest of us. In 2014, Scott Morris and Eszter Horanyi rode the Continental Divide Trail, forging what is probably the longest and most technical bikepacking route in world. On these 5100 km of trail, they rode full suspension mountain bikes, and carried no panniers.
More inspiration comes from my friend Joe Cruz, who has been been bikepacking since before bikepacking meant anything in the cycling world. In the last few months, he’s toured the back roads of Crete on a folding Bike Friday (with tiny 20″ wheels), bikepacked Utah and Colorado on a carbon fibre fat bike with front suspension, and most recently explored Slovenia on a cheap rental bike. Despite being a tenured professor, he seems to get more riding in than your average unemployed cycling dirt bag. He’s ignoring* “the rules” of cycle touring and his indomitable stoke proves, once again, that the best touring bike is the one you go touring on, the best route to follow is whichever is the most fun.
And then there are Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox, a young couple who, like many of us, started off touring in the very narrow sense offered by tradition – drop bars, panniers, and paved roads. (Scroll down to the comment section to read Nick’s own words about his early touring days. Thanks Nick!) Now, seven years later, rather than just ignoring* the touring conventions, Nick’s is perhaps the strongest voice in outright resistance toward that Luddite mentality. The stories on his blog, instead, offer an alternative form of lifestyle and travel, where trips are planned on a whim, routes chosen for the quality of riding, and the pace set by chance encounters.
(*Ignoring might not be the correct word. Some of the old-time touring wisdom really is worth its salt. Steel frames and leather saddles are still popular among the rebels. But it’s not a choice based on blind faith and adherence to any expectation.)
Right now, Lael is racing the Tour Divide, the world’s longest unorganized off-pavement race, on a full-carbon Specialized Stumpjumper. She rode her bike to the start in Banff from Anchorage, Alaska. And, despite a chest infection that slowed her down in the first week of the race, she’s on pace to break the women’s record. Based on her current pace, she might have been breaking the men’s record up front with Jay Petervary and Neil Beltchenko had her health been better from the start.
Both Lael and Jay have press-fit bottom brackets on their bikes, which allows for frames to be build with carbon bottom bracket shells, which cannot be threaded. When they both had to replace their bottom bracket bearings mid-race, spectators were quick to comment “You see! We told you so. The old ways were better after all.” Read any new product release or review and you’ll find the comments full of this sort of resistance to new bicycle technology. But Lael rode that bike 3500km from Anchorage to Banff, and another 2500km in the race, before it failed. Jay used his on his training bike for months before the race. These are consumable parts, in the most exposed part of a bicycle, being ridden in the sort of conditions that kill bearings. There is no big lesson to be taken from those bearing failures. The lesson I’ve found is that it is those with open minds, and, most of all, strong legs and lungs that are changing the face of bike racing. On the side, Lael and Nick are leading a renaissance of adventure cycling.
This is the first year I’ve followed the Tour Divide Race, and it’s all surprisingly exciting.
Cass Gilbert, though he surprised me with his residual faith in ‘the rules’, has inspired more people to abandon those conventions than anyone. Looking back in the records of his five year journey along the length of the Americas, you can watch his steady abandonment of the ‘uniform’, culminating in his switch to a fat bike in his last months in South America, which opened a new world of route possibilities. Importantly, his philosophy is to always point his fat bike down those scenic “detours”. It’s not surprising that there is a whole generation of Pan-American riders who have donned a new uniform in Cass’s image, and ventured off onto the back roads of this hemisphere. Once free of the Panamerican Highway’s pavement and traffic, on bikes that are fun to ride on rough roads and trails, those of us who have subscribed to Cass’s mode of travel have invariably found ourselves venturing further from established tourist networks, and uncovering more excellent routes off the beaten path.
It was with this alternative philosophy in my head, inspired by those mentioned above and many others, that Panthea put me in charge of building her a new touring bike. I’ll talk about the result of that build, and spew more opinionated verbal diarrhea on things like carbon fibre, suspension, and new hub standards in the next instalment of this Tech Talk nonsense. By the way, I would not recommend to anyone to have their gear-nerd boyfriend build them a bike. The bike your gear-nerd boyfriend wants you to want might not actually be the bike you want. Panthea will soon be able to comment on the success of this dangerous venture.
For those who ride the uniform and have a blast at it, ride on. Joe is right. The best touring bike is the one you go touring on. But, seriously, your rock-hard, stiff-casing tires are not the epitome of efficiency. Just ask those racers breaking records this year on the Tour Divide. They’re are all running supple, tubeless mountain bike tires. Punctures are a 20th century problem.
Still, if you’re new to the sport, spending your money on travel will be much more rewarding than building your dream touring set-up. Panthea and I have ridden thousands of happy miles on 1990s hard tail mountain bikes that we acquired for a few hundred dollars. Do whatever it takes to get out the door, and don’t worry about it.