Amongst the many questions I get about planning a cycle tour, the most frequent is “what’s the best touring bike?”
The range of touring bikes on offer can be bewildering to the newcomer. So let’s begin with some broader context. There are a few fundamental questions which, if you answer them first, will make the choosing process easier.
What kind of bike tour am I going on?
Your ride should dictate your bike, rather than your bike dictating your ride. Don’t get bogged down with bicycle choice until you’ve clarified what your priorities for cycle touring are going to be, and what kind of trip you want to make.
What different kinds of bike trip are there? Well, styles of touring vary along these four axes:
- Fast or slow
- Lightweight or heavyweight
- On-road (paved) or off-road (unpaved)
- Short-term or long-term
Usually there are correlations here. Fast, light, on-road and short-term are usually combined. Slow, heavy, off-road and long-term are likely to be found together too.
These are the main factors that will feed directly into your choice of touring bike.
Most tours fall somewhere in the middle of all of these. That’s why off-the-peg mid-range touring bikes work well in the middle too, as manufacturers want to cover as broad a range of customers as they can.
(Custom-building, as I first did, is often a better choice for those looking to sit at the extremities of these scales.)
Are you clear on what you want to achieve with your tour? If not, it’s time to go back to first principles. You can always come back to the bike a little further down the road.
But if you do have an idea of what kind of trip you’d like to make, read on…
How much money do I want to spend?
Strapped for cash? It is perfectly possible to use any old bike for touring — as long as it’s about the right size. Wrongly-sized bikes are a common source of pain and injury. You will (eventually) get from A to B on the rusty heap that’s been sat in the garage for the last decade.
(I know, I know; this kind of rhetoric gets chucked around a lot, usually by people doing tours on absurdly expensive bikes. So I’m going to prove it to you right now. Here’s how I put together a complete touring bike (plus gear and luggage) for precisely £25.17.)
Got some cash but still on a budget? Good quality second-hand touring bikes (or mountain/hybrid bikes adaptable for touring) can be had for a few hundred pounds. In the long term, expect to spend more time/money on maintenance and repairs than someone making the same journey on a new bicycle.
Got a budget for a decent bike? Common touring wisdom is to get the best quality bike you can afford. Usually, a ‘bike manufacturer’ will actually manufacture little more than the frame, and the rest of the bike will be assembled from parts made by the same component makers (usually Shimano).
Expect to spend between £1000-£1500 on a new mid-range tourer, and for it to last many years and handle the majority of your touring extremely well.
You will get what you pay for: price goes up as components notch up their ranges. In the mid-range of touring bicycles there are plentiful options. Here’s the pick of the current bunch; the bikes you’ll most often see out on tour:
Best Mid-range Touring Bikes
Most cycle tourists are not breaking records, but they do want to feel like they’ve got somewhere at the end of a day. They’ll carry the bare essentials but pack a few personal luxuries too. Roads will comprise the majority of their trip, but they might find themselves on a dirt track every now and then. They’ll usually travel for a few weeks, make a few shorter trips closer to home, and occasionally go for a Big Ride.
This broad space is the domain of the mid-range touring bike.
Almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of the following options. They’re all mature, capable machines, tried and tested and with sensible price-tags, in need of nothing more than a Brooks* and a rider.
Kona Sutra (£1200)
Kona inhabit the left-of-centre in cycling, producing a fascinating range of eccentric yet extremely useful bikes. Their Sutra touring bike is my current personal ride of choice.
As well as all of the usual considerations, it’s progressively-minded too with powerful disc brakes and a pile of thoughtful touches. Highlights include the bomb-proof steel frameset and heavy-duty rear rack, placing it well for off-road excursions as well as road riding.
The best deal I can find on the brand new 2014 model is at Cyclestore.co.uk*, who offer free delivery and £120 worth of free accessories of your choice. Cyclelane.co.uk are clearing their 2013 stock at a very good 20% off.
Ridgeback Panorama (£1300)
The Ridgeback Panorama is described by many UK tourers as an underrated bike, coming with plenty of recommendations. This is another steel-framed mid-range touring bike with a sensible, durable selection of components drawn from both road– and mountain-biking disciplines, although it doesn’t quite provide the overall strength or braking power of the Kona. Its road-influenced frameset places it well for long-term road touring.
Dawes Galaxy (£1200)
Dawes’ British heritage has made the Galaxy an established favourite in these parts, and traditional touring components and design features can be seen all over this bike, which represents great value for money. A Reynolds steel frame, Tubus Logo rack and Schwalbe Marathon tyres take care of longevity concerns. The low– to mid-range Shimano groupset choices and basic wheelsets keep the package affordable. This makes the Galaxy a good choice for medium– to long-term road tours in the developed world. Great for the patriots, too.
Surly Long Haul Trucker ($1100)
While not as easy to find in the UK as the Kona or Ridgeback, the Surly Long Haul Trucker is perhaps the most popular of the bikes in this list. A common choice Stateside for medium– to long-term loaded touring on the North American continent and beyond, it’s a well-balanced road-touring bike at a price affordable to many. And, of course, it continues to be recommended by tourers today.
Trek 520 ($1500)
Another favourite that’s not so easy to find in the UK, today’s Trek 520 has perhaps started to become a victim of age and neglect, with fender issues, a flimsy rear rack, the usual throwaway saddle, and tyres not the longest lasting under load. Trek have cut corners, using their own Bontrager-brand components to keep the price affordable, but if you don’t mind spending a little on upgrades to address these shortcomings for a longer tour, the Trek 520 is still by all accounts a classic frame and a joyful bike to ride.
Check out Trek’s page on the 520.
Yet More Mid-Range Touring Bikes
The following models have been recommended by readers and Reddit contributors as fitting this category. Some of them are on the budget end, some straying into the top end, but I’ve listed them for the sake of research and choice:
- Jamis Aurora Elite 2014 (UK, £1200 at Evans + £120 free accs)*
- World Randonneur (USA, $1900)
- Novara Randonee (USA, $1200)*
- KHS TR 101 (USA, $1100)
- Fahrradmanufaktur TX-800 (Germany, 1500 EUR)
- Motobecane Gran Turismo (USA, $1600)
- Rocky Mountain Sherpa (USA, $?)
What I’m hoping is fairly clear is that the five touring bikes above are pretty much the same bike. They’re all priced within a couple of hundred pounds of each other. They all have steel frames, wide gearing, drop bars but with non-aggressive riding positions, pannier racks or at least rack mounts, hybrid drivetrains cut from the middle of Shimano’s mountain-bike and road-bike ranges, and boring saddles (because they know you’ll swap the saddle for your favourite but can’t sell a bike without one).
They’re all built primarily for paved roads, but could handle a dirt track or two if need be. They cut corners to remain affordable, but do so where it’s less important. They’ll all need bits and pieces replacing over time, but that’s normal. In short, they’re compromises. Well-balanced, capable compromises.
So which to choose is largely a matter of taste. I like the Kona’s beefed-up frame design. You might like the Trek’s paint-job, or the Dawes’s British origins, or the Surly’s reputation, or the Ridgeback’s roadie-ness.
But the bottom line is this: any of these bikes will take you round the valley, round the country, or round the world.
Are there any mid-range touring bikes you feel are missing from this list?