The $100 Touring Bike
I have to confess to being a hypocrite.
For months now, I’ve been telling impoverished would-be bike tourists that you don’t have to spend a mint to travel by bicycle and all the while I’ve been travelling the globe on my very expensive custom-built bike with Ortlieb panniers and Brooks saddle. To buy the same setup, you’re looking at $2,000-3,000. That hardly makes me a role model for sightseeing on a budget.
Things have changed a bit since our world trip ended. With our fancy bikes in storage, we now need new wheels but being currently unemployed, it couldn’t be anything flash. Instead, we put our theory to the test and bought two used bikes from the second hand shop. The cost for mine? A mere €75 or about $110 U.S. dollars.
Now, after a lot of talk and no action, it was finally time to put my theory to the test.
Can you really tour on a $100 bike? The answer is yes, but with caveats.
What $100 Gets You
Let’s look at what exactly you can buy for about $100 these days. In a new bike shop the answer is not very much, if anything at all, and certainly nothing worth touring on. Think a lot of junk imported from China, sold in varying states of disrepair and with parts so flimsy that you can’t even do simple tasks like adjusting the brakes.
At this price level, you have to buy second hand to have any hope of getting a half-decent bike. That’s how we found ourselves down at the local thrift shop. If that hadn’t panned out, we’d have scanned local bulletin boards and online sources like eBay and Craigs List. The second hand shop worked out though. We ended up with these…
They don’t look very fancy do they? And the truth is, they’re not. There are no special accessories, the pedals are made of plastic and the rims are slightly out of true. At least Andrew’s came with a back-wheel lock! Here are some close-up pictures to show exactly what you’re dealing with at this price range:
The good news is that they’re built on good, solid frames. They also have plenty of attachment points for water bottles and racks. That means the base is there for a serviceable touring bike. Before we bought them, we did the following:
- Checked the brakes to see that they were properly adjusted and responsive
- Looked at the wear on the chain rings to make sure it wasn’t excessive
- Ran through all the gears to see if they were moving smoothly
- Put the dynamo on to make sure it worked
- Took them for a quick ride down the road to see if there were any other big issues
With bikes in hand, and everything seemingly in working order, we decided the test of our $100 out-of-the-shop bikes would be a weekend outing with the Wereldfietsers – a cycle touring club. The plan was to cycle 120km over 2 days through the Dutch countryside, mostly on cycle paths and minor roads.
Overall the bikes did surprisingly well. Nothing critical happened that threatened our ride, however we quickly came to the conclusion that while the $100 bike did let us tour for a weekend, it would need some modifications to go on a longer trip. The most pressing changes required are:
- Better saddles – our butts quickly got sore and we felt it for days after the tour!
- Handlebar extensions – when you’re going further than the local supermarket, you need a few extra positions
- Upgraded pedals – we didn’t like our feet sliding all over the place
If we wanted to do anything other than relatively lightly loaded touring, we’d also have to invest in better racks since the ones that came with our bikes are quite flimsy.
The True Price
After a weekend on our new bikes, we decided that touring on a $100 bike is certainly possible but, unless you strike a real bargain, probably not so comfortable unless you spend at least another $200 upgrading the bike with a few basic features. This highlights the fact that when you start looking at $100 bikes, you have to think long-term and ask yourself if spending, for example, $300 up front might be a better investment.
The other point to consider is trust. Nothing is infallible but we had faith in our expensive tourers and they rarely let us down. These bikes don’t instill so much confidence. The tires and other parts are showing some wear, and the overall quality of the accessories reflects the price. Touring on these, we are always prepared to deal with potentially more maintenance issues than on a higher-end bike.
On the plus side, we don’t worry nearly as much about them being stolen! We’ve gained peace of mind in one area with our cheap bikes and lost it in another.
Our overall conclusion is that getting a good $100 Touring Bike is probably too much to ask. A more realistic budget would probably be at least $500, to bring a bit of reliability and comfort into the equation – essential if you’re going away for any length of time.
*A year after writing this article, we’re still riding the same bikes and have taken them out on several weekend trips. We’ve upgraded the tires (cost: about $100) and Friedel found an old Brooks Saddle in a market for $10. On a recent trip to Denmark, Friedel’s bottom bracket had to be replaced. Other than that, we’ve done nothing to them and yet they’ve provided us with many happy hours of touring – about 5,000km in all.