Bikes for Cycling the Manali-Leh Highway
Most people cycling the Manali-Leh Highway take mountain bikes, with good reason, but we took road bikes-two traditional English tourers, two hybrids. Many of the other cyclists we met were amazed that we had done the ride on such machines, yet we had no mechanical problems. There were no punctures, no broken spokes or frames and wheels stayed straight, despite the dreadful state of the roads, including some of the most appalling multi-kilometre stretches of rocks imaginable. I attribute this success to the fact that we were all using conservative kit that has evolved over decades to be able to do its job rather than the newest, high tech stuff: Gucci kit tends to be race rather than touring-oriented, and sacrifices of strength and durability are often made to save weight or "improve performance".
With the exception of Colin (Marin "Larkspur"-aluminium), we have steel frames, including forks. Both tourers are tradtitional lugged and brazed frames, made from Reynolds 531. Relaxed touring geometry. No suspension, which would've been nice from a comfort point of view on the bumpier downhills, but makes it hard or impossible to fit front racks. This is more important as putting some of the weight on the front balances the bike properly; it handles so much better than when everything is on the back. Suspension systems also represent something else that can go wrong in a place where the facilities to fix them are unavailable, and I am not convinced that suspension has any place on a touring bike. The airline bent Colin's aluminium rear mech hanger, luckily not badly enough to prevent him shifting, but this could have been just bent back on a steel bike.
In many places on the Manali-Leh Highway, the road is terrible-unsurfaced dirt track or loose rocks, so you need strong wheels. We used 700c wheels, which were fine. All our wheels were built from standard components, which is the only reasonable choice for a tour like this-conventional 3-cross spoking pattern, aluminium rims, swaged stainless steel spokes, decent but not designer hubs. In my experience one gets a better wheel by building it oneself rather than buying off the shelf from a bike shop. "The Bicycle Wheel" by Jobst Brandt (ISBN 0-9607236-6-8) tells you how to do this. Frivolities like Rolf-style spoking patterns, reduced spoke-count wheels, flashy anodising or ceramic rims would be useless on roads like this, especially when travelling self-supported. Although it didn't cause any problems (in fact, I cycled another 350 miles before realising), I broke my rear axle at the start of the tour. This was due to it being a traditional freewheel hub, where the right hand bearing is inboard of the frame. I carried a spare axle because of this risk, but I've learnt my lesson: once the current freewheel is worn out, I'll rebuild the wheel around a freehub to eliminate this risk in the future. (A freehub has both bearings where they should be-right next to the dropout, thus eliminating the axle flex that can result in a broken axle).
Within reason, fatter is better here, because wider tyres track better over obstacles such as rocks than narrower ones. Damian had 28mm touring tyres, which were a bit on the narrow side at times. Colin and Niall were fastest up the Lachalang La as their 45 mm hybrid tyres rolled best over the rocks on what was probably the worst stretch of road on the entire trip. I used 35mm Avocet Cross Kevlar tyres, which were fantastic. Despite being a bit narrower than their rated width, they held plenty of air and most importantly, can handle high pressures which prevents pinch flats and protects the rims. They are rated at 80-90 psi, and I was probably running them at about 100. The tyres never bottomed out running at such pressures, and even with panniers full of crap on the back bumping over the rocks and potholes, I never felt the need to nursemaid the bike but just rode straight over what was in the way. As well as their crap reliability, Continental Top Tourings, for example, cannot run at such high pressures, especially in the wider widths.
We never experienced any surfaces where off-road-style knobblies would have been appropriate.
We all used triple chainsets, but doubles with a tiny inner ring and small outer ring would have been fine-you just don't need a big ring for this tour! My low gear is 24 teeth front, 32 teeth rear (20 inches) which was ideal-not because the roads are that steep (they aren't), but to get loads of torque when cycling over sheets of loose rocks, such as when climbing the Lachalang La. Often the road was incredibly dusty and dry, so cleaning and re-lubing the chain when possible was a good move. For shifting, I have bar end shifters, which are great for touring-ergonomic and nothing to go wrong. Colin and Niall had the Gripshift-type shifters, and had no problems. I don't know how easy these are to set on friction or strip on the road if necessary, though. The Rapidfire-style push-button type shifters are really for racing rather than touring. They have no friction setting, and are like little watches inside, making them unserviceable on the road. If they break in Ladakh, you can't shift.
Panniers and racks were the cause of the bike-related problems we did have. Juddering from bad road surfaces shook out pannier rack bolts, Colin broke one of the aluminium struts of his front rack and I broke a hook on one of my panniers. Tubular chromoly racks would be better than aluminium rod ones, and double hooks on the rear panniers would be good. Check the fixing bolts every morning. Although it is uglier, the Blackburn lowrider front pannier rack with the hoop that goes over the front wheel to join the two sides of the rack seems to be quite a bit stronger then the style where the two halves are completely separate and are just fixed to their respective fork blade.
I have an Altura handlebar bag, which is great-it fixes to the handlebars with a one-button click-on/off system, so one never need leave one's wallet/passport/tickets/camera/etc unattended on the bike, and it comes with a separate, padded inner bag, whose internal dimensions may be adjusted with a couple of padded dividers that stick on with Velcro. It thus made a perfect camera bag, dead easy to get to while on the bike and yet protecting the camera as well as a proper camera bag. Totally recommended.
Pedals and Shoes
We used lightweight Goretex hiking boots and toeclips and straps-better for walking in even than SPDs. They are also properly waterproof unlike most cycling shoes, although this isn't really much of a problem in Ladakh as it's so dry. We also had a pair of sandals, as well as dossing around off the bike these came in handy when fording the river at the Baralacha La, so we kept our boots dry. The MKS GR9 flat touring pedals are massively comfortable as they have no ridges or sawtooth edges to dig into your soles, and have a nice big, efficient platform for the foot-highly recommended.
Obviously a very personal matter. I'll just mention that while I have a fearsome-looking Brooks Conquest saddle (stiff leather, springs at the back, design hasn't changed since about 1870), and the others had modern saddles with gel pads, cutouts for the nads, etc, and Colin even had a suspension seatpin, I was the only one who didn't have any sore arse problems on the entire trip. Go figure…
Bikes on Planes
This can be a bit of a pain in the arse, and this trip was no exception. Niall, Damian and I boxed our bikes in the large cardboard boxes that bikes are delivered to bike shops in; Colin bought a box for $10 at Heathrow, provided by United Airlines. Colin's box was too fragile for the job, even though it was a dedicated "bike box" and by the time he got to Delhi it was completely knackered . Despite being boxed, the airline still managed to bend his rear mech hanger a bit although luckily not enough to prevent shifting. For the return journey all he did was take off the pedals, turn the handlebars sideways and then blag a couple of boxes from shops and use gaffer tape and sheets of box cardboard to protect the frame. For touring at least, this is probably the best way of doing it. The three of us kept our bikes in their boxes until we got to Manali, putting them on the roof of the bus where a tosser walked on them! Luckily we got away with it, apart from a bend in Niall's outer chainring. We were able to leave our boxes in the hotel and rebox the bikes when we got back to Manali, but in retrospect they would probably have been better off with just Colin's sheet-cardboard-and-gaffer-tape technique on the plane, and unboxed on the bus roof. The boxes were pretty knackered by the time we finally got back to the UK.
For flying, bikes are viewed as part of one's luggage, usually two pieces/20kg or whatever, and so long as the bike comes under this it is free. In practice though, they don't weigh bikes and it's usually no problem...except Delhi! For the first time in a dozen or more flights with a bike, all over the world, I had my bike weighed at Delhi. Annoying, as it was overweight and it took 45 minutes of being an arsehole and taking my other pannier as carry-on luggage to avoid the 30 quid shafting fee...so be warned: carry all your heavy kit in one pannier as carry-on so that the bike is legit, weight-wise or you could get stung.