Best-laid plans of cycling giants

Tom Allen, of Tom’s Bike Trip fame and currently leading a bikepacking tour of the Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia, has suffered a mechanical midway through the tour. And oh, what a mechanical!

Muddy bike wheel with broken derailleur
Rear derailleur is not supposed to look like that

That’s one derailleur that’s not going a single kilometer further. And proof that it’s not just newbies who get done in by a derailleur failure. (Although I’m sure in the case of Tom — with his more than 20,000km of riding over more than 50 countries — the damage wasn’t exacerbated by a totally amateur mid-ride readjustment.)

With the help of a fellow rider, it looks like Tom will be back on the road, albeit with a single-speed bike until he’s able to get a replacement derailleur. (He’s removed the derailleur completely and cut the chain down to fit on a single front chainring and rear sprocket combo.)

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#BikepackingArmenia Day 4: The tough mudder • My co-guide Pete, who amongst other things has cycled from England to New Zealand and completed the Silk Road Mountain Bike Race, said today that he'd never seen so much mud in his life. It certainly has been a sticky, squelchy day, like few I can remember, with most of the group ending up sprawled in the mud at various points throughout the day. But then we have entered Tavush province at the turn of autumn. Mud is absolutely to be expected! • One upshot of all the mud is that my rear derailleur got caught in my spokes and snapped clean in half (see my story for more on this). It could have been worse – I could have lost several spokes in the process – but it did mean I had to rise single speed for most of the day. A quick look at the elevation profile of today's ride will hopefully indicate how practical this was! • Tomorrow we hope to reach Dilijan, where a new derailleur should hopefully be waiting. Because I've realised I do quite like having gears… • #BikepackingArmenia 🇦🇲 From September 7–22 I'm leading a group of intrepid bikepackers on the first attempt to ride the Transcaucasian Trail across Armenia. On the way, we're attempting to raise $10,000 USD to complete the blazing and marking of the trail. This ride is a life ambition and the cause is extremely dear to my heart, so please give generously! Link in Instagram bio, or visit the campaign page here: • • • • • • #TranscaucasianTrail #Caucasus #SouthCaucasus #Armenia #bikepacking #cycling #adventure #cycletouring #bike #mtb #travel #biketouring #bicycletouring #adventurecycling #trailblazing #fundraiser #hikearmenia #livelovearmenia #visitarmenia #tw

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So come now: how many of us carry a spare derailleur, even on the most adventurous of rides? For Lejog the only spares I carried were inner tubes, and following that experience the only addition I’m likely to make to that list is the inclusion of small bottles of chain degreaser and lube.

I’m sure Fearless Leader Joe (and Koga Ambassador Alee Dunham) will point out this is all just advertising for Rohloff hubs

Boxed in

Rented Seino bike shipping box

Now that Kuroko is fit as a fiddle, it’s time to ship her off to Ishinomaki for the Tour de Tohoku. I made arrangements with Seino transport company some time back. They’ve changed their rules and I’m not able to use either the bag I got for last year’s Tour de Tohoko or the bag I got to take Kuroko on a flight to England.

Ostrich OS-500 cycle bag
No longer acceptable: Ostrich OS-500

Also NG: Evoc pro cycle bag

Instead I decided to rent a box from the delivery company. (My other options were to purchase either a box or a cloth-sided “bike transport case” — meaning I’d have yet another bike container to store around the flat when it’s not in use.) Seino’s instructions said I’d need to take off the front wheel, and possibly the seat, and they advised me to have something to wrap the front wheel in to prevent it scratching up the bike. So I spent a little time today whipping up an envelope out of bubble wrap.

Taping together sheets of bubble pack
Taping several sheets together

Bicycle wheel in a sleeve of bubble wrap
Testing the fit before adding another layer

When the box arrived today, though, it contained a cardboard sleeve for the front wheel. It only took me a moment to realize that the cardboard sleeve would serve perfectly well, and it would be just additional effort to try to use my bubble pack sleeve in addition.

Bicycle on a balcony
Ready for packing

With the box open and Kuroko ready to go, I just had to remove the front wheel and guide her into the box. The handlebar goes sideways — I had to remove the pump from the frame because it was interfering with turning the bars fully — and then the fork rests on a pad on the bottom of the box.

Bike in a boxBike in a box
Bike in a box

With everything in the box, I only had to lower the saddle. (The instructions said I might have to remove the saddle.) I’d spoken with the driver about the pick-up time tomorrow, and he said he could make it at 6 p.m. So I’m going to have to hurry home after work to meet him.

Just-in-time repair

Upside-down bike frame showing crank arm sticking up

Kuroko’s bottom bracket has been making noise over the past two months, and I needed to get it sorted out before the Tour de Tohoku next weekend. In fact the deadline is Tuesday, because that’s when the delivery company will pick up Kuroko and take her up to Ishinomaki.

I’d tried removing the crankset more than a month ago, thinking I could retighten the bearings and that might help. I had no trouble removing the right crank (including the chainrings), but then I discovered the left crank and spindle were stuck in the bearings. I hammered on the end of the spindle quite a bit, but it didn’t budge.

SRAM threaded and FSA press fit bottom brackets
Bottom brackets: Ol’ Paint [L] and Kuroko [R]

At that point I decided not to attempt any further repairs until I had a replacement bearing set. I ordered that and crossed my fingers: it was coming from Italy and there was no guarantee of a delivery date.

Meanwhile, I’d been on a couple of more rides. It was very clear on the last one, a mostly flat ride to Yokohama, that the bearings would have to be replaced. They were making more noise than before — almost like a coffee grinder. I’d also done some research on stuck BB spindles, and everyone was pretty much in agreement: use a bigger hammer.

They said it couldn’t be done

The replacement bearing set finally arrived, but I held off for a few days. With so much at stake (including the possibility of ruining Kuroko’s frame if I forced things too much), I was a bit shy of taking the next step. Instead, I took Kuroko and the shop where I’d bought Ol’ Paint, near my office. I knew from experience the mechanic there was very good, and that he was willing to take on bikes he hadn’t sold. When I explained the problem to him and showed him I had the replacement bearings, he was willing enough to take on the job. He even quoted me his standard labor rate for it, not jacking it up because it wasn’t his bike or his replacement part.

After a few hours, though, he called to say that the left crank was stuck and he couldn’t finish the job. I don’t blame him for not pursuing it. The risk to him was high and reward rather low. When I picked up the bike he was apologetic and wouldn’t charge me anything. As I said, he’s a good mechanic, and it was helpful for me to have him confirm what I’d found. It showed I was on the right track.

And so I was back where I started, with even less time to make the fix. I gathered up all the needed tools and parts, and today I finally made the do-or-die effort.

Bicycle in work stand with wheels removed
Up on the rack you go

The first step was to remove everything that would come off easily: the bags and lights, the wheels, the pedals. (Note to self: It’s easier to take off the pedals when the wheels are still on and the bike is on the ground.) Then I removed the right crank. (Note to self: ditto.) In the process I discovered the mechanic had tightened it quite a bit more than expected when he’s put it back on. But I was able to get it off without too much fuss.

One sticky bottom bracket

With the preliminaries out of the way, it was time to lay the frame on its side. I propped it up with some pieces of lumber. I sprayed some apple cider vinegar (good for aluminum-to-steel corrosion) around the spindle where it contacted the bearings. And then I broke out the special sauce.

Spraying compressed air into the hollow spindle
Special sauce: compressed air

I’d read a post from a few years ago on a bike forum that spraying an entire can of compressed air into the spindle would cool it down, causing it to contract and helping to free it from the bearings. I knew from experience at the office that a compressed air can will quickly get cold when the air is released. But I was feeling sceptical as I emptied the can into Kuroko’s guts. The spindle was cooling down, but not as much as I’d hoped. I didn’t know if it was going to be enough to help.

Hammering a bicycle spindle to release it
It’s hammer time!

I set down the icy spray can and reached for the mallet. After just a couple of sharp raps, the crank popped right out! I’d used far less force than I had done on the previous occasion, when I couldn’t get it to budge. So I can confirm: between the vinegar and the compressed air, the job got done.

Bicycle bottom bracket and rusty spindle
Free at last!

The spindle was covered with a surprising amount of rust. Most came off immediately with just a touch of degreaser.

Bicycle crank and rusty spindle
That’s a rusty spindle
Bicycle spindle with most rust removed
After five seconds with degreaser

The rust that remained was right in the trouble spot — where the spindle rides in the bearings. This was probably a job for Scotch-Brite, but I didn’t have any on hand. Instead I spent a good 10 minutes going over it with steel wool, and that mostly did the trick.

Bicycle spindle after cleaning with steel wool
After 10 minutes with steel wool

It’s hammer time!

The next problem was getting the old bearings out. The bottom bracket extraction tool was too narrow to be of help. It’s made for the original Shimano crankset that came with the bike, while these bearings have a much larger internal diameter. In the end I just stuck a screwdriver against the inside of each bearing and hammered, working my way around the bearing so it wouldn’t go cockeyed in the bottom bracket shell. It took a good bit of hammering, but in the end all the old bits came out.

Remains of bottom bracket strewn on floor with tools
These bearings with never bother you again, sir

With the bearings out, I could see quite a bit of rust in the bottom bracket shell. Most of it was in the center part, not where the bearings contact the shell on both ends. I spent a couple of minutes cleaning up as much as I could with the degreaser.

Rusty bottom bracket shell
Rusty bottom bracket shell

Bottom bracket shell after cleaning with degreaser
Much cleaner and ready for new bearings

With the bearings out and everything cleaned up, I put Kuroko back in the work stand and measured the bottom bracket shell. I wanted to compare two measurements at right angles on each side. Working with a vernier for this is not perfect, but I don’t have a laser alignment rig on my balcony. As near as I could make it, all measurements were within 0.1mm — reassuring me that the shell hasn’t been distorted.

Measuring the bottom bracket shell with a vernier
Checking for distortion

Satisfied of a good fit, I greased up the new bearing assembly and inserted it into the bottom bracket shell. Then I used the bearing press to make it all snug.

Bearing assemblies in the bottom bracket
Bearings greased and ready for pressing

Pressing in the bearings with a bearing press
The squeeze is on

I read the instructions several times through and confirmed that the bearings just need to be flush with the edges of the shell. I don’t need to torque them down.

Bearing pressed into bottom bracket shell
Nice and flush

I made sure to put plenty of grease on the spindle before inserting it. The instructions call for grease just on the contact areas, and I’d read advice that it’s best not to put too much grease on, but I want to avoid a rerun of this situation in another six months. Even after 10 minutes with steel wool, there were some pitted spots on the spindle. So in this case I think some extra grease is warranted.

Bicycle crank and spindle coated in grease
That might be enough

The spindle went back in with just a couple of whacks of the persuasion tool. But then I realized I’d left out the washer! Believe it or not, after all the research and effort I’d put into this, it took me two tries to remember the washers — a wave washer on the left and a regular washer on the right.

Tightening the right crack with a torque wrench
Torqued right

At last, I got the right washers in the right places (and the left one in the left place) and torqued the crankset back to the correct spec. I put the chain back on the chainring and gave it a spin — perfect! Or at least, no grinding or unevenness that I could detect.

It took me a few minutes to clean everything up and put the tools back where they belong, then wash my hands. I got my helmet and shades and a pair of minimalist shoes, and then carried Kuroko through the flat to the elevator.

Road test

The shake-down ride was very brief — just once around the block (about 2.5km). Not a hint of bearing trouble. Just smooth spinning. I ran through all the gears, front and back, and it’s all good. There are a couple of little things to take care of: the rear brake needs to be adjusted and the headset is a little bit loose. I can easily do both tomorrow in less than five minutes.

What am I to think about the BB going bad in just half a year (albeit with some strenuous conditions), and the spindle freezing to the bearings? Is this something I’m going to have to put up with every six months? In other words — as a friend asked — have I built myself a Jaguar here? Something that requires repairs all week so I can enjoy it on the weekend? Or did I just do a bad job the first time around — which was my first time doing anything like this with a bike? (I did a lot of research and watched a lot of videos, but there was no sempai to guide me through my baby steps.)

The answers to these questions will only come with time. Most comments I’ve found on the web seems to suggest the bearings should be good for 10,000-50,000km. Meanwhile, since I installed this crankset, Shimano has introduced a similar model with 46T-30T capability. (They didn’t offer this when I made the replacement). It’s a lot cheaper. On the other hand, it’s not carbon fiber. Regardless, if I find myself replacing this BB after another six months, I’m going to switch to the Shimano crankset or a Sugino one with the same tooth count.

Pushin’ it to Yokohama

Yokohama Bay Bridge

It was several degrees cooler this weekend than last, but I still chose a non-challenging route: Yokohama. Mostly I wanted a change of scenery. The way to Yokohama is mostly flat, but a long stretch of it is in traffic (in fact we’re only on the bike path for a handful of kilometers), and worse than the traffic and bad pavement of Rte. 15 is stopping for every third traffic light and waiting. (I’m sure that gives us time to rest our hands and thighs, though.)

Rider inflating back tire of bicycle
Filling up

At our first stop, the Halfakid wanted to add some more air to his rear tire. This is the one that blew out on our last venture down this same path.

Onigiri wrapped in foil
Onigiri time!

On my last ride to Yokohama I discovered a small park about 15km before the goal that’s a perfect place to stop and enjoy one of Nana’s world-famous onigiri — so long as some ojisan isn’t spraying insecticide all over the park when we arrive.

Map route of Yatozaka showing elevation
Yatozaka elevation

We had much less traffic through Yokohama this time, but Yatozaka doesn’t change: it’s still a 24m climb at 8.7% average and a long mid-section at 15%. As usual, the Halfakid charged straight up it, while I soldiered through the 15% section and then stopped in the 9%-10% section, just as the going was about to ease up. Unlike every previous occasion, though, this time I continued on after a brief rest. Yes, I rode all the way to the top! And a PR on Strava confirms this was my best performance on this particular hill.

The forecast for today (after several changes) was for sunny weather, and that finally proved true as we arrived in Yokohama. At Minato no Mieru Oka Koen, we found a seat in the shade to finish off our onigiri and guzzle some water.

The ride home was uneventful apart from the maracas in my bottom bracket. I must do something about that within the next week — before the delivery company picks up Kuroko for the next Tour de Tohoku. When we got back across the Tama River into Tokyo we stopped at a convenience store for Pokari and energy food. And then the Halfakid took off towards Nikotama, leaving me in the dust. And what dust: as we rode upstream along the Tama, we were swarmed by gnats and coated with airborne sand blown up from the baseball diamonds along the river.

Bicycle in a park
At the top of the climb in Nikotama

We didn’t rest long at the top of the climb out of the Tama River valley — we were making good time and eager to get home to beer and bath (or shower, in my case). I made a brief farewell to the Halfakid at his apartment and continued on home, still making good time. I arrived home just 6 hours 39 minutes after having left, or 4 hours 6 minutes riding. I think that may be a record for me to get to Yokohama and back, and according to Strava I set several personal bests along the way, although I really didn’t think I’d been striving.

Shinjuku-Yokohama ride route and details

More tune, more up

Bicycle against bicycle railing overlooking city

The forecast was for rain today, and Nana and I made plans (including sitting at home waiting for a box of spokes). I thought it would be a good opportunity to tune up Kuroko a bit more. On last week’s ride the shifting worked fine, although the gears were still making a bit of noise. And the rear brake could use a bit of tightening up.

Bike stand, spare wheel and tarp on balcony
Working at a higher level

As it turns out, today has been cloudy, hot and humid, but there’s been no sign of rain. I waited for Nana to go off to the spa and then got Kuroko up in the stand once again. I went over and over the derailleur adjustment, front and rear, and shifted through the whole range of gears repeatedly. I’m pretty sure everything is going to be fine now.

The rear brake was at the limit of the barrel adjuster, so I tightened up the cable a bit. At the same time, I checked the rear thruaxle. It has a way of working loose. It’s all good now.

To spare my back, I raised the bike stand up a bit higher than I have in the past. It allowed me to get at the gear and brake adjustment without bending over.

Finally, with a bit of water and a soft towel, I cleaned up yet more mud that Kuroko had brought home from England. Every time I look, I find a bit more.

On climbs and their (relative) steepness

Regarding this post about a steepish climb in my near future, the following conversation took place.

Fearless Leader Joe:
You can handle that. It looks vertical on a map, but for 20m I bet that horrible one in Devon was worse – the one that I said as we were freewheeling down, “thank goodness we’re not going up this one”, to which you replied “Wait!”, and then we went up it on the other side.
Guy Jean:
Did we really only have that conversation once?
Cycling elevation for Templeton Bridge
Templeton Bridge

I do wonder if that’s the part he’s talking about, although that’s only 9% for a rise of 90m. There were definitely some shorter climbs that were steeper …

Maybe there’ll be an escalator

Tour de Tohoku route showing elevation

That’s the course for this year’s Tour de Tohoku, coming up in just two weeks. There’s a fair amount of climbing there, but not more than I did on any given day of Lejog. But what’s this little blip near the beginning of the ride?

Detail of route elevation
Detail of route elevation

Just to the right of that vertical line: It’s not even 20m of climbing but … it’s vertical?

I turned to Map My Ride to get a clearer view of the elevation at that point.

Elevation at start and end points of climb
That’s … 20%

The climb is only 80m horizontally, but just a hair shy of 16.5m vertically. That’s a 20% grade — actually 20.6%.

It’ll be all right … ?

I remembered getting into some climbing around there last year, just after leaving the first rest stop at Onagawa Station, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle (that came later). Should be fine, right? But a closer look at the route showed I was wrong: we’d taken a different route away from Onagawa Station.

I turned next to Google Maps to get some idea of what’s going on. When I zoomed down to Street View, it just showed some turns, on some older-looking pavement. I scratched my head, and then zoomed out a few notches.

Satellite view of steep climb at Sakiyama
New construction at Sakiyama

The road used to go around that hill, right by the water side. Now, apparently, it goes over the hill.

The good news is we’re taking that hill from left to right (heading southeast), after a nice flat stretch to build up speed. Because from the other direction, it’s even steeper.

Satellite view of Sakiyama construction
Sakiyama reverse angle

As the full course elevation shows, there’s a lot more climbing to do than this measly 20m — we top 60m just another 900m further on (average 6.7%), and the biggest climb is just before the midpoint at a 90m rise over nearly a 2km run (average 4.7%). But these are considerably less steep.

Tour de Tohoku route showing elevation
Tour de Tohoku route showing elevation

I haven’t calculated all the climb percentages — if I do that, I may not want to join the ride! But it looks like overall the course matches my experience from last year: the longest, highest climb is going to be far from the most challenging one.

Good thing I’ve lost so much weight in preparation.

A tale of two BBs

SRAM threaded and FSA press fit bottom brackets

The replacement bottom bracket for Kuroko arrived today, and I’m still debating whether I want to attempt the swap before the upcoming Tour de Tohoku. It’s making some noise now and not spinning as freely as it should. But when I last tried to remove the crankset from the BB, it was stuck. If anything goes wrong I have just a couple of weeks to get it right — and parts need to be ordered and shipped from Italy.

Meanwhile, the US-made bottom bracket for Ol’ Paint is still sitting in my room, waiting for the arrival of the crankset (and some minor details like me finishing up the sanding and painting of the frame).

So, which is the base-grade American bottom bracket bearing and which the super Italian job at more than three times the price?

SRAM threaded and FSA press fit bottom brackets
Which is the special Italian race number?

SRAM GPX Team (English threaded) [L] and FSA PFBB86 [R]

(Incidentally, this is the first picture where I overrode the auto settings on my new camera. And then I used Photoshop’s shake reduction filter.)

That’s a lotta bull

Bull warning sign on fence in front of field

Fearless Leader Joe and I crossed a lot of cattle guards as we made our way across England. Each time we did, I was curious why — were we riding into a grazing area? I had a few seconds to contemplate this each time because FLJ would usually dismount to cross the guards. (I just ploughed right through.)

All this wondering came to an abrupt head one fair afternoon when we found ourselves winding along a path in the midst of a herd of cattle — some of which had horns on their heads! I very quickly ascertained that, despite the horns, all the cattle present were sporting udders. And I’m happy to report that they were far less interested in us than we were in them.