Comparison of three Heimplanet tents

Small tent (The Fistral)

  • About 2 minutes to inflate with small pump.
  • Makes its full shape only after using at least two guy lines.
  • Great for single-night stays and time spent mostly on the bike in unpopulated areas.
  • More risky because far more equipment needs to stay outside under the tent flaps.
  • Not good for remaining indoors during rainy days, due to low ceiling and lack of room.
  • Great weight-to-space ratio.
  • Not great for rain or snow.
  • Line of pockets at front is good for small items but additional after-market hanging storage should be added.

Medium tent (The Cave)

  • About 3 minutes to inflate with small pump. Can easily be inflated and then staked down after.
  • Least reliant on guy lines, keeps its full shape without any.
  • Easy to move and reposition even for one person.
  • Four pockets, two on each side, make a division between sleep gear and outside gear.
  • Poor weight-to-space ratio. Almost twice as heavy as Fistral with 2x the space.
  • Single round door is small and very awkward to use.
  • Relatively poor ventilation.
  • Vestibule area is relatively small but reasonably secure from rain.
  • Good in rain and wind and snow without using guy lines.
  • Extremely good performance in high wind when staked down.

Large tent (The Backdoor)

  • About 3.5 minutes to inflate with small pump.
  • Decent weight-to-space ratio. Twice as heavy as Fistral with 3x the space and a higher ceiling.
  • Pocket arrangement has indoor/outdoor division, same as Cave.
  • Large enough to deploy a large bed, unpack gear, and comfortably use a chair at the same time.
  • Almost enough vestibule space to enclose an entire bicycle!
  • Semi-reliant on guy lines.
  • Good in rain and wind and snow if guy lines are used.
  • Has a very large footprint:
    • Too large for almost all indoor deployments.
    • So large it may upset other people competing for space.
    • Difficult to find a patch of flat ground this large.
  • Color scheme matches my bike!

Based on the above, it seems to make the most sense to travel with the Fistral through remote areas, use the Cave for more rural camping, and use the Backdoor only when traveling with two or more companions.

This is a little disappointing, since the Backdoor is luxurious to use. Lots of ventilation, tons of space, room to work inside, a giant vestibule for cooking… It’s too bad it weighs so much, because if I’m going to be living in a tent for months at a time, I’m going to need a place that can feel like a home.

Since my first few rounds of using the Fistral I’ve discovered that it’s possible to clip a small lightweight tarp to one side of it and use the tarp to cover a bicycle parked parallel to the tent. By tying down the tarp on the opposite side of the bike, it creates a large semi-indoor area safe from rain that is easily accessible through one of the doors in the tent.

It also conceals gear a little better, and is still ventilated enough for cooking. Plus, with the bicycle visibly concealed and staked down it is far less likely to be snatched by thieves. With the tarp attached, the Fistral is basically a good-sized one-man tent with a rear vestibule that’s larger than the living space — just what a cyclist needs.

Sometimes you cannot find the truth unless you reach for it

It’s already obvious that I am pretty obsessed with bicycle touring.  As time and funds have permitted in my life, I’ve taken longer and more complicated trips, the longest being about two months. Occasionally I hear about other bike tourists who are so hardcore and obsessed that they have cycled across entire continents or even around the world. That idea has always felt bold and intimidating, but not for me. The last time it came up was seven years ago, and it dropped into the back of my head and percolated there until I forgot about it.

Fast-forward a bunch of time, to 2018. Last year, I was feeling stagnated in my job, tired of my living space, and bored with the geography of the Bay Area. I’d been obsessively playing the computer game Civilization V, and the art deco monuments and colorful pastel mountains and rivers had colonized my imagination. The world was full of light and conflict. I’d just finished a loopy sci-fi novel by Stephen Baxter about spacefaring Roman legions and moon-dwelling Incan tribes, and though the premise was absurd, the collision of remote culture and high technology was inspiring. It came up again in a surreal novel by Dan Simmons: Quantum technology and the siege of Troy, on Mars! My mind was an avalanche of sandstone and granite ruins knotted with ivy and wildflowers, teeming with people in exotic clothes, trading or fighting or building together.

I was seized with the urge to take a vacation, and go far out into the world and touch the artifacts of history. But while I was still working, it would have to be a typical Silicon Valley “get away from the desk” vacation, and I knew how those usually went. I’d be in a rush, moving between various modes of transport, skipping across thousands of miles to hit a packaged highlight reel of well-traveled attractions, trying to use the experience as a hammer to smash some dents into a brain shaped by months and months of software engineering. The vacation would not be for its own sake, it would be to prepare me for another six months back at work.

I knew that would not do. These ideas were calling for a bigger change. I spent several weekends biking around and sketching in the beautiful Mountain View cemetery at the end of Piedmont Avenue, enjoying the fresh air and the quiet, sun-warmed granite monoliths. I began browsing around in Google Earth, tracking down the cities I’d conquered and the wonders I’d built in Civilization, and reading about the history and geography of far off places. Samarkand… In the first edition of Civilization it’s the seat of power of the Mongolians. In Civilization V it’s a powerful, independent city-state usually located in desert. Where is it really? Here it is, in Uzbekistan. There’s a country named Uzbekistan? Wow, I didn’t even know that. How could there be a country that I do not know the name of, at my age?

I started thinking a lot about my picture of the world, and how much of it was based on unverified assumptions, convenient metaphors, current political fashions, and apocryphal stories. I felt intensely ignorant and confined. I needed to break out of my routine, and experience the world outside in a direct and personal way. I needed to crowbar myself out of an existence that was too comfortable. If I didn’t have the means now, when would I ever? Suddenly, the idea of a long-range bike tour popped up from the depths of my mind, threw confetti in my face, and said, “hey idiot, remember me?”

At first I didn’t know what to do. The idea was equal parts enthralling and terrifying, giving me a sense of ambivalence, but it was also sticking hard in my brain like a flyer glued to the windshield of a car. A real long-range bike tour means leaving the Bay Area for a long time. It means spending my savings, and it means I need to rent out my current place to help pay for the house, otherwise my savings would vanish immediately. It means quitting or renegotiating my job. It means being away from my friends and family. Most important of all, it probably means breaking up with my girlfriend and going it alone, because what girlfriend in her right mind would actually be interested in a crazy journey like this?

For a while I hoped the idea would diminish, as it had before, so I wouldn’t have to confront its practical details. But it just set up camp and grew larger and rowdier like a Greek army laying siege to my mind. Eventually, during an intense discussion with my girlfriend where we both encouraged each other to take risks, I made vocal shape of it outside my head for the first time. I also confessed that by doing so I was afraid I would give the idea a reality that would make it even harder to combat.

To my surprise and relief, she said the idea was compelling to her too.

So. We intend to begin a long bicycle trip together, carrying our belongings, starting in Iceland, with a destination of England. Perhaps by then we will be sick of traveling. Perhaps we will settle in England, or return to California. Or perhaps we will continue on, through Spain and France. Perhaps we will circumnavigate the planet. Who knows?

The tentative departure date is 100 days from now.

This raises a lot of questions, like “Are you crazy?” and, “How long will this take?” and, “Are you aware of these things we have, called cars?”, and of course, “Do you know how dangerous this is?”

I’ll answer that last question up front by saying, yes, this is dangerous.  In the coming months I’m not going to talk about the danger much, because it’s not something I want to dwell on, but I want to be clear that if I do end up frozen solid in a snowdrift, or dead at the bottom of a ravine with my equipment scattered around me, or – most likely – squashed flat by a truck like Wile E. Coyote, that this is something I accepted as a possibility when I started.  And I chose to do it anyway.

I know this is a morbid train of thought, but bear with me. In the time leading up to this journey I have become so obsessed with the idea of attempting it that it has started to feel like an inevitability.  Like a part of my identity.  If I was any less obsessed maybe I would choose to stay at home. Keep circling in that worn-down trench between house, workplace, and supermarkets; maybe take a series of smaller risks. But I honestly feel like I don’t have that choice any more. That Greek army outside is not going to lay down arms. If I am fated for the snowdrift, or the ravine, or the logging truck, then so be it!

And of course there’s the possibility that I will hate the trip. After three or four months on the bicycle, toiling up hills in the middle of nowhere, I may suddenly snap, dump my equipment in a pawnshop, and buy a ticket back to the states.  Or my girlfriend may declare the same. That is an acceptable outcome.  But I’m also pretty stubborn, so — we’ll see! We must, most definitely, see.

Old-skool chrome Bacchetta handlebars

Bacchetta makes – or perhaps only used to make – multiple sizes of handlebars for their recumbent bikes. I ride with the handlebars much closer to my chest than they recommend, and rest my arms across the tops of the bars when I’m going straight — which is most of the time. The only size of handlebars that works for this purpose is the smallest size.

Long ago, Bacchetta also used to make their handlebars with a shiny chrome coating, instead of black anodized aluminum. I suppose they switched to black because it looked better with more colors, or perhaps they could make them slightly lighter weight. But a consequence of this change is, the new bars are rough in texture. The older chrome ones are very pleasantly smooth.

Since I ride with my wrists and hands in contact with the bar itself most of the time, this difference matters to me. So when I built Valoria II, I started with a stock pair of handlebars, then swapped my old ones over when the time came.

A pair of ancient chrome handlebars on top of a pair of small-size anodized handlebars. They're exactly the same except for the chrome finish.

It was a pretty involved process. I had to remove three mounts, two handlebars and bar-end caps, two brake controls, two shifter controls, the mirror, and the anchor plate. I’m not just riding with handlebars, I’m riding with a whole dang dashboard!

In the end, it was worth it. The chrome feels cool on hot days, and clings to my gloves on cold days.

If I lost my bike and had to rebuild it from scratch, I could actually get everything I need brand-new from a variety of suppliers, with the glaring exception of these handlebars. They were only made for the first-run Bacchetta recumbent circa 2001. If I had to find another pair, I’d have to scour the entire country, and most likely I’d have to buy the entire bike just to plunder the handlebars and resell it. Eventually they will all go the way of the old Bacchetta under-seat rack: They’ll all get broken or lost, and then they will be gone forever.

This is one of the many reasons why I lock my bike up with a very serious hardened-steel segmented lock! Arrr!!

Customized bike (and camping) speakers

It’s hard to find good, versatile hardware, and sometimes the thing I want just doesn’t exist, so I have to get all crafty. This is another of those things I’m documenting for my own reference, in case I need to recreate it.

Bluetooth is the new hotness, but wires still sound better - and use less power.

I really like these speakers. They sound good, pack reasonably small and light, and the design is simple. I’ve used them on many overnight hotel stays, arranged on a nightstand or next to a bathtub, and I’ve set them up in the middle of the picnic table on camping trips.

But I wanted to use them in even more places, including in a tent, and anchored to my bicycle. Here’s how I modified them.

First thing to do, of course, is take them apart. See that little screw visible underneath the lid? There are three of those. I found it pretty easy to bend the lid out of the way and remove them all. With those out of the way, the bottom of the speaker popped off.

After drilling the holes; before installing the ziptie.

Powered by a standard 500mAh 3.7v LiOn battery pack.

There’s a little magnet glued inside the base that I pried out with a screwdriver to save some weight. The battery rests on top of the base inside the speaker, and with the base out of the way it falls out. I had to be careful not to yank the tiny wires that linked it to the circuit board.

By the way, if you want, you can swap out the rechargeable batteries at this point, and solder in some fresher ones. There are a variety of 500mAh 3.7v lithium batteries available via Amazon for example. It’s a pretty standard size.

I wanted to add loops to the sides of the speakers so I could hang them from hooks in a tent, so I got a little drill and made two holes in the side of the shell, just a little lower than the underside of the circuit board. (You can see them near the top of the photo.) Then I threaded a small ziptie through the holes, tightened it into a small loop, and clipped off the excess plastic.

With the ziptie in place, I stuck the battery on the base and pushed it back into the bottom of the shell. It only took a little bit of fiddling to get the ziptie on the right side of the plastic post inside. Then I put the screws back in.

But the fun wasn’t over yet! I also glued a Quad Lock adapter to the bottom of each speaker.

Now I could use the speakers with my laptop, or by my bedside, or on the ceiling of my tent, or on my bicycle! Huzzah! Here’s how they look:

Ready for some sing-along riding!

Perfect stereo for an audience of one ... and loud enough to irritate others too!

Yeah I guess the wires make it look a little messy. But it sounds fantastic.

Adding a 20t chainring

When you pedal a bike, your feet push pedals. Those pedals turn on arms. Those arms are called cranks. The cranks are attached together, and in the middle you have one or more rings with teeth on them, around which the chain moves when you pedal the bike. The whole apparatus is called a crankset, and those rings are called chainrings.

For example, this is the standard Bacchetta Giro 20 crankset with three chainrings on it. The chain is currently on the middle ring. The standard Bacchetta rings have 50 teeth, 39 teeth, and 30 teeth, from largest to smallest. This was the crankset on Valoria, my original Giro 20.

On the left you can see a Shimano Deore M590 crankset, with 44, 32, and 22-tooth chainrings. This is the crankset I installed on Valoria II. Having a 22-tooth ring in the smallest spot instead of the standard 30-tooth ring allows me to spin the pedals about 40% faster and still put out the same amount of power. That means I can carry all my touring gear up hills more easily. I can drop my maximum speed lower without straining my knees. My experience has shown me that with this chainring I can slow down to about 2.5 miles-per-hour and still keep the bike steady.

On the right you can see a 20-tooth chainring. This is what I intend to install onto the Shimano Deore M590 crankset, swapping it out with the 22-tooth chainring. It will speed up my cadence by 10% on top of the 40% speedup I already have.

Why is this worth doing? Why does this matter to me? I think the best way to explain this is with an experiment:

Take your bike outside. Now stack eight full-size bricks on the back of it. Yeah, the kind of bricks you build walls with. Now, get on the bike, and pedal those bricks up the steepest hill you can find, over and over again, until you’ve climbed the equivalent of 2000 feet with those bricks. Now repeat that exercise every day for two weeks.

Long-range bicycle riders are all a little bit crazy, because this is what they do. They make it manageable by climbing as slowly as they can. After a hundred hours pedaling like this, you are ready to do whatever it takes to go even a little bit slower; oh yes! If you’re lucky you can go slow enough that your digestion can actually keep up with this all-day energy demand, and you won’t starve to death right there on your bike! I’m only sort of joking.

So yeah, I’m putting this gear on. I’m going as low as I can go.

But this is a tricky operation, because the Shimano crankset isn’t designed to hold a ring that small. If I just bolted the new ring on without doing anything else, the chain would lay very awkwardly against the four posts holding the ring, and wouldn’t mesh with the teeth. The chain would slip along the ring unpredictably, or slip entirely off, causing me to lose control and crash the bike. And the chain itself would quickly become damaged as well.

So what I’m gonna do is, take the cranks off the bike, remove the 22-tooth ring, shave down the four posts with a Dremel tool, and put everything back together with the 20-tooth ring instead.

First things first. I’ve switched gears on the bike until I’m on the smallest front gear. Now I’m using my smallest L-shaped hex wrench to pull the chain off the gear as I turn the cranks, so the chain ends up resting on the boom of the recumbent. I want that greasy thing out of the way while I work.

This little wingnut gadget is called an “Adjusting Cap Tool“. It’s for removing the plastic plug on the left end of the axle, where the left crank is attached. Not something I’m going to be doing all the time, but something that definitely goes easier if I have this fancy little tool. When I removed the plug, I observed that it’s actually screwed in very loosely. I need to remember not to tighten it very much at all when I’m putting it back on later.

These items are strictly optional, but help the work go faster. The big thing is a combination speeder/breaker bar. Essentially a jointed handle that you can use to apply a lot of force and unstick bolts, or spin around like a crank to screw in bolts quickly. It’s the macho version of a wrench. The two smaller things are a 3/8" to 1/4" adapter and a 5mm hex bit socket. I used them like so:

I did not need to remove the bolts holding the left-side crank, I only needed to loosen them two or three turns. Then I used the Adjusting Cap Tool again:

There’s a little metal safety catch on the left-side crank. It’s a last line of defense to keep your crank from sliding off if you forget to tighten the bolts or one of them somehow breaks. Using the little ridge on the side of the Adjusting Cap Tool, I lifted it up, so I could pull the crank off.

With the left crank removed, the rest of the crankset can be pulled out from the right side.

At this point I sat down with the crankset and started tinkering. I had a 30-tooth chainring that I tried swapping out with the 32-tooth ring, but that didn’t fit. I gave up on it and removed the 22-tooth ring, and bolted the 20-tooth ring into place.

Marking the bolts with dots, clockwise, so they can be placed back in the same sockets afterwards. Also marking the region on each bolt to be shaved off.

With the bolts tightened down, the next thing I did was use a permanent marker to label the bolt heads, so I could shave them down the same way I was going to shave down the posts. Once they were marked I removed them again, and took off the 20-tooth ring, and prepared for carving.

This is a Dremel tool with a tungsten-carbide tip, specially designed to carve metal. You can get both for under 40 bucks, and they are well worth it. Being able to easily carve metal, plastic, and wood is a weirdly liberating ability.

Note also the earplugs. Gotta have those. Carving metal can be loud as heck.

I put in the earplugs, wrapped the crankset in a rag, set it on my lap, and began carving the four inner posts down with the Dremel tool, cutting a good-sized notch away from the outer edge of each post.

I had a hunch that I’d need to cut the notches deeper, but this was a good start. I moved on to the bolts.

By sticking a bolt sideways in a pair of vise-grips with the marking line on the outside, I was able to run the Dremel tool along the edge and smooth it down very easily. It only took a few minutes to do all four bolts this way.

I did the carving outside over a section of driveway next to a drain, and then I poured water on the ground to wash the aluminum dust down the drain, and then I washed the aluminum dust off the crankset. Then I took a shower and changed my clothes. I don’t want aluminum alloy dust on my skin or in my lungs, or on my cat’s feet!

Then I reassembled the whole crankset, with the new 20-tooth ring and the bolts in place, placed the chain on the ring, and rode around for a few minutes.

The result: Easily visible grease marks on all the spots where I needed to shave away more metal.

I took the crankset apart again and shaved away all the spots that had accumulated grease. Then I reassembled it for a second time, and did another test.

No grease marks this time. The shaved bolts and notches were perfect — and no bigger than they absolutely needed to be. I was definitely compromising the structural integrity of the lowest gear on my crankset, but at least I wasn’t compromising it more than I had to.

For the final assembly I made sure the bolts were tightened according to the instructions, and re-applied a bunch of lubricant.

Mission accomplished! So, what did I gain?

I loaded 65 pounds of gear onto the bike, using both racks and a backpack. Then I took a ride around Oakland, deliberately aiming for really steep hills. To my astonishment, I could pedal up all of them comfortably. My previous minimum speed had been about 2.5mph. Now I could drop all the way down to 1.9mph without losing stability. That is slower than a casual walking speed!

I know, I know. You’re saying, “what kind of brain-damaged lunatic actually wants to pedal a bike that slow, for hours at a time?” Well, before you judge cycle tourists, consider those people who run in place for hours every week on a treadmill inside “fitness centers”, looking at a television, or staring at a wall. At least we’re outside!

In traffic!

… Okay, yes. We are lunatics.