The_beauty_of a bicycle is also its vulnerability. The beauty is that uncanny resemblance to flight, the nirvana of a smooth ride on an open road with the power of the human body and nothing more. The bicycle’s humanity is its vulnerability to the frailty of the body and legs. We are always at the mercy of winds and storms and the metal cages that whir past us every day. Ghosts in a tired shell, our bodies need rest but sometimes even that isn’t enough. The engine of the body breaks. Back in Oregon I reflected that much of our mental space while riding is occupied by listening to our bodies. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, strength, health, and motivation all move across our minds as we ride. We’ve been listening to the inputs since Alaska and one might think we’re experts at this point. Hubris had me thinking I was an expert a few weeks ago. There is no such thing, as the body is a fickle and complicated thing. For the second time in the trip we’re battling engine failure: illness.
2000 vertical foot sunrise hike to see butterflies? Why not!
The first time was in Alaska. Within a few days of leaving Anchorage, we were three rookies with a couple hundred miles in our legs and the Denali Highway and Alaska Range ahead of us. Tendonitis appeared in my Achilles and in the knees of my brothers with terrific inflammation and pain during our rides. We could have expected it considering how few miles we had on our touring bicycles before we left for Alaska. Nathan clearly had the worst of it. Outside of Tok, AK, the pain was so great that Nathan could barely crawl at 8mph and was unable to match our 80-mile-a-day pace. Nathan rode in the back of a Californian’s RV to Whitehorse so that he could rest his knee and recover while David and I pressed on alone. Without healing, Nathan could not continue, and I do not know what we would have done without him. This was a very difficult time for us so early in our expedition. We didn’t share our fears outside of our family.
Family pig takes a break in the pool from the afternoon sun.
After some extended rest with retired Catholic priests in Whitehorse, we pressed onwards through the Yukon. Tendonitis disappeared. We were tentatively thrilled with the miraculous recovery we experienced. Nathan felt like he was riding gingerly for weeks, reveling in the pain-free riding but aware of how serious the condition would be if it returned. We put all of that stress behind us once we reached the States and since then our bodies have felt like unstoppable, finely tuned riding machines.
We awoke before dawn to hike a mountain and see thousands of monarchs.
All it takes is a bout of illness to bring you back down to earth. A head cold and ear infection derailed some of my more ambitious plans for the Central Highlands, costing us a few days of rest in Patzcuaro. Now in Valle de Bravo, David and Nathan have encountered consecutive bouts of flu-like symptoms and food poisoning. It has been an unfortunate distraction from the unforgettable memories of the Mexican Highlands. This illness has no rhyme or reason, no apparent cause, nor any clear course of action. All you can do it eat well and sleep and pray it is better tomorrow. It is a powerful lesson in serenity. Argentine winter is already beckoning to us as we hurtle towards the month of May. We have a lot of hard miles ahead of us, especially in the high Andes. Having lost nearly two weeks in the last month now to illness I fear for what else we may encounter between here and Ushuaia. It is not in our hands in the end. When we are well we will ride; this is all we can do, and it must be sufficient to cross these many small worlds leading to Argentina.
Our_Surly_bicycles attract a lot of attention, which can be attributed to both their “Agent Orange” paintjobs, the brightly colored Ortlieb bags that hang from them, and the gringos riding them. A while ago we struck up a conversation with an employee of a grocery store who was moving carts in the parking lot. He noticed our bicycles and asked about them. At one point I was describing how protective we were of our steeds. “These bicycles are our lives for a year.” And it is true.
Campagnolo 39t road racing crank on the front. Italian. Mmmm.
Our wheels get a lot of attention as well, mainly because at first glance they appear like single-speed bicycle wheels. Once you look closer, however, you notice the cable housings for the shifting mechanism and the oversized rear hub. Enter the magic of the Rohloff: 14 speeds in an internally geared hub. These German Schätzchen of ours get the job done, transporting us and our gear reliably, smoothly, durably, and as fast as our legs can handle. Neil at Cycle Monkey took care of our Rohloff wheel build in California, assembling purpose-built wheels for our rugged expedition touring. The Rohloff disc-compatible rear hub was paired with a Phil Wood disc-compatible hub on the front wheel, all laced with 32 strong spokes to Velocity’s Cliffhanger rims.
German engineering at its finest.
Let me indulge my inner bicycle nerd and explain to you what I love about these wheels.
- Discs. Disc brakes aren’t as sexy as rim brakes, but they work perfectly in all conditions. They are strong. The Avid BB7 brake pads last an eternity. The rim experiences no wear from braking, and the bike stays cleaner. Better yet, with the Troll, you can use disc brakes and fenders and racks simultaneously.
- Maintenance. Or rather, the lack thereof. This stuff just works. Our Rohloff runs a perfectly straight chainline from front chainring to rear cog. Our Trolls have a strong, long-lasting chain that never has to be shifted. We set the chain tension and oil/clean the chain every few days. We change the oil of the Rohloff hub every 5,000 miles. The chain and cog, like all good singlespeed combinations, last longer and stay cleaner and are cheaper to replace than conventional chains and cassettes. After riding your bicycle all day, it is hard to describe what a luxury it is to not have to do any significant work on your bicycle. It just works.
- Performance. Riding these wheels rocks. The Rohloff has 14 evenly spaced gear ratios that enable us to crawl uphill with our heavy bags and fly down the other side of mountains without serious compromises. The shifting always works, and with all of the indexing in the sealed rear hub, never has to be adjusted and only gets better with time. A Rohloff is hub is a portly replacement for conventional derailleurs and other parts; but it’s worth its extra weight in gold.
- Durability. These wheels marry functionality to insane durability. They pay a price in weight, to be sure; but on a Pan-American bicycle expedition there isn’t anyone counting the grams. These wheels are very strong, such that we feel confident even on rocks, single-track, cobblestones, and dirt roads at speed. The Rohloff has huge hub flanges laced symmetrically to the rear rim; the result is a wheel twice as strong as a traditional, off-set rear wheel even with extra spokes to compensate. There are no derailleurs or guides to bend or fail. Even if our cables were cut, the hub can be shifted manually with an allen wrench. Velocity rims have a proven and well-deserved reputation for quality.
- Simplicity. The Germans put a bunch of complex engineering into a very simple final product. A simple twist of the wrist is all it takes to shift up or down with perfect reliability. There is one chain, one cog, and one chainring to worry about. You can shift gears without pedaling, or while standing still.
Beautiful and simple Phil Wood front ISO hub.
- The best bicycle is the one you forget about as soon as you hop on. Ideally there is nothing to distract from or diminish the ride. That is how I feel about our wheels. They aren’t cheap, but they just work. I plan on enjoying the functionality, durability, simplicity, and craftsmanship of these wheels for the rest of my life.
Rohloff rear hub. Note the Troll's wondrous disc/rack/fender/Rohloff compatibility.