Note: This is a guest article by my friend Jason. It’s not the normal type of article I have here, but I asked him for this specific article because I was interested in the information. If you’ll remember, I have plans to ride Route 66 by bike. I don’t know when that will happen, but it’s on my “fun things to do when I’m not already doing something fun” list. If you’re ever planning on doing a long distance bike trip you’ll get lots out of this information.
In May 2010, I completed my first solo long-distance bike trip. I rode from Chicago to Detroit over the span of 3 days, traveling just over 300 miles. When I first got the idea to do this, one of my goals was to build/assemble the bike I’d be riding. There were two reasons for this. One was to save a significant amount of money by not paying retail price for a bike that someone else put together in a bike shop. The other was so that if something needed to be fixed/adjusted along the way, I’d have the requisite knowledge to do so. When I was in my teens, I frequently worked on my BMX-style bike, replacing and upgrading parts as needed. That bike, however, only had one speed and as such I’d never worked on a bike with multiple gears, shifters, and derailleurs.
Having never done a ride of this proportion and not really knowing anyone who had, I spent a lot of time researching the equipment I’d need and just as importantly, where I could get this equipment for the lowest price possible. Everything I bought can be found on the internet but as I will explain, there is an advantage to getting some of this stuff in a store (even if it costs a few bucks more). I’ve also included some after-the-fact observations – things that I really want to stress to anyone attempting to ride 50+ miles in a day.
I just completed the same trip again this past weekend, and with only a few exceptions all of the equipment I describe below worked out well enough that I relied on it for both rides.
Of course, the right equipment can only get you so far. The information I provide here will get you off to a great start but it’s up to you to train effectively so that you are physically ready to attempt such a thing. How? It’s not rocket science. I trained for my first trip by starting off with short to medium distances of 30-40 miles and then adding another 10 miles or so each week until I was confident I could go 100 miles in a day and then wake up and do it all over again… and again.
I’d also suggest getting yourself as close to your ideal body weight (whatever that is) as you can by throwing out the junk food and eating a healthy diet. If the combination of a healthy diet and logging serious miles on a bike doesn’t make you shed the pounds, I don’t know what will. I didn’t alter my diet at all last year, but did so roughly one month before I started training this year and it worked wonders for my energy levels and stamina. What worked for me was Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Body. Yes, I was skeptical at first but the results speak for themselves. I started at 180 pounds on March 6 and as I write this (May 16) I weigh 159. I’ve done no rigorous exercise over that span other than riding my bike 2-5 hours/day, 1-2 days a week. I’ve gained noticeably more muscle mass in my arms and legs throughout the training process, so that’s at least 25 pounds of fat gone in 2 months. Boom. Anyway…
I bought my wheels from Bicycle Wheel Warehouse and would stick with these guys unless there is a specific brand/model you want and they don’t have it. They build wheels by hand and do a great job. From what I remember, their prices are pretty competitive. Some online retailers just put the spokes on there but don’t “true” up the wheel, so either you have to know what you are doing and adjust them yourself, or take your wheels to a bike shop and have them do the adjustment (for a price). I spent $190 on a set of Mavic Open Pros and I think they are pretty kick-ass. They came with Shimano Ultegra hubs which are compatible with the Shimano rear cassette I bought, and they were good to go right out of the box. You can configure spoke/stem/hub options on whatever you buy here, if you want to.
I bought my frame, handlebars, and seat post from Bike Island. Their website looks somewhat questionable, but my order was delivered quickly and the shipping was/is free. I bought the cheapest frame they had in my size that also included the stem/fork/headset. Most are frame-only, so if you went that route you’d have to buy the rest of the parts I just mentioned separately. There are videos on YouTube that show you how to measure yourself for a frame, and you need to figure that out first. Selection at Bike Island is somewhat limited, but this place generally only carries quality components so that you don’t have to pick through a bunch of garbage to find something good.
Where I bought my crankset, brakes, rear derailer, and cassette…
I kind of get the impression that Jenson USA probably doesn’t have the best deals all the time, but for whatever reason when I was pricing stuff out last year they had great prices on previous-year SRAM components. It’s definitely worth giving them a look. My brakes and “drivetrain” are all SRAM. They are newer to the market than Shimano but from everything I’ve read the quality of their products is comparable. Even better, their prices are usually significantly cheaper than Shimano’s for equivalent-tier stuff. My components came from the ’08 and ’09 Rival series, which is the bottom of their three price tiers (Red > Force > Rival). I couldn’t be happier with what I have, so I can’t imagine why you’d need to upgrade unless you’re entering the Tour de France or something. I found places that sold the whole Rival set (brakes, crankset, levers, etc) as a bundle but as I was pricing things out, I found it to be cheaper to order the components separately. That may or may not still be the case.
Tons of parts, generally low prices
Nashbar’s selection can be a bit daunting, but they have pretty much everything you could ever need. I used this site mainly for odds and ends; things like brake lights, head lamps, extra cable, chains, tools, etc. I got my front derailleur here as well, since I already knew what model I wanted (’09 SRAM Rival) and they had the best price.
And now for some general advice…
I’d recommend clipless pedals/shoes, though they aren’t a necessity. If you’re not familiar with them, clipless pedals use a locking mechanism to attach to the bottom of special cleated riding shoes. Since the foot is locked in place, clipless pedals basically allow a rider to pull up as well as push down on the pedals for more efficiency and power. I did last year’s ride on a set of cheap platform pedals with toe-clips and a pair of running shoes, but I’m sure it was more difficult as a result. I also had a numb big toe on my left foot for almost 2 weeks following the ride. Not good! Buy these in-store somewhere, or at least try some shoes on and figure out exactly what you want before ordering online.
I bought a Planet Bike Protege 9.0 Wireless 9-Function Bike Computer. It tells you speed, temperature, distance, etc. A bike computer really doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I chose the wireless version because I didn’t want to have another wire cluttering things up on my handlebars, and it was only $5 more than its wired counterpart. Come to think of it, a bike computer is probably not even totally necessary but I like to know distances/current speed instantly without having to mess around with mapping software on my phone. It’s up to you. For $40 (or less), I think it’s totally worth it.
- Headlamp: Get something that takes AAA or AA batteries and is bright. I got a 2-watt lamp, which I think is plenty: Planet Bike Blaze 2Watt LED Headlight It cost $50, which I know sounds totally crazy for what is basically a small flashlight. But when my cheap ($12) LED one kept running out of juice on US-12 at 10pm near New Buffalo, MI and I had to keep stopping in the dark to recharge it, I would’ve gladly paid $200 for the one I have now.
- Tail Light: Just get something cheap. I got this one: Planet Bike Blinky 5 If you’re spending more than $15 for a tail light, you’re probably overpaying. Brightness isn’t as big of a deal as it is with a headlamp since it’s only there so people can see you, not so that you can see the road. Again, make sure it takes AA or AAA batteries!
Padded Bike Shorts
I personally wouldn’t take a 40+ mile trip without my padded bike shorts. Your ass may vary. The brand/style I have is water resistant and breathes really well. I am not a fan of the Spandex look, so the fact that these could pass for normal cargo shorts is a big plus in my book.
These. An absolute necessity, as far as I’m concerned. They magically keep your feet dry and don’t bunch up like cotton socks do over time. They make different thicknesses; I’ve tried the Light and Ultra Light. I like Light the best. SmartWool socks are usually $10+/pair, but you’re crazy to do a 300+ mile ride without bringing 2-3 pairs. Especially if it rains. At all. I also bring Gold Bond powder just in case. Wet feet -> Blisters -> Misery. For you vegans reading this, I’m not sure if there are non-wool alternatives that perform as well as SmartWool. That would definitely be worth looking into, though, unless you plan on burning several thousand calories/day without breaking a sweat.
I have a small CamelBak, which I really like, but as long as you have some way of carrying at least a liter of water you should be fine. The water pouch in my pack is rated at 3L, but I think it’s actually closer to 2.5L. I found that I was consuming roughly 1L for every 35-45 miles. My CamelBak was also my clothes/supplies storage space but I plan on getting a rack this time around so I can shift the extra weight from my back to the bike’s frame.
Padded Cycling Gloves
Another absolute necessity. If you ride more than 40 miles or so without them, the palms of your hands WILL be destroyed regardless of what kind of handlebar grip tape you use. I got my gloves at REI. Try some on before buying. Most of the ones I tried on did not fit well. Look for plenty of padding at the heel of the hand, and preferably cut-off fingers so your hands don’t get too hot. Cut-off fingers also make you look meaner!
Avoid The “Gram Trap”
When shopping for bike components/frames you’ll see that prices vary wildly for things that seem functionally equivalent and get nearly identical reviews. This is usually due to weight (and brand, of course). The component manufacturers love to brag about how many grams something weighs. The fewer the grams the better, since less weight theoretically means you go faster. If you’re at your optimal body weight and are competing in races, by all means pay attention to grams. It will give you a slight competitive advantage. If you’re a normal person, like me, don’t worry about it. Carbon fiber is all the rage due to the fact that it weighs less than aluminum and is still reasonably strong. In practice, though, it’s not as big of an upgrade as the manufacturers would have you believe. For instance, the difference between the aluminum SRAM brake/shift levers I have (340g) and the following year’s carbon-fiber version (325g) is 15 grams. As far as I can tell, they are identical in every other way except, of course, price. You know what else weighs 15 grams? Six U.S. pennies. Yeah. Yet, my aluminum levers cost me less than half of what the carbon ones would have. And yes, I know older stuff is normally cheaper anyway but my point is that if you have the chance to go way cheaper at the cost of a few grams, go for it.
When shopping for this stuff online, it’s easy to get bogged down in details because you don’t have a lot else to go on without having the thing physically in front of you. My advice would be to pick a price you’re comfortable with, find products in that price range, and then search around bike review forums (there are a ton of them) for reviews from regular people who have those products. If the reviewer starts blabbing about grams, go onto the next one. Be more concerned about durability/ergonomics/ease of use and by the time you get it on your bike, you won’t know the difference anyway.
After all that, if you’re still concerned about weight, my advice is this: bust your ass and drop 5-10 pounds (if you have it to lose). That will offset all of the lighter upgrades you were planning to buy. Congratulations, you just saved hundreds of dollars!
You can buy a lot of these accessories at REI. I signed up for their membership co-op. There is a membership fee and I don’t remember how much it is, but my first purchase of a CamelBak, shorts, a helmet, and some socks (at the new member discount) more than paid for the lifetime membership fee. They also pay out a dividend on past purchases. I don’t plan on buying enough stuff there to make it really matter, but the new member discount helped me save a couple bucks up front. Ultimately, you will probably be able to save a little money if you buy things like socks, gloves, shorts, etc. from the sites I mentioned previously as opposed to in-store (just like with any other type of product), but it’s nice to be able to try them on at one place and avoid the hassle of having to return things that don’t fit.
Of course, there are plenty of things besides equipment to consider when attempting long-distance rides. If serious riding is something you’re interested in and you have questions about training/preparation, nutrition, road selection, etc., hit me up on Twitter: @sigsegfalt. I’d be more than happy to tell you what I’ve learned, and to hear about any cool trips you might have planned.