How To: Build The Perfect Expedition Bike (Part 1)

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, 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.

River crossing

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.

Progress downriver

I was happy to sacrifice distance for comfort and control, plus the important point that I wouldn’t look like a lycra-clad racer.

Frame

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.)

Expedition Bike Build: Kona Explosif Frame

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.)

Andy riding

Frames currently in production and worth considering include the Orange P7, On-One Inbred or 456, Rock Lobster 853, Salsa Fargo, Surly TrollCove 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.

Headset

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*.

Kona Explosif in the Sahara

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.

Front Suspension

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.

Ice forks

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.

Expedition Bike Build: Schwalbe and Magura Odur

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.

Onwards to Part 2 »

 

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41 Responses to “How To: Build The Perfect Expedition Bike (Part 1)”

  1. Andy

    Great article. Very relevant in my current predicament!

    Reply
  2. Andy

    I don’t think that the Rock Lobster has rack eyelets at the dropout.

    Reply
  3. Andy

    other steel frames (with eyelets):

    genesis altitude 00 / 10 / 20 / 30
    handsome dog talisman
    orange R8

    The inbred is better for people with longer legs than the 456.

    some others to consider
    (no rack eyelets though– fine for trailer only)
    Evil Sovereign
    Pipedream Cirus
    Charge Duster
    Cotic Soul

    Reply
    • Alan

      Kona Smoke offers a very flexible starting point, a hybrid with 700c wheels and rigid fork, ups the speed but loses the extreme off road capability as a result, I used mine originally as standard, then put cyclo cross tyres on which speeded it up and gave some grip for loose ground, tried drop bars for a while, but now use a straight bar with bar extensions, mine was a 2009 model in th UK, bought in 2010 at a discount price of £200, obviously a lot of budget parts, but ideal for a beginner who wants a bike that can develop with them

      Reply
      • Shaun

        The Kona Smoke used to be 26″ back in 2005/6/7 if you can find one of those. A quick look at eBay had a few shops selling off new old stock for around 190 — bargain.

        Reply
  4. Ethiopia>Kenya>Rwanda>Burundi>Tan... - The HUBB

    […] thing though — I have a good mountain bike that I can adapt. I like the way this guy approached it: How To Build The Perfect Expedition Bike (Part 1) | Ride Earth — Tom’s World Bicycle Travel Blo… I’d like to find out more about your trip ydv — do you have a record? If not, are you ok for me to […]

    Reply
  5. Bicycle Touring Resources from Ride Earth - GoBicycleTouring.info

    […] of the most popular resources on Ride Earth is the four-part series How to Build the Perfect Expedition Bike.  Tom deals with everything from brakes and bottom bracket to spokes and suspension.  The […]

    Reply
  6. NickG

    Awesome article. Going through exact same problem with steel frame mountain bikes. Does anyone know any options for Australia?? Or do I have to order from abroad? It’s not ideal ordering before trying it out. Thx.

    Reply
    • Tom

      I’m afraid I don’t know much about buying bikes in Australia — I’d get Googling…

      Reply
      • Mushypea

        Hey guys,

        You can pick up the Konas in Australia — Group Sportif are the distributors down in Melbourne. I’m using a 29er Big Kahuna Ally frame — what a beaut! I’ve never used a steel frame but they do make sense, especially if you need a weld repair done.

        mushypea

        Reply
  7. The most popular posts on adventure blogs

    […] How To: Build The Perfect Expedition Bike (Part 1) […]

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  8. Stefan

    Marin (Marin Muirwood) makes incredibly stable steel frames. I and several others have used them with 50kg+ loaded for several months.

    Reply
  9. The most popular posts on adventure blogs | Slow Quest

    […] How To: Build The Perfect Expedition Bike (Part 1) […]

    Reply
  10. James

    Thank you ever so much for a fantastic article. I have two friends touring South America at the moment on Surly long haul truckers, en-route to Alaska. They have advised that most people out there they’ve seen are using mountain bikes. I’m now looking to join them and wish to use my own mountain bike. This article has proved invaluable however I would dearly love some advice please on frame material: I currently have a 2009 Kona Cinder Cone which has an aluminium frame. i also have a housemate who has kindly offered to lend me his specialised rockhopper 2009 which again has an M4 aluminium frame.

    I would be looking to replace the headset and forks on whatever bike I use as well as several other components, however wanted advice on using aluminium for expedition biking and whether or not it can be done, or if as I suspect it is a complete no-no? It would save me money to be able to use either of the bikes above and if anyone knows if an aluminium frame can be used, which of the two above do you think might be most suitable? Finally, apologies for the mini-essay and any help gratefully received!!!!!!!! James

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hi James — aluminium is usually fine in the short term. The big advantage of steel is that you can have it welded if it fails in remote places. However more often than not a frame fails because of long-term wear and tear, so if you’re going for a few weeks or months, I personally wouldn’t worry too much. At some point you have to draw the line at what you can realistically prepare for!

      Reply
  11. James

    Cheers Tom! So the fondue banquet set and 36 piece luxury silver cutlery collection might also be a bit overprep too then? ;-) I am going to be joining my friends in Bolivia and then continuing onwards to alaska with them so should be >10000km hence the worrying about the frame, though before toooo long we should be out of central america and into the USA where I was hoping if god forbid my frame broke on me I could hopefully moreeasily pick up a kona explosif and swap the components/forks/racks etc onto it relatively painlessly.

    FYI I found this “how to build the perfect expedition bike” article here straight from google and didn’t realise you have a whole other website full of fantastic info too! Have been poring through it today like a man posessed! Thank you ever so much for putting this all online, what a great resource to someone like me just setting out! Are you on the road at the moment?

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hey James :)

      Glad you’re finding this stuff useful…

      I’ll be back on the road in April, in the US in fact.

      I wouldn’t worry about your frame for 10,000km if it’s relatively new and rugged and good quality, and you set your luggage up right. Aluminium fatigues over time and that’s the issue for long-term (i.e. permanent) touring. And in the US you should be able to get the frame replaced pretty easily if the worst happens. It’s worth mentioning also that you can usually find aluminium welders at airports if you’re really really stuck. Or use cable ties and Gaffa Tape! Where there’s a will there’s a way…

      Hope you have a great trip — I’m kind of envious that you’re going to Central America. Would love to ride there.

      Tom

      Reply
  12. Frank revelo

    Thorn sells their Ripio steel MTB frame with rigid steel fork as an option. I haven’t tried it, but it would probably be the sturdiest such frame around. I think front suspension is a bad idea for most people. Just get fat tires and don’t overinflate them. Tires are the best suspension. Personally, I’m not afraid to try impossible-to-repair gear like a Rohloff hub. Just don’t abuse it. My body is also impossible to repair. If I lose my eyesight, for example, journey over. So make sure I protect my eyes. Etc.

    The importance of being able to fix things on the road is over-rated. A lot of stuff on the road is junk. Do you really want to venture out into the middle-of-nowhere on cheapo Kenda tires? No. So if you’re tires wear out, you just order new good ones by mail-order and pay an arm and a leg for shipping. It’s actually cheaper doing things this way in the long run. “Only a rich man can afford cheap tools”, as the saying goes.

    Reply
  13. Nick, planner

    Running Paul’s centerpull on the front wheel and using right-hand to activate. Wondering about adding a Arai drum brake for 5 mile downhill jaunts, esp. where you find “truck” runouts at the bottom of the hill. Need early on advice since am slowly allocating the bucks in a savy manner.

    Reply
  14. Brian McGloin

    I recently changed a crappy suspension fork (matched to an otherwise nice Rocky Mountain MTB frame) to a Surly steel rigid model. They actually have several different models of steel rigid forks in two different lengths to accommodate a roughly 80mm or 100mm travel fork and for different riding from XC to weighted touring, disk and rim brakes.
    On One has some good forks also, as does Soma and and other brand that escapes me at the moment.
    The point is, should you ever give up on suspension, there are no shortage of high quality rigid steel forks available (for less than $100 USD!).
    And I love your blog and that you use the term “wallop,” and employ firewood when installing a headset.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Cheers Brian. I’ve got an On-One steel rigid fork on my singlespeed bike, which replaces a 100mm-travel fork. Kona also do the P2 cromo fork for 26″ and 700c wheel sizes.

      I put that headset in with the method described above — still going strong 6 years later! :)

      Reply
  15. Sean

    Great set of posts — helped answer a lot of my questions, I appreciate your efforts :) Could you put a guess on how much you spent putting this bike together? It does indeed resemble the dedicated touring bike you mentioned :)

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Cheers Sean! Much of the components in this original expedition bike were part of sponsorship arrangements and so were supplied free of charge. But a quick estimate of combined RRPs would be around the £2,000 mark. Hope that’s of use!

      Reply
  16. Chris

    Chris King does have a cult following, but much of that is the bling factor with “6,561 color variations” and offering the latest fashionable things like titanium. Although less flashy, the real workhorse headset is from the inventor of the threadless headset: Cane Creek (was Dia-Compe) with their “Aheadset” (U.S. Patent 5095770). Chris King headsets have had a well-documented flaw due to using a cheaper o-ring design in order to avoid paying Cane Creek to use their patent. The standard Cane Creek sets are solid at 1/3 the price and if you need the 110-year warranty of the Cane Creek premium, they’re still cheaper than Chris King. (Perhaps because they’re not selling random bling like Chris King-branded coffee and espresso tampers.)

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Whatever random colours and spin-offs they come up with, the fact that mine hasn’t needed maintenance in half a decade of bike touring speaks for itself!

      Reply
    • Gilbert Gaumerd

      Right on. This is exactly the reason why you’ll find on my bike Cane Creek 110 headset. After two years, it performs like on day one. Just perfect. However you will find on my bike a Chris King MTB bottom brackets with Royce Venus Titan front and rear hubs.

      Reply
      • Tom Allen

        My Chris King headset was second hand when I bought it 6 years ago, has been installed in 4 different frames, has covered 20,000km+ on tour and is currently on my mountain bike!

        (i.e. its reputation is due to more than just marketing)

        Reply
  17. igor

    Im new to bike building and im wondering if the 1.1/8″ headset fits right onto the Kona Explosif 2010? What other things should i be aware of when picking parts for a bike? Not gona like im being a copy cat of your bike atm.

    Reply
  18. Tony

    Always enjoy coming back to this website and looking through these excellent posts, makes me want to get out on the bike, even on those winter days! Thought it would be worth adding I have been using the xc32 tk forks on my 29er for 8–9 months, and think they are a great rugged fork for the price bracket they are in.

    Reply
  19. Rideon

    A lot of information here helped me to finish end of last year’s bike build project.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/biketourings/11589973985/

    Reply
  20. Fred

    Hey Tom, thanks for all the handy tips. I sort of had the same image of what an ideal expedition bike should look like. Steel is definitely the deal. But why is the On One Inbred crossed out on your list? I was considering one to build up as an expedition bike!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Sadly the evolving frame geometry pretty much rules it out. It’ll only work well with a 100mm+ travel suspension fork and disc brakes, plus only one bottle cage mount on recent models. The sloping top tube isn’t likely to help frame torsion with a rear rack & panniers.

      Reply
  21. Bluzman

    Curious..for built bikes what do you think of Koga-Miyata World Traveller or / Thorn Raven

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Great bikes… if you have to have the most unbreakable bicycle possible and you have loads of money to spend!

      Most tourers do not need them.

      Reply
  22. Haydn Keith

    Hi Tom
    , great article and website.

    I have an old specialized hard rock frame and forks 1998 ish that I’m building up slowly for a trip next year. It’s steel and the geometry seems perfect , it rides well even when fully loaded and I know Rob lylwall rode a rock hopper on his round the world trip . My question to you is do you think it’s suitable for an exped build and do you think it has any weaknesses I should be aware of?

    Thanks in advance

    Haydn

    Reply

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