In 2013 I moved to China to help run an American college’s study abroad program in Kunming, the capital city of the southwestern Yunnan province. Having grown up in a small town in Maine, I never felt very comfortable in China’s mega metropolises — despite several attempts to work, study, and live in crowded, smoggy cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But Yunnan always seemed like a more pleasant corner of the country. Its subtropical south borders on Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam and is one of the oldest tea-producing regions in the world. Its rugged north is home to the upper reaches of the Mekong and Yangtze rivers and is spiked with 20,000 foot tall mountains. Kunming is known in China as “the city of eternal spring,” due to its year-round mild climate, and is small for a Chinese city with a population of just 6 million. So when I discovered a job opening there, I jumped at the opportunity to experience this part of China.
It was in this region that I fell in love with the idea of traveling by bicycle. I rode my bike everywhere throughout the city, deftly weaving through cars and motorbikes ensnarled in traffic jams. On the weekends I headed out into the hills surrounding the city on group rides with a local bike shop. On a trip home to Maine, I picked up my first pair of panniers and brought them back to China, eager to pack them up and head out on an adventure. My Belgian roommate and I devised a plan to take a train north of the city and ride to the foot of Mt. Kawagarbo, a 22,000 ft mountain sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. We set out in the spring with just a couple changes of clothing and some warm layers for the frigid winds we would face at high altitude. Restaurants and hotels are plentiful and cheap in China so we didn’t need to carry much food or camping gear.
After a week of climbing mountain passes and racing down the other side, I was hooked. I wanted to take my bicycle further, over more mountains, and into more distant lands. To do so, I needed to learn a lot. I began reading all the blogs and books I could find about people traveling the world by bicycle. I read stories with wide-eyed wonder about people biking through countries whose names I hadn’t read before and didn’t know how to pronounce. I studied what equipment and bike maintenance skills were required to be truly self-sufficient, should I suffer a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. I gradually accumulated any missing pieces of camping gear and rode out into the hills around Kunming on weekends to hone my wilderness camping and cooking skills.
One day, while slurping noodles at a local restaurant with some friends, I casually announced, “I think I’m going to ride my bike to Europe.” At first they were incredulous. “How are you going to do that? What if you get a flat tire? What about visas?” But without thinking about it too hard, I found I already had answers to most of their questions. That’s when my dream to bike across Eurasia began to evolve into a plan and a reality.
Laozi, the ancient Chinese philosopher, said in the Dao De Jing that, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In planning my 5,000 mile bicycle journey from China to Italy, my first step was to outfit my bicycle with bombproof and field-serviceable components that would stand up to the abuse of a year on some very rugged roads. I learned from bike touring blogs and books that you can tour on just about any bike but a few key component choices will make the journey all the more enjoyable and frustration free. Rim brakes, 26-inch wheels, and 9-speed mountain bike drive-trains came highly recommended for getting heavily loaded touring bikes over high mountain passes and sourcing replacement parts anywhere in the world. For drop bars, bar end shifters seemed to be the gold standard for their robustness and ability to switch from indexed to friction shifting. But because I had grown accustomed to the convenience of STI shifters on my drop bars and because I had read reports that modern bar ends were not nearly as rugged as earlier generations, I continued to look for other shifter options. That’s when I discovered Gevenalle.
Gevenalle makes shifters, derailleurs, and other bike components in Portland, Oregon for cyclocross racers. Cyclocross is a great testing ground for bike technology because it throws everything at the bike and rider: dirt, obstacles, steep climbs, and technical descents. A cyclocross race is kind of like a long tour distilled down to a 45-minute sprint. I figured that any piece of kit that can survive the mud, crashes, and varied terrain of a cyclocross race would hold up well on a tour. So I decided to give the Gevenalle CX shifters a try. They are essentially bar end shifter levers mounted to standard drop bar brake levers. Cabled up to my Avid v-brakes and Shimano Deore XT 3x9 drivetrain, the Gevenalle CX shifters performed flawlessly. The brake levers provided excellent modulation and control of the v-brakes, especially on long, loaded, technical descents. Having the shifters mounted right at the top of the brake lever meant I never had to move my hands from the hoods to change gears — just like standard brifters but with far fewer tiny moving parts to break or wear out.
But without a doubt, the best thing about the Gevenalle shifters is that they can climb your entire cassette or dump all your gears with the flick of a finger — a huge benefit when negotiating a heavily loaded touring bike across varied terrain or through stop-and-go Central Asian traffic. These shifters unflinchingly survived sand storms, snow, pouring rain, being strapped to the top of jeeps, and countless other abuses. They were the most reliable and maintenance-free component in my drive-train. And when you shift up, they make a satisfying click, akin to the sound of winding a nice watch. I was very happy to have installed them on my touring bike and would highly recommend them to anyone building up a bike for touring, cyclocross, gravel grinding, or anything else you’d want to do with a bike.