This one’s rather different to my previous trips, in a couple of ways. Firstly, it’s vehicle supported, which means I’ll be carting my bike around on top of a Land Rover. Second, it’s got a broader social & environmental goal attached to it, which is to pioneer a brand new backcountry route through the Caucasus mountains.
If that sounds like fun, check out the Transcaucasian Expedition website here. By the time you read this, Day One will be well underway!
A prototype trail of around 1,500km in length is the objective of this year’s work, crossing the two Caucasian nations of Georgia and Armenia. While I’ve been speaking about this project mainly in hiking terms until now, my ultimate wish is that the route will be also suitable for bikepacking adventures.
Indeed, I’m making no secret of the fact that next year – when the prototype route should be ready for testing – the first thing I want to do is ride the length of it.
After all, I’ve been mountain biking in these mountains pretty regularly ever since I first found myself in the region, way back in 2008. My friend Andy, with whom I was cycling through Georgia and Armenia back then, set up a mountain bike guiding company in Georgia, which continues to go from strength to strength. And intrepid riders are making deeper forays into the backcountry of the Caucasus. You don’t have to spend much time on gpsies.com to hunt down their tracklogs.
So here’s my question to the bikepackers (lightweight off-road cycle tourers) among you:
What essential qualities do you look for in an adventurous new bikepacking route?
I will happily admit to not being particularly experienced in the discipline of bikepacking. Yes, I’ve done a bunch of mountain biking, and yes, I’ve pedalled thousands of miles around the globe, including in places like Mongolia where roads are a foreign curiosity. But lightweight multi-day off-road trips with lots of technical riding? That’s where my expertise runs out.
I’ll be spending the next 6 months mapping and exploring trails with a critical eye, by 4x4, on foot, and on my bike. So what I’m looking for here are your thoughts on what makes a well-designed long-distance bikepacking route. Some of it will likely be obvious (possible to ride it, regular water sources, bloody spectacular scenery); some likely not so obvious. I know you’re an opinionated bunch, so now’s the time to let me know!
Because this is an utterly stunning part of the world. And what’s driving me to work on this project is a desire to share it with you. That doesn’t just mean a jam-packed Instagram stream – it means mapping and building trails and publishing the resources to travel them. So let’s have your thoughts on how the Transcaucasian Trail could eventually serve the needs of the bikepacking community.
The Transcaucasian Expedition departs the UK today (big announcement here), so do connect on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook if you’d like to stay in the loop about this brand new trail! More news as it comes…
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel I’ve ever quite solved the cycle touring clothing quandry.
Walk into a bike shop or outdoor store and it isn’t quite as simple as finding the ‘cycle touring’ department and taking your pick. I inevitably end up wearing garments – such as trekking trousers, merino or bamboo T‑shirts, hand-made linen slacks, tailored cotton shirts, etc – that were never designed for cycling at all. These are generally supplemented with only a few cycle-specific accessories such as padded shorts, riding mitts, Buffs, waterproofs, and perhaps socks and shoes.
I get the impression that the market for clothing specific to the nuanced requirements of cycle touring must be so tiny – at least in the eyes of the manufacturers – as to not be worth bothering with. It’s a shame, because I really do feel that the industry is missing a trick. Most of us seem to get by with what we feel is sub-optimal clothing because we have no choice. It’s either functional but far too down the ‘sporty’ spectrum in appearance, or is more casual-looking but tends to fall apart once subjected to the rigours of the cycle touring lifestyle.
One British manufacturer bucking the trend is Janapar Grant sponsor Polaris, whose long-standing brand will be recognisable to many. Based on input and feedback from some well-known long distance riders, they’ve been developing a line of adventure cycle touring clothing, and this spring will be putting out the first of their new offerings, as well as outfitting the grant’s lucky recipient.
Their new lines will include a merino riding jersey and a windproof shell jacket designed specifically for touring use, as well as arm-warmers for nippy mornings, a Buff-style tube, and merino socks, with more to come for autumn/winter and for 2017. I’ve been trying out the jersey and jacket over the last few weeks and I’m pretty impressed with the balance they’ve struck between comfort, functionality and low-key appearance.
(These and future lines are available through their online store, which you can check out here.)
In the meantime, I really wanted to ask you what you’d like to see in an ideal clothing range for cycle touring.
Because the way I see it, there are some major gaps to be filled in this department. The most obvious example from my experience is a lack of trousers which are simultaneously comfortable and practical to ride in, socially acceptable to walk around in, and durable enough to last the long haul. I’ve lost count of how many pairs of ‘trekking’ trousers I’ve had either wear through on the backside or split at the crotch seams through the act of pedalling. The pockets empty their contents onto the asphalt with each pedal stroke, and there’s always a draught up my back because they’re not cut for the task at hand.
This hasn’t ever actually stopped me touring, of course. But if clothing designers such as those at Polaris are eyeing up the cycle touring community for size, fit and functionality, then to me it makes sense for us all to get together and let them know what we’re currently missing.
So let’s have a massive brainstorming session. Got ideas for the cycle tourist’s perfect wardrobe? Let’s have them in the comments, and I’ll pass them on to the people who can do something about it!
What tools and spares would the perfect cycle touring or bikepacking toolkit contain?
Is it even possible to construct such a kit? If it is, which items have earned the strongest reputation for reliability on worldwide bike trips? And finally – which of those items should make it into the toolkit you’re putting together for your next bike trip?
These are the questions that I will help you answer in this article.
Unless you’ve got some very specialised requirements because of an unusual bicycle configuration (e.g. a Rohloff, hydraulic brakes, or a very old bicycle), you’ll be able to use this guide to assemble a toolkit tailored to your bike and plans, throw it into one of your bags, set off on your ride… and hope you never need to use it!
The One Thing You Mustn’t Forget About Bike Tools
Let’s quickly step back for context. (I ask my readers to do this in all my gear-related articles.)
You might say that the function of a puncture repair kit is to mend a puncture. But it would be more accurate to say that it is the person using the repair kit who mends the puncture. The kit itself is simply the tool that allows them to carry out that task.
The point is that a toolkit is dead weight unless you know how to use everything in it.
So as you read through the list below, consider which repairs you would be able to carry out on your own, and cross-reference this with the tools you put on your own list.
For example: If you don’t know how to replace a broken spoke, and you aren’t bringing any spares, do you need a spoke key? Probably not.
Do you know how to remove a cassette from a freehub? If not, is a cassette tool necessary? Do you know how to remove the lockring without a chain whip? You get the idea.
You might also consider making a list of the repair skills you need to practice before you set off. The resulting kit will depend on the skills you already have and what you’re prepared to learn.
It will also depend on the circumstances of your trip – most impotantly, duration and remoteness. Let’s have a look at this in more detail.
Why Different Trips Need Different Toolkits
There are of course some predictable, everyday scenarios that will involve your toolkit, no matter where you’re going or for how long. These include:
Pedal removal/installation (particularly before/after transporting a bike by plane)
Drivetrain maintenance and adjustments, eg: chain lubrication, gear indexing
Cockpit tweaks to improve fit and/or comfort, eg: saddle tilt, cleat position, etc, especially on a new bike
Puncture repairs (it’s gonna happen)
Brake shoe adjustment and replacement
Less common but entirely likely issues on long trips include:
Tyre repairs (e.g. after a sidewall split or blowout)
Bearing servicing or replacement (hubs, bottom bracket, headset, pedals)
And, of course, there are any number of unpredictable failures you simply won’t be able to prepare for. If your frame snaps at the rear drive-side dropout (yes, this has happened to me and plenty of others), you won’t be unpacking your portable welding kit to fix it. You’ll be hitching a ride or walking to the next town, and hoping the local welder has worked with the thin steel of bicycle frame tubing before.
Your toolkit, then, should strike a balance between your most likely needs and your willingness and ability to get your hands dirty, all within the limits of practicality.
Think about packing the minimum amount of tools for the maximum range of uses of which you are capable.
So What’s Inside A Fix-Anything Bicycle Traveller’s Toolkit?
Let’s get stuck into the comprehensive list of tools and spares you should be packing for a bike trip of any length or location.
I’ll assuming you’re riding a relatively modern touring bike or bikepacking rig, and have a basic grasp of routine maintenance and repair skills. (If you don’t, scroll down to the last section of this article for some learning resources.)
The list is divided between the bare essentials, ie: things you should probably be packing for even the shortest trips, and additional items for longer or more challenging rides.
For each item in the list, I’ve mentioned the specific make and model I’ve seen most often recommended over the years as a truly tried-and-tested piece of kit for long and arduous cycling adventures, plus links to popular UK online retailers that stock it.
Tools for Cycle Touring & Bikepacking: The Bare Essentials
1. Emergency teabag.
Rule one of fixing mechanical problems: calm down and get a brew going.
Recommendation: PG Tips 1‑cup pyramid bag
2. Traditional puncture repair kit
Your bike won’t roll unless there’s air in the tyres. You can take the tyre off with your bare hands if you need to, and find air compressors that’ll work with Schrader valves at any petrol station or mechanic’s shop, but unless you can seal the hole in the tube, you won’t be going anywhere. Puncture repair kits are pretty generic, but avoid the cheapest (and chuck out the included tyre levers).
A basic kit should contain:
Rubber patches (range of sizes, including an uncut piece of rubber which can double for a tyre patch),
These don’t require glue and are good for a quick fix or if you’re out of traditional patches, but only if you get a brand that actually works (most don’t). If you’re an ultralight bikepacker on a short trip, you might risk ditching the traditional kit and relying on these alone to save weight and space.
Recommendation: Park Tool Super Patch GP‑2 (CRC*, Wiggle*)
4. Actual tyre levers
Throw away the bendy tyre levers that came with your puncture repair kit; as you’ll find out if you try to use them, they’re actually made of cheese. Instead, get some durable ones that will last. Remember that many popular touring tyres are tough to mount and dismount, especially the wired varieties; the same is true of tubeless knobblies.
This is a single compact lightweight tool that performs many tasks and is going to become very familiar to you, so don’t skimp on it. Packing all this utility into one package saves a lot of weight and space, but comes with some inevitable compromises. They’re available with a bewildering range of functions, but a good multi-tool for touring and bikepacking should include the following features (and preferably not much else):
Allen (hex) keys – the range should not just fit every bolt head on your bike, usually 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8mm, but have the length and leverage to actually work in the field
Chain breaker – one that allows both breaking and re-coupling the chain (even if you have a quick-link, you might still need to repair or shorten the chain)
Screwdrivers – both Phillips (crosshead) and flat blades
Spoke keys – most tools include several size options; use a permanent marker to identify the one that fits your spoke nipples
Wrenches/spanners – 8, 9 and 10mm heads are generally most useful; again, make sure that you pack individual extras for any weird-sized bolts on your bike
Emergency pedal wrench – 15mm is standard; alternatively, get pedals with a hex bolt fitting on the inside end of the axle
Torx keys – if appropriate to your bike; often seen in conjunction with disc brakes
This is another critical tool, so don’t be a cheapskate: buy one that will quickly get your tyres up to pressure and stand the test of time. Cheap and cheerful ones are inefficient and prone to breaking. Get one with a gauge so you can run optimal pressures and adjust accurately as the terrain changes, ensure it’s compatible with your valve type, and consider a spare O‑ring for long trips. (Tip: Don’t mount it to your frame unless you want it to disappear while you’re getting your groceries.)
Recommendation: Topeak Road Morph G (CRC*, Wiggle*)
Spares For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking: The Bare Essentials
As well as the above tools, I’d suggest packing a small selection of spare parts and consumables for common maintenance (or potentially catastrophic repairs) in the short term:
Small bottle of chain lube – pack wet or dry lube as appropriate to your destination, e.g. Finish Line wet (CRC*) or dry (Wiggle*)
Range of stainless steel nuts, bolts, and washers – in M5 and M6 sizes or as appropriate to your bike; spray with WD40 and keep in a film canister with a sachet of silica gel to prevent corrosion
Spare inner tube – make sure the size and valve type matches the ones already installed
Spokes – two rear drive-side (by far the most commonly broken), plus one rear non-drive-side and one front. Get these from your wheelbuilder if you’re having wheels built, otherwise make sure you order the right length/type
Spare chain link – if you bend a link and don’t have a spare, you’ll be down a few gear ratios for the rest of the ride
Replacement brake shoes or shoe inserts for your specific brakes – mud and grit in bad weather can destroy brake shoes fast
Additional Tools & Spares For Ever-Longer Bike Trips
Depending on the length of your trip and your expected distance from decent bike shops, you’d do well to pack some or all of the following tools and spares:
Cassette remover – critical to replace rear driveside spokes, service the hub, or replace the freehub body; you’ll need a wrench and chain whip (or wrap your existing chain round a chair leg in a rag) to use it, or check out the clever lightweight ‘Next Best Thing 2′
Cone spanners for cup & cone hubs – make sure you get the correct sizes for both front and rear, which may differ
Bottom bracket shell removal tool – because that bike shop in Bishkek that lent you a spanner might not have the right one for your bike
Crank extractor/puller if applicable to your bike – again, make sure you get the correct type for your crankset
Extra long 10mm Allen key – for removing Shimano freehub bodies if applicable to your bike; use your seatpost as a handle extension if you need extra torque
Complete set of spare bearings for hubs, pedals, headset and possibly bottom bracket
Spare chain – already shortened to correct length,
Brake inner cable
Gear inner cable (unless you’re Rohloff-ing)
Small pot of all-purpose synthetic bike grease – e.g. Weldtite/TF2 (CRC*), decanted e.g. into a film canister or pill bottle
A few cable end caps (CRC*) taped to a bit of card
Other Handy Accessories & Consumables
These are general-purpose items that many riders find themselves using in a wide range of scenarios. Again, I suggest you tailor the following list to your trip and available pack space:
Plastic cable ties (zip ties) – a range of sizes and lots of them,
Gorilla Tape (Amazon*) – to hold the fabric of the universe together; take several metres wrapped around your seat post, spare lighter, chain lube bottle, film canister, etc,
PTFE tape (Amazon*) – again, a short length wrapped around something, for sealing threads that are prone to working loose over time, e.g. racks and bottle cage mounts,
A pair of work gloves (Amazon*) for greasy work and to double up as emergency riding gloves – not latex gloves, which disintegrate over time and/or may cause allergic reactions,
Stainless steel hose clamps – in two sizes, for unexpected repairs; carry by attaching to your rack tubing (small) and seatpost (large) (which also serves to mark your preferred seatpost insertion point).
Note: many of these items will be available from your local hardware store; it’s probably cheaper than buying online too.
And there we have it – a template for a comprehensive fix-anything toolkit for your next bike trip.
All you need now is a handmade retro tool roll to store all the bits in and you’re ready to go! (Just kidding – a plastic bag and a rag work fine.)
Bonus #1: Bike Trip Survival Items Which Are Neither Tools Nor Spares
Just because I’m nice, here’s an extra list of ‘survival items’ for general emergencies of the kind you might encounter on a bike trip (of which some are likely more ‘urgent’ than others):
Mini sewing kit – for when you suffer clothing failure in embarassing locations,
Extra-long USB extension lead – for that hostel emergency when the power socket is nowhere near your bed,
Mini lighter – for when you lose or soak all the others,
Lipbalm – for example Vaseline, which when smeared on cotton wool doubles up as a really good firelighter,
Small USB powerbank – for when your phone’s dead and you really need to send that SMS to your mum,
Foil emergency blanket,
Emergency motivational letter to self (plus digital version if you have a smartphone)!
Bonus #2: How To Get Over Your Fear Of Bike Maintenance & Repairs
Bicycles are extraordinarily simple machines. That is part of their beauty, and you’ve little to lose by mucking in and seeing what happens. The worst case scenario is wheeling or driving it to the local bike shop because you can’t figure out how to put something back together. And it’s better to do that before you set off than when you’re already on a trip.
But if you’re lacking in confidence doing your own repairs and maintenance, the best thing you can do is enlist a bike-savvy friend to help you through the basics.
You might also sign up for a bike maintenance class at a local bike shop, helpfully befriending the staff in the process. You’ll probably be surprised at how many bicycle repair and maintenance courses are being run in your local area. Many of these are free to attend, being used as promotional events for local bike shops. Some local authorities provide free cycle training, including basic maintenance.
Another helpful exercise for peace of mind on a really long ride is to take your bike apart completely and put it back together (before you leave, I mean), ideally with the help of a friend or otherwise by following the abundance of guidance available on the internet.
In the process, you’ll find out what tools you need and how to use them, as well as what you’re comfortable with tackling yourself in terms of maintenance and repairs.
There are many good books on the subject of bicycle repairs and maintenance, and of course there is no end of information online. To save you some dredging, though, the most comprehensive and long-standing starting points for mechanical knowledge are Park Tool (who also have a great Youtube channel) and the website of the late Sheldon Brown.
That really is your lot! Anything else you’d pack in your toolkit that hasn’t been mentioned here? Let us know in the comments.