I always wanted to ride an expedition bike, not a standard touring bike.
If I’d envisaged spending my days on nice asphalt roads, I’d have got one of these, built for road touring’s balance of comfort, speed and luggage-carrying ability. Bikes like this do a lot of miles for a relatively modest amount of money.
But riding on mixed terrain far from the beaten track is a rather different ball game; even more so when it comes to remote expedition riding. The balance shifts away from mile-eating efficiency towards durability, versatility, comfort, and most of all reliability under the most demanding circumstances.
This blog series is an account of the efforts that went into putting together the strongest expedition touring bike possible. The geometry would be based on mountain-biking’s trademark laid-back manoeuvrable riding position. It would have ample ground clearance, a wide range of gears, be set up for carrying a big pile of kit, and be based on the simplest and most reliable mechanical principles.
Why these criteria? I knew from mountain-biking that shifting the rider’s weight over the back wheel would give more control over the resultantly lighter front end. Wider handlebars would increase the leverage and raising them up would push the weight back further.
I also knew from experience that a tucked road-riding position would, over long distances, give me a sore back, wrists and neck – plus the riding position would hardly be appropriate for taking in the natural surroundings.
Expedition bikes are something of a niche market. There are very few companies in the UK specialising in true expedition-spec bikes.
In the past, cyclists took commonly-available rigid, steel-framed mountain bikes and adapted them for long-distance riding. But the mountain-biking industry has now become huge and highly specialised. Suspension-corrected geometry renders 99% of mountain bike frames unsuitable for rigid forks. Aluminium is ubiquitous, rather than roadside-repairable steel. Manufacturers are even dropping bottle-cage mounts, V-brake bosses and other braze-ons that have made mountain-bike frames tour-friendly for decades.
This is by no means the end of the world — we just have to adapt. Disc brakes are certainly reliable enough for touring nowadays. You can find top quality racks to fit almost any frame, regardless of its fittings. In fact, it can be argued that clamping directly to the tubing is a stronger mounting solution than braze-ons anyway.
Frames currently in production and worth considering include the Surly Long Haul Trucker, Disc Trucker, Troll & ECR, Oxford Bike Works’ Expedition frame, Thorn’s Nomad, and Ghyllside Cycles’ 26″ touring frames.
I’ve published a much longer list of expedition-spec bikes here, many of which are available as a frame-only option.
Look for: A sturdy mountain-bike-influenced frame with cross-country geometry. Avoid flexible lightweight race frames. Steel is a better frame material choice than aluminium in the long term. Assorted braze-ons and V-brake bosses will make luggage fitting easier.
You’ve got your frame. Now you need to plug stuff into it. And the mantra ‘you get what you pay for’ has never been so appropriate as in the case of the headset.
This component may be one of the least exciting parts of any bicycle, but it takes an absolute beating. While it might sound like madness to pay over £100 for a couple of machined alloy cups and bearings*, you get what you pay for with a Chris King NoThreadset, which rules the roost in this category of components.
You could also go with a cheap loose-bearing model such as the FSA Pig, but consider that you might spend the same amount on getting it serviced before the 10-year Chris King guarantee runs out.
Look for: A quality sealed-bearing headset. Failing that, get a good quality loose-bearing model and stock up on spare bearings. Good seals are worth investing in in the long run.
Emergency Roadside Fitting Instructions: Lightly grease inside of frame’s head-tube. Insert top cup and line up carefully. Put slice of timber on top for protection, seize heavy object, brace, wallop mightily. Should pop in in one go. Tap a few more times to make sure. Repeat for bottom cup. Don’t get it wrong.
Headset installed — fork time. But the noose is tightening around the suspension market. I now run rigid forks, but in previous incarnations I looked for the utmost in on-the-road reliability and simplicity, and that meant a coil-sprung fork.
I also wanted V-brake bosses, for mounting a front rack if necessary; and finally ‘lock-out’ for extra efficiency on long road climbs.
All things considered, only two forks fitted the bill — Fox’s Vanilla RL, and Magura’s Odur. And since Fox hadn’t fitted V-brake bosses since 2005, I was left with only one choice. The Odur forks might be bizarrely named for those unfamiliar with Norse mythology (like me), but they don’t mess about. They’re simple and heavy-duty, precision-engineered as only the Germans can, highly rated, and maintenance-free. And, unfortunately, discontinued.
Older models that found favour with tourers included the Marzocchi MX Comp Coil, no longer in production but maybe available second-hand. I’ve met a few people touring on cheapo Suntour entry-level forks, some of whom had no problems, others who found that they seized up over time and no longer provide any cushioning.
Look for: Forks whose travel should match the frame. 85-130mm is an average range. Coil-sprung for remoter stints. V-brake bosses and lockout a bonus.
UPDATE: Magura discontinued the Odur in 2010. It now seems almost impossible to find suspension forks that fit the bill for expedition touring. Personally, I’ve switched now to rigid forks, relying on the grips and tyres of my bike to do the cushioning (as well as my elbow joints).