Bikepacking Equipment Reviews
One year and over 5,000 miles after my purchase from The Bike Rack , I am very happy that I bought the Surly Cross-Check. The bike proved to be reliable, versatile and straight-forward. It safely guided me from coast to coast with only minor issues. I chose to swap out certain features during my bikepacking adventure to enhance the comfort and utility of the build, but overall I found the stock bike to be a very good choice. Here is my account of the 'good' and the 'not-so-good' (because I don't believe anything about this bike was 'bad').
The stainless steel frame was sturdy, reliable and highly visible. I found that it absorbed much more shock than my old aluminum Trek did, causing me to experience far less back pain than I otherwise would have. Despite having dropped the bike on countless occasions and having sent it via mail from Portland to DC, I feel the frame is as robust as the day I bought it.
The Velo VL1353 saddle was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of this build. I was particularly concerned about getting the right saddle because I had heard horror stories of cyclists losing sensation in their private parts due to pinched nerves. I found that the Cross Check saddle was perfectly supportive (despite some bad reviews I had read online). Though I was cycling 20 miles a day to 100 miles a day on my tour, I got no saddles sores and never experienced any odd side-effects down there.
The Tektro M730 linear-pull front and rear brake levers never faltered. Changing tubes, usually a frustrating task, was made slightly less tedious by the levers' simple design. When I had to repair a tube beneath the pouring rain in Oregon, I was pleased by how quickly I could open these brake to release the wheel.
Both the frame and fork were outfitted with the proper mounts, making it a painless feat to attach my Racktime Top-It rack and Planet Bike Ecorack.
The bar-end gear shifters were straight forward. I had no qualms about reaching down to change gears and greatly appreciated the simplicity of their design.
The thick 700 x 41 mm Knard tires caused a bit of drag during the tour. At first I was pleased that the big tires allowed me to truck through potholes, cruise through parks and weave around trees on heavily-forested single-track trails. However, given that most of my riding, particularly on the tour, was on paved roads, I rarely benefited from the additional traction that the fatties provided. Instead, I sometimes felt like I was slogging my already-heavy bike on slow tires. When I got to Kansas City I purchased a set of Shwalbe Marathon 700 x 35 mm tires and never looked back.
I found the six degree stem that came with the stock build to be uncomfortable. It forced me to hinge so much at the hips that I was experiencing cycling lower back pain. Once I made it to Kansas City, I received guidance from Theresa at Family Bikes. She set me up with a seventeen degree stem which allowed me to sit more upright in the saddle, quickly alleviating my cycling lower back pain.
Overall, the reliability, comfort and versatility of the Cross Check won me over. Whether commuting or touring, I feel well-situated atop my Surly.
Giro Terraduro Bikepacking Shoes
I strongly recommend these "clipless" bikepacking shoes to touring cyclists. During the first month of my bikepacking tour, I quickly realized that my feet bore the greatest burden of any part of my body. For five to nine hours a day, the soles and toes of my feet were under constant pressure. Thankfully, the Terraduro shoes had a very supportive sole and heel cup which dissipated much of the strain. Though they took a lot of abuse, the shoes held up. In particular, I found the ratcheting straps to be both sturdy and efficient, making it a breeze to slip the shoes on and off. Though some cycling shoes, particularly those of the road-riding style, can be a bit cumbersome to walk around in, I found these bikepacking shoes to be comfortable for walking through town or even taking brief hikes.
Ortlieb has strong brand recognition in the cycling world for a reason: they design good product. I was satisfied with the back-roller and front-roller panniers that I purchased for my rig. Not once did any gear inside the panniers get wet or damaged during my five month expedition. The clipping mechanism which attaches the pannier to the rack worked well, keeping the saddle bags firmly connected to my ride at all times. Though I did have one incident where a fastener inside my bag broke, I was able to use zip ties as a stopgap then have the part replaced at the next REI store.
Bikepacking tip: If I could do it again, I think I would exchange my front panniers for a handlebar bag. On extended bikepacking tours, wind resistance and weight are you biggest enemies. I found that the marginal increase in my surface area caused by the front panniers was enough to slow me down compared to fellow touring cyclists who did not have them. Plus, the additional storage space of the front panniers was excessive and unnecessary. For thousands of miles I had empty space in the front bags, which simply equated to more weight and more drag for me. In my opinion, bikepacking is a practice of minimalism. The redundant front panniers were not the most parsimonious choice for my ride. I think next time I'll try a handlebar bag instead.
Shimano SPD Pedals
Shimano's SPD pedals, with a locking cleat on one side and conventional pedal on the other side, were a good choice for my build. They maximize my performance when I am doing more involved rides but also ensure that my bike is ready-to-roll for commuting purposes. The SPD pedals provided the balance and versatility I needed to make my bike cross-functional.
Riders who want to be efficient with their energy are well-advised to use clipless pedals (e.g. those with a locking cleat). Locking-in to the pedal allows you to engage your quadriceps on the up-pedal as well as your hamstrings on the down-pedal, thus utilizing more muscles than one usually would with conventional pedals. I found that the clipless pedal arrangement gave me a much-needed boost during strenuous uphill rides. Before I began riding with clipless shoes and pedals, I had issues with pedal slips and poor alignment. Twice my foot slipped from my conventional pedal, ejecting me from my bike and putting me in a very dangerous position. Once I got the Shimano SPD pedals, locking into my pedals prevented me from ever having a pedal slip again. Additionally, it helped to improve my alignment, making me less likely to bow my legs outward which not only can cause injury, but is inefficient.
The conventional side of the Shimano SPD pedal is sufficient. It served as a back-up in case something ever were to happen to the cleat on my Terraduro bikepacking shoes (luckily, that never occurred). It also allows me to use my bike with regular shoes, no need to swap out pedals. The grip on the conventional side of the pedal could be be better. At times I feel like my feet may slip the pedal. Besides that, I have been satisfied with these pedals.
Delta Cycle Smartphone Caddy
I have to admit that this was a pretty cool addition to my rig: it turned my handlebars into the control room. On more relaxed rides I would listen to music, make phone calls and get directions with little distraction. Before I added the caddy, I would often have to dig into my pocket for my cellphone. Adding the cellphone caddy made my rides go much smoother as I no longer had to dismount my bike to obtain directions or other useful tidbits from my phone.
Bikepacking tip: a cellphone caddy introduces the greatest distraction of all-time, the smartphone, into your ride. At times I found myself overly focused on my phone instead of the road and ended up in precarious situations. If you get easily distracted, then I would not recommend adding a caddy to your handlebars. I mean, isn't the whole point of going on an eight-hour bike ride to get away from your phone?
Topeak Mini Morph Pump
Bringing your own air pump is important. I found Topeak's Mini Morph pump to be a good choice. There is one special feature of this pump which made it slightly more expensive than other models but that also made it much more worth the while. The pump is connected to the nozzle by a bending rubber tube. When using a hand pump to inflate a tube, the person pumping usually gets lazy with their strokes and flails the pump around a bit. The flexible rubber tube of the Topeak Mini Morph doesn't cause any damage to the valve that may be caused from jerking the nozzle around. Other pump models connect the pump directly to the bike tube valve, so each stroke could potentially rip the valve and damage the tube, precisely what you don't want to happen. For that reason I recommend the Topeak Mini Morph pump and others which have the flexible tube connecting the nozzle to the pump. In the long run I bet it will save you a few tubes.