Expedition Cycling: A How-to Primer on Exploration by Bicycle

Posted onMay 21, 2013

Mud splashed and splattered up my black, nylon bicycle rain pants as I pedalled down the rocky, wet, road from Huancane along the northern route of Lake Titicaca. My bright orange, mountain bike panniers from Arkel Overdesigns were muddied and battered from a rough fall, but they´re the kind of bags that can take a blow from a speeding truck, and still look new. Unfortunately, my beefy JANDD expedition racks were bent out of shape, and I had to secure it to my bike with a piece of rope. I was headed for La Paz I chose the contraband route.

Expedition cycling is similar to bicycle touring, with one fundamental difference. Most of the touring is in places that are unpaved, often unknown, or unmarked on the maps, and often in uninhabited zones. It´s dangerous, risky, and if you´re injured or killed, sometimes no one will even know. Naturally, you want equipment that works, survives, is easily repairable, dependable, and if it ever gets lost or stolen, replaceable. So let´s get started on the things you need to undertake an insane trip like mine.

My bike in the mud.
The BicycleThe bicycle and racks.

Obviously, Expedition Cycling isn´t expedition cycling without the bicycle. Forget the traditional road touring bike with 700 cc wheels. Stick with a mountain bike. The last thing you need to happen in a back country environment is to have a bad spill, and your rims bent out of shape. Mountain bike rims have the thickness to deal with almost any bad bump, fall, or crash. The frame itself is designed specifically for abuse. Let´s say that again. On this kind of trip, you are going to beat the $h!t out of your bicycle, and you want a frame that you can BEAT THE $h!t out of. Now, some touring bike manufacturers make touring bikes that take the 26 inch mountain bike wheel. But, if you´re ever in doubt, stick with a mountain bike frame. When choosing a bicycle, don´t choose a packaged bicycle, ie. one that´s already fully assembled. Because of the unpredictable nature of an expedition, knowing your equipment, how it works, how to repair it, and how to maintain it can mean the difference between life, and a life full of lots of unnecessary pain, or even death. That means purchasing a separate frame made of solid 4120 or Reynold´s steel tubing with strong drop outs, and tough welds. My bike frame came from Bike Nashbar, and is composed of Reynolds for the triangle, and 4120 for the dropouts. Sometimes the frame doesn´t come with braze ons for the racks. I had a set welded on at Bilenky bicycle works in Philadelphia. Other excellent steel mountain bike frame makers are Soma, Salsa, and Surly. Now, I chose steel because in the areas where I´m traveling, it´s impossible to find anyone who can weld aluminum. Steel is real, and it´s easy to fix. Stick with it. While you´re at it, ally yourself with a good bike shop to inspect it properly and give it a once over. When you take on a trip like this, have the experts grill you and the bike. Now, considering that I lived in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, I had the best grill me and the bike. Danzeisen and Quigley I used to work there, and got to know the mechanics well. They´re the best, particularly Dave and Stanley.

For components, Shimano LX is the gold standard. It´s tough, and unlike XT or XTR, which are made of lighter materials for racing, LX has the strength and robustness to withstand wear and impacts. LX cassettes, chains, bottome brackets, derailleurs, hubs, and brakes must be part of the bike. Choosing good components, again, makes a huge difference when your trying to go up that dirt hill with 100 pounds of food, water, and gear on your bike. Don´t skimp on the components. For the front fork, to reduce the number of mechanical problems, headaches, and weight, don´t use shocks. The bags, when full, will absorb the majority of the road shocks.

For handle bars, I´ve become a big fan of the moustache bar. When I took my first trip in 2001, the straight bar with bar extensions only offered me two hand positions, both of which resulted in injured nerves inside of my palms. The moustache bar offers several hand positions, which alleviates any prolonged stress on the hands. In addition, the moustache bar offers one other advantage for expedition touring, which is the use of bar end shifters.Bar end shifters have the option of index shifting and friction shifting. Should anything happen to the index guides, a quick turn of the key permits friction shifting. Mis shifts, due to the wear and tear of the chain and cassette will happen, and unlike thumb shifters, the switch to friction shifting will save you many headaches out in the wild.Brake levers for V brakes are the next consideration. Almost any road brake lever should do the job when used on the moustache bar with V brakes.

The bicycle disassembled.

The bicycle and racks.

For treads, I swear by the GEAX dual terrain tires. These tires are made of a kevlar compound, and the GEAX Evolution tires have, for me, lasted several thousand miles in South and Central America. They´re good for both on the road and off road terrain, and extremely durable.All of the components should be assembled and put on the bike by you. This exercise of assembling your own bike will familiarize you with your components, essential tools, and how everything works. You will need that knowledge when, not if, something breaks down.

The Bags and Racks

There are two options for carrying your gear, which is either with a trailer or with panniers. Getting into which is better often turns into a religious war, so, to put my opinion into the fray, I´ll state right now that I´m a pannier man. I´m not a big fan of big, heavy equipment, and a trailer counts as yet another large item I have to lug around. So, if you´re looking for the advantages of the trailer article, don´t look here. I´m a fan of keeping everything together as one unit.

For racks, the JANDD expedition racks served me well for the last seven years. They´re made of aircraft aluminum, and they have mounting platforms on the top for extra items. This is extremely important when properly balancing your bicycle, especially in off road terrain. Mount points use commonly available screws, which is a lifesaver, because if you lose some, you can get a replacement in any back country town or village.

Bags

Now, the most important item after the bike, are your bags. Imagine your bicycle is a horse, and you´re going into the wild west. Obviously you don´t want to get Gucci bags, or something snazzy, or anything poorly made. You want to go with bags that can endure the following, all of which I´ve experienced: get hit by a loaded logging truck at 30 miles an hour, flung off your bike at 35, slammed into the dust, gravel, mud, slime, cow manure, horse manure, lama manure, lake water, cactus spines, thrown into old developing world bus racks with a crate of dead chickens on top, and tossed into a luggage compartment with rotting cow parts dripping on it. On top of that, it has to be narrow enough to fit through doors when fully loaded, stay fully attached to your rack, and carry lots of gear, food, and water. There´s only one company I know of that can do that.

Arkel Overdesign Bags taking a BEATING.

Filling up my arkel overdesign bags.

Arkel Overdesigns, and specifically, their mountain bike specific pannier bags. To say that their bags are overdesigned is an understatement. I´ve come to the opinion that these bags were designed for survival during a nuclear blast. That´s how tough these bags are. I´ve seen, and experimented with other bags, but none have EVER come as close to form, functionality, and pound the $h!t out of em as Arkel Overdesigns. These bags are truly designed for punishment that only a masochist could love. The best part is, whenever you´re in town for more than a few days to rest, recuperate, and repair, just soak them in laundry detergent, rinse twise, and they´ll look almost new.

Essentials

Stuff.

Mosquito nets come in handy when you enter the Amazon. Really darn handy.

Expedition touring is a lot like back woods camping, with the exception that you´ve got a bicycle and repair equipment. Here´s the general list of what I carry. This list is specific to my needs and requirements, so your mileage will vary. For women, obviously feminine hygene will be added to your list.

The Towel. Essential. Vital. Absolute must have on any expedition. Go read the Clothes

  • 4 pairs of underwear
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 2 undershirts
  • 1 long sleeve button up shirt
  • 1 set of silk/polypropylene long underwear
  • 3 pairs of bike shorts, 2 short, and 1 long
  • 2 bike shirts
  • 1 pair of bike arm sleeves
  • 1 short sleeved collared shirt
  • 1 pair of short finger gloves
  • 1 pair of long finger gloves
  • 1 pair of water proof pants
  • 1 wind breaker, water resistant and stuffable
  • 1 stuffable inner liner cold weather jacket, synthetic
  • 1 baseball cap hood combination (Columbia designs hat) – looks like a Lawrence of Arabia hat
  • 1 medium sized towel
  • 1 face towel
  • 1 bandanna
  • 1 tie
  • 1 pair of dress pants
  • 1 formal dress shirt
  • 1 pair of khaki pants (no jeans!)
  • 1 balaclava
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • 1 pair of boots
  • 1 wool sweater

Essentials

    • 1 journal book, pen, pencil, colored pencils, with pencil sharpener
    • 1 pad of airplane paper and envelopes
    • 1 compact film/digital camera with memory cards, computer cable, batteries and charger
    • 1 SLR/digital camera and film
    • 1 LED headlamp
    • 1 back up flashlight
    • 2 boxes of matches, 3 candles
    • 1 dagger/survival knife with sheath
    • 1 machete
    • 1 leatherman´s tool with sheath
    • 4 bungee cords, 2 long, 2 short

First Aid Kit and extras

  • first aid kit with spare medicines, including the basics of ciproflaxin, metrodizole, and mylanta, all of which you can get without a need for a prescription in latin america
  • 1 compass
  • 1 bug repellent spray
  • 1 bug killer spray
  • MSR firefly gas cannister stove, and 3 gas cans (get the gas cans in Latin America, don´t carry them on the plane)
  • pot with utensils (mess kit), and a fruit peeler
  • 1 head net
  • spare pair of glasses with case
  • 1 water filter, I use a Katadyn hiker pro
  • 1 set of motorcycle goggles
  • 1 iodine water treatment set
  • 1 money belt or neck pouch
  • 1 3/4 season 0 degree sleeping bag (polarguard filler preferred) with compression stuff sack
  • 1 z rest pad
  • 1 tent (Eureka Zephyr II)
  • 1 roll of toilet paper
  • 1 toilet kit (toothbrush, dental floss, paste, razor, shaving mirror with a porn star on the back, nail clippers, zit picker, tweezers, nose hair clippers, and soap)
  • 2 nalgene bottles with duct tape wrapped around them
  • 36 lubed condoms with spermicide. Lifestyles are my favorite, with Trojans taking second. I love the value packs. Do not buy these with your friend in the super market while picking up 10 pounds of bananas that your mom wants to prepare for a picnic. That just looks bad at the cash register.
  • 1 deck of handwriting analysis cards

Tools. Absolutely vital

Tools and parts for the bicycle

  • 1 combo hex and screw driver wrench kit
  • 1 multi tool
  • 1 pedal wrench
  • 1 crescent wrench
  • 1 piece of spare chain, 10 links
  • 1 set of spanner wrenches
  • 4 spare brakes
  • 1 spare inner tube
  • 1 spare kevlar tread
  • 1 patch kit with extra patches
  • 1 long kryptonite cable with separate combination lock
  • spare rack parts and nuts
  • 1 old toothbrush
  • 1 bike pump with duct tape wrapped around it
  • 1 helmet
  • 1 red blinker
  • 1 bicycle computer

Extras

    • 1 small internal frame backpack that can be used for trips up to 5-6 days (for side trips and expeditions)
    • 1 courier day bag
    • 1 camcorder with batteries, 10 tapes, charger, and cables to connect to the TV
    • 1 tripod
    • 1 cell phone and charger

Always be prepared for the worst.

  • 1 set of practice nunchakus
  • 1 set of real nunchakus. ***NOTE: I consider personal self defense extremely important when doing this sort of activity. Laws vary per country regarding a variety of personal defense weapons, so you either comply with the laws, make do, improvise, or smuggle. I listed the machete as part of my kit, and that alone makes for a formidable defense weapon, as well as an excellent all around tool for excursions. I know some people are squeamish about this, but if you seriously take on what I do, then it’s something that you MUST consider. ***
  • 1 mp3 CD player, headphones and batteries. I do not use an ipod, or any other massive mp3 storage device because the conditions I go through will trash the hard drive permanently. A CD player is far more robust, and in changing countries and conditions, flexible.
  • 1 40 CD booklet
  • spanish-english dictionary
  • portugese-english dictionary
  • The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
  • The Dream Dictionary
  • El libro de los formulas para ciencia y ingeneria
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Marte 2056
  • 1 booklet on nunchaku technique, attack and defense theory
  • 1 folder with notepads and documents

It looks like a lot, but I´ve carried all of the above for months, even a year during my last expedition. And there´s extra room for food too. Usually, I carry the following as my standard 2-3 day rations through the wild wild mountains or rain forest.

Food. Enough said.

Food

  • 1 pound of rice
  • 1 pound of lentils
  • 5 bags of noodles, or 1 large bag
  • 6 packets of powdered juice mix
  • salt and sugar
  • powdered milk
  • powdered hot chocolate, nestle, or nutritioncal drink mix
  • 1 pound of oats
  • 5-6 liters of water
  • vegetable boullion packets
  • sushi seaweed paper
  • 1 small bottle of rice vinegar for sushi (Hey, I gotta have some luxuries)

On a trip like the one I´m taking, you have to be ready for anything that can, and will go wrong.


Fixing a pinch flat in the middle of the road in the Yungas.

The author hard at work, fixing a flat in the middle of nowhere.

And here is my South America Bicycle Touring Expedition Adventure, in a nutshell.