I decided I wanted to ride an expedition bike. Not a touring bike. If I’d envisaged spending my days on nice asphalt roads, I’d have got one of these bikes, built for road touring’s balance of comfort, speed and luggage-carrying ability. Bikes like this, with a Brooks* and a couple of panniers on them, do a lot of miles for a relatively modest amount of money.
But there’s a reason why mountain-bikes have fat tyres and suspension forks: Riding off-road 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 strength, reliability and comfort on the dirt.
So my efforts went into putting together the strongest bike possible, based on mountain-biking’s trademark laid-back manoeuvrable riding position. It would have suspension forks for comfort and traction, good ground clearance, a wide range of gears, and be able to carry a big pile of kit. Big miles were down at the bottom of the priority list.
Why these choices? 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 guessed that a tucked road-riding position would, over long distances, give me a sore back, wrists and neck, plus the position would hardly be appropriate for taking in the natural surroundings.
I was happy to sacrifice distance for comfort and control, plus the important point that I wouldn’t look like a lycra-clad racer.
Expedition bikes are something of a niche market. To my knowledge, aside from independent frame-builders, there’s only one company specialising in true expedition-spec bikes in the UK. (Coincidentally, their top-end expedition bicycle looks a bit like the one I built myself.)
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. Use hose clamps for extra bottle cages. (More on those points later.)
Frames currently in production and worth considering include the Orange P7, On-One Inbred or 456, Rock Lobster 853, Salsa Fargo, Rocky Mountain Blizzard, Cove Handjob and Kona Explosif. I used Kona’s Explosif frame in the end, and haven’t regretted accepting Kona’s support. I’ve written an in-depth review of it.
Bottom Line: Sturdy hardtail mountain-bike, suspension-compatible, with cross-country geometry. Steel a big deal in the long term. Assorted braze-ons and V-brake bosses a bonus, but neither necessary.
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 a Chris King headset*.
This component may be one of the least exciting parts of any bicycle, and it might sound like madness to pay £100 for a couple of machined alloy cups and bearings*. But you could also spend the same on replacing a £20 headset every two years before the 10-year Chris King guarantee ran out, and the King would still be running like new.
I haven’t so much as thought about mine since it was fitted. If there is a true fit-and-forget part, it’s got to be this.
If you don’t fancy spending a ton, you could always do what Andy did and buy an expensive second hand bike on eBay, take the Chris King headset off and sell the remaining parts separately at a profit. You could also look at similar designs from Hope* or FSA*, but only Chris King has earned cult status.
Bottom Line: Pay, fit, forget. Bling factor a bonus.
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 too. 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.
Bottom Line: Travel should match frame, 85-130mm OK. Coil-sprung for remoter stints. V-brake bosses and lockout a bonus.
Roadside Fitting Instructions: Wallop star-nut down steerer tube. Slide crown race on. Insert fork into frame (right way up). Add headset gubbins, spacers, stem, more spacers, top cap. Chop steerer with hacksaw if too long.
UPDATE: Magura discontinued the Odur in 2010. 2012 options worth looking at might include Rock Shox Recon Silver TK* and XC 32 TK*. These short-travel coil/V-brake forks look suitable on paper but I haven’t tested any of them — I’d be interested to hear opinions.
Disclaimer: I’m not the world’s expert on bike building! This starting-point series is an abbreviated attempt to share everything I’ve read, learnt, heard and experienced about bikes over the last 4 years of planning and conducting long bike trips. There will be disagreements, which I welcome in the comments.