How To: Build The Perfect Expedition Bike (Part 4)

(If you just got here, you might want to start at Part 1.)

If you’ve been following this series, you’ll now have a strong, capable expedition bike, but nowhere to put your tent, camera, food, clothes, or anything else you might need on a long cycle tour/bikepacking trip.

There’s an idea that you need to have a touring bike with loads of brazed-on mounting points for attaching racks and things in order to carry your stuff. This is true to some extent. But there are other options.

There’s also an idea that you need to have two panniers at the front and two at the back before you’re a cycle tourist. Again, there are other options.

If I was heading off-road to explore a region in depth, I’d take nothing but an Extrawheel Voyager with its two roomy panniers for my camping kit, clothes, tools and food, and keep my daily items – camera, wallet, compass, diary, Buff, knife – in a waterproof bar-bag like the Ortlieb Ultimate 5.

My ride would tackle off-road like a mountain bike, with a bit more effort on the climbs; I’d have easy access to my important stuff, and have everything I needed for overnight behind me; I’d suffer few or none of the mechanical problems related to carrying all my kit on the frame; and I’d be able to detach it all in a few seconds in order to spend a day unladen on the trails. This was my exact setup for last year’s short off-road trip into the Georgian mountains, and it worked a treat. I enjoy the physical act of riding off-road; it’s where my interest in cycling originated.


But for longer trips, such as last year’s Turkey to Iran via Djibouti trip, or my first England to Armenia trip, I needed a few more things. At times I was carrying 10 litres of water and 3 days’ worth of food (read 6 days for the average person!). I had lots of extra clothes and a big sleeping bag in the winter, and in general I wanted to have the ability to take more if I needed to.

So I also fitted a rear rack. This gives a bike the ability to have two panniers mounted and an almost-unlimited amount of stuff strapped to the top with bungee cords – guitars, woks, wheels, that kind of thing. My frame, Kona’s Explosif, has no rack-mounts on the seatstays, like many modern non-touring-specific frames. So I’d chosen the expensive but very highly rated steel Tubus Logo rear rack. Tubus not only make a mounting kit for seatstays, but also for dropouts that don’t have any mountings. This theoretically means that the rack can be mounted on any hardtail frame, except for some very small frames where the low seat-stay angle might cause issues.

Why not a front rack? On a normal bike, you steer with the front wheel. Having several kilogrammes attached to each side of this wheel affects the dynamics dramatically. It’s maybe not how you’d expect – a fully loaded bike is much more stable than an unloaded one because of the lower centre of gravity – it’s the physical act of turning the handlebars that’s affected. A twitch requires much more effort and has much more momentum when you’ve got front panniers attached, so it’s consequently more difficult to make the kind of fine adjustments you’d want to make on uneven terrain. You end up ploughing along rather than picking your line.

There are other considerations – you can’t see where your wheel interfaces with the ground, there are clearance issues with lowrider racks, suspension won’t work as it’s designed to, and stories abound of front rack breakages. Having said all that, if I did need the extra capacity, I’d go for something like the Old Man Mountain Sherpa, which allows panniers to be mounted quite a bit higher on suspension forks. It attaches to the axle and the V-brake mounts.

My bike's rear end in the Sudanese desert


I’ve already mentioned the Extrawheel Voyager trailer. For a long time I used the original Extrawheel – now referred to as the Classic and no longer in production – and found it to be a fantastic piece of innovation on many fronts and capable of carrying a lot of stuff in its big nets, but lacking in the long-term durability and maintenance department due to it’s rather unorthodox construction. If the Classic was the only choice, I’d be hesitant to recommend it for long trips.

But Extrawheel gave me a prototype Voyager back in 2007, and from my feedback they made numerous improvements which go a long way to remedying the previous model’s shortcomings. It’s now so simple – little more than a piece of tubular steel, a wheel and a pair of panniers – almost like an external rear rack. It’s the lightest trailer on the market and you get a spare wheel into the bargain.

If you’ve looked into using a trailer, you’ve probably heard of the BOB. It’s by far the most well-known single-wheel trailer. My friend Mark used the suspension-equipped version in Europe, and Fearghal and Simon both towed a standard BOB Yak when they arrived at my place last Christmas.

Why not the BOB, then? Aside from the whopping price, I can’t speak from any more experience than trying out the aforementioned riders’ bikes, but I noticed immediately the BOB has a far greater effect on the handling. You need an extra set of spares for the tiny wheel, and there are durability issues with the fork bearings. You also have to keep everything in one huge bag, there’s far more weight placed on the bike’s rear axle, and the trailer itself is a great target for flying children.

Fearghal told me that the issues they’d had with their BOBs were concerning enough to cause them to change their planned off-road route across Mongolia and blast through inland China instead, which was a great shame. Like the original Extrawheel, it seems that the BOB is fine for shorter trips, less appropriate over tens of thousands of kilometres.

Extrawheel in the Sahara

I’ve reviewed the Extrawheel Voyager in full here. There are other options, of course – Monoporter, Burley Nomad, or the DIY option spring to mind.

Further Reading

That’s it for my series on how to build (my) perfect expedition bike. My ride has evolved since this series was originally written, and if you’d like to see detailed photos and component lists for my current expedition bike, you can do so on this page.

When I began all of this cycle touring stuff, by the way, I knew absolutely nothing about bikes. You don’t have to be a touring veteran or a bike mechanic to do some research and get your hands dirty building your own. In that way, I learned enough to eventually write a whole book about how to choose an expedition touring bike.

The following interesting (and possibly related) pages are worth a look:

Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions

Choosing a touring bike for the ride of a lifetime?

Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions will bring you up to bang speed on what matters (and what doesn't matter) when you're choosing a bike for a truly epic trip.

Click here to find out more →

5 Responses to “How To: Build The Perfect Expedition Bike (Part 4)”

  1. Sean

    Hi again Tom! Another quick question – is there any truth in the fact that rear disc brakes can interfere with panniers/racks? If so, how can I avoid this happening? Thanks again :)

    • Tom Allen

      Hey Sean. It completely depends on the frame and the rack involved. I had to use spacers to mount a rack to my Explosif with a disc brake attached. On the other hand, here’s a pic of the Sutra’s dropout which is specially designed to avoid the issue:

      Kona Sutra rear dropout

      Best thing to do is look at racks like the Tubus Logo which are designed for mountain-bikes and to work around issues like this. Hope that helps!

  2. Ian Mossman

    Hi Tom, I see that in some photos you appear to have what looks like a bulb horn on your handlebar. Have you needed to use it? Do you recommend fitting one? Thanks, Ian.


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