Electronics on the Tour Divide: Dynos, Chargers, Cables Oh My!

On my Tour divide trip last year, keeping my electronics charged was a huge pain. Some lessons learned below.

Charging Cables are a Single point of Failure

TL;DR – Cables fall apart *really* fast. Bring spares! Get electronics you can swap batteries on, especially batteries you can buy at a gas station.

For most folks, the electronics you bring on the tour divide are critical: you need them to see at night (lights), follow the course (GPS), or get help if you’re stuck (phone/SPOT). We all take care to make sure we get rugged devices, but it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic failure modes – dead battery.

I went into last year’s race feeling pretty self assured because I was rolling a SP PD-8 dynamo hub. I knew I’d have electricity to spare. As a backup, I brought a big battery bank. What I overlooked was that no matter how many electrons I had to push into my devices, none of that mattered if the cables wouldn’t connect. Oops.

For example: I was using my cellphones for navigation. This worked *great*, as long as I had enough battery power. I used a Sinewave Reactor to get USB power out of my dynamo hub, but no matter how long I had my phone hooked up to it, it never charged up because the damn cable wasn’t actually connecting to the contacts in the phone itself. Imagine riding along in the wilderness watching your power level drop and trying to fiddle w/ the cable to get it to charge while going fast enough to keep current running from the dynamo. In a word: impossible.

I’ve never had these problems on other routes – my dyamo setup worked great on the Oregon outback. I think it basically happens because of: the intense vibrations + long duration. My guess is that the internal contacts on the cables themselves just fall apart after a couple days.

Cables are a Single Point Of Failure. Once they start to fail, even being connected to a wall based power supply doesn’t help (much). I spent literally hours jury rigging my cables and phone so that they’d charge overnight. Put a snickers bar under the cable, and a shoe on top of my phone, then check after 5 minutes to see if the little lightning bolt was still there and pray to god it lasted all night.

So – some lessons learned:

  • Get quality USB cables. It sounds rediculous, but you get what you pay for in cables. Since I got back, I’ve been using Anker USB cables for charging. These seem *way* more durable. There are also other ruggedized cables out there. I brought one of these too, and ended up throwing it away, so on to point 2…
  • Bring extra cables. Even with ruggedized cables, I found I could rely on a cable for 3-5 days. Cables are cheap. Buy good ones, bring a lot. If you’re worried about weight & bulk, bring short ones. Don’t count on buying these on the road. You’ll get crappy ones for a lot of money (I spent $25 on a cable in Whitefish, MT). Better to carry more from the get go.
  • Have a backup charging plan. Does your device have removable batteries? Bring a spare. Can you charge your spares w/o a USB cable? Bring that too!
  • Bring devices you can buy batteries for. You know what’s faster than recharging your USB flashlight from the wall? Putting in new AAA’s.
  • Take care of the batteries you bring. Cold temperatures mean bad performance for batteries – keep them warm at night; Don’t drop them.
  • Bring fast chargers, and fast charging devices. If it takes you 8 hours to charge your batter cache, guess how long you’re stuck at a wall socket? Many chargers and devices have fast charging modes now – you could be on your way in half the time.
  • Get a ‘pass through‘ battery cache. If you can charge your device & your cache at the same time you’ve just increased the amount of time you can go before your next stop. Not many battery caches have this feature, do your research and _test_.
  • Figure out your ‘dead device’ plan. If your gps dies, how will you navigate? If your spot dies, how will  you stay in the race? What do you do if your lights runout in the middle of the night? A small Backup light, a rudimentary paper map, and spare Lithium batteries are your friends.

Given how quickly my cables failed, I must say I’m *really* impressed with how durable my SP Dynamo, Sinewave Reactor and K-lite are. The K-lite cables and interconnects are exactly what I’d *like* to be charging my phone with. Maybe Kerry’s got something up his sleeve for the future for phones…

In the mean time, I’m going to start playing around with ways of charging my phone without using USB cables. Wireless chargers have notoriously low efficiency, but poor effeciency + highly reliable is better than a highly efficient cable that doesn’t work.

Electronics were a huge source of comfort and courage for me on the tour – knowing that people were following my ride helped me keep going. Being able to ride into the night let me go farther. Having mine be so tenuous during 2016 was really aggravating. I remember almost running out of cell phone power when calling my family on Fathers day. Next time I go I hope to do better on this front.

Charging on the trail: Dynamo, Solar or Battery Cache?

First things first: Have a backup. Going Battery Cache only? Bring 2 (hell, bring 3!). Bringing a dyno? Don’t skip a cache.

Should I go battery cache only? It’s not a crazy idea. The trick is that  you will likely need more power than you estimate: cache’s perform worse in the cold; your devices will need more power than you think (searching for cell towers or wifi). The solution here is to bring more, and the cost is weight. You should also consider how to keep your caches from failing physically: what happens if they get wet? Will it break if it gets dropped?

What about Solar? Solar is appealing because there are no moving parts. But… weather. And weight. Can you really haul enough panels to power what you need? How will you keep them oriented to the sun? It’s an interesting idea, but seems risky.

Why Dynamo? I love my dynamo lights – every time I move, I get power. But.. they do introduce (very minor) resistance, and they are mechanical and do fail. When they fail, they are really hard to repair. So… it’s also risky. If I had unlimited money, I’d bring this one as a backup.

End of the day, Dynamo seems the least risky and most flexible of all to me, and I have no plans to switch.

 

Sleeping, Apnea and the Tour Divide

Racing the Tour Divide is all about sleep. Wanna go faster? Ride more, sleep less. To cover 190 miles a day, the winners ride 18 hours. If you’re lucky, 3 0f the remaining 6 hours are for sleep. Now imagine that with sleep apnea, a condition which keeps  you from breathing correctly while asleep.

You wouldn’t recovering enough to put in any sort of athletic performance, and you’d have a very hard time making memories. Worst case scenario: microsleeping while on the bike – it’d be easy to ride right off the road into who knows what.

My own apnea is serious enough to drop my blood oxygen level down below 80% when sleeping at sea level. Sleeping at 5000 feet makes it worse.

What’s adventuresome soul to do? Mandibular Advancement Devices seem like a good choice for some folks, but if your apnea is more that moderate you’ll likely need to haul around a CPAP. As far as I know, nobody makes an extension cord long enough for the Tour Divide.

HDM Z1 CPAPEnter the HDM Z1 Auto. It’s a small, light weight cpap built for travel. Thanks to the generosity of HDM, I was able to carry one this year.

The Z1 itself weighs about 10 oz – about the same as a light weight sleeping matt. The base, batteries and charger bring the total weight up to a bit more than 2lbs. Less than your tent. Less than a synthetic sleeping bag. And in terms of your ability to recover from a strenuous day, just as important.

The Z1 + the powershell is much less bulky than my home CPAP unit, and fit nicely stuffed int20160627_191707o the bottom of my Revelate Designs Viscacha, or my Jones fork micro panniers.

Sleeping in the woods? The Z1 is battery powered. The lithium ion battery will last a full 8 hours when fully charged (watch out for cold weather though, might be worth moving the battery inside your bag if it’s very cold outside).

IMG_20160612_140725609_HDRCharging takes 5+ hours, and doesn’t take place while using the Z1 itself, so if you need to stay outside 2 nights in a row bring a spare. Maybe future versions of this device will be able to charge the battery while the unit is in use. Until then, you might consider bringing 2 chargers (1 for the battery, one for the cpap) to charge up while you’re sleeping if electricity is available.

 

The Z1 is a bit noisier than my home unit, but this is a small price to pay for good sleep in the woods. I like to think that the sound from the unit scared off Bear 6 (the worst bear – the one I never actually saw) at the Red Meadow pass, where I was sleeping alone at 5,5000 feet. It also has a few small custom pieces that are important not to lose. Best to keep the custom hose adapter attached to the hose at all times, or perhaps bring a spare.

Particulars aside, the Z1 really lets me expand the range of adventures I can undertake. smilesGetting good sleep lets me ride harder and stay happier than waking up night after night with a hangover from an oxygen diet. What’s most important though is that I was able to stay positive and focused on this incredibly demanding trip. A bad nights sleep for me is a recipe for pessimism, procrastination and a painful head – no way to keep on keeping on in the worlds longest mountain bike race. The Tour Divide is certainly one of the greatest adventures of my life, I’m happy to have had the Z1 along for the ride.

My transformation to weight weenie

Preparing for the tour divide has been one of the most transformative bicycling passages of my life. I’ve always been a bike nerd, but in the past 10 years or so it’s been much more of a tennis-shoes and levis are all you need kinda person (yes, that’s my much beloved and dearly departed fixed gear folder).

Riding the tour, at least for me, has meant accumulating a lot of specialized gear. Fancy bike. Fat tires. Gears. Dyno hub. A light brighter than the sun, stuff like that. My sister (who was just in town) observed that maybe, just maybe, doing crazy shit like this is justification to GET whacky gear. Mark one down for my sis, I say.

But even more than that, I’ve waded deeply into the waters of weight-weeniedom. It’d a dubious place to be, especially for one who stands so much to loose personally (yes I am speaking about my muffin top). But try as I might, I have proof positive that I have spent minutes of my life subtracting fractions of ounces from my bicycle.

Be20160417_201310hold: 15 grams I’ll never get back (left front shifter bracket that serves no conceivable purpose). But don’t cry for me, Argentina. I still have a few scruples left. I’ve promised myself I won’t pay more than a dollar a gram to save weight off my bike. Extra light inner tubes are starting to look like a good deal, and hell I’ve gotta get a new drive train anyway, right?

Mean while – now that I;m over the worst of the sickness, I’m back on the Hypoxicator. Hooray.

 

Shoes – platform vs. clipless

TL;DR – I’m 90% convinced to ride flat pedals and shoes rather than clipless.

Here are the major reasons why:

  • The ‘pulling up’ pedaling technique isn’t efficient. See “Effect of Pedaling Technique on Mechanical Effectiveness and Efficiency in Cyclists“. It seems like it should be, doesn’t it? But, it’s not. Would you like to read a lot more on this? Check out the Flat Pedal Manifesto. Interested in the slide show? Try here
  • Having feet free gives you opportunities to change how you pedal if you get injured. Moving your foot so the pedal is under midfoot is just as efficient as other placements (here’s another paper). Pedaling with your midfoot can take stress off your achilles, and since achilles inflamation seems relatively common on the tour, this seems like a good option.
  • Clipless pedals are mechanically complicated – it’s just 1 more thing to break on the trail.
  • It’s more hassle to get into/out of special shoes than is really needed
  • They’re expensive! Both financially and cognitively, I’ve spent too much on pedals and shoes.

The best reason to use clipless pedals that I can see is keeping your feet on the pedal. On the tour, you get tired. Get tired, lose focus. Lose focus and maybe you slide off a pedal. Or, on tricky terrain you bounce off.

But… I don’t need a clipless shoe to save me from that. Regular old Powergrips will work fine. Also, a decent set of flat shoes stay attached to flat pedals with pins in them just fine. How do I know? That’s what I rode on the oregon outback, and that’s what I’ve ridden for years. 2 months of riding in Pear Izumi X-project 1.0s tells me I’m not getting very much new bang for my buck. Back to flats it is.

 

 

Gloves

I generally don’t ride with gloves, but on the Tour it seems like a good idea. Less chance of hurting my hands if I fall off, and maybe less numbness. I sometimes get some ulnar finger numbness (index and middle fingers) after longer rides. So… what gloves, what gloves?

I’m still not sure, but Pez Cycling has the best article I’ve seen on it in the popular press. Here’s the study they cite. The author’s credentials look good, and it matches with what I know about anatomy.

The basic advice: Foam padding (not gel) on the outside heel of the hand.

I’m sold – looking for some good gloves now.