The Bikes

(written by Ryan, BackBikers chief mechanic)

Lets reverse the usual order and begin with the result: may I introduce you to our sturdy companions on the road and apart: "Eselchen" on the left and "Kalle" on the right. I will share my thoughts and plans with you, because not a single screw was chosen by chance, and some of the information might be a useful inspiration, at least its an (hopefully) interesting lecture for the tech-oriented cyclists out there. 

 

"Get up, get out, you lazy lout, Get into your working clothes" and follow me through the technical details of our bikes.

Onwards  to a new bike...

In my book, there are two ways to equip your bike: you either choose parts, who are very unlikely to break, but when they fall apart, there is virtually no chance to repair them (e.g. gear hubs, hydraulic brake systems, belt drives), or you decide to use parts who are more prone to be worn out or even destroyed, but are found all around the globe (derailleur gears, rim brakes and so on). When I started to project our new friends on two wheels, the plan to circle the world was pretty fixed. Therefore, I chose the latter way. Partly, because everything can be destroyed (pretty easily, at least when you load the bike onto planes and trucks, a situation nobody can avoid forever) and I don't want to end up walking because my brake hose is leaking oil after being torn off, partly because the first way of equipping a bike is often more expensive (#Rohloff).

A lot of my inspiration, what to use and what to avoid on the new bike, came from my old touring bike. It was a 2010 "Staiger Oregon", a very good trekking bike, but a far from perfect bike for heavy loaded tours. Some examples? Above 35km/h the fork started to wiggle, presumably because the Tubus Swing had a too high balance point. In the meantime I started to ride roadbikes, and ever since road handlebars are one of the best things on a bike for me. So much ways to place the hands during long trips! Sore heels of hands no more!

Long story short: I wanted a hard-lined bulletproof bike, which could also leave tarmac without too much hassle. Weight wasn't important, I rather ride on something stable than break down with a light bike. Everything should be reparable by myself, with the material I expect to find in remote areas: barely anything. So lets have a closer look, how I tried to achieve this goal.

  

The Ingredients

(you have to click on them, just saying...)

The Frame
I chose an Intec M1, a steel MTB/Trekking-frame, which allows two brake options: disc and rim. This was very important, because if our disc brake gets damaged, i don't expect to find a replacement outside "western" countries. In this case we can switch over to rim brakes, who are commonly purchasable. Steel because of three reasons: 1. its very insensitive against dents and fatigue, 2. you can weld it (well, maybe not YOU, but almost every car garage around the world), 3. I like steel frames . Also steel is said to be a bit "softer" than carbon or aluminium, but the Intec is quite heavy and has very massive tubes, so this might not apply in our case. Additionally, the frame was a cheaper one (compared to several small and high-tier touring bike manufacturers from Germany, but also to bigger brands like Surly and Salsa), has eyes for three bottle cages, and we could even choose from six different colors. I also found some posts from other cyclists with this frame, and all of them seemed to be pleased (except for poor paint quality, a problem we haven't had yet).
The Fork
I have a big fear about fading disc brakes, so following my agenda of "no compromises", I wanted a fork which was capable to hold 200mm front discs. Of course it needed eyelets for a low rider and it should fit the frame geometry, which suggests 400mm height betweet axle and fork crown. But the hardest part was actually my last demand: just like the frame i wanted the option for rim brakes, for said reasons. Of course it should a rigid fork, it allows a lower attachment of the bags, resulting in a more stable ride. Additionally, a suspension fork is more prone for failure and reacts mainly to bigger shocks, which are rare, but less (if even) to the omnipresent shaking of a bad road.
After extensive research I found exactly one fork which fitted my wishes, Surly Big Dummy fork, which is also sold without the frame. Now, if you're reading on a website, the delivery may take up to three weeks, thats annoying, but not too much. Guess what? We waited six months. And it would have been even longer, if it wasn't for Surly. Because after the third (or fourth?) delay, we wrote them a desperate mail, which was answered promptly and in a manner, which gave us new hope. Even Surly had no idea when to expect the next charge of said forks. But they had grey ones, who are normally not for retail. After a lot of phone calls to different retailers in the US we got a special delivery of two grey Big Dummy forks. After they arrived in Vienna, one week of nerve-wracking waiting for the Austrian customs followed. So five months, after we had all other parts together, we could finally assemble Miris "Eselchen".
The Wheels
Everytime patching a tube was not an option and I had to buy a new tube, I found 26"-tubes way easier to acquire than 28". So 26" was the choice. Soon it became clear, that a prebuild wheelset was no option, because I wanted MTB-wheels, but with a hub dynamo. So I chose Halo SAS rims for their width, double lugs and their option to be operated not only with disc, but also with rim brakes (if you ask "why" now, read the paragraphs above please). Spokes? No compromises, DT Swiss Alpine III, they are some of the stablest in my eyes. Hubs? I chose the same, I ran on my Staiger for over 25.000km without any problems: a Shimano DH-3N80 hub dynamo and a XT rear hub.
Since a truing stand and a tension meter were cheaper than the work of a professional wheel builder, I decided to take the risk and learn wheelbuilding myself, something which was on my bucket list anyways. So after several times testing Sheldon Browns' instructions on an old front wheel I had laying around, I dared it. What can I say? It went fine, its not too hard if you are willing to invest some time and bring some patience. Our wheels are still as true as when I bought them up, we had no broken spoke (which is not naturally after the treatment they had to endure), though I had no chance to compare the spoke tension before and after the first tour yet.
The Gearing
We used the groupsets from our old bikes, this way "Eselchen" is equipped with a modified Shimano 105 (3x10), while "Kalle" is shifting with a Shimano XT (3x9).
Ladies first: we chaged the small chainring on the 105 crankset to 26 teeth, and the cassette to a 11-36 (and if you ask now, if we want to cycle up walls with this ratio, you haven't been to Rilas sandy tracks with heavy loaded bikes). Because of the large sprockets we had to change the rear derailleur to a 9-speed MTB derailleur, the original 105 can't handle them. The combination of 10-speed STI with 9-speed MTB derailleur was suggested by Sheldon Brown, and as usual his advice was impeccable, "Eselchen" shifts flawless. Though, the current setup of the groupset is the thing I would change first if I had to choose. The STIs are awesome, since its easier to shift and break without switching the hand position, but they clearly belong to the first way on how to equip your bike: if they brake, we can't do anything. Also I'm not completely happy with the fact, that the cassette is 10-speed. Although in western countries 11 and even 12 speed are now on the market and 10 speed is just average, the situation changes in the more remote areas. Here, 8 speed might be easier to find. But for now we will keep it this way, maybe we change some parts before departure to our big trip, maybe not .
Now lets have a look at my bike, "Kalle": the only modification I made at the XT groupset were the levers, since the original levers won't fit to road bars. Therefore I chose Shimanos Dura Ace 9-speed bar end levers. It turned out to be a good choice. Altough I have to switch my hand position sometimes when I want to shift, everything runs well and the possibility to shift from the smallest to the biggest sprocket within seconds is awesome. Also the non-indexed shifting for the front derailleur was unusual first, but one get used to it really quick.
The Brakes
To prevent wear and tear on our rims and to get the same stopping power even in wet conditions I chose disc brakes. Since I can't repair hydraulic pipes if they are torn, I chose mechanical Avid BB7. Miri got the road version for her 105 STIs, while I got myself the MTB version in combination with Tektro RL520. Those levers look like normal road brake lever, but they pull in more cable than usual. That way one can operate V-Brakes and said MTB BB7 brakes, and I expect less struggle if I have to switch to rim brakes on the road.
Both of us got a 200mm front and 160mm rear disc. You can imagine, without luggage we have waaay more stopping power than neccesary. But even fully loaded the deceleration is very strong, providing a nice sense of security. Needless to say, neither of us had any problems with fading.
The Tires
There is barely a way around Schwalbes Marathon Mondial, and I chose the biggest size available: 55-559. Combined with the wide rims, we can easily reduce pressure to 2,5bar, even with heavy luggage. This increases both traction on gravel and comfort on bad roads, since its the only suspension we got. In my opinion, it smoothes the ride better than any suspension fork, because little shocks like cracked tarmac are easily absorbed by the tire, whereas the impact would be to small for a suspension fork to react.
After nearly 8000km combined, neither of us had a flat tire.
The Saddles
Since you can't harldy learn anything from this, because everyone needs to try out what fits his bottom, I will handle this real quick: Miri bought a Brooks B17 Lady edition and modified him by cutting out an even bigger opening in the middle. She feared problems with her bottom alot, but had hardly any during our first tour, so this was a wise choice.
I ride an old version of the Bontrager SSR. He was quite cheap (around 20€), but I liked him from the start. In the meantime the cover slightly slipped, but thats only cosmetic, and I hope he will survive a long time since he isn't produced anymore.
The Chargers
We navigate solely by smartphone, so of course a energy source was necessary. I don't want to rely on sunlight, because thats an very inefficient coice in some regions and seasons, therefore the smartest thing is to use a generator which is always with us and delivers always, no matter what: the hub-dynamo. There are several nice devices on the market, specialized to make the hub dynamo a power source. I already had an Busch + Müller E-Werk, but because we are now two travellers we needed another device, I bought myself a "Forumslader" and gave the E-Werk to Miri.
What is the "Forumslader"? Its basically a private developed recharger, and to be honest I can't tell who started with the initial production. But now, its one of the most efficient rechargers, if not the most efficient loading device. The new version is integrated in the steering tube of the fork, the USB-outlet is part of a 3D-printed ahead spacer, which is simply mounted above the stem. So in result the only thing you see from this perfect example of "german engineering" is the cord to the front hub and the spacer. If you haven't noticed yet, I'm completely in love with this fascinating piece of technology. It has a small 675mAh buffer, and even its own app. Thereby one can connect the smartphone via Bluetooth, because the "Forumslader" measures and stores a load of informations, starting from speed and altitude to the current power consumption from the charging device. All this is shown real time, and also stored in an archive, which goes "beyond the lifespan of an bike", to say it with its current developers words. And no, I don't recieve any money or benefit for writing this, I'm really that excited .
When we rode our Eastern-Europe-tour, we had barely any energy problems. Only one time in the mountains we ran a bit short and had to use our powerbanks to the fullest (or lets say, to the emptiest?!), because of the slow climbing combined with an unexpected rest-day.
The Racks and Bottle cages
Tubus Tara and Tubus Logo. Two times of course. Thats it. And yep, they are sturdy, a bit rusty, and if there is a part on our bikes where I never ever expect any problems, it is here.
Let's switch to our bottle cages: each of us carries two PET-bottles plus one 1l bike bottle. For the latter, we simply bought the cheapest standard cages, and they do the job. For PET-bottles, there exists a specific bottle cage from Topeak (Modula Cage XL). Well, better forget about him really quick, because this cage is really annoying. It only fits bottles with a small opening (but bottles with a big mouth are way handier, if you want to refill them), the rubber band is impossible to use when wet and tears really fast. Also, the height adjustment for different bottles is a pain in the a**. But the same company manufactures unwittingly the perfect bottle cage for PET bottles. Its the Modula Java Cage. Normally thought for hipsters, who want to carry their morning coffee in a thermo tumbler on their 200(0)€ singlespeed, it holds normal 1,5l bottles without any problems (even 2l, but a bit less secure). The strap is really big and can be used with gloves, and you never need to adjust anything just because you are throwing away that old bottle you used for the last two months.
UPDATE: For our circumnavigation, I thought about expanding our load capacity, firstly to be able to carry more water than before. Since we had a lot of space on our forks left, this was the best place to optimize. We could have chosen something like Surlys Nice Rack, but we already had our Taras and the nice rack is neither cheap, nor particlarly better in carrying water than other options. So in the end, we used Salsas Anything cages. Since our Surly forks don't have the eyelets for those, we used SKS Anywhere adapters (three on each side of course). Combined with Sea to Summits Big River packsack (the 8L version) we have pretty flexible stowage, although it shouldn't be too heavy (max load of the Anything cages is 3KG each).

Now lets watch together the wonder of a growing bike...

So, how's the riding?

We informed ourselves about bike-fitting and other fancy stuff, in the end, I did it my usual way: blindly ordering all parts, hoping for the best. I know thats quite ballsy, considering we want to spend several years on those bikes. But in the end, there was no choice regarding the parts anyways (thanks to this limited ressource called money). 

You can imagine, both of us were really nervous before our first rides. Luckily, without any reason. Miri and I are really pleased by geometry and handling characteristics. After a small adjustment for Miri (we bought a shorter stem), both of us could sit on those bikes for ages.

Downhill it lays heavily on the street, it feels rather like a motorbike than a bicycle. Maybe because the fork is 25mm heigher than the original fork, the bike runs very straight-lined at the usual speeds (above ~15km/h), if you decelerate below, it steers very quickly, ideal if you want avoid potholes. Yes, they are heavy (Eselchen was weighted slightly above 16, Kalle is guessed maybe around 18kg), but the feeling of rigidity is awesome, especially when descending on bad roads.

Kalle fully loaded in Croatia.

Thats all, folks!

 I hope you liked the explanation, don't hesitate to leave your thoughts below (e.g. what you would do different, how you like the bikes, or the amount of coffee you needed to read the whole page ).

  

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