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.

Using USB-C to charge a Mavic Air?

Somewhere I got the crazy idea that it would be fun to bring a camera drone on my bike tours. Every bit of weight counts, of course, so I got a portable one called a Mavic Air.

It’s great, but it uses a custom battery that can only be charged with a large power adapter, and the adapter weighs half a pound. I’m already packing a 5-port USB charger that has one USB-C output suitable for charging a MacBook. That should put out more than enough voltage to charge the Mavic battery. Why can’t I use that?

Well, it turns out I can.

This is a little widget called a PD Buddy Sink. You can plug it into a USBC charger like so:

Then you can program it to ask for any voltage that a USBC power source can supply, and make it available. For example, 15 volts at 2 amps, which is enough to feed into this Mavic Air charger designed to plug into a vehicle’s accessory port:

I removed part of the casing to expose the wires, then linked them up to the PD Buddy Sink, like so:

Then I decided to get arts-and-craftsy. I formed a gross looking extension to the car adapter case, using some two-part epoxy and silicone glue. Now it looks like the adapter is digesting the PD Buddy. Mmm! Delicious!

Using my MacBook, I then programmed the PD Buddy Sink to ask my power adapter for 12.5 to 15 volts at 3 amps, with 15 volts preferred:

And after writing the configuration to the PD Buddy, I plugged it in, and presto! It started charging.

On the left, I’m using the 5-port USB charger to charge my MacBook, with a digital USBC power meter attached. The MacBook has negotiated for 20 volts and is getting about 19 volts. On the right, I’ve plugged the same USB charger into my Frankensteined car adapter, and it’s negotiated for 15 volts. Success!

(If you look closely you can see the adapter is pulling only 0.005 amps. That’s because the Mavic Air battery is fully charged.)

So, was it worth it? Well, I weighed my new Frankensteined adapter, and it’s a little less than 1/4th of a pound. So I’ve saved 1/4th of a pound, but I’ve lost the ability to charge my laptop and my battery at the same time, and lost the two extra USB ports that the power brick provided. Nah, it wasn’t really worth it. But I had a good time!

Valoria II: Rear rack

Me:
Is the Bacchetta “universal rear rack” suitable for touring?
Zach:
It is a relatively lightweight bolt together rack with a lot of adjustability. So not ideal for loaded touring but people have used it for that purpose. The weight rating is 25 kg.

It’s a pretty snazzy, minimalist-looking rack. (By the way, I found what looks like the generic version of it for about half as much money.) It took a very long time to assemble and position properly since I wanted it as high as possible off the ground. It also has some flex to it, which might not be a good thing. They say you want a rack to be as stiff as possible.

Could I really rely on this skinny little thing to carry 50 pounds over bumpy roads?

I went in search of other options. It was going to be an especially difficult search because of the weird positioning of the rack mount points on my 2016 Giro frame. They were sandwiched between the mounts for the seat struts and the disc brakes:

That is not much room to work with. The fact that I had to use spacers to fit Bacchetta’s own rack is an embarrassment. Would any other rack have struts narrow enough to fit without spacers? Is the distance between the rack arms going to be a problem?

Surly Rear Rack

(1260 grams, rated for 36kg)

Pros:
  • Strong
  • Has a handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Thin struts at mount points
Cons:
  • U.S.-style light mount
  • Very heavy

This was my go-to choice, except for the weight. I’ve always toured with an aluminum rack and found them plenty dependable. Heck, my frame is aluminum now. Moving to a steel rack seems kind of backwards.

Axiom Journey

(700 grams, rated for 70kg)

Pros:
  • Suspiciously high load rating
  • Good fit angle
Cons:
  • Crappy U.S.-style light mount
  • Handle is blocked

This was my second choice, except I would be giving up the handle. It’s hard to overstate how useful a rack handle is for moving the Giro around in tight spaces. Also, the light mount on this rack is a total afterthought, and their load rating seems really out of wack. Did they actually test that?

Topeak Uni Super Tourist DX

(875 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Good secondary bar placement
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount (RedLite only)
  • Stupid proprietary mounting strip along the top

This would have been perfect except for that mounting plate. I wish Topeak would sell a good rack without that plate, but they apparently want to compel you to use only their bags.

Topeak Uni Explorer

(782 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • Adjustable height
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount
  • Stupid mounting strip

A lighter option than the Super Tourist model with just as much capacity, but I’m still bothered by that mounting plate.

Topeak Explorer

(625 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • No-frills design
  • Best weight-to-capacity ratio of Topeak racks
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount
  • Stupid mounting strip

A even lighter rack, without the height-adjustment hardware. I would have gone with this except I stubbornly kept looking and found a better option.

Blackburn EX-1 Rack

(535 grams, rated for 18.2kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • Minimalist design
Cons:
  • No light mount
  • Low maximum load does not inspire confidence

I really liked the look of this one but the weight capacity was just too low.

Blackburn Outpost Fat Bike Rear Rack

(1105 grams, rated for 31kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Secondary mount bars
Cons:
  • U.S.-style light mount

This is Blackburn’s more upscale offering. I had an idea that the articulated mounting arms would fit inside that narrow gap around the mount points on the Giro … but when I got a closer look they were too thick. Mounting this rack would require spacers just like the rest.

Ortlieb Bike Rack R2

(640 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • European-style light mount. Finally!
Cons:
  • Large amount of material around mount points

Interesting to see what Ortlieb wants to contribute to the rack market. Looks like they just want to make something that has their QL3 mounting system directly integrated. Good for them. Unfortunately the amount of reinforcement around the mount points makes them too big to fit on my frame without long spacers – long enough to widen the rack all the way beyond the top of the bolts that hold my seat struts in place. That’s an awful lot of extra strain on a rack.

When considering the Tubus racks I found this photo from The Touring Store very helpful:

Tubus Carry Titanium Rack

(470 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • VERY light
  • European-style light mount
  • Good lower rail placement
Cons:
  • No handle
  • Top rails are not very long
  • Expensive as hell

The base weight of this fancy rack is astonishingly low, but once you add in the mounting hardware it moves up and becomes merely impressive. Tubus has discontinued this rack but you can still find it around. I think it’s mostly good for bragging rights. The weight difference between this and an aluminum rack with the same capacity is less than the weight of a good-sized sandwich.

Tubus Logo Titan Rear Rack

(390 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • VERY light
  • European-style light mount
  • Good lower rail placement
Cons:
  • Handle is narrow and hard to reach
  • Expensive as hell

Even lighter than the Tubus Carry, this was the flagship Tubus rack for a while, and it’s easy to see why. Titanium is a very sexy material and the rack design is almost perfect. Sadly, Tubus discontinued it. I would track one of these down and use it except there is a slightly better, and more road-tested option…

Tubus Cargo Evo

(530 grams, rated for 40kg)

Pros:
  • Has a good handle
  • European-style light mount
  • Good weight-to-capacity ratio
Cons:
  • No secondary mounting rail

This is a newer revision of the same rack I have on my Bridgestone upright bike. It has two differences: A better shape for the mount points, and a carrying handle. 40 kilograms of load capacity (88 pounds) is plenty, and the frame design is very stiff. It’s also much lighter than the Surly, and doesn’t need an adapter to mount a European-style tail light.

The Tubus Cargo is my choice.

The space between the rack mounting holes on the Giro frame, including the thickness of the frame itself, is exactly 150mm. That happens to be in the middle of the width tolerance for the Tubus Cargo:

This means I can put spacers on either side – up to a centimeter each – without compromising the rack.

Also, notice the way the mount points project inward, like the ends of a clamp. That gives me plenty of clearance around the bolt heads that stick out on the seat struts.

This is important because the rack ends are pretty wide:

If I didn’t have that extra space, I’d run into those bolts for sure.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a gallery showing how it turned out:

It's quite sturdy and I can't detect any flex in it, unlike the standard rack which flexed alarmingly with bags on it.
It's close, but the rack manages to leave space for both the disc brake assembly and the various bolt heads around it.
These are actually the arms from the standard Bacchetta adjustable rack. I liked the fit a little better. The arms that come with the Tubus work fine though.
Closeup of the spacers I needed to fit the rack to the frame.

Aluminum spacerThe aluminum spacer I used – visible in the fourth photo – came from Amazon. I know I paid too much for them but it was just too convenient to throw them in with some household goods in another order.

It only took a few test rides to know that I was dealing with a much, much better rack than the standard Bacchetta one. After a few months, during which I loaded it up with a huge pile of gear and sailed around Oakland for hours at a time, I was convinced that I’d made the right choice. The handle was perfect, the weight was low, the capacity was high, and the brake light mounted easily.

In the meantime, the Tubus rack that I’d put on my upright bike nearly ten years ago continued to be a workhorse. Just last week I used it to transport a truck battery across town.

NZ Day 25: A last day of riding

Fun fact: New Zealand has more cute roadside ponds per capita than any place else in the southern hemisphere.

New Zealand is awash in cute roadside ponds!

(Note: Today’s Fun Fact has not been peer-reviewed.)

We slept in late, and checked out of the Plateau Lodge even later. The 12-mile mountain hike we did yesterday was probably slowing us down. What a surprise!

Nevertheless, we were in good spirits. It was all downhill to Taurmaranui and the weather was fantastic. Plus I was all stocked up on dark chocolate:

Roadside chocolate break!

In the photo you can see the New Zealand flag attached to the bike. It was part of my fabulous plan to boost our visibility to drivers, but in retrospect it was mostly a nuisance. If it was smaller I could have attached it to a pole like recumbent riders usually do. Oh well… Wisdom for the next trip.

Knowing how much we obsessed about weight, it’s odd that I didn’t just discard the flag somewhere along the way. But on the other hand, when you’re visiting a country, you shouldn’t throw their flag in the trash – that’s just rude!

There's the mountain we hiked near two days ago - Mt Ngauruhoe - free of clouds for the first time in a week.

During the chocolate break I looked back to the east and saw Mt Ngauruhoe – free of clouds for the first time in a week. The weather wasn’t that clear yesterday when we hiked it. It’s true what the locals say: The mountain makes its own weather system, and it’s only sometimes related to what goes on around it.

Looking to the north I saw what looked like a smaller, flatter version of Ngauruhoe.

I believe that plateau is called Mt Komokoriri. (That's based on a guess from looking at www.topomap.co.nz .)

In the evening I got obsessed and spent an entire hour on the laptop, browsing around topograpic maps trying to identify the plateau. My best guess was that it’s Mt Komokoriri?

Since it was the last day we would be riding cross-country, I decided to do what I did for the first day, and record some video. This time I attached the camera to the front of the recumbent instead of my helmet. “Now it’ll be nice and steady!” I declared. Nope. Every single tiny ridge on the pavement made the camera jitter like crazy. It looked like I was riding a bicycle with square wheels.

Last_day_Ride-1b

About halfway through the ride we stopped to chat with some outdoorsmen walking along the road.

Friends we met while cycling down from National Park, including Mark the photographer.

The guy on the right is Mark Watson, a nature photographer and fellow cycling enthusiast. I barraged him with questions about photography equipment and techniques, which he answered gracefully.

Stopping for photos of a mountain and seeing smoke in the air

Second video:

Checking in: I’d grown quite a beard.

Resting up after an easy day's riding!

I spent a non-trivial amount of vacation time like this, futzing with photos. Fun!

Odd sockets and switches:

This is how you know the hotel was built a while ago!

NZ Day 24: Tongariro Crossing Extra Photos

Sun pressing through the morning clouds, promising warmth later in the day. ... A promise that was thoroughly broken!
Clouds still clinging to the mountain in the early morning.
A broken signpost, contoured by the endless wind.
The most important part of this sign has been preserved, at least...
Snack time!
Looking back the way we came, we saw a curtain of fog sliding sideways along the peak.
Looking to the left along the trail, and some menacing clouds beyond.