Category Archives: Materials and Gear

The stuff that gets you places

Disc brake catastrophe–Or, failure is the root of all learning

Okay, “catastrophe” might be a little strong. More like “potentially very bad situation.” Regardless, it has to do with my new(ish) Soma bike, which you may recall has disc brakes.

Disc brakes are a new system to me. If they’re not familiar to you either, they look like this:

avid bb7 road disc brakes

The rotor–that circular metal disc–is attached to the hub of the wheel, and the brake itself is attached to the fork (in that picture, it’s the black thing that’s sort of hidden behind the black fender attachment). When you brake, two pads in the brake on the frame squeeze together against the rotor and you stop. (I think this is basically how brakes in a car work too?)

Anyway, it’s all very nifty because since you’re not rubbing against the rims of your wheel to slow yourself down, your wheel lasts longer (unless you destroy it through means other than wearing out the rim;). And they gather a lot less gunk in wet weather, which means that when it’s raining and you brake, your bike still actually stops. Also, if your wheel comes out of true, you can still ride just fine, relatively, since the brake is on the hub and the wonkiness of your wheel won’t affect it the way it would rim brakes.

So I’ve been pretty psyched on my disc brakes.

The braking power in my front brake has been gradually declining, and I’ve been gradually tightening it, but the other day I decided that for realz I needed to actually replace the pads. I had a general idea of how to do it, but since it’s a whole new system to me I wasn’t sure about the finessing details. So I watched some YouTube videos, and talked to one of the mechanics at Seven Corners Cycles when I bought a new set of pads from him. Feeling cocky, I took out my old pads and put in new ones.

avid bb7 road disc brakes2(the copper-colored tabs that stick out of the brake are the arms to the brake pads. They sit super tucked away inside the brake)

Great! Pads replaced! Commence the better braking! Except that I did it wrong, and as I was biking home from work on Monday, I hit a bump while I was braking down a hill. With a hideous ping, one of the brake pads shot out, hit the spokes, and wet careening off into the road. Yikes! I stopped as best I could with only my back brake (only about 20-30% of your stopping power comes from that one), pulled over, and gathered up my errant pad.

Luckily I was actually able to find it. And since I knew I’d done it wrong the first time, I tried again, differently, to put the two pads back in together. Tighter this time.

But sure enough, another hill, another bump, and the same brake pad went flying off my bike again–except this time it flew into traffic and promptly got run over by a car. So much for my mechanical skills.

To make a long story short, I was only a few blocks away from The Bike Gallery, which was still open for another 20 minutes. I stopped in to buy new brake pads again but mostly to ask if one of their mechanics would mind walking me through what I was doing wrong. Sure enough, a super awesome fellow (thanks, Nathan!) walked me through exactly what I should have done–and unlike the first time, when I hadn’t yet tried it myself, this time I could identify my personal mechanical pitfalls. (Mostly, it came down to not pushing hard enough. Disc brakes are burly.)

So there you go. It was a good reminder to me that sometimes near-catastrophic failure is necessary to show you exactly what you’re doing wrong. I’m pretty sure that when I go to replace my back brake pads in the near future, I’ll be able to do it right:) I hope:)

A Bike Map is a Wonderful Thing to Have

When you’re trying to get somewhere by bicycle, a bike-specific map is a pretty amazing resource. Granted, in a pinch any map will do, but a map that specifically delineates the lower-traffic routes, the multi-use paths, and the streets that are to be avoided at all costs (or at least that are likely to be supremely unpleasant) is a great thing to have.

In Portland, we have this map put out by Metro:

bike there

Like any map, it won’t ever be every single thing that every single person on a bike wants it to be, but it does a pretty darn good job of laying out the bike-friendly streets in the Portland Metro area, with detailed city views on the back side. Plus, it’s on rain- and rip-resistant paper, perfect for Portland:)

I love this map. When I’m looking for adventure but don’t have anything specific in mind, I just look for somewhere that sounds interesting or a place I’ve never been, then plot out a route, looking mostly for the green (neighborhood greenway), blue (bike lane), or purple (multi-use path) lines to get there. Sometimes, I just try to weave together as many multi-use paths as I can. Sometimes, I try to take as zigzaggy a route as I can. Whatever sounds fun. To me, this is what maps are good for and why I love them so much: they represent infinite potential, a million places just waiting to be discovered, and the means by which to get to them.

bike there back

For how much I love this map, it is a point of infinite humor to James that I often don’t have one lying around. Why? Because any time I talk to anyone about bike routes and they don’t already have a bike map, I give them mine. I have bought and given away this map at least 10 times. In fact, when I buy a new one, I’ve recently taken to buying two, figuring that that way I can give one away and still have one left at home when I want to adventure.

But now here I am, having–again–just given away my last map to a coworker who I learned is interested in biking to work but hasn’t the faintest idea how to get from Rock Creek to the Oregon Zoo. I brought in my map, we looked at options, and he’s ready to roll.

To me, this is worth the cost of buying a map over and over and over. No, not everyone who I give one to will necessarily use it, but the potential that someone out there might pick it back up one day and decide that today is the day to bike to work or school or the store for the first time? That’s why I keep giving it away. Even though I know James is going to laugh at me. heh.

I’m infinitely grateful to have this resource available, and thankful that I can do my part to get it in people’s hands. Removing the barriers to biking, one step or map at a time:)


The Things I Carried (with apologies to Tim O’Brien)

Probably the thing that takes the most amount of thought before I leave for any bike trip is what I’m going to bring with me and how I’m going to pack it all. And as I was biking through Utah, it was the question that people most often asked me: what do you have in all those bags?

So in case you, too, are curious, I spent part of a rest day in Moab taking pictures of all the material possessions I had with me–everything I needed for three and a half weeks on a bike, though I’m confident it would have served me for as long as I wanted. The difference between three weeks and twenty is not so much, so long as you keep washing your clothes and buying more food:)


Before I get into the details, this is what my bike entirely loaded looked like (picture courtesy of a super awesome woman I ran into at the top of the Burr Trail switchbacks):

touring setup

So that’s how it looked with everything packed up. It came down to this: two panniers, one extra bag strapped on top of my rack, a little saddlebag with my tools, a frame pack, and my handlebar bag. It weighed sort of a lot, but once I was biking the weight didn’t really matter, since as long as it was even remotely well-balanced, all it did was make me slower going uphill.

Now as for what was inside all those bags.

pannier 1(Pannier 1: clothes and food)

So this pannier was the heaviest one. The grey stuff sack was filled with food: dehydrated dinners (bought in bulk at People’s Co-op in Portland), oatmeal, nuts, dried fruits, energy or granola bars, veggies, whatever I happened to have on hand. The weight and bulk of that varied according to how much food I had at any given time, but other than water, food was probably my heaviest thing.

Aside from food, I stuffed most of my clothes in this bag. From the top left, I have one short-sleeve shirt (I’m wearing the other one), booties, long underwear, one sports bra, three pair wool socks, one pair normal pants, two pair underwear, two pair biking bottoms (one shorts, one 3/4 length), and my water-resistant layer. Plus, to take this picture, I was wearing (aside from the short-sleeve shirt I mentioned), a sweatshirt, another pair of socks, some shorts, and long underarmor. I did have some other clothes-type stuff too, but I put that in different places.

pannier 2(Pannier 2: randoms:)

This pannier was much more scattered. My sleeping bag took up most of the room, but stuffed in around it I had most of my pragmatic things as well as my entertainment things. From the left, I had my puffy down jacket (so glad to have had that on this trip!) as well as a quick-dry towel. The rolled-up blue thing by my puffy is my water filter. I didn’t use that too much, so I was glad I brought this super small and sort of annoying one instead of my usual MSR pump filter. In a plastic bag, I have a spare tube, a pink rag, and lube for my bike. Underneath that, my headlamp. Next to that, and this is a weight extravagance for sure: my maps, my journal, and two whole books.

Above my literary stockpile is my Jetboil, which is how I made anything warm to eat or drink (the fuel cannister for that fits into the Jetboil itself). Then I have a bunch of little things. A stuff sack with my camera and cell-phone chargers, plus four extra rechargeable AAA batteries. An orange stuff sack into which I put all my toiletries: biodegradable Dr Bronner’s soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, rudimentary first aid (consisting mostly of neosporin and bandaids), chamois cream, toilet paper and baby wipes. The black square thing next to my sleeping bag is actually some leg warmers that I’d cram around everything else if it wasn’t cold enough to wear them.

rack bag(rack-top bag, held in place by three bungee cords)

This was a fun one. The green bag is just some cheap Eagle Creek bag I bought at REI–it was convertible between a duffel bag and a backpack, but since I wasn’t going to be using the duffel function, I just cut off the straps for that. But why I liked it is because I could take it off my bike and use it as a backpack for dayhikes, but when it was on my bike, I could zip the straps into a compartment and get them out of the way. It was also the bag I used as a carry-on when I flew to Grand Junction (I checked my panniers in a giant duffel bag).

Anyway, this bag carried another random assortment. The blue stuff sack is my tent; the long bag underneath it is the poles and stakes. I liked having those in this bag because then my shelter was super readily accessible when I stopped to set up camp, without having to dig through all the stuff in my panniers.

The other stuff sack is my sleeping pad, a NeoAir that I splurged on before I left because it packs up so darn small and light. Then I’ve got two collapsible liters of water storage–I’d fill those if it would be a long time between watering holes and leave them empty if I didn’t need them. I put layers that I thought I’d want super accessible on top–my beanie, gloves, arm warmers, and some baggy shorts I’d pull over my bike shorts when I stopped in towns where I thought spandex might not be appreciated. My hiking shoes (really just old, dead running shoes) fit right on top of the bag but strapped under the bungee cords for super easy access.

Finally, I had my three relatively little on-bike bags:

bike bags(A Novara saddle bag, a Jannd frame pack, and some random velcro-attachable handlebar bag. Plus two water bottles in cages and a bike lock I kept coiled around my toptube)

bike bag contents(close-up of what’s in those three bags)

My saddle bag was just for tools: another spare tube, electrical tape, patch kit, tire levers, multitool, and spoke wrench.

The frame pack held two more liters of water (I always kept that one full–yknow, until I drank it) and, annoyingly, a shoulder strap for one of my panniers that I hadn’t meant to bring with me but forgot to take out of my pack. I also kept any trash I had in there, easy access for throwing it away whenever I came to somewhere with a garbage can.

My handlebar bag was for snacks and other things I wanted super easy access to: sunscreen, pocket knife, lighter, watch (the band broke, so I just kept it in my bag instead of on my wrist:), hair ties, sunglasses, lip balm, cell phone, and money.

And that was everything I had!

I probably had more clothes than I needed. The underarmor, for example, was sort of redundant with the leg warmers, and I probably could have done with two pairs of socks–but clean socks is such a luxury for me when I travel that I made room for them:) And my tent, which is a two-person tent, is bigger than I really need. But mostly, I had exactly what I wanted and exactly enough–a great feeling.


After a few days, I figured out my packing scheme so that I always had everything in the same place–that not only made it easy to find things when I wanted them but also kept me from leaving anything behind, because it would be super obvious to me if I was forgetting anything.

So that worked really well for me. If you asked anyone else, they’d of course have their own packing scheme entirely different from mine. So if you’re anyone else and have any ideas, feel free to chime in:) The Jannd pack, for example, was an idea from Urban Adventure League, and I was super happy to have gotten that little tidbit before I left. So I’d super love to hear other ideas for improving the rig for next time:)

Introducing my excellent new bikey:)

Ladies and gentlemen: this has been a few years in the scheming, but finally, here it is–my new bikey.

soma double cross disc(hell yeah!!)

It’s a Soma Double Cross–steel, which I’m excited about–with disc brakes, which I’m also pretty excited about. I intend this to be my new travel and crap-weather bike, a bike with racks and carrying capacity and a little more heft (and a lot more fender clearance;) than my racey Trek.

I’ve been riding it for just shy of a week now, and it is amazing. Of course, any new bike is going to feel amazing, but still:) It’s exactly what I wanted out of a bike–which makes sense, since Mark at Upcycles helped me build it up from the frame. (A huge thank you to Upcycles for ordering the frame for me, finding all the parts I wanted, and giving up basically a whole Sunday to have a bike-building party with me. Super solid.)

So far, it’s done me pretty well in this crazy snowstorm we’re having, too:) The tires are only a little wider than on my Trek, but they feel way more solid in the slippery. A good omen.

I am seriously so excited about this bicycle. I cannot wait to take it on tour. And everywhere else too:) Is it too early to start thinking about better-weather bike adventures yet?? Who wants to go for a ride?? :)