Ultralight bicycle touring

Ultralight bicycle touring

Books. No books! Paper is extremely heavy with respect to its usefulness. Read your tourist

Books. No books! Paper is extremely heavy with respect to its usefulness. Read your tourist guide before the trip and leave it at home. The only thing that I need from a guidebook on the trip are maps of towns. I photocopy these or tear them off the guide – there is no place for sentimentality here. On a long trip it is sometimes nice to have something to read. When this mood hits me, I stay a day or two in some hostel where they have books to lend.

Ultralight bicycle touringDigital cameras. I’m not an expert in digital photography and am a classical fan myself, but from the volume/weight point of view I’d reccommend the use of digital cameras. Old style SLR film cameras are 3-6 times heavier than digital ones. The spare batteries/charger that you’ll need for digital cameras are in the weight class of spare films for SLRs. You are looking at about 500 g of saving here, minimum, not to mention the volume.

On the picture to the left you’ll see also an evolution of a baterry recharging cable, the leftmost one can be used on any kind of plugs.

P.S. I wrote this paragraph few years ago and now it is obsolete: nobody uses film cameras any more. However, you can read it as “compact versus DSLR” musing. With regard to weight and bulk DSLRs are a huge step backward from compact cameras. And to those of you why prefer the DSLRs because of their superior picture quality, I say: tell me that when you make your first poster print or publish an article in National Geographics.

Locks. My philosophy for securing the bike is to have it always in sight. On few occasions when it is not possible, I lock it with the small cable lock to a solid object – and hope for the best. I assume that any kind of lock can be broken, so you might as well have the smallest and lightest lock, just to prevent any passer-by taking your bike. As you can see on the picture I use now a small cable with combination lock (48 g). The cable is just thick enought that you can’t break it with your teeth – unless you are a character from James Bond movies. This means that you’ll need a tool to break the lock. But if you are determined to steal the bike to the point that you brought the tool, then you’ll break any kind of lock.

Cycling jersey. Make a good use of cycling jersey’s pockets. They are ideal carriers: light, aerodinamic, accessible on the fly. You can store 200 to 300 grams there – possibly everything you need while riding on an average day. Some additional stuff can be tucked under the leggings of cycling shorts.

Bicycle frame. Lot of stuff can be taped on various parts of the frame. I usualy tape less frequently used items to the frame: spare tubes, spare tyre, spare spokes, canisters with oil and sun screen, duckt tape, pump, light, lock. This reduces the stress on the racks a bit and more importantly reduces the volume of your stuff bags, so you may end up by using smaller stuff bags in the end.

Cockpit, Canada 2009.

Cockpit. Here is a picture of my cockpit with the underseat bag used on handlebar. There are several interesting things here. The underseat bag is attached to the handlebar with three velcro straps (two at the top are seen). The handles of the bag zippers are replaced by pieces of (blue) fabric – this might have saved 0,5 grams, more importantly this eliminates the rattle of the zipper handles. The spare tube is taped to the head tube. A small cable lock (48 g) is put around the spare tube and serves as a protection against the fricton on the bag-to-spare tube interface. On rough roads this friction will puncture your spare tube if not protected! The mirror is on the inside, so the bike can be leaned against the wall or layed down freely. The computer is on the stem, so that it doesn’t take up precious space on the handlebar. Additional brake levers could have been removed, they are usually not used much. They are, however, useful on long or steep dowhills, especially on gravel, when they provide additional position to prevent fingers becoming numb from braking.

Maps. Cut your maps and leave parts that are not on your itinerary. You can save up to 150 grams, an amazing amount for a single object. Again, no sentimentality here – train your relentlessness, you’ll need it on a trip.

Digital maps / cue sheets. In my recent trips (India, Alps, Australia, …) I experimented a bit with a “no-map” approach. What I did was to make notes of the towns, directions, distances and road numbers, all on a small card (10×6 cm) which I plastified and wore in the back pocket of the cycling jersey. It saved me a little weight (~50 g), but the main benefit was that I didn’t need big handlebarbag to store the map. I also was not distracted by taking out, unfolding, looking at, folding and storing back the map, and that probably gave me advantage of a few kms per day. This approach really works for me and I don’t think I’ll be taking maps any more. But what really surprized me was the fact that I didn’t use the card too much either – it looks like that one can comfortably cycle around the world without any kind of map or navigation tool, other than the knowledge of few town names. See “Digital Maps” for more detail. The plastified cue sheet can be used as a tool too – for example to scrap off the ice from the tent walls.

Water bottles. Cycling water bottles – what a waste. They weigh 70 to 100 grams and give you at most 0,75 l volume. Throw them away and use plastic bottles, 1L or 1,5L (weight less than 50 g). You may not need the second bottle cage (another 80 g saved) or, alternatively, cut the second plastic water bottle in half, and use it as a very light and waterproof container for assorted items.
Some of the 1L PVC bottles are particulary resistent to wear. One particular bottle is lasting me 3 tours now – so long that it became my pet.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need special, long bottle cages for 1L or 1.5L bottles. Ordinary road-bicyles’ alu or even carbon fiber cages are perfectly OK.

Camera film container. Use plastic boxes for camera film as a container for liquid or loose objects such as tooth paste, sun screen, detergent, chain oil, grease, bolts and nuts. The box weighs 5 grams, less than any original container. Besides, you don’t need the whole tube of chain oil or tooth paste for one month, do you?

Dish washing cloth. Take dish washing cloth (chamois) instead of a towel. It’s another ~50 grams saved. Wrap it around wet clothes and sqeeze to dry them. It is also usefull for wiping the condesation from the inside of your small tent in the morning and refreshing your face with it afterwards. We don’t use big tents with vestibules and other luxuries here – a tent heavier than 1500 grams is out of the question!

Nylon stockings. Use women’s nylon stockings (cut, of course) as arm or leg warmers and save on a long cycling trousers – an enormous weight and space saving. Don’t let prejudice interfere with your principles. If there’s not a trace of transvestite in you, wear them under regular trousers or rain pants. They are usefull as sun-screen for the arms and legs too: you can forget about that mix of sweat, sun-screen and dirt on your body, that you were so proud of during your “self-sufficient” stage.

Tools & spares – Canada, 2009.

Tools and spares. The amount of these depend on particular destination. The “core” tools are: pump, 2 tyre levers, 2, 4, 5 and 6 mm allen keys, spoke key, 2 razor blades, small flat screwdriver and 15 mm pedal spanner (cut in half). The “core” spares are patch kit, 1 spare tube, about 1 m of duckt tape and a little bottle (or a film canister) with a bit of chain oil. This core weighs about 300 grams (picture). I’d take only core tools and spares on a tour lasting up to a week or even more if I travel in an area with high density of good bike shops (e.g. Europe, North America). Additional tools and spares for any type of tour are: chain tool, a bit more of duck tape, few zip-ties, second spare tube and emergency spoke (170 grams). I take a hypercracker, 2 spare spokes and spare tyre when I expect very tough roads in very remote areas (220 grams).

So far this worked well for me. I don’t take tools for major repairs such as hub, bottom bracket or derailleur repair, as my experience teaches me that I have marginal probablity of using them. The same goes for brake and gear cables and I even find spare brake shoes unnecessary, since they wear down so slowly (same 2 pairs for 16000 km now). If anything happens to my bike that I could fix if I had the tool, I am positive I’d be able to improvise and (slowly) cycle to the first bicycle/hardware repair store anywhere in the world to get it fixed.

Tools & spares – Vietnam/China 2013.
100 g lighter then the kit from 2009.

I’d advise against using multitools: they are heavier then wisely selected separate tools, many of their parts are never used (or useless) or are awkward to use. (I changed the mind about multitools; some may be good: see the discussion in Equipment reviews page /Tools). If you can, modify the bolts and nuts on your bike so that you need as little different tools as possible. I’d also strongly advise to educate yourself as much as possible in bicycle repair. If you know how things work it’s easier to improvise. The list of the tasks (in order of importance) that I had to deal with on tours is: adjusting handlebar and sadle position, replacing pedals, fixing a flat, cleaning and oiling the chain, adjusting derailers, adjusting brakes, truing the wheel, replacing a spoke on the drive side of the rear wheel, adjusting the headset, building the wheel from scratch with just a spoke key, making a tyre boot. In addition, you may find instructive if you tried: changing the cables, adjusting hubs, changing the bottom bracket. See the Sheldon Brown’s site for the procedures. As a curiosity: I had to go to the repair shop (other then to borrow a tool) only once so far – and even then the problem did not happen during the ride: my bike fell off the speeding bus. Knock on wood!

Lightening the bike. Once you’ve cut down your gear to roughly 8 kg, it’s time to start thinking about lightening your bike. Saving weight on components is quite expensive thing. If you buy completely new bike it’s roughly 100 EUR per 100 grams less. It easy to remember: 1 gram less = 1 Euro. Buying components separately would mean even more. So, I suggest to change to lighter components when old ones wear down or are not adequate. Some hints: Get a lighter rear rack. Since you have little load, you don’t need heavy duty racks. This is relatively cheap and could save you up to 200 g. If you don’t use panniers (as I reccommend), you can saw off the unnecessary rack struts whose only function is to keep the pannier from hitting the spokes. Get a shorter seat post – or cut the old one. Narrower tyres. Folding kevlar beaded tyres instead of wire-beaded ones (up to 100 g less for 2). Replace quick-release skewers with allen-key ones, it may save you up to 100 g. Lighter front wheel: the original front wheel is usually the same as rear one, but is far less stressed. If you can, modify the bolts and nuts on your bike so that you need as little different tools as possible.
The big opportunity for weight saving comes when you decide to buy a new bike. There are essentially two approaches: either you decide to build your bike from the components you choose (custom made bike) or to buy off-the-peg bike. Custom made bikes will probably be optimal for the intended purpose, but also much more expensive. I am inclined toward the second option. My choice would probably be a light weight aluminuim road bike with compact double 50/34 crankset. You could get a bike like that, with 10 speed 12-28 cassette (lowest gear ratio 34/28=1,21) and Ultegra or 105 group, weighing 8 kg, for 1000 to 1300 Euros. The main thing to look for is that it has tire clearance for (at least) 28 mm tires. I’d change the cassete to include 30 or 32 biggest cog, so that the lowest gear ratio is 34/30=1,13 or 34/32=1,06, both of it being lower than my current 30/26=1,15. I’d run it with 8-speed chain, since it requires less maintenance. I’d also need adapters to fix the rear rack to the axle. If you are really crazy about weight saving, you might change the big ring with something like 48 or 46, remove the front derailleur and shifter cables and replace front shifter/brake combo with front brake. You will then use mostly the big ring, and shift to the small  ring with your hand or foot only on steep hills. That’s what the Cranes did when they rode across Tibet two decades ago.
Or you may buy a 6,5 kg CF bike with Dura Ace and ride with 22-622 tires. Anything is possible.

2010, RSA.

Little tricks. One of the side benefits out of the ultralight weight cycling is the fact that you start to think  how the things work, or how to improve them. You will start experimenting, and apart from keeping your brain bussy, you’ll most likely come up with some minor or major solutions that you’ll be proud of. The picture shows a few minor tricks which I like, even though I won’t get a Nobel prize for them.

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