Friday, 23 April 2010

Why go cycle touring on a recumbent?

Within New Zealand and my home country the Netherlands, I get this question from time to time. The short answer that I usually give that it is more fun to be on a recumbent (i.e., "bent" for short), than on an upright bike. As you can probably figure, that is not the whole story to it.

During my high school period I was saving up for an upright trekking bike, like the Koga-Miyata WorldTraveller, but one day came across a bentrider while I was cycling to school. It was not the speed or the relaxed cycling that caught my eye, but that it was different. I started to ask around in local bike shops where I could get one, and searched the internet, which led me to a recumbent bike shop in Leeuwarden (nowadays Liever Ligfietsen).

The owner, Perry Pruis, was enthusiastic and I felt a warm welcome in his shop with quite a collection of different bents (this was in late summer of 1999). All the low bents didn't appeal to me, I was attracted to the Challenge Distance and the Optima Condor, both 26-inch wheeled bents. But I still didn't know what it was to ride one, so picked the Optima Condor (under-seat steering (USS)) to be the one I was gonna learn to ride first.
An initial try in the shop led me to believe that I was never gonna be able to ride a bike like this, but after practicing on an empty parking lot I got it down a bit better. Then I was told to try the bike out in a 'small' round of 10-20km, which is a good way to learn to ride a bent. Immediately I liked the fact that I was steering with my hands beside me, and riding the Challenge Distance (tiller steering) felt like I was handling a boat rudder. Although it was a bit easier to get on the Distance, I found the Condor to ride better; which led me to order my first bent, a grey Optima Condor.

Years later (2007) after abusing the Condor to its maximum a whole range of new bents have been developed and I wanted to try something new, another USS 26-inch wheeled bent. My choice fell pretty quick on the Nazca Pioneer, though I wanted to make a bike that was completely mine. Therefore I ordered just the framekit, and some bikeparts separately (such as a Rohloff hub, Shimano dynohub, hydraulic Magura rimbrakes, and a couple strong Mavic rims). It was quite a project to build the bike up from scratch, including lacing the wheels, but it was also a fun project to do that was completed in january 2008. Over the two years that I own the bike it has been changed, mostly the fenders change once a while, but also the tires. The tires that I use for this bike are the Schwalbe Marathon Supreme (50-559) and the Schwalbe Marathon XR (57-559), which are both very comfortable. Wider tires means more air, which translates to a smoother ride.

But to get back on the topic of why I go cycle touring on a bent; there are quite a few benefits after a days ride: no tingling feeling in my hands because blood flow is obstructed, no sore shoulders, no back pain (depending on hardness of the seat and correct sizing), and usually a smooth ride because of suspension (almost all touring bents have rear suspension). When you ride in summer, it is like you are on a lounge chair soaking up the sun, while riding.
OK, there are disadvantages: usually somewhat heavier, not really suited for technical off road cycling, a fully loaded bent is harder to get through the usual bike sluice (bent is quite a bit longer), climbing seems to be harder (but this can also be just a feeling), and you can get a lot of attention abroad (both positive and negative sometimes). Car drivers sometimes come up to you saying that you're not very visible on a bent, but only had a couple close calls in all the time that I'm riding a bent. When you're cycle touring an upright bike you also attract attention, but don't get a bent if you don't want to attract attention in cities or campsites (in fact, don't go cycle touring at all :p). Meeting other people is for me one of the reasons of traveling, and cycle touring makes it much easier than traveling in a campervan or car. Oh yeah, carrying a fully loaded bent down a flight of stairs is more or less impossible. Make sure that when you pack your bent panniers, that the heavy things are more or less under your butt (center of the bike), don't put too much weight on the back (see my previous post).

A little something about climbing on a bent, in New Zealand I rode side by side with another cyclist and on a downhill I was down earlier, but on the uphill I got overtaken by that same cyclist. It was clear that he was in a higher gear (so less crank revelations) than me, while we both had the same Rohloff setup, although this might be the effect of 155mm cranks on my bike vs 170-175mm on his. Guess which crank length I'm gonna go for again sometime soon. Another disadvantage is that in a long climb you really can't change your position, if you would want to. On an upright bike you still have the possibility to stand on the paddles for a while.

So if I were to go cycle touring through the USA or on good roads/tracks, I would definitely take my bent, but if I would go cycling the "Long way round" through Mongolia and Russia (especially the Road of Bones in Siberia) or through Patagonia, I would maybe take an upright MTB-style bike (such as the Tout Terrain Silkroad, or Koga-Miyata Signature WorldTraveller). An upright bike is easier to push up a hill or through a field of bog. Though I might come pretty far with a signature 26-inch wheeled bent (Africa is pretty good doable on a Condor, shown by Edvard's Tour d'Afrique), and I once said that I wouldn't want to go back to an upright for cycle touring…

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Review of some camping gear

For a while now I have been thinking about giving you something of a review of camping and/or cycling equipment that I used during my travels through New Zealand. With this blogpost I try to give you my personal opinion on gear that I took with me, it is by no means a scientific judgement, just my personal opinion ;-).

Thermarest NeoAir
Thermarest NeoAir
I bought this sleeping pad a couple weeks before I left, as it was light and quite small. Thermarest says it is about 400 grams, which I think is pretty light for a comfortable pad. The most impressive things have been said, it is light, very comfortable, and packs down to the size of a coke can. There is one major nuisance though (in my opinion), you have to inflate it at the end of the day. One a very relaxing cycle day this isn't too much work, but after a rough day of cycling I sometimes felt too exhausted to inflate it (in the end I did though). Once I get to a campsite I want things to go easy, not having to inflate a sleeping pad isn't one of the things I want to do. On a next trip I will head out with a self-inflatable sleeping pad (Thermarest ProLite 3 or 4), although a bit heavier, I do like the ease of use. Yeah, I'm lazy ;-).

Hilleberg Akto
Share photos on twitter with Twitpic
A lightweight one-sleeps tent, which is long enough for me :). The tent can be packed pretty small, and compresses pretty good within a Radical pannier, as long as the single pole is separated. When stuffing it in its bag when packing you'll have to be aware of the four fiberglass rods that keep the ends of the tent up, these feel a little fragile (carried no spares for those things).

Nazca Pioneer with Radical panniers
Overlooking Lake Pukaki, with Mount Cook Aoraki in the background
A wonderful bike to ride, but with heavy luggage on the back the bike feels unstable in corners. It feels like the front wheel wants to slip away from under the bike with a high load on the rear rack and on the seat (in Radical Design panniers and a top bag). Can't remember ever having the same feeling on my previous Optima Condor, where the entire cargo is more in the center of the bike, but I also didn't take the same gear with me as some years ago to Denmark. This doesn't make for a objective comparison, so this is done on feeling. And yeah, I did pack too much stuff in the panniers and top bag for my trip through New Zealand.

Off road the bike handled pretty good with the Schwalbe Marathon XR's (57mm wide), as I 'glided' over the dirt/gravel roads of the Otago Central Rail Trail. On other occasions when the gravel was more loose, you could feel the front slide into a corner (understeer) at speed, which can be hair raising (tip: don't use front brake in those cases!). I am considering going back to a Condor again, but the Pioneer is perfect for light cycle touring, so I'll hold on to it for a while. Though, I would use a different type of bicycle for off road/technical MTB style cycling.

One weakness of the Pioneer is the headset, when using an under-seat-handlebar. I had to tighten the headset a couple times when I was in New Zealand, and the front fork/stem had a lot of flex when I came down from Crown pass. My guess is that because there is no counterforce on the top of the stem, the headset is stressed more than on a regular recumbent (with either a direct under-seat-bars or top-bars). Do I hear somebody saying to use a fork with 1 1/8 inch steerer tube and a Chris King headset?!
I now focus on only a slight problem, when fully loaded, which is a consequence of this design, but all in all this bike is reliable, sweet to look at, and can take quite a beating. I have abused the bike pretty hard with the amount of weight on it and by riding not so subtle off road, but everything held up perfectly and it didn't break down on me.

Future plans
A bunch of people said to me lately that I would have travelled enough to last another year or so. Truthfully, NO! Travel leads to more travel, as it is addicting being on the road. Life is a whole lot less complex being on the road, than doing a job. No, I'm not riding because I want to get away from it, it is another challenge, but I do love the life on the road.
So a couple new ideas are spooking through my head, such as the North Sea Cycle Route, or riding from the Netherlands to New York (USA), via Magadan (Siberia) (i.e. Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman's "Long way round"), or even closer to home, following the Dutch border all round. Too bad that I don't have that many vacation days left at work, and a project such as cycling the "long way round" requires some planning and preparation (probably won't do it on my own).

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Memories of NZ and new adventures

Overlooking Lake Pukaki, with Mount Cook Aoraki in the background
Like the most of you readers of this blog already know it has been already over a month since I came back from my cycling trip through New Zealand. To get my mind of things and not falling in a deep hole of not cycling I had decided to run a half marathon in a reasonable time (planned to do it 1:45h). But in the last few weeks I find myself more and more thinking back on how simple the life on the road was, just having to figure out food for the day and soaking up the scenery (and sun). Hoping, and sometimes a bit planning, to reach a next campsite. Working life is way more complicated, I prefer the life on the road. While reading up on a couple blogs the latest blogpost by Alastair Humphreys brought a smile to my face.

So, last weekend it was actually time to run that 21,1 km in the region of Hengelo (Overijssel, NL), only a few kilometers from home. I didn't have that much confidence in myself starting, seeing all those people that look really fit and with shirts of other full marathons and all. Though the first 10km were fairly easy, leaving some of those marathon runners behind me. I didn't think I was actually going very fast, and tried to pace myself to keep it easy, as running for over 20km is kinda new. Reaching the 10km point, I was in a group of runners that were all in the same pace and decided to stick with these guys for the other half. Unfortunately, my legs were running on vapors after about 13km, so couldn't keep up with these experienced guys. Maybe I should have trained (better/more) for such a long run, and taken some food with me .. where are the petrol stations with Cookie Munchers and a bottle of cola when you need them? Ah well, I did make it in the end, after (a not so satisfying time of) 2 hours, 6 minutes, and 29 seconds. It did feel good crossing the finish, so I'll probably do this again somewhere this year, just to beat this time :-).

And then yesterday I got reminded by a couple friends that I had promised to give a presentation about my travels through New Zealand. Right then and there we decided to do that in two weeks, allowing myself to prepare that a bit with a couple sweet photos and a nice story. Anybody here that has suggestions to things they want to know about my travels through NZ?? Replies are welcome via the comments below this blogpost, via twitter, or other ways you have to reach me :p.