Cycling is such a good mode of travel, it is slow enough that you can take in your surroundings but fast enough that you can cover significant distances if you put your mind to it. For me it offers the ideal pace to see both a country and experience its culture, whilst still being able to take in many different countries and places. As with many cycle tourists I find that the use of electronic items can really help aid the experience, you can take digital photographs, navigate, call for help, or even just listen to some music. However as this summer I will be on the road for two months camping I won’t get many opportunities to charge up my electronic ‘essentials’ so I face the choice, do I become electrically self-sufficient or do I ditch electronics for good?
I think both options have their merits and pitfalls. If I ditched all my electronics life would become a lot more simple. I wouldn’t have to worry about phoning home, posting updates to twitter, or looking at a GPS to see how far I had cycled in a day. People managed to cycle-tour for many years before portable electronics so why should I find it difficult or even weird to do so now? Furthermore without a DSLR, phone, GPS, and associated chargers my bike would also be a couple of kilos lighter which could possibly make the miles easier to cycle. However I found on my Europe cycle that while I didn’t use my phone much, people who were supporting my charity efforts enjoyed receiving the updates on our progress that I posted to JustGiving or Twitter. I also enjoyed logging on and seeing the amount that we had raised for charity rise as we pedalled. Losing the weight of a DSLR would be a big bonus, however I enjoy taking photographs so would probably opt to take my Olympus OM-2 SLR with me, and no doubt a bunch of film for it (which may add a bit of weight to that initial loss), it would be interesting to see how this affected my photography as I would probably take less shots, carefully setting up and framing each one. I think this would be an interesting experiment to do and observe how my technique and photographs change depending on the camera that I take with me. However I think on such a long trip I would hate to look back and regret having no good photographs (if I messed up with the film). Therefore perhaps I should save this experiment for a shorter cycle tour. Furthermore having a DSLR opens up the possibility of taking videos as well which is a project I think would be fun to do on the road and then make a short documentary afterwards.
The map debate is a very large one in cycle-touring and one that I don’t really have a big opinion on. Everyone is different and can go about doing things their own ways. Everyone wants something different from his or her cycle tour. If you want the security of always knowing where you are, number crunching after every day, or finding your way through inner-city side streets then the GPS is probably better suited to you. However if you like planning your route bit by bit, being able to easily look ahead at what lies ahead, or keeping it classical then maps are probably for you. Yes there are a whole host of reasons in between that are all equally valid. The important answer is that the choice is yours. I enjoy the security and easy navigating that comes with a GPS, and as I already have one I will take it with me as it means that I can also use it to see elevation (I enjoy crunching numbers as I go). I also already have maps of the whole route on my phone as a back-up GPS and in addition to these I have paper maps of the first section of our route. This is to avoid what happened on our last big cycle tour around Europe where the Garmin deleted all of its maps, it wasn’t easy to find our way to the hostel we had booked in Bilbao for the first night. Another alternative is going map-less, however due to the tighter time constraints and that we will have booked our flight home before we even start cycling I don’t think this is the best idea, although it worked really well when Tom and I cycled to Durham over Christmas.
Therefore it seems that through predominantly reasons of reliability, convenience, and having future mementos that I am choosing to take electronic items with me on my Alaska to Mexico cycle. However whilst I can mitigate the necessity of having electrical power by taking extra batteries with me (for everything apart form my iPhone) there will eventually come the time when I inevitably run out of juice. Many solar chargers don’t supply enough power and the option of hydropower still looks a little bit too bulky so I have ruled these out of the equation. The only feasible option I see is to make use of what I will be doing for the majority of the day, pedalling and spinning my wheels. It is now easy to pick up a dynamo hub that can exert a 3-watt 6 volt current for under £100. With a dynamo I will be able to have essentially continuous power while I am cycling and if I also get something that can convert the power output into a USB I can then use it to power a USB rechargeable battery, which can store all the energy that I create. The beauty of this system is that the output from this battery won’t vary depending on how fast my wheels are turning but it will be constant so I can keep all my devices charging up continuously as I pedal the day away.
Dynamo hubs are hardly a new fad, however they are becoming increasingly efficient, lightweight, and cheap that they now provide a viable option for cycle-tourists wanting to charge items cheaply on a budget. The Schmidt SON dynamo range still are the best money can buy (and their price certainly warrants that) however it is possible to get decent ones that have the same power output for less than a hundred pounds. Yes they may not be as reliable or as efficient and may weight more however the cheaper Shimano ones seem to get alright reviews, especially considering some of them are a tenth of the price of a Schmit! I think I will opt for a middle of the road one, perhaps a Biologic Joule 3 or a SP dynamo PD-8, both of these options are under £100, are over 70% efficient and some of the lightest on the market at under 400g (a little bit heavier for the disk-brake versions). They seem the best option for me: on a budget requiring value for money, also on a road.cc review the SP PD-8 received a good reliability rating.
In order to convert the output AC power from the dynamo into DC power that can charge an electronic device via USB there are a variety of options available. Some involve a simple converter that can sleekly integrate into the headset whilst others have the AC feeding into a rechargeable battery, which then can be used to charge items. There is a superb review here on cycling about which summarises the different options currently available on the market so I won’t go into detail. For me the pro of the dynamo battery output straight into a battery isn’t a huge one as I already have a couple of emergency batteries that are USB rechargeable. Therefore I could just use one of those instead from a system that doesn’t have an integrated battery so that I can still charge devices when my wheels aren’t moving. For me the biggest factors are reliability and value-for-money. I’d be interested in knowing if any of you have these and which works well for you? I am currently thinking of the BioLogic Reecharge USB option as this has been around a while, has a decent power output and is at the cheaper end of the spectrum. What I don’t understand is that some of these options are effectively analogue to digital converters (without a battery) and still hundreds of dollars. In my mind there is a large gap in the market here for a sub-£100 option that would make electrical gadgets while cycling really feasible and appeal to the masses –not just cycle-tourists, for example commuters charging a phone or audax racers who may be thinking of using Di2 electronic gearing!
So I am hoping that by just having a front dynamo hub and a USB converter that for ~£150-200 I will be able to be electrically self-sufficient. While this is expensive I think that this system will last me years and as I am investing in a new dedicated bike for my touring, which I have been saving for, I think I might as well make it perfect and suitable to the job that I need it to do. It will be an encouraging feeling knowing that apart from food I will be entirely self-sufficient for two months. It will give me more freedom, and allow me more scope for adventure and getting off the beaten track in future expeditions. 21st century cycle-touring here I come…