Traveling on a bicycle is an amazing feeling and a different way to combine travel with the sport of cycling. Bicycle touring has special equipment needs starting from the most important item: the bike itself. If you want to get it right from the beginning, it’s important to know how to choose a touring bike that fits your needs best.
One of the goals here at The Adventure Junkies is to make your life easier when it comes to choosing outdoor gear. There are hundreds of different bicycle models available on the market and the internet is full of information about bikes that makes it really hard to know where to get started.
That’s why we’ve put together this guide. No gear junkie lingo or an hour long read. It’s written in plain English that is easy to read and to the point. In 5 minutes you will know what to look for when shopping around for your touring bike.
So let’s get started. Follow these 6 important steps to learn how to choose a touring bike.
1. YOUR BUDGET
As it happens with any type of gear, your budget will determine what you get. But, having a small budget doesn’t mean you can’t get a good bicycle for touring. It only means you’ll have to be wise with your money and decide which components you want to invest in and which you can go cheaper on (or even second hand).
In general, a reliable second hand bike can cost around $200 – $400, while the best touring bikes start around $2,000 for a brand new and fully equipped model.
2. DESTINATION YOU PLAN TO CYCLE
If you plan to cycle in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you can worry less about having the best bike because quality spare parts and replacements are readily available.
However, if you plan to venture to less developed countries, it’s going to be more difficult to find quality spare parts in case you might need them. So, you’ll have to plan accordingly.
Your best bet is going with components that are “as standard as possible”. In other words, use what can be found anywhere in the world. While it’s nice to use disk brakes or 700cc tires, good luck fixing or replacing them in remote areas. A break down could mean that you are stranded in one place for weeks on end waiting for parts to arrive.
As a general rule, it’s recommended to use 26″ wheels, V-brakes and a steel frame. I’ll go into more detail about this in the next step.
3. PAVED OR OFF ROAD?
If you plan to ride on pavement for most of your trip, a basic touring bike with skinny tires would be your best choice. Even a road bike could do the job if you’re not carrying a lot of weight.
On the other hand, if you plan to ride off road a lot, a mountain bike with front suspension will come in handy. Your wrists and butt will appreciate the extra cushioning on bumpy roads.
What if you plan to do a bit of both? Then you will need to make some sacrifices and get something that works well in both terrains. Hybrid tires and only front suspension might be the way to go in your case.
4. TRIP DURATION
For short tours almost any bike will do. However, for long distance tours, I’d recommend you invest in getting a bike that is built to last and is specifically designed for touring.
If you’re just starting out we recommend you to get something cheap (or use the bike you already have) and hit the road on a short trip, even a weekend will do. By doing this you will see what you like, dislike and what components you would like to upgrade. Don’t make the same mistake many people do by investing a lot upfront on a bicycle you don’t really need.
5. PLANNING TO TAKE PUBLIC TRANSPORT?
Many bicycle tourers will agree that one of the most stressful parts of a bike tour is taking your bike on a bus, train or plane. Sometimes you can plan ahead but other times you suddenly have to take a bus due to a breakdown or illness.
Whatever your plan is, there are certain bikes that will double your stress in these situations like a tandem bike or using a trolley.
Foldable bikes like Brompton are becoming more popular among bicycle tourers. They are strong, small and foldable. Ideal for a short to medium distance bike tours, especially when taking various flights and buses are involved.
6. GET A COMFORTABLE MODEL
Bicycle touring is different than conventional cycling. You will spend longer hours on the saddle so comfort is much more important than speed.
Bicycles that are specifically designed for touring have a different frame geometry, allowing the rider to sit in a more comfortable and up-right position.
Before you decide on one specific model, we strongly recommend you to try it out. Try to get the bike shop to let you take it for a ride or rent it for a weekend. If you return with sore knees or neck, something on the bike needs to be adjusted or changed.
This is when a bike shop experienced with touring is priceless. Just a small modification on the seat height or handlebar position can completely change how you feel on the bike.
IMPORTANT COMPONENTS OF A TOURING BIKE
Two things: size and tread. Go for 26″ tires if you plan to cycle out of USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, as it’s the wheel size you can find anywhere around the world. The tread will be determined by the terrain you plan to cycle. The more off road, the more tread you will need. Check out the article Top Tires for Bicycle Touring for more detailed information about specific models.
5. DRIVE CHAIN
More and more cyclists are using the new Rolhoff hub, a nearly maintenance-free and sealed gearing system. As everything is sealed, it’s great for cycling in dirty and dusty roads, but it costs an extra 1,000 bucks. Also, in the unlikely event of failure, you will need to send it back.
We recommend you stick with the traditional derailleur unless you plan to cycle in developed countries and are happy to make the investment.
If you are planning to cycle in developing countries, it’s recommended you stick to v-brakes as spare parts are easy to find. If you decide to use disk or hydraulic brakes, make sure you bring the spare parts with you.
You will spend long hours on your bicycle so having different options to place your hands on the handlebar can come in handy. Butterfly bars, drop-down bars and straight bars… are all a good option. It’s really a personal preference. Try a few and choose the ones you like the most.
If a rack breaks, you will have serious problems carrying your stuff to a place where it can be replaced. A good quality rack is an item that is worth the investment. Get a steel one, it’s the heavier option but it can be easily welded if it cracks.
If you plan to get a front rack as well, we recommend to get a high one so you can place gear over the front wheel. The panniers will also be higher from the ground so they will stay cleaner and make it easier to maneuver on unpaved roads.
9. WATER BOTTLE HOLDERS
While touring you will cycle long hours and sometimes water is not as available as you wish. So make sure you place some extra water bottle cages on your bike (minimum 3).