The following is a description of essential and non-essential instruments we
keep handy on our touring bikes, including:
-cyclocomputers on each bike
-an altimeter to measure elevation and accumulated elevation gain
-a simple incline indicator
-a small compass
-a mechanical wind gauge
A cycling computer with speedometer, odometer, clock, and average speed displays is a must for most cyclotourists. Aside from the speedometer answering burning questions like: "How fast am I going downhill?" or "How slowly am I creeping up hill?" the odometer feature is an essential navigational aid. Road signs aren't always where they are needed and comparing the measured the distance between turns with the map can be all that keeps you on course during the day. Knowing what percentage of the day's ride has been completed can also clarify if there is time to linger at lunch or if getting back in the saddle is a a priority.
The average speed feature can be useful too on days when things aren't going well. Knowing the impartial computation of your actual average speed can aid in making realistic predictions, like if you'll make it to your planned destination before dark or if a "Plan B" should be activated.
I love cadence indicators on cyclometers but gave mine up as they just weren't durable enough for touring abroad. Knowing your cadence, or the number of times you push your pedals around in 1 minute, can be extremely important in managing knee problems. It's counterintuitive for most of us, but it is actually easier on your knees if the pedals go around more times in a minute rather than fewer times. More revolutions means less force through the knee with each revolution and more split-second rests for the knee in each minute while the other knee is in its power phase. 80-90 revolutions per minute (rpm) is a good target for most of us, with even higher cadence being desirable.
I have knee challenges on and off the bike and learning to maintain a high cadence was the key to me becoming a long distance cyclist. We quickly learned that my bike had to be geared rock-bottom low so I could still achieve a high cadence even when climbing. If I spend much time on a climb in the 70 rpm or less range, I'm guaranteed rapidly swelling knees.
I rode for years with a cadence indicator and reluctantly gave it up when my computer immediately failed when we arrived in Europe. If your computer fails and you can't find the same brand in a bike shop then you are stuck rewiring the bike for the new brand, as we were. We finally settled on using CatEye computers without cadence as they last for years and can be replaced in Europe. Fortunately, pedaling with high cadence has become habituated in my body so it is now workable for me to be without the feature on my computer.
In the past we considered an altimeter, or elevation gauge, an entertaining novelty but it has moved up to the "Must Have" category of cycling instruments--we now consider an altimeter a safety device for loaded touring. We use an old version of the Suunto brand "Atlimax" that is designed to be worn as a wrist watch. It has lots of fancy functions but we only use it for measuring elevation and accumulated elevation gain. The Vetta brand has a cyclocomputer with an altimeter function, as may some other brands.
Altimeters measure the change in barometric pressure as your elevation rises and falls and reports it as elevation gain. In addition to the change in pressure with change in elevation, it is of course also responding to pressure changes with the passing weather systems so it is inherently inaccurate. Knowing its limits, we rely on it for round numbers, not exact numbers.
But on any given day the relative numbers of accumulated elevation gain can be extremely helpful to us. If we are doing a day-long, sustained climb in the Alps, knowing the accumulating gain helps us pace ourselves. We factor the estimated percentage of a climb we have completed into decisions about when to stop and rest, when to eat, and whether we need to stay disciplined or can kick-back a bit. And when one is nearing the end of his or hers energy stores for a climb, knowledge of how much climbing remains helps in judging how to tinker with the mind and the body to complete the climb.
Even more important than a day's gain is tracking our weekly accumulated gain with the altimeter data. We log each day's gain and keep a running weekly average on the database function of a handheld computer (though a piece of paper would also do the job). Experience has taught us that 15,000' gain is about our limit with loaded bikes. If we attempt more than 15,000' in a week, we are at risk of running out of steam part way through a climb. I am sure we could push past that point if it were a necessity, but we always strive to leave ourselves a reserve of strength and will power for emergencies. So, when we see that we are bumping up against the magic 15,000' accumulated elevation gain, we know it is time to plan in a rest day or a couple of shorter days that will accumulate less gain. In some areas the maps aren't sufficiently detailed to accurately predict what the gain will be on a given route so we are left with erring on the cautious side of 15,000'.
Tracking gain is also very reassuring. Almost daily we play the game of "Guess how many feet we've climbed so far" and even with years of experience we are often wildly off the mark. It is a difficult element to estimate if you are going up and down or have your attention distracted by traffic. There are days when I have felt so disproportionately sore or fatigued that I wondered if I was ill and usually the explanation was that we had already climbed many more feet than I realized. Realigning my perceptions of effort with the reality of the effort helps immensely in the psychological aspects of long distance riding. Equally useful is knowing if the miles ridden and gain accumulated don't explain my fatigue--indeed I may either be deeply fatigued or succumbing to a bug--both of which must be allowed for if we are to travel safely.
Our newest instrument--the inclinometer--was an instant hit. It is like a bicycle handlebar-sized carpenter's level using a floating bubble to indicate the steepness of the grade at a given moment. So simple and yet so sweet. Unlike the altimeter and cyclocomputer, it is strictly a mechanical device with no recording capacity so you have to keep an eye on it to collect the data. I suppose I could get along without one, but I'd rather not.
Like the altimeter, the inclinometer has both novelty value and it helps answer the question; "Why do I feel so bad?" Riding in the Scottish Highlands in 2004 gave us a new regard for the usefulness of the inclinometer. There we rode so many incredibly steep pitches that our ability to judge them was trashed. Some days we rode 20-30 grades over 10%, some of them topping out at 15% and even 20%. Without the device, we never would have believed what those hills were really dishing out and the oscillations up and down the ridiculously steep grades were exceedingly exhausting.
On those steep Highland's climbs the altimeter only told the story of the total gain, not how we acquired it. And climbing 300' on 3% grades or 15% grades feels wildly different in your body, both 10 minutes later and 2 days later. Knowing that we were cycling at an entirely new level of effort helped keep us from becoming totally demoralized and illustrated that total gain and total mileage were insufficient for monitoring total effort expended in some unusual terrains.
The inclinometer's information was also an invaluable aid that assisted Bill as he kept touring in those Highland hills during almost all of his 2 month recovery from a painful knee injury. He was only able to ride short distances in the flats his first days back in the saddle but slowly, he was able to add more challenge to his days. Using the grade information, along with accumulated distance and elevation gain, he was able closely monitor both the stress to his knee and his progress. Once he was able to start pedaling up the steeper slopes, I rode ahead and called out the changes in the increasing grade. He selected a maximum grade based on previous day's experience and how his knee was currently feeling and then pushed his bike up anything steeper than his pre-selected limit for the day. Being on unfamiliar routes made it much more difficult to ride with prudence for his recovering knee but the inclinometer's measurements allowed Bill to successfully rehabilitate by riding without re-injuring his knee.
We purchased our inclinometer at a travel book and map store in The Netherlands but it is available in the US at a higher price. It can be ordered from a cycling organization's website: www.adventurecycling.org/store from their "cyclestore catalog". Look for the Sky-Mounti Inclinometer for $25. Another company's product is also available in some bike shops in the US that sells for around $20 and the grade function is included in one of Vetta's cyclocomputers and perhaps others.
A compass is at the top of most people's list of "Must Have" instruments, but we have only recently toured with one. Bill's keen sense of direction and close tracking of our course on his maps made a compass unimportant. But keeping one handy on my handlebars has allowed him to be more laid back in his map-monitoring. And of course, it is helpful on those days when the sun he uses to orient is seemingly absent from the sky.
We don't use elaborate, orienteering-styled compasses but instead low-end, coin-sized products. And we quickly discovered that a little compass is just as useful when emerging from the depths of big-city metro as it is on the back roads on a bike. I now keep a tiny compass just peeking out of my fanny pack so it's always ready to point us in the right direction when on foot in the cities.
Our wind gauge is the only instrument that is just for fun. It does help with the psychological struggles of exertion but of all the variables that make pedaling hard, high winds are the most straightforward to assess. One can cycle for years without encountering treacherous winds, but when you do get blasted by them, it's entertaining to know what you've been through. We carried our wind gauge in 2004 and got hit with winds that went off the end of the 45 mph scale both on the Spanish mesa and in the Scottish Highlands. Using the wind gauge also taught us that it doesn't take big winds to make us whimper--even 10 mph headwinds are worthy of whining.
Our wind gauge is made by "ALP" or "Anderson-Leuck Products" of California. It is lightweight, compact and durable but a little tricky to use. A Scottish hiker said he had one that didn't top out at 45 mph but didn't bring his out for "Show & Tell" so we know nothing else about it.
That's it for our touring gadgetry. Let us know if you have something that we've been missing out on.