A broken pole is hard to fix in a storm at night, which is where poles would ideally prefer to fail. A local ultra-lightweight tent designer tells me that aluminum poles are both lighter and stronger than fiberglass poles, but cost a good-deal more. Strength is usually not an issue with poles used for cycling tents, as these tents are small, weigh little, and can be pitched easily away from weather. Poles are not weight-bearing in a classic sense, but strong winds and storms can flatten a tent pitched improperly—from either flapping or being aimed such that the structure catches wind rather than plowing through it.
Freestanding tents: Over time, I have purchased several large and small freestanding tents—back when, I like to think, they were still somewhat of a new idea, though they had been around for many years. While not universal with every design, most took took a very long time to pitch and pack-up, cutting into riding and rest time. They really should be staked down, unless you are inside, and even then wind gusts will send a tent and gear tumbling away and, unless it is small, it will lift up and potentially tear or break poles with a person inside. It is the flexing and flapping that tears fabric and breaks poles—staking down prevents this.
Many times you cannot drive a stake into ground, especially with: (1) the cheesy stakes that are OEM with most tents, and (2) the packed-down commercial camping pad style sites. Ditto for the concrete pads, which I find to be be universally bad for stake insertion. Flexibility in placement, and designing for a reduced number of anchor points needed for secure tent setup, can really help avoid the requirement for a free-standing tent. Two of the tents which I use utilize two poles each, and just three anchor points. The anchor points must be secure, but the tents are the aerodynamic tunnel / hoop style with pointed ends that can be oriented into the wind for extra ventilation and to reduce stress on the fabric and poles. The three anchor points are ½-inch long web-loops that attach to different upper and lower attachment points on the tent. The anchor points can be vectored quite a bit without moving the tent an inch—to find soft ground for stake placement as anchor guy lines plant about 3 feet from the tent proper and, being essentially web loops, can be looped or tied around large rocks, picnic tables, trees or—something I always bring on a bike trip—a bicycle. Once, at a stealthy camp site, I tied my tent off to my bike and tossed the bike down a small incline into a dry creek bed which did double duty as the many reflective surfaces of the bike were obscured from cars passing on a nearby roadway.
Good stakes do make a difference. Some OEM aluminum stakes fail with normal use right away. Titanium, tempered spiral steel, the oversized plastic style and Jim Foreman's patented eight-inch aluminum Gutterspikes work well for stakes and rarely fail, but usually I carry a spare, in case of loss or breakage. [Mr. Foreman carries at least three extras, from which he constructs his camp-stove -ed]
When I ordered my current tents (over 20 years ago) it was a lot like ordering a custom made-to-measure bicycle which lots of discussion of on use and travel size. I had wanted a freestanding tent (as that was what my friends and I had been using) but, after lifting his finished tents, and seeing how quickly they could be erected, I was sold. It was then down to colors and weights of the various fabrics of the various sections and waiting several months, Obviously, these were not store bought items.
Anyway, a little extra para-cord is always handy when camping.
Nothing that I have noted means you shouldn't buy a free-standing tent but the free standing feature often adds significant weight, complexity, setup and take down time. The tents I have can be set up by one person easily in 30 seconds with practice. The maker of those tents can setup his tents in less than 10 seconds, and will be sitting cross-legged inside the tent in that time. It is like a magic-trick to me.
These tents also use sleeves for the poles which speeds setup and take-down. I'm not sure why some have a preference for clips-to-pole attachments over pole-in-sleeves, unless they've had bad experiences with poles separating inside the sleeves. This can be easily remedied with a little practice and proper technique, though some designs may be prone to pole separation anyway. Sleeves are harder to make properly, with little room for error, but clips can break, and setup time is increased when using them.
One thing to add: All of the tents which I've had built were made locally by Treklite and, sadly, they no longer produce these products (though I hope I can get them to revive them one day). These tents were all single-wall designs, and extremely well ventilated. On the hottest most humid nights I have never had a problem with condensation. Eliminating a fly saves lots of setup time and reduces weight enormously. My small 1.5 person tent (2 adults fit if friendly) weighs about 2 lbs. with poles and stakes.
The Treklite fellow used to work for Stephenson's Warmlite, which also makes unbelievable lightweight single-wall tents nowadays. As for my potential recommendation, I would certainly replace my very old tents with these or something similar.
All these designs are very light, quick setup, single-wall tunnel designs—similar in style and function to my favorites. The Stephenson costs a good bit more, but can have custom choice of fabrics, colors and many other features. Might be worth a look.
Yours in Cycling,
North Road Bicycle Imports
P.O. Box 840
166 Courthouse Square
Yanceyville, NC 27379
toll free: 800-321-5511