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September 2, 2012 | Taking stock

Behind Ulan-Ude, the road becomes more rugged than before, but the most remarkable feature is not its quality, but its emptiness. Traffic becomes ever sparser; maybe one car every two or three minutes. For cycling, this is great – no need anymore to worry about other parties on the road: Clearly everyone driving here will notice us as the only moving object in sight. Admittedly, we share the road with a few cows, but they are so slow they hardly count as “moving objects”.

The landscape is a largely treeless plateau of between 800 and 1,000 meters above sea level. This does imply cold winds, but nothing we cannot cope with by donning an additional t-shirt or sweater. Thankfully, the weather stays mostly dry, and we are treated to several spectacular star-filled night skies. Be it sheer luck or good planning, we have no trouble finding good sleeping spots for the nights, and – contrary to our expectations – regularly start the days with full batteries, having charged them overnight.

With enough power and no major problems with our equipment, we progress fairly quickly. As we reach Chita, we’ve made good the time we lost in Irkutsk, and are again pretty much on schedule. Still, with nothing in Chita that piques our interest and still a huge distance to cover, we skip city center and instead decide to take the inner of the two highways around town, in order to continue towards the Amur River and then towards Khabarovsk, the last major city before Vladivostok. A sign informs us that Khabarovsk is 2,155 km away – these promise to be the most unpopulated and rugged kilometers of our journey.

Time to take stock of how our equipment has held up so far:

  • The Bus-Velomo trikes have performed admirably. Both Bus-Velomo and Performer have done great work! In more than 5,000 km of very challenging conditions, only two problems of note came up: The central axle on Felix’s bike has a tolerance that is minimally too big, resulting in too much rear wheel movement, and my steering wheel rod thread didn’t hold the rod – we had to replace it with a steel bar. The Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires (“unflattable”) used for both the front wheels and the rear wheel look like new – they are awesome; so far we only had one single flat tire on the trikes, from a really nasty metal needle in Omsk. Chain, bracket and gears are also as good as new. The all-important frame is in great shape, and seat and suspension are comfortable and just work. The overall setup is practical and well thought out!
  • The Panasonic batteries work amazingly well. They are charged or discharged practically constantly, more often than not combined with heavy vibrations, shocks and non-existant thermal management. We’ve also (accidently) overcharged and (out of necessity) undercharged them. None of this seems to bother them. We haven’t noticed even a slight drop in capacity or power output, or maybe a longer recharging time. It’s almost too good to be true!
  • The Panasonic solar panels also do a fantastic job. We have, at times, measured more than their listed maximum output. Given that they are designed for building roofs, it’s astonishing that they reliably produce power on top of the shaking, vibrating and jumping trailers! The only complaint we have is that a single, small shadow of a few square centimeters will easily cut the energy output of a panel by half – surely, with slightly better wiring of the silicium cells, this could have been entirely avoided. Then we wouldn’t have to try to swerve around shadows as much while driving! Of course, on building roofs, there typically are no tiny shadows – it’s either full light, or fully obscured.
  • The many parts EBike Solutions contributed mostly work very well. The batteries we mentioned above – EBike Solutions put them together from their constituent cells, and did a great job! The Crystalyte motor, too, works like a charm, showing no sign of stress or trouble whatsoever, neither in rain nor in dust. EBikes’s controller for the motor also works great, as does the cabling and the many, many plugs we use for all the various electricity connections. The plug system is simple and reliable – thumbs up! The battery chargers for external, 220V, power, however, do not work as reliable – several times we’ve woken up to half-full battery packs because one or the other of them had a defective contact. Moreover, on Felix’s bike, neither his Cycle Analyst (the device measuring battery level and power consumption) nor his cruise control nor his Crystalyte accelerator work any more – we’ve replaced them with a simple “full power on/off” switch for the motor, but that’s hardly an ideal solution. The metal arms absorbing the motor’s torque were set far too loosely onto the axle, too, resulting in the breakage of the rear axle suspension and in two lost days of repair back in Novosibirsk. Finally, the cruise control itself is very hard and un-intuitive to use, and exhibits strange behaviour both when gonig up- and downhill and when interplaying with the 15-second auto-cruise of the accelerator handle. On the other hand, the rear wheel spikes are exceptionally well done, and even survived a trailer axle jamming into them at full speed!
  • The MSTE solar charger works great. It’s surprisingly rugged: We managed to repair it after rain damage, after vibration damage, and after accidentally frying it with surplus power! It survives in a very demanding outdoor environment for which it was definitely not designed, and we’ve adjusted it so that we can by now make full use of the solar panels even when the batteries are still near maximum capacity.
  • The Burley Nomad trailers have had to take the hardest punishment. The poor things are heavily overloaded, and pulled mercilessly over pothole-filled roads, jumping ten or twenty centimeters into the air hundreds to thousands of times a day. They’ve put up with all that up to about twice their maximum load! Since Omsk, we’ve strengthened them with some Russian ingenuity and a little steel in the right places, and now they carry their one hundred kg each without complaints (with 40 being the listed maximum). The only remaining problem are their tires: For 16 inches, there are no “unflattable” Schwalbe tires, and those tires that shipped originally are now clearly near the end of their useful lives. We’ve had to patch flat wheels on the trailers regularly lately, and will very soon need new tires. But it’s hardly Burley’s fault that Schwalbe choses not to produce its great tires in 16 inches!

Interestingly, the component we both expected to cause the most problems has withstood every pothole with ease: Our very own structure holding up and supporting the solar panel! There does seem to be some merit to custom-made designs… Anyway, we’ll see how these assessments develop over the final 2,800 km, which do promise to be the hardest ones. Here’s hoping things hold up well!