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We have Specialized Rockhoppers (2003 versions). They are essentially aluminium framed mountain bikes with front suspension only. They have standard v-brakes although the front and rear hubs have provision for mounting discs. The components are a mix of Shimano parts including LX rear derailers and Deore front derailers.
Tyres - Before we left home we replaced the tyres with semi-slick tyres. We choose Continental Travel Contact tyres (these are very similar to and replaced the Continental Goliath tyre). They have a wide, completely smooth centre with knobbles to either side. They are also rated to a maximum inflation of 85 psi which we believe enables good rolling performance. They do however seem to get more noticeably cut by glass than other tyres although this has not generally been the cause for their replacement. In Central and South America it has been near impossible to find a tire that last for more than a thousand miles on Jeremy's rear wheel. Indeed some we have tried have only lasted a couple of days before their side walls where through. We have had to replace two rear tyres on Jeremy's bike as a result of the side wall becoming worn through where it is in contact with the rim. We believe this is both to do with the weight on Jeremy's rear wheel but also the square edged rim he is using being slightly sharper than the Mavic on Beth's rear wheel. However, we have yet to discover if other tyres will fair better in this respect.
Seats - We have both ended up using Specialized BodyGeometry Gel seats. Beth the women's one and Jeremy the men's version, although we think that the men's is preferable. The men's version has a better material covering and is almost identical in design. We have met a lot of people who use the traditional Brooks saddles which we are keen to try out simply because so many people think that they are the best - they do however say that there is a need to persevere with wearing them in!
Pedals - We changed our pedals for pedals with one conventional flat side and a Shimano SPD cleat on the other side. We have been pleased with these. Jeremy tends to use cleats all the time whilst Beth rarely uses her cleats. The versatility is however often valuable.
Rims and Spokes - The thin black spokes which came standard on the bikes proved insufficient for Jeremy's loading early on, with Jeremy's back wheel regularly suffering from snapped spokes. He therefore upgraded to thicker DT spokes. Jeremy choose to replace his rear rim for a Sun Rhino at the same time as replacing his rear spokes. The Mavic X looks less robust than the Sun rim but also has no reinforcement around the spoke holes. However, other than these purely visual differences, we have no idea as to their actual relative performance for touring use.
Brake Pads - We fitted brakes shoes with removal pads so as to keep the weight of spare break pads we carry to a minimum.
Rear Racks - We had difficultly finding racks suitable for our purposes in the London shops we tried. The racks generally had insufficiently long bars to reach the very low brake arms of Beth's frame and generally did not allow our rear panniers to be loaded far enough back to clear Jeremy's feet when pedalling. We eventually found a couple of relatively sturdy ones which worked. So far Beth's is still holding out. Jeremy's has been replaced with a rack design for mountain bikes with rear suspension and no rack fixing points. The first rack bent badly when its fixings broke (see Bike Problems). So far Jeremy second rack has worked well. The rack uses an extra long quick release rod to attach the rack to the rear axle. This works well and appears a strong way to fix a rack although if the extra long quick release bar breaks this may be tricky to replace. Fixing the rack to the rear axle does however mean that removing the back wheel is less easy.
Front Racks - Our options for front racks were limited by the fact that we have front suspension. We were aware of only two options: one fixes the rack to the crossbar of the fork together with a link bar to the handlebar shaft and the other to the uprights of the forks. We left it too late to obtain the former option and therefore our front panniers are attached to the lower part of the forks with much of the weight being carried by the brake fixings. Whilst benefit is still gained from the front suspension with panniers attached to the lower part of the forks, they are less effective. It may be preferable to use the alternative which enables the lower section of the fork to move freely but does mean that the weight is held at a higher level which may have implications for stability. We are happy with the system we have and have made good use of our front suspension while cycling fully loaded but also on trails we have ridden without our panniers along the way. We remain undecided as to whether the extra weight and complexity of front suspension has been worth it for us. NB Jeremy's front suspension fork has broken (see Bicycle Problems)
Mirrors - We have found these invaluable. They allow much greater awareness of vehicles behind and obviate the need to regularly turn ones head. I would recommend them to everyone. Easily removable ones are best if you think you may be taking your bike on buses or other transportation.
Mud Guards - We have Topeak Defender mudguards which attach to the underside of the fork via an expander bolt which fits into the bottom of the fork post. These work well and are easy to fit.
Lights - We have between us two CatEye front lights. One uses 3 white LEDS and has a flashing mode to save battery power. It is very good at making you visible but does not quite illuminate the road sufficiently at night. The other has 5 white LEDS each with magnifying lens and provides reasonable light for night cycling. Our choice of these lights was based on our intention to only cycle at night where it is essential, as opposed to having the ideal equipment for night cycling, which our lights clearly are not. The rear lights are red LEDS with both flashing and constant modes.
Space Grips - We have handlebar bags which would obstruct the beam of a headlight if it were to be placed on the handlebars thus we have extension bars called 'Space Grips'. These come in a couple of sizes and simply provide a bar for attaching lights, speedos, etc which is raised from the handlebar level. They also allow a greater number of items to be attached to your handlebars.
Bar Ends - These enable a greater range of hand positions which helps reduce wrist and hand pains which we have occasionally suffered from especially on longer days.
Bottle Holders - Jeremy's bike has 4 bottle holders and Beth's has 2. One on each bike is used for fuel bottles. Jeremy has an upright holder for a standard sized 1.5 litre bottle plus two ordinary holders. We find bottles of water more convenient than using water carrying bags such as CamelBaks although we have a MSR 6 litre bag for the remotest areas where water is scarce (this bag also doubles as a shower).
Speedos - We both have CatEye speedos which record total miles, trip distance, time travelled, average and maximum speeds. Jeremy started with a cadence meter but this, having a sensor fixed to the pedals, did not last long and probably is a feature not worth having unless you are very interested in how fast your legs are moving!
Air Horn - Excellent purchase. This is fitted to Jeremy's handlebars. It comes in use for scaring off dogs but also for letting off steam when vehicles are inconsiderate. When the air runs out it is simply refilled with a bike pump or with compressed air at fuel stations.
Snack Pouch - In 'bear country' we had to continually think where to keep food, including snacks. We found a pouch with draw string top and a Velcro band suitable to wrap around the handlebars - I do not think that this is the use it was designed for but it works well. It looks a little like a chalk bag a climber might wear but not quite. The attraction at the time was that it could be easily removed from the handlebar and packed in our food bag away from bears thus smells would be away from our tent. However, it has been used ever since for snacks or cans of drink etc.
Foam Grips - Both of us have suffered numb fingers and hand pains at various times but Beth had a particularly long spell of numb fingers which prompted us to fit spongy foam grips onto both Beth's handlebar grips and bar ends. They seem to have solved the problem although they do make the bars a little fatter to hold, and thus long descents with lots of holding the breaks on can be less comfortable. It is perhaps also easier to loose grip of the bars when they are extra fat.
Some of the bike problems we have experienced were things that may not have occurred if we had set out with different bike specifications. For instance we gather that the Shimano LX and above ranges of hubs have stronger freewheel mechanisms which might have lasted the duration. We were also aware that our rear wheels were a little under specified having only 32 spokes, and rims not designed for touring. We had also noted that the rear rack bolt fixings might prove problematic and were for this reason carrying fixings to use should the bolts shear off as they eventually did.
The bikes were bought fairly hastily and were at the lower end of the range we had identified as suitable. Our thoughts at the time were that, provided the frame is sound, anything else which needed upgrading could be done so during the first half of the trip - in particular in the USA. However, until things break it is hard to justify upgrading them and so we left the USA having made few upgrades to our bikes.
Most bicycles in Mexico and Central America have 26" diameter wheels however it seems that 36 spokes is the standard. I believe if a choice needed to be made, then 26" wheels with 36 spokes is the preferable set up if spares might be required along the way. However, we managed both in Mexico and in Panama to buy 32 spoke hubs - so it is possible, just harder.
We have aluminium frames which we understand are harder to repair due to the limited number of aluminium welders around. However, we also understand that to successfully re-weld a steel frame requires very skilled welder and thus is almost equally as difficult to achieve.
Front suspension forks do improve the ride but weigh considerably more than standard forks and undoubtedly are more susceptible to failure. They also are less rigid and can cause the bike to wobble at speed when unevenly loaded. Jeremy's front fork has had to be replaced due to a crack which may well not have occurred with a conventional fork (damaged whilst taking a flight). On balance, for the benefits, these may not be worth the trouble.
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