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Cycling Eurasia : Preparing for the off

Josh Cunningham
7 Jul 2015

After four years of racing in Belgium, Josh has traded carbon for steel in a trans-continental ride from the UK to the Pacific.

Riding a bicycle across the world's biggest landmass is the sort of adventure that probably appeals to most people - or most that will be reading this, anyway. But for it to appeal enough to actually cycle away from your front door, your job and life as you know it, is a weight that much fewer have the pleasure, and pain, of accepting.

I first considered that I might be one of these people when I was 16, while gliding through the fields of rural central France on a baptismal cycle tour from Sussex to Piedmont. All of the necessary ingredients for a profound moment of cycle touring concord were present, from the unfolding road to the sporadically situated hamlets; the blue of the sky to the green of the not-yet-ripe crops; the unanimity of bike and rider; the independence; the growing anticipation for pitching the tent and assembling the cooking stove and the unrivalled thrill of not knowing where or when that might be.

Years have since passed in the interim, as well as a handful of lifestyles that vastly differ from that of a touring cyclist, but 2015 has marked the year that I stayed true to the pledge of my younger self and set off on a long distance bike tour from the UK to Hong Kong.

Decisions, decisions

There were two key planning stages to my tour; firstly the long-term meandering through possible (and sometimes impossible) ideas, driven by escapist excitement and time spent trawling through blogs and poring over maps in search of possible routes. Then, in the two months prior to the departure date I had set myself, came the much less dreamy "Ok, this is happening" stage, driven mostly by a fear that the research I had made up until that point had been almost entirely useless in terms of practicality: What visas do I need? What vaccinations do I need? What kit do I need to buy? What components should I build my bike up with? Are these countries going to be safe? Do I need insurance? Should I buy a Kindle?

Surly Crosscheck frame

Eventually though I managed to formulate enough of a plan to be able to leave with a sense of direction and confidence, but also a lot of blanks that had been consciously left in order to protect myself from spoiling the enticement of the unknown.

I had known for a long time that I would try to cross the Eurasian landmass as it would give me the best chance of lengthy, uninterrupted distances on the bike as well as offering perhaps the most diverse geographical and anthropological spectrums possible in one landmass - 'The World Island,' as Sir Halford Mackinder, a 20th century geographer, put it. But I needed more direction than simply crossing Europe and Asia, and I think as a result of my being a cyclist on a tour as much a tourist on a cycle, I discovered that the lure of the mountains was unshakeable, like a cartographic femme fatale clawing her way onto the page.

So after a ritualistic ride through England and its Pennines, Dales, Peaks and Downs, I would cross to Europe, and after a stint in the Vlaams Ardennen, whose lanes I knew so well, I would head south through Belgium and Luxembourg into the Ardennes. Following that would be the Black Forest in Germany, before a wintertime assault on the Alps through Austria and Italy, and then the Balkan peninsula with its swathes of unavoidable contours. The plateau of central Turkey and the 5000m plus peaks of the Caucasus would be next, before the deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Then would come the real crux of the journey, in the form of the mighty Pamir, Tian Shan, Karakoram and Himalaya ranges that knot together the world's heaven-reaching territories of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and India. The rainforests of South East Asia would bring twilight upon my route, before the rugged karstic mountains of southern China, and finally the Pacific seaboard, to bring it to an end.

The bike

Surly Crosscheck headset

With the ideal route clear in my mind, but far from concluded due to the bureaucratic labyrinth that it had subsequently created for me, I could begin to think about building the bike. I had purchased my Surly Cross-Check, a chromoly steel number, a long time previously as an initial act of self-inflicted coercion; now it lay bare in front of me, daring me to make a bike from its shell and give it the cross-continent test it was intended for.

My intentions were to keep things as high quality, simplistic and internationally available as possible. I had no time for STI shifters, as if I crashed and one broke on me in the backs of some Central Asian beyonds then there would be little hope of finding a replacement; but time less still for 10-speed gearing, as there are only a very limited number of countries who carry compatible components in stock. A lot of the roads that I would be set to tackle are un-surfaced, so I chose cantilever brakes, small gears, SPD cleats and 35mm tyres to make these sections a little easier. Pannier racks with a lowered mounting point (and so lower overall centre of gravity) were employed for better bike handling, as was the initial choice in frame - Surly's cyclocross model, the Cross-Check, as opposed to their traditional touring frame, the Long Haul Trucker.

Surly Crosscheck bottom bracket

I allowed myself a little more expenditure on components with bearings, opting for a Hope bottom bracket and headset, and Shimano XT hubs, as I knew that having to deal with these failing in remote places would be a highly frustrating situation. For the finishing touches, I chose to begin what would hopefully be a long and comfortable relationship with a Brooks B-17 Special saddle, and didn't hesitate for a second in deciding whether or not to opt for drop handlebars. A bike must always look the part, after all.

Kitted out

I did not pay as much attention or spend as much money on my kit as I did my bike, as I felt I'd be able to cobble together replacement items on the road, or just go without, should anything happen to them. For me it was a case of spending the lowest possible price, but still trying to maintain the aim of only buying once. If Shimano 105 did tents, I should imagine I'd have probably gone for that one - as I would have done if they did petroleum-burning stoves, lightweight inflatable mattresses, water purifiers, micro-fibre towels and down jackets. Who knows, maybe one day they will? As it was I adopted the common tactic of reading the reviews and recommendations from the websites and blogs of those who have gone before me, and put together what I felt was a kit list that would enable me to be completely self sufficient.

Surly Crosscheck rack mounts

Once in a pile on my bedroom floor it quickly became apparent that some priorities would have to be made though, as there was not a chance that the array of accoutrements before me would fit in my four panniers. But eventually, after piling and re-piling groups of related items and culling a few kilos worth of bits along the way, I managed to obtain some semblance of organisation. After fitting the essentials (camping gear, cooking gear, clothes) into my rear panniers, and more superfluous items (electrics, maps, long-lasting food) in the front, then lodging my tent on the back and stuffing valuables into the bar bag, I had a bike - and a home - that at a little over 50kg was finally ready to go. 

The only thing left to do was to leave.

Full kit list

The Bike

  • Surly Cross Check
  • Hope threaded bottom bracket
  • PRO alloy handlebar (42cm) and stem (90cm)
  • Cane Creek SCR-5 brake levers
  • DT Swiss TK 540 rims, DT Swiss Alpine III spokes, Shimano XT hubs  
  • Schwalbe Marathon Plus 700x35c tyres
  • Shimano Deore front and rear derailleurs
  • Shimano Deore chainset (22/32/44), chain and cassette (11-34) 
  • Shimano Dura Ace down tube shifters 
  • Brooks B-17 Special
  • Shimano Ultegra Cantilever brakes
  • SKS Bluemel mudguards
  • Shimano M324 pedals 
  • Bottle Cages
  • Tubus Tara front and Tubus Logo rear pannier racks
  • Basic Cateye computer 

Bike related luggage

  • Ortlieb Sport Packer Classic front & Ortlieb Bike Packer Classic rear panniers
  • Ortlieb Rack Pack
  • Ortlieb Ulimate 6 Bar Bag
  • Specialized Saddle Bag 
  • Kryptonite Cable Lock
  • Park Tool Multi Tool 
  • BBB pump
  • Puncture Repair Kit
  • Tyre Levers x 2
  • Tyre Boots 
  • Spare foldable tyre
  • Spare brake and gear cables, spare chain, spare nuts and bolts, spare brake pads, spare inner tubes, spare spokes
  • Quicklink 
  • Cassette Removal Tool 
  • Spoke key
  • 8mm spanner
  • Wet Lube
  • Brooks saddle spanner
  • Rag 
  • Bell

Camping

  • Vango Mirage 200 tent 
  • Thermarest Prolite mattress
  • Blacks Cosmos 200 Sleeping Bag 
  • Lifeventure Cotton Sleeping Bag Liner

Cooking

  • MSR Whisperlite International stove
  • Vango 1 Person Cooking Set 
  • Small kitchen knife 
  • Camping cutlery 
  • Sparking Fire stick, waterproof matches, mini lighter
  • SteriPen Purifier 
  • MSR 6L Dromedary Water Bag

Clothing

  • Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek V shoes
  • Thermal socks x2, cotton socks x2
  • Merino base layer and merino long johns 
  • Howies merino boxers
  • Cotton shorts 
  • Padded shorts
  • Waterproof trousers 
  • Lightweight zip-off trouser/shorts
  • T-shirt 
  • Cotton shirt 
  • Haglofs fleece
  • Peter Storm Waterproof jacket
  • Peter Storm Softshell jacket
  • Sherpa down jacket
  • Gilet, leg warmers, arm warmers 
  • Long fingered gloves
  • Polyester glove liners
  • Buff
  • Cycling cap 
  • Helmet
  • Sunglasses

Electrical

  • DSLR camera and two lenses
  • Satellite laptop
  • Hard drive
  • iPod 
  • Headphones and speaker 
  • Mobile phone
  • Powertraveller Powermonkey Explorer solar power device
  • Plug adaptor 

Miscellaneous

  • Compass
  • Maps
  • Whistle
  • Torch
  • Length of lightweight rope
  • Petzl Headtorch
  • Waterproof bags a-plenty
  • Gelert travel towel
  • Packable day bag
  • Reflective vest 
  • Arno straps
  • Diary and notebook
  • Pens and pencils
  • Books
  • Zipties and Duct Tape 
  • Toiletries 
  • First aid kit
  • Malaria tablets
  • Leatherman
  • Wallet and dummy wallet
  • Watch 

Part 2 can be found here: The adventure begins

You can follow Josh on Twitter: @coshjunningham

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