Archive for January, 2008

Hardtail, softtail, longtail…


There were those who found it a little odd that after a summer guiding tours around the Indian Himalayas, we’d choose to spend a couple more months bike touring in equally mountainous SW China. For some reason, they even thought we’d be tired of riding by then. Little did they know that not only where we very happy to have the opportunity to spend more hours in the saddle nosing around new places, but I was also thinking about what bike I was looking forward to riding when I got home. Sad, yes.

Funnily enough, of all the bikes in the shed, it was my trusty Spesh Rockhopper that I’d ‘Xtracyclatised’ (more about that here) before leaving for India that kept popping into my mind. It was the bike I’d ridden back home from Australia close to ten years ago. Pulling the aged Spesh out of retirement, and metamorphosing it into the cycling equivalent of a pickup, had given it new life and opened up the world of ‘longtails’ to me. These long wheelbase hardtails use a variety of modular loading styles to carry all manner of stuff – be it shelves, canoes, ladders, boxes, cardboard, animals, even people. They’re a bridge towards surprisingly easy car-free living, without too many of the compromises some people might associate with it.



Of course, there’ve been fully fledged cargo bikes around for years – Mike Burrow’s Eight Freight is perhaps the ultimate evolution for serious load hauling in the city. Let alone the millions of people around Asia make do with all sorts of heavy, unwieldly, bare-bone-basic trikes – in China they’re often electric assisted, in India they’re just manhandled along the road. ‘Longtails’, as they’ve been dubbed, have opted for a slightly different approach. Having taken their cue from Xtracycle, they’re closer in looks to a conventional bike, so probably appeal more to people who don’t want to look too ‘different’. They share a lot of mtb components, like wheelsize, drivetrains and disc brakes, so you can mix and match parts, cut costs and even recycle kit you already have – often the underlying drive behind these projects. Although they’re not as capable as fully fledged cargo bikes, they can easily handle what most people need to carry, with added versatility and even surprisingly good off road ability.


(picture lifted from Commute By Bike)

Surly’s much anticipated Big Dummy kickstarted a lot of renewed interest and pips all others for sheer utilitarian cool. This monster can handle 2.5in tyres, with mudguards. The curved top tube looks great and has a practical reason too, by lowering clearance for riders of different heights. I’m not sure if a bike like the Big Dummy makes complete sense for touring, though these guys, traversing the length of the Americas offroad, would certainly disagree. Or maybe it’s just that you’d need to approach touring with a different mindset: less of a beady eye on the scales and distances covered, and more on the fun stuff you could bring/buy along the way. Like solar panels and a sound system… The Big Dummy makes use of Xtracycle’s innovative modular loading system, and all the bits you can get/make for it.


But just as interesting is this far more affordable offering from Yuba, in the shape of the Mundo. Unless you get in quick and order one in the next couple of days, it’ll cost upwards of £460 in the UK, depending on build and spec. It’s rated to haul a massive 200kg – where leg power permits – thanks to a beefed up wheelset. Similar to Xtracycle’s ethical outlook (who are involved in World Bike), the whole concept is closely tied in with a model for developing regions too, and a percentage of profits goes towards Re-Cycle, who ship second hand bikes to Africa. This is a bike that aims to be strong, simple, practical and carry a message too. Like the Xtracycle gear, it’s being distributed in the UK by Loads Better.


Kona’s UTE is another contender. It will be interesting to see what accessories are available for it, or whether it’s just a stand along product – Kona say there are some in the pipeline. Cost is £580, which includes a mechanical front disc and an 8 speed drivetrain. Kona are also involved in some overseas bike-related donation projects.

Here’s my Rockhopper: the Green Machine. I ended up getting it resprayed new leaf/spring green by the guys at Argos, having a couple of dents filled in too, and some new ‘old’ decals for the finishing touch. Almost all the bits are from my spare parts box or borrowed off other bikes, including some lovely old XT thumb shifters so I can run a cheap 8 speed chain and cassette. The Xtracycle concept involves various straps and modular shelves to suit different loads, and a kickstand which makes loading much easier. I like the ‘cinch-it-all-on-somehow’ concept; it seems to suit my personality. The bolt-on Xtracycle appendage (called a Freeradical) means the frame’s a tad flexy, but that’s ok as it helps to float over bumps – thanks also to the monster 2.25 Big Apples I’ve now squeezed in, which just pop up curbs like the bike has a couple of inches of travel. Storage isn’t an issue. I hang it upways off a normal bike hook, supported by its tail, so no extra room is needed.


A bunch of specialist framebuilders in the US have also built some custom longtails, like this lovely creation from Tony Pereira and a Pugsley snow/sandbike-inspired behemoth from Traffic Cycles. The guys from Riding the Spine have written an ode to it here, and demystified all those chain lines and clearance issues that arise from running close to 4″ Endomorph tyres. Independent Fabrications also displayed a longtail at last years North American Handbuilt Bike Show, powered by a Stokemonkey. And I’ve heard of a couple of other manufacturers considering models too, so watch this space…



Tata Bread


My parents gave me a breadmaking machine for Christmas. Cara used to be BreadMaster but now that she’s moved back to the States, I’ve taken over baking duties. It’s seems fitting to have the house filled with the aroma of fresh bread, as the workshop that is now crammed with bikes was once a bakery for the railway workers who lived in this part of Totterdown.

Howard, who joined us on one of our early tours, found what’s apparently a very fancy toaster in a skip. He coaxed it back to life and proffered it as a house warming gift. Clearly traumatized by the Indian Driving Experience, he also laid his hands on a Tata truck badge and soldered it to the toaster, voodoo-style. It works a treat, and can megatoast six thick slides at once, providing perfect quantities for post winter rides. It seems apt to, for as Katie pointed out, six is the average number of locals in every (small) car in India.


Just another Monday night in Totterdown…


It was all happening in Totterdown on Monday. I was awoken by Hat, one of my housemates, calling out: “I think you might want to move your van, the car next to it is on fire!” And it so was. Some joyriders had dumped a Corsa outside the gates to the cemetery, and it was roaring away like a well-stoked bonfire, pumping a spiral of smoke into the night. In fact, I need to move my mum’s car pretty sharpish too as it was also close by. I could feel the heat from inside her Peugeot, and while I fumbled with gear shifter to get it into reverse, a couple of the Corsa’s windows shattered. The air stunk with the smell of melting plastic.

The firebrigade soon came and hosed it it down nonchalantly, and left saying,”Off to the next one now!” with a friendly fireman’s chuckle.

Oh, to live in the city…


Indian Himalaya tour dates 2008


We’re having trouble accessing our main website at the moment, so in the meantime, here’s our provisional dates for this summer. Every year we rotate trips, and for 2008 we’ll be running one Manali-Leh (via Wari La) pass cruncher and two Spiti and Lahaul Epics. One of the Spiti trips is already booked up, so here’s details of the other two.

Manali to Leh via Wari La: 20 days, 20th July to 8th August, £875.

Spiti and Lahaul Epic: 16 days, 9th August to 24th August, £795.

Please note that on the date mentioned as the first date of the tour, you need to be in Delhi by noon. On the date mentioned as the last date, plan your flight to leave Delhi after 8pm.

We were pleased with how the rides went in 2007 so the itineraries are largely unchanged, bar a few tweaks here and there. As we expected, adding in a couple of 5000m+ plus passes at the tail end of the Manali-Leh ride threw down the gauntlet… especially when they’re as steep and untamed as Wari La. But there’s no better way of reaching Leh than a 40km descent (-:

We also like to work in new bits of trail whenever we get the opportunity. We were delighted to discover a singletrack finale (Dazzler’s Descent) to our Spiti trip, which plummets from the dizzy heights of Dankar monastery to the riverside settlement of Sichling. For ’08, the plan is to finish the ride a little further east in Tabo, home to an equally impressive, 1000-year-old-monastery.

There’s plenty of bike geek info over on the main site about what setup is best for riding in this part of the world. Our Spiti exploration is definitely geared towards ‘proper’ mountain biking, but there’s hopefully enough optional singletrack on Manali-Leh to spice things up for those who want it – and we’re adding more all the time. A hardtail with front suspension is our preferred weapon of choice for both trips, though a light full susser works well for Spiti, and intrepid tourers can tackle Manali-Leh on fully rigid setups, as long as you’re happy to forgo singletrack and some comfort here and there.

You may have noticed we’ve increased our prices from 2006/7, which we’ve had to do due to increased running costs, and fuel prices in India. We still feel the trips are really good value, especially if you consider that we limit the group size to 8 people, plus us. Many companies take groups of up to 16. 8 seems to be a good balance. Fun and social, but also personal and manageable.


Our man in Ladakh: Phunchok Anchok, jeep driver and problem-solver extraordinaire. We couldn’t do it without him.

Sach Pass 2007 Photos

I love looking at the photos taken by people who’ve been on the trips. It’s great to see another perspective; often they trigger forgotten memories, whether they be tinged with smiles or grimaces… And, (I’m not ashamed to say) it makes me proud to think we run trips in this part of the world. Northern India is a stunning, fascinating, testing and complex place, and it’s good to share it with like-minded cyclists.

Mark was our ‘official photographer’ on the inaugural Sach Pass trip. It was a challenging ride. Both logistically for us, due to a limited infrastructure for tourists in these oft overlooked side valleys; there’s very few developed places to stay and the steep sided river gorge rules out camping much of the time. And by the fact that even though we were riding in October, when the weather really should be settled and sunny, 2007 saw the dregs of some serious storms. We even stumbled upon the dog-barking capital of India – and that’s saying something. Not to mention that 4400m Sach Pass is one tough climb to crack. Though much of the way is paved, the road is unusually rough in fits and starts, and the gradient is knee grindingly steep. It still ranks as one of my favourite passes in the Indian Himalayas, thanks to the sheer variety of scenery. The descent is epic and the riding on the Chamba side of the valley is sublimely different – tree-clad Himalayan foothills with quiet villages and a baking, sweaty heat.

Here’s a few of Mark’s great shots that I’ve captioned, from his gallery here.


The ride kicks off with a massive climb to Rohtang Jot – 52km long – where we wrestled with colourful Tata trucks. Then a storm lashed down on the descent…


When the skies cleared, white capped mountains prodded out above a stark, exposed river gorge.


Tut Jack. That looks like more than a dab (-; The climb to Sach Pass was relentless and rough – but stunning. We’d waited two years before running this trip, figuring the new pass would have time to bed in. In fact, a landslide had damaged it over the summer, and it was only just open again in time for the ride. Continue reading ‘Sach Pass 2007 Photos’

SW China Gallery

We’ve posted a first batch of pictures from North Yunnan and West Sichuan in a gallery over here, which we’ll be adding to – and captioning – as we work our way through the various memory cards. I hope you enjoy them.

Here’s a sample…


The mountains around Litang were fresh with snow from a storm that we’d been caught in the day before. Cara was all layered up; only her nose peeped out.


It was so cold as we descended, that spray from the road froze in a coating of ice around the bikes. We had to keep breaking, or ice jammed our discs.


At times, the landscape had a Scottish feel to it. Scotland at 4000m, that is.


Cara tucks into a typical steamed dumpling breakfast, washed down with a bowl of rice porridge and piping hot tea.


A nomad boy in West Sichuan sees us and comes running over from his yak tending duties.


Tattered prayer flags snap in the wind, sending prayers whooshing across the mountains.


After a tough week in the saddle, we treated ourselves to a ‘luxury’ room, complete with attached bathroom and hot shower. A bedside console powered lights and the TV (the only English language channel was Propaganda News 24). But my favourite switch turned off the Bother. If only there was a switch like that in life…

Want to see more? Head to the Pbase gallery. When you open an image, click on ‘original’. All subsequent images will then default to the best version.

Indian Himalaya Tours 2008 – and dancing hairdressers…


A brief glimpse of HH Dalai Lama, summer 2007.

Update on our tour schedule for 2008:

At the moment, it’s looking like we’ll be running two mtb-inspired Spiti and Lahaul rides and one mammoth, pass- crunching Manali-Leh via Wari La trip, from mid July through to the end of August. It would be nice to squeeze in a Leh-Manali self-supported journey too, if there is enough interest. We’re just waiting to hear confirmation from a group enquiry, then will post more details and dates.

In the meantime, I’ve updated one of our last blog entry in China with some photos, back from when we were riding with our German friend Christof. Don’t miss the new action shots of the Wonderful Dancing Hairdressers…

Read all about them here:


En route to Leh 2007.

Please check out our main website for details on our bike trips to the Indian Himalayas.

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