Random notes on cycling
30 Aug 1998 16:47:25 -0700
00:24 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: SU 30 AUG
Parts: No matter how many you carry, the one
you really, really need won't be in your parts box when you really, really
need it. To minimize this, carry a duplicate of everything which, should
it fail catastrophically, would absolutely end your cycling. Also, when
you buy your bike, get the most vanilla components possible. Shimano Alivio
is commonly available in large cities, but even this technology does not
appear on any bikes west of Lanzhou.
My rear hub is probably toast. No problem, just replace it,
Wrong. After numerous cities and nearly 2,000 km in the province
of Gansu, I've yet to see a quick release, a hollow axle or a hub compatible
with a Shimano 8-ring cogset. Xian, Beijing and Hong Kong are the only
PRC cities I've seen these in, though I'm assuming they're available in
Kunshan, near Shanghai, where Shimano operates a parts factory.
Oh. Well, just downgrade to whatever the locals use, right?
In other places of the world, a viable option. However, my trailer
hitches onto the rear axle via a nifty and clever modification of a quick
release spindle. So, I can downgrade to a solid axled 6-ring hub fine,
I just won't be able to use the trailer. And even if that weren't a problem,
what about that cog set?
Also problematic in this case is the low availability of wheels.
A Dutch couple I met cracked a rim and found a compatible replacement,
but the replacement came with an entire bicycle attached and the dealer
wouldn't sell the wheel without the rest of the bike. They eventually
found a slightly incompatible rim, after a trying search, had their hub
built onto it (with those questionable Chinese spokes) and and did some
jury-rigging magic to get the brakes to work with the rim.
Actually, this couple was quite clever and resourceful. They
also repaired broken struts on their pannier racks with tent pegs and
What I'll do next time:
Hubs, particularly brand new ones, don't fail that often. And
they're not light in your bags either. My spare parts include a duplicate
quick release for hitching the trailer. The trailer manufacturer also
makes nuts for solid axles. Next time I'll carry these rather than the
spare quick release. They're lighter than the quick release and will get
me out of three kinds of serious difficulty: quick release breakage; bent
hollow axle; terminated hub. One spare part and a trip to any cycle shop
or even junk yard puts me back on the road with a minumum of fuss (and
a minimum of gears.)
Ball bearings: carry a full set for
overhauling your hubs. The bearings here are cheap, in both senses of
the word. I don't like having to trust my already damaged hub to them,
particularly after today's nearly fruitless search of Dunhuang for something
resembling the right size and shape. Bearings don't weigh much, so carry
two full sets for long tours, for your hubs and your headset and your
Spokes: Like ball-bearings, the spokes
here look a tad cheesy. I haven't had to install any, but I'm not looking
forward to the eventuality.
Tires: Yes, you can buy 26" tires here,
but they may not fit your rims. If Emma's Chinese front tire ever gets
a flat, we're going to have to cut it off--the fit is just too tight.
So, carry a spare tire, or two. The ones with the kevlar bead are lighter
and fold flattest.
Additional tire info: slicks are not
recommended. You will almost certainly have to traverse dirt roads, probably
shortly after a rain. On the other hand, rolling resistance of knobbies
is incredibly high. That is, the tires that come stock on most mountain
bikes make awful road tires. Em sounded like a swarm of killer bees whenever
we rode pavement, and all that racket means friction, which means you're
rolling more slowly than you could. Pick a hybrid tire, slickish in the
middle with knobblies on the outside, and something which you can pump
a lot of air into. The harder the tire, the faster and more stable the
ride. I started with very expensive Bontragers, which were nice, but now
I've got a Specialized Dirt Baldy on the rear wheel. It's slicker, grips
amazingly well in soft, loose conditions, pumps up to 80PSI and appears
more resistant to punctures. All that for half the price of the Bontrager's.
I like it!
The rear tire will wear much more quickly than the front,
particularly if, like me, your hauling a trailer or only use your rear
panniers. The front tire on my setup is the original Bontrager. It's done
over 4,000 kilometers and appears just barely worn. The Dirt Baldy on
back is nearly slick after just 2,000 K, though it's still got plenty
of wear to go. The Bontrager I had on for the first 2,000K was also getting
quite slick. If you carry only one spare, make sure it's suitable as a
Brake pads: Old
cantilever style are available all over China, but you're in trouble if
you need anything more recent. I've not found any of these in all of China.
My originals still haven't worn down to the wear indicators. I'm beginning
to suspect they won't before this trip is over in another 2,000 K. Kind
of a shame since I'm carrying five spare pairs of them, and four of these
pairs are thicker than the originals, designed explicitly for extreme
wear conditions. At $10CDN a pair, I'm not eager to leave them behind.
Tools: if it ain't in your toolbox you
won't be able to find it when you need it. Make sure you can turn every
nut and bolt and screw on your bike. This includes the funky 10mm hex
bolt that may be holding the crank arms onto the bottom bracket spindle.
If that crank starts squeeking, you want to cinch her up immediately,
before you round it like I did, and are forced to replace the crank.
Better yet, check the tightness of the bolt from time to time.
The trucks will normally give you plenty of space, up to half
the road. They'll sometimes even wait for oncoming traffic to clear before
trying to pass you. On the other hand, oncoming trucks passing other oncoming
trucks and vehicles may expect you to get the hell off the road.
Perhaps more dangerous and certainly no less annoying, trucks
are armed with about 5 bizillion decibels of horn, and trucker's are not
afraid to use them. In fact, they take a certain glee in giving little
'pip-pip' hello's as they draw alongside. The only people I swear at,
loudly, and in english four-letter monosyllables, are truckers who lean
on their horns, as if you can't hear their rumbling behemoths sneaking
up from behind.
Meanwhile, car horns often sound as if they've been muzzled
so you'll hear this far-off car horn and almost immediately get blown
down by the shockwave as the car passes. These are usually VW Santanas,
the most popular car in China, and perhaps the worst driven vehicle per
capita in China. Watch out for them.
Break downs: On many of the highways
there ain't much of a shoulder. Don't be surprised to see a truck taking
up an entire lane, its engine lying a meter or so in front or to one side
or the other and in the process of being totally rebuilt.
When it is rebuilt, they'll drive away, leaving on the highway
the large stones they used as chocks to keep the truck stationary.
13:47 Shirley's Cafe, Dunhuang; Gansu--China
Construction: No warnings of any kind.
No diversions. Often work proceeds on all lanes at the same time, effectively
closing the road to all vehicles with more than two wheels. Patchwork
repairs can sit for days before being refilled. I've seen a set of skid
marks cross a two foot deep rectangular hole in the highway. At the end
of them, a truck with the left front wheel sheared off.
Map reading: thick red lines and a numbered
highway do not necessarily indicate pavement.
At the best of times, in the most advanced countries, maps are
frequently inaccurate. Expect mileages to differ, and the course of various
roadways to vary from the printed version.
Notes on preparation:
Make sure, before you leave, that you can take your bicycle
entirely apart and put it back together again, yourself, without an english
speaking bicycle mechanic looking over your shoulder offering pointers.
Test all your spare tubes. Emma's were all punctured. One of
the three needed two patches.
Know all the sounds your bicycle makes when you ride it. When
a new sound appears, figure out what's making it and eliminate the cause
if at all possible.
Zap Straps/Zip Ties: there are
currently 15 of these attached to my bicycle holding various kluges and
jury-riggings together. Several more keep my spare tires tightly packed.
They're light, so bring more than you can possibly imagine using.
Duct tape and electrical tape: needs
no explanation. In a pinch, duct tape alone will suffice.
Kevlar emergency spoke: Don't be lazy:
replace the spoke if possible (you should be carrying spares), however,
if you break one on the cogset side of the rear hub, this will get you
to the day's destination. Pick a hotel room with open plumbing in the
Getting the cogset off withuot a chain whip:
I recommend removing the axle before doing anything else. That
way you are really going to have to do something awful to damage the hub.
Gives you a good reason to overhaul the hub, anyway.
Get out your spare chain, or if the one in use is due for replacement
remove it from the bicycle. While you're in there, get the 6" crescent
wrench and that heavy piece of metal for removing the cogset lockring,
you know, the one you figured you'd never use. Find a nice solid pipe
in the bathroom, one that is easily accessible and goes straight into
a broad, flat, horizontal surface. Lay your wheel down flat and butt the
tire up against the pipe. Wrap a towel around the pipe. Thread one end
of the chain around the second-largest cog and wrap the other end around
the towel encased pipe a couple times. Don't overlap the chain and keep
the links as close to horizontal as possible, unless you won't be needing
the chain anymore.
Now you're ready to reef. Hold the free end of the chain tightly
to the pipe, get a firm grip on the crescent wrench (which is securely
set on the lockring tool) and carefully apply pressure until the lockring
backs off. Ole!
If you don't have a spare chain, and your shifters are Shimano
Hyper-Glide or Inter-Glide, you're in trouble. You won't find any of these
in Gansu or Xinjiang or anywhere else outside of Beijing or Shanghai or
Xian or similar sized cities. In this case, don't use the chain off your
bicycle (it's an endangered species, treat it with special care). Instead,
walk to the nearest sidewalk repair shop and buy one of his castoffs for
a couple jiao. Later, when you're done with it, give it back to him.
Chain cleaning: we've been removing the
chains, soaking them in kerosene then going over every link with one of
the complementary toothbrushes provided by the hotel. We usually ask for
a few extra: they're weak toothbrushes and cleaning the whole drivetrain
completely destroys at least two of them.
I once cycled into a "meiyou meiyou" town, that is, a "no kerosene"
town with a very cranky chain. I used a whole bag of laundry detergent
in a bucket of very hot water, probably enough for twenty or thirty loads
of dirty sheets. This worked remarkably well. Just don't forget to thoroughly
rinse the detergent from the links. It took two days of long rides before
my chain lube would stick for very long. Fortunately, detergent is a bit
Next time, though, I'll make room for one of those chain cleaning
gizmos. Something compact and light, of course, but something you can
apply daily with a minimum of meiyou, muss and fuss.
I went simple and cheap and sturdy. Now wishing
I'd gotten one with an altimeter. Maybe if I had one I'd be thinking it
wasn't worth the hassle.
But what I really wish my computer could do was stop
calculating my average speed whenever the bike isn't actually moving.
Then I could differentiate quite easily between how many hours in a day
is required to traverse a specific distance and how fast I'm pedalling
when actually in motion. As it is, if I want to track the latter I have
to keep switching the meter off every time I stop for a break and remember
to switch it back on again when underway. I always forget one of these,
so I just switch it on as we start the day and (try to remember) to switch
it off when we reach our destination.
Books and other references:
The preface to Roger Grigsby's "China by Bike" states something
to the effect of:
This book assumes you are already an experienced cycle
If you are not, China is no place to start.
I ignored that statement, came anyway and used Grigsby's exceptionately
accurate and detailed trip logs to traverse Shanghai to Suzhou and Tai'an
to Beijing. However, I never did manage to get my cycle computer to synchronize
to Grigsby's mileage. So we'd often resort to just showing Grigsby's maps
to one of the locals and pointing to the Chinese characters for the town
we figured must be coming up. This worked marvellously well and the only
time we ever got lost (and hopelessly so) was when I kinda figured I should
get a local's opinion, but didn't. Thankfully, I came to China with a compass
and we eventually slogged our way, through fields, over donkey cart paths
and into muddy villages, back to an alternate route also appearing on Grigsby's
map, with the aid of the ever-helpful local Chinese. "Hmmm, that highway's
to the east, into the wind, eh? What about this one? Ahh, WEST! Two kilometers?
YES! Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!"
You don't need a guidebook specific to cycling China. You need
two maps. One in english that you can read and use for trip planning.
One that the Chinese can read and you can use for trip planning. The english
one doesn't even have to be particularly accurate. You're just using it
for the names of towns so you can plan out your basic route. The Chinese
one needs to be accurate and thorough.
When cycling, I keep the Chinese road atlas handy, using it
to ask locals where I am and how to get where I'm going. Another guy I
rode with for a day writes the chinese characters of the towns he'll be
passing through that day, clips them to his handlebar bag and shows these
to the locals when asking directions. "Is this town ahead of me or behind
me? Turn right or left to get to this place?" You could also trace out
a simplified map and put this in your handlebar bag, perhaps providing
the locals with a little more clarity.
Though locals rarely steer me wrong, I have sometimes received
false information. It's wise to seek a second opinion for corroboration.
This is important: road signs
are not unheard of but they are infrequent at the best of times and rare
at the worst. Getting out of a town on the right road can be particularly
confusing. Don't assume the street your highway comes into town on exits
town as the same highway.
Unless you're pretty good with mandarin Chinese, a good sturdy
phrasebook is a necessity. Most Chinese people you'll encounter speak
no more english than "Hello, Hello," "Bye-bye!" and "Please sit down."
A useful addition is a Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary. You
can look up the Chinese characters for the chinese map for the english
transliteration of a town on your english map. But, more importantly,
you can find most of the vocabulary missing from the phrasebook, useful
words such as appear in the sentence "Do you have any brake cables?"
(Nimen you shache lan ma?) Neither Lonely Planet or Berlitz consider these
worthy of defining.
As for travel guides like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide,
they're geared to bus and train folk. Useful, perhaps, for when you finally
reach that touristy destination, but just more weight on you axles for
the four or five or seven days of riding ahead. Which leaves the question,
"Where am I supposed to sleep those four or five or seven nights ahead?"
You can find a surface to sleep on in any town on your Chinese
map, and quite a few towns and truck stops not appearing there. These
are not always pleasant experiences, even when the rooms are clean and
the sheets recently washed. But it is a place to sleep. In the mountains
and other more remote regions than the eastern plains camping is a simple
option. How to's on camping are available online; in particular search
for one couple's trip down the Karakorum for explicit detail. It's out
there, you'll find it.
If you don't like either of these options, plan your route around
it. In my road atlas, the smallest dot on the map indicates a small town
or a village, usually place too small to support a Binguan. Any dot larger
than that I refer to as "a Binguan-class town." Typically, a Binguan is
a western tourist-class hotel with rooms including private bath (almost
always a bathtub though sometimes just a shower; and a western toilet),
telephone and a television. Quality and price vary widely, and price is
no indication of quality so always ask to see a room and, if you're wiser
than me, you'll tick off the items important to you on a checklist so
you don't get any surprises after check-in.
Hotel things to remember:
Hot water may not run all day, in fact, it probably won't. Find
out when, and even if, the hot water will be turned on. I've taken my
share of cold showers. I've even stayed in a couple hotels without any
running water at all.
I've given up on direct dial from the room. Even when possible,
internal hotel lines can be absolutely awful. Meanwhile, the merchant
at the corner newsstand probably has a great line, won't hassle you when
you yank the line jack out of his phone and plug it into your computer,
and will almost certainly charge you less for the privilege than the hotel.
The corner store can't help if you need to dial internationally, but any
Binguan-class town also supports a post and telecommunications office
and they too will charge less than your hotel.
The complementary tea provided by hotels is often thin and bitter.
Bring your own supply, or, if you're a coffee hound, get some instant.
Nescafe 1+2 packets can be bought in boxes of 10 or bags of 20 in larger
towns, for as little as 1.4RMB per packet. Non-dairy creamer and sugar
already premixed in one serving packets. Not so bad, unless you're a Starbuck's
You'll probably be forced to store your bike outside in the
courtyard, or out back somewhere. These areas are typically gated and
locked at night, and patrolled by security. However, try to get inside
storage. Hotel managers have gladly given up space in their offices for
two bikes and a trailer. If the staff aren't going for it, at least find
something solid and immobile to lock to. However, failing all that, China's
an amazingly safe place, and outdoors in a hotel courtyard, locked only
to itself, is a safer bike in China than one U-locked to a water pipe
in a basement storage locker in Vancouver.
This is long enough. More later, if I think of anything.
Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.