Posted on January 7, 2019
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My plan was simple. Enter Thailand at the Poipet/Aranyaprathet border after a short ride and stay in Cambodia, stop in Bangkok to get some routine maintenance, repairs and some needed parts for my bicycle and then head to Mae Sot to cross over into Myanmar.
My thought was two weeks would be enough time. But as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Two weeks turned to four. One month stretched to three. I would have preferred more of my time was spent actually sitting on my new Brooks seat pedaling but my trusty bicycle decided it was going to cause problems for me. And to make things worse if a bicycle could actually not only make plans but cleverly execute them the plan was a success.
Way back in August my bicycle started showing signs of intermittent drag. It started with me noticing that I was getting more tired at the end of the day. I had already spun the pedals on my bike for over two thousand miles and chronologically I was heading in the advanced direction when it comes to age so a little fatigue wouldn’t necessarily be unusual.
But as I turned west towards Laos with nothing but mountains in front of me the drag became more apparent. It would kick in at times that made no sense to me. It was a very physical sensation that felt like someone grabbed the back of my bike to limit my forward momentum. Then as quickly as it started the drag would release – as if an angel was pushing me along.
Not being a bicycle mechanic I went through all of the possibilities in my head. On a trip like this I have an abundance of time to fill throughout the day as I climb mountains and pass small ethnic villages. Tires, brakes wheels, hubs. Nothing I thought of ended up eliminating the intermittent drag.
I released the back and front brakes at different times. No change. The drag would start when I pedaled or when I coasted, when I was going uphill or downhill, loaded or unloaded – intermittent drag.
The further I went into the mountains the further away from any reliable repairs I was. Hanoi was weeks behind me so the best option was to continue forward. The hardest day of my ride was on September 4, 2018 when I cycled from Ky Son, Vietnam to Nonghet, Laos. I average 3.7 miles per hour over six hours of moving up and over the mountains and crossing my third border of the trip. Total elevation gain that day, my record so far, was 4,892 feet. I can’t even remember how many of those miles I was actually off the bicycle pushing it on foot.
I did what I could and as I got close to good size cities I planned to get repairs. In remote parts of the world even the best of mechanics might not be the best overall but I had to take what I could. I had the rear wheel and hub looked at in Luang Prabang, Laos. It turned out that didn’t solve the problem.
In Vientiane, the capital of Laos I made another attempt at repairs. Lots of money spent but again no success. I knew Bangkok was only a thousand miles ahead of me. Only a thousand miles. I might drive a thousand miles on a spare car tire that resembles a donut to get a repair but I had to pedal one thousand miles to get my bicycle repaired.
Did I mention I only had to ride another thousand miles to make it to a reliable mechanic?
Luckily I knew the route would be relatively flat. The mountains were behind me at this point and all I had to do was put my head down and pedal. There were times when the drag would not surface for a whole day. Sometimes it would appear many times during a day. I just never knew.
When I had good days I was ecstatic. But my mood would turn south as quickly as my wheels spun when I felt the invisible hand grab the back of my bike. The explosive verbal outbursts heard in many a small village in northern Laos were gone as the drag was easier to handle on the flats but it was infuriating nonetheless.
I made it to Bangkok and had complete general maintenance done by the mechanic that built the bike just seven months earlier. More new parts, more grease, all the nuts and bolts tightened. Inspection of all of the moving parts. Okay. This should be the fix. Finally.
When it was time to leave Bangkok I got on the bike and headed west. Going through the city was as chaotic as one could image even on a Sunday morning. The city turned to suburbs and then to countryside. But the dense population stretches far and it took until the end of the day to truly feel I was getting out of town.
The bike performed exceptionally. Cruising along at eighteen miles an hour where the road and traffic would allow I don’t think the bike felt this good when I first bought it. Riding with mechanical issues weighing on me for so long I had no idea what normal felt like. I slept well that night knowing I was finally problem free.
A couple hours into the next day I thought I felt a subtle bit of drag. No, it couldn’t be possible I thought. All in my head I assured myself. I kept riding and my heart sunk every time I felt the slightest change in the way the bike was riding. It just can’t be I insisted. It just can’t be!
The next day it was clear the problem was not fixed. I had to decide what to do. My options included giving up completely (not going to happen), going back to Bangkok (I didn’t want to do that) or finding a bike shop ahead that could help me.
Talking with bicyclists on the road and online everyone pointed me to Triple Cats Cycle in Chiang Mai. This would mean additional time in Thailand and I would have to extend my visa and alter my route – which isn’t a problem since overall I am not on a time schedule. The decision was made and instead of heading west to Myanmar I continued north to Chiang Mai.
Because the mechanic was going to be out of town I had a choice to hang out in Chiang Mai for a bit or go for a ride to waste some time. I decided on the latter and headed up to Chiang Rai and the down to Chiang Mai.
The problem was described and repairs were done. Finally! I thought this was going be the final fix. Insert video of Jon Lovitz saying “That’s the ticket!” here.
You’ve already guessed it. Same problem. Again.
Over time and many visits to Triple Cats and a couple other shops I had the back wheel completely replaced, a new front hub and countless breakdown and inspection of all of the moving parts. Because of my frustration with the recurring issues I wanted to eliminate every possible source of the problem so I insisted on getting a brand new rear wheel. New hub, spokes, rim. If all of those things were replaced then they could not be the source of the drag if it didn’t go away.
I posted my issue on a couple of bicycling groups on Facebook. People offered many suggestions from the obvious to questions about my age, stamina and mental stability. I don’t think the bike mechanics would ever vouch for my mental soundness. The major difficulty with my bicycle problems was that it was intermittent. None of the mechanics ever witnessed the drag happen. The most obvious source would be the hubs but since they were replaced they were clearly not part of the problem – and the new ones were not part of the solution.
I rode a few days with a fellow bicyclist from Germany and I had him ride my bike. Within ten meters he stopped and said the drag was obvious to him. He was confident it was in the front. Since this was the only part not yet replaced I would have it fixed. As we headed towards Chiang Mai I was happily awaiting the time I could announce that I now had a witness to this insanity.
One day before Chiang Mai I had to rush in the afternoon to get to a town where I wanted to get a sunset drone shot of a hilltop temple. I was able to cruise along fully loaded at eighteen miles an hour. The next morning I could push the pedals hard enough to get the bike past five and a half miles an hour on a flat road.
The front hub was replaced and I headed out of Chiang Mai to continue my trip – for the third time. I was so sensitive to any change in the way my bike responded I couldn’t trust my what I felt I though. Although this time I was confident the problem was solved I still couldn’t convince myself. After I made it half way to Pai I knew the problem was still there.
I spent the evening writing an email to Surly, the frame manufacturer. I had some suggestion from online people that the problem might be some flexing in the frame. That didn’t seem to be a likely culprit but at this point I had to look into it. I had already been in contact with Surly because I wanted to get the ball rolling sooner than later if the hub replacement didn’t solve the problem.
They didn’t sound too keen on the idea that it might be the frame but after I listed all of the repairs and replacements showing that all of the moving parts had been checked or replaced over many months at great expense they said they would send me out a new frame.
That is where I am right now. In Chiang Mai where I was for Loy Krathong, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. It is a Monday afternoon here and when Surly opens in the US they will ship out a new frame. They gave me the option of changing frames if I wanted so I have decided to switch to a Surly Troll. They felt that frame may be better equipped to carry the amount of weight that I carry on my bike. The configuration is more like a mountain bike but it is able to use fully loaded on a long distance tour. It also can fit tires up to three inches wide (I currently use two inch tires) if I opt for that later on my trip when I head into more remote areas like Mongolia and Argentina where pavement might not exist for hundreds or thousands of miles.
I am confident that this will fix the issue. It has to doesn’t it? A bicycle isn’t that complicated. There aren’t that many parts. Overall this will end up basically being a new bike except for the handlebars, the brakes and some cables. If everything has been replaced then how could the drag surface again?
I am looking at another week to ten days in Chiang Mai as I wait for my frame to arrive and then for the mechanic to switch everything over. Had I known I was going to be here this long I would have rented an apartment.
I am very fortunate that Chiang Mai is a wonderful place to be ‘stuck’. If you have been here yourself then you know what I mean. If you haven’t been here then I would put Chiang Mai on your list of future vacations.
It was hot when I first arrived but now it is the ‘cool’ winter season. And yes, eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit is cool and the lows of sixty-eight at night are downright cold.
One bad side of being stuck in Chiang Mai is the number of restaurants in town. Anything and everything is available wherever you look. Eating well every day and not cycling on a consistent basis is never good for me but I know I will soon be back on the road again.
I spent this morning riding up to Doi Suthep, a temple in the hills overlooking Chiang Mai. It was twenty miles round trip including two thousand feet of climbing in seven miles. I did it unloaded but it was the first good workout I had in a while. I should spend a few more days this week doing the same to keep my riding legs back before I tackle the hills of the Mae Hong Son loop on my way to Myanmar as I finally exit Thailand after many more weeks and visas than I had planned.
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Around the world by bicycle
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