Arguably the biggest decision you will make prior to setting off. You are only as good as your bike. It will be your constant companion. You will be wholly dependent on it. It will have to carry you across continents in all weather, on all terrain and all kinds of roads. We are all looking for good value but this isn't an area where you will want to skimp too much. A cheap bike will get you so far but will fall apart sooner or later. It is sod's law that it will do so in the middle of a desert a million miles from anyone or anything. A good quality touring bike with a strong frame will handle whatever you throw at it and could last you forever. Sure parts will need replacing along the way. No bike is immune from wear and tear but the frame will be able to withstand anything and handle well under a heavy load. A good quality touring bike will cost at least $900 brand new but there are many different considerations to take into account when choosing the ideal bike. First I will wax lyrical about my own bike. Then go through the components of what is required for a good touring bike before reviewing a variety of the popular models/brands out there.
My Bike: Ridgeback World Panorama 2013
The Ridgeback World Panorama. What my bike used to look like when I bought it.
Let's start with my bike. The best £1,250 I ever spent. Approaching 100,000km and it has never let me down. We've developed quite a close relationship over the years. We've been to some incredible places. We've had some ups and downs but what relationship hasn't. It rides as well today as all those years ago when we first met. I refrain from hanging my dirty clothing off it when camping as it deserves better after a long day of lugging me around. I apologise to it when I choose to go down a dirt road that turns into a mud road and it gets covered in shit. On the rare occasion I fall off my bike I check she is OK and when satisfied I check I'm OK too. If some half-wit were to offer me £10k for my bike and would show them on their way with a look of wild indignation. I would be devastated if I were to lose it somehow. Not because of the expense. Not because of the massive inconvenience it would cause. I would feel like I had lost a friend. I feel like a complete loser writing this but it's all true.
So why do I love my bike? It's British like me. The frame is a thing of beauty. Reynolds 725 steel. Top of the range. Relatively lightweight and weldable should it snap in a far flung land, which it won't. I've come to the conclusion it is unbreakable as I have cycled it on some of the world's worst roads and it has never batted an eyelid. I don't even mind putting the mockers on myself as I write this. It won't break. The wheels come with 36 spokes which is essential when carrying a heavy load. I've never broken a spoke. Other cycle tourers look at me with amazement when I tell them this. It's a good job as I don't know how to fix a spoke. I do fear the mockers as I write this. My back wheel rim cracked after 60,000km.
The Panorama has large drop handlebars with two sets of brakes: one on top, one on the drops. I love this. I can sit upright and still have complete control of my brakes. This is great for comfort and for posture. I couldn't imagine doing a long tour on just drop brakes. Plus I feel I get better pull on the brakes upright than I do when I lean down and use the drop brakes. It only affords me a problem when I switch to my road bike when I'm back home. I find myself sat upright, needing to brake, forgetting I don't have upright brakes and squeezing thin air. The gear shifters are integrated into the drop brake levers which makes changing gears very smooth.
The gears are 3×9-speed drivetrain which gives a good range. I have got a bike mechanic to adjust the range a little lower to give myself an easier bottom gear for those long climbs.
The rear derailleur is Shimano Deore XT and the front derailleur Shimano Sora. The rear derailleur broke in Ecuador which caused me a bit of a headache but this was more down to wear and tear than anything else as it came after 50,000 km of use.
The pedals are two-sided: flat on the one side and with the option for SPD shoes on the other. Perfect for cycle touring. I'm clipped in on tarmac and foot loose on dirt roads and city cycling.
The only negatives I would say about the bike is the mudguards were a little flimsy and didn't last too long. Also the saddle is not the greatest. I suffered from saddle sores after a lot of mileage. Possible worth switching to a Brooks or getting padding to place on top of the saddle.
Here I'll go through what you are looking for from each bicycle component.
The most important part of the bicycle. The choice for a touring bike is generally between aluminum and steel. Unless you are travelling uber light I would go with steel everytime. It is cheaper but most importantly less likely to break. Even if it does break finding someone to weld it back together for you would not be too difficult no matter where you are in the world. Finding someone who can weld aluminum can be difficult. Steel is heavier but worth the extra weight. I find that a bike with a steel frame handles better under a heavy load.
First thing to consider is wheel size. 26" or 700C. Both have their benefits. The main thing to consider is where you are planning to cycle. 26" wheels (and therefore 26" tires and inner tubes) are more of a world standard and readily available in remote parts of the world. The smaller wheel size effectively means a lower bottom gear for those long climbs. Also the smaller size means smaller spokes which generally makes for a stronger wheel. 700C wheels are considered to be faster and slicker and roll over uneven surfaces better. I have always gone for 700C wheels. I like the feel of them better. I have always started a tour with high quality components thereby not running into any issues and I've had no problems finding replacement parts in big towns. I also always carry a spare inner tube or two in remote locations.
Along with your frame it is the wheels that are bearing the brunt of a heavy load. Wheel rims are definitely not an area where you should be settling for second best. A broken wheel rim will have you grinding to a halt and pushing to the next town to see what you can find. I was lucky that the only place this has ever happened to me was in Japan and I was able to find a quality replacement in the next town. Most wheel rims are made out of aluminum. If the aluminum rim isn’t thick enough the spokes start pulling through the rim. The best touring rims on the market are the Ryde Andra 30 and are available for 26" wheels and 700C wheels.
Your wheel should have at least 36 spokes. The more the merrier as they will decrease the load across the hub, spokes and rims. If you are carrying a really heavy load or a tandem then it is best to go with at least 40 spokes.
At the lowest level there are the Shimano Deore or LX hubs. They are relatively cheap but can cause problems over time. You will have to repack the bearings every year to make sure everything is tight and not getting gritted up. Better are the sealed cartridge hubs like Phil Wood, White Industries, and DT Swiss. Rather than having the bearings running loose inside the hub itself, they are inside disposable cartridges, all sealed up tight. When you change the bearings, you just replace the whole cartridge. Although finding a replacement cartridge would be difficult in a remote part of the world. If cycling in remote places it is a good idea to carry a replacement. I ride a Dynamo Hub. They are fast becoming the most popular kind of hub as you can charge your USB devices as you cycle. My Shimano DX hub has caused me no problems after 30,000km of cycling. I would always go with a quick release hub.
Simón Bolívar liberated South America leading an army across the Andes on horseback. By the end of his life he had ridden over 75,000 miles up and down the Andes. He was known as 'Iron Ass' for his ability to tough it out in the saddle day in day out. I know how he feels. I expect modern day bike saddles are more comfortable than 19th century horse saddles but probably not by much. There's no such thing as a comfortable bike saddle. Our bottoms are just not designed to sit on something so small for 6/7 hours per day. Some are better than others though. The Brooks saddle has by far the best reputation in the market. They are made from leather which is definitely the best bet when it comes to a touring bike saddle. There are many different varieties but they are all waterproof, durable, maintenance free and relatively comfortable. Saddle sores are just a part of life for a cycle tourist especially if you are going at it day after day but you can minimise the suffering with a Brooks saddle. On the downside they often require a lengthy break in period and are quite expensive with the cheapest coming in at least $100. Money well spent though if you ask me.
Pannier racks are typically made from steel, aluminum or titanium. Aluminum is generally cheapest, and it’s perfectly adequate. Steel is the strongest, though it can rust over time – unless you opt for stainless steel. Titanium is lightweight and it doesn’t corrode – but it’s more expensive. Personally I would go with steel every time. I have ridden both aluminum and steel. My aluminum front rack snapped in Mongolia due to the rough roads. Miles from anywhere I had to remove a pannier and ride with a lopsided bike. Then the other side snapped in China and I had to set up everything on the back wheel. My steel rear pannier rack is still going strong after 90,000km. Definitely worth the extra weight.
Advantages of disc brakes are they perform better in adverse conditions such as rain and mud. They offer greater stopping power, which can be helpful on long descents. The pads last a long time. They don't wear out your wheel rims. On the downside they put more pressure on spokes. Stronger forks are required since stress is put on one side. They complicate rack attachment. They are less standard worldwide and difficult to fix should you have an issue. You need to dish both wheels. This makes for a weaker rear wheel. There are two types of disc brake: hydraulic and mechanical. Mechanical disc brakes use a cable pull system whereas hydraulic systems use fluid to transfer the force from lever to caliper. Hydraulic brakes are much better performers. You get much more feel at the lever and have far more control over how much braking force you want to apply. They are a little more expensive than mechanical brakes but will give you the full benefit of having disc brakes in the first place.
Rim brakes are simpler and place less stress on your spokes. They are standard all over the world and easy to replace. It is easy to recognise when they need replacing. They let you know when your rim needs truing. They are cheaper than disc brakes. On the downside they place wear and tear on your wheel rims. Don't perform so well in the wet and mud. They can also heat up your rims on long descents increasing the risk of tire blowout.
In the end it all comes down to personal preference. I have always opted for Rim brakes as when properly fitted they work fine and they are easy to replace in remote locations. They are easier to understand which suits me just fine.
Choose a sprocket cassette with a large lower sprocket. 32 teeth at the minimum, 34 or 36 if possible. You can never have a lower enough gear on those long climbs. You don't necessarily need lots of gears. You need a wide range. A couple of cruising gears, a high gear for tailwinds, and one very low gear for climbing. SRAM and Shimano rule the market and tend to be interchangeable. I have no preference. I have tried both and they have performed well. Be warned that both will wear over time. I find roughly every 10,000km. You can tell if your chain/cassette is worn and needs replacing. You will need a ruler. The easiest way to measure for chain wear is to measure the length of 12 links. These should measure 12 inches. Place the 0 mark at the centre of one the pins. Then count 12 complete links.If the pin is less than 1/16th of an inch (1.6mm) past the mark then the chain is fine. If it is between 1/16th of an inch and 1/8th (3.2mm) of an inch then it needs replacing. Any more than 1/8th on an inch and you may need to replace the chain and rear cogs.
You can remove the need for derailleurs altogether with a Rohloff Speedhub. It’s a rear wheel that automatically changes gears without the use of the derailleur system. Costs about a grand. Therefore most of us need derailleurs. Shimano offer the best range. The most important thing is they fit your chain/cassette set up. My Shimano Deore derailleurs have always worked fine for me.
Schwalbe Marathons are the best and few would disagree. I find they cope well in all conditions. Incredibly puncture proof. They are nippy and responsive and wonderfully durable giving me peace of mind in remote locations. Expensive but worth it in my opinion. There are number of different varieties of Marathon tires. They are all excellent. I go with the marathon Plus and they have never let me down.
With all that in mind here are a review of a few of the different touring bikes available to fit your cycle touring needs. There are hundreds of different models/brands. I will simply outline a range of the more popular kinds I have come across other cyclists riding as I cycle around the world. Always test ride a bike before you purchase. Any decent bike shop will allow you go for an extended spin before you commit to buying. Always test ride a bike fully loaded if you can. Most good touring bikes just don't feel right unless you are carrying a heavy load.
Surly Long Haul Trucker
I have seen more people riding Surly touring bikes than any other manufacturer. There are many different models but the Long Haul Trucker seems to be the most popular. Steel tubing make it excellent for carrying a heavy load. Affordable. Reliable. Good on rough roads and will accommodate wider tires for gravel or off-road travel. 26" tires. There are Disc and V Brake versions. The general consensus is you can't go wrong with a Surly.
Fuji Touring Bike
Fuji Touring bikes are an excellent entry level touring bike and the most affordable quality touring bike on the market. The frame of the Fuji Touring is built out of Cro-Moly steel. The fork is also made of steel. The rims are made out of double walled aluminum and the spokes are stainless steel. 700C tires. Shimano Deore hubs. The bike comes with aluminum racks which I would recommend changing to steel. Known for being reliable and comfortable. All in all an ideal bike for those on a budget.
The Kona Sutra touring bikes have quickly earned a reputation as being one of the best touring bikes on the market. A touch on the heavy side but they are reliable and durable which are two words all cycle tourers love. More suited for mountain biking than road touring. Drop handlebars, disc brakes and hydraulic shift levers. It is certainly is a stylish bike and the ideal choice if you spend the majority of your time on those bumpy back roads.
Specialized AWOL touring bikes are excellent for those cycle tourers, like myself, who like to mix it up between paved roads and dirt. The Cro-mo frame is plenty stiff with enough compliance for all day comfort. Handles well on all terrain. The bike is bombproof but relatively heavy making it a struggle on those long road climbs but. Modern geometry and lovely design.
The Trek 520 has been around since the 1970's. It is Trek's longest running model. Must be good then? Steel frame of course but the forks are made of aluminum. Aluminum forks can make for a more comfortable ride as you don't feel the bumps as much as on a steel bike but the offset in reliability is not worth it in my opinion. It has the classic outstretched touring geometry that has stood the test of time. The wheel set on the Trek 520 is durable and able to take a heavy load even on mild trails, with Bontrager Race Lite Hard-Case 700x32c tires that are wide enough to add cushion yet able to keep good speed. The stock gear ratio of 48/36/26 is a little high if you are using the bike to carry heavier loads on longer trips with mountains. Style and comfort yes but for durability I would look elsewhere.
The Cinelli HoBootleg touring bike makes for a fine blend of cyclocross and touring. The frame and fork are made by triple butted Columbus Cromor steel with a special protective paint treatment inside and outside the tubes for a total protection against corrosion and extreme reliability. Superb for those who like to carry the kitchen sink. The rear alone can carry 40kg comfortably. As a result it's a heavy bike weighing over 30 lb which is a bit of a dealbreaker for me. Brake and gear cables are above the top tube to protect the cables from mud and dirt always allowing optimum operation of front and rear derailleurs. It has a spoke holder with spare spokes but that just suggests to me that the spokes are liable to break. Excellent low gear ratio to get you up those climbs without spending all day out of the saddle. Cantilever brakes are a bit old school.
The Masi Giramondo uses a Masi double butted tig welded chromoly disc frame. It will give you a little bit of fatigue relief because of the flex points that it has, which can be nice if you’re making frequent transitions from road to gravel. A comfortable ride when it comes to braking and gear shifting. Excellent value at under $1,500. It's great for people new to cycle touring. Disc brakes. Apparently the saddle is one you'll soon want to change. Handling is on the heavy side.
The Ridgeback World Panorama. Yes I know, I am biased but it is a joy to ride and has never let me down so how can I suggest anything else. Seriously though, the ideal bike is different for each individual and also depends on where and how you like to cycle. Shop around. Try out a few different bike and set-ups before you take the plunge. If there's any touring bike you feel I really must include in this list then please drop me a line and I will add it.