When I started bicycle touring I wasn’t a bicycle person, which should be kept in mind when reading the following information.
I spent my first 16 years touring on a bicycle that I purchased while wandering aimlessly in London looking for a bicycle. I took the first thing I found that I could afford (the lesson to be learned is not to land in the first country you’re ever going to tour in, and think you’ll just be able to walk to a bicycle shop and find the perfect bicycle). That bicycle served me well for many years. As it aged, finding replacement parts became difficult. When it started to shimmy under load, after a lot of soul-searching and researching I replaced it with a Litespeed Blueridge.
We quested for a new bike for Marnie as well. Her first week-long tour in England was on her bicycle from high school. It’s the classic 10-speed that weighs about 1000 lbs—a Huffy or somesuch. We looked at the Trek 520, the Cannondale T800, and the Cannondale T2000 (same frame, better components). We’d decided on the Cannondale, but Cannondale was a pain in the neck. Marnie needed an extremely small frame which no local bike shops carried. We couldn’t order one without purchasing one first. Even spoke with the regional manager. So we ended up choosing the REI Randonnee.
There are many MANY choices, and many things to consider. Frame composition, fork composition, frame geometry, fit, the quality of the components, the gear ratio, the color (always important!), and of course, how much you’re willing to spend. All of this is irrelevant if you’ve already got a bicycle. And really, any bicycle can be made to work, as long as it’s in reasonable shape. But if you’re looking at a new bicycle, here are some things to think about.
First and most importantly is cost. You can expect to spend $1000-$1600 for a decent touring road bike, and there’s no upper limit. If you’re thinking about buying a new bicycle, you should know that going in. That said, I’ve met people touring on everything from a custom-fit titanium frame to bicycles purchased in a thrift store or rescued from their grandmother’s basement. The vast majority tour on hybrids of no particular consequence, and it works just fine for them.
There are three choices for the frame: aluminum, steel, and titanium. Carbon really isn’t a good choice—you’re going to abuse the bike more than carbon can take, and the price-to-value for carbon places carbon in that “no upper limit” category discussed earlier.
Steel is the classic material for a bicycle frame. It’s easy to work and repair, and it has a natural flex, which makes the ride a lot more comfortable. A steel frame can be welded almost anywhere, critical for world-class touring. But it’s not light.
Aluminum fixes that. It’s light. Really light. Too light. But it’s not that strong. So they add more aluminum to the frame composition. And it’s still light (but not that much lighter that modern steel alloys). But that makes the frame stiff. Stiffness translates to a less smooth ride, as the bicycle doesn’t absorb shock as well.
Titanium is the holy grail of frame material. It has the lightweight features of aluminum yet the flexibility of a steel frame, with all of the good stiffness and none of the bad. Indeed, titanium is the miracle metal for just about everything, and titanium ore is abundant in the earth’s crust. The only minus is that it’s extremely hard to extract from the raw ore, and extremely hard to work after that. If that was a cheap process, titanium would be used for everything.
Okay, so I wasn’t going to talk about carbon. But it does have its place—in the fork. A lot of touring bikes are now going to a carbon fork. It’s lightweight, and carbon soaks up a lot of the road vibration. The biggest minus is that carbon forks don’t have braze-ons for mounting a front rack. If you try to clamp a front rack onto carbon you risk cracking the fork or having the clamp rub against the fork, breaking down the carbon fibers so that it, well, cracks. As you might guess, that’s bad. There is a solution though—one company has produced a front rack that doesn’t actually touch the carbon – the Ultimate Lowrider.
So what exactly is the deal between all of these different bikes? Road, Race, Touring, Hybrid, Mountain. What’s the difference? Well, there are a number of them.
- Chain stays: One difference is the length of the chain stays. Most “touring” frames have longer chain stays, increasing the distance between the seat posts and the rear axle. This translates to the panniers riding slightly farther back, keeping the rear rack over the axle while not having the backs of your heels constantly hitting your panniers.
- Body position: “Touring” frames typically have the rider in a more upright position than a racing bicycle, which translates to more comfort over a long haul. Conversely, a mountain bike is an even more upright position. The disadvantage to more upright is more wind resistance. And wind is a BIG deal.
- Hand position: The mountain bike also has only one position for the hands on the handlebars. The road/touring bike handlebars permits a wider range of hand positions, permitting adjusting hand (and body) position as the day goes by, avoiding wrist and back strain.
- Wheel size: Mountain bikes have smaller wheels, and wider lower-pressure tires, which are more work, because they’re more friction on the road (rolling resistance). The associated 26″ wheels are more common in Asia.
- Tire size: Touring frames permit wider rims than race frames, which in turn permit wider tires. Most road bikes really aren’t meant for tires wider than about 28 mm, and most touring bikes are more like 35 -37 mm. The default mountain bike frame is wider than that.
- Gear Ratio: With the right gearing, you’ll not only go further, but also faster. The chain goes around two sprockets, the chain ring (by the pedals), and the rear cassette (on the back wheel). The gear ratio is the difference between the front and rear gear sizes. The gear ratio tells you how many times the rear bicycle wheel goes around for each time the pedals go around once. Low gears are used for accelerating or going uphill, and high gears are used for downhill and downwind runs. Most bicycles have either two (double) or three (triple) chain rings. There’s a maximum differential between the smaller chain ring on a double and the larger one, so a triple is necessary to get really low gears. And to get a really good touring ratio, you’re frequently looking at components meant for a mountain bike.
If you start looking at bicycles, you’ll notice that the same frame can be offered at widely different prices. This has to do with the quality of the individual components (brakes, gears, even seat post!). The higher quality the component, the lighter it’s going to be. While the higher-quality components are supposedly more durable, that lightness comes at a cost. More durable in the short run, higher quality components still need to be replaced more often, because they wear out faster. Everything that’s not the frame itself is a component, but let me focus on the drive train of the bicycle in order to make an example. Shimano is one of the primary component manufacturers, and they produce most everything at varying level of quality. At a simplified level, that would be Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra, and Dura-Ace. Most name-brand bicycles are a combination of Tiagra and 105. The VERY high end bicycles are Dura-Ace. I’ve found that somewhere between 105 and Ultegra are sweet spots for me of cost vs. durability.
My current bicycle is almost all Ultegra. Regardless of where you pick on that scale, Shimano makes good stuff, and any of those components are more than likely to work just fine. It’s all a matter of how much you’re willing to pay for (literally) ounces of weight.