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by SS at 6:55 am on Saturday 26th April

I came to the MEng program having worked for three years and travelled for a year before then - essentially four years out of my undergraduate degree in Computer Science. Even then, the last time I studied maths seriously was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, so about seven years before starting the MEng. That being the case, there were a number of subjects I'd wish I'd brushed up on before starting my coursework at UC Berkeley.

The courses I took were Advanced Robotics, Computer Vision, Introduction to Machine Learning and Applications of Parallel Computing. I'll start with general advice and talk about specific tips for each course at the end. These are roughly in order of how important I think they are.

1) Linear Algebra: This is by far the most important area of maths to cover if you study any sort of graphics or AI course. It was heavily used in all four of my courses. There's a great tutorial online here which is actually written by a UC Berkeley professor. Know this well and you'll spend much less time looking up the basics.

2) Statistics: Know your basic probability and distribution rules. Most of AI is heavily statistics based - in particular, Machine Learning is a lot of statistics and most popular successful AI techniques now tend to be probabilistic. Sebastian Thrun has a great overview paper and is the author of the main text on this area.

3) Optimisation: Optimisation is heavily used in the Advanced Robotics course and appears to be crucial for a lot of cutting edge computer science. I had NO idea what this was before starting and this put me at a significant disadvantage. Learn how to formulate basic optimisation problems at the very least. This book by Stephen Boyd is the definitive text on the subject.

4) Matlab: Matlab is a programming language / development environment that is heavily used by academics. As a software engineer, I particularly dislike programming in it - however, most homeworks assume you will be using it and so most examples and starter code is written in Matlab. While you can submit assignments in Python or other languages, the path of least resistance is to use Matlab. Matlab offers a student license but the department should pay for a license for MEng students. In the meantime, you can use the open source Octave software, which is syntactically very similar.

5) C++: If you intend on taking the Applications of Parallel Computing class (highly recommended - it is excellent) or implementing any actual robotics code, you would do well to become familiar with writing and running C++ programs.

6) Linux: It's useful to have some basic ability with the Linux shell and to have a Linux virtual machine set up. You may or may not use this - depending on whether you take systems level classes or not. I recommend installing Linux Mint in Virtualbox.

7) Git / GitHub: Source control will make your life a lot easier. Learn this well and it will make collaborating with peers on homeworks and your capstone project much, much better. Try the brief interactive tutorial on GitHub.

8) Advanced Robotics: Regardless of what it might imply, this course does not rely on the Introduction to Robotics course. Introduction to Robotics is more about robotic manipulators and 'traditional' robotics. Advanced Robotics is more about the theoretical underpinnings of the algorithms to allow planning, localisation and state estimation. It is not practical at all (much to my disappointment) and is very state of the art. I often struggled to understand the motivation for several techniques until the end of the course. However, you'll find that you know most cutting edge techniques by the end of the semester. It also assumes prior coursework similar to the undergraduate Introduction to AI course at UC Berkeley - so I advise taking Sebastian Thrun's Introduction to AI course on Udacity if you haven't taken anything similar before. This is a hard class but thoroughly satisfying once you complete it!

9) Computer Vision: This is a great course taught by a pair of very energetic, enthusiastic professors (Malik and Efros). Highly recommended.

10) Introduction to Machine Learning: Taught by the same professors as Computer Vision, this class suffers from it's large size - being primarily and undergraduate class. The work load is high but the skills learned are very practical. I'd recommend it but it requires a strong stats background.

11) Applications of Parallel Computing: While the course content itself focusses heavily on scientific computing, the homeworks assignments are very practical and very fun. One of my favourite courses so far.

12) Collaborating: Something I realised quickly was that it was very useful to work together on homeworks with my peer group. You'll often find that you can work together to fill in gaps in each other's background - which is essential when you're coming from another country with a different educational background and sometimes lacking pre-requisite coursework. I wasn't able to work with many people for the Advanced Robotics course and this made the experience almost intolerably difficult. On the other hand, working with motivated peers who were also taking Computer Vision made that class much more enjoyable.

I hope this advice helps - feel free to chime in in the comments below!

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by SS at 7:25 pm on Thursday 14th March

I'm writing this on the eve of the date that Stanford has traditionally notified applicants about their admissions decisions for the Master of Science in computer science course. I'm expecting to get rejected again this year - this is the second time I've applied for the program. However, what I thought might be interesting is to shed some light on what kind of candidate you have to be to get into this program. The obvious caveat being that I haven't navigated the process successfully - so this might not be accurate. Additionally, this is an external view of the process - so it's likely to be misinformed.

What value I can add though, is that I've read through a considerable number of profiles from applicants who have successfully been admitted to Stanford. I've also been in touch with several of these and learnt more about their background. I've applied twice and I've read just about everything that there could possibly be online about the process, and several actual books too. For a lot of the last year, it's all that's been on my mind (unhealthy, and unfortunate for my friends and family). I've also been in touch with a family friend who is a professor of a computer science graduate program at a state university. This advice will apply to many other graduate schools too - I picked Stanford since it's the only one of the big four that has an established and popular general computer science Master's program. (Carnegie Mellon started theirs only a couple of years ago, and Berkeley only offers a Master's of Engineering program. MIT only admits applicants with a PhD as their degree objective.)

This post isn't mean to put you off applying to Stanford - but it's mean to bring you down to the ground and help you understand the harsh and competitive reality of applying to the number 1 US Master's program in computer science so that you can make an informed decision about whether you want to spend your $125 there (and many hours of your time applying).

The Competition

The first thing to note is that there are about 700 applications for approximately 120 offers (extrapolating based on data available here). Nearly everyone who gets an offer takes it. Rather than taking this as 6 people for every place, think about it as there being 580 other applicants who you must be better than in order to get admitted. This figure includes HCP applicants who, more often than not, will have taken NDO classes (see the next section) and hence will have a slight advantage over external applicants.

While this pool of applicants is reasonably self selecting (i.e. most will be incredibly competitive) - there do seem to be a large number of unqualified people who apply simply on the back of the Stanford name. This undoubtedly makes the admissions committee's job much harder and increases the chance of your application being a false negative - i.e. rejected despite being perfectly well qualified.

The Process

This is how I imagine the committee's evaluation process to be, based on what I've read around the interweb (and on this paper).

Firstly, applications are pre-screened for those that don't meet a minimum GRE and GPA threshold (see the next two sections).

Secondly, some (but not all) of the committee will look at each application and assign it a score. These scores are normalised between members so that the distribution of scores are roughly equivalent. These scores are then summed to give an overall score for the applicant. Based on specific thresholds, applications are either accepted or rejected. This threshold is different for different applications - it is higher to external applicants than for internal applicants who have previously studied at Stanford. For the Stanford MS CS program, HCP applicants (their part time option for people who work in the Bay Area) are considered together with full time applicants. Since their primary goal is to evaluate how well you'll do at Stanford level coursework, having taken NDO (non-degree option) classes and having scored well in them suggests you will cope and hence there is a lower threshold for these applicants. See this ancient email for more information.

An easy way to get ahead in the Stanford applications game is to take a handful of NDO classes online and do well in them. These are not cheap however, especially compared to the plethora of free MOOCs available online.


Stanford themselves state on their FAQ page that a strong application would include GRE scores in the 90th percentile. The first time I applied, my scores were in the 89th and 84th percentile - high but not high enough. Unless every other aspect of your application is stellar, I wouldn't bother applying with scores that aren't in the 90th percentile (a fact that I realised after my first rejection). This isn't an impossible score to achieve - it just requires a month or more of reasonable studying. Doing well on the GRE is all about practice - and if you're unable to do well on the GRE after a significant amount of practice, then perhaps graduate school isn't for you. Before applying for the second time, I studied a little harder and was able to bump my scores up to the 93rd and 96th percentile without much difficulty.

Grade Point Average

The successful applicants I've seen generally have a stellar GPA (there are exceptions of course, but I'll talk about that in a moment). Successful US applicants seem to mainly have GPAs greater than 3.6 / 4.0. International applicants tend to be in the top segment of their class. Be wary if you're an international student at a university like Oxford or Cambridge - your 1st class 70% mark in your papers will translate badly (even though the admissions committee are aware of the different grading scales) - a 70% in an American university translates, I'm told, to a C grade. This does not reflect well at all. Another caveat (which I failed at foreseeing) was that Stanford's FAQ page suggests putting in the minimum required GPA if your undergraduate university doesn't provide one. I left this blank which defaults to 0.0. If any sort of harsh automated filter is used - my application will probably go straight to the rejection pile.

A note on automated filters - from what I've read (and it's not clear whether Stanford has implemented these in their admissions workflow and in what form), filters will only discard your application if you fail on both the minimum required GPA and any minimum required GRE. Harsh but an easy way for the admissions committee to focus on the known top applicants. Yes, it's unfair - as we all know, many academically challenged applicants struggled at university and they've gone on to make millions or do world changing deeds - but computer science graduate schools can afford to be this selective.

There are just so many applicants that they don't need to take bets - they just want people who they know will cope with their courses, and so they use past performance as an indicator of future performance. Some universities are harsher than this than others - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is notorious for wanting incoming students to have a near 4.0 GPA, even for their professional MCS program. Of course this puts applicants from highly competitive universities at a disadvantage - while I struggled to maintain high exam marks at Cambridge, I could have studied at other universities where examinations aren't graded on a curve and done extremely well.

Additionally, note that university ranking has much less of an effect than you might hope. It matters less where you went than how well you did there. They won't take a mediocre applicant from a top 10 university over a great applicant from a top 50 university - all other things being equal.


Additionally, you may think - it's OK, I didn't do so well during my time at university but I have great extra-curriculars! That's perfect - if you're applying for an MBA program. I cycled for Cambridge University and across a frickin' continent - that's great, but Stanford probably doesn't really care. Sure, you may have made it to Everest Base Camp or the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro - but that has little bearing on how well you're going to do in their graduate level courses (although it will stead you well in all those future walking meetings that technology companies are beginning to love).

What Stanford and other top computer science graduate schools want to see, however, is that you are a great computer scientist. For instance - you've started technology companies in your spare time (which might explain low grades) or you're a programming competition fanatic. If you're going for a PhD program, they want to see that you're a good researcher - so you need to have published at least some good quality research. There's a certain irony in the fact that you need to have research experience in order to gain admission to a course where you effectively learn how to research but that's the changing shape of the world these days.

Research experience is extremely beneficial although not mandatory. Academics live mainly to publish papers, at least it seems that way in the US. If you've written a paper, you're effectively speaking their language. It's incredibly hard to publish a paper when you're not at university (unless you're lucky to be in a situation where you can do so through) - and still very hard to do so while an undergraduate student. It helps a lot though.

Letters of Recommendation

Another large pit ripe for falling into, especially applicable to international students - is that letters of recommendation are preferably written by a professor who knows you well. Admissions committees view the source of the letters in this order: professor they know > professor they don't know > general academic (lecturer, etc.) > graduate student > line manager > colleague. This is because a professor's academic reputation is at stake when they write a letter of recommendation - so logic dictates they are more likely to be honest. They also have a better understanding of what skills are required at graduate school.

This is incredibly difficult - at most British universities, lecturers have a hands off approach to teaching outside of lectures themselves. I know just a single professor well enough from Cambridge - who was an unreliable letter writer at best and a disastrous letter writer at worst (in the last application round he spent a total of 17 minutes on one of my letters). My strategy has been to solicit strong letters from less prestigious non-academic letter writers who know me well - such as my current and previous manager, both of whom had good things to say about me. I figure a very strong letter from someone less well known is better than a nondescript letter from a professor who barely knew you.

American letter writers are much more effusive in how they write about candidates - be aware of this when you brief your letter writers. For example, everything 'good' should be 'great' and so on. Furthermore, brief them on the sort of content that they might want to include - on the basis that the admissions committee want to know how well you will do at graduate school.

The categories I asked my writers to mention were:

Additionally, if you have a low GPA - or some overt blip in your performance, it's very helpful to get a letter writer who knew at the time to acknowledge it.

Statement of Purpose

The problem with my statement of purpose essay and those written by most other applicants is that it's less of a statement of purpose and more of a resume in prose form.

What I'm going to say next is painfully obvious, yet is something that nearly all of us mess up. Make your statement of purpose an actual statement of purpose! You need to say what you actually plan to do - why you applied, what you plan to do while enrolled (what courses? what research aims?) and what you plan to do after graduating.

You should aim to specialise each essay as much as possible (and SRSLY, if you copy and paste, make sure you check for errors). This means mentioning courses that you would like to study, professors that you would like to study or research with and why that particular program is perfect for you.

Start this early - the process of writing the essay may help you realise that you actually probably don't want to study there so much. This is helpful because it means you'll either save yourself the application fee or it will sting slightly less when/if you get rejected. Additionally, it's one of the few aspects of the application that is totally in your control so only a fool wouldn't make full use of this advantage.

One final tip - think of your essay as being similar to a cover letter. Instead of saying why you want a particular job and using examples from your resume to back it up, you're saying why you should be admitted to particular program and backing it up with examples from your life.


Try not to fixate too much on the US News graduate school rankings. It's not a bad place to start - but you need to actually look at the programs and departments in depth before applying. I see so many applicants who blindly pick the top 10 and apply to these - this is a recipe for failure. Look at the credits required for graduation and try to compose an actual program of courses for yourself (as best you can). I tried this with several universities and realised that actually they didn't offer anything I wanted to study.

Professional versus Academic Programs

A note on professional programs versus academic programs. Professional programs are definitely easier to get admission into than academic programs. Academic Master's are used by students with average to good profiles to get valuable (research) experience and brush up their GPA before applying for a PhD program. Generally admissions committees for top departments seem to only accept applicants with a PhD (or a career in academia) as their career objective to academic Master's programs - unless you have a particularly strong background or there is an otherwise compelling reason to admit you. I fell into this trap this year - and was quickly rejected by many of the academic programs I had applied to.


If you're going for a Master's program and you can't afford to - then reconsider strongly whether it's worth applying to many of the top programs. As I said, they are so oversubscribed that they don't need to offer financial aid to attract students and nearly always won't. Those that do, for example the University of Wisconsin at Madison - are considerably more oversubscribed. Last year they received 1220 applicants for both PhD and Master's programs - and fill fewer places than Stanford (about 70 Master's students graduate per year).

Contacting Graduate Schools

In order to stress the point about over-subscription - it will be extremely difficult to get a reply from the admissions office for many of the top universities during application season. They will not pick up the phone or reply to emails. You will have more luck outside of September to April, but they're still likely to be very brusque. If you're applying for a professional program, you'll have a better chance of talking to someone - since these programs are more profitable for the university and therefore they provide better support for applicants. If you get rejected from a top university, don't expect any feedback - and don't expect them to provide much in the way of useful advice if you do manage to talk to someone. Your best bet is one of the many graduate forums (see the resources section at the end of this post).


When it comes to decisions, universities send out their decisions at a similar date yearly. You should be aware that often universities will send out all of their acceptances first and often wait for up to six weeks before sending out rejections. This gives them the flexibility to offer any quickly rejected offers to other applicants - although this is rare, since most applicants will sit on offers until they all come in. If you see a rash of acceptances on one of the decisions trackers online and you haven't heard anything within a day or two - assume you've been rejected, it's better for your sanity. Some universities (such as UT Austin) are particularly evil - and don't send out rejections at all.

Area of Concentration

Finally, it's worth saying that you should consider what area you want to study carefully. I want to study artificial intelligence and I've always wanted to study this. There were a couple of courses taught at Cambridge but I didn't get to immerse myself in the way that I hoped and time constraints made it very difficult to devote enough attention to them. That said, my employment experience and extra-curriculars are unrelated to the field. This loops back to what I said earlier - in order to gain admission for a course to learn about AI (or any other specialization) - they want to see experience in AI. This matters less so for general computer science courses but if you're applying to say CMU's Robotics Institute (as I did) - you haven't got a chance without relevant experience.

Additionally, some areas are vastly more popular than others. I'd assume that admissions committees want to balance their classes as much as possible, so if you apply for AI/Machine Learning/Robotics or some similarly oversubscribed area - BE WARY! Competition within that area will be tougher (on an absolute numbers basis). Bear in mind that you can always choose courses from a different specialisation to the one you apply for.


To conclude - I apologise if I sound overly cynical - I just want to be realistic about your chances (and mine!). With the economy pushing graduates onto higher education across all subjects and the considerable salary differential (or, the perception of one) between technology jobs in the United States and elsewhere, there are more applicants than ever before. It's even harder if you're an international applicant as most of us are. There's some great advice on the internet but much of it was written a few years ago, and as any good technologist knows, things change so very quickly.

Good luck with your application, I wish you all the best. If you have any questions or feedback, please message me on The Grad Cafe. I can't promise to reply but I will try.

I've also written about the economics of getting a Master's degree here, as well as about adequate preparation for incoming robotics Master's students. Finally, another post about employability with a Master of Engineering degree.

A Note on Copyright

This post is published under the Creative Commmons BY-NC-SA license. Please feel free to share it along with with a link back to this page.


GRE Preparation

On Letters of Recommendation




A Collection of Rejection Letters

On Google+ here.
15 comments posted so far
anon wrote at 6:20 pm on Fri 5th Apr -
"if you're unable to do well on the GRE after a significant amount of parctice, then perhaps graduate school isn't for you."

If you're unable to spell properly, then perhaps graduate school isn't for you.
hm wrote at 10:28 pm on Fri 5th Apr -
I would disagree with the statement that "almost everyone who gets an offer takes it." I would assume about 50% (the yield for the PhD program) actually take the offer, with the other 50% going to various programs at MIT, CMU, UCBerkeley, or WashU.

Otherwise, thanks for taking the time to write this all up!
SS wrote at 8:36 pm on Sun 28th Apr -
@anon - thank you for finding that :-).
@hm - that's a fair point. I was considering mainly the Master's program - although I guess with PhD applications funding also comes into consideration - as well as fit. Since Master's students are rarely funded and we have less direct contact with professors, perhaps people are more swayed by the reputation of a department such as Stanford's. Thank you for reading!
jr wrote at 5:10 am on Fri 9th Aug -
@ano it must have been a typo
@sunil very nice article
jkim wrote at 4:03 am on Wed 14th Aug -
thanks for sharing such valuable information and your experience. I am trying out my luck this year for Stanford this year, and tho i don't know what your current status is, i just wanted to say good luck to you as well!
Dammy wrote at 5:45 pm on Wed 25th Sep -
Helpful, Thanks, got a GPA of 3.49/4 from a non us school. Think i stand a chance?
JoshO wrote at 2:44 am on Sat 2nd Nov -
Thank you, this was very informative. Best of luck with your own application
curious wrote at 2:46 am on Fri 13th Jun -
So did you get admitted or not? Have you been in Stanford's MSCS for almost a year now? Let us know
Anonymous wrote at 2:46 am on Sun 13th Jul -
Did you get accepted? Curious for an update.
dan wrote at 11:32 pm on Thu 20th Nov -
I got 164/170/4.5 on the Verbal/Quant/Writing of the GRE. The V/Q are well above 93/98 percentile, but 4.5 is 80 (while a 5, the next score up, is 93). Do you think they give more weight to the first two scores?

Also, I just graduated and started a job in the Bay Area that will pay for my MS, so I'm seriously considering the HCP. Would your recommendation be to take some NDO classes and kick butt and then apply next year? My undergrad GPA is 3.8 in Computer Engineering.

Nee wrote at 4:19 pm on Mon 4th May -
I did my uundergrad in India, and I was wondering what you meant by 'minimum required GPA'.
Sid wrote at 11:01 pm on Sun 30th Aug -
Great Info Sir I really appreciate the insight as there's not a lot of postive stuff out there. One question I have for you, would you say an individual who has a good foundation should shoot for graduating with Cum Laude Honors respectively? I know it fluctuates depending on what university a person goes to some lower tier are 3.5 but over all from the more well known colleges it generally 3.75 or even 3.85 at some places. Would you recommend to shoot for cum laude and magna cum laude (for the university's where that equals 3.75)? Thank You
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by SS at 11:02 am on Wednesday 7th July

Apologies for the delay in posting this. I have no real excuse, being currently unemployed and not having much else to do!

I will add to and amend this post if I think of anything further.

Equipment Recommendations
Although the packing space you have is limited, it is worth bringing spares of just about everything. Even if you don't need it over the course of the trip, there is a good chance another rider will.
Besides the spares listed on the Equipment page, the following bike items failed and I had not brought spares of:
- GPS unit (failed when I landed on it by accident - preventable and also not entirely necessary.)

- Cycle computer (failed in the rain. Vital item, bring two! Cheap ones are fine.)

- Jockey wheels (several riders had worn out their previously new jockey wheels by the end of the trip. Bring spares for sure.)

- Pedals (either bring new ones from the start or bring spares.)

- Bottle cages + bottles (I went through 5 bottle cages! Bring a couple of spares. A spare set of bottles is useful too - they tend to fall out.)

- Worth bringing two spare chains and a spare cassette. Also bring a few Powerlinks (or equivalent) - useful for repairing your chain on the road.

- I wouldn't bother bringing more than two sets of spare brake pads (for v-brakes; riders with disc brakes wore through their pads quicker) - I used the same set of Kool Stops for the whole trip.

- Bring a tonne of tubes and enough for all sizes of tyre that you have. Don't bring Schwalbe tubes - all of mine failed at the valve and were unrepairable. (Be wary of using the 'bad' TDA pump - probably replaced by now but the bad pump killed all of my early tubes.)

- Bring a decent pump for use on the road. Don't bother bringing a tiny pump for the sake of saving weight - if you're trying to race then spending an hour pumping up your tyre will outweight any time gain from saving a hundred grams!

Bring a tent that has two doors. My tent had one door and it was a pain when that one door's zip failed. If buying a tent in England, I would recommend against a Terra Nova tent - their customer service charged me to repair my under warranty tent on return. It's also worth bringing a roomier tent if you can manage it - you'll appreciate the extra room a three man tent offers after a few months on the road!

Sleeping Mat-
Several riders had UltraLite Cots. I borrowed one for a night and it was quite comfortable but unless you have back problems or absolutely can't sleep on a normal sleeping mat, I don't think it's worth the space lost in both your tent and your locker. A normal Thermarest mat is adequate. Some people punctured their Thermarests but if you use a decent quality tarp or groundsheet, you should survive. (You could also bring a foam sleeping roll but again it takes extra space.)

Sleeping Bag-
This was the largest single item in my bag. Worth bringing a smaller bag - you don't need the warmest bag ever - a two season bag should be fine. (On colder nights you might need to layer up.)

Recovery Drink-
As I posted before in my blog about being vegetarian on the Tour, it's worth bringing recovery drink. This probably applies to non-vegetarians too.

A lot of thought went into the bike that I rode but there are still a few things worth changing.

Bike Fit
Get fitted to your bike before you buy it. It's worth the expense. Most bike fitters will be able to suggest suitable frames / bikes when being fitted. I had no knee or back problems on the trip.

BRING SUSPENSION! It'll help you a lot on the unpaved sections and you almost certainly won't regret it. I was unaware that you could buy suspension forks for cyclocross type bikes (with 700c wheels). Find one and fit it. Enough said.

I took a Thudbuster Long Travel seatpost with me but took it off after Sudan. I found it heavy (it made bike handling less agile) and sometimes caused knee pain. The Short Travel version may be preferable. If you have front suspension then it's probably not worth bothering with it at all.

I was unaware that the size of my rims dictated the size of tyre I could fit. Bear this in mind - you'll need specific touring rims to fit larger tyres. 29er rims may be preferable. Bring as fat tyres as you can. If you're ordering your own frame, ensure that the rear stay has enough clearance. Generally a larger range is preferable. I think the perfect combination would be:
27c tyres for smooth pavement
35-40c tyres for smooth unpaved
2.0" tyres for rough unpaved or sandy sections

The Schwalbe Marathon Extremes were superb tyres for the unpaved sections and the Marathon Racers excellent for the paved sections (some riders also used and liked the Durano tyres). I didn't have anything bigger than a 35c and just about survived.

As readers of this blog will be aware, I had severe saddle issues right from the early part of the tour which continued until the end of the trip. Most other riders had issues too but generally these were only in passing.

I've heard good things about the Brooks saddle I took but ONLY if broken in first. (You need to ride on it for 1,000 kilometres or so to get it fitting nicely. You can also soak it in oil to expedite this process.) The Specialized body geometry saddles work nicely too. Bring a DECENT spare saddle too, which fits well (my spare was the wrong size because I didn't think I'd need to use it.) It's worth having a fair amount of padding too - especially on the rougher roads. Whatever you think about how race worthy a saddle is, it's worth the extra bulk to have a bit of comfort.

If you're bringing drop bars, it's worth having top bar brake levers such as these. You'll enjoy it much more on rough downhills!
STi shifters seemed to be slightly problematic - it's worth steering clear and getting bar end shifters.

Pannier rack/Handlebar bags
Don't bother. You should be able to fit everything you need for the day in your Camelbak. Most riders ditched their pannier racks throughout the trip.

Lastly, regarding your bike- it's worth spending time and money (unfortunately) to make sure you get a steed that fits well, is reliable and has been well thought through.

Preparation Before The Trip
I didn't personally train much before the trip. Training on the bike was impossible so I did some light cardio indoors for a few months. This is not a problem if you are young - and in general the younger riders seemed to recover much quicker. If you're a bit older, it's worth making sure you're fit enough before you start - it'll make the trip much easier on your body.

It's worth getting to grips with your bike. Most maintenance tasks you'll have to perform yourself. Practice patching a few tubes - once you get to Africa, they'll be in limited supply!

On The Trip
Some camping tips which you might find useful:
- Use your laptop/netbook at night. You'll save battery life that way! (Lower screen brightness).

- Put your groundsheet / tarp inside your tent. This will stop water pooling on top of it (as it would if it was underneath your tent). Added bonus of preventing Thermarest puncture.

- Fill up bottles / Camelbak the night before. The morning is always a bit of a rush.

- Put items that you don't need in the morning away in your locker before bed.

- Don't change shoes while loading your locker in the morning. Massive faux-pas.

- Take your dish kit to Rider Meeting. You'll get to the dinner queue quicker :-).

Achieving E.F.I.
Every F**king Inch is an arbitrary status based largely upon luck. The riders who achieved it were fairly fit and incredibly determined. However, a bad crash, extenuating circumstances or any number of things can halt your conquest of Africa in a heartbeat. If you're intent on achieving it, be aware that you need to be a decent cyclist, consistent and cautious. The oldest rider who achieved EFI this year was 45 years old.

On (Those All Important) Electronics
Lastly, a word on electronics. I was quite apprehensive about the charging capabilities available before leaving. While there are periods where there is no electricity for days on end, you'll largely survive as long as you accept you won't be able to use all your gadgets every minute of being awake.

My charging situation was such:
- Netbook, charged whenever there was power. It lasted about 10 hours more or less which was good enough to spend 30 minutes to an hour writing up the day's events and sorting photos each day.
- Mobile phone, you really don't have many people to call - I brought an old Sony Ericsson K750i and any old GSM mobile will suit you fine. A smartphone lacks utility without a data connection which you'll be hardpressed to find. I charged this from my PowerMonkey (a useful rechargeable charger - definitely worth getting. Alternatively, they also do a PowerGorilla, a larger rechargeable charger capable of charging laptops).
- Sansa Fuze, topped up daily from my netbook. This worked superbly and I only ran out of power when I forgot to recharge it the night previous.
- Cameras, battery life was good enough to charge these once weekly on rest days.
- GPS, used borrowed rechargeable AA batteries. Worth bringing several good quality batteries.

I found the solar charger I brought to be useless and many riders struggled to achieve decent charge from their solar charges. I don't think it's worth the expense - I managed on rest day power alone. As you get further south, you start visiting more campsites where it becomes easier to find power sockets to charge from.

It's worth bringing a fair complement of power adaptors - up north they use the round two-pin adaptors, from Kenya onwards they use square three-pin and then from Botswana a strange gigantic round three-pin. (Bringing a four-way is also useful - these can be cheaply picked up in Egypt too. Get one which has multiple types of sockets so you can share / daisy chain with other riders' appliances.)

My netbook worked superbly for the trip - get one with decent battery life. It's worth bringing a flash disk with a Live version of Linux (e.g. Ubuntu Netbook Remix) just in case your hard drive dies. Also worth bringing a decent external hard drive to back up photos (and to share photos at the end of the trip).

If you insist on bringing an iPod, either bring a cheap one (a Shuffle or similar) or bring two. A lot of people had problems with iPods dying or battery life.

Bring a couple of pairs of cheap headphones for use while riding. I went through four pairs of headphones. Possibly bring another decent pair for use in camp (if you're anything of an audiophile).

Bring plenty of Ziploc bags - useful for sealing electronics you carry on your bike!

Bring two cameras - a cheap one to take on the bike and a nicer one for rest days. Alternatively, bring a shockproof camera - these worked very well (they didn't break) but the picture quality isn't so great.

A Word On Safety
Africa is unreasonably regarded as a dangerous place. I felt in no harm at all on the trip. The biggest threat to cyclists is, as always, from passing motor vehicles. In areas with heavy traffic, the Tour organisers made excellent provisions for our safety and organised convoys. Theft is always a concern but being a prudent traveller and generally vigilent will keep your possessions safe. Campsites were fine in general - in areas where locals took elevated interest in us, boundary ropes and local watchmen kept us safe.

If any other Tour riders have any advice please contact me to have this post updated or drop a comment down below. Likewise for anyone with a question!

2 comments posted so far
Chris wrote at 1:10 pm on Tue 13th Jul -

First of all, your blog and in particular this type of post are invaluable for myself as a rider next year. However, I was all set to buy a thudbuster for my Jamis Novapro until this post.....any links for suspension forks for cross bikes?

SS wrote at 7:10 pm on Wed 14th Jul -
Hi Chris,

If you've got the budget, it might be worth bringing the Thudbuster anyway as well as a rigid seat post to switch to.

You'll want a 29er suspension fork - it's worth checking with your bike shop. The geometry of cross bikes and 29ers is different so you'd need to find a fork that wouldn't significantly alter your bike. Sorry for the lack of information - I haven't personally looked into it at all.

Make sure it locks out too!

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