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#3 Nerd News - Bikes

 Previous email: "2 Nerd News – Communications" on 3/23/03
This is the second half of the Nerd News edition intended for mailing in 2002 but that got bogged down in the editing phase. It’s not nearly as tedious as the previous Nerd News on making calls and connecting to the internet when overseas. The primary topic is bike equipment issues though we begin with a brief description of our hotel cooking routine.

Hotel cooking on the sly.


Tools and technics for covert cooking in the room and leaving no trace:   

 Non-cooking accessories we carry:   


We, and especially Bill, our official trip bike mechanic (and Team Doctor, Map Man, MIS Director, and exceptional companion) are learning more than we wished to know about bike glitches on our travels. Of course, our biggie was the cracked rim in the hills of Turkey, which was covered in the premier issue of Nerd News last year.

  A less catastrophic problem than the rim crack but just as demoralizing was the inner tube seam-separation problem where, after about a year of use our expensive, extra heavy-duty inner tubes started fraying at the seam. We had 4 flats in 2-3 months, exclusively because of the zigzag seam separating, not from punctures. Fortunately, they were unspectacular slow leaks and not big-bang blow-outs. I haven’t had a puncture or pinch flat for several years, only defective tube flats.

  We have also learned some new lessons about monitoring tire wear. We are accustomed to looking at remaining tire tread to decide when to replace our tires, like you do on a car. But we have learned the hard way that especially for our front tires that tread wear is a less reliable indicator than side wall deterioration. The front tires get substantially less wear than the back tires because by design, more of the weight of the rider and the gear is on the rear tire. We can get about twice the miles out of a front tire than a rear, based on tread life. (And being about 35 pounds lighter, I get more miles out of my rear tires than Bill.)

   But during our travels, the front tire sidewalls start breaking down from the UV exposure before the treads got thin. The UV exposure causes the sidewalls to crack. These cracks aren’t deep, blow-out threatening cracks but are very superficial. Amazingly, these innocent, dry-skin looking cracks add an unwelcome wobble to the roll of the wheel. (I thought Bill had too much UV exposure himself when he came up with this theory and bought a new tire because of it. But a Salzburg bike shop owner volunteered the same information.) So, at least while we travel in sunny climates and have our bikes outdoors many more hours a day than at home, sidewall inspection has moved up to the top of the list as a critical indicator for tire replacement.

  The potency of the UV damage dramatically showed up on my homemade front pannier covers and the handlebar bag made of the same rip-stop fabric. The handlebar bag is on the bike all the time (like the tires), and the pannier covers come off when we pull into camp and the covers don’t go out on day rides with us. I wouldn’t have believed it, but in as little as 2 months the handlebar bag turned a soft peachy color in some areas while the pannier covers were still a bright red. That little bit of continuous, additional UV exposure that the bag gets everyday and on the occasional unloaded rides has apparently amounted to a significant different in UV exposure. So, I guess those RV’ers aren’t just being anal when they cover up their tires in campgrounds. 

  And we do believe it is the UV and not over-inflation degradation that is cracking our tires. At the urging of more experienced riders, in the past we would inflate our tires beyond the recommended psi for decreased rolling resistance. But then we noticed some sidewall delamination and gave up the practice several years ago. That’s why we were so surprised at the sidewalls cracking, as we knew we hadn’t been pushing the psi on these tires.


Supple Rubbers

 Our tin-ears never warranted buying hi-end audio equipment and we also didn’t think that we were refined enough riders to appreciate supple rubber between us and the road, but we may be wrong. Eric, the Bike Store owner in Salzburg, Austria, had nothing good to say about our tires or tubes when he replaced them and had a special litany for my Turkish tire. “Too stiff, too rigid, no flex, doesn’t roll well….” And all I had worried about with my $2.50 tire was getting flats. He just shook his head at our tubes and we couldn’t tell whether it was their inherent nature that he objected to or just the defective seaming. “Michelin’s” are what he and other Euro bike shops have touted over and over again. We could care about brand name snobbery, as flat resistance and reliability are our gold standards. But we bowed to his wisdom and let him install Michelin tubes with our 4 replacement Conti ‘Goliath’ tires we had special ordered through him. We thought it all rather amusing esoterica ‘til we got out and road on our new rubbers and “Man, are they ever smooooth!”

 “It’s like, like when we clean up the drive train and get the grit out of the cassettes, pulleys, and chain and get fresh lube on the new or clean chain.” Our supple rubbers gave us smooth, quiet riding that we had forgotten was possible. We giggle and grin at the extra bit of ease that gets put back into our riding with a clean-up or these new tubes and tires.

 All of a sudden, we were in the connoisseur-class. Unfortunately, we don’t know if the supple-rubber sensation is from the new tubes or the tires or a combination of the two.

Both front tires had a lot of good tread on them, but the side walls were cracked from the UV exposure, which is enough to eventually cause some wobble with each wheel rotation.  Perhaps that crackling is also associated with some stiffening of the rubber. And the quality of the back tire Bill put on his bike in Italy was apparently comparable to my Turkey rear tire, though his was 3 times the price. There was nothing to brag about in any of our rolling stock when we showed up in Salzburg.

 So another lesson learned, but unfortunately, we aren’t quite sure what it is. Is it the tubes or the tires or both? And how do we shop for suppleness? And does greater suppleness mean decreased flat resistance? We’d love to hear from any of you that have experience or opinions on this or any of our other topics.

 About 4 months later Bill had our first flat with our new Michelin tubes and he got to learn yet another lesson. We are always very methodical in our tire patching technic, but the drizzle and settling in of dusk prodded Bill to skip one step: lightly abrading the tube surface with the sandpaper provided in the patch kit. It’s a step we always do, but know that many people skip it. When Bill had let the 2 coats of vulcanizing agent (looks like glue) dry, he applied the patch. Normally, the patch adheres nicely, and that’s that. But this time the patch adhered to the vulcanizing agent alright, but the agent and patch neatly slid off of the tube when he applied pressure—was he ever surprised! He bagged any further efforts with that tube for the moment, dug out our spare tube, and packed up the punctured tube for study indoors. (Fortunately I had found lodging for the night while he was having this poorly timed learning experience.)

  In brighter light the Michelin tube’s surface didn’t look much different than other tubes. But when we pressed a thumb to the surface and dragged it for several inches, a waxy residue balled up on the tube. The ritual of roughing the tube surface before patching now looked like a necessity and not just folklore. Indeed, the patch adhered just fine after he did the sandpaper treatment. So, if you have a new tube and are tempted to skip the sandpaper, at least check the surface first for a waxy residue.



  As we were riding into Salzburg, Austria, Bill’s front wheel started clicking and making unsettling noises. The clicks got louder and louder and he got more and more worried. We stopped numerous times to confirm that it wasn’t a lose bolt on the rack, some noise related to his pannier or handlebar bag, or his headset disintegrating. He became convinced that it was his front bearing, but couldn’t imagine why it would be failing as it looked great when he repacked all the bearings in Rhodes, Greece a few months ago.

  On our way into town, we stopped to buy lighter fluid at a ‘Tabac’ (cigarette) shop to clean the grease out of the bearings. Bill opened up the bearings expecting to find broken bits and pieces of metal, but it looked fine and the grease was as pristine as it should have been. He used an Allen wrench as a makeshift axle and rolled the suspect bearing and a spare bearing back and forth under as much load as he could apply. There was a subtle but distinct difference in the smoothness of the two different bearings as he rolled them. He put the spare bearing in the Phil Wood’s wheel hub and the worrisome noise was gone.   

   Of course, the next test will be to reinstall the presumed defective bearing and confirm that just cleaning it wouldn’t have made the difference. But the call of scientific investigation wasn’t strong enough to devote that much time to it, so the used bearing will become the spare to be installed only if a worse problem develops (and maybe we will carry 2 spares next year.)



  We carried that lighter fluid for too many months just in case we had more bearing problems, which fortunately we did not. But we found a new use for the lighter fluid one day at a car wash when we were doing the forbidden: using the high pressure wand to blast the grungy lube and grit off our chains, gears, and derailleurs.  We are careful not to hit the vulnerable bottom bracket (where the pedals attach) with the high pressure water but otherwise do what we need to do to get the gunk off.

   But neither the blasting from the pressure washer nor the periodic scraping-off of the caked-up chain lube and road debris on the 2 pulleys of our derailleurs helped my pulleys spin like they should. We assumed that they were just getting worn and would need to be replaced. But in a fit of inspiration at the car wash we tried pouring the lighter fluid into and onto the pulleys and the little darlings soon were whirling with glee. They were probably just over laden with grit on the inside. Since then, lighter fluid is becoming a more constant companion for us on the road as it is the only solvent we can easily find in small, portable quantities to help with these maintenance problems.

PANNIERS (Saddle Bags)

  We broke down and bought submersible Ortlieb panniers after our drenching week of cyclotouring (and camping) in Death Valley some years ago. Ortliebs are high-end and run $75-$100 for a pair and we use 2 pairs on each bike—a big expense. But we have loved our Ortliebs dearly and have never regretted the decision to become an Ortlieb family.

  But after thousands of miles of use and abuse, our Ortliebs tried to run away. First Bill’s, then one of mine developed the nasty habit of flying off the bike rack while riding down the road. They do bounce well and passed yet another abuse test with flying colors, but it really wasn’t acceptable behavior. We created a new attachment habit to keep the panniers hooked to the bike should they again get the urge to fly. It doesn’t keep the pannier secure if it unlatches, but dangling a bit beats flying off the bike altogether. (My active imagination had vivid images of Bill’s pannier bouncing down a cliff face or landing in my path during heavy traffic on a narrow road.)

  After a suitable grieving period, we decided to do the unthinkable and become turn-coats: we bought a pair of comparably priced Vaude panniers (also German made.) Vaude’s have a more secure latch system, so we decided to start road testing (hopefully not literally) the Vaude’s before other wear problems required replacing our entire pannier fleet.

  So, for those of you who have always wondered: “Ortlieb or Vaude?” here are the results to date of our concurrent use of both systems. If this isn’t a question you have ever asked, just skip ahead to the next section

Ortlieb Strengths


Vaude panniers in use.

Vaude Strengths

  Tough call, isn’t it? Before we bought the Vaude’s we asked a number of people which they thought were best and didn’t learn much. One Ortlieb owner thought that Vaude’s were almost as good as Ortliebs but her friend was quick to comment that their Ortliebs were starting to take flight after hard bumps, even with far less use than ours have endured.

 We will probably make the switch to Vaude’s as our Ortliebs wear out, just because of the superior latching mechanism. We lament giving up the highly visible yellow for the more dignified and Euro-looking red, but really regret giving up the free-standing ability of the Ortliebs. The Vaude’s just can’t stand up on their own very well. When we set them down they invariably dump over. And when we release a total of 8 panniers from our bikes, we already look like a disaster area to be avoided. But if all 8 panniers in our flock are continuously dumping over, it will really be a mess. Whether camping, unloading and loading in the rain, or at a hotel or train, it is helpful to have our gear compact and stable. We keep hoping as we get more familiar with Bill’s 2 Vaude’s we will learn how to contain them, but we have yet to find a good system besides flopping them down on their bellies, which is where they seem to want to be.


2003 Update on Vaude’s

  We discovered that yellow Vaude’s are available in the US though not yet in Europe. Our yellow Ortlieb’s were a special order item in the US only when we first bought them. It’s that safety yellow thing again: Europeans just aren’t into it like the US riders so these German manufacturers seem to make the yellow just for the US market, at least initially. The Euro pannier colors are deep red; a dark, dark forest green; and black, none of which contribute to a rider’s visibility. So being able to buy yellow Vaude’s in the States tipped the balance a little more towards Vaude’s.

  That balance was quickly tipped back when we discovered that one of our 2 brand new Vaude panniers got busted-up by the airlines. We had 2 Ortlieb’s and 2 Vaude’s per checked duffel bag and the edge of plastic backing on 1 Vaude was broken in 2 places when we arrived in Rome. Both Ortlieb’s and Vaude’s have a plastic back on the rack-side of the panniers but the type of plastic and shaping around the edges of the bag is very different between the 2 brands.

   The breaks in the plastic backing didn’t affect the performance of the bags on the bike but suggested that they weren’t going to be as durable as the Ortlieb’s and required taking time out to repair them. We have flown with the Ortlieb’s many times and their thicker, less brittle plastic is still intact. (It has even survived tumbling on the pavement).

    The plastic rim that fractured on the Vaude’s is in the area of the bag that contributes to its poor ability to stand upright on its own. That just reinforces how much stress that part of the bag is subject to and adds to our concerns of it being an ongoing problem. We’ll hope that this breakage problem was just a fluke but we will also be inspecting other rider’s Vaude’s with a focused eye to the plastic rim to see how theirs is faring.


Panniers or Trailers?

  The more fundamental question is whether to carry panniers at all and instead put all our gear in trailers. We dabbled with a 2-wheeled trailer and quickly retreated to panniers, though I must admit we did not use the much revered, single-wheeled BOB trailer system. Many a BOB owner has praised their glories.


  Pannier Pro’s:

  BOB Pro’s

We will probably continue using panniers, if only for the public transportation PR issue. Several times a year we find ourselves putting our bikes and ourselves on public transportation when we want to bail-out of wherever we are, often because of strong winds or other foul weather.  Like the 2 times in Croatia last year that you might remember reading about: once was when their strong winds that gust up to 100 mph hit us unexpectedly and another time was on a stretch of busy, narrow truck route that freaked me out. Both times we opted to take a bus ride to extract ourselves from the dangerous situation. Both times the bus drivers argued amongst themselves as to whether they could take the bikes or not and I am sure the extra bulk of 2 unfamiliar trailers would have sealed our fate off the bus.

  Like in these 2 instances, getting a lift is often a very near thing and we are usually at the mercy of the driver’s goodwill. Once in Croatia and once in Turkey we were made to wait for another bus (or bus driver). Then there was the time in Turkey when a generous Dutch man stuffed our 2 bikes and panniers and us into his small rental car to take us where we could find lodging. There is no way he could have stuffed 2 trailers in there too (and we are still in awe that he got 4 people and all our stuff in that small car).

  Bikes get extra accommodation and fall under special rules on many European trains, resulting in more flexibility in boarding. That means we often get to roll the bikes right on many of the non-express trains rather than having to wait for a train with a baggage car and check them as baggage. Bike trailers are all but unheard of and even though they are attached to the bike we fear they would be considered as baggage and thus not be treated so liberally. So, for the way we live in the cyclotourist world, panniers allow us some social/comfort opportunities that trailers likely would not. We will accept the trade-off of less on-road efficiency for greater off-the-bike flexibility that panniers afford, at least for now.



  Well, that’s it for this long-delayed edition of Nerd News. We’d love to hear any bits of wisdom or suggestions you have after reading this or any other of our ramblings. And of course, don’t hesitate to write if you have questions we didn’t answer.


3/26 Update

   Our tour of the Greek islands is more leisurely than we had planned (or would choose) because of bad weather and misinformation about the ferry schedules. On each of the 3 islands of Mykonos, Naxos, and Santorini that we have visited we have spent several more days than planned while we wait for the winds to subside to either ride or for the ferries to resume service. So, what we thought would be a 3 or 4 day visit to Santorini, our current island, is extended to 8 days (we hope to take the 4 hour ferry ride to Crete on Sunday, 3/30). And we had hoped to be riding in earnest by now and instead are riding less frequently and fewer miles than we would at home in the dead of winter. But of course the scenery and cultural experiences are quite different than those at home and our days here are pleasant, they just aren’t spent the way we had envisioned them.

   We are able to follow news of the war on a daily basis and feel very safe here. The few Greeks that have made a point to engage us about the war clearly think there is something wrong with Bush mentally. They are certain that if Gore or Clinton were president that this war would not be happening. And we take comfort in that they aren’t attributing Bush’s mindset to all Americans or to us.


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