Monday, May 5, 2008

Rob's thoughts on Big Dummy touring...

Rob Byrne sent me the following email discussing equipment choices for his up coming bike expedition:

"Using the Surly Big Dummy for Expedition Touring

Hi Vik,

As you know, Maureen and I have been looking at using Big Dummys and/or XtraCycle FreeRadicals for touring. We’re planning a tour starting in 2009 setting out from south-eastern Australia and taking us through Asia and Europe, over a few years. We’re in our mid fifties and we’ll be selling our home and business and living off the interest. I’ve recently had surgery for prostate cancer and Maureen has just had major surgery too; time for some travel.

I weigh about 80kg, Maureen about 60kg and to even things up I expect to carry about 60% of the load. Our touring philosophy is to travel slowly and self-sufficiently (ie. loaded) with low gearing (Rohloff, about 17”). I expect that a typical day will be about 80–100km and there’ll be a reasonable number of days off to smell the roses. The plan is to buy a Surly Long Haul Trucker with racks and panniers for Maureen and a Surly Big Dummy with FreeLoaders for me.

The primary reason for choosing the Big Dummy is its luggage capacity. There are several other advantages but before covering those, I’ll cover the negatives and issues. The major negative of the BD is its transportation by plane, bus, taxi, etc. The extra 15” in length creates some challenges in crating and carrying. To address this we’re considering use of S&S couplings. A minor issue may be soft braking on the rear disc due to the long cable (hydraulic is not being considered, to simplify maintenance) however we believe we can address this by using a high end cable housing and Teflon cables, such as the Avid Flack Jacket. Another minor issue is that some consider the bike looks a little weird. We think it looks great (and potential thieves may think it looks just too distinctive to bother).

I hear two substantive criticisms of the BD for touring: its weight and the weight distribution over its wheels. However I’ve done quite a lot of analysis on these points. A LHT with strong racks and panniers is almost exactly the same weight as a BD with FreeLoaders and waterproof compression sacks. And, when loaded, these two bikes distribute weight over the two wheels almost identically. So these are non-issues.

On the plus side, the BD clearly has a big advantage in carrying capacity: 110 litres for the FreeRadicals vs 65 for four Ortlieb panniers. This much capacity could be viewed as a negative by summer tourers but my view is that it’s a plus for fully self-sufficient, multi-year expedition touring covering extremely diverse terrains and situations (provided the bike has the right gearing!). XtraCycle’s other products, such as the WideLoaders, are surprisingly lightweight and provide outstanding versatility. For most of the trip, we won’t be using anywhere near the BD’s full carrying capacity but in some stretches we will need to go heavy on provisions and the BD gives us the ability to do this.

The FreeLoaders also provide simpler loading of luggage and more ready access to packed items. The use of, say, six compression dry sacks provides great flexibility in packing related items together, with the most-used items at the top of the sacks. Packing involves no clips – just put the sacks in the FreeLoader, close the top and go.

Another alternative to racks and panniers is a trailer such as the Bob. We were planning on using these until we looked more closely. Their carrying capacity is rated at 92 litres, about 20% less than the BD. While the BD can be difficult for transportation (planes, buses and taxis) trailers are much worse. Trailers are also much more problematic for stairs, crowds and wild camping. And while the draughting effect behind a BD is likely to be not quite as good as a traditional bike (I haven’t tested this yet), there is effectively no draught that a following rider can use behind a trailer.

Reports about the BD’s comfort and handling are very good. The rider’s weight is much more centred between front and rear wheels – so whereas the shock of the rear wheel hitting a bump is transmitted straight up the traditional bike’s seat tube, on the BD the effect is dampened by the frame (possibly a good feature after a prostatectomy). Despite a fairly high bottom bracket (to provide adequate clearance for the long wheelbase) the BD’s centre of gravity appears to be quite low, particularly as the FreeLoaders are mounted lower than traditional rear panniers. No doubt this contributes to the reported stable ride.

While our tour is likely to be primarily on tarmac, some roads are likely to be pretty ordinary, particularly in Western China and Central Asia. And even in countries with good roads, being forced off the shoulder onto rougher ground is an issue for tourers. Surly comments that the BD’s “long wheelbase makes for an incredibly stable and predictable off-road ride” and the reports about off-road performance from the Ride the Spine group are also extremely positive.

A key issue for a multi-year tour is the strength and reliability of the bike. Dealing with a broken bike in the middle of Kyrgyzstan carries very little appeal. Like other Surly bikes, the BD appears to be extremely robustly constructed. Once again, the experience of the Ride the Spine group is useful.

A discussion that seems to rage in the touring community is the use of disc brakes. Despite the argument that discs are more difficult to maintain than rim brakes (I’ll take a course), my view is that the extra stopping power of discs makes them the right choice for a heavily loaded tourer. We’ll also have some very long descents (eg. Himalayas), where discs excel. With its large cargo carrying capacity, the BD was designed to support discs. Another facility built into the design is support for the Rohloff Speedhub 500/14. With its huge gearing range, ease of use and outstanding reliability, these gears are another obvious choice for the very long distance tourer, despite the cost. Reports on the Rohloff’s reliability are excellent. We regard the Rohloffs as being of pivotal importance to this expedition. The BD frame also has lots of braze-ons, including four for drink bottles – great for long, arid stretches.
Another attraction of the BD is its use as a utility bike when we return from our travels. A good way to maintain touring fitness will be to do without a car.

BD Pluses for expedition touring
  • Capacity to carry expedition loads when required
  • Load versatility (XC WideLoaders, etc)
  • Ease of packing and access to luggage
  • Single vehicle (no trailer means better for planes, buses, taxis, stairs, crowds, wild camping, etc. Also, a following bike can draught)
  • Ride stability / low centre of gravity
  • Performs well off road (ref. riding the spine)
  • Strength (ref. riding the spine)
  • Disc brakes fully supported (important when fully loaded or braking on very long descents)
  • Rohloff gears fully supported (the breadth of gearing is pivotal to our ability to handle all terrains)
  • Lots of braze-ons
  • Utility vehicle when not on tour
  • Distinctive appearance (definitely not a me-too, and harder for a thief to fence!)

BD Minuses for expedition touring
  • Transportation (planes, buses, taxis; we may address this, at least in part, by using S&S couplings)
  • Rear brake cable is a bit longer, softer braking (we plan to address this by using high end cable housing and Teflon cables)
  • Unusual appearance (eye of the beholder)

  • Weight (same as tourer with strong racks & panniers)
  • Weight distribution (same as tourer when both are loaded)

Add 1kg [2.2lbs] to the Xtracycle weights above if you want to compare the Big Dummy.

Hope these views are of interest.


Anonymous said...

very informative! thanks.

im considering getting a Long Haul Trucker and would be surprised if it weighed as much as the Big Dummy even with the racks and paniers. Maybe you could post a break down of the weight comparison.

Vik said...

There is a break down Rob provided earlier just look down the page.

Daniel Santamaria said...

the use of surly nice racks in the comparison makes the LHT considerably heavier than if you used tubus racks!

Shane Rhodes said...

Hey, that's me in that there touring photo... about 10,000 miles into it I think.

Vik said...

Shane - great looking Xtra-rig...congrats on a fantastic tour as well....=-)

Neil said...

Hi. Did you fit the s&s couplings?
If so, how small could you pack the bike?

Vik said...

No I have not done the S&S mod. The hassle of stripping down the bike and the cost of the shipping + the S&S install is quite high. At the moment I don't need to travel with my Big Dummy by plane so there is no rush to make this happen.

When I talked to Bilenky about it they cautioned that the S&S coupled Big Dummy would still be a big package and you wouldn't fly for free with it in a suitcase like a normal sized S&S touring bike.

I've also thought that a normal MTB frame with an Xtracycle would achieve much the same effect at the same cost or less. A friend has packed his MTB and Xtracycle in a single normal bike box.

zuwapa said...

Aside from wishing to have a Big Dummy as a grocery-getter and fun bike with our two boys, I first need to secure a bike for commuting to work. I would be commuting 12.5 miles, one way. My path has about 50% smooth trails and 50% uneven sidewalk, where I typically find myself going grass to avoid harsh cracks in terrain. I have been leaning toward the Big Dummy, while my wife points out that the LHT would be more efficient in my commute to work. By the way, I would have the need to carry a dress shirt, slacks, and shoes with me when biking. What do I do? They are both fantastic bikes.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

I own both a LHT and a BD, and to be honest, they are both great bikes.
In fact, I tend to use the BD to commute to work rather than the LHT because when I go to work, I need to pack the following things : a laptop, sometimes a few books, sports gear for the evening gym session, and some clean clothes for work. Having to pack this neatly into the two Ortlieb bags on the LHT can be quite a hassle, whereas the BD has plenty of cargo room: I just throw everything in the bags, and that's it. Knowing that the morning is always a rush, using the BD for commuting is a definite plus.

Hope it helps.