(Last updated in June 2014.)
The range of touring bikes on offer can be bewildering to the newcomer. And so it’s only natural that amongst the many questions I get asked about planning a cycle tour, the most frequent is: “What’s the best touring bike?”
Trouble is, it’s a question with no useful quick-and-easy answer. I do, however, want to try and answer it to the best of my abilities. So let’s begin by putting some broader context around what “cycle touring” might actually mean to you. Asking a few basic questions of your plans first will make the touring bike choosing process easier. (Now might be a good time to put the kettle on.)
What kind of bike tour am I going on?
Unless you have no money (beggars can’t be choosers, right?), your ride should dictate your bike, rather than your bike dictating your ride.
Resist the temptation to 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. If you’re not clear on what you want to achieve with your tour, and how, it’s time to go back to first principles. You can always come back to the bike a little further down the road.
Most tours fall somewhere in the middle of these concerns. That’s why off-the-peg road-oriented touring bikes are often a good place to start, as manufacturers want to cover as broad a range of customers as they can.
Later in this article we’ll look at some of these bikes, as well as budget options and more specialised ‘expedition’ bikes.
What can I afford?
Strapped for cash? It is perfectly possible to use any old bike for touring — as long as it’s about the right size. 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 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).
Cheap Touring Bicycles
If you’re just getting started there are several good-quality touring bikes, luggage enabled and ready to roll, that can be had for just a few hundred pounds.
Here are some of the most often recommended options:
Revolution Country Traveller (£500)
A contender for best value budget touring bike on the market, the Revolution Country Traveller from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative manages to be well-specified and reliable while costing less than £500. It’s sibling, the Country Explorer, features a steel frame and disc brakes for £200 more.
Ridgeback Tour (£600)
The Ridgeback Tour — the cheapest of Ridgeback’s “World” series — has much in common with its more expensive siblings, but with a cost-saving aluminium frame and basic Shimano gearing.
Dawes Galaxy AL
At the bottom end of Dawes’ well-known Galaxy range is the Galaxy AL. Similarly to the Ridgeback Tour, it’s built on the same design principles as the rest of the range but with an aluminium frame and budget drivetrain components.
Best Premium Road 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 high-end road 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.
Expect to spend between £900-£1500 ($1200-$2000) on a new fully-featured premium tourer, and for it to last many years and handle all of the developed-world road touring you can throw at it.
Kona Sutra (£1200)
Kona inhabit the left-of-centre in cycling, producing a fascinating range of eccentric yet extremely useful bikes. As well as all of the usual considerations, the Sutra is progressively-minded too with powerful disc brakes and plenty of scope for non-touring use. Highlights include the nimble and sporty steel frameset and solid front and rear racks, making it ready to load up and ride right out of the shop.
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. Its road-influenced frameset places it well for long-term road touring.
Dawes Galaxy Classic (£1300)
Dawes’ British heritage has made the Galaxy Classic (formerly known simply as the Galaxy) an established favourite in these parts, and traditional touring components and design features can be seen all over this bike. A Reynolds steel frame, Tubus Logo rack and Schwalbe Marathon tyres take care of longevity concerns. The mid-range Shimano groupset choices and basic wheelsets keep the package affordable. Size options are limited, but a ladies-specific version is available.
Surly Long Haul Trucker (£1150)
While not as easy to find in the UK as the Kona or Ridgeback, the Surly Long Haul Trucker is perhaps the most well-renowned of the bikes in this list. A very popular choice Stateside, it’s a supremely versatile and well-balanced on– and off-road adventure touring bike at a price affordable to many, also available in a 26″ wheel size for short riders and developing-world touring. You’re left to choose your own racks and mudguards.
Surly Disc Trucker (£1300)
In response to the growing acceptance of disc brakes as a realistic and reliable option for touring, Surly went ahead and produced a disc-specific version of the Long Haul Trucker, the cunningly named Disc Trucker. Everything else about it is the same as the LHT — tried, true, and one of the most versatile touring bikes on the planet.
More Premium Road Touring Bikes
The following models have been recommended by readers 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 completeness:
- Trek 520 (USA)
- Jamis Aurora Elite 2014 (UK, £960 at Evans)*
- 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)
A side note on top-end touring bikes
What I’m hoping is fairly clear is that the 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.
So which to choose is largely a matter of taste. I like the Kona’s stiff and nimble riding style. You might like the Dawes’s British origins, or the Surly’s reputation and ruggedness, or the Ridgeback’s road-oriented riding style.
How will you know, though? Simple: enough with the online research — go down to your local bike shop and take a few for a test ride. You’ll soon know what’s right for you.
I’d like to draw attention to a distinct category of what you might call ‘expedition’ bikes, as opposed to ‘touring’ bikes. It’s by no means an industry standard term, but it’s a distinction that needs to be made.
The majority of cycle touring takes place relatively close to home, in the developed world, and for limited periods of time (a few weeks at most). But occasionally a bike will need to survive for months on end in parts of the world where Western-style parts, spares and mechanical help are simply unavailable.
This is the domain of the ‘expedition’ bike. These bikes are usually characterised by having 26-inch wheels (for maximum compatibility with the tyres, tubes and wheel parts ubiquitous in the developing world), allowing for much fatter tyres to be fitted for unpaved roads, using old-fashioned standard components (such as 8– or 9-speed drivetrains, square-taper bottom brackets, etc), and having frames built for even heavier duty service in the long haul.
They don’t necessarily cost more than a top-end touring bike, but they have a slightly different focus in mind. Does this apply to you?
Oxford Bike Works Model 1E (£900)
Independent bike builder Richard Delacour’s entry-level offering is a remarkably good expedition bike, with a superb mountain-bike influenced 26-inch steel frame, 9-speed components and a hand-tensioned wheelset. Being a custom-build, you can make specific component requests for any part of the bike, as well as visiting him near Oxford for a personal consultation and fitting session. The fact that the list price is the lowest in this category is the icing on the cake.
Ridgeback Expedition (£950)
New this year and as-yet untested in the real world on a long trip, the Ridgeback Expedition looks to be a contender for best-value expedition-ready mainstream touring bike on the market.
Surly Long Haul Trucker / Disc Trucker (26-inch models)
Surly have shown their versatility by producing an expedition-ready 26-inch version of the already super-versatile Long Haul Trucker and Disc Trucker models — near-perfect expedition bikes by all accounts.
Read my full review of the Disc Trucker.
Thorn Sherpa (from £1300)
Thorn’s entry-level 26-inch steel tourer, the Sherpa, still costs well over a grand, but the Somerset-based company have established themselves as creating ultra-reliable expedition bikes on an individual basis. You’ll need to book an appointment to get yours specified and fitted to your needs.
You’ve probably got plenty more burning questions about the ins and outs of adventure cycling, so the best thing to do next is to check out the advice & planning section of this site for dozens more articles on every other aspect of planning a tour. Whatever your questions or concerns, I’ve probably got you covered. (And if I don’t, fire me an email and I’ll do my best to cover it in a future article!)