Thursday, January 29, 2015

All our gear, after two years on the road, monster review!

Now that we've been on the road for over two years, it's perhaps time to do an evaluation of our gear again. The kit we have now has been carefully put together and is based very much on kit that didn't work in the past, from which we have learned a lot! Of course expensive gear should work better than less expensive, but as we have found out that isn't always the case; price alone doesn't make it good. Lower prices also shouldn't mean they don't have to meet at least basic safety standards or life expectancy. The items and brands listed below are in total random order.

Avon Tyres
Every day we put our faith in these tyres. They are after all the only contact between us and the planet we travel on. A good tyre with grip under all conditions can be the difference between enjoying the ride or limping around in plaster... or worse! I've written before that I don't understand why people buy expensive helmets and riding gear, fork out a couple of grand for ABS and then fit any old tyre... We've got good helmets and riding gear too, but rather don't test the abrasion resistance. With Avon tyres we can still use the brakes when it's wet, we also don't loose the front anymore when it's cold. Yes I've had Heidenau in the past too but I prefer Avon. As I wrote above, we have had all sorts of weather and conditions on the Scandinavian part of our trip. Ranging from cold, wet miserable to pretty warm and also quite a bit of gravel and slippery mud. Having tried several other brands in the past, we kept coming back to Avon as we love them! They give so much more grip and feel and work well in a wide range of conditions, like we have on this extended trip. Despite the grip and feedback, we also get a good mileage out of them. Roughly 15,000 - 20,000 out of the rear and 20,000-25,000 out of the fronts on the tyre eating surfaces of Scandinavia. The Distanzias work well on muddy surfaces, of which we've had quite a few during our Scandinavian part of the trip. We already knew that cold and wet weather was no problem, they are in fact the best wet weather tyres we've ever had. Mike noticed much more grip than with his previously fitted Metzeler Tourance tyres. They are much more comfortable than the Michelin Anakee 3 I have tried and get better mileage. Avon has been making tyres for over 100 years and it shows!

YSS Suspension
While we haven't even properly tested them yet, we found them such a massive improvement over the standard Yamaha suspension that we feel they should be in here. Although we have only covered a couple of hundred kms on them so far the difference is remarkable. Not only did YSS improve the suspension, it also made the XT a much better handling bike. It steers more precise, turns in quicker and is much more stable in side wind conditions. We thought the XTs suspension was pretty good, until we rode it with YSS!

Hagon shock absorbers
We have replaced the Ikon shock absorbers on our Bonnevilles for Hagon after a pretty drastic failure of the previous fitted Ikon shock due to a manufacturing fault. Manufacturing faults can happen but Ikon's refusal to honour warranty as well as a general lack of interest to sort out the problem it caused us, made us look elsewhere. We found Hagon through Martin Morren Motorcycles. Rita is the shockabsorber expert and suggested not to take the most expensive one, but the simplest…! She custom made them to our weight and damping preference at no extra charge and the end result is that we now have a suspension system that works far better than anything we had before. The Hagons have a unique damping system that works progressively; soft at little 'bumps' and progressively stronger on bad roads. They really give us the best of both worlds and without the need of endless adjustments. I know it sounds too good to be true, I thought the same thing, but it actually works and very good too. We've covered 23,000 km on them as I write this and the increased comfort is very welcome! Handling has improved too.

What can I say. It simply is the best hand protection system available. Period! Working as a mechanic at a cattle station in Outback Australia I had seen first hand how good they are. Having seen the competition, there is simply nothing on the market  that comes close. We have the Storm version fitted to our Bonnevilles, which in far north Norway has been a real blessing. It was miserably cold at times, wet too, but the Barkbuster Storm kept our hands dry. We hadn't quite planned on testing their crash protection but when Jeanette ran into Mike and the Triumph hit the bitumen because of it, they took the whole hit preventing any damage to the bike. They have already paid for themselves in that one incident.

JT Chains and Sprockets
Just like the first set we tried from them, the second also took a long time to bed-in, which is a good sign. First adjustment was around 4,500 km. We seemed to be heading for even higher mileage than the first set, but the weather had other plans. As anyone who lubricates his chain manually will know, riding in the rain will wash the lubricant from the chain, and we've had lots of rain. In northern Norway we saw amazing landscapes and rode long dirt roads to get there. The mixture of lubricant, fine gravel, lots of rain and simply not being able to keep it all clean and lubricated as it should, gave the chains and sprockets a very hard life. On top of that the XTs cush drive rubbers, a notorious weak point on any XT660, started to disintegrate, hammering the chains and sprockets even further. They still lasted 23,000 km, which anyone with a big single will tell you is nothing short of fantastic even in good conditions. To be honest the sprockets weren't that worn at all and the chain had only stretched to the wear mark given by Yamaha. We were pretty pleased with how long they lasted, especially considering the conditions they had to operate in, but did realise we had to make a few changes. The XT needed new cush drive rubbers, which we have fitted now with a fresh set of chains and sprockets, and we went looking for a proper chain oiler so that they can operate under better circumstances! Keep you posted.

Rukka Cosmic
Without a shadow of a doubt the biggest improvement to our personal gear. It was a big risk for Rukka to supply us with two suits, as we had stated before that we liked our leather jackets better than fabric suits, as our previous four season jackets had failed miserably. Having worn the Rukka Cosmic every day from early morning till late in the afternoon or evening, we can't even begin to express how much better they are than anything we've had before. 
Quite a few manufacturers make bold statements about how good their gear is. They usually give it fancy names too. So when we read about 'SuperFabric', AquaseaL', 'Lockout Closure', 'Climate Control', 'Outlast', 'Air Cushion', 'Air Protectors' and 'AntiGlide' for instance we were a little bit hesitant at first. Mainly of course because they all make these claims. 
The first day we had the Rukka Cosmic was a 600 km trip to the UK… a distance that anyone with a pre-2012 Bonneville seat will tell you is painful. The Yamaha XT660R is even worse. The Rukka pants have a built-in air cushion… which works! All the other claims have proven to be true too. We had days of rainy and stormy weather in northern Norway and Finland, not a drop leaked in anywhere. The neoprene storm collar works a treat too. As it fits over the collar of the jacket, water running off it will run over the jacket rather than in. All the pockets are waterproof, tested by leaving petrol receipts in them that stayed dry, and the inner pockets are huge! The zipper, which looks vulnerably exposed and prone to leakage has proven to be fully waterproof. 

What surprised us most however is the wide range of temperatures we can use the jackets in. There are quite a few jackets on the market that have multiple layers built-in which you can put in or take out depending on the conditions. It may seem handy, but where do you leave all these layers? They take up valuable space in your pannier. In changing conditions they will have you zipping layers in and out all day. Believe me we've been there, done that! With Rukka there are no layers, simply because it doesn't need them. There is for instance no need to zip out the waterproof layer in warm weather as the waterproof layer is breathable. The Cosmic jacket is even waterproof on the outside and yet breathable. The only layer you have that can be zipped out with Rukka is the thermal lining. One lining is all you need. When you want to put the liner in is of course personal preference. In my case below about 8°C. Yet the Cosmic covers such a wide range of temperatures and is so well temperature regulating that I can wear the jacket with the liner up to about 25°C as well, so I don't have to change in and out of liners all day.

Being keen photographers, we found most motorbike jackets uncomfortable to walk around in. Especially when it's warm, stopping for a photo meant sweat pouring out of us in no time at all. Add to that the so called non-stick liner in the sleeves being like sticky-tape to sweaty arms, and we we ended up with jackets that limited our movement when back on the bike. If you look at our blog in the Mexico and Central America section, you'll see quite a few photo of us riding in T-shirt… it's not good to ride in just a t-shirt and we don't promote it at all but it this case it was the lesser of the two evils. This was before we had Rukka Cosmic jackets. 
Obviously we wanted to know what our Rukka gear would do. We didn't have 35°C yet but tried something else; in 28°C we went for a walk into town wearing our complete Rukka gear, zipped up and everything. Jeanette did the same in the same leather jacket she has had the whole trip, a jacket that had worked much better in the heat than our previous fabric jackets. 
The leather jacket became quite uncomfortable in about 5-10 minutes and she opened the front zipper. Both Mike and I walked around for more than 20 minutes before it became uncomfortable…
but we didn't have sweat running down our arms
or anywhere else. Don't forget we were wearing the full suit, jacket and pants, Jeanette was wearing a leather jacket and draggin' jeans.

There are plenty of clever touches in the Cosmic suits. Magnetic closing pockets for instance, but also inside pockets that you can reach with our without the liner in the jacket. Double cuffs to stop rain entering the sleeves and gloves. The belt closes magnetically too, which means it can be opened and closed with gloves on. The thermal liner is not just insulation but Outlast temperature regulating material. Protectors that are still pliable when it's freezing cold and a ventilation system that not just lets air into the jacket but channels it all around your body. The protectors are also much more extensive than in most other motorcycle suits I've seen. For instance the pants don't have just knee protectors but protect everything from the shin to well above the knee. They also have more extensive hip protectors than most. 

This has become quite a long piece of text, but we really can't praise these jackets and pants enough. We've had them now for 23,000 km and still find little clever touches on them and are still impressed how good they are. We've had the opportunity to compare them to Jeanette's same leather jacket, a jacket that had worked so much better than our own previous 4-season jackets in the past, yet now clearly the Rukka works heaps better. So much so in fact that Jeanette now has a Rukka suit herself. Her first impressions are that she loves it!

Rukka Belle
Jeanette now has a full Rukka suit as well; the Belle. She looks a Belle in it too! She likes the look of the jacket and we like the way she looks in it! It is very much a female jacket, without being too 'girlie' if you know what I mean. The first thing she noticed was the increased comfort over the leather jacket she had loved to wear so much before. Like the Cosmic it has huge inner pockets which are waterproof but the outer pockets on the Belle aren't according to Rukka (it takes more than a bit of rain though before the petrol receipts in the jacket were wet). The Belle has an easy to fit thermal liner and large ventilation panels in the sides for summer use. The neck part is well lined and can be used together with the Windstopper neck warmer from Rukka for colder weather.
The Belle comes in two different colours but Jeanette likes her gear in black, always has always will. At the time of writing she's used her Rukka Belle suit from Finland to Spain and back north again. She's really happy with it. The best suit she has had so far, by far. It feels like a quality product and is definitely warmer than the leather jacket and the Bella pants are much more comfortable than the Draggin' Jeans she used before. We haven't had any seriously hot weather yet, just normal European summers' days and that worked well. We did have a couple of -5°C mornings that only warmed up slowly and that wasn't an issue either. It has also proven to be 100% waterproof, even in torrential downpours of 400 km.

Nomada Cases
Getting the Nomada cases was a big gamble. As you can read in previous posts they have worked very well for us. Jeanette damaged a set of leather Triumph saddlebags during a fall in New Zealand. As the Nomada panniers had worked so well for me, we ordered a set for her as well. There is a debate on the internet about soft luggage versus hard, the general consensus is that hard luggage damages in a fall and is no longer waterproof. That may very well be the case with many hard panniers, but not with Nomada. The properly made double leather bags were damaged beyond repair in one fall, the Nomada cases fitted since have survived 3 crashes (each of which more severe than the fall with her leather bags) and are still perfectly waterproof. One of those was sliding backwards on a steep hill in Nicaragua, getting airborne when the bike found a rock in the soft sand and then landed on the pannier… which found another rock. Yes it had a dent, a dent knocked out of it when we visited the factory. But with the dent it still didn't leak and it still sealed perfectly at the lid too. On the same day it went down again, same hill too, again no damage. In Norway she hit Mike at 50 km/hr and landed on the same pannier on the bitumen again… It was still waterproof! Just try to imagine what would have happened in those crashes with the computer she carries for instance if she had been using soft luggage… Her bike weighed about 300 kg when the whole thing was airborne in Nicaragua and landed on the pannier, imagine a 300 kg bike landing on a laptop in a soft saddlebag…

When Jeanette hit Mike in Norway, the impact was huge. Mike's left hand pannier took the whole hit. A 380 kg bike hitting an aluminium pannier at 50 km/hr! The pannier was almost ripped from the frame! Almost… We strapped the pannier to the frame with the Nomada straps and continued to the campground, where I found no cracks in the pannier anywhere and could knock everything back into shape with a hammer and a rock… Yet even in damaged condition, they didn't leak or caused any damage to the stuff in the pannier.

Nomada cases are made out of high quality 2mm thick aluminium. Where they are most likely to impact first, there are nylon impact protectors and 4 mm thick aluminium. At the top they have a double seal and extra reinforcement to prevent the pannier from deforming. We have become to love these panniers. They are simply the best in the world. We've looked at alternatives but nothing comes close to Nomada. Nomada Cases are distributed worldwide through Nomad-ADV based in The Netherlands. (See

Alt-Berg Boots
I think the picture above says it all as Mike had no damage to his ankle in this fall, while his foot is clearly trapped under the bike. There are many motorcycle boots on the market. Some good, some pretty bad. But when I read about a boot-maker in Yorkshire who is a keen motorcyclist and couldn't find a good boot and thus invested in tooling to make his own, I was intrigued. Having been there and met the people that make these boots and listened to why they started making their own, I was impressed. Impressed because there wasn't any 'sales talk' but instead lots of information about feet! These people have so much knowledge about the human foot that of course they know how to make boots! No wonder their hiking boots are selling so well. Their drive to make good boots means they also studied what happens in a crash with motorcyclist' feet and rather than just inserting fancy bits of plastic protectors here and there, they made proper protection that works. Mike has already tested it when his foot became trapped under the pannier when he fell, the dreaded situation for every motorcyclist and often used as a false argument not to use hard panniers. The Alt-Berg boot protected him perfectly. Despite the offered protection we can walk in them too as they are made by a proper boot maker. The zippers used are sturdy, as is the whole boot. A proper quality product.
As I write this we've had them for 23,000km, used them every day and all day for 7 months and simply love them! They are comfortable, both on and off the bike, and have proven to be waterproof in the worst possible downpours. We've always had overboots as we never had boots before that were waterproof, but these are. Even after 7 days of miserable weather and also on 400km days of rain, rain and more rain. But it's not just the weather-resistance we love about them. It's the comfort, even at the end of long days we can simply stand up and walk away. No soreness, no clamped-in feet or anything like that. We really love these boots!

HiFlo Filtro
What is there to say about oil filters? We sort of fit them and assume they are ok, don't we? So how can we tell if they are, without a lab or flow and filtration testing facilities? Simply put, we can't. That's why HiFlo decided to have their filter TüV tested, by the most stringiest test regime in the world. HiFlo is the only one who has done so and passed the test, how's that for confidence? We did a pretty simple and real life test ourselves too. Start up the Bonnie from cold just after an oil change and wait for the oil pressure light to switch off... it tells us something about the flow of the oil. I had done that in the past with both the original Triumph filter and the K&N one, wondering which one would have a higher flow rate, and wrote down the time. There wasn't much between them. The HiFlo filter is the 'fastest' of the 3 though, suggesting HiFlo's claim of a higher flow is justified. The Bonnie has been on HiFlo Filtro filters for a long time, simply because they are better priced than the original Triumph filters and a better flow rate is always good! The Bonnie has already clicked over 100,000 km, Jeanette's Bonnie is on it's way to 70,000 km and Mike's XT is at 73,000 km now, all on HiFlo filtro and all with engines in good condition. To achieve mileages like that means a proper working lubrication system, of which the filter is a vital part!

HiFlo Filtro air filter
All I can say is that it works... the air box between filter and throttle body is clean. The HiFlo filtro is better priced and available(!) That may seem a simple statement but the original Yamaha filter proved hard to get as Yamaha dealers don't seem to keep a lot of stock. When the OEM filter was up for replacement and we couldn't get them from Yamaha, we looked for alternatives and found them on the HiFlo application list. Already knowing that their oil filters work, we switched over to HiFlo for the air filter too and haven't looked back.

Rukka gloves
Before I had Rukka gloves, my warm weather gloves had been thin leather with an open mesh type top. They were sold as motorcycle gloves but to be fair offered little or no protection. We now use Rukka Him summer gloves. They have proper protection in them and ventilation. Temperature wise they work even better than the open mesh ones I had before. They are comfortable and lightweight. I really like them. The only thing to remember is that they are not waterproof (I tested that too!)

For colder weather we use Rukka Cosmo gloves, which have proven to be 100% waterproof. I would like to add that these are the first gloves I've had that are waterproof even after days of rain… and heavy downpours too. They are comfortable and just like the jackets and pants cover a wide range of temperatures in comfort.
We really love our Rukka gear, all of it! It just works, which may seem like a simple statement but as we've found over the years most motorcycle gear doesn't work as well as promised, with Rukka it does!

Since visiting Rukka we have two more pair of gloves for evaluation. One a waterproof glove for warmer temperatures, the Apollo. The other for the same conditions but in fabric rather than leather: the Virium. The Virium has a special strip of fabric built-in to allow the use of touch screens with gloves on! We've tested it and it works on our iPod! The only thing we can say of them so far, having not had them for long, is that they are comfortable.

The material has faded badly in a matter of months. The Keron on the right has just been replaced, the Staika on the left is only 7 months old. Just 4 months later it tore open as well.
Zippers with a curve like in this entrance 
door, is not a good design. They are 
difficult to operate and wear prematurely.
Hilleberg tents
We have two Hilleberg tents, a Keron 4GT and a Staika. The Keron was an easy choice. I had one before and loved it, while the Staika was a replacement for Mike’s Vango Tempest 300 that failed after just a few months. Both the Keron and the Staika have been reliable shelters that can handle some serious weather. Things like storms, heavy rainfall, snow and frost don’t even phase them. During a freak storm in Italy they handled 180 km/hr winds without tearing or snapping poles for instance.

What does kill a Hilleberg though is sunlight, which is ironic as camping is for most of us a summer thing. Our Keron 4GT tore open after 78 weeks of continuous use. The material had faded badly and was degraded to such an extend that the rip-stop fibres just fell apart when we touched them. Mike’s Staika did exactly the same but after only 50 weeks… Hilleberg claimed both were normal wear and tear but they did replace the outer tents under warranty. However our new Keron 4GT has been used for about 7 months as I’m writing this and the material has already started to fade again.

The zipper problems with Hilleberg are well known. Simply put they are too light and there is too much tension on them. The fabric used by Hilleberg also expands and shrinks quite a lot depending on outside temperature, which makes then zippers’ life even more difficult. The zipper problems started just 3 months after we started using them and they never went away. I contacted Hilleberg, who claimed that we weren’t taking good care of our tent as we hadn’t been cleaning our zippers on a daily basis with a toothbrush… ‘You have to be kidding me!’ I thought when I read the e-mail from Shannon. We were camping in mosquito infested areas in Alaska. Are they seriously thinking I’m going to clean the zippers, with the inner tent thus wide open, while half a million mosquitos have already fired up their engines and set their auto pilots on us? I think not. I had a look at the zippers and there wasn’t any dust in them. Hilleberg’s solution was to send us a bag full of sliders… right! I fitted them and indeed the problem went away for a few weeks but then came back again. Nipping up the sliders helps for a while too but in the end we had to sew one zipper up and turn the inner tent around. 

We feel that the problem is caused by too much tension on the zipper combined with zippers that have to run a curve. Zippers like straight lines, they’re not designed for curves. They simply don’t want to close and thus wear prematurely. While dust might be a contributing factor in general, this would damage the teeth of the zipper where they mesh, while we have zippers where the back is worn away to the point that the slider can’t mesh the teeth anymore. We got to the stage that the back of the zipper was worn away so much that the teeth simply fell out. In the end Hilleberg decided to give us a new inner tent under warranty, a tent that came with a bag of spare sliders as standard…

Material quality and longevity problems aside, the Keron has a few other issues. Hilleberg has changed the entrance door design from the two zippers that were on the previous model to a single curved one. This makes the door harder to open and close, especially when it’s raining, and results in water running into the vestibule area when you open it. The old design was much better as not only did it open and close a lot easier, it also allowed for rainwater to be diverted away from the entrance.

To make matters worse, the new outer tent we received under warranty leaks at every seam… while the previous two had never leaked a drop anywhere. Even the new and normally waterproof inner tent we received leaks and at all four corner seams… 

There is a third problem with the inner tent. To gain access means opening the zipper all the way, which results in a gaping big hole of 2x1 metre and a whole family of mosquitos going into the tent with you. Especially as we were heading for places with Dengue fever and Malaria, we asked Hilleberg for an inner tent with the straight up and down zipper as used in the Staika. They flatly refused. My ever helpful mum has come to the rescue and is now modifying the inner tent for me (more on which in a future post).  

The Staika on the other hand isn’t waterproof either. Again it leaks at the corner seams in the floor, the fabric used under the snow cover isn’t waterproof and when you open the tent, water drops straight into the inner tent. Both tents also have serious condensation problems, despite every vent panel being open at all times. We even leave the vestibule door open when we can too and still have condensation issues. 

I must say that the Keron hasn’t improved over the years but degraded. There have been some design changes but they weren’t improvements and it seems the quality has gone downhill too. Having had 3 of them, this is going to be my last Hilleberg tent. I can no longer justify spending this kind of money on a tent that leaks, can’t handle sunlight, has silly design flaws, wears through zippers like crazy and in the case of the Keron has simply become user un-friendly. The only reason our Hilleberg tents aren't in the 'What didn't work' section below yet is that we will use them until the end of the trip as we don't have the funds to replace them. After this trip we will look for alternatives.

Wolfman luggage
As you can see we used Wolfman products on this trip too, and have written about them. Having first hand experience with their way of doing business and what they consider acceptable behaviour, we no longer wish to be associated with them in any way or form.

Rok Straps
We all love the simplicity of bungy cords. We also know they aren't very durable, don't tie down very well and have caused quite a few eye problems all over the world when hooks came undone. Rok Straps have combined a normal strap with an elastic section and thus combined the good properties of both strap and bungy. We have used them on all 3 bikes since day one. They are on the bikes at all times, have been exposed the most to UV radiation and all kinds of weather of all our gear and yet non of the 8 straps we have have failed. We needed 2 per bike and I ordered 1 pair extra, in case one broke (which hasn't happened yet!). A great product that makes our life a lot easier.

Ventura headlight guards
Having seen the prices of new headlights, it was a no-brainer to fit them. They stick to the headlights with simple stick on Velcro pads and can thus be removed. For some reason the Velcro pads on mine no longer locked together after just a few months, which meant a trip to the local car parts store (Napa in this case) for 3M Velcro. Haven't had a problem since and the other original Velcro pads form Ventura are still working fine too.

That aside, they have been a very worthwhile investment. The one on Jeanette's Bonnie is seriously scratched when she fell in New Zealand but did it's job and prevented damage to the headlight.

RennTec crash bar
Fitted to both our Bonnevilles, they have prevented damage to the Bonnie. When Jeanette fell recently, the bike was on it's Barkbusters, RennTec bar and Nomada pannier. Had the RennTec bar not been fitted we would have had damaged engine casings. The strongest crashbar for a Bonneville, well built and well worth the money.

Garmin 62S GPS
A perfect piece of kit! It works, it's waterproof (except for the USB connector which we cover with a small zip-loc bag), it's quick and extremely rugged. The Yamaha has plenty of vibrations in the handlebar, but the Garmin hasn't failed yet. 

Garmin Opensource Streetmaps
Garmin doesn't want me to write this… they would like me to use their maps. Opensource maps are free and they have the whole world covered. We have used them everywhere and love them. Of course being free is always good, but these maps are good by themselves! The process of getting them and installing them is easy too. They even allow you to make a custom map of the area you want, which can be a part of a country or several countries combined. They don't allow for exact addresses to be typed in, whether that is the map or Garmin Basecamp we use, we don't know. It isn't a problem though as I use Google maps to find an exact address and once found simply copy the coordinates into Garmin Basecamp. The maps are continuously updated too. The only 'problem' I have with this system is Garmin's own Basecamp software which can only work with one map at a time. In Europe that means splitting your route per country. It's not an Opensource Streetmap problem as the GPS can easily calculate a route through several maps. The way around it is to download a custom map, covering the area you would like to travel through. Downloading Europe as one map would become a huge file however.

UClear Helmet communication
When we started looking for helmet comms, all we were after was something that we could use in an emergency. Warn each-other about a dangerously overtaking car for instance. Or simply mentioning you're running low on fuel. What we hadn't expected is a system whereby we can actually communicate crystal clear. As you can read in our previous report, the UClear HBC200s had worked very well through Mexico and Central America and we had no issues to report at all.
That changed when we went into Europe, where our helmet comms have had a hard life. One of the units stopped working altogether and was super fast replaced with a new one under warranty. Ever since that first unit was replaced we've had screeching issues though, but assumed the cause was the new unit being on a different firmware version as we never had any screeching issues before. However, when the Apple updater was released; which took our firmware to 2.19, the screeching was still there! We contacted UClear, who suspected a problem in the units and asked us to send them to the European headquarter for testing, to find out what was going on.

It didn't take them long to find the culprit: one of the microphones was playing up and created a loop through all 3 units which resulted in randomly screeching. With the benefit of hindsight, the unit we returned probably wasn't faulty at all but also caused by the microphone.

What didn't help were the conditions we've had in northern Norway, were we had so much rain that in the end the microphones and speakers became saturated. Not so much because of water entering the system while riding, as the Uclears can handle that, but the soaking wet conditions we were camping in. When you have days and days of rain and have to pitch and pack up your tent when it's still wet, you will get moisture everywhere and in the end the tent floor is just soaking wet... with our helmets on them! It manifested itself by squeaking, randomly changing volumes and a whole host of other funny things. A reset of the system and a load of toilet paper stuffed in our helmets overnight to soak up the moisture helped but quite likely the damage had been done. Tip: when camping place your helmet on top of your bag! Now the microphone has been sorted we're looking forward to communication as it had always been.

We quite like the Uclear multi-hop technology, which means each helmet comm also functions as a relay station. This makes the range pretty impressive. Syncing is easy and we can all talk simultaneously. The only downside of UClear's multihop is that it works like a chain. If one of the helmet comms goes out of range, the chain gets broken and the units either side of that helmet comm stop communicating as well. It's a minor inconvenience and we soon got used to pressing the sync button for two seconds after having been out of range.

The Bluetooth link to an iPod or smart-phone works good. The music is clear, even with custom moulded earplugs I'm wearing. The buttons on the UClear control not only the volume of the iPod but can also pause a song or skip forward or reverse. The unit can only do one thing at a time though. So while listening to music, there is no communication with other headsets at the same time. To contact someone who has his/her music player on means a manual re-sync, which involves nothing more than holding the answer button for 2 seconds. This will pause the music on all unit and open up communication. Not a big deal. However, it means the safety part of having helmet comms: being able to warn each other for emerging danger, doesn't work anymore. It practice this means we won't listen to music unless we are riding alone. In theory we could also pair a Bluetooth capable mobile phone to it, we've tried it and it works but we have no desire to make phone calls while riding.

One thing to remember when going away for a long time is that you can't swap batteries as they are soldered in. Soldering them in means no possibility for moisture gaining access to the unit and no iffy battery contacts either. I actually prefer this over replaceable batteries in this case. There is no means to charge the units while using them at the same time, so we charge them overnight via the supplied USB cables to the laptop (which we can charge while riding). You can also charge them through a mobile phone charger or a battery pack connected via the same USB cable. Charging after a full day takes less than an hour and takes little current, I can easily charge all 3 through one USB port while writing my diary.

Comparing the Uclear HBC200 to its competitors isn't easy. I've heard of people that prefer others, but also heard the other way round. We have noticed that the position of the speaker/microphones is critical and it pays to spend some time there to get the best out of the helmet comm. What makes the Uclear a hands-down winner for us is the unique boom-less speaker microphone combination which means no boom mounted microphone in front of my face! No spit covered microphone covers and crystal clear communication. The boom-less system also makes Uclear easy to mount in virtually any helmet. Uclear communicates with other systems too, is better priced than most and comes with regular updates for both Mac and Windows.

Icon Variant helmet
The extreme wide vision is not only a safety feature but also a huge bonus in countries like Norway where our vision is almost 180 degrees. The visor's claim of being distortion free despite the wide angle is 100% true. Normally the Variant is quiet enough but when it's really cold combined with a strong headwind, they can be quite noisy. As soon as the temperature picks up again they become as quiet as before.
Despite a lot of 'weather' we didn't experience water leaking past the visors or anywhere else. There is a lot of well channeled ventilation in the helmet and as two of those openings can't be closed you will not have a misty visor at any time. As a study in the past has shown that quite a few motorcyclists stuff their helmets with neck warmers and shawls in cold weather to such an extend that the air quality inside their helmets becomes dangerous, I don't mind a little ventilation when it's cold. Especially when it's directed to the visors' inside and keeps any fog at bay. The Variant has a removable chin piece too, made from stretch fabric, which makes them quieter and warmer on cold days.
The helmets' peak works a treat when the sun is getting low at the horizon and as the chin part is further away from your face than a regular full-face helmet, you don't get the claustrophobic feeling you'll get in many others. 
With a helmet, any helmet, the fit is most important. A brilliantly good helmet that doesn't match the shape of your head is not only uncomfortable but also won't protect you as good, as it needs to fit perfectly to distribute the impact forces evenly. The Icon fits us perfect and after 23,000 km we like it as much, if not better, as we did when it was new. There is one downside with this type of helmet, any full face helmet in fact, contact with local people invariably means taking of your helmet (compared to just flipping the front of my previous helmet). Having said that, it is a helmet I can wear in comfort all day, every day.

What didn't work… or was replaced with something that works a lot better!
All of the above is mostly positive and you might be thinking we see everything too much through rose tinted glasses... we don't. The above piece of text is the result of a carefully sourced kit that at the moment is pretty much perfect for us. It's also the result of dedicated people that do their utmost best to make stuff that works and have pride in doing so. Before we found those people though we had some mishaps and useless kit too. Below are the things that didn't work and why.

DriRider jackets
Sold as 4 season jackets, they are in fact only 2 seasons: spring and autumn. Too hot for summer use and too cold for winter. The quality left somewhat to be desired too. Just 4 months into the trip they started leaking more and more. Now that we have Rukka jackets we are also very well aware that the DriRiders weren't all that safe either... 

Motodry pants
Quite contrary to what the name suggests they aren't waterproof and aren't very warm either… Honestly, don't bother yourself getting them.

Various overgloves
They were an unfortunate necessity as all our gloves leaked in the end. But they are horrible things that limit feel and control in a time when you need it most: when it rains. Do yourself a favour and invest in a couple of good gloves, like the Rukka ones we have, your safety is worth it.

Again a necessity before we had Alt-Berg boots, but bordering on dangerous and difficult to fit.

Rossi boots
Seemed fine in the beginning, are comfortable but weren't waterproof at all. They also didn't last that long, zippers fell apart, inner lining wore through quickly and the plastic protectors came loose.

Ventura bike pack
The system is pretty good and durable. So why is it in the 'didn't work' section? Because they are very heavy, very much not waterproof and the zippers proved too fragile. 

Held tank bag
Another one which shouldn't really be here as it isn't a bad tank bag, but there are some details that just don't work. They do scratch the tank when used without a non-slip mat. The material has faded badly and we had to be really careful with metal swarf sticking to the magnets. They come with a PVC rain cover that is very hard to fit in cold weather as PVC becomes quite stiff when cold. The bags magnets work fine but the bag does come off in a fall and in doing so scratches the tank.

Shark Evo2 helmet
Seemed a good idea, and in fact is, but so badly put together with substandard materials that it didn't last all that long and it has some serious drawbacks too. It was a very expensive helmet, almost twice the price of our current Icon Variant, which is much better made. The idea of a combined full face and open helmet is great, but when the visor is so short that bugs still splatter apart on your lips… it becomes a bit painful. Closing the helmet doesn't work either as there isn't enough ventilation in it. It's too noisy and after only months the rubber seal around the visor had become so hard that it literally fell apart. The lining material didn't last long either. Like I wrote above this was a very expensive helmet. I've been told the Evo3 is somewhat better but I for one won't buy a Shark again.

Full face helmet at the lower end and priced accordingly. Limited ventilation, not waterproof and not very durable. Replaced with an Icon Variant.

Nolan open face helmet
Quality wise the best of our previous helmets. As it was getting on a bit in age we replaced it with a new one. The new Nolan is a bit of a disappointment however. The ventilation system in the top seemed brilliant but only months old it no longer works as something on the mechanism is broken inside. The paint started peeling within weeks and it is noisier than it's predecessor too. The visor on the old Nolan had multiple settings, the new one is fully open or fully closed, and thus fogs up in wet or cold weather. Unfortunately the new Nolan is not an improvement on the old one.

Draggin' Jeans, USA version
In theory a good product but in practice let down by poor quality. Mike's dragging' jeans lasted just months before it started tearing everywhere. Mine lasted a bit longer. Non of them could be worn at all with the protectors as the Velcro on them doesn't stick to the Kevlar. Protectors are rock-hard when cold too.

Kevlar Jeans by Intelligent Concepts
Jeanette now has Kevlar jeans from Intelligent Concepts (who comes up with a name like that?) They are much better in quality than the original Dragging Jeans, have more Kevlar too and the jeans material is much better quality. The protectors in them work as they have pockets and are adjustable but are very stiff when cold. They have now been replaced with the Rukka Belle, which is a huge improvement.

Triumph Bonneville seat
The seat on my 2009 Bonneville is comfort wise terrible, there is no other word for it. The seat on the 2012 Bonnie is much better but soaks up water, giving a wet bum for days after it has rained. Now that I have the Rukka suit I'm looking for a 2012 seat as a replacement for mine...

Yamaha XT660R seat
Even worse than the Triumph one… Again we haven't found a solution yet although the air cushion in the Rukka pants have made an enormous improvement.

Yamaha suspension
The Yamaha suspension was very good… was! In Belize both the seals blew on a gnarly road and the rear shock is not only showing signs of wear and lost most of its dampening, it also lets the world know it by squeaking like an old barn door. There is good news though: YSS did us an 'update'!

Michelin Anakee 3 rear tyre
In a direct comparison to the Avon Distanzia fitted to Mike's Yamaha (same size as the Triumph) it failed miserably on grip when riding muddy roads. The Distanzia digs in the mud and pushes the slimy layer away. The Michelin simply tries to roll over it. Jeanette still had an Avon RoadRider, which is a 100% road tyre, and even she had more grip in mud and gravel than I had with the Anakee 3. Despite what Michelin claims the Anakee 3 is not a dual sport tyre but a road tyre, and not a very good road tyre either. I had the radial type fitted, which made a little bit of noise when new… and made the noise of a circular saw going through sheet metal after just 5,000 km. When it proved to be not that good in wet weather either I replaced it with an Avon Distanzia and I'm glad I did. The Michelin Anakee 2 I had at the front was much better, but still no match for the Avon.

Metzeler Tourance
Mike's Yamaha came fitted with new Metzeler Tourance tyres. They aren't bad and in fact much better than the Michelins. He did notice though that after fitting the Avon Distanzia he has much more grip, especially in the wet and especially at the front. They don't last as long as the Avon Distanzias either. 

Brembo brake pads
Mike had them fitted to his XT. One of them failed, the lining broke away from one of the pads after just 20,000 km. We replaced them with SBS which last longer and give at least the same if not better braking performance.

Motorex fully synthetic oil
Non of our bikes used oil, nothing measurable anyway. We have used all sorts of oil, basically because not everything is available everywhere and when doing a service on the road you can't be picky. We have used Castrol, Honda, Yamalube, Motul 3100 and both mineral and semi-synthetic. Just before we went to Scandinavia we serviced them but couldn't get anything but Motorex full synthetic. Yamaha and Triumph specify full or part synthetic so I couldn't foresee any problem. Suddenly they al started using oil however… and quite badly too. The Yamaha is the worst affected as it now uses more than a litre on 5,000 km, where it had used zip nada nothing before. If it would have been on one bike only, then it could have been the bike, as both our Triumphs suddenly use quite a bit too, I think I may safely conclude that it's the oil. Especially so as since we changed the oil for Millers' semi synthetic, all oil use has disappeared again. More importantly though, the engines are mechanically as quiet as they were before.

RK Heavy duty chain
Paid a small fortune for it because it promised extra long service life and thus longer lasting sprockets. The chain didn't last anywhere near the original DiD and ruined the sprockets. It was the chain on my Bonneville, doing the same trip as Jeanette's T100 using the original DiD chain and the same Triumph Sunstar sprockets.