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The $100 Touring Bike


30-Looking back towards Midelt.jpgI 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…

Clicky, Friedel's bikeAndrew and Rustbucket

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:

DSC_0768.JPGDSC_0765.JPGDSC_0762.JPGDSC_0759.JPG

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

The Test
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.

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25 Responses to “The $100 Touring Bike”

  1. I love this idea. Its also worth talking to your local ‘proper’ bike shop as people will always be coming in asking for a part exchange on a new bike – bike shops hate this. Ask the shop just to put you in touch with the new bike buyer so the bike shop isnt liable for selling you a dud. Its up to you then to make sure its roadworthy etc.

    Even better to get in with the local bike club. It’ll be full of anoraks (like me) who are always upgrading parts, this results in a shed full of perfectly good spares that they’d be glad to see the back of. Add alll the bits together and hey presto a new bike!

  2. stefan nomad says:

    I have put more than 10,000 km in Central and Norhtern Europe, Greece, Middle East, North Africa… on a 100 USD bike – 30 USD panniers, with very few repairs.
    I never worry about my bike being stolen. I can let let the local kids to ride my bike, even if sometimes they would break something. And finding spare parts was never a problem, even in the middle of Egypt, or near Syria-Jordan border…
    Besides, it is kind of hard to keep low profile on a 3,000 usd bike, the local people have an good eye for these things…
    Last – Ye, sure, a 3,000 USD touring bike combo works better, but how many hours of work you suppouse to put, before you have these extra 3,000 usd (after taxes and other work-related expences :)))
    Of course, everybody knows better for himself

    • Avi Nash says:

      May be you could let us know the brands of your bike and panniers as I am also thinking of doing the same, just to prove that the $3K bike is not 30x better than the $100 bike.

  3. Martin James says:

    This is a refressing attitude. I recently completed Scotland’s West Highland Way (100 miles totally off road) on a £90 mountain bike. No mechanical problems at all, though it was a bit of a rough ride.

    I’m reminded of sustrans advice for choosing a bike: They note that you can spend as much as you want but you’d still be beaten hands down by a pro on a butcher’s bike: Lightweight, reliable kit does help, but it’s your legs that are important.

  4. It’s a great concept. In fact I have done this myself. I would recommend that you look for either an old “sport-touring” frame (typical of your 1970′s 10-speed bicycles) or a rigid MTB frame (no suspension!) with a long wheelbase (typical of the late 1980′s/early 1990′s). I have done this with a couple of bicycles. The MTB is better suited to scenarios where you have to carry lots of stuff – 26″ MTB wheels are generally stronger and you have the flexibility with fitting narrower 1.3″ tyres or wider 2.0″ tyres, depending on what sort of terrain and load you expect. Old road bicycles with new 700C wheels and 32-35mm wide tyres are also good, but you do have to think a little more carefully about loading and weight distribution.

  5. Al Runyon says:

    I bought a USD $50 old Schwinn ridgid frame and after much storage(hiding actually)I built it into a decent tourer. brooks saddle, extended stem, touring handlebars and Swalbe tires-Oh, and Bell bottle holders(the Mesa Runner didn’t come with braze on bottle mounts). It’s toured over 3000 miles with 1 major problem–The crank arm nut unwound twice! Got the BB replaced with a cartridge–No problem with that since. Next I may try to install a triple front crank for big hills.

    • friedel says:

      Building up a bike like that is a great way to learn more about your bike as well. A friend just bought a 30 year old Koga Miyata tourer. I want one too!

  6. clunkerider says:

    I can’t comment on overnight tours yet…but I commute daily and go on weekend day long tours on an older mountain bike that was origionally probably only $350 a few years ago, I purchased it used for $25 and put a rack on it with some bags I already had laying around. I have no problem touring all day long but not sure about multiple day tours. I am new to touring but have been a commuter for over a decade. I’ll let you know next summer how it goes when I go on a multi-day tour.

  7. Since I last posted here I built up a Touring bicycle from second-hand parts for a total of about $550 Australian Dollars (which at the time was about the same $300 US Dollars).

    Of course, panniers and other essential equipment for touring cost more, but it is possible to build a good touring bicycle. Unfortunately on my last tour, I chose to ride 44km on an unsealed road and the grit killed the freewheel at the end of day 2 of the planned 4 day trip. If I had bought a mud-flap, that would have probably prevented this part failure.

    Oh, and my bicycle is a 1982 Raleigh Royal. Nearly 30 years old, and going strong!

  8. Kameron Cregar says:

    I bought this for $285:

    http://media.photobucket.com/image/1986%20schwinn%20passage/buddydog99/photoze180.jpg?o=1#!oZZ2QQcurrentZZhttp%3A%2F%2Fmedia.photobucket.com%2Fimage%2F1986%20schwinn%20passage%2Fbuddydog99%2Fphotoze179.jpg%3Fo%3D2

    (this is not mine, but it’s pretty much identical: 1986 Schwinn Passage)

    I am very new to touring – in fact, I’ve yet to even embark on my first tour, and I’m wondering if I made a good choice, buying this bike?

    • friedel says:

      As much as you can ever tell from a picture, it looks feasible. Is it comfortable? People have toured on far worse! Just go on your tour and you’ll soon find out how the bike feels to you for touring. Remember, the ‘right bike’ is a very personal thing. What one person loves, the other may hate, so you have to do a bit of experimenting for yourself. Have fun!

      • Kameron Cregar says:

        It’s quite comfortable. Thank you! And thanks for the fantastic site as well!

  9. athena says:

    Would anyone please give me a tip on how to find people who may want to join me on an independent bicycle trip through Mexico, Central America and into cernral Brazil? I want to leave on the trip from California or Arizona in January sometime. One person needs to be a photographer so we can make a documentary and sell it to a travel show. I am thinking about taking a bicycle that has an electric motor on the front wheel for steep hills. And I may be open to doing part of the trip by train and or bus. Thanks! Athena

  10. James R Thomas says:

    I have recently cycled 1800 miles from Budapest to England on a £200 hybrid and had no problems. So it is grate to here of other people using cheaper and older bikes and getting on fine. I am planning on cycling from Vienna to Amsterdam this summer but am worried that the aluminium from mite brake?

  11. Clive says:

    I bought a new Taurus Integra entry-level aluminium moutain bike for 100 British pounds 17 years ago. I’ve replaced the bottom bracket and the pedals once and a couple of cables. I also fitted Schwalbe Marathon tyres and a rear rack and backward facing bar ends (‘cos I have a bad back). The bike is still going strong after many tours, day trips and commutes. It sometimes gets ridden off-road and generally thrashed and receives almost no care and attention. I would not hesitate to do a long tour on it. My bike is always the crappiest one in the group but it does the job. I see better bikes in skips! I wouldn’t get too hung up on getting an expensive tourer. Plenty of people have done big tours on rust buckets.

  12. Hi…I’m planning to ride End to End ..’LeJog’ in 2013. My bike cost me …. $10 Australian. It’s an 80′s Shogun hybrid.

    My daughter’s boyfriend is a pro mountain bike rider. He came up last weekend with a few spares to tidy the old bike up.

    1000 miles is not so far. I’m turning 30 for the second time just before I head off. Should be an adventure.

  13. Royce! I have to see this bike! We are about 100k from lands end so look us up on warm showers. I can also help you plot a traffic free route if you like. I’m currently stranded in Abel Tasman having broken a crank that cost 20x your bike, which just proves its not about what you pay!

    • Royce says:

      Gday David.

      I think maybe … that only frame will be original by the time Luke the boyfriend finishes with it. He is a pro mountain biker, and spend half the year in Canada an the other in Australia. He arrived yesterday with a new suspension seat post and seat..also a chain tool and some amazing lights. I think I’ll have a ‘new’ old bike by the time I start to treddle. I’m planning to camp wild along the way unless the weather turns really nasty. I will be stopping at Mablethorp for a couple of days to catch up with family. Big adventure!

  14. Ben says:

    Is one of those bikes a GT Palomar? I have one which I bought in 1998 and i’m trying to turn it into a touring bike.

  15. Tanager T says:

    It’s definitely possible to travel with $100 bike! After traveling by foot (train, hitchhiking, etc) for the last six months, we decided to try cycling instead. About a month ago, my travel partner and I bought two old bikes in Zagreb for just under a $100 each. We spent another small chunk of change ($50?) getting panears, bike locks and spare parts (multi-tool, innertube, pump, etc).

    Our bikes were built by a mechanic out of spare parts lying around his shop. While they don’t look high-tech, they have solid steel frames and work well. We rode from Zagreb, Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia in a few days. While everyone we talked to seemed very skeptical we would make it- we did! The BIC center in Zagreb was amazingly helpful and I would recommend them to everyone passing through. Since then, we’ve gone through more mountainous territory and are looking forwards to continuing by bike for the next six months.

    I’d be really happy to hear any suggestions on ways to improve my seat while on the road. Addtionally, any suggestions on routes through Greece would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks! Tanager

  16. Ian says:

    When you weigh in at a “mere” 120 kilos……. Going the cheap route is just not a viable option. T’iswhy I have a Rohloff Thorn Nomad Mk II on order as we speak !

  17. Rideon says:

    Picked up a late 80′s Diamond Back Ascent EX for $50, added Brooks saddle found on sale for $65. Even has third water bottle carrier under down tube as a traditional touring bike would have. Very cool bike. My wife’s new bike and she loves it.
    http://biketourings.com/3/post/2013/11/mountain-bike-trekking-design-in-a-retro-classic-by-rideon.html

  18. Hoss says:

    Well, I tell yah, A few years back I picked up a Ponderosa XL(Novara), from a soon to be divorced wife, she was selling off her “no good, cheating husbands stuff”. I picked it up for $50… She was willing to take $40.. One of the early 90′s models designed by Scot Nicol (of Ibis). Thing about these late 80′s to early 90′s MTB frames they are rigid and pretty close to modern touring frame geometry in comparison. Many cases designed by the founders themselves of the MTB industry.

    Steel frame, 26″ wheels, usually built with high-end components that just don’t break like the old Deore DX line. Like most MTB’s not much millage and never saw a unpaved road.

    Using this for daily training / touring (1200 miles max)… I had used it originally as commuter with a faster cassette, and narrow slicks. Worked great for two years in this role. Now I’ve got the touring bug. Recent overhaul, changed out the Richey handlebars for trekking bars which will take my MTB drop controls. large slicks on the 26″ wheels. larger fenders. I’ve had panniers in the past, but I’m leaning towards a trailer this time. BOB or the nomad. hmmm hmmm decisions……..

    Now here is something I’m thinking about is a rain jacket… A real manly jacket for the road. The thin shells they sell at bike shops may be nice for Hans and Franz dressed in the girly-man “spandex” on their “uber fast” Italian race bikes. Saw a few youtubes from people complaining about trucks not seeing them on the road in the North West…. Well MORON if you didn’t dress in hiking jacket from Columbia or North face sporting OD green / black trim they would. Then it struck the perfect jacket. combining the high visual color of Hans and Franz with the dependable design of the North West tree huggers…. The stand road jackets worn by construction or emergency service folks… You you can get them in all shapes, weights, and zip liners.. Bright colors, Class III ISO standard refection WIDE tape bands, and frankly what are all drivers conditioned to slow down for… Guys on the side of the road wearing these garments. 1/2 the price compared to mark ups at a sporting good store… Whole purpose is (a) safety, (b) Dry, (c) breathable design, (d) usually light weight since they are worn for all day use…

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