Chapter 10: How To Pick A Touring Bike
As ours is a long ride across multiple continents we decided strength and reliability were more important than speed, and so we prioritised steel frames, steel racks and well-built 26” wheels. When we’ve met other cyclists on the road, broken 28” wheels have been the most common tale of woe by far. – Ryan Davies & Rebecca Holliday
There are almost as many touring bikes as there are touring cyclists. How do you choose the right bike for you? We have a few tips for finding your ‘perfect’ ride but first, a bit of perspective.
The bike isn’t really that important.
Andrew’s expedition touring bicycle. It’s a custom-built frame from Robin Mather, an English bike builder. Photo by TravellingTwo.
That might seem like an odd statement to make in a book about bike touring but history tells us all we need to know. The past century of bicycle touring has witnessed numerous cyclists who covered vast distances on bikes that seemed, on the surface at least, totally unsuitable for the job. Thomas Stevens circled the world on a penny farthing in the 1880s. Heinz Stücke has covered over half a million kilometres on a bike with only 3 speeds. Even the sluggish rickshaw has been used to span continents.
The point? A nice bike is just that: nice but not essential. Determination and a positive attitude are the most vital factors for a successful trip by bicycle, not the price of your bike. And there’s no point in spending so much money that you don’t have any funds left to actually travel!
Most importantly, don’t be fooled into thinking that buying an expensive bike will save you from mechanical worries. It won’t. There are, of course, many good reasons to buy the best touring bike you can afford and we look at the advantages of top-quality expedition touring bikes later in this section. Even with an expensive bike, however, you always have to be prepared for regular maintenance and unexpected break downs. Depending where you’re cycling and the components you choose, there’s even a possibility that you might find it easier to get a basic bike repaired, rather than a fancy one with specialist parts.
Instead of focusing on price, look for a bike that’s suited for touring. Many bikes have these features, including plenty of mounting points for luggage racks and water bottles and a frame that’s been designed to favour a comfortable riding position over long distances, rather than speed.
Finally, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the saddle so look for a bike that you love. This is an intangible thing (almost impossible to describe in a book) but you’ll know when you’ve found a bike that just ‘feels right’.
5 Factors To Consider
Before you look at specific brands and models, consider these basic variables. They will help narrow down your choice.
Budget – A reasonably solid second-hand bike will start around $200-300 U.S. (check at thrift shops and ask local cycling clubs if anyone has a bike to sell). On the other end of the scale, the very best touring bikes start around $2,000 U.S. and you can easily spend much more on features such as fancy gear systems and custom paint jobs.
Trip Duration – For shorter tours, where you’re travelling lightly and relatively close to home, just about any bike will do. We personally covered 5,000km on bikes that cost $100 U.S. from a junk shop. They weren’t always a smooth ride (we invested another $100-200 U.S. each in replacement parts) but they took us on some fantastic adventures, without breaking the bank. The more remote and lengthy your trip, the greater the case for investing a bit more in your bicycle. Put a special focus on quality wheels (hand-built if you can afford it), a decent gearset, racks that can handle a heavy load and – of course – a comfortable saddle.
Terrain – For a trip on North America’s Great Divide, the longest off-pavement bike route in the world, a mountain bike with suspension might be the best choice. You’ll appreciate the extra cushioning on bumpy, dirt roads. On the other hand, if your trip involves mostly paved roads and decent weather then a touring bike with skinny tires will probably do the job just fine. You might even get away with taking a racing bike, as long as you plan to stay in hotels and travel with a minimal amount of luggage.
Planes, Trains and Buses – Taking your bike on other forms of transport can be one of the more stressful parts of touring. This is doubly true if you choose an unusually long or wide bike, such as a tandem. It makes sense, then, to choose a relatively standard bike if public transport is a big part of your trip plan. You might even go for a folding bike like a Brompton or Bike Friday – not the most common touring choice, but certainly a possibility. Visit Path Less Pedaled to see how ‘foldies’ can be used for cross-continent, fully-loaded touring. If you do go for an unconventional bike, you may still be able to get it on that plane (or even ship it ahead by courier) but be prepared for a bit of extra hassle.
Comfort– The best bike is ultimately the one that feels best to you. Bike touring is not supposed to hurt. Before you settle on any bike, go for at least a short ride. Better yet, convince the bike shop to let you borrow it for a few hours or rent it for a weekend. If you return with aching knees, a sore neck or strained ankles, chances are you haven’t found your dream bike or it needs some adjustments. This is where the help of a bicycle shop experienced with touring is invaluable. They’ll be able to direct you to bikes built for touring and can also help make sure the bike is properly fitted to your body. Something as small as raising or lowering the saddle or handlebars by a fraction of an inch can make all the difference to how you feel on the bike.
Types of Bikes
Now that you have a basic idea of what kind of bike might be best, it’s time to learn about the most popular types of bikes for touring. As you shop around, remember that touring bikes aren’t commonly stocked by many bike shops and certainly not in department stores. Track down a specialist dealer who can give you good advice, and who will have a few models for you to try out.
The next sections of the book cover: