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Nerd News 2009


A Brief Revival

"Nerd News" was a regular journal item during our first few years of cyclotouring but as we gained more experience, there were fewer and fewer technical matters upon which to comment. But enough bubbled to the surface in 2009 to warrant yet another segment about biking-specific issues, so here it is.


New Skills on the Mountain Curves

The too-aggressive drivers in the Italian Alps this summer motivated me to devise 2 new survival tactics. Both new tricks involved changing how I navigated around tight right-hand curves on steep inclines. On the inside edge of tight hairpins, the grade can pop up from less than 10% to over 25% in a matter of feet, making it almost impossible for me to keep pedaling my loaded bike. If there is no traffic, I'll drift left to where there would be a center line (but rarely is) to moderate the grade as I make my way around the tight, right curve. However if there is traffic, I end up feeling the squeeze as I obediently stay near the right edge of the road.

The first trick was reducing this squeezed feeling by signaling the driver gaining on me from behind to move wider to the left as we both approached the curve. I swept the open palm of my left hand out to my left as in a horizontal, outward, wave. The first driver I tried it on immediately understood the gesture and he swung far to the left to go around me, giving me the room I wanted to stay off the very steep part of the inside curve.

Amazingly, every time a tight right turn warranted it--and I could get organized in time to signal--the driver accommodated my gestured request for more space on the curve. Few would offer the room to me unless asked but all would yield the space when requested to do so--delightful!

The other trick I learned this year was on less-tight and less-steep right curves where the cars tended to cut me off as they finished the curve. Some motorists would swing wide to the left (as I wanted to do), then cut in hard towards the right, which effectively clipped me as I completed the curve behind them.

I am sure it was aggravating to the drivers, but I learned to do what they were doing, which was to swing out to the left a bit and claim more pavement. I would then too-slowly drift to the right into my proper position the at the lane's edge just as the road straightened out. My maneuver messed up their sporty fun in driving the winding roads but this tactic spared me a lot of unnecessary terror. Surprisingly, no one ever registered a protest with a honk or any rudeness.


Ortlieb vs Vaude Back Panniers

We've used both Ortlieb and Vaude panniers for over 10 years and now have absolutely no doubt that Vaude's are our personal favorites. Both are high-quality, expensive German products that are absolutely waterproof and have easy on-off attachment systems. With use, the attachments of both products become unreliable making the panniers vulnerable to flying off the bike rack at inopportune times. Here's a comparison of the features most important to us:

Ortlieb Back Rollers    ("ort-leeb")

    -more readily available to buy
    -probably more durable fabric
    -the 'across the top' strap is very difficult to reach to snap closed with a high load on the rack
    -the newly designed shoulder/end strap requires too much 'fiddling' time to secure and release
    -the thick bolt heads on the inside panel deprive one of a  large, flat surface for a laptop or papers
    -at 40 liters, the volume is smaller than the Vaude
    -a comparable volume rides higher in the Ortlieb's than the Vaude's, raising your center of gravity

Vaude Aqua Back    ("fow-day")
    -the 'across the top' strap buckles opposite the rack and is therefore always easy to reach
    -the end straps are easy to use
    -the inside pocket area is smooth enough for stashing a laptop or papers
    -20% large volume than the Ortlieb's at 48 liters


    -the end straps don't clip together to form a convenient handle (a carabineer resolves this)
    -the shoulder strap doesn't readily secure for riding (no nifty little clip or loop for it)
    -probably not quite as scuff resistant as Ortlieb's
    -in 2008 the exterior plastic backing shattered after 5 months of use (probably too much weight)
    -harder to locate in shops

The load rode inches higher in the more narrow Ortlieb's.

In 2009 we'd been using Vaude's for several years and decided to give Ortlieb's, our first waterproof panniers, a second try. We special ordered them while in Europe and regretted the purchase within minutes of starting to pack. Had a pair been available to inspect in the shop, we probably wouldn't have bought them at all. We felt stuck with the purchase and I used them for 2 days before we decided to cut our losses and ordered a pair of Vaude's ASAP.

When we had used Ortlieb's before, we had a smaller laptop, about an 11" screen. But our newer 13" screen laptop didn't safely fit in the Ortlieb in any position. We always pack the laptop with a bit of padding on all surfaces as the panniers are at risk of dumping over when sitting on a sidewalk or taking a tumble down the stairs and there just wasn't enough room inside the Ortlieb's for sufficient padding to keep our larger laptop safe.

In 2009 we reluctantly added a second computer with a 10" screen to our inventory and the only way I could safely pack it in the Ortlieb was flat, near the top. That required meticulous padding around the edges of the computer each day so that if my load settled while riding that a bare, unprotected corner wouldn't be touching the inside surface of the pannier. It's not uncommon for a pannier to fall over when it's off the bike or the entire loaded bike to take a tumble, either of which could damage a poorly padded computer.

A bit more gear here, but still a lower load in the Vaude's.

Our original Ortlieb's had the same bolt heads on the inside of the rigid back panel as the 2009 versions have. I distinctly remember desperately wanting to pack our flat items against that panel in the past and having those items systematically be drilled by the bolt heads because of the constant jiggling.

Early in our touring we had a pancake-flat aluminum plate that became dented by the interior Ortlieb bolts and any papers put in the handy internal pocket also had bolt friction marks on them. One could make a Styrofoam insert to build-up that area to make it flat, but there goes a bit more of your precious volume for an unfortunate design issue.

I felt like I needed 3 hands to manage the Ortlieb's new strapping system. It was tolerable in the warm weather but as soon as the fall weather settled in and I was wearing heavy gloves or had cold, less-sensitive fingers, it would be a nightmare. Even when it was warm, I immediately began modifying my activities to reduce the number of times I accessed the pannier during the day because of the awkwardness of the straps: I'd keep more cash in my pockets; forgo putting on or taking off my jacket; and wished I had a place for my eyeglasses outside the pannier. Bill patiently waited while fetching something from my panniers went from being an activity completed in seconds to one that required minutes.

So, it was back to the Vaude's for us--in a hurry. Next time we replace a pair of panniers we'll check both brands for design changes but we likely will continue to use the Vaude's for our large touring loads.


Front Panniers

We haven't used front panniers since we gave up camping in 2003 but getting caught in high winds in Spain recently made me so glad that we didn't have them. Some folks argue that one really should carry a substantial amount of the total weight of a loaded bike on the front wheel for stability, but that is a poor trade-off for me.

In strong cross or head winds it is hard enough for me to control the front wheel in traffic without effectively putting a sail on the wheel with the addition of panniers.  And for muscling the bike on rocks, curbs, stairs, escalators, and occasionally on to a train, it is much easier for me to manage my bike with minimal weight in front. Even parking the bike is easier without weight on the front  wheel because I can pick up the front end and put it where I want it if necessary.


Our chain measuring tool.

Chain Measuring Tool

In 2008 Bill carried a chain measuring tool and quickly decided that it paid for itself as he wasn't replacing the chains as often. But in 2009, he had second thoughts.

He was replacing our chains far less often but after replacing a chain at the wear point indicated by the tool measurement, his shifting became worse rather than better. He feared that his cassette had become damaged by using the chain for more miles than he would have in the past when he replaced them based on miles ridden. After that experience, he went to an "intermediate solution," which was to use the chain tool to monitor the stretching of the chain due to wear but to changing the chain sooner than is recommended. 


Miscellaneous Equipment & Accessory Upgrades in the Last Several Years

-Kleen Kanteen water bottles instead of plastic to decrease our intake of stray chemicals

-REI Elements rain pants for about $80 (men's available in lengths)

-paddler's gloves for Barb instead of cycling gloves for better UV protection

-REI Women's Sahara Shirts with venting side zips for Barb instead of Solumbra brand

-Chaco instead of Teva sandals for Barb off the bike for better traction & durability

-GPS: great but a steep learning curve and the maps are an ongoing expense

-cell phones for hiking emergencies and internet connection for our laptop in some countries

-riding on Schwalbe tires, changing the model as they come and go

-Bill loves the comfort of his new Allay saddle though it is wearing rapidly

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