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Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews Other People's Adventures

Ridgeback Panorama Touring Bike Review & Detailed Photos

This guest review has been written by Tim & Laura Moss, who at the time of writing are cycling to Australia, having departed the UK in the summer of 2013. They’re both riding Ridgeback Panoramas and, after 6,000+ miles, have got to know their bikes rather well. Take it away…

ridgeback-panorama-2013-touring-bike

The Panorama is British bicycle manufacturer Ridgeback’s top-of-the-range tourer from their World line of touring bikes. Ideally designed for short tours in developed countries, ours have performed well over a longer period (eight months and counting), carrying heavier loads (up to 45kg in winter) and over rough terrain (from dirt tracks in Albania to pot holed messes in India).

This review is based on our experiences from cycling 6,000 miles from England to India as well as shorter training tours in the UK. We are using the 2013 model but, besides the colour, it’s no different from the current model. 

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Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews

Kona Sutra 2014 Touring Bike Review & Detailed Photos

Disclosure: I asked Kona’s UK rep to send me a demo model of the 2014 Sutra for review, to which he obliged. It was returned after the testing period was over.

The Kona Sutra 2014 reviewed in this article has been positioned by Kona as a mid- to high-end steel-framed adventure touring bike with significant potential for being used as a commuting/utility/fun-having bike on a variety of terrain. 

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Bikes Gear Reviews

Surly Disc Trucker Touring Bike: Legacy Review & Detailed Photos

This review was originally published in April 2014 and is based on the specification of the Surly Disc Trucker at that time. The platform has been substantially updated for 2021, as explained in this blog post on the Surly website. This post will remain online for posterity and for those buying second-hand.

The Disc Trucker is a mid-range, disc brake-equipped steel touring bike from American bicycle manufacturer Surly, with a great deal of built-in customisation potential, a wide range of adventure touring applications, and enough versatility to be adapted for secondary uses.

In this review I’ll be looking at the bike primarily from an adventure cycle touring and bikepacking standpoint, as this is the bike’s designed purpose and the focus of my blog in general. After looking at the broad perspective, I’ll cover the frame features and the stock specification in detail, followed by taking a look at the ride quality both loaded and unloaded.

Finally, I’ll make buying and customisation recommendations based on my own extensive touring, bikepacking and expedition cycling experience.


The Surly Disc Trucker: Overview

If there was ever a contender for the prize of ‘Most Well-Travelled Touring Bike Of All Time’, the Surly Long Haul Trucker (that is, the rim-brake version of this bike) would be it.

The LHT, as it’s affectionately know, has been ridden round the world countless times since its launch in 2007. I’ve seen more of these in the middle of nowhere than any other long-distance touring bike — including intrepid riders in Ethiopia, Jordan and Iran, amongst other memorable encounters.

I’ve also noticed, however, that they are ridden almost exclusively by American and Canadian bicycle travellers. They’re ubiquitous for domestic touring in these countries, as I noticed when travelling down the U.S. West Coast in 2012. It was on that trip that I first had the chance to try out a fully-loaded Long Haul Trucker, and I understood immediately what has made it one of the most popular adventure touring bikes Stateside.

Surly bikes are distributed in the UK by Ison, and though you won’t find the bikes as widely available as old-school British brands like Dawes, you’ll find that a lot of the country’s touring specialists do indeed carry the bike, or can order them in on request.

Surly Disc Trucker Frameset

Built of Surly’s own-brand 4130 double-butted steel tubing and with a specially-designed cromo touring fork, the Disc Trucker looks – at a glance – like a fairly standard mixed-terrain touring or gravel frame with disc mounts.

The lack of brand-name tubing might swing some potential buyers over to other bikes, but for no good reason: there are many factors besides tubing that affect frame quality, as this article on Surly’s blog explains.

One of these factors is frame design. And a closer glance at the frame and fork speaks for Surly’s understanding of the needs and concerns of the adventurous cyclist who’s in it for the long run, and who anticipates taking their bike into the back of beyond.

The geometry is spacious: a relatively long head tube together with the traditional top tube geometry (as opposed to the current vogue for sloping top-tubes) means that the main triangle is substantially-proportioned. This allows for one of two things, depending on how you’re riding it: either the kind of frame stiffness that only becomes noticeable when a bike is fully loaded up with panniers, and in bikepacking mode the fitting of a very spacious full frame bag.

The rear triangle and fork also feel nice and roomy. That’s partly because the wheelbase of the bike is longer than you’d find on a road racer or hybrid, which is a common mark of a touring bike, making for maximum stability, comfort and responsive handling under load.

Tyre clearance is generous too; the frame and fork have been designed for tyres up to 2.1″ on the 26″ frame (with or without fenders) and 45mm on the 700C frame (without fenders), so dirt-road riders can take their pick from a decent range of knobblies. This is notably generous when compared to the Disc Trucker’s traditional competitors in the mid-range touring bike market.

This is a huge plus-point in the versatility stakes, and one of the many features that puts the Disc Trucker well and truly in the round-the-world expedition category of bikes, as well as in the crossover zone for fast & light dirt-road bikepacking.

Being built of steel, minor frame breakages (such as braze-ons snapping off) become much more repairable ‘in the field’ than aluminium frames. (I’ve written in detail elsewhere about the never-ending steel vs aluminium debate.)

Detailed frame features are where some real thought has been applied. The three bottle cage mounts are present, as they should be on any serious adventure bike; the seatstay-mounted spare spoke holders are a really nice touch and a nod to the generations of travellers who’ve been taping spare spokes to their seatstays for decades; and there’s a mounting plate for a kickstand, should you choose to fit one.

Braze-ons and bolt holes for mounting racks and mudguards are present and correct, and the rear rack seatstay mounts are oversized for added peace of mind.

The positioning of the disc brake caliper eliminates the need for a ‘disc-specific’ rack, so pretty much any rack can be installed on the Disc Trucker.

(I installed a Tubus Logo for the test-ride, but it turned out the extra heel clearance of the Logo wasn’t really necessary — the classic Cargo would have been an equally suitable choice.)

The front fork’s rack and lowrider mounts are plentiful, with bolts available for mounting to the fork crown, the mid-blades (inside and outside) and the dropouts – a very welcome feature, given the plethora of ways in which people botch front racks onto forks in ways they weren’t designed for – which again opens up the choice of front racks and lowriders considerably.

Consideration will still be required to ensure that the front disc caliper doesn’t interfere with the rack when it’s installed. This is a weakness of pretty much all disc forks when racks are involved. Surly make a front rack themselves, which of course fits perfectly, but personally I’d go with the more minimal Tara or Duo lowriders from Tubus, both of which will fit with additional spacers and carry small front panniers very happily.

Cable routing lugs are of the traditional variety. Personally I’d like to be able to install shifter cables with full-length uncut housings to prolong the life of the inner cables, but that’s a minor point and something I say about pretty much every touring bike I ride. (If I really wanted to, I would drill out the stops and repaint them myself.)

Surly Disc Trucker Specification & Build

The 10-speed drivetrain is pretty much exactly what I’d expect to find on a do-everything tourer at this price point, though I’d use an 8‑speed drivetrain if I was doing my own custom-build (as I’ve done for my own expedition bike – full specs here).

Mountain-biking components abound, as they should for a bike that’s designed to be ridden up steep hills all over the world with a full complement of luggage. The triple chainset is a 26/36/48t setup, which together with the 11–36t cassette provides as wide a range of gear ratios as you’d ever need. Ubiquitous, interchangeable derailleur parts from Shimano’s Deore, XT and Sora ranges take care of shifting, and the chain is a standard KMC 10-speed model (I highly recommend installing a quick-link for ease of chain removal).

The bottom bracket is a Shimano UN-55 square-taper model; very welcome indeed given that square-taper bottom brackets still rule most of the developing world. Most manufacturers in this market go with Shimano 3‑piece cranksets as part of a groupset deal with the component maker, so Surly gets a brownie point here. The Andel cranks vary in length from 165–175cm depending on frame size – just as they should.

The wheels are 36-spoke models, with the Alex DH19 rims Surly have used for years on this bike built onto Shimano XT 6‑bolt disc hubs. It’s great to see that good quality DT Swiss spokes have been used for the build. Many manufacturers skimp on spoke quality to save money, but this is a mistake given that the largest proportion of wheel breakages on tour are to do with broken spokes — either because they’re poor quality, or because they’re badly tensioned (or both).

There’s no substitute for well-thought-out hand-built wheels when it comes to the ultimate in strength and reliability. But assuming the spokes of a new Disc Trucker’s wheels are brought in for tensioning after a few hundred miles, there’s no reason they shouldn’t see off several continents’ worth of fully-loaded touring. (And if a spoke does break, you’ve got your replacement right there on the seatstay.)

The hubs are high quality Shimano XT with easily-serviceable cup & cone bearings and good part compatibility with Shimano hubs from other ranges and generations. This is all sensible stuff.

Shifters are of the Microshift bar-end variety; some riders coming from other disciplines don’t like this, but on a long tour where ease of maintenance and repair are more important than so-called ‘efficiency’, it makes perfect sense to separate shifting and braking systems and to keep both simple. A friction shifter for the front derailleur allows precise adjustment to avoid the chain rubbing so common with even the most finely-tuned index shifting systems.

Brake levers are simple and dependable Tektro models with adjustable reach – nothing unnecessarily fancy.

Avid’s BB7 cable disc brakes have been chosen for braking both front and rear, and rightly so: these are one of the few examples of cable disc brakes with a true record of reliability on worldwide, long-distance rides over the years. Stopping power is second only to hydraulics, and they feature a fine-grained level of adjustability, as well as using the same cables and brake levers as V‑brakes do, so you’ll not have a problem finding spares in this department.

(Bikepackers heading for the dirt roads will almost certainly choose the Disc Trucker over its V‑brake sibling, the LHT, because of disc brakes’ better modulation in technical terrain and higher resistance to mud and grit.)

The headset is from long-standing manufacturer Cane Creek, and is a premium sealed cartridge bearing model (a la Hope and Chris King). Like spokes, this is something many manufacturers will skimp on to bring overall cost down; no such compromise has been made with the Surly, and a good quality headset like this should last for years with zero maintenance.

Customising The Surly Disc Trucker

The Disc Trucker – like the Long Haul Trucker – has been designed by Surly with customisation in mind. They come out of the factory without racks or fenders or pedals, and the saddle (like almost all stock saddles on touring bikes) shouldn’t seriously be considered for touring.

(The first thing I did on setting up the Disc Trucker was put my Brooks B17 on it – and most experienced tourers will do the same with their own favourite saddles.)

Likewise, the stock tyres on the 26-inch model I rode were Continental Tour RIDE 1.75″. These are good all-rounders and will get you going, but there’s little more to say than that. Those on long-haul road rides will probably be fitting the Schwalbe Marathon Plus or Supreme; those with dirt roads in mind might opt for the fattest version of the lighter, grippier Mondial – or something even knobblier.

Neither racks nor fenders (mudguards) are supplied as standard; Surly’s rationale in these departments (with which I wholeheartedly agree) is that there are different tools for different jobs. Bikepackers likely won’t want racks at all, and some tourers will only fit a rear rack.

But since you’re most likely going to buy your Disc Trucker from an independent local bike shop, as opposed to online (right?), all this means is that you’ll choose any such additions at the point of purchase and your mechanic will fit them for you.

I do feel that part of the Disc Trucker and Long Haul Trucker’s cult status comes from the fact that Surly have done such a great job of meeting their riders halfway, specifying parts of the bike that need little discussion (drivetrain, wheels, etc) and leaving room to choose where there’s potential for meaningful differences in preference or what’s appropriate to a particular rider and the trip they have in mind.

What this does mean is that when you’re comparing the cost of this bike to other options, don’t forget to factor in the cost of whatever racks and/or fenders you’re planning to fit.

How Does It Feel To Ride?

Few bikes have quite the same ability to inject such a feeling of fun into the act of fully-loaded riding, and to do so with admirable effortlessness. Everything about the bike’s handling under load feels natural — almost happy. It’s a bike that can inspire you to ride long and far.

Though fitted with drop handlebars, which aren’t my preference for touring, the steep-angled stem and spacers together with the frame geometry make for a bike that feels comfortably breezy and upright to ride; nothing like the cramped, tucked position of a road racer.

The cork grip tape is… well, it’s there, and you’re unlikely to notice it.

Unloaded, the bike zips away from a standstill, despite its relatively heavy weight, and while it feels solid and quite unforgiving without luggage, that’s what you’d expect from a touring bike. Yet I’d happily ride it unloaded or lightly loaded as a commuter or on a day-ride, because it’s just so much damn fun to be on.

Loaded up is when it comes into its own, of course, and the same solid and reassuring feeling is still right there when there’s 20kg of gear in a pair of tightly-packed rear panniers and a tent on top. Don’t take my word for it after just a few hundred miles of test-riding, though; take it from the countless folk who’ve ridden (and continue to ride) this bike across continents.

The bottom line is that it’s been designed for an adventurous and aware style of travel, comfort over speed, reassurance and stability over lightness, and this is just as it should be, as a continuing series of long-distance tourers and bikepackers can attest to.

Like any bike, whether it feels right to ride is mainly a function of whether you’ve had it sized and set up properly by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Should I Buy The 26-inch Or 700C Disc Trucker?

This is one of few adventure bikes that are made for both the 26-inch (mountain bike) and 700C (road bike) traditional wheel sizes.

I’ve written in more detail about the 26-inch vs 700C debate here, but there are a few things to consider when deciding which is more appropriate to you.

The first is your own size. If you are very tall (much over 6 foot 2) or very small (below 5 foot 4), you’ll probably be better suited to the respectively large or small wheel size, because frame geometry gets a bit weird when trying to put small wheels into big frames and the vice versa (though you can get away with it).

If you’re planning an adventurous tour outside the realm of leisure cycling (typically developed Western nations, though increasingly in middle-income countries), you’ll have an easier a time finding spare tyres, tubes, spokes and rims for a 26-inch wheeled bike than a 700C one.

Consider also the type of tyres you want to fit, if you intend to change the stock tyres. Bikepackers might find a greater variety of knobblies within the 26-inch market, though this is increasingly less the case.

For average-sized people touring close to home with no special tyre requirements, and all else being equal, I’d suggest the 700C version for a little extra comfort and rolling efficiency

In any case, it’s a rather unique feature of the Disc Trucker (and Long Haul Trucker) to actually be able to choose your wheel size, rather than having to choose a different bike altogether. Nice one, Surly.

Buying Recommendations

I’ll continue to recommend the Surly Disc Trucker to those in the market to buy and customise a single, do-everything adventure bike for a wide range of mixed-surface touring and bikepacking all over the world and for indefinite lengths of time. This is because the Disc Trucker is adaptable to so many applications in a way that most other bikes at this price point cannot claim.

It’ll appeal to someone who puts thoughtful, functional, versatile, foolproof design above looks or latest technological trends. It’ll be particularly attractive to someone who wants to be left with a few degrees of choice when it comes to setting a bike up for their particular way of doing things, and who isn’t necessarily afraid to get their hands a bit dirty doing so. Because this represents a minority of people, it’s possibly one of the reasons the bike still has a relatively modest representation in the UK — not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

Whatever you decide, do yourself a favour and get your bike sized, fitted and customised by a touring bike specialist – it’s more than worth the potential savings of ordering a bike online, which I’ll continue to advise against for many reasons.

Conclusion

The 2019 Surly Disc Trucker sits right at the intersection of many adventurous cycle touring and bikepacking applications, striking a formidable balance of utility and adaptability.

It’s uncompromising in simplicity and durability, and rolls out of the factory offering enough scope for customisation to be turned into a machine that will tackle pretty much any terrain you’d expect to encounter on either a full-blown round-the-world ride or a shorter mixed-terrain adventure closer to home. It’s also competitively priced when compared with similar competing touring bikes, though don’t forget to budget for racks, fenders and a decent saddle.

In other words, if you suspect that the Disc Trucker might be the touring bike for you, it probably is.

Check out full specifications and find local dealers on Surly’s website.

Categories
Equipment Gear Reviews

Introducing Affordable Custom-Built Touring Bikes from Oxford Bike Works

Disclosure: This is a fully impartial review of Oxford Bike Works’ Model 2 touring bike, based on real-world testing of a demo bike on temporary loan from Oxford Bike Works at my request. I am not affilated with or sponsored by Oxford Bike Works in any way.

As bike touring has grown in popularity, major bicycle manufacturers have made more and more capable, well-designed touring bikes available at affordable prices. I’ve reviewed a few in this popular article.

However!

When it comes to buying a new touring bike, big brands are not the only option. Tons of independent bicycle builders are also producing top quality touring bikes. It’s just that without that mainstream marketing clout, you’re a lot less likely to have heard of them.

Sometimes these indies are fully-fledged companies. Take the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative, for example, whose Revolution line of touring bikes weigh in as some of the best value-for-money starter bikes on the market in the UK (£323 for a brand new fully-fledged tourer, anyone?).

Or, at the other end of the scale, there’s Thorn, who specialise in building utterly invincible steeds for those who desire — and can afford to pay for — the “least possible chance of mechanical failure” on tour (as quoted from their brochure).

Introducing Oxford Bike Works

Sometimes, though, they’re dedicated individuals with a passion for bicycle travel. Richard Delacour is such a bloke, having recently started a one-man company called Oxford Bike Works.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (3)

Richard is a passionate cyclist turned bicycle builder with a deep belief in the benefits of bicycle travel. And so he has set himself up to deal exclusively in building and supplying hand-built touring bikes on an individual basis.

From his workshop and fitting studio in Oxfordshire, Richard offers three pre-configured bicycle specifications, all based on his own custom-designed frame, which in my opinion is one of his range’s biggest strengths.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (7)

It’s a steel Reynolds 525 frame, based on the 26-inch wheel size, with a distinct nod to the ’90s mountain bikes that often used to be repurposed for touring. This is matched up with a heavy duty steel touring fork. Throughout the frameset you’ll find all of the reinforced rack-mounts, braze-ons and bottle-cage mounts you’d expect from an expedition touring bike.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (4)

Because of the frame’s mountain-bike leaning, the riding position is upright and spacious, rather than the racey dropped position of some British tourers, and in my opinion this is far more appropriate for most types of touring.

In terms of handling during my many loaded and unloaded test rides, the frame provided exactly the kind of stability, comfort and reassurance I’d be looking for in a bike for long-distance adventure touring.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (8)

I rode the Model 2, which is the most highly-specified (and therefore expensive) of the three stock models, with 10-speed components from the upper end of Shimano’s mountain bike drivetrain range.

The lower-end models share the same excellent frame, but are built up with cheaper components. Across the range, the choice of components is simple, sensible and forgettable, just as it should be — no risks taken, none needed.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (6)

Richard’s choice of 26″ wheels and frame geometry is a brave one, but it gets a big thumbs-up from me, as it places his models firmly in the realm of bikes on which you’d happily head off on a trans-continental tour, safe in the knowledge that the vast majority of bicycle tyres, tubes, spokes and rims you’d come across would be compatible with your bike.

This quality alone really elevates the bike above the majority of the UK’s mainstream offerings in terms of suitability for long-haul adventures in distant lands; few but the Surly LHT and Disc Trucker and the new Ridgeback Expedition share this advantage, and even these are priced significantly higher than Richard’s entry level model, the Model 1E — making it (to my knowledge) the best value 26-inch-wheel expedition bike on the market in the UK at the time of writing.

Richard offers the Model 1E at £900, the Model 1 at £1100 and the Model 2 at £1600; prices which are easily comparable to those of similarly specified mainstream bikes — perhaps even a little lower. He also offers the Model 1R; a recycled and reconditioned frame given a brand new paint job and built up to the same mid-range touring specification as the Model 1.

You can find more about the specifications of these bikes, as well as the other models in Richard’s range, in Oxford Bike Works’ PDF brochure.

The advantage of going independent

The real advantage of patronising someone like Richard is the personal service he offers. This is something that few companies can match, least of all the big guns, and it’s a strong argument in favour of buying a touring bike built by an independent builder like Richard.

Why does personal service matter?

Well, bicycle touring in particular is an inherently personal experience, and for many of us, our choice of bike setup is equally personal. If you’ve done any amount of cycling before, you are likely to have very specific preferences, both in terms of the style of touring you do and the way you like a bicycle set up for touring.

(I, for example, favour flat pedals and mountain bike style riser bars, and I’ll be transplanting my Brooks Flyer to whatever bike I own for the rest of my days. 8 or 9 speed drivetrains and fat 26″ tyres are the sensible option for the roads I tend to travel.)

Even if you haven’t done enough riding to know where your preferences lie, you’ll undoubtedly have specific plans for the tour you’ll be undertaking — and so your bike’s optimal setup will vary as a result.

If you buy an off-the-peg touring bike right now, you will be forced either to use it as specified by the manufacturer or to spend a fair bit of extra cash buying and changing out components to suit your preferences.

With a custom bike builder, however, very little is set in stone. While there are stock bikes in Richard’s range, such as the Model 2 I rode, these are really a guideline; something to help you see what you’ll get for a given price.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (11)

At the end of the day, he’s got the frames, the components, and a workshop. You, the buyer, can be as picky as you like in how it all gets put together.

Individual bike fitting

Richard’s workshop also doubles as a fitting studio, which I visited myself. Being located slap bang in the middle of England, the ability to visit him in person for an in-depth discussion about your particular needs and for a bicycle fitting session (included in his prices) is something you certainly won’t get with online retailers.

Even with big bike-store chains, you’ll still be taking a gamble on whether the person doing the fitting is familiar with the slight differences that touring places upon the interaction between bike and rider, and given that the vast majority of cyclists are not tourers, that’s another gamble.

All of this means that being fitted by a builder or a store who specialises in touring, given how important it is and how easily a bad fit can cause overuse or repetitive strain injuries on tour, is a very real benefit.

The trend towards ‘going local’

And there’s another big reason I’d buy from Richard. (Where’s my soapbox?)

Someone wise once said that every time you open your wallet you cast a vote for the kind of world you want to live in.

As we begin to grasp the consequences of our participation in the economy beyond acquiring the newest stuff as quickly and cheaply as possible, the spending of money becomes more than a mere financial operation and starts to regain its truer meaning: a show of support. (It took starting of a couple of ‘microbusinesses’ of my own for me to fully appreciate this.)

We’ve been trained from birth to adhere to the competitive principles of the free market and to seek out the bottom line. That’s why big brands are always having a ‘sale’ and offering ‘massive discounts’. That’s how Tesco put your local butcher out of business. That’s why we drive everywhere and tolerate traffic jams, lack of parking and shite one-way systems instead of taking quicker, greener, more convenient, much more expensive trains. We’re a society addicted to bottom-line spending.

The result?

McJobs.

The avoidance of McJob creation is a big part of the argument for supporting small businesses like Richard’s — i.e. to allow those doing meaningful work to continue to do so.

Independent, yet still affordable

Usually, buying local and independent means spending considerably more money, and this is likely what puts people off shelling out (for example) four grand for a Roberts Roughstuff.

But the funny thing is that Oxford Bike Works’ touring bikes still compete on price with the mainstream.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (5)

One way in which Richard has achieved this is to have the frames themselves handmade in Taiwan before being shipped to the UK for painting and assembling.

I’d have had a few grandstanding ethical reservations about this — until I actually visited a few bicycle factories in Taiwan and realised that the people involved are just as passionate about making quality bicycles as folk like Richard.

Ming Cycles visit 3, Taiwan Bicycle Bloggers Tour 2012

So by combining a thoughful frame design, a production line that results in high-quality product without being extortionately expensive, and doing all of the specification, assembly and fitting by hand and in person in Oxfordshire, what Richard has done is to actually remove bottom-line thinking from the equation, and make the choice all about choosing the benefits of an individually fitted and specified touring bike instead of a big-box factory model.

Short version: you don’t have to pay him more for the increased level of personal service.

His sales policy also includes a 10-year frame guarantee, and — in keeping with the theme of unique, personal service — a 1‑year exchange offer on all ‘fitting’ components, including saddle, handlebars, stem and seatpost. So if you find you need to adjust the fit of your bike after a few rides, swapping out the relevant components is included in the price upfront.

In Conclusion

Like a lot of small business owners, Richard needs all the help he can get with spreading the word about the offer he’s introduced to the touring bicycle market. His business is relatively new and he does not yet have the reputation of the big brands or the UK’s other well-known touring specialists.

So I’m really happy to be able to showcase Richard’s work here. The bikes are fantastic, he cares a ton about what he does and does it well, and he’s the first bike builder I’ve come across who’s pricing model puts custom-built touring bikes in competition with the mainstream tourers.

All of this makes Oxford Bike Works a prime example of why — if you care about where your money goes — it makes a lot of sense to look beyond the big brands and consider the many benefits of a individually fitted and locally built adventure touring bike.

Oxford Bike Works Model 2 (2)

You can see the details of what Richard has to offer on the Oxford Bike Works website, where you can download the PDF brochure or get in touch for a personal consultation.

Categories
Equipment Gear Reviews

Biologic ReeCharge: A Dynamo-Powered USB Charger for Smartphones & More

Tern Link P24h: Reecharge power pack 2

Since the start of this year I’ve been making extensive use of a nifty on-the-road power solution from Taiwanese manufacturer Biologic called the ‘ReeCharge’. It’s billed as an effective — and environmentally respectful — way to put your pedalling efforts to use in keeping your smartphone, GPS or other USB-powered device charged while on the road.

I’ve given it a thorough road-test over the last few months (mainly while riding the Tern Link P24h folding tourer), and I’ll be talking in-depth about my experiences with it in this article. I’ll also talk about a couple of unusual alternative solutions I’ve come across along the way.

This piece will be of interest to anyone who regularly spends more than an hour or two on a bike and is looking for a way to keep their electronics up and running throughout, though I’ll be looking at it primarily from a touring perspective.

Who needs USB power on a long bike trip?

Well — nobody. People have been touring for decades without a whiff of technology to help them along the way. Nobody needs a GPS or a smartphone or an MP3 player or a compact digital camera or a GoPro. And even if they bring such devices along, so much of bike touring is spent off the bike that a simple mains charger is adequate in a great deal of cases.

Please bear with me while I reiterate annoyingly that a big trip, especially your first, will be all the better for cutting loose from these modern distractions. I spent three and a half years on the road without a GPS, a smartphone, or even a normal phone. I didn’t carry a laptop. Most of the time I didn’t have a map. I was utterly reliant upon my senses and initiative to find my way, and if something went wrong (which it often did), it was up to me to find a solution. This was an utterly invaluable learning process. Keep it simple. You don’t need any of this stuff.

But, for one reason or another, you have decided that you’d like to try taking one or more such gizmos with you. Of these, the most obvious beneficiary for a constant on-the-road power source is the GPS, or GPS-enabled smartphone, so I’ll look specifically at that application in this article, though I’ll cover as broad a range of other devices as possible.

Navigating to another screening

Personally, I’ve been making use of a GPS this year in order to navigate between film screening gigs. Because schedules do matter in this case, I’ve been able to use a GPS to travel new roads in a predictable timeframe and on a relatively direct route, which are the kind of circumstances under which the real benefits of the GPS lie when on tour.

What does the ReeCharge system consist of?

Biologic manufacture a range of complementary products — generator hubs, power packs, phone mounts and other accessories — with the idea being that you mix and match depending on your specific requirements. At the core of the system, however, are the ReeCharge Dynamo Kit and the ReeCharge Power Pack.

The ReeCharge Dynamo Kit is the keystone, taking a current from a dynamo hub (a.k.a. generator hub) and converting it into a safe and stable power supply for a USB-chargeable device. It’s a small and unobtrusive little device which straps to a fork leg and requires no further attention in order to do its job.

(I’ll cover dynamo hubs in detail elsewhere, assuming for the purposes of this review that this prerequisite is in place, but it’s worth mentioning that Biologic make a very efficient and affordable dynamo hub, ideal as a foundation for new front wheel builds, called the Joule 3, which I’ve also been testing and will review later.)

While it’s possible to use the Dynamo Kit alone to take a power supply direct from the source to the device, the ReeCharge Power Pack is designed to complement it and fill in a variety of gaps when you aren’t pedalling (at a junction, on a break, for the night) and want to prolong the power supply. It acts as an intermediary, taking the current from the Dynamo Kit and storing it for later use in a built-in lithium polymer battery — in effect, an offline back-up power source. We’ll look at where this comes in useful later on.

ReeCharge Power Pack with connectors

I’ll be reviewing these two complementary products — the ReeCharge Dynamo Kit and Power Pack — together, as it’s only when used in tandem with each other that the genuine benefits of the system become clear. When you buy the Power Pack, you’ll also get the Dynamo Kit in the box, though the latter is available separately.

Who is the ReeCharge designed for?

While I have much to say on the topic of over-equipped, over-technologised adventures, it’s a fact that many bicycle travellers these days are packing smartphones, GPS units, e‑readers, compact digital cameras and other electronic gadgets.

Smartphones in particular are becoming a popular choice for navigation, simply because their built-in GPS systems and the software freely or cheaply available to use them has caught up with standalone GPS units.

In fact, it could be argued that a well-configured smartphone makes for a better navigational tool than a GPS unit because it gives its user the ability to multitask and to use a constant 3G/4G internet connection for route calculation, modification and even logging via apps such as MapMyRide (Android / iOS App*) or TrackMyTour (iOS App*).

The problem, of course, is that smartphones suck up battery power, particularly when GPS and data connectivity are in constant use and the screen and backlight are permanently powered up. You’d be lucky to get a morning or afternoon’s worth of use from a smartphone in this way. The result is coming to the end of your ride with a dead battery. If you’re on tour and camping is your staple overnighting method, this is a real issue. And herein lies one of the ReeCharge system’s greatest benefits.

Imagine setting off in the morning with a detailed, up-to-date digital map with which to navigate all day, and knowing that even after the five or six hours pedalling and navigating and all the breaks you took along the way, your smartphone or GPS unit will still be on 100% charge — AND that you’ll have a fully-charged backup power source with which to top up the batteries of your e‑reader and digital camera that evening from the comfort of your tent.

Navigation of the smart variety

A system like the ReeCharge, which delivers all of this through the simple process of flicking a switch and pedalling all day like you would do anyway, theoretically has the ability to shift the daily routine of a gadgetised touring cyclist to one that no longer includes the constant worry about batteries running out, nor the extended lunch breaks and awkward conversations with restaurant proprietors about plugging a raft of stuff in to charge. If all goes to plan, you’ll have power all day for your navigation device, be that smartphone or standalone GPS, and a way to charge your other bits and bobs in the evening, even when you’re camping for days or weeks on end.

(A word of warning: no traveller should ever rely entirely on electronics. A smartphone or GPS unit is no substitute for a map and compass — and, more importantly, an awareness of how to function comfortably and calmly in a world in which all these modern conveniences are absent. I mean this. If you can’t navigate on wits alone, and your loved ones can’t go for more than a few hours without hearing from you, you really need to stop reading and resolve this first.)

What’s included in the Biologic ReeCharge Power Pack kit?

(This refers to the kit available from Evans Cycles*, who are Biologic’s primary UK stockist.)

You get the Power Pack and the Dynamo Kit. But it’s the cables and adapters that make the difference as this is what determines the system’s real-world usefulness in conjunction with your own devices.

On this front, the following are included in the box:

  • Retractable device cable (onto which you fit the relevant adapter)
  • Apple connector (into which you plug your original Apple cable)
  • Sony Ericsson adapter
  • Samsung adapter
  • Late-model Nokia adapter
  • Mini-USB adapter (almost all your generic USB devices, including GoPro, many cameras, e‑readers, etc)
  • Micro-USB adapter (many Android phones including HTC)

Theoretically it’s possible to plug any other proprietary USB charging cable into the Apple connector and have the device charge up too, as the power pack outputs a standard 5V USB supply for up to a 850mA current draw.

There is also an innocuous looking piece of transparent rubberised silicone in the box. Far from being simply a disposable part of the packaging, as I originally thought, this is actually an ingenious shock resistant handlebar mount for pretty much any handheld device in dry weather. I’ve used it with a couple of smartphones and a GPS unit and it’s possibly my favourite part of the whole kit.

How do you set up the ReeCharge?

The Dynamo Kit consists of a power regulator with cables to connect it to your dynamo hub at one end, via a standard power connector, and to the Power Pack at the other.

ReeCharge transformer

It’s designed to work with sources outputting a standard 6V at 2.4 or 3.0 watts. For the sake of completeness, that includes not just Biologic’s own Joule II, Joule 3 and Joule HG hubs, but also the Schmidt range of uber-fancy SON dynamo hubs, SRAM’s D7 and D3 hubs, Shimano’s current DH-3N80 and DH-3N72 hubs, and the SunUp Eco DS1‑R, which you haven’t heard of but which I’ll mention later on.

A dynamo hub is the only pre-requisite for using the ReeCharge system. Some trekking, touring and city bikes, especially from continental Europe, will have these as standard. Otherwise, it’s a chat with your local bike shop’s wheelbuilder, or of course the DIY wheelbuilding option.

(And even that’s negotiable: I decided to see if the system would work using an old-fashioned bottle dynamo. Did it? Yes. This is officially supported by the manufacturer, if you’re wondering.)

Having hooked up the Dynamo Kit to the hub, the other cable connector mates with the ReeCharge Power Pack. This features a rugged silicone casing into which is built an adjustable mounting strap. The idea is that you can strap the thing to your head-tube or stem, but easily disconnect the cables and take it with you in order to use it as a power pack. You’re expected to stow the cabling as you would for a cycle computer, either by wrapping it around other bits or cable-tying it to the frame appropriately. Not exactly rocket science.

ReeCharge on the Challenge Hurricane

Having done this, the input and output connector ports face downwards, which together with the weather-proof seals concealing the Power Pack’s connectors is how all of this stuff stays functional in a downpour. Orienting the Power Pack towards the direction of travel also allows the battery indicator LEDs (thoughtfully, white) to be used as emergency visibility lights. Nice touch.

All that’s left to do is mount your chosen device to your handlebars via the method of your choice, choose from the range of connector adapters (mini USB, micro USB, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and new Nokia — Apple users can use their own cables), plug up, and you’re ready to go.

Tern Link P24h: Pedal-powered GPS & front light

Though a clever little wraparound silicone universal device mount is included in the package, it’s not exactly going to weatherproof an expensive smartphone. Biologic make their own weatherproof handlebar mounts for the iPhone and a selection of Android smartphones. I’ve yet to try any of these myself, preferring the silicone strap method, the rubber band method, and not cycling in the rain.

Tern Link P24h: Dynamo-powered navigation

It’s all pleasingly uncomplicated, even if there are quite a lot of cables to fiddle with, especially if you’re already got a cycle computer and a dynamo-powered lighting system on the go. But hey, that’s what cable ties are for. No extra marks available for presentation.

How does the Reecharge perform in real life?

For the sake of realism, let’s amalgamate all of my experience with this unit (almost a year of regular use) into a single hypothetical day on the road and overnight camp.

I mount my phone on the handlebars, plug in the power input cable with its appropriate connector, and fire up my navigation app of choice (Backcountry Navigator, for the sake of example).

I attach the Power Pack to the head tube with the quick-release strap, plug in the power input cable from the dynamo, plug in the power output cable alongside it, and switch on the unit’s power input mode. Now, when I begin pedalling for the day, I’ll see a green LED illuminated on the side of the unit, which indicates to me that it’s receiving power and therefore charging its internal battery. I check the level of the battery by giving the middle button on the power pack a quick press, which illuminates between zero and three white LEDs to indicate the remaining charge.

Tern Link P24h: Reecharge power pack

If the unit is fully discharged (for example because it’s been used to charge up several other devices the previous night), I’ll probably ride for an hour in this state to put some juice back into the power pack. I’ll run the phone or GPS on its battery during this time. This is because, when the pack is discharged, there won’t be a continuous power source to the device in the case of stopping the bike. Give it a little charge, however, and the unit will continue providing power to the device when I stop the bike by switching to its internal battery. Stable and continuous power is generally a better idea for maintaining longevity with lithium cells (i.e. those used in almost all modern USB-powered devices) than short, broken bursts of charge.

If there’s some charge present in the pack already, however, I can switch on the power output immediately. Now, my device is running on external power via the ReeCharge. While I’m pedalling, this will be coming directly from the dynamo, via the power pack. If I stop for a break, or at a junction, or whatever, power will continue to be supplied by the pack. Additionally, if the current required by my device is not onerously high (though with the meatier smartphones it may be), the power pack will gradually gain charge at the same time.

The long and short of it is that my navigation device will be externally powered, and having its own battery charged, during the course of my morning’s riding. The ReeCharge Power Pack will likely be getting some charge as well. And I won’t have to worry about switching everything off for short breaks in riding, because the backup power supply will kick in automatically.

Tern Link P24h: Riding

By lunch, my device should be approaching full charge, if not already there. (There’s a mains power adaptor included, by the way, which might well be used at lunchtime to top up the power pack if the facilities are available.)

In a rigorous and highly controlled test, I take a HTC Desire HD — a notoriously power-hungry smartphone — and charge it from 7% charge to 50% in one morning of riding. This was using an inefficient bottle dynamo, with the phone’s GPS function switched on and with MapMyRide and Backcountry Navigator running simultaneously. With a modern hub dynamo, better results will be obtained. (Note that I did have Flight Mode on to disable the 3G network connection, which is not exactly necessary when you’re pedalling.)

When it comes to lunch and thus a longer break, I’ll switch off the power output of the power pack. This has to be done manually using the same switches, and the change will be indicated by the red LED turning off.

And this is where I run into one of the unit’s few (and luckily minor) flaws. You see, accurately reading the state of a tiny red LED in the direct light of the midday sun is impossible. I have to cup my hands around the unit and squint in order to make out whether it is on or off. Not just that, but the buttons on the front are ambiguous in their state — by which I mean there is no positive feedback, visual or tactile, to indicate whether a button press has resulted in the unit being switched on or switched off.

The same is true for the power input switch, and the green LED is even less visible than the red one. And since the only way to illuminate the green LED is to have the dynamo create a charge, I soon find myself in the awkward position of trying to lift the front wheel off the ground with one hand, spinning it with the other, and then rapidly cupping my hand around the power pack in order to see whether or not the green LED has come on — by which time, once I’ve got the angle right and blocked out enough sun, the wheel has stopped spinning. (Riding the bike whilst bending down below the handlebars is obviously not recommended.)

These are minor problems. There are workable solutions, and they don’t impede the core functionality of the unit. After a lot of use, I have become sensitive to the buttons to the point at which I can tell their state by pressing them, but it’s a very delicate discernment to make. There is also the more reliable method of plugging a device into the Power Pack and seeing how it responds to a press of the relevant button, as almost all devices will indicate clearly whether or not they are receiving external power. Lastly, on overcast days and in the mornings and evenings (and at night, should you fancy it), making out the LEDs is not half as difficult.

But it is something Biologic might note for future incarnations of the design. There’s no point wasting power on LEDs, so my suggestion would simply be using switches that provide unmistakeable feedback as to their on/off state.

Once fully charged, any modern device will only draw enough external current to keep itself powered up with the battery remaining at 100%. Thanks to the ReeCharge Power Pack’s smart circuitry, this surplus pedal power will be used to charge its own internal battery. The result, at the end of the day’s ride, is likely to be a fully-charged device ready for the following day’s ride, and/or for a little communications use in the evening in the case of a smartphone — AND a more or less fully charged power pack. This is where we get to see the beauty of the intermediate power pack system.

Arran sunrise panorama

I’ve removed the power pack from my headtube by unplugging the connectors and undoing the quick release strap. At this point, of course, I’m probably in my tent/hammock/mosque/drainage pipe, getting set up for the night. Here’s my opportunity to use that stored-up pedal power to top up my other devices.

Let’s say I’ve got a GoPro mounted to my handlebars, and I’ve drained the battery in the mistaken belief that anyone else will be interested in watching countless hours of nondescript asphalt going past in slow motion. Will the ReeCharge be able to, er, recharge said camera in order that I may tomorrow film more of the same?

The answer is yes, as demonstrated by another rigorous test in which I plug a fully discharged GoPro HD Hero into a fully charged ReeCharge Power Pack and hit the power output switch. It takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to fully charge the GoPro, leaving enough juice in the Power Pack to get other mission-critical systems up and running again the following morning. (It’s worth mentioning that a realistic day’s filming routine would only drain a GoPro completely if there was an extremely long timelapse or accidental button-press involved.)

How about if I’ve got a drained smartphone on my hands?

ReeCharge with HTC Desire HD 1

In yet another real-world test, the same HTC Desire HD is charged from 3% to 70% by a fully charged power pack.

ReeCharge with HTC Desire HD 2

A Nook Simple Touch e‑reader’s battery is similarly taken from 40% charge to 100%, using less than half of the Power Pack’s capacity in the process.

ReeCharge with Nook

(E‑readers like the Nook*, of course, can last weeks on a single charge, and when hacked to offer basic Android tablet functionality can be very handy and extremely inexpensive things to pack for a bike tour.)

Bear in mind that this is all after having charged and powered a navigation device for the duration of my day’s ride. I am hoping that these examples of real-life use will be sufficient to give a clear idea of the system’s capabilities, though your mileage will of course depend on which and how many devices you use, as well as how you use them.

While I have not tested the unit in laboratory conditions, nobody actually goes cycle touring in a laboratory, and those who test equipment in such a way are usually better authorities on life in a laboratory than life on the road.

Just saying.

What about dynamo hubs and ReeCharge compatibility?

None of this is any use to anyone who doesn’t have a dynamo hub (or plain old bottle dynamo). In the UK, it’s fairly uncommon to get a new bike with one of these fitted as standard, except on city bikes for which they’re sometimes fitted for powering lights.

What this means is that you are quite likely to end up looking at aftermarket generator hubs, rather than gleefully plugging the ReeCharge into your existing, underused dynamo hubs. While I can only personally speak for the effectiveness of three of these hubs, all of the ones I’m going to list here will in theory do the job, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t. Some will do the job more expensively than others. of course. And on a fully-loaded touring bike it is highly unlikely you will notice any additional rolling resistance from any of them.

If you really want to read more about current output and efficiency figures and stuff, the CTC’s Cycle magazine recently published this article, which takes clinical empiricism to a whole new level. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Most local bike shops will be able to build a complete wheel onto your hub — a good opportunity to specify rims at the same time. Sun Ringle CR-18s* are a good choice for 26″ wheels.

Biologic Joule 3 Dynamo Hub

Biologic Joule 3 / Joule HG

The Joule 3 is a relatively new offering from Biologic, designed with the Schmidt SON Dynohub (the Rolls Royce of generator hubs) as the performance and efficiency benchmark. Available in a 100mm OLD / 32-hole model, it’ll suit all but the most paranoid and heavyweight tourers who absolutely insist on 36 spokes per wheel. I’ve been using this all summer and it’s the hub I’ve used for most of my testing for this article. The Joule HG is an older model that can be switched off mechanically, virtually eliminating drag. They retail at around £120. It’s a shame they seem so difficult to source in the UK. I can’t even find them on eBay*.

Shimano DH-3N30 Dynamo Hub

Shimano Budget Dynamo Hubs

Shimano, eh? They don’t half make it difficult for us. Five billion permutations of the same thing, whichever direction you turn. Their budget options for generator hubs are the DH-3N20 and DH-3N30. They will work with the ReeCharge. They might break sooner than the pricier ones. (Or they might not.)

Shimano DH-3N80 Dynamo Hub

Shimano High-end Dynamo Hubs

The current established high-end Shimano models are the DH-3N72* for rim brakes (~£70) and the DH-3N80* (32h/36h) for disc brakes (~£90). They’ve been widely used and can be considered tried and tested on tour. Shimano have just released another billion new variations under the XT line, but it’s probably best to ignore them until the market settles down again.

Schmidt SON 28 Dynamo Hub

Schmidt SON Dynohub

If you just can’t help yourself, the German-made Schmidt SON Dynohub enjoys a reputation as the hands-down best dynamo hub money can buy. Why you’d blow £200–300 on one is beyond me, but I’ve included it here for the sake of completeness. SJS Cycles have them, if you really must.

And now for something completely different…

I was introduced to the SunUp Eco DS-1R dynamo hub in Taiwan last year, and I have taken it for a series of test rides since then. The big difference with this rather innovative generator hub is that it can be fitted to an existing rear wheel with no modification — thus, no wheelbuilding. It outputs 6V at 3.0A, just as the Shimano and Schmidt offerings do. The only caveat is having to undo a single hex bolt in order to remove the rear wheel, though it’s hardly a deal breaker on a long tour.

SunUp Eco DS1-R

You’ll be hard pressed to find one in a shop here, but thankfully they are available direct from Taiwan via eBay* for just under £80, including postage.

In Conclusion

If you’re dreaming of your first big adventure: forget all of this rubbish, get a bike and leave already. Here are the 3 basic steps. Keep it simple. Enjoy.

If you’re absolutely sure you want to get into all of this gadgetry, and you’re looking for a reliable, versatile power solution compatible with all popular dynamo hubs and the kind of devices you might take on tour, the ReeCharge system performs this function and performs it well. It’s not 100% perfect, but minor niggles can be overlooked given its simplicity and effectiveness in getting the job done.

In the UK, I’d head to Evans Cycles’ website* to get mine. They’re currently doing it at 10% off — and yes, all the accessories mentioned in this article are included. (Not the hubs, though.)

In the USA, Biologic’s outlet PremiumBikeGear.com stock the ReeCharge.