37 days and one year later: part 8: mechanical problems and other surprises

(Hmm, seems I forgot August 31 was a day when scheduling these posts. ๐Ÿ™‚ Subsequent posts will return to the one-a-day schedule.)

This is part eight of a series of posts discussing various aspects of a bike trip I did across the United States in 2012. Part one discussed the start of the trip and choosing a route. Part two discussed my daily routine and nightly shelter. Part three discussed general mileage, elevation encountered, and state-by-state scenery. Part four discussed mileage extremes and water. Part five discussed food. Part six discussed elevation extremes, particularly crossing the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. Part seven discussed how I used down time and how I kept electronics charged. This post discusses mechanical issues and other surprises.

Mechanical problems

Tires and tubes

I replaced five bike inner tubes over the entire trip, and I replaced one tire about 750mi in after a catastrophic flat. After I returned I talked to someone who’d done a different cross-country route who’d had closer to a dozen flats. I’d have expected closer to a dozen flats than five for the trip, and no catastrophic flat (although I wouldn’t have been surprised to wear out a tire). As I carried two spare tubs and one spare tire, none of these mishaps presented any real issue. (Although after the catastrophic flat, I did just barely make it into the bike shop in the next town for a new backup tire and spare tube, before it closed for the day.)


I anticipated possibly having to deal with broken spokes at some point or another, so I carried a round of replacements: one front, one back. Properly truing spokes is a black art, but I could probably fake it til I made it to a bike shop. The first time I broke a spoke, I heard a metallic snap but didn’t recognize it as a broken spoke. I only learned about it a couple hours later when the bike shop in Pueblo asked if I wanted it fixed. (Good timing on my part!)

The second broken spoke happened about twenty-five miles from the end of the trip — and it was actually two rear spokes. I didn’t have that many replacements, and I also, er, discovered I didn’t have the tools to remove the rear cassette to replace even one of them. (*whistles innocently* There aren’t many road-ready tools for doing this, actually, as cassette removal on the go is a very uncommon thing to have to do. These suggestions are about what I’m aware of now, but with no big trips planned, I’m not in a huge rush to pick one.) Beyond that, tho, I’d been told at a shop in Kansas that I really needed a new rear wheel. (They didn’t have any, but they said their jury-rigged fix might last til the end of the trip.) So ideally I didn’t want to install new spokes for only twenty-five miles. I removed the broken spokes and gingerly biked to a bike shop in Williamsburg, where I asked about just finishing the trip without them. The bike shop thought it could work if no more spokes broke, handed me a business card with phone number just in case, and advised me to avoid bumps and potholes. ๐Ÿ™‚ This was a slightly frazzled way to end the trip, a couple hours later than expected, but it worked out.

Miscellaneous surprises

Traveling light

I knew, entering the trip, that I would be traveling very light. I would be (heh) on a non-touring bike; my seatpost rack limited me to 25 pounds in panniers; and I wouldn’t carry much on my back except water, repair tools, and sundries. I could do this because I’m comfortable traveling light as a backpacker. Doubtless many cyclists are backpackers, but I expected to be at the lighter end of the crowd. I did not expect to be the lightest. Every other long-distance cyclist I saw was on an apparently heavier bike with both front and rear panniers. I expected to see a cyclist or two touring with rear panniers (possibly even less in more-populated areas). I saw none. I don’t know how to explain this.

Me striking the flexing-arm-muscles pose in front of a statue of Popeye, with my bike behind; the bike has two rear panniers, and I'm wearing a mostly-hidden Platypus backpack, and that's all the gear I took
Striking the reportedly-traditional pose by Popeye on entering Illinois; those two panniers and water bladder backpack were all I carried

Locking up the bike

In normal life I carry a bike U-lock with me everywhere I go, locking up my bike whenever I have to leave it. I did the same on this trip, expecting I’d often leave it unattended while in stores and the like. In practice I did this, but as my route traveled through mostly lightly-populated areas, I only used it once, during a ninety-minute stop at a library in Kansas. (I didn’t lock it while in campgrounds, and in hotels I kept it with me in my room.) I’ve read stories of others biking across the country who’ve had bikes stolen, so it is a danger. Yet given what I saw and experienced, I’d consider leaving it behind were I to do this ride again.

Staying off-net

I despise phones in general and cell phones in particular. But for this trip, it seemed important to have one to be able to call ahead to arrange lodging as I traveled. So I set up a one-month prepaid plan with T-Mobile, to renew at the end of the month. This was actually a huge mistake, as I quickly learned that T-Mobile’s coverage outside metro areas is very sparse. (Data especially, but even call service was often light to non-existent.) In the west I was told by various people that Verizon or AT&T would work well in different places, and in the east apparently both worked equally well. It happens that T-Mobile’s being primarily an urban network is common knowledge to anyone in Silicon Valley with a cell phone. But that doesn’t include me, so I got to learn something. ๐Ÿ™‚

As my data plan frequently didn’t work, or worked poorly, I used numerous apps with little data access. I was surprised how poorly many apps worked. Navigating through screens that downloaded data often didn’t cache that data: going forward and backward might require reloading just-viewed data. Goodreads was the biggest offender in this regard. Mobile developers: offline performance matters! Don’t sell it short just because you live in a San Francisco world of ubiquitous, high-quality, high-speed data. Vast swaths of the country are entirely unlike San Francisco in this regard.

Next time, health.


A helpful cycling tip

Tags: , , — Jeff @ 01:16

Suppose your bike experiences one flat tire, which you fix.

Now suppose a couple weeks later it experiences a second flat tire, which you fix.

Further suppose that you begin to wonder about the structural integrity of your bike tires; they’ve now gone flat twice in a short span of time, and at a closer glance the casing in the tires is starting to show through the rubber. It’s conceivable they need to be replaced, as you’ve put at least a few thousand miles on them and have used them since 2003.

In hypothetical response to this you ask someone knowledgeable how long bike tires last and how one would recognize when they need replacement. In response you are told that bike tires are suspect after five years (due to breakdown of the rubber) and should be replaced when the underlayer shows through.

You now have two entirely hypothetical options. First, you can replace the tires now. Second, you can continue using the ones you have until you can get to a cycling store “eventually” to buy new ones, but as it turns out you won’t make it to the store before your tire fails you a third time and you have to fix yet another flat (and actually a fourth as well, when you find your rear tire flat when you try to get to REI the next morning to buy a new pair of tires).

Two bike tire inner tubes waiting to be patched; the third had multiple holes, so it got thrown away
Two decrepit bike tire inner tubes waiting to be patched; the third had multiple holes, so it got thrown away

Now for the helpful cycling tip: replace old tires promptly and don’t wait for third flats.