In which I share info about some of the equipment I will be using on the Slow Cycle Around Wales
My last post was all about feelings. In this one, I’m going to change gear and talk about gears and other equipment. Think of it as restoring balance in the universe.
If gear isn’t your thing, you can get straight to the donating action by clicking this link (takes you to my Just Giving page). Don’t forget to subscribe (big button on the left) before you go!
I want to start with some thank yous. A year ago I knew nothing about bikepacking. What little knowledge I have now is largely thanks to my much more experienced friends: Adam, Al, Clennell, Greg A, Greg F, Justin, Marc, Phil, and Tom have all been generous with their wisdom and never made me feel stupid for asking stupid questions or buying dumb stuff.
I also want to give a shout out to bikepacking.com, which is packed with inspiration and advice. If you’re thinking of creating your own adventure on a bike, this is a great place to start.
The vague idea of what is now the Slow Cycle Around Wales germinated in August 2021 when I took delivery of a new gravel bike: a Sonder Camino AL.
At the time, the world was in the grip of a Covid-induced supply shock. Demand for bikes (and other things) had gone through the roof and supplies of components were under pressure due to factory closures and supply chain breakdowns caused by this pesky virus.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, a boat called the Ever Given got stuck (ridiculously) in the Suez Canal, which screwed up global shipping for months, and the UK was just starting to realise that Brexit would make it harder to get stuff from Europe.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that there wasn’t a lot of choice for the discerning purchasor of bicycles.
After weeks of struggling to find anything, Greg A (a serious adventurer) suggested I check out Sonder bikes made by the folks at Alpkit, a UK-based group of designers, makers, and sellers of all kinds of adventure gear. I read some reviews and couldn’t give them my money quickly enough. Four months later, I had new wheels.
The Camino is a lot of fun. Made for gravel adventures, but capable enough on tarmac. It isn’t a particularly expensive bike, but it’s well-made and copes with being packed up with bikepacking gear and thrown around rough terrain with aplomb. I committed the cardinal sin of not having a bike fitting or even trying it out before I bought it. Feel free to remind me how dumb this is in the comments. Call it luck, but it seems to fit me just fine.
Pimping my ride
The Camino comes with the SRAM Apex group set (that’s the chain, gears, etc), which is one-by with 11 gears. That means that it has one cog at the bit where you pedal, which means fewer gears overall, less weight, less stuff to go wrong, and is very fashionable. My experience so far has been that the gearing is low enough to get up the most vicious of hills. This will be tested over the coming weeks.
I opted for the flat bar because I wanted something that I could ride off road for long distances and I find dropped bars a bit scary when going downhill on anything other than smooth tarmac (and even then…)
I didn’t particularly like the handlebar that came with the Camino and, after A LOT of research over several months, I swapped it for the KOGA Denham bar, which was designed by bicycle touring legend Alee Denham. You can read the story behind the design here. This is a game changer, combining the best of flat and dropped handlebars. Also Alee’s blog is an incredible resource.
Taking Alee’s advice I also went for a set of Ergon GP1 grips, which are designed for comfort on long bike tours. Al has helped me get the angles right.
On Adam’s advice I flipped the handlebar stem to make the handlebars a little higher, which feels much more comfortable. One lesson I am learning is that bike fitting is all about making tiny tweaks.
I got the 650b wheels, which are a bit smaller than the typical 700c, and a tubeless set up, which means that the tyres have sticky goop in them rather than inner tubes. Both of these decisions divide opinion and I invite your feedback in the comments, which I will ignore, because I like my wheels.
Finally, I upgraded to a Brooks Cambium C17 saddle, which seems to be very comfortable so far. Again, this is going to be properly tested soon.
If you thought that choosing and kitting out a bike was nerdy, wait until you hear about bikepacking bags.
The basic premise of bikepacking is that you load up your bike with everything you need for a multiday (week, month, or year) adventure and off you go. You can go further and faster than hiking and, provided you have some basic skills and a little bravery, you can wild camp your way around the world. Freedom from the tyranny of timetables.
The challenge is how you most efficiently attach all of your stuff to your bike and that’s where bikepacking bags come in. Rather like the bikes themselves, this is a bottomless pit into which you can throw all of your hard earned cash.
There are loads of brands and companies innovating like crazy, all of them coming from what Charlie Leadbeater described as the pro-am movement. Bikepackers are designing the products they want.
After much agonising, I opted for:
- Wildcat Lion handlebar harness and bag
- Apidura Expedition Full Frame bag with a 1.5l water bladder
- Apidura Back Country top tube bag
- Miss Grape 20l Cluster Waterproof under saddle bag (not shown in the image below)
- 3 x Blackburn Anything cages – two mounted on the forks with dry bags and one on the undercarriage which is for extra water
- Revelate mountain feedbag
Tent and sleep system
Before you @me, I am well aware that using the phrase “sleep system” makes me sound like a plonker. Go easy on me babe, I didn’t invent this jargon.
Pretty much everything in bikepacking is a trade off between comfort, weight, and cost. Nowhere is this more true that with your tent and sleep system.
My tent is the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1, which is a light weight one person tent that has shorter poles to make it easier to pack on a bike. The mattress is Thermarest Neo Air Xlite, the pillow is the Nemo Equipment Fillo Foam, and the quilt is a Sea to Summit Ember. Sleeping bags versus quilts is another heated topic of debate, see you in the comments.
So far, I’ve spent about ten nights sleeping with this set up and it seems to work just fine. The tent is pretty small and, with the benefit of hindsight and fewer budgetary concerns, I might have sacrificed the 300g extra and got the 2 person version. Bygones.
Other stuff: coming soon in part 2
Bike, Bikepacking Bags, Sleep System. Those are the core elements of the gear.
There is a lot of other stuff involved in this bikepacking adventure (clothes, food, cooking equipment, toilette, maintenance and repair, electronics), but this post is already too long and it’s the hottest day in recorded history here in the UK, so I’ll save the rest for part 2.
Let’s end homelessness together
As part of this crazy adventure, I am raising funds for the fabulous charity Llamau, which is on a mission to end homelessness in Wales.
You can make a donation through my Just Giving page or you can send me the cash in any means available to you and I will send it on to Llamau.
Huge thanks to everyone who has donated already and please remember that it is completely acceptable to donate more than once (I’m looking at you, Louise).
Rides since last post: four
8km. 23km. 66km. 23km.
I’ve been taking it steady post-Covid. Still getting tired too quickly for my liking.