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Expedition Touring Bikes


The expedition touring bike is the big, sturdy brute of the bicycle world. These top-quality machines are ready to take whatever you can throw at them.

Some are made by craftsmen, turning out a dozen or so bikes a year from their garage. Others come with a brand name like Thorn or Koga.

Regardless of their pedigree, these are bikes you should be able to ride around the world, over mountains, through rivers and down rocky tracks with every confidence that they can handle the terrain and the week’s worth of food you’ve loaded on the back luggage rack.

Frames are often made to measure and the wheels will almost certainly be the 26” standard that is most easily replaced anywhere in the world. Across the bike, the focus should be on high quality components and there should also be an element of beauty.

Custom paint jobs and beautiful welding work are to be expected on this level of bicycle.

Photo by Dennis Koomen - www.toko-op-fietsvakantie.nl
The Santos Travelmaster: a high-spec expedition touring bicycle. Photo by Dennis Koomen

Rohloff Hub
Expedition bikes are also where you’re most likely to see the latest technology, including the Rohloff Hub – a nearly maintenance-free and sealed gearing system.

Because everything is enclosed, the Rohloff is great for trips down dirty, dusty roads. It also lets you shift without pedalling (if you want to change gears at a stoplight, for example) and a wheel built with a Rohloff is very strong because the wheels don’t have to be ‘dished’ or arced as they do on bicycles with derailleurs.

Rohloff Hub
The Rohloff Hub – a very nice but expensive addition to your touring bike.

On the downside, the Rohloff costs an extra $1,000 U.S. and in the unlikely event that something does go wrong, you’ll probably have to send the hub back to the factory to be fixed. The customer service is, by all accounts, wonderful but how will you feel if the worst happens? It could mean interrupting a tour and waiting for your wheel to make the journey to the plant in Germany and back.

Our personal preference is to deal with the quirks of a derailleur, which we can fix and which every bike mechanic the world over understands but plenty of cyclists are completely in love with their Rohloff hubs. It’s not really a case of derailleurs versus Rohloff but being aware of the pros and cons to both, before you make a decision.

If you do go for a Rohloff hub, try and make sure a separate derailleur hanger is also fitted to the frame. That will allow you to retrofit a derailleur if the hub can’t be used for some reason.

Think Ahead
One final thought on expedition bikes in general: plan ahead if you decide to buy one. They are often made to order and it can take weeks or even a few months before your bike is ready. Starting to look six months or even a year ahead of your departure day is not too soon.

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26 Responses to “Expedition Touring Bikes”

  1. Callum Walls says:

    Where do you start? Personal preference obviously pays a key role here. Starting with Drop bar or flat bar? Steel Aluminium? Titanium? 26″? 700c?

    After riding both drop bar tourers and flat bar tourers I must admit I prefer a flat bar tourer (specifically butterfly bars) with 700c (28″) wheels. I favour the cannondale aluminium frames and usually custom build them to my own specification. You cant really go wrong with a mid-spec shimano groupset such as the Deore group, strong, rubust and good value for money and also available in 48T touring gear ratios. Ensure your wheels are double walled and eyeletted for strength. Many cyclists opt for 36H as they are stronger although all my tourers have been 32H and I have never seen this a problem. If you decide to build your own wheels ensure you choose good quality spokes. DT swiss offer double butted spokes which are strong and lightweight. If you feel that strength is more important, opt for the plain guage.

    Spending money on good quality racks is paramount. Tubus offer some fantastic lightweight and strong racks, although pricey they will not let you down. Plus within two years of your purchase if the rack were to fail they will send a replacement for you wherever in the world you may be and within fives years will replace the rack. Blackburn and Tortec also produce good quality front and rear racks.

    Nothing can rival the advice you can get from your local bike shop. No amount of online data can substiture the advice and experience from a long distance touring cyclist plus precise sizing can be determined.

    Hope this helps
    CALLUM

  2. friedel says:

    Hi Callum, some nice tips there. I completely agree with spending money on good racks and double-walled rims are iimportant too, though on any decent bike costing more than a few hundred dollars I’d be shocked to see single-walled rims.

  3. Callum Walls says:

    FRIEDEL,

    You would be surprised! I much prefer to build my own wheels rather than using stock wheels, nothing beats a hand built wheel. Currently using Mavic’s A317 Disc rims (700c) which I am very impressed with. Strong and light. My previous tourers where all 26″ (except the drop bar) and I used cross country rims (XC717 disc) and once again never missed a beat, never needed to retrue.

    There isn’t a noticable difference in drivetrain components (deore, SLX, XT) although I would highly reccommend a Hollowtech 2 chainset on any setup, lighter, less tools, less maintanence and it will never damage your frame even if you are running it rough!

    CALLUM

  4. Al Rynn says:

    I’ve used a Mongoose Randonnier for the last few years with Alex Adventurer rims and Shimano XT components. Its been to China, cycled the Gibb River Road in Western Australia (carried 10 days food and up to 20 litres of water in 43C heat), been raced (Rainbow Rage) and in used for the odd mountain bike ride with no issues whatsoever.
    Highly recommend and very well priced. Alloy frame very strongly built for loads and steel fork.
    Drop bars (more hand positions) and bar end shifters (reduced risk of being stranded if fully loaded bike falls over and damages a brake lever) are my preference and 700c (28′) wheels smooth out the rough stuff.
    Schrader valves good for very hot rides where valves melting around the tubes can be an issue on Presta valves.
    Cheers,
    Al

    • friedel says:

      Al, do they still make this bike? I went on the Mongoose site but I don’t see it there.

    • Gordo says:

      It is now 2012 end and I am still plodding around on my Mongoose Randonneur as well. They don’t make them anymore which is a great pity. Was only $700 new at the time and my wife and I have done most of Australia without a problem. Have on 37mm and 42mm Conti tourers and can go anywhere with Bob trailer in toe. No need for expensive models/hubs etc

  5. Steve Jones says:

    These are all great choices for touring bikes and as the owner of two Thorn bikes including a Raven Tour I’d like to suggest that there is one more bike that should be added to the list. There are a lot of keen cyclists these days that like to mix touring and mountain biking. Thorn offer a bike called the STERLING which has MTB geometry and a suspension fork but the correct build and all the important essentials ( including the Rohloff speedhub) for serious touring.This is well worth considering because of it’s versatility.With a rack and fully loaded up, its a real touring bike, but you can also enjoy XC and singletrack mountain biking.I mention this because i think these days quite a few cyclists start off with an MTB and THEN find they want to try touring. This is perhaps the only bike designed from the ground up, to do both. Of course if you only plan to do road touring, any good quality bike like those shown above will do the job.

    Steve J

  6. Gary D says:

    I think you are missing out on a factor that can significantly lessen your bike set up costs.

    I tour with a Bob trailer, on an old hybrid road bike from the 1990′s, with 21 speed and mtn bike gearing. cost of the bike? $200

    Sure I have renewed many components, gears, wheels, etc, but as the load of the bike is distributed across the bob, it means the bike itself doesn’t come under too much pressure.

    The bob has been so heavy laden that bike flex meant I couldn’t take my hands off the handlebars, yet the bike itself suffered no breaks, damage, for over 8000kms at least. I used continental touring tires, 700′s and never had a puncture the entire life of the tyre.

    All this I put down to the trailer reducing work on the bike, meaning that the equipment didn’t need to be so expensive, and thieves were not interested in stealing it.

    Once when i was in Turkey, a local was so disparaging of the bike that I was sure no one wanted to steal it.

    • friedel says:

      Gary, I’m preparing quite an extensive article (may turn into a series) on trailers so watch this space :) You’re right, a trailer can take a load off the bike. It also means more parts to potentially break down on the trailer itself but it’s true that many people love their trailers.

      • Steve Jones says:

        Thanks Friedel for adding the Sterling to the list.It rides very smoothly indeed loaded with a tent and panniers as long as you balance things up ( which you should always do anyway) Cass Gilbert’s- While out riding – site gives a good idea of what this bike can do, and is worth tuning into for the pictures and inspiration alone! When you’re thinking of spending big money on a serious touring bike it’s nice to know all of the options out there! I’m lucky enough to be able to afford one, but I think it’s really cool that you can tour on a $200 dollar bike with a trailer too! Why not?

        I do find that my bike is more than enough to manage at the airport though, so I’m not sure how I’d cope with a trailer too.( Any thoughts, advice, on that Gary?) It would be great once on the road though.
        Will look forward to the article/series on trailers!

      • Gary D says:

        Friedel, Here is a page I made on the bob, I really like it, the only downside is the weight of the bob itself, it breaks down great for airplanes as well

    • Laurens says:

      I wouldn’t say that a bob trailer reduces the stress on your frame. I’m currently touring with a 1982 road bike, wich I love, but one of my chain stays snapped. When you go out of the saddle to climb the weight swings and puts alot of stress there.

      I cycled more than 20 000 km with it and it only costed me 100 euro (probably another 200 in replacements). But sometimes I think I should have invested in some quality when I’m having another week of limping from village to village to look for another replacement.

  7. Rory Woods says:

    No mention of the Rivendell Atlantis?

  8. Hugo says:

    You can also add Idworx and possibly Stevens on the list now.
    Couple more builders in Holland are ‘Avaghon’, ‘Van Herwerden’ and ‘Vittorio’. How about the Van Nicholas Pioneer?

  9. Kaitlyn says:

    Any chance of getting a similar review of touring recumbent bikes or trikes?

  10. Steve Jones says:

    Anybody used a Rivendell for touring? Would sure like to see a review.

  11. Steve Jones says:

    Concerning the choice of a derailleur or hub gear like an Alfine or Rohloff, quite a few companies are making bikes now that have dropouts that will take both.
    This would be the ideal because in the unlikely event your hub gear does fail you could probably set up a derailleur drivetrain to keep you going. Surly Troll would be a good place to start investigating this kind of frame.

    • friedel says:

      Good point – I’ve add a note about this to the text. It’s not a commonly available option as yet, but a good one to negotiate for if you’re going to invest in a Rohloff.

    • Good point, but if you are touring and there is a problem with the Rohloff hub, are you going to spend the money to purchase shifters, rear wheel, cassette, and rear derailleur just so you can get down the road while you’re waiting for your Rohloff to return? Then what will you do with all this stuff after your Rohloff returns? You might be better off just running your bike as a single speed until your hub returns. Just a thought.

  12. Ian says:

    Hey guys…… I can, after giving Telstra some stick, I can now access your brilliant site once again ! Going back to the Mongoose Randonneur……… It was replaced with The Vivente World Randonneur, which is what I have…….. Steel frame and fork……… But, off the shelf ( Three differently specced models ), the spec is quite average and somewhat weird in my eyes…………. Sti levers, Tiagra cranks, drop bars (each to their own but I prefer mtb bars with anatomical bar ends any day of the week ! ),…… Basically just a reall average set up. I bought one used ( with thirty kilometres on it if memory serves …….. The seller realised it wasn’t for him….. i got it for $800.00. I then stripped it to frame and fork amd built it up with a minimum XT components, and had a set of wheels hand made using Phil Wood Touring Hubs. 48 hole rear, 40 hole front. Tubus and Nitto racks make it pretty much bullet proof ! Lol

  13. Paul hackin says:

    Drop handle bars with bar end shifters..good quality 26 inch wheels are the way to go

  14. Hughonabike says:

    I’ve done a ton of touring over the years. 1st time was in the early seventies using my dad’s Moulton standard. Amazing bike. Another time I used a Dawes galaxy,I was OK , but the Moulton was far better. Other times I used various mountainbikes and found them good for mixed terrain touring. Today I use a custom built Surly Pugsley sporting 4.8″ tyres. It will go just about anywhere. I reckon it’s worth checking out. I guess my next will be a tadpole trike.

  15. peter says:

    My “Low cost” touring bike: 26″ self built wheels. old Scott Peak frame made of steel(1992) (twice repainted).
    Simple V-brakes. steel frame pedals with toe-clip, front and rear racks with approx sum 65L bags, extrawheel classic trailer 2pcs of 60L- waterproof bags
    And an unicum. Deore LX rear deralieur from 1988 (still working)
    Simple, cheap, and it takes me ewerywhere.

  16. William Newton LEE says:

    God this is a heavy subject area. Lots of good in for here. The best I can say is well said. Yes steel. 26 wheels . You your bike and gear will weigh a lot go for a lot of low gears. Going down hill you don’t need any gears now you need super good brakes. Speed goes faster with weight down hill . And will get scarier. I mean 60 or 70 miles a hour hang on. No time for something to break. Like 5 spokes on one side or axle smoking then break. Yes this happen. Travel lite but not without. Always have lots of food and water there a lot of beautiful camping sites let’s stay another day o.k. I think sand and river. Crossing the hardest. Walk it first. Make that bike comfortable handlebars right. This is a pleasure trip so let’s enjoy. Happy trails.

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