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Interview: Touring With A Folding Bicycle

Posted August 7th, 2012

Cycling through Africa? On a folding bike? However unlikely such a combination seems at first glance, that’s exactly what cyclists Jo Charnock and Jan Wouters set out to do in 2007 – despite some uncertainty about how the trip would work out.

Travelling the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, on folding bikes? Were we completely mad or had we come up with an idea that would prove to be the simplest and most fun way to travel?


They needn’t have worried. The trip turned out to be a hit. They combined cycling with transport by truck, bus, train and plane. They nicknamed it ‘hitch-biking’ and recently published the story of their trip in a new book: A Hitch-Biker’s Guide Through Africa.

Jan also recently took the time to answer a few questions for TravellingTwo.com about touring on a folding bike.

Travels by folding bike

1. What features should people look for in a folding bike for touring?

The bike has to be stiff, needs good components and a sturdy baggage carrier. It’s the same as with all travel bikes; if you go cheap, you’ll end up having more technical problems during your trip. Go for quality or the best that you can afford. We chose Dahon Bikes. They have a specific travel bike which looks really great (Dahon TR).

I rode on a Dahon full-suspension folding bike (Jetstream), which turned out to be great. Jo took a real city type of folding bike (Vitesse) which still stood up to the test. Looking back, if you’re looking for comfort the bike to get would be the one with suspension.

Travels by folding bike

2. And what about the equipment? Is it different from what you’d carry for touring on a ‘normal’ bike?

Choosing the right sleeping bag, tent, cooking gear and all other personal stuff is as important as choosing the bike. One of the most important things is to keep everything very, VERY light. We weighed and scrutinised everything before we left, and ended up travelling with just a small backpack plus a bag on the luggage rack. If you want to take more, get a full-size bike. But just like with any travelling, most travellers travel with way too much stuff that they end up not using.

Travels by folding bike

3. Why did you use a backpack? That’s not traditionally recommended for bike touring.

The reason for this was that we wanted to be able to quickly fold our bikes, and hitch a ride. Also, cycling in Africa can sometimes be a challenge at busy public transport stops when there are a lot of people around. Safety can be an issue at this time, so it’s important to be able to fold your bike, and not have to worry about having to take bags first.

If you really want to travel light in ‘funny’ countries, I would opt for the backpack. If you’re in a ‘safe’ first world country, I would maybe opt for pannier bags. Ortlieb offers good bags. So does Overboard and many other brands. Again, it’s all about keeping it simple and light.

Travels by folding bike

4. When bike touring, ideally you want a bike with parts that are easily found everywhere, in case of mechanical trouble. Don’t folding bikes tend to have specialist parts, and was that a problem for you?

Spare parts are something that most touring cyclists do go completely overboard with! We travelled the whole of Cairo to Cape Town with a basic repair kit, and found most of the repair stuff we needed in little bike shops along the way. We had a lot of flats, but always found inner tubes for our 20″ tyres. I even found cheap Chinese tyres. If you find that stuff in little villages in Africa, I am sure you’ll find them in most places in the world! Most bikes these days really have good components that last a long time.

Stuff that will break first are inner tubes, tyres and spokes, and cables; all very light and easy to carry. It’s again a question of keeping it simple. If you find out that a particular component is getting worn out, get to a city and have it replaced. Don’t wait till it just breaks.

As for the specific folding bike components; these are so well engineered these days, that I think they would be the last to break on the bike. We did our trip in 2007-08 and I still use the same bike nearly every day. The folding components haven’t needed any extra attention so far.

5. Are some destinations or types of bike tours particularly suited to folding bikes or – on the other hand – totally unsuitable?

It depends on what one wants to do. Great destinations include Europe or the United States as you can easily cycle from town to town and from hotel to hotel, with a minimum of luggage.

The only place a folding bike would be unsuitable is for real mountain bike travel or climbing some serious grades in the Alps. If the terrain is really rough, other bikes would make more sense. We used our folding bikes on pretty rough terrain in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia and we’re not sure we would like to repeat it!

Hitch Bikers Guide To Africa Also, if you want to cycle the whole way, a folding bike is not the best option. There are other and better full-size bikes available for that purpose. But if you go for a combination of cycling and other means of transport the folding bike is the way to go.

When the scenery is beautiful, you cycle. If it’s boring or you are tired, catch a bus or hitch a ride. We call it ‘hitch-biking’ and it means that you meet all sorts of interesting people along the road.

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Thanks to Jan for this interview. If you want to know about his travels with Jo, check out their book: A Hitch-Biker’s Guide Through Africa and their website Folding Bike Travels.

Poll: Do you navigate with a GPS or maps?

Posted August 3rd, 2012

GPSWe’ve hosted a lot of bike tourists this summer, and we’ve been struck by just how many of them now carry a GPS.

Nearly everyone who’s come to see us has either had a stand-alone GPS unit on their handlebars, or used the GPS functionality on a smartphone to help guide the way.

We’re also navigating by GPS these days. With so many free GPS routes and country maps to download, it couldn’t be easier to plan a route. We can also find the nearest supermarket or campground at any time, and this alone saves us time and frustration.

That said, we still love a good map. There’s just something satisfying about sitting at your campsite and staring at a map to see how far you’ve come and where you’re going.

We’d love to know how you’re navigating these days. Have you gone over entirely to GPS or are you still a devoted map user? Take the poll below, or leave a comment to let us know.

How do you navigate while on a bike tour?
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Posted in Equipment, Polls

New Gear For This Summer’s Bike Tour

Posted July 13th, 2012

This month we’re cycling for over 2 weeks through the Netherlands, Belgium and France. It’s our first extended bike tour with our son Luke and we’ve tweaked our gear to suit bike touring with a baby.

We’ve also acquired some new things, as you do. We can’t blame all of this new stuff on Luke! Here’s the list of recent additions:

1. A Baby!
You probably figured out already that 5-month-old Luke is our most significant addition. We’re excited to take him on his first big bike tour. We’ve already done a few test runs and we’re confident that as long as we go slowly it won’t be any problem to combine cycle touring with parenthood.

Luke hanging out...

2. Chariot Cougar 1 Trailer
“If the baby is happy, then everyone is happy.” That’s our motto on this trip and in order to keep the baby happy, he’ll be riding in the very plush Chariot Cougar 1. We’ve done many shorter day and weekend tours with this trailer and Luke loves it. We’re confident it’s up to the job.

Chariot Cougar 1

3. Vaude Sioux 500 XL Sleeping Bag
We’ve used our PHD Minim sleeping bags for many years now but for this trip Friedel is swapping to Vaude’s Sioux 500  synthetic sleeping bag. There are a few reasons for the change.

First, the PHD bag doesn’t have a zipper. That’s great in winter (when you don’t want a draft to come in from the side of the bag) and also cuts some weight from the bag, but it makes it much harder to attend to a crying baby in the middle of the night.

Vaude Sioux 500 Sleeping Bag

Also, the square shape of the Sioux bag means it will be easy to open up the bag and spread it like a blanket over mum and Luke, if baby just wants to cuddle at night.

Finally, this is a good-value bag that will be fine for summer trips but doesn’t cost too much. By the time next summer comes, Luke will likely get his own sleeping bag.

4. Aeropress Coffee Maker
Aeropress Coffee Maker
For us, a good day of bike touring starts with a good cup of coffee. This is especially true when your nights are broken up by baby! To that end, we’ve recently fallen in love with the Aeropress coffee maker.

It’s light, robust and makes an excellent, strong cup of coffee (the coffee is so good that we’re also using it at home).

Before we bought the Aeropress, we used the “cowboy coffee” method. That technique also makes a good cup of coffee but the process is a little messier and uses more water than the Aeropress.

5. Thermarest NeoAir Mattress
This is another baby-related purchase. Are you spotting a theme yet?

Initially Luke was sleeping on a foam Zlite mat but it’s bulky to carry around and not the same height as our Exped mattresses. The different heights makes nighttime breastfeeding difficult. That’s why we upgraded Luke’s mattress to the thicker Thermarest NeoAir. The NeoAir also weighs a minuscule 230g and is very compact when packed. We hope it will last at least until Luke is 4-5 years old.

Thermarest Neo Air

6. Helinox Chair One
Finally, we leave the baby-related additions and find something for mum and dad: two comfy chairs. Until now, we’ve never carried a camping chair but we’re at that point in life when we want some extra luxury.

The Helinox Chair One is brand new on the market. It’s lightweight (850g), packs down to a compact size and is very comfortable – if a little on the expensive side at €80 a chair (about $100 U.S. dollars).

Helinox Chair

Here’s a review of the Helinox Chair One from two bike tourists.

7. Ortlieb Rack Pack
Things like mattresses, sleeping bags and the Helinox chairs are relatively lightweight but take up a lot of space in our panniers, so for this trip we’re going to put all of these items in a 31 liter Ortlieb Rack Pack. The bag will go on the back of Friedel’s bike.

Ortlieb Rack Pack 31 Liter

8. Xtorm Power Bank
From A-Solar, we bought the Xtorm Power Bank 7000. Between that and our dynamo hub, we should now have plenty of extra power for our GPS, mobile phone and other gadgets.

A-Solar Battery

9. The Behold Tool Case

BeholdThis nifty little tool case arrived for us to review a few months ago but we’ve just now managed to get it on Friedel’s bike.

It slips into a cage which is mounted between your water bottle and the frame, and it’s just big enough for the essentials: a spare tube, a few patches, glue and some tire levers.

The idea is that it’s always there (you don’t need to think about packing a separate tool kit if you’re quickly jumping on your bike to run an errand) and easily accessible. See an Adventure Cycling review of the Behold.

10. iPad 3

Last but not least, we’ve finally caved in and joined the iPad crowd. We bought our iPad 3 more for use at home than on tour but we can definitely see that it could have a place on a bike tour so we’re trying it out. Lightweight cyclists will be horrified to learn that we’re also taking a laptop with us because we just can’t bear the thought of not being able to edit photos and do other work with our normal software. Will we use both? Probably. Do we need both? We’ll let you know…

iPad 3

 

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Of course some of the old favourites like our MSR Whisperlite stove and Ortlieb panniers will still be on the bikes. As for the new gear, we’ll be giving you our full thoughts on it after we return.

What new equipment are you carrying on tour this summer?

Making Sun Shades For The Chariot Cougar 1

Posted June 30th, 2012

When we first made plans to go cycling with Luke, our biggest worry was the summer heat.

Luke’s Chariot Cougar 1 trailer has a fair amount of ventilation but some light does come through the tinted windows on the side. We wanted the option to have him in total shade on very hot and sunny days.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we had a conversation with another mum, Christine. She’s written a very helpful article about bike touring with a baby, and immediately had our solution: a homemade sun shade.

Christine sent pictures to show exactly what she was talking about.

Sun shades for the Chariot

Sun Shades For The Chariot

We loved this idea and decided to follow Christine’s lead.

We bought red nylon fabric (210D Ripstop) and webbing from a Dutch company, Radical Design. We also purchased velcro and thread from our local fabric shop.

After tracing out a pattern, followed by an hour of cutting and sewing, Andrew came up with this:

Sun cover for Luke's Chariot

He made one for each side. Here are the shades fitted on the Chariot.

Sun cover for Luke's Chariot

The shades totally block any light from coming in the carriage but all the ventilation slots remain open. They’re also lightweight and water resistant. They can be easily removed and stored under the seat when not in use. Success!

As part of the process of making these shades, we also talked to two other parents about cycling in the heat. Stuart (from the Family Adventure Project) and Thomas gave us these helpful tips.

  • Aim for shady routes (not always possible or practical)
  • Get up early or cycle late (depending on existing routines) and nap during the hottest part of the day
  • Dress the baby in cool loose fitting clothes, or even just a nappy (watching out for sunburn)
  • If you don’t make your own shades as we did, then rig light cotton cloth shades over the buggy to minimise direct sunlight (simple cotton diapers can be used for this purpose and can also cover baby’s feet)
  • Put a drink bottle in trailer so the baby can drink on demand (if old enough)
  • Put damp clothes on to keep the baby cooler
  • Put a little battery operated fan in the trailer
  • Stop for drinks and ice lollies and ice cream
  • Go to a colder country or travel off season!
Now we’re ready to go summer touring with Luke.

Review: The PowerFilm Solar Charger

Posted April 10th, 2012

powerfilm AA+USB chargerMore and more cyclists are loading down their panniers with electronic gadgets, and all of these high-tech tools require one thing: power.

How to keep all those batteries full? A solar panel is one option to consider, and recently we had a chance to test out the PowerFilm AA + USB folding panel (cost: about $80 U.S.).

In the interest of full transparency, we received it from a good friend and her extended family actually manufactures these panels. Like always, however, we promised her – and all of you – an honest review!

With that out of the way, we can honestly say that first impressions were good. In a nutshell, this panel:

  • Seems robust
  • Weighs a modest 180 grams
  • Folds up to a fairly small size; just a bit larger than your wallet, at 14cm x 8cm (5.5″ x 3″).
  • Is water resistant, so a small drizzle won’t hurt but you will have to put it away if the rain persists for long
  • Has grommets (small holes) on each end, which make it easy to fasten the solar panel to the back of your bicycle, bags, etc…