This article is part of a series about the cycle touring equipment provided by the Janapar Grant, which is now open for applications. The deadline for submissions is April 15th – don’t miss it! Info on eligibility and how to apply can be found here.
Questions about touring bikes are by far and away the most frequently asked on this blog. And a significant proportion of these questions are from people planning epic tours across multiple continents, or even cycling round the world.
So I recently set out to design and build the ultimate touring bike for a round-the-world expedition.
What better way to make my personal advice on the subject as tangible as possible?
If anyone now asks me what bike I’d recommend for a huge cycling journey, I will be able to point to the bike I designed and built and say: “Here’s one I made earlier. Check it out!”
The resulting bike – of which two or three per month are now being built to order by Richard at Oxford Bike Works – looks something like this:
This article describes the complete design and build process of the bike.
While the details of such a bike are always going to reflect personal preference to a certain extent, there’s a surprising amount of agreement on what constitutes good design decisions for a bike serving this purpose.
(A quick look through the details of the most popular bikes in this epic list of expedition tourers will demonstrate this.)
My remit was to find the closest possible approximation of ‘ultimate’, distilling the design processes behind these bikes into a single machine. There is always going to be a certain amount of personal taste involved, and there will always be people who want to argue about things like whether V-brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and there are now growing numbers of these bikes circling the planet. My favourite story-in-progress is that of Renée Rowland, who has (at the time of writing) crossed a continent and a half on one and is now somewhere in deepest Iran.
This was actually the second time I’d built a bike for a round-the-world trip.
I’d made a few mistakes the first time round, way back in 2007, when I put together a bike for my own round-the-world attempt. Sure, I knew how to use the tools and put the thing together. But coming from a mountain-biking background and with no touring experience, I didn’t understand the subtle needs of the long-distance touring cyclist.
(This is something I’ve also found to be true of many sales assistants in non-specialist bike shops).
This time was very different. I had almost a decade of adventure cycle touring experience to go on, with all the daily maintenance, tweaking, repairing and rebuilding that entails.
During that time, I’d also worked in ‘proper’ bike workshops, restoring bikes of all types and ages, coming across and fixing pretty much every kind of bicycle-related mechanical problem there is.
In the 9 years I’ve been running this blog, I’ve also become acquainted with dozens of other world bicycle travellers who’ve shared with me their own experiences on the subject of designing and building a bicycle for a truly expedition-level cycle tour.
And I’d pored over the design concepts and specifications of dozens of similar bikes built by specialist manufacturers the world over.
In other words, I’d done my research.
(That’s fine with me – I’ve always been of a utilitarian mindset.)
Design Priorities For A World Touring Bike
If you come from another discipline of cycling – road racing or mountain biking, say, or even old-school leisure touring – some of the choices we made while designing it may seem unusual.
But from the perspective of world travel, modern notions of what’s good and bad can seem a little odd.
That’s partly because a few months of cycle touring will eradicate any interest in shiny components and new-fangled technologies.
What matters in a world touring bike (and what doesn’t) has been proven by time and miles, not marketing and innovation.
And that’s a sentiment I hear time and time again from countless other bicycle travellers.
The priorities for a world touring bike boil down to:
- comfort during long days in the saddle in all conditions,
- strength overall and especially in the bike’s luggage-carrying capabilities,
- versatility in the bike’s ability to handle the majority of what the world is likely to throw at it,
- durability in the bike’s core structure and in the components that experience wear,
- compatibility in the parts that’ll inevitably need replacement over time and miles, and
- simplicity in the machine as a whole, as its use and maintenance becomes part of your daily routine.
(Note that newness, shininess, costliness, lightness, beauty, and so-called ‘performance’ do not feature in this list.)
A world touring bike succeeds or fails based on these criteria.
And the best way to ensure success is to stick to tried and tested solutions and concepts – those that have been tried and tested in the real world on real long-haul bicycle journeys.
On The Superficial Ordinariness Of A World Touring Bike
An expedition touring bicycle built on tried and tested principles and designed to do pretty much everything is, by definition, likely to appear pretty ordinary.
Such a bike has only one specialisation, and that is being a generalist.
If you spend time around high-performance competition bikes with price tags in the thousands, the superficial ordinariness of an expedition touring bike can take a bit of getting used to.
The magic, however, is in the details – the details of the parts used and of the way they’re put together.
These details will be visible if you’ve spent any time travelling the world on a bicycle. Everyone else will just see a pretty normal-looking bike.
So if you’re looking for style over substance, speed over strength, innovation over reliability, or the impossibility of a zero-maintenance world touring bike, then I am afraid this article will not help you.
If, on the other hand, you’re getting a nice firm grasp of what really matters on a world-ranging cycle tour, read on…
￼Framesets For Expedition Cycle Touring
As a starting point for the expedition bike, I chose the Oxford Bike Works 26 inch wheel expedition touring frameset (which ultimately led to me working with its designer and manufacturer on the complete build).
This purpose-designed 26-inch-wheel touring frame reminded me of those reliable old-school steel mountain bikes I used to ride.
As such, it could be described as a ‘classic’ expedition touring frame design.
Richard’s frameset is built from Reynolds 525 chrome-molybdenum steel alloy tubing. There are lots of appropriate tubing lines out there, none better or worse than another in the hands of a good frame builder. 525 is one of them, prioritising strength rather than lightness for long-term robustness and resilience to denting (both when riding and when transporting the bike).
You’ll hear many framebuilders recommending 525 for heavy-duty touring bikes instead of other ‘better’ – i.e. more expensive – tubing lines.
In terms of frame features and compatibility with the racks I was planning on fitting, Oxford Bike Works’ frame ticked all the boxes – and I’d test-ridden a bike built on the same frameset the previous year, so I knew that it’d be a good fit for me and that I got on well with its relaxed geometry and reassuring handling characteristics.
- Read more about frame material choice for cycle touring here.
- You can order the frame direct from Oxford Bike Works, if you ask nicely.
Headsets For Expedition Cycle Touring
There was little question about fitting a Chris King 1 1/8” NoThreadSet threadless headset (for the prototype in black & silver; for the final spec in plain black).
Of all the high-grade headsets available, the Chris King has the longest and strongest track record of the lot.
In fact, this small Oregon-based machine shop was originally founded when Chris, then a young engineer, couldn’t find a headset with strong enough bearings for touring. He responded by designing and building pretty much the most durable bearings on Earth, in the process reinventing how headsets worked, and setting a standard of engineering precision that every other serious headset maker has attempted to imitate since.
The standard-issue NoThreadSet has been made in Oregon and sold worldwide for over 20 years, each unit coming with a 10-year guarantee, practically none of which ever get returned. That’s why the product has a cult following among mountain bikers (another category of riders who routinely trash their bikes). And it’s why it was the ideal headset for this particular job.
Rather than buy a new one for the prototype – they aren’t cheap – I did what Chris King envisions all his customers doing: removing the headset from my old bike and installing it on the new one. So my own expedition bike actually features a headset that’s been halfway round the world already. It was second-hand when I bought it in 2007, and it is still rotating as smoothly today as the day it left the factory in Portland – which rather speaks for itself when it comes to why I’ve chosen it.
There’s always the buy-cheap-and-replace-often approach, of course. But I decided this was false economy. I’ll spend more on replacement bearings and getting them fitted over a 10-year period than the Chris King unit would cost in the first place.
- Read BikeRadar’s review of the Chris King NoThreadSet
- Order the Chris King NoThreadSet from Planet X, Chain Reaction Cycles or Wiggle.
Wheelsets For Expedition Cycle Touring
I chose the Ryde Sputnik rims for both wheels, primarily for their reputation as seriously bomb-proof world touring rims.
The extruded box-section design, double eyeletted spoke holes and a Schrader-sized valve hole make the Sputnik ideal from a functional perspective too.
(Another candidate was the Sun Ringlé Rhyno Lite, older models of which I’ve used in the past, but Sun have a habit of changing their designs rather frequently.)
It was a toss-up between steel axled Shimano LX HB-T670 36-hole hubs (as pictured here), and aluminium-axled XT hubs with additional sealing from rubber dust caps. Unfortunately, the latest version of the XT hubs turn out to exhibit reliability problems on tour, being engineered for lightness rather than longevity.
Servicing being preferable to replacement, then, LX hubs are what you’ll find on the current specification. Regularly checked and serviced, there’s no reason they shouldn’t last a lifetime.
(In the meantime, we await Shimano’s next iteration in the hope that they will feature both steel axles and rubber dust caps for doubled sealing.)
The front wheel was laced with 36 silver Sapim Race double-butted spokes in a three-cross pattern. The rear was laced with the Race on the non-driveside and Sapim Strong plain-gauge spokes on the drive-side (where the chain and cassette are located).
Sapim spokes are commonly considered the best in the industry in terms of quality and strength. DT Swiss also have a very strong reputation. Both companies’ websites feature a spoke length calculator if you’re building your own wheels.
As for the wheel build, the rigidity of the plain-gauge spokes combats the increased stresses placed on the rear drive-side spokes by hauling a full complement of luggage around.
On the other hand, the increased flex of the double-butted spokes elsewhere serves to make the wheels more shock-resistant and therefore durable.
Or so my wheelbuilder Ross Speirs tells me. And he should know – he’s the professional, after all.
Though I’ve built wheels myself in the past, hand-built wheels are among the most critical parts of an expedition touring bike, so for a bike of this calibre, wheelbuilding is one thing I’d rather leave to an expert.
- Visit Ross Speirs’ website for more information on his custom wheelbuilding services
- Use the DT Swiss spoke calculator to figure out what spokes you’ll need for your hub/rim combo
- Order the Ryde Sputnik rims online from SJS Cycles
- Order the HB-T670 front and rear hubs from SJS Cycles
- Order Sapim spokes from Spa Cycles or Paul Hewitt
Tyres For Expedition Cycle Touring
I chose tyres on the basis that I’d be using the bike on relatively good roads in the developed world for the first few months of its life. And I’ve mentioned before that comfort is usually more important than pure speed.
These considerations pointed to a model in which higher volume options were available for cushioning and comfort, and with a little tread but not too much to make road-riding a chore.
I eventually decided upon a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Plus 26×1.5″ tyres – fitted with the embossed air pressure figures mounted directly alongside the valve for readability. (It’s the little things.)
Drivetrain Components For Expedition Cycle Touring
The expedition bike was fitted with a basic but very durable Shimano Deore front derailleur (twin pull) and a matching Deore long-cage rear derailleur (standard pull).
Alivio derailleurs would have been fine too, except that in their current incarnation the rear derailleur didn’t have a barrel adjuster, which – given the shifters I was fitting – was enough to warrant the Deore.
On long tours, gear indexing is a relatively common area of tweaking, and I knew I would benefit from the quick and easy tuning available from a barrel adjuster.
- Order the Shimano Deore M590 front and M591 rear derailleurs from Chain Reaction. Ignore the ‘9 speed’ listing; they’re fully 8 speed compatible.
Cassette & Chainset
I chose a Shimano HG41 11-34-tooth 8-speed Megarange cassette, and Shimano FC-M361 cranks sporting 22-32-44T chainrings, with the middle ring swapped for a Middleburn Hardcoat 32T chainring, plus a Connex-Wipperman 808 8-speed chain. (Richard has since moved to using the KMC X8 99 chain on his production bikes.)
The crankset was chosen for the mountain bike style gear ratios it would offer, compatibility with square taper bottom brackets (on which more shortly), 8 speed chain compatibility (though chainrings rarely have cross-range compatibility issues in reality), and – importantly – the ability to replace individual chainrings using standard Allen key chainring bolts, unlike many new 8sp cranksets which feature riveted chainrings.
By upgrading to a longer-lasting middle chainring, I’d stave off the scenario in which a new chain won’t play ball with excessively worn chainrings, necessitating a full drivetrain replacement.
This isn’t just hypothetical. I’m still using the same original chainring today on my mountain bike – and the same 8-speed XTR titanium cassette, for that matter – as I fitted to my first expedition tourer almost a decade ago.
This legendary longevity of Middleburn Hardcoat chainrings is anecdotal but well known in touring lore. Better to spend a little more on an ultra-durable chainring, then inexpensively replace the chain every few thousand miles, prolonging the life of the chainrings and sprockets indefinitely.
In a perfect world, I’d add a SRAM powerlink or similar to the chain for easier maintenance.
- Order the Shimano HG41 8-speed 11-34t cassette from Chain Reaction or Wiggle
- Order the Shimano M361 square taper crankset from Chain Reaction
- Order the KMC X8 99 chain from Chain Reaction or Wiggle
- Order the Middleburn Hardcoat middle chainring from SJS Cycles
(Read more about drivetrain choice for cycle touring – including why I didn’t choose a Rohloff Speedhub – here.)
I fitted a pair of old-scheel Shimano SL-6480 bar-end shifters (sold under the Ultegra brand), with the left (front) running on friction and the right (rear) switchable between friction and 8-speed indexing.
In terms of simplicity and inherent durability, there’s nothing to go wrong, unlike the complex internals of indexed trigger shifter pods, let alone road-style STI integrated shifters.
Richard mounted them on the handlebars using the mounts borrowed from a pair of Sturmey Archer thumbshifters – a well-established trick, as we discovered when researching the topic.
(Paul’s Components also make ‘thumbies‘ for achieving the same hack, thoughtfully including built-in barrel adjusters.)
This rear shifter’s indexing ability will make for the easy, carefree shifting we’re all now so used to, with the barrel adjuster on the derailleur to make any tweaks.
The friction-operated left shifter, on the other hand, would allow me to ‘trim’ my gears on the fly, finely adjusting the front derailleur with a precision beyond that offered by indexed systems, which are almost never capable of fully eliminating chain rub on the front derailleur. Trimming gears in this way is a habit that’ll fast become second nature.
If something does go wrong with the drivetrain and all sorts of unforeseen bodging is required to get it up and running again, I’ll be able to switch the right (rear) shifter over to friction mode with a quarter-turn of a thumb screw, eliminating all of the compatibility issues that come up when combining indexing systems from different ages and manufacturers.
I’ll even be able to fit a cassette with the wrong number of sprockets and continue shifting happily away. No indexed rear shifter can offer this level of compatibility.
- Order the SL-6480 bar-end shifters from Chain Reaction or SJS Cycles
- Sturmey Archer / SunRace thumbshifters are hard to find – try Triton Cycles
We fitted the expedition bike with a Shimano UN55 square taper bottom bracket unit (68mm shell, 113mm spindle and British thread for this frame and crankset combo).
Despite being conspicuously absent from Shimano’s website, this model series has remained in production for many years (a big hint that Shimano know the square taper interface isn’t going anywhere, despite their efforts to exterminate what is still the most universal type of bottom bracket on Earth).
It has an excellent reputation for longevity, which is why it still turns up on commercial expedition bikes like Surly’s Long Haul Trucker.
It’s a sealed cartridge unit, which means that the bearings aren’t serviceable in the way that cup-and-cone bottom brackets with loose bearings are. But the long-term rationale is that it’ll be significantly more durable than a loose-bearing bottom bracket in the first place. (This was a natural weakness of several now-defunct systems with thicker spindles, such as ISIS.)
When it does one day start to deteriorate – something that will happen over a period of time, giving me plenty of advance warning – you’ll be able to easily replace the entire unit with either an identical or compatible square taper bottom bracket, using standard tools.
For the expedition bike we fitted black Shimano Deore V-brake calipers front and rear.
And we chose silver Shimano Alivio levers – identical in functionality to the Deore equivalent but without too much flashy branding making my bike look any more expensive and steal-able than necessary.
Cables and brake shoes are standard-issue Shimano all round; the shoes feature replaceable inserts, and once you run out of those you can fit any bog-standard V-brake shoe you can get your hands on. No point spending extra for marginal benefits on basic consumables that can be replaced cheaply and easily the world over.
Yes, the rims will eventually start to wear through from all that braking – but not until after tens of thousands of kilometres of touring. Prolong their life by regularly cleaning the rims, especially after rain and muddy conditions, and changing the brake shoes without delay as soon as you hear that scraping sound (preferably before).
It’s worth mentioning that this is a normal set of considerations for fully-loaded world touring, which is just about the most heavy-duty type of service into which a bicycle can be called.
Keep mechanical failures predictable by keeping an eye on the braking surface’s wear indicators, budgeting for a full wheel rebuild, and anticipating where I’m going to have it done ahead of time – all part of life on the road.
(Wondering why no disc brakes? Read more about the old V-brake / disc brake saga here.)
Cockpit Design For Expedition Cycle Touring
The expedition bike was fitted with the Brooks B17 Special I’d been transplanting from bike to bike long before hipsters discovered them.
(This is the whole point of Brooks’ flagship leather saddle: you should only ever need to buy one in your lifetime.)
I’m just one of thousands of riders who’ve come out of the Brooks Breaking-In Period™ with a saddle that fitted their anatomy more perfectly than any other saddle on Earth – because their anatomy created its shape in the first place.
Until some bugger stole mine, at least.
Handlebars & Stem
After several iterations of fitting and testing, my bike was fitted with a 610mm flat bar and an 85mm stem with a 15-degree rise.
After a few weeks of riding, I changed them.
(This is pretty typical behaviour when getting a bike tweaked to perfection for expedition touring.)
It’s unlikely that my setup would work for you, but I can guarantee that time spent trying a range of options, rather than relying on guesswork, will deliver you the best possible results. Bad fit isn’t something you want to discover when you’re already on the road.
Grips & Bar-Ends
I chose to fit Ergon’s GP1 BioKork grips, which get a multitude of positive reviews from tourers and other cyclists alike as a high quality, long-lasting ergonomic lock-on grip.
Rather than Ergon’s own bar ends, Richard fitted a pair of Oxford Bike Works’ own low-profile rubberised anatomical bar ends, which plug into the ends of the handlebars, and are a damn sight more affordable too.
- Ergon GP1 BioKork grips are tough to find in the UK, but you might try Amazon
Pedals are a very personal choice, and depend largely on footwear.
I prefer to wear hiking shoes for cycle touring, because they’re comfortable, because I know my feet are strong enough to pedal in them, and because if I wanted the extra efficiency I would fit toe clips and cages rather than lug an extra pair of shoes around the world with me.
I also dislike clattering around in supermarkets and people’s houses like I’m wearing wooden clogs.
I was looking for something a little higher grade in a pedal, a little more time-proven, to get my expedition bike built. So I went with a pair of Shimano PD-M324 combination pedals, which feature an SPD fitting on one side and a traditional metal cage on the other.
I would have chosen this exact same model of pedal whether I was in the SPD or flat-pedal camp, simply because it’s proven itself an extremely reliable pedal. That it caters for both systems is incidental. If I change my mind, of course, I’m already in luck!
(For what it’s worth, the DMR V8 flat pedal was a very close second choice.)
Carrier Racks & Lowriders For Expedition Cycle Touring
For the expedition bike I chose a Tubus Cargo cromoly steel rear rack, rated conservatively to 40kg (though I’ve happily given people much heavier than this a ‘backie’ on it).
It’s got a wider top platform than the also-popular Tubus Logo. I prefer having more space for additional rack-top luggage.
The Cargo has been in production, all but unchanged, since 1988. And while Tubus have recently launched the Cargo Evo, only the original Cargo can boast 27 years of proven reliability on world tours – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The 30-year guarantee, plus the company’s free worldwide replacement service, is reassurance of their durability.
For the front rack (or, to be technically correct, the lowrider), I chose the Tubus Tara.
My rationale here was similar: Tubus have a second-to-none reputation, and the Tara is their longest-standing lowrider compatible with all the most popular pannier models.
It’s covered by the same 30-year guarantee. I could discuss its design at tedious length, but the bottom line is that it fits my frame and panniers and almost definitely will not break.
The Tubus Ergo would have done just as well, but – as with the Logo – it’d bring no benefit to the Oxford Bike Works frameset and Crosso pannier combination.
It would, however, add cost, weight and complexity – things I am in the habit of avoiding.
How To Build Your Own Expedition Touring Bike
A complete listing of the parts and components mentioned in this article can be found here if you wish to have a go at building a similar bike of your own.
The DIY approach to putting together a touring bike involves a bit of mechanical know-how, some tools, a lot of patience, and a willingness to get your hands dirty.
If you have all of these things, or are happy to acquire them, then building your own bike is an entirely feasible goal if you are mechanically inclined, and a very satisfying thing to do.
I’ve done it several times over the years, for myself and for others. In doing so, you’ll get to know your bike intimately; useful indeed when carrying out routine maintenance or roadside repairs.
For beginner learning resources, I would suggest a combination of local bike shops’ maintenance courses together with Youtube, Park Tool & Sheldon Brown’s websites, plus trial and error – however you learn best. Bicycles are really pretty simple.
If you’re completely tool-less, you’ll need to budget for tools & supplies (both workshop tools and the portable ones you’ll want to take with you). This may negate what you will save by doing it yourself, but a good set of tools should last a lifetime.
Allow several days to accomplish the build, swap parts, and fettle. Multiply the time required extensively if it’s the first time you’ve done this. Even a professional builder would still need at least one full day to assemble an expedition bike, test ride it, tweak it, and get everything just right.
- Tip: Planet X are currently selling their ‘Jobsworth’ 30-piece workshop toolkits online at a hefty discount
Insider Tips For DIY Touring Bike Builders
Professional touring bike builders and assemblers also know a few additional tricks of the trade which may be omitted in factory-built bikes.
These little points of detail are not just the icing on the cake; they’re part of what brings and keeps a really top-quality touring bike going stronger and for longer.
These touches come from an understanding of common long- term touring ailments. Here are a few to help you get going:
- Apply a threadlocking solution to the bolts that attach the racks to the frame. This’ll prevent the bolts from coming loose while still allowing deliberate removal if need be. These bolts are some of the most likely to shake themselves loose over time, and you can bet it’ll happen when you’re not paying attention.
- Leave the mounting bolts of the shifters and brake levers a tiny bit looser than normal – just enough to ensure that in case of a crash they’d get knocked out of place rather than breaking off completely. If you can’t twist the mounting by hand (with a good bit of effort), the bolt is too tight.
- Run a full-length rear gear cable from the shifter to the derailleur, protecting its internals from dirt and grime and maximising its life.
- Many otherwise durable components come fitted with cheap, corrosion-prone bolts, so replace all such cheap and nasty fittings with rust-resistant marine-grade stainless steel bolts.
- Get at least 3 spare spokes for the drive side of your rear wheel and Gaffa Tape them to a seatstay.
These are delicate touches. A professional builder will include many more as part of the individual service you can expect – one of the many reasons you might choose to have a bike like this custom-assembled if you like the idea of a personalised build specification but lack the experience to put it together yourself.
I hope this article has comprehensively detailed the thought process that goes into designing and building a touring bike for a round-the-world expedition. Every bike builder would end up with something slightly different, but there’d be far more in common between such bikes than there would be differences. If you’re hungry for more, I’ve written a low-cost eBook that covers the entire topic in much more detail.
I’d love to hear about your own experiences and the bikes you end up building!
Don’t get hung up on the cost of such an escapade, by the way. Top end bikes aren’t cheap, but if you don’t have the money, you’ll be able to go just as far – if not further – using literally any old bike and packing plenty of initiative, flexibility and open-mindedness alongside your stove, tent and sleeping bag.
Don’t forget that expedition touring bikes based on the above design are being built to order by Richard at Oxford Bike Works. He offers practically unlimited options for customisation, and cost-wise, it actually works out about the same as buying all the parts and tools yourself. Check out the offer here.