Time for another gear review as my cycle computer approaches the 20,000km mark. Some 10,000km ago I wrote this as I waited for the uncertainty surrounding the Presidential elections in Guinea to pass over. Now I’m in the Congo waiting for a boat to transport me up the river here (I was when I wrote this).

I shall follow the same layout as the last review. If there is a piece of kit or aspect of the journey you’d like me to pass comment on after 20,000km on the road please let me know. Also, any advice, tips or recommendations regarding any aspect of gear is highly appreciated. As I consider myself more a traveller than a cyclist please forgive the lack of specific bicycle terminology and simplicity in some aspects of gear.

Narrow track

Bike

My Thorn Raven continues to prove itself a worthy bike to handle big distances on African roads. The frame remains solid and the paintwork mostly intact with no sign of rust. Any odd creaking from the bottom bracket has ceased since the last review and there is no loose play in the headset.

After 14,000km I found the rear sprocket and chain had worn so badly that they needed replacing. This was earlier than I expected. The sand and grit from roads in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the rainy season certainly speeded up the wear effect.

Removing the rear sprocket proved a gargantuan effort, requiring the strength of 4 people and a very long 21” spanner. Replacing it with a new one, which was sent to me in Abidjan along with a new chain, rear sprocket, sprocket removal tool and front chain-ring (also replaced) proved much easier. Had I known that it would wear this quickly I would have started the journey with those parts I replaced.

I also installed a plastic chain-guard over the chain on someone’s recommendation. This is proving to be very useful. Whereas a day splashing through puddles and riding through sand would have required a daily cleaning of the chain, I now find that many days, even weeks pass without more than a few specks of grit finding their way into the chain. This current chain and sprocket might last almost twice the distance as the last, but I probably won’t wait that long to find out. The rear sprocket can be removed and reversed, thereby prolonging it, but given how much of an effort it was last time I’m reluctant to shift it at the moment (although perhaps I should?) I don’t have another chain or sprocket with me, but may have one sent out between here and South Africa.

Hub

I changed the oil in the Rohloff hub for the second time in Abidjan. This came after 14,000km (the first in Lisbon after about 6000km). Rohloff advise that the oil is changed every 5000km, which is possibly erring on the side of caution. It may well be possible to ride 10,000-12,000km or more with no harm to the hub or noticeable difference in gear changing performance, but given the cost of the hub I don’t think it’s worth finding out, particularly given where I am. As a gear system I find the hub offers a perfect ratio of gears, all of which I use, although an extra lower and upper gear would be useful. There are many times where a sudden shift of several plus gears is necessary to deal with the unexpected terrain here. With a Rohloff I can do this with no need to turn the pedals. Is it worth the price tag you might ask? I think if you’re going to use it over tens of thousands of kilometres, particularly on poor roads, then yes.

The front Shimano XT hub shows no signs of requiring attention and I hope it will last the remainder of the journey.

Tyres

I’m still using the now dis-continued Schwalbe XR and will do until I can no longer get hold of them or another tyre proves equally as durable. Schwalbe created the Extreme as a replacement to the XR, but I found after several thousand kilometres on UK roads that the walls were already splitting. They may just have been from a bad batch, but I decided to switch back to the tried and tested XRs.

After 13,000km a split developed in the front XR profile (it had been on the rear wheel for about 8000km). I replaced it with a new XR sent to me in Abidjan, and also replaced the rear tyre with a new XR. After 6000km both XRs are still strong and I have two replacement foldable XRs with me. Unless more than one of them suddenly fails these tyres will last the duration of the journey.

Wheels

The Rigida rims are proving to be as durable as they appear. No wear in the rim walls nor signs of cracking beside the spoke nipples. Strong wheels are a must for African roads and these heavyweights fit the bill.

Spokes

More a reflection of my inability to correctly true a wheel than the strength of the spokes, I’ve now had 4 broken spokes in the front wheel. Fortunately I’m carrying a number of spares (Sapim spokes). The last one was threaded by someone who knew what he was doing and for the last 2000km it has been fine. I’m confident that any more spoke breakages between here and South Africa will be rare.

Brakes

The ceramic break pads are proving very durable. I’ve changed both front and rear once and the current pads have plenty of life left in them. I’ve never used hydraulic or disc brakes when touring and find the simplicity of basic V-brakes to be the best system for a long distance tour.

Racks

I continue to praise Surly for their wonderful front rack. Another 10,000km on and still no sign of weakening. Having said this my Japanese cycling partner had one of the lower bracket attachments break after 25,000km of use. It was welded then soon broke again, and re-welded only to break again soon after. A new piece of metal was cut and attached, which looks like it will last. He has almost double the load on his front rack (20-25kg). The best feature of the rack is the large flat loading space it offers (spare bottles and flip flops currently occupy this space).

Someone recently asked me about how the Ortlieb panniers fit on the rack as they are designed to be attached to Tubus racks. In order to provide a tight fit between pannier and rack I’ve wrapped duct tape around the rack so that the panniers clip on with no loose spacing. Thorn’s rear rack is proving equally as durable as the Surly. No problems whatsoever.

Brooks Saddle

A few small cracks have developed around the metal studs of my B17, but it continues to slowly age and gain the character of a well-worn saddle. Despite the sun, rain and humidity the leather holds up well. Brooks provide their own wax to protect the saddle, although I’ve been using tan shoe polish. And yes, despite it being very hard it is comfortable.

On request Brooks kindly sent me some leather bar tape since the last review, which is proving equally comfortable and durable.

Kickstand

The ESGE double kickstand continues to be in my view the strongest stand available for a loaded touring bike. The stress and wear it may have on the frame is cushioned by several layers of rubber between stand and frame.

Panniers

The equatorial sun is proving to fade the darkness of my Ortlieb panniers, but more importantly they remain strong and waterproof. Unless one disappears in a river or some other unknown destination they will last the remainder of the journey. An extra external mesh pocket would be an added feature to the front panniers, but the simplicity of Ortlieb is their hallmark.

Ortlieb Handlebar bag

Equally as strong and waterproof as the panniers, my 10L handlebar bag contains my valuables (passport, SLR camera, compact camera, Ipod, mini-speakers, GPS, mobile phone, money belt, journal and paperback book). It goes with me when the bike is out of sight. I never use the lock that Ortlieb have developed with the bag to attach it to the handlebars. The mesh pockets on the side of the handlebar bag contain my headtorch and water purification tablets. It is this style of mesh attachment that would be worth incorporating onto the panniers.

The Ortlieb map case, which sits on the top of the handlebar bag, has recently been disposed of – the plastic having ripped beyond repair. I hope to replace it in the coming months.

Map case finished

Camping bag

The blue camping bag (manufacturer unknown) continues to hold my tent, sleeping bag and thermarest. My packing up time in the morning is far quicker with a bag which solely contains my camping equipment and I don’t mind packing the tent away wet as it can be easily removed later in the day to dry.

Camp Gear: Tent

My MSR hubba hubba has probably been pitched over 250 times now and remains intact. I occasionally cringe at the creaking of the poles as I bend them into the fittings, but they remain strong. The almost total mesh inner remains the best solution for camping in hot weather (it effectively doubles as a mosquito net) as it allows any air flow to enter the tent. There is plenty of head room and space for all my gear.

Several weeks ago the tent withstood a prolonged downpour of rain, although the groundsheet could not cope with the surface water, which inevitably caused the floor of the tent to become wet. This is partly due to the lower hydrostatic pressure (1500mm?) but also the surface of land I was camping on. After several hours of rain the bare compact soil had become waterlogged.

MSR could provide better tent pegs than the tiny ones that come with the hubba hubba. I have long since replaced them with more traditional pegs.  My only other criticism is the colour of the flysheet – yellow is not very discreet. Aside from this I think there are few rivals for a more suitable 2-men tent to tour Africa with. If you know of one, please share your comment.

School camp

Sleeping bag

My Cumulus down sleeping bag (rated to 0 Celcius, weight 450g) continues to get frequent use, even in Central Africa. There are some nights in the tent when the temperature falls enough to warrant a body layer. Tucked down at the bottom of one of my panniers is a silk sleeping bag liner, which would easily suffice for the drop in temperature, but this has hardly had any use since starting the journey. I could probably do without the down sleeping bag for the next several months, but I anticipate camping at altitude again between here and South Africa to warrant keeping it. Even at temperatures of 20C the down sleeping bag doesn’t cause me to sweat. I would say that a similar sleeping bag rated to around 0C such as the Cumulus one is ideal for a long tour through Africa where temperature can fluctuate, but rarely drops below freezing.

Thermarest

Still going strong in its 4th year, despite two patches from former punctures (I camped on a bed of thorns in Tunisia during my last trip). Some people opt to use a roll mat to prevent this, but the comfort and compactness of a thermarest makes it more ideal.

Pillow

My inflatable Decathlon-purchased pillow is now no more. Small splits developed in the seams several months ago and I got tired of waking up in the night to re-inflate it, only for it to be flat again a few hours later. Repairing it was impossible. I’m hoping to find a replacement in east Africa.

Camping stool

Continues to get frequent use and highly recommended if you’re planning a long tour and plan to camp on rough ground. Seeming that it only cost 5 Euros from Decathlon it’s surprisingly strong.

Primus Stove

Now in its 3rd year my Primus omnifuel is proving very robust and managing to deal with the dirty fuel I use to power it here in Africa. The half-litre fuel bottle sufficiently provides power (when filled with Petrol) for several hours of high-powered burning, which very approximately is enough fuel for a week’s camping (boiling water for coffee and rice mostly)

Cooking pots

I continue to use the two Coleman cooking pots (1.5L and 1.7L) I started the journey with. The frying pan I picked up in Morocco has hardly been used in the last 6 months, but its light and slots into a space easily enough.

Ortlieb water bladder

During the first year of this journey I rarely used the 10L water bladder, but in recent months it has been frequently used when camping in the bush. Used sparingly 10L is enough water for two people to shower. I usually look for a water source late afternoon and then strap the bladder onto the top of my camping bag for the final kilometres of the day.

Electronics: Laptop

I’m still updating this website using my Eee PC 901. Shortly after the last review a number of keys on the keyboard stopped working (possibly trapped moisture?). A kind reader sent out a replacement keyboard to Liberia, which has functioned fine since. For its size and price it is hard to be too critical, but I miss having extra hard-drive space stored within the netbook and it could be quicker. The battery continues to give 3-4 hours, which is great considering its use.

Portable hard-drive

I store all my photos, music, videos and films on a 1tb hard-drive. In Nigeria I sent home the 500GB hard-drive I set off on the journey with. This one still has plenty of space, although I’d like to do another back-up between here and South Africa. I keep the hard-drive within a cushioned zip-case, which then slots into one of the pockets in the rear pannier.

Cameras

Still using the Nikon D90 and Lumix compact. I miss having extra focal length with the 18-105 lens that I bought with my second D90 of this trip. The 50mm lens rarely gets used as there is no space for it in the handlebar bag. I have 2 Nikon batteries, which provide enough power when fully charged for 600-800 shots at a guess.

The Lumix compact is what a compact should be and takes very good macro shots. I use a 8GB SD card in the D90 and a 4GB SD card in the compact. When the cards are full I transfer pictures onto the portable hard-drive. I have several more SD cards of various sizes as a back-up.

Ipod and mini speaker

Touring without music would be hard for me. I try to collect new music as I travel, but most local music is not available digitally and download speeds are far too slow. My Ipod continues to get regular use nonetheless and several months ago I bought an X mini-speaker, which for its size and price tag produces great quality sound for music and films.

GPS

Since the start of this year I’ve been travelling with a small GPS, which was kindly donated to me by a South African traveller. There are no maps loaded onto the GPS and I merely turn it on every evening to record my position. At some point in the future I’ll put these coordinates into some kind of mapping software to track where exactly I stayed each night. I’m looking forward to tracking my progress across the equator.

Solar charger

My Freeloader Solar panel continues to spend most of the time in a pocket within a front pannier. What does get used is the solar battery. This can be charged by itself from my laptop and acts as a battery to provide a full charge to either my mobile phone or Ipod. Using the solar panel to fully charge this battery when on the move is not easy for a number of reasons (angle of the panel, tree cover, bumps on the road, which ause the battery to disconnect from the panel).

Clothes

I’m now so far into my trip that many of the original clothes I set off with are now no more. I still have my original craghopper zip-off trousers, which rarely get worn as it is too hot now, as well as a long sleeve and short-sleeve craghopper shirt. My craghopper fleece pullover resides at the bottom of a pannier, but will be necessary for the next place at altitude (eastern Congo, Rwanda?) Cycling clothes consist of one of two pairs of padded shorts and either the Against Malaria cycling jersey, or as I’ve been wearing more recently, a sleeveless shirt with the colours of the Central African Republic flag on.

In Ghana I gave away what waterproof clothes I had as I found I was never using them. I also replaced my Karrimor sandles with a fake pair of Tevas here (still going strong) which I wear when cycling.

Flip-flops get daily use off the bike and I continue to carry a pair of lightweight cross trekking trainers for colder weather or possible hiking.

In Nigeria I bought wax-cotton material to be made into two pairs of shirts and trousers for off-bike wear.

I think that’s almost it, other than my precious Tilley hat. One doesn’t need many clothes around the equator.

There are various other bits and bobs in my panniers, such as the first Aid kit, which fortunately receives little use other than being opened to take out my weekly malaria pill preventative. Books wise I have several paperbacks with me, which might get finished if I end up waiting much longer for this Congo boat. All in all it’s about 25kg of luggage, minus the fluctuating quantities of water and food I carry.

That just about covers it. Let me know your thoughts. In another 10,000km I should be quite close to South Africa, I think.