Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Bicycle components for touring in Argentina

[The Malvinas [Falkland] Islands are Argentine! And there’s a tire repair and bicycle shop just across the road.]

When you are choosing what to bring on any trip, it’s important to consider both what’s appropriate for local conditions and what’s locally available if you need to replace it. If you bring gear or components that aren’t locally available, try to bring as durable equipment as possible, and bring spares for critical and/or easily damaged small parts if weight permits.

That’s especially true for a bicycle tour, where your trip is highly dependent on the smooth functioning of a complex machine (although a much simpler and more elegant one than a motor vehicle).

In the preceding article, I described the conditions for travel by bicycle in Argentina as of my own trip in June and July 2015, and some of the factors — notably including the effects of the ongoing Argentine financial crisis — that influence the choice of equipment for bicycle touring in Argentina.

In this follow-up article, I’ll talk about what this means in terms of my specific recommendations for choices of bicycle components and accessories for independent travel in Argentina, based primarily on what consumables and replacement parts are and aren’t readily available.

You are unlikely, of course, to buy a bike just for one trip, or to base your choice of a bike and components solely on conditions in one country. (Although you might change some components depending on where you are going.) For general advice about how to choose a bike for touring, see my FAQ on Buying a Touring Bicycle. For issues that are common to bictycle travel around the world (but might be different from travel in your home country), see my FAQ on International Bicycle Travel and my FAQ on Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel. But for reasons discussed in my preceding article on Bicycle Touring in Argentina, some aspects of bicycle touring in Argentina, especially choices of bicycles, components, and gear in a country, are like those that are appropriate in many other parts of the world with much worse infrastructure than Argentina. So people planning to travel by bicycle anywhere outside the First World might find these issues relevant, and these recommendations worth at least considering.

[My fully loaded Rodriguez UTB during our bike trip across Argentina]

So far as I know, there is no manufacturing of bicycle drivetrain components in Argentina. Bicycles sold in Argentina are typically built up locally on Argentine-made frames (aluminum or carbon fiber) with components imported from Asia. “Quality” bicycles sold in Argentine bike shops have component groups comparable to, and sometimes the same as, those you would find on bicycles sold at Walmart in the USA. Mass-market bicycles sold in Argentine department stores have lower-level components comparable to those used on mass-market bikes sold domestically in China and exported from China to other Third World countries. Replacement parts for mass-market bikes like these are generally available in towns throughout Argentina.

There is no significant domestic market in Argentina for touring bicycles, tires, components, or accessories, but huge unmet demand for mass-market mountain, rural, city, and utility bikes, tires, components, and accessories that used to be imported from Brazil or further abroad. In this business environment, it’s scarcely surprising that Argentine manufacturers with limited capital are investing in gearing up to produce mass-market tires, components, and accessories for the bikes in greatest demand, not products to serve limited niche markets. Touring-specific bikes, tires, components, and accessories are not made in Argentina, and are therefore by definition not only expensive but of limited and completely unpredictable availability. Even if you scour the country, you might not find the part you need.

All of the following items should be presumed to be unobtanium in Argentina:

  • High-quality bicycle tires. Bike shops in Argentina sell bikes fitted with Cheng Shin (CST) or Kenda tires like the tires on bikes sold at Walmart in the USA. Argentine department-store bikes come with lower-grade “Industria Argentina” tires. Japanese and German bicycle tires are unknown. In most of the world, we could have ordered new tires from the USA, Europe, or Japan when we discovered we had tires that were ill-suited for the conditions we encountered. It would have been expensive, but we could have gotten them in a week or less. In Argentina, that wasn’t possible without hiring a private international courier. Thorns are ubiquitous in some regions. Bring top-quality tires with plenty of wear remaining, and if possible a (folding) spare tire.

  • Any wheel, rim, or tire diameter other than 26 inches. Mass-market Argentine mountain bikes and utility bikes both use 26” wheels. 700C wheels are uncommon, and used mainly on lightweight road or track bikes with narrow, low-spoke-count rims and narrow, lightweight tires unsuitable for touring. This is beginning to change with the introduction of “29er” mountain bikes that use wide 700C wheels. But these are still an exotic high-end item that you won’t find everywhere. If you can find any wide 700C tires, they will probably be knobby 29er tires for off-road use, not well suited for pavement and probably too wide to fit many touring bikes. (More on bicycle wheel sizes around the world.)

  • Any spoke count other than 36, front or rear. It’s irrelevant that 32-hole hubs and rims are more common on bike shop bikes in the USA. In Argentina, China, and around the world, almost all mass-market bikes have 36-spoke wheels. You can find 36-hole hubs and 36-hole 26” rims everywhere, not just at bike shops. (Don’t believe me? Count the spokes on the cheapest and best-selling bikes at Walmart.) Finding a heavy-duty 32-spoke hub in Argentina would be hit or miss, and finding a 32-hole 26” rim in a touring width surprisingly difficult. Insist on 36-spoke wheels if you have a choice for a world touring bike, not so much for greater durability but, just as with 26” wheels, for greater worldwide availability of replacement parts.

  • Bar-end shifters. I saw only one set of bar-end shifters (other than my own) during my whole time in Argentina. If you use indexed bar-end shifters, make sure they can be switched to friction mode as a fallback if they are damaged or if you need to use them with a cassette with different spacing. Some indexed bar-end shifters also have a friction mode, some don’t. On the other hand, vintage SunTour “Bar-Con” shifters are the most reliable bar-end shifters, but only work in friction mode. SunTour Bar-Cons haven’t been manufactured in decades, but they last forever and are still readily available second hand. Contemporary indexed Shimano bar-end shifters have critical parts made out of fragile plastic. SunTour Bar-Con shifters are solid metal, and I’m still using one I crashed on, hard, more than 25 years ago. It’s not a disaster if bar-end shifters fail: You can always switch to friction down-tube shifters, which aren’t much used on new bikes but are available everywhere.

  • Cantilever brakes. Most new Argentine bikes use either V-brakes or disc brakes. Brake pads or brake shoes for the most common varieties of these are fairly widely available in Argentina, as are brake shoes for old-school single-pivot caliper brakes. Only one of the bike shops I visited in two months of travel across Argentina had any cantilever brake shoes on display. My partner and I both had these cantilever brakes on our bikes, and we each carried a full set of spare cantilever brake shoes (front and rear), although we weren’t using our brakes much on the level pampas and didn’t wear our brakes down enough to need them.

  • Front lowrider racks. Those few Argentines who tour by bicycle do so mainly on mountain bikes with suspension forks that won’t fit most standard front racks. Racks and their mountings take a beating on unpaved roads, and are a common point of failure. Get the sturdiest racks whose weight you can tolerate, and bring extra mounting bolts, nuts, and zip ties for repairs on the road if they crack, welds fail, or nuts and bolts rattle loose and fall off. You’ll need racks, panniers, and/or other carriers with sufficient capacity — front, rear, or both — for camping gear and water. Even if you prefer and can afford to sleep under a roof whenever possible, places with accommodations are far enough apart that you need to be prepared to camp at least some of the time. How much water you can carry is likely to be a limiting factor in your choices of routes and your ability to camp between towns. Camping gear is available in Argentina, but much more expensive and of poorer quality than in the USA.

  • Rechargeable or dynamo (generator) lights. These are the sorts of high-tech consumer electronics that cost two or three times as much in Argentina as in the USA, if you can find them at all — which you probably can’t. The only bike lights you are likely to find in Argentina are the cheapest and least reliable battery lights.

  • Water purifiers and water purification tablets: Not strictly a cycling item, of course, but things most cyclists will want to carry. Water is often a limiting factor for bicycle touring in Argentina, and tap water in small towns isn’t always potable. Our water purifier failed (after many years of reliable service) just when we needed it, and we were able to find neither a replacement purifier nor water purification tablets, despite extensive searching. You can use bleach, but be sure you know the corect amount to use, and have a very secure container for it that won’t leak in your luggage.

Some other bicycle components are available in Argentina, but not widely or reliably:

  • Most “quality” bicycles sold in Argentine bike shops have 6 or 7-speed indexed cassettes and rear derailleurs. (Again, like Walmart bikes in the USA.) In Argentina, 8, 9, and 10-speed chains, cassettes, derailleurs, and shifters are progressively more exotic and rare. If you do manage to find a 9 or 10-speed cassette or derailleur at a high-end big-city bike shop, it’s likely to be for a road racing bike with closely spaced gears, not for a touring bike with a wide range of gears. In all the bike shops I visited in Argentina, I saw only one wide ratio (11-34) 9-speed cassette and one large capacity 9-speed rear derailleur that I could have used as direct replacements for the ones on my bike. Ideally, for a tour in Argentina I would choose 7-speed or at most 8-speed rear gearing, and shifters that could be used in friction mode if the indexing got out of whack or I needed to substitute a cassette with different spacing. I went to Argentina with a 9-speed indexed rear setup with some trepidation, and only because I couldn’t find a 7-speed or 8-speed cassette with the right cogs for the gearing I wanted.

  • Presta-valve tubes exist in Argentina, but they are only sold in bike shops, not in department stores or hardware stores (which sell basic bike parts such as tubes and gear and brake cables in many small towns) and mainly only in sizes for narrow 700C road rims and tires. Even most of the narrow-tired road bikes we saw had their rims drilled out for Schrader valves. If you’re going to have to drill out your rims eventually, better to do it carefully before your trip than to have to do it in the field with tools that might gouge your rim or enlarge the valve hole more than necessary.

  • Tubes for our 26” × 1.5” tires were only intermittently available in Argentina. If there were three bike shops in a town, one of them would usually have a 26” × 1.5” tube or two. Tubes for slightly wider 26” tires were much more widely available. Almost every bike shop had tubes for 26” tires in widths from 1.75” or 1.9” up. Our tires (Panasonic T-Serv) had shallow tread, and had good handling and adequate speed on both paved and unpaved surfaces. Knobby tires were unnecessary (except for sandy patches) on the dry, level, dirt roads on the pampas in the dry season. Our tires were seriously deficient only in their inadequate resistance to thorns. But slightly wider tires would have been more comfortable on dirt without being too much slower on pavement, and would have made finding tubes much easier.

On the bright side, almost every long-distance bus company in Argentina offers express parcel delivery service in addition to transporting passengers. If you’re stuck in a small town in the provinces with a mechanical problem, but you can locate the part you need in Buenos Aires, you can have the dealer or distributor put it on a bus and you’ll get it within 48 hours.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 30 September 2015, 11:00 (11:00 AM)
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