Bike Touring Special: Choosing a Bike

The first thing to know about bicycle touring, or riding for days at a time across a landscape, is that

adventure journal bike touring specialThe first thing to know about bicycle touring, or riding for days at a time across a landscape, is that you can do it on virtually any bike. Whatever claptrap contraption you have in the garage will probably work. Consider the guy I know who bought a Huffy in Japan and pedaled it through Kamchatka and then from Alaska to Mexico. I’m sure as hell not recommending that-the average Huffy is only designed to last the average homeless person six or so weeks of light pedaling-but the point is that if my friend can ride an absolute pile of crap bicycle for months at a time through wild and foreign lands then anyone can grab that old mountain bike or 10-speed and head for the sunset.

But let’s say you want something designed specifically for multi-day adventure. Something tough and reliable that will get you to the beyond and back (unlike my friend, whose bike eventually disintegrated somewhere south of Tijuana). Though they’ve long existed on the outskirts of the race-obsessed bike industry, there are plenty of bikes like this with robust frames designed to carry weight, low gearing for extended climbs, and an overall build made to perform over long distances and difficult terrain. They’re called touring bikes.

Touring Bikes
adventure journal bike touring special rivendell atlantisThe classic touring bike has a steel frame, superstrong wheels, drop bars, a triple chainring, a low bottom bracket for stability when loaded, long chainstays for heel/pannier clearance, plenty of space for wide tires, and gobs of eyelets for waterbottles, racks, and fenders. This is still the perfect bicycle for loaded touring on paved and smooth dirt surfaces. A few current bikes in this mold are the Co-Motion Americano, Bruce Gordon Rock N’ Road Tour, Rivendell Atlantis (above), and the Surly Long Haul Trucker. Those first three bikes, all legends in the touring world, are handmade in the U.S. and will cost $3,000 and up, while the Long Haul Trucker has become one of the most popular touring bikes by mimicking their design in a $1,300 made-in-Taiwan package.

Maybe you don’t want a traditional tourer, though. One of the best things about modern bicycle touring is how it’s grown to encompass wildly different styles of riding, from Jeep roads to singletrack to remote coastlines. The classic touring bike is a phenomenal all-arounder-tourer, commuter, randonnee rig, and perfectly acceptable as a beefy road bike and even a throwback off-road bike. But if you want something for singletrack, credit-card, or around-the-world touring, there are better-performing options. So before you buy that “touring” bike, consider what kind of riding you want to do. Here’s a rundown.

Dirt Roads
bikes_Fargo2_2013_2You can ride a touring bike on dirt roads and plenty of people do. You can do it with a cyclocross bike, too, which also makes a decent weekend touring bike-though inadequate low gearing and heel clearance for panniers can be an issue, and they won’t carry the weight as rock-solid stably as a touring bike due to their higher bottom bracket and steeper head and seat angles. If you want to follow those nowhere dirt roads to the horizon night after night you’ll be more comfortable on an efficient mountain bike or a dedicated dirt tourer like the Co-Motion Divide or Salsa Fargo (above). The Fargo is a hybrid touring/mountain bike designed for extended dirt-road tours like the 2,750-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, but I use one frequently for singletrack rides as well (keeps things interesting!). It’s a rigid, steel 29er with drop bars, a low bottom bracket for loaded stability, and more eyelets for racks, bottle cages, and fenders than a fleet of racing bikes. Big wheels are a great choice for dirt roads as they roll smoothly over bumps and chatter. Drop bars offer a variety of hand positions, which is invaluable on long, multi-day rides. Its achilles is that it’s a disc-brake-only bike, which limits its usefulness in back-of-beyond situations where the simplicity and field-repairability of rim brakes might be preferred.

For a lot of people, though, a mountain bike is the only way to go for dirt road touring. Front suspension is a glorious thing on long, rough rides. And if there’s lots of washboard (makes the cross symbol with hands) you can’t beat a full suspension. You may give up a whiff of efficiency, but if you prioritize comfort over speed and won’t ever be too far from a bike shop, you won’t regret it. Simple rigs with single- or no-pivot designs (Moots YBB) are good choices here.

Bikepacking bags are an excellent way to tour on a mountain bike, but I’ve used BOB Trailers with full suspension bikes plenty of times with no trouble. Old Man Mountain racks will also fit on virtually any bike (via brake bosses or stay clamps) and I’ve run them successfully on a Santa Cruz Blur for high-mountain riding. The hugely critical, listen-to-me-now-and-hear-me-later thing is to make sure your bike has low enough gearing. Forget a 2x drivetrain, you want lots of gears. When you’re pulling a loaded trailer over a mountain pass, or even if you’re riding relatively light, bikepacking-style, you want to spin your way up. Playing tough guy is a sure way to nuke yourself on a long tour. Your not riding to impress anyone or set speed records, you’re riding for distance and fun. Because if it’s not fun, what’s the point?

Singletrack/Bikepacking Bikes
Just like dirt-road bikes, you want something with low gears for singletrack touring, but it’s even more critical here. There’s a huge difference between pumping 25 and 40 pounds of bike up a mountain grade, a typical weight gain for bikepacking. It’s also a good idea to favor mechanical simplicity and durability over complicated, whiz-bang technology. Forget the superlight wheelset that can’t be fixed or trued in the field – when you’re days into the middle of nowhere you want bomber wheels that aren’t hard to fix. Ditto dropper posts, light tires, and anything that can’t be hurled into a boulder field a few times. Not that you’ll do that, hopefully, but you might be dragging it over downed trees, pounding it down rugged trails, and generally riding the snot out of it in remote places where mechanicals are a much bigger problem than on day rides.

As for brakes, if you’re staying in the developed world you’ll be happy with discs. I’ve used both hydraulics and mechanicals for bikepacking and there’s no denying the ferocious stopping power of hydraulics, but if I’m spec’ing a bike right now I’d go mechanical. You get 90 percent of the benefit and there’s less to go wrong.

It’s worth mentioning fat bikes here. They’ve added a new dimension to touring by opening coastlines, canyonlands, and rugged terrain the world over to touring cyclists looking for new adventures. With a bikepacking setup (frame, seat, and handlebar bags) and four-inch-wide tires you can ride for days in places that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. For beach riding (Alaska, Oregon, the Great Lakes, et al.) consider ditching the brakes, which will just get ground down by sand anyway, and go single-speed. There’s no end to the potential in canyon country, and people have been using fat bikes to great effect in the less-explored regions of Central and South America.

Developing World/International Bikes
Which brings us to bikes for the developing world. If you’re considering a tour in Latin America, Africa, or Asia here are a few simple criteria that will make your life better. First, 26-inch wheels are your only choice. Try walking into a shop in Guatemala or Tanzania with 29-inch wheels-they will laugh at your goofy wheels and send you on your way. Unless you’re in North America, Europe, or Australia/New Zealand, 26ers are the standard. Also, steel. Steel is durable. Steel can be bent, hammered, and welded. It’s what you want and there’s nothing more to say about it. Don’t even cast a sideways glance at anything carbon. Lastly, keep your drivetrain simple-triple ring, standard chain. No fancy business. Plenty of experienced expedition riders swear by Rohloff internally geared rear hubs-they last forever and always shift true-if you have the coin.

What other kind of bikes make great tourers?
Stump1055Besides, of course, touring bikes, there is another kind of bike that makes a great multi-day rig: old, steel mountain bikes. Look at the mountain bikes from the 1980s and early ’90s. They’re amazing feats of two-wheeled versatility, a sparkling vision of do-it-all bikes since abandoned by the mainstream bike industry. They have bombproof frames designed to last forever (just look at how many you see still running as commuter rigs), eyelets for racks and fenders, and plenty of tire clearance for knobbies, slicks, or whatever meat you want to run. They were made when mountain biking was new and all about adventure. Of course you could throw racks and panniers on them-they were ready for anything. That was the point. Somewhere along the line bike companies got away from this and decided racing should dictate the design of mountain bikes, even though the vast majority of their customers don’t race and making bikes for racing limits their usefulness and ensures many will gather dust in garages instead of living second or third lives as commuters, tourers, kid-haulers, etc.

So find an old mountain bike and load it up. You can spend a lot of money on a new Surly or Rivendell and get basically the same thing you’ll get with a 1987 Stumpjumper found at a garage sale for $50.

Final Thoughts
If you’re serious about touring and bicycle travel, take a good look at a coupling system like S&S that allows you to break your frame apart for travel. These have been proven by expeditioners around the globe. Many framebuilders can put them on your custom bike, companies like Co-Motion and Surly offer them stock, and they can even be retrofitted on steel and titanium frames (check out Rodriguez Bicycles for this). Now your bike can fit in a normal-sized suitcase.

In general, modern bikes make terrible touring bikes. Mountain bikes are overly complicated and lack durability and versatility in key areas, like wheels and drivetrains. Road bikes are too fragile to carry weight and their gearing is a joke. And don’t even try to put real fenders on them. Remember, on tour you ride on sunny days and rainy days. You may even learn to love the delicious coolness and immediacy of riding in the rain-if you’ve got fenders. If you don’t have fenders, riding in the rain sucks. It’s If you’re serious about traveling by bike, you want a touring bike.

It is true that Old Man Mountain and Tubus both make quality racks that can fit on virtually any bike, but modern road frames, and even racy cyclocross frames, can’t handle the increased weight. They’ll feel squishy, they’ll probably shimmy like a belly dancer on Red Bull, and they might just flat-out break. Which will spoil your tour in a hurry. Trailers are a better option for light bikes. The BOB is the standard, though the Burly Nomad is an excellent choice for paved riding-just make sure you’ve got low gears if you want to actually have fun. Remember, even Huffys have low gears.

Aaron Teasdale wrote AJ’s Fall Peaks: Whitefish, Montana and What Montana Mountains Give, both of which celebrate bike touring in his back yard. Photos courtesy Carousel Design Works, Rivendell, Salsa, MOMBAT.

For more from AJ’s special series on bike touring, visit this page.

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Showing 14 comments
  • Katherine

    Excellent writeup and serendipitous timing. I have been experiencing this strange urge to tour by bike. I don’t understand where I contracted this illness from (perhaps it’s an allergic reaction to watching so much road racing), but I fear there is no cure other than to sell my racy road bike, buy a Salsa Fargo and hit the Great Divide Trail (with practice, first, of course).

  • Rich Russet
    Rich Russet

    what bike is pictured here?

    • steve casimiro

      I’m guessing it’s a Jones, but I don’t know for sure. The shot is from Jeff at Carousel Design Works, who is notoriously difficult to reach — we’ll be talking about Carousel when the touring series turns to packing.

  • Marek Parajka
    Marek Parajka

    that’s right on the spot AJ.. I’ve never been so sure about my next ride

  • Christina Beckmann
    Christina Beckmann

    looks like montenegro

  • Kevin

    I will add a good word for the Specialized Tricross. The entry level bike, heavy with a triple. I have a 2009 version and have ridden it in Belize, Guatemala, Turkey, the Great Divide Trail, and sundry other nasty fun places. It is indestructible. Amongst a growing quiver of racing, road and mountain bikes, it is without question my favorite bike.

    • Chris

      How was the Tricross on the Great Divide and most importantly what size tires were you running? I have a 2008 Tricross Pro but I believe the clearance should be identical. I am wanting to use a 29×1.9 (700×48) If I take it on the divide. I have a 29er as well but I feel that the Tricross will be faster and it’s a simpler set up to have out in the wilderness assuming I can run a bigger tire. I have 33’s now which are great for cyclocross but I don’t feel would deal with the super long and loose gravel.

  • Kathleen Rock

    Makes me want to jump on my 3 speed and disappear for a few months!

  • Waltavista

    What bar end is on the Co-Motion? Salsa Woodchipper?

  • Shanny Hill

    I just posted a blog on the same topic and had linked to this great post of yours. Here is a link to mine.

    I think coupler systems are nice, but I do also believe simplicity is king, and durability is also extremely important. I couldn’t agree more that modern bikes dont do a great job for touring.. in any category.

  • Reply

    Stunning quest there. What happened after?

  • Benoit Crombez

    I’ve been touring for years in asia with 700C-35 not 26″….you find spares in most big cities in south east asia and even in china nowadays.
    As for Guatemala i cycled from mexico to panama with 700C-28….
    so i don’t think 26 inch is the only choice for touring in developing countries!
    After all, i’m a tourer,am i not?

  • Don

    In Asia and Central/South America, by and large 26″ is still the go to. You have EXCEPTIONS of course. Typically the more economically privileged, the more choice there is of finding 700c.

  • David Burns

    I am hoping for a steel tube frame bicycle, I like the second one from the top of this page. If some enterprising bicycle company would make such a bicycle I think it would sell. What is needed is good rims and tires,not everyone wants to ride off road. I have been away from cycling for a few years,but it’s not rocket science, the larger the circumference of a wheel the less rolling resistance you’ll have. As far as riding in other Countries, I can recall the 28 inch standard wheel size, that you use to see in the old films about England during WWII and the years after. Everyone you saw was riding bicycles and they had 28 inch wheels. I think that stepping up to 29 inch wheels is great, but some folks think it will make them look short, well you are as short or as tall as you think you are.That being said I do see how a 29 inch wheelset would not work for a small frame, so you keep the 700c wheels around for the smaller sized frames and add the 29 incher for the taller sized frames, that should keep everyone happy. You see while I myself am tall and I have seen frames that had to have the lugs that join the top and down tubes to the head tube modified to fit. Besides one of my childhood heroes was General Jimmy Doolittle he was not a tall man but to a plane crazy kid like I was, he stood head and shoulder above everyone else. So I hope that I have not offended anybody.

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