Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kiwi Brevet kit evaluation 2014

Here is some gear geekage and ramblings from my 2014 Kiwi Brevet, recorded in no particular order. A few people have asked for a list of kit, but lists are pretty boring so here are some of my views on different bits.

Ayup with the large battery
Lights
I used the older Ayup lights with the weaker bulbs and run them with the multi-strength battery (on low) to draw even less power. If Ayup made a light with a single bulb I would probably use that instead. For the 4 and a half days of this years Kiwi Brevet I used only 1 and a half of the smaller Ayup batteries, although I also had another of the larger batteries spare. This was riding to the letter of the law and having 6 hours a day resting. Lighting demands for Bikepacking are not great, because generally you are not going that fast. If you had to have only one light, as I did, its best mounted on your head as it can be a big help when setting up and breaking camp in the dark, as it often is, when you are riding 18 hours a day : ) In a world where the electrical items you buy can often end up as landfill within months, the Ayups are the most resilient piece of electrical kit I have ever owned. The lamp and large battery above was purchased in 2008.

GPS
Garmin Etrex 20
My Garmin Etrex 20 was great and with judicious usage I only went through 1 set of batteries which died in the last few kms of the last day. The Etrex 20 was recommended to me by Geoff Blanc after the 2nd Kiwi Brevet because:
1 - It has the longest burn time of any modern GPS, (25 hrs).
2 - The batteries are replaceable, (I used 2 x lithium AA's, the same as my camera took). It is not the most intuitive GPS at first, and it does not have all the flash online connectivity of the later models, but it does the basics well. The best comparison would be like comparing your old Nokia bar cell phone to a modern smart phone. You know which one is going to have the better battery life and be the most robust.

Spot trackers
The spot tracker I had used the AAA lithiums and for me lasted the whole 4.5 days. I had another set spare.

Camera
A simple one bought from Cash converters running on AA lithiums, same as the GPS.

Phone
Samsung Galaxy S2 with a spare $35 chinese battery bank, good for maybe 1.5 charges. Probably for weight and bulk reasons a couple of spare phone batteries would be another option. The phone was really there for social media purposes, email-to-blog/FaceBook/Twitter and got very little usage.

As you can see there are a lot of batteries in there, and batteries are heavy. If you were not interested in recording your trip you could save a fair bit of weight. Maps are also heavy and take up a lot of room as well, so if you have faith in electronics then you can save on some bulk. I think Thomas Lindup went fully electronic with an Iphone with solar powered battery-pack, as did Simon Morton, and a few others experimented with solar charging with differing degrees of success.

The bulk of it
Look at a loaded bike, visually at least half of the luggage you are looking at is your sleeping kit.

Sleeping bag, bivvy sack and bedroll on the front. The rest on the back.

Tent/bivvy sack, sleeping bag/liner and sleeping roll/mat. Its a lot of bulk and usually takes up one whole end of your bike. If you are confident in your pre-booked accommodation and your ability to get there  (be wary of accommodation anxiety - stress caused by trying to meet a predestined location at a certain time)  you can drop all this kit. That is not something I would do or recommend, but for a seasoned campaigner in a hurry, or a novice on a cruisey schedule it is definitely an option. Part of the allure of Bikepacking for me is the idea of being self sufficient, but that's just my take. If you are not as fit, then credit-card touring is a great way to get started. Even if you are traveling light you should still have an emergency blanket, rain coat and a puffer jacket in my view.

Luxury
I have a bit of a phobia about getting saddle soils (a boil) so I always take spare shorts, and a top, and antiseptic soap, and wash the used clothes each evening alternating with fresh ones. Some people don't bother, but many of them have their own special "procedure" to insure that nothing untoward happens in the nether regions. Apparently there has been a lot written about this area but I haven't come across it yet, if I find anything I will link to it. Veteran Endurance record holder Jay Petervary did the Tour Divide on the one pair of shorts..... I also met several people doing the Kiwi Brevet who did not even use any chamois cream !

Saddles
The famous Brooks B-17 .
Is it all it's made out to be?
How much you enjoy your bike packing experience can often come down to how well your butt reacts. It's pretty hard to train for the kind of a work-out its going to get, because issues don't really start until after a couple of days. Unless you are doing two-day training rides you are not really going to know what to expect. One thing that seems to be consistent, 95% of the people using the Brooks saddles seem to have minimal problems, if any. Either that or they don't want to admit that the expensive heavy saddle they bought is a dud!  It appears the most popular Brooks saddle is the B-17. The weight of these saddles is what puts most people off them, and not surprisingly, at around 500 grams that's about double the weight of most saddles. But put another way, its only about the weight of a small water bottle. And if it means you don't get a sore bum then I'm pretty sure at day 3 you'd be happy to have one.

Brooks saddle owners do tend to rave about them a bit and Brooks try sell the whole Olde Worlde british culture of the bicycle thing. It's a bit like having pet Seamonkeys. You have to feed them the special Brooks proofide and put on the special seat cover in the rain etc. I'm not sure how many people actually do this  : )  Everyone has a favourite saddle but in my experience so far, after 3 days most bums are mincemeat. I will be trying a Brooks next time. I recently brought a Brooks Swift, and after the breaking in period, going back to my original brevet saddle, a Specialized Toupe, I couldnt believe how terrible the Toupe felt, and that was my second favourite seat to my Fizik Gobi !

Bikes
Rigid vs hardtail vs fully. I have have tried both extremes, twice in the Kiwi Brevet I have used a 26inch full suspension bike, (Santa Cruz Superlight) and this last time I used a rigid drop-barred 29er (Surly Karate Monkey). No matter what you use, at some stage, someone else will always be on a better option. They all have their pros and cons. As I get older I am thinking the plushness of a fully has its advantages, and next time I will be on a fully 29er, although a hardtail 29er would probably be just about as good.

The hard-core bikepackers tend to favour fully rigid 29er bikes because they are lighter, and potentially simpler, but New Zealand has some terrain that is a lot more fun on a suspended bike, and I personally have never felt that having a heavier bike slowed me down in any way. I think there has to be a pretty big weight differential between two bikes in order for it to make a difference. While there are some steep pinches in the Kiwi Brevet, its not like you are grovelling uphill for 3 hours at a time in your granny gear. One way of limiting weight is to not carry so much water. This is the exact opposite of what I do. I will have 3 or 4 bottles and they will be full most of the time. Not that intelligent, but safe. This contrasts with my Kiwi Brevet riding partner Brian who would take minimal water on, because he was confident in his ability to pick safe streams to drink out of, and would even go as far as to not full his bottles up at the bottom of a climb if he knew there was a stream on the other side. Knowledge is power : )

See below some bike weights from Team Voodoo Lounge. All of these guys had done at least one Kiwi Brevet before except Calum, and Simon, and Simon doesn't muck about and did hours of gear testing, research and tire squeezing.

18 kgs. Thomas, rigid, carbon
20 kgs. Andy, hardtail alloy
21 kgs. Jeff, rigid, steel, drop-barred
22 kgs, Calum, hardtail, alloy
22 kgs, Simon, hardtail, alloy
27 kgs, Tor, rigid alloy.

These weights are "dry" for bikes, minus the full water-bottles and and back-packs people might have been wearing, but with all bags attached. From memory all the bikes were 29ers. Compare these weights to Dave Sharpe's disc equipped Carbon Cyclo-cross Hakkalugi which weighed in at 12.4 kgs. It takes a very motivated person to want to ride hours of gnarly single-track on 33 millimetre tyres though. The plus side is when you hit the gravel or tar-seal its game-on!

Bars
Salsa Woodchipper, trimmed .
I think Tor and Simon were running Jones H-bar styled set-ups while everyone else was on more standard flat-bars, except for my Salsa Woodchipper drop-bar. If you were to ride 1000kms in 4-5 days with just a set of flat bars, then there is no doubt you would do some damage, at least temporarily, to your hands in the way of numbness. A sensible bare minimum is a flat bar with bar-ends, but a very good addition is an aero bar which can also be used to tie a front bag onto. Basically you just need a couple of different positions to rest your hands. A drop-bar or a Jones H-bar offers many positions and the Jones bar has plenty of mount points for electronic gizmos and bags. On a drop-bar you will have to run road-style brake/shifters while on a Jones you can run standard MTB stuff. There are a lot more variations in handlebars out there today than there were a couple of years ago. For drop-bar usuage SRAM is actually the best in my view, as all their road kit has the same cable pull as their MTB stuff. Shimano on the other hand seems to have gone out of their way to make stuff incompatible between road and off-road on their later stuff.


Tyres
Tyres are a very personal thing and can be the cause of much frustration.I saw several people who suffered catastrophic tire delaminations. This shouldn't happen, but if it is ever going to happen, it will happen on the Kiwi Brevet where you are exposed to all kinds of wildly varying terrain. Be wary that some tyres are not supposed to be used with tubeless sealant in them. I was very very happy with my Stans Ravens which are a very light tire that roll amazingly fast. To look at them offers no clue as to their speed and grip. I wouldn't choose a tire based on weight, but rolling resistance can be a big thing. My only gripe was that I spent so much time making my non-tubeless rims, tubeless-ready, and to then suffer a sidewall pin-prick puncture in the North Bank rock garden. Remember that tubeless tires only really self-seal on punctures that happen on the "bottom" of the tire, not the sidewall.

One set-up that really impressed me was that of Peter Maindonald who ran UST rims with burly UST tires that he could air up with a hand-pump. No risks there. Obviously you always take a couple of spare tubes and a pump that wont unwind your tubeless valve-cores when you undo it. Either that or you make sure the cores are done up tight. Some people will take one full size tube and one a 26er which are a lot smaller and lighter but will fit in an emergency. I always take two tire boots made from old road tires and usually end up giving one to someone else.

Peter Maindonalds rig. Well-specced and it felt very balanced and light.

The unforeseen
I had a few issues, some of which were possibly my own fault. I used a set of pedals that were not really up to the task, and when one of them imploded while riding up the steepest sealed section of the course I was very lucky to salvage my ride due to the kindness of a local at Arthurs Pass. Had I been riding shimano SPDs I could have just plonked on one of his, but I wasn't. I was on Crank Bros Candys so I was more than happy to throw a flat pedal with toe-clips on my left side and get moving again. The next day in the technical single track of the Wharfdale I was unlucky to flick up a branch which snagged in my drive-train and mangled my rear derailler. Fortunately my Karate Monkey had horizontal drop-outs, so I was able to single-speed the frame and do the next day and a half in one gear at a time. If I was on my Santa Cruz Superlight, I would have just torn off my hanger, which is a sacrifical point on those frames, which would have saved my derailleur. I always travel with a spare hanger. You'd be silly not to if you have the option. The adaptability of the Karate Monkey definitely saved my butt for sure. There are emergency derailler hangers that can also be packed.

Injuries
For the first time ever in the Kiwi Brevet I got really bad Achilles pain. I still dont know why. I was probably fitter than I had been before but there were too many variables. An extra 70kms riding a day. Different pedals, a different bike, different shoes, different bars. It started on day two so it wasn't the toe-clip or the single-speeding to blame. It took me 3 months to recover fully, doing stretches twice a day, so you don't want to go there.

Old tried and true stuff
The bullet-proof  Freeload rack. Unbreakable. The 3/4s Thermarest sleeping mat was rock solid, although I lusted after Steves one, which looked like this. It was insanely light and looked as comfy as hell. Brian pointed out that his cheap foam bedroll was a lot lighter than mine, but it also stuck out in the air a fair bit creating a bit of drag in my view.  My simple bivvy sack did its job but we were lucky to have good weather.

See below Simon's tent which folded down to nothing and did not stick out in the wind too much when packed on his bike.

Simon does a tent test pre-brevet. Tor and Thomas give advice. It looks a lot more luxurious than my bivvy sack : )
Til next time!

If you want to know more about the event that inspired the Kiwi Brevet, (the Tour Divide), then follow the trackers here as it the main event is happening right now. 27/06/2014. There are currently a couple of Kiwis in the top 10. The gossip can be found on the forum here.

If you are interested in doing the full length of New Zealand equivalent to the Tour Divide in 2016, then go here http://touraotearoa.blogspot.co.nz/