(Last updated: January 2016.)
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 simple answer. Let’s begin by putting some context around it. Asking two basic questions will make choosing your touring bike much easier. (Now might be a good time to put the kettle on.)
1. What kind of cycle tour are you going on?
Your ride should dictate your bike. Resist the temptation to get bogged down with bicycle choice until you’ve clarified what your priorities for cycle touring are, and what kind of trip you want to make.
What different kinds of bike trip are there? Well, styles of touring vary along these axes:
- Fast vs slow
- Lightweight vs heavyweight
- On road (paved) vs off road (unpaved)
- Short term vs long term
- High budget vs low budget
These are the factors that will feed into your choice of touring bike. If you’re not clear on each of them, it’s time to go back to first principles and figure them out.
Most tours fall somewhere in the middle. That’s why mainstream off-the-peg 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.
2. What’s your budget?
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, then rode it the length of a country.
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, as it’ll pay off in the long term.
Let’s have a closer look at some commercially-available bikes throughout the budget spectrum.
Best Cheap Touring Bikes
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.
Adventure Flat White
Possibly the cheapest off-the-peg touring bike available in the UK, the Adventure Flat White nevertheless has a lugged steep frame with all the frame features you’d expect, a basic but solid 14-speed drivetrain, mudguards and a rear rack to get you started. It’s a newcomer to the market, but BikeRadar.com and my bike building expert-in-residence both seem to like it. Men’s only, sadly.
Revolution Country Traveller (£500)
A former 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 £100 more. They’re currently out of stock; I’m waiting to hear if and when they’ll return to the fray. Hopefully soon.
Ridgeback Tour (£550)
Down in price for 2016 (alongside all of its stablemates), the 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. Ridgeback bikes are widely available from UK high-street dealers, including Evans Cycles*, making it a bike you’ll easily be able to test ride.
Dawes Galaxy AL
At the bottom end of Dawes‘ well-known Galaxy range is the Galaxy AL. Similarly to the Ridgeback Tour above, it’s built on the same design principles as the rest of the range but with an aluminium frame and budget drivetrain components.
Like Ridgeback’s World range, the Dawes Galaxy range is one of the most popular touring bike lines in British bike stores, including at Evans Cycles stores nationwide. There’s a few 2015 models left at 25% off via the Evans website* right now.
Best Premium 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 bikes. They’re all mature, capable machines, tried and tested and with sensible price-tags, in need of nothing more than a Brooks B17 and a rider.
Expect to spend between £900-£1500 ($1200-$2000 USD) on a new fully-featured premium tourer, and for it to last many years and handle most general touring scenarios very well.
Kona Sutra (£1100)
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. The nimble and sporty cyclocross-inspired steel frameset is a highlight.
Ridgeback Panorama (£1150)
The Ridgeback Panorama comes with plenty of recommendations from UK tourers. 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. 2016’s version is somehow £150 cheaper than 2015’s despite no noticeable specification changes, making it a very good value tourer indeed. Read Tim & Laura’s detailed review on this blog of the Panorama after a 6,000-mile road test.
Surly Long Haul Trucker (£1150)
While not as easy to find in the UK as the Kona or Ridgeback, particularly online, the Surly Long Haul Trucker is perhaps the most well-renowned of the bikes in this list. 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. Read my full review here.
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
- Jamis Aurora Elite*
- Vivente World Randonneur (Australia)
- Novara Randonee (USA)
- KHS TR 101 (USA)
- Fahrradmanufaktur TX-800 (Germany)
- Motobecane Gran Turismo (USA)
- 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.
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.
Best Expedition Touring Bikes
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, V-brakes rather than rim brakes, etc, and having steel 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?
Ridgeback Expedition (£850)
New in 2014 and now relatively well-tested on longer trips, the Ridgeback Expedition is a strong contender for best-value expedition-ready mainstream touring bike on the market. For 2016, Ridgeback knocked another £100 off the RRP, making it ludicrously good value for money, and swapped the drop bars for flat bars, which is another strong statement of intent towards its purpose as a true expedition tourer.
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. All the same praise goes here as for the 700c versions above. Again, you’ll need to add your own racks and mudguards.
Thorn Sherpa (from £1300)
Thorn‘s 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 with St John’s Street Cycles in Bridgewater to get yours specified and fitted to your needs.
There are a great many more bikes available in the expedition touring bike category. I’ve compiled a massive list of them for you in the separate blog post A Massive List Of Touring Bikes For Worldwide Cycling Expeditions (featuring 52 different bikes and counting so far).
What I’m Riding: Oxford Bike Works Expedition
Originally a one-off to my own specification, he’s now building these bikes to order on an individual basis. They feature a 26-inch steel frame, hand-built wheels, the best racks in the business, custom thumbshifters, and tons of other expedition-specific touches. Read about the details of this bike here.
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.
If the free content I’ve published still isn’t enough, I’ve also written a comprehensive 72-page guide to choosing a touring bike for an epic expedition.
Finally, if you’ve reached the end of this article realising that you’d never be able to afford any of the bikes in this list, but you still want to go cycle touring, check this article out to find out how.