How To Build The Ultimate Round-The-World Expedition Touring Bike (With Pictures)

Last updated in January 2019 to reflect the current availability of parts and components and the resulting specification of the bike I’d build today. The original version of this article was published in March 2016.

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.

To answer them, I 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 massive, multi-year cycling expedition, I point to the bike I designed and built and say: “Here’s one I made earlier. Check it out!”

The resulting bike looked something like this (until someone stole the saddle):

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This article describes the complete thought process behind designing & building the bike shown above.

While the details of such a bike should always reflect personal preference in some areas – usually when it comes to cockpit components and luggage systems – there’s a surprising amount of consensus on what constitute good design decisions for a bike to take you round the planet.

(A quick look through this massive list of world touring bikes will demonstrate this.)

My remit was to find the closest overall approximation of all the good advice out there, distilling years of accumulated thinking behind world touring bike design into a single machine.

There are always going to be a few more or less arbitrary decisions (eg: black or silver brake levers), and there will always be people who want to argue tiresomely about things like whether V-brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The only true test of such a bike is time and miles.

Since I originally put this bike together and Richard added the resulting Expedition to his Oxford Bike Works touring bike lineup, growing numbers of them have circled the planet. My favourite story-in-progress is that of Adam Sultan, who has (at the time of writing) crossed a continent and a half on one since 2016 and is now somewhere in deepest Southeast Asia.

Confession: this was actually the second time I’d built a bike for a round-the-world trip.

Way back in 2007, when I put together a bike for my own round-the-world attempt, I made a few mistakes.

Sure, I knew how to use the tools and put all the bits together. But coming from a mountain-biking background and with no touring experience, I didn’t understand the subtle needs of the long-distance travelling cyclist.

(This is something I’ve also found to be true of many sales assistants in high-street bike shops, which is why it’s best to hunt down a specialist).

Needless to say, the resulting bike turned into a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster.

The second time was very different. Why? Well, I had almost a decade of adventure cycle touring and bikepacking 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.

Plus, in the 9 years I’d been running this blog at the time, I’d also become acquainted with hundreds of other world bicycle travellers who’d shared their own experiences on the subject of designing and building bicycles for truly expedition-level bike trips.

And while researching articles for this blog, I’d pored over the design concepts and specifications of every world touring bike built by every specialist manufacturer I could find the world over.

In other words, I’d done my research.

Despite many attempts by readers of this blog to come up with an awesome name, the resulting bike became known simply as Tom’s Expedition Bike.

(That’s fine with me – I’ve always been of a utilitarian mindset.)

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And the resulting custom-built bike now available from Oxford Bike Works was named – with similarly utilitarian intent – the Expedition.

6 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 that’s because from the perspective of world bicycle travel, these choices look very different.

A few months of cycle touring will eradicate any interest in shiny components and new-fangled technologies. As mentioned earlier, what matters in a world touring bike (and what doesn’t) is what’s proven by time and miles, not marketing and innovation. This is a sentiment I hear time and time again from countless bicycle travellers.

In my view, then, the priorities for a world touring bike boil down to six things:

  1. comfort during long days in the saddle in all conditions,
  2. strength overall and especially in the bike’s luggage-carrying capabilities,
  3. versatility in the bike’s ability to handle the majority of what the world is likely to throw at it,
  4. durability in the bike’s core structure and in the components that experience wear,
  5. compatibility in the parts that’ll inevitably need replacement over time and miles, and
  6. 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 six 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. There’s a time and a place to experiment with unproven technology, and cycling round the world is probably not it.

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A Note On The Superficial Boringness 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 and unremarkable.

That’s because such a bike has only one specialisation, and that is being a generalist.

If you’re used to 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 become visible once you’ve actually spent time travelling the world on a bicycle. Otherwise, you’ll probably 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 (Frames & Forks) For Expedition Touring Bikes

As a starting point for the expedition bike, I chose the Oxford Bike Works expedition touring frameset in its V-brake incarnation (there’s also a disc version for 2019).

After spending a day at the company workshop near Steventon in Oxfordshire, we determined that the medium (19-inch) frame would fit me best. For the colour, I chose a neutral shade of beige (the current stock colours are red, blue and khaki green; Richard does custom paint-jobs on demand).

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This purpose-designed expedition touring frame, designed around the 26-inch wheel size, reminded me of those reliable old-school steel mountain bikes I used to ride as a teenager, such as the Specialized Rockhopper used by Alastair Humphreys on the first part of his round-the-world ride, and earlier versions of my beloved Kona Explosif.

As such, it could be described as a classical expedition touring frame.

The Oxford Bike Works frameset is built from Reynolds 525 chrome-molybdenum (aka: cromo or cromoly) steel alloy tubing. There are lots of good tubesets out there, none better or worse than another in the hands of a good frame builder. Reynolds 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 reviewed 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 upright geometry and reassuring handling characteristics.

Did I consider other frames? Of course! The Surly Long Haul Trucker frameset would have made a similarly good base for this build. Ultimately I chose Oxford Bike Works because of the personal service and the customisation options, the fact that the workshop was UK-based and I could visit it in person, and because I wanted to support a small, independent, local bike builder.

More advice & retailers

  • Read more about frame material choice for touring bikes here
  • You can get the frameset direct from Oxford Bike Works if you ask nicely, though Richard’s primary business is complete, custom-built bikes.

Headsets For Expedition Cycle Touring

Frame and forks are wedded together by means of a headset. This is a stack of bearings, races and seals that is pressed into each end of the frame’s head tube to allow the fork to rotate within the frame and thus for steering to happen.

It’s the most permanent of all the components fitted to a frame, and while it’s possible to remove and replace a headset, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll want to be doing on the roadside – not least because it’s easy to permanently damage your frame without the right tools.

Cheap headsets with cheap bearings are fine for cheap bikes. But it’s false economy when building a bike for fully-loaded long-term touring. The punishment dished out to a headset’s bearings on an expedition makes short work of cheap headsets. Fully-loaded front panniers, poor road surfaces, and the sheer volume of miles and hours spent riding will all work together to place exorbitant demands upon the humble headset.

When considering most expedition bike components, we’ll be looking at parts which are not only simple and durable but also easily replaceable worldwide. But the headset is a legitimate exception in that you’ll want to fit it… and forget about it.

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There was no question in my mind about which headset fitted the bill: a Chris King 1 1/8” NoThreadSet threadless headset.

Of all the high-end headsets available, the Chris King had 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 inventing the much-imitated ‘threadless’ headset design, 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 nearly 30 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.

Alternative candidate headsets included the Hope conventional 1 1/8-inch headset, FSA Orbit MX and Cane Creek 40, all of which are modelled on the same design. Ultimately I chose the King based on its reputation for longevity.

When buying a headset, remember to get the correct size and type for your frame – for most steel frames like this one, 1 1/8-inch is the norm.

Reviews, Installation Advice and Retailers for Headsets


Wheelsets For Expedition Cycle Touring

A wheel is not a single item but an assembly of individual parts. It’s the combination of those parts and the way they’re put together that results in a true expedition-grade wheelset (or not).

What you’ll need from your wheels, first and foremost, is the ability to take thousands of miles of gruelling, heavily-loaded, all-terrain riding in their stride. Your average machine-built wheel is not designed for this kind of abuse. An extremely strong wheel is particularly needed at the rear of the bike where the weight of rider and luggage are most concentrated and rotational forces from the drivetrain are at their greatest.

Compatibility is also important, and this is mainly about the serviceability of the hubs and the availability of tyres and innertubes where you’re planning to ride. Globally speaking, 26-inch tyres and tubes are more widely available, though this statement is somewhat simplistic. V-brakes will eventually wear down the braking surface of a rim, necessitating replacement, but if you choose a durable rim in the first place and actively avoid the worst conditions (ie: combinations of abrasive dust or mud, wet, and very long downhills), you might well never live to see this day.

For the rims, I chose the Ryde Sputnik, primarily for its reputation as a seriously bomb-proof world touring rim. It’s available in 26-inch and 700C sizes, and with 32 or 36 spoke holed. (The same rim was previously known as the Rigida Sputnik – only the name has changed.)

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.

Strength being key, the extruded box-section rims are more rigid and less in need of truing than other designs. Double spoke eyelets will help distribute stress more evenly, and double sidewalls combined with a thick, durable alloy (and regular cleaning) will ensure braking surfaces will last as long as possible – plus, the wheel won’t collapse if the braking surface wears too thin. Wear line indicators will help with planning ahead for wheel rebuilds, should that ever be necessary.

I chose 36 spokes per wheel, which is accepted wisdom in long-term touring circles, as well as common sense. More spokes means greater strength, all else being equal – plus, if a spoke does break (it happens), it’s less detrimental to the wheel as a whole. (Thought experiment – imagine a 48-spoke tandem wheel next to a 28-spoke racing bike wheel. Which is stronger?)

The Schrader valve holes (that’s the larger of the two, used on practically every motor vehicle in the world) of the Sputnik will allow for tubes with either valve type, and on a world tour you never know when such options might be your saviour. In a pinch, you could always take a drill to the rim and enlarge the valve hole, but it’s better to start out with maximum compatibility options.

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For hubs, the key is durability in the first place, followed by ease of maintenance worldwide. This points to hubs that use cup-and-cone ball bearings for maximum compatibility, bike-mechanic familiarity and ease of adjustment and replacement with basic tools and spares.

The same goes for the compatibility of parts in the case of the rear hub. Cassette-compatible freehubs are now the standard on all decent-quality bikes and spare cassettes are easily found. SRAM and Shimano cassettes tend to be interchangeable as long as they have the same number of sprockets, and Shimano freehub bodies can be mixed and matched between several different ranges and generations, making Shimano hubs a good bet.

Some will argue that high-end hubs with sealed cartridge bearings are also a valid choice for world touring. There is certainly something in this: they don’t just run maintenance-free for longer, but they’re also easier to service, changing the bearings being a simple job of slotting in the new cartridge bearings you’ll be carrying with you. However, you’ll also pay several hundred pounds extra for the privilege, and your wheels will eventually need overhauling or rebuilding for some other reason. When this happens, all you’ll need to service a standard Shimano hub is some standard grease, some standard 3/16” ball-bearings and some standard cone spanners. Cartridge bearings and other parts for high-end hubs are non-standard and thus hard to find, and if you suddenly need them in the middle of Africa, you’re in trouble.

Hubs can be susceptible to the infiltration of dirt and water over time, so hubs with good-quality seals are infinitely preferable to those without. Seals keep out road grime and moisture and ensure that your wheels run smoothly for longer through the extreme conditions you’re likely to encounter.

To tick these boxes, it was a toss-up between steel-axled Shimano LX HB-T670 (front) and FH-T670 (rear) hubs, as pictured below, and the similar but aluminium-axled XT hubs with additional weather sealing from rubber dust caps.

Unfortunately, according to feedback from Richard’s customers, the XT hubs seemed to exhibit reliability problems on long tours. LX hubs, then, are what I used and what you’ll still find on the current specification of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition. Regularly checked and serviced, there’s no reason they shouldn’t last a lifetime.

In the meantime, we await Shimano’s next generation of trekking hubs in the hope that they will feature both steel axles and rubber dust caps for double-defence sealing. (If you really wanted to, you could probably butcher one hub from each range and create your own.)

Remember that these hubs are designed for V-brakes and don’t have disc rotor mounts. If you go with disc brakes, you’ll need disc-compatible hubs, of which the equivalents from the Shimano LX range are the HB-T675 and FH-T675.

(Even if you do start out with V-brakes, you could always have your wheels built for future disc compatibility – some would argue that the slightly shorter spoke length also translates to a marginal increase in strength.)

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When it came to spokes, the front wheel was laced with 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 – which is where the chain and cassette are located, the rotational forces at their greatest, and breakages most likely to occur – for extra strength.

Sapim spokes are commonly considered the best in the industry in terms of quality and strength. DT Swiss also have a very strong reputation.

If you don’t want to build your own wheels, you’ll quickly discover that it’s possible to buy factory-built wheelsets off the peg, but I strongly recommend ordering a pair of hand-built wheels from a reputable wheelbuilder who is used to building touring and expedition wheels, which gets you the advice of a specialist wheelbuilder into the bargain. Just ensure they give you 3–4 spares to take with you.

Though I’ve built wheels myself in the past, hand-built wheels are among the most critical parts of an expedition touring bike, so wheelbuilding is one thing I’d rather leave to an artisan. Ross Speirs built mine, though he’s since retired. Your local specialist touring bike shop will almost definitely help you here.

Reviews, Building & Installation Advice, and Retailers for Wheelsets


Tyres For A Round-The-World Cycling Expedition

Once upon a time there was one tyre to rule them all in the expedition touring scene: the Schwalbe Marathon XR. Hard-wearing, impervious to punctures and with enough tread to tackle pretty much anything, the XR was the default choice for anyone doing anything interesting on a touring bike. (I’ve still got a few pairs stockpiled in a basement somewhere.)

Now they’ve been discontinued, however, things aren’t quite so clear-cut when choosing tyres for expedition touring.

Other tyres from Schwalbe’s Marathon range are still top of the pile due to their proven longevity and world-class puncture resistance. The most robust models are rather heavy, and they aren’t particularly cheap, but they do incredibly well on long term tours, as thousands of riders have proved.

When you’re putting together an expedition bike, of course, you choose only the first set of tyres. Tyres are consumable – even the best ones wear out – and there are different tyres for different jobs. So the most appropriate tyres for crossing Europe on good roads this summer aren’t necessarily the same as the pair you’ll want for dirt tracks in Central Asia and Mongolia next year. A round-the-world will involve several pairs of tyres, and those chosen are likely to vary over the course of the journey.

Comfort being more important than speed, many long-haul riders will choose relatively wide (ie: high volume) tyres. A off-the-peg touring bike might be specified with 700×28C tyres (ie: 28mm-wide tyres for the 700C rim size), whereas a custom-built expedition bike might have 26×1.75” tyres (ie: 1.75 inch-wide tyres for the 26-inch rim size). Higher-volume tyres at lower pressures are more comfortable in the long run, as well as having better traction on rough road surfaces.

Don’t forget to factor in the tyre clearance offered by your frameset. A good expedition-specific frame should offer more space for fatter tyres than most regular touring frames.

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For my build, I 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.)

I know these tyres will happily cross a continent or two before they wear thin, probably having had fewer punctures than I’ll have crossed borders. They’re available in a range of sizes and diameters to fit all frames, wheels and rider preferences.

If I were hitting more than a few dirt roads from the word go, I’d probably go with the Plus Tour or Mondial and upsize to 1.75″ or 2.00″.

Retailers for Expedition Bike Tyres


Drivetrain Components For Expedition Cycle Touring

The term drivetrain refers to the sprockets, chains and other mechanisms that transfer rotational kinetic energy from your legs to the rear wheel.

First, though, let’s remind ourselves of some of the core principles of world touring – strengthdurability, compatibility and simplicity. Remembering these will help us wade through the ever-changing swamp of drivetrain technologies that the cycling industry has cultivated for us.

A Brief Rant On Product Diversification, Planned Obsolesence & Marketing Departments

So. Rather than make just one derailleur, one crankset, one bottom bracket, etc., Shimano and others make seemingly thousands of different versions of each part. Their marketing teams would have you believe that the newer, shinier and more expensive something is, the better it must be. This strategy makes Shimano et al a lot of money, and it could easily waste you a lot of money too.

There are indeed differences between ranges, but the truth is that they are utterly marginal. These margins are interesting to bike nerds and competitive cyclists but should be of no interest to you whatsoever. Lots of clever tricks are used save weight – but we’re talking grams here. We’re talking prices rocketing by hundreds of pounds to shave off fewer grams than the weight of your toolkit.

Remember: what you should care about is strength, durability and simplicity. These are qualities that mid-range Deore parts deliver better than high-end XTR parts because they haven’t been compromised in order to shave off a few more slivers of metal.

Bottom line: a drivetrain either works or it doesn’t. The bike either goes when you pedal or it doesn’t. That’s about how the bike as a whole has been built and maintained, not how much a derailleur costs or how shiny it is.

Shimano still have the longest reputation for making drivetrain products that are reliably fit for purpose at every price-point. If properly installed and maintained, a Shimano drivetrain from pretty much anywhere on the spectrum will work well for years or decades to come, with occasional replacement of basic wearing parts such as cables, chains, sprocket cassettes and jocky wheels. This is evidenced by any number of touring bikes still running on Shimano drivetrains from back when there really was only one derailleur to choose from, and so there’s very little reason to look elsewhere.

(When a double-blind experiment is conducted in which a hundred people are sent off to cycle round the world on 8-speed Shimano Acera drivetrains, and another hundred on 12-speed Shimano XTR, and the latter group proven to have had a better time than the former, I will happily change my tune. Rant over.)

Gearing Recommendations For Expedition Touring Bikes

A bicycle for expedition touring needs a wide range of gear ratios. This doesn’t mean ‘lots of gears’ – it means, very specifically, a wide range of them.

You’ll use three or four gear combinations for 99% of your riding: a couple of cruising gears, a ‘tailwind’ gear, and one very low gear for climbing hills. And that one low gear needs to be really low.

But you’ll find the same three or four gear ratios on basic 21-speed bikes from twenty years ago as on expensive 36-speed bikes straight out of the factory today.

Mountain biking tends to require a broader range of gearing than road riding, due to the heavier bikes and more challenging terrain involved, so expedition bikes almost always incorporate mountain bike component ranges in their drivetrains. Look for triple chainsets with 22 or 24 teeth on the smallest sprocket, and cassettes with 32 or more teeth on the largest sprocket. A 26-36-48t chainset and an 11-32t cassette might be a typical combination; a 22-32-44t chainset and a 11-34t cassette, however, would give you more torque on the steeper climbs.

Compatibility in this field means Shimano, or at least Shimano-compatible, because their components still dominate from a worldwide perspective.

Derailleurs

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My expedition bike was fitted with a basic, durable Shimano Deore front derailleur and a matching long-cage rear derailleur.

Honestly, Alivio derailleurs would have been fine too, except that in their 2016 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 (especially while new gear cables are bedding in), and you’ll benefit from the quick and easy tuning available from a barrel adjuster.

Today’s Alivio rear derailleurs do indeed have barrel adjusters and I’d happily choose them over the Deore to save a little extra cash towards my trip.

When ordering a front derailleur, make sure it has the correct clamp size for your frame. The terms ‘top pull’ and ‘bottom pull’ refer to the direction from which the gear cable approaches the mechanism, so again, check your frame’s cable routing lugs to determine which type you need (‘dual pull’ derailleurs are compatible with both).

With rear derailleurs, check whether you’re ordering a ‘normal’ or ‘rapid rise’ model, which basically refers to whether the derailleur shifts up or down the gears when the cable is pulled. Normal-type derailleurs are the appropriate choice in 99% of scenarios.

Cage length also varies with rear derailleurs, with most lines coming in two or three types (short/medium/long). Long cages are slightly more vulnerable to being damaged by trail features while riding off-road, but they’re often necessary to maintain chain tension across a wide-range cassette (see above) – and how much hardcore mountain biking are you really likely to do? Check the stated ‘tooth capacity’ of a derailleur and make sure it’s equal to or greater than the number of teeth on the largest sprocket in the cassette. If it’s lower, you’ll need to upsize.

Further Reading & Retailer Links

Cassette & Chainset

Choose a sprocket cassette with a large lower sprocket – 32 teeth at the minimum, 34 or 36 if possible – in the knowledge that as soon as you take a fully-loaded expedition touring bike up any kind of gradient, you can never have a low enough bottom gear. Make sure your rear derailleur matches (see above).

Choose a chainset (the pedal cranks and the chainrings that attach to them) firstly to match the bottom bracket interface (see below). Look for individually replaceable chainrings, using standard Allen-key chainring bolts in a standard 4-bolt pattern. Choosing such a chainset, rather than a permanently riveted model, means that chainrings can be replaced individually in the case of damage or uneven wear. Chainsets usually come in a variety of crank lengths from 165–175mm; which to choose is a function of your leg length and the frame size of your bike.

(By the way, doesn’t matter if you use a chainset described as 9-speed with an 8-speed chain and cassette system – there’s more compatibility here than manufacturers might have you believe.)

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I chose a Shimano Acera HG41 11-34-tooth 8-speed Megarange cassette, and 170mm Shimano FC-M361 cranks sporting 22-32-44T chainrings, plus a Connex-Wipperman 808 8-speed chain. (Richard uses the KMC X8 99 chain on his current bikes.)

The crankset was chosen for the wide range of gear ratios it would offer, compatibility with square taper bottom brackets, 8-speed chain compatibility (though chainrings rarely have cross-range compatibility issues in reality), the ability to replace individual chainrings using standard Allen key chainring bolts, unlike some other 8sp cranksets which feature riveted chainrings.

(You might notice in the photos that I also upgraded the middle chainring to a Middleburn Hardcoat 32t model, whose longevity was well known in touring lore. Sadly they’re no longer made…)

Further Reading & Retailer Links

Shifters

There is one requirement of a shifter: to pull a gear cable in order to move a derailleur. Given that, it is amazing how many complicated ways the bicycle industry has come up with to do this.

For a round-the-world trip, we are interested in something that works, reliably, and with which there’s as little to go wrong as possible. By default, this means STI integrated shifters are out, as mechanical separation of shifting and braking will minimise complexity and prevent knock-on issues.

This all points to a gear-shifting mechanism that didn’t change for decades and didn’t need to: friction-based thumbshifters.

On road bikes of yore, you would usually find these bolted to the down-tube, having the rider reach down to change gear. When mountain bikes came to prominence, they moved to the handlebars, where they were operated by the thumbs – much more convenient, and resulting in the name thumbshifter. Sadly, it is now nearly impossible to find a set of brand new, good quality, friction-based thumbshifters, but what you can still find are old-school downtube and bar-end friction shifters.

Turns out that these can be repurposed these as thumbshifters using the mounts borrowed from a pair of cheaper SunRace 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.

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In this way, I fitted a pair of classic 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.

The friction-operated left shifter would allow me to ‘trim’ my gears on the fly, finely adjusting the front derailleur with a precision beyond that offered by indexed systems. Trimming gears in this way is a habit that fast becomes second nature on the road.

If something did go wrong with the rear end of the drivetrain, I’d be able to switch the right (rear) shifter over to friction mode with a quarter-turn of a thumb screw, eliminating any compatibility issues that might come up when combining spare parts from different ages and manufacturers. I’d even be able to fit a cassette with the wrong number of sprockets and continue shifting happily away. No indexed shifter can offer this level of backup.

If you’re considering drop handlebars, of course there’s no need to hack the shifter mounts at all – just install them in the bar-ends as designed. Many popular touring bikes have just this setup, including the long-time favourite Kona Sutra.

After a long period of road-testing, Oxford Bike Works now fit the microSHIFT SL-N08 thumbshifters as standard, which are equivalent in functionality and – importantly – now proven reliable over time on tour.

Retailer Links

Bottom Bracket

The bottom bracket is the rotating axle and bearing assembly that sits at the intersection of the seat tube, the down tube and the chainstays, and to which the crank arms are attached. They come in a variety of styles, some being sealed cartridges units, and some featuring a number of pieces that come together when installed on the bike.

Many bottom bracket technologies have come and gone over the years. As ever, we are concerned with what will not change with the whims of fashion, which is tried and tested, and which will allow for the readiest worldwide access to spares. This points to the three-piece, square taper style still used on the vast majority of cheap and cheerful bicycles currently in production.

Quality modern square taper units are typically sealed cartridges, which don’t allow access to the bearings for servicing but are far easier to install and replace. Choosing one of these means that when the unit inevitably begins to rattle and loosen after a few continents, you can either install a like-for-like replacement using standard-issue tools, or build a replacement from the old fashioned loose-bearing bottom bracket parts you’re likely to find in the back-street repair shops of the world.

Of these mid-range cartridge models – Shimano’s classic BB-UN5x line has been going for decades. At the top end is expensive precision-engineered units, such as those from Phil Wood which have developed a cult following on a par with the Chris King headset and will cost as much as an entry-level touring bicycle. Units come in a variety of sizes for different bottom bracket shell and chainset combinations, so again, make sure you get the right version for your frame and chainset.

There is certainly a case for going down the fit-and-forget route, splashing more cash on a unit which will never wear out. On the other hand, a correctly installed bottom bracket is much easier to replace than a headset. They’re also not the kind of component that’ll suddenly and catastrophically fail. You’ll usually get plenty of warning if your bottom bracket bearings are on their way out.

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We fitted the expedition bike with a Shimano BB-UN55 square taper bottom bracket cartridge.

The vast majority of (affordable, utilitarian) bicycles on the road today use the square taper system, which is why Shimano are still making them – although you won’t find them advertised as part of any modern groupset.

This particular model has an excellent reputation for longevity, which is why it still turns up on commercial expedition bikes like Surly’s Long Haul Trucker and Disc 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. On the other hand, it’ll be significantly more durable than a loose-bearing bottom bracket for the same reason.

When it does one day start to deteriorate – something that will happen over a period of time, giving you 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. You’ll find the size information on a sticker when you remove the old unit so you can match it with the correct replacement.

When buying a bottom bracket, you need to know that various shell sizes and thread types will be available to match your frame, and different spindle lengths available to allow correct clearance between the chainrings and the chainstays, as well as to achieve the correct chainline (as specified in your crankset and derailleur specifications).

For this build, a 68mm shell, 113mm spindle and British/ISO thread was the appropriate choice.

(If you’re confused by all this, the easiest thing to do is look at what’s specified on commercially-available complete bikes based on your frameset, and use the same parts.)

Further Reading & Retailer Links

Brake Choice For Expedition Touring Bikes

Braking systems vary in where the braking force is applied:

  • Rim brakes act upon the outer wheel rim,
  • Disc brakes act upon an inner metal rotor.

and in how that force is transmitted from the brake levers:

  • Cable brakes transmit force through a wire cable
  • Hydraulic brakes transmit force through fluid-filled hoses

Disc Brakes Vs Rim Brakes

The big plus points for rim brakes are simplicity and compatibility: they’re standard issue on cheap mass-produced bikes the world over, meaning you replacement brake shoes in pretty much any bike shop on Earth. The same goes for cables, levers, even a complete brake set if need be – it all helps keep you on the road.

Disc brakes’ biggest advantage for tourers is longevity and, secondarily, performance in challenging conditions. They won’t wear out the wheel rims, as rim brakes inevitably will in the (very) long run. All else being equal, disc brakes might afford a slight increase in stopping power more precise control over braking. But how often this would actually matter is very much dependent on your trip. On a dirt-road ride in the Andes or the Himalaya – maybe quite frequently. On a long road tour of years in length – not very often.

The performance benefits of disc brakes are often overstated. And remember that not all brake setups are equal – a well-adjusted rim brake will still outperform badly-calibrated disc brakes.

V-Brakes vs Cantilever Brakes

On touring bikes with dropped handlebars, you will often see road-oriented cantilever brakes instead of mountain bike V-brakes. They both act on the rim of the wheel, and use cables for actuation, but the mechanism is slightly different.

The key is matching the brake mechanism with the brake lever. Drop bar cantilever brake levers and calipers pull a shorter length of cable when used, and V-brake brake levers and calipers pull a longer length of cable. Both systems, if properly set up, will function equally well – there’s no inherent braking advantage or disadvantage to either – just remember that they aren’t cross-compatible out of the box.

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For the expedition bike we went with a V-brake setup, fitting black Shimano Deore BR-610 calipers and silver Shimano Alivio T4000 levers. (BL-T610 levers would also have done the job.)

Cables and brake shoes are standard Shimano all round; the shoes feature replaceable inserts, and once I run out of those I can fit any standard V-brake shoe I can get my hands on.

The rims will eventually start to wear through from all that braking – but not until after literally tens of thousands of kilometres of riding. I’ll prolong their life by regularly cleaning the rims, especially after rain and muddy conditions, and changing the brake shoes well before they wear out completely; and I’ll keep an eye on the rim braking surface’s wear indicators (see above), planning well ahead for a wheel rebuild.

Had I gone for disc brakes (since 2019, Oxford Bike Works have offered a disc-specific frameset and build), I would have chosen one of the few models of cable-actuated (aka: mechanical) disc brake that have actually proven themselves on long distance tours: the Avid BB7, Hayes MX or CX, or TRP Spyre. You’ll find these specified on plenty of high-end road touring bikes.

The Avid and Hayes models are comparable in price and functionality and come in both road and MTB lever compatible versions. The TRP model is slightly more expensive and only compatible with road levers, but sports dual-sided actuation, theoretically reducing the risk of rubbing and providing more fine-grained braking control.

As with rim brakes, ensure you choose calipers to match your brake levers. Mount type and rotor size are functions of frame and fork design, so check the frameset manufacturer’s recommendations. Don’t forget that disc brakes also call for disc-specific wheels and special attention to rack and lowrider compatibility, especially at the front.

Further Reading & Retailer Links

  • Read more about the rim brake vs disc brake ‘argument’ here
  • Order Shimano Deore BR-T610 V-brake calipers* and BL-T610 levers* from Chain Reaction Cycles
  • Order Avid BB7 disc brakes for road* or MTB* levers from Chain Reaction Cycles
  • Order TRP Spyre road disc brake calipers* and rotors* from Chain Reaction Cycles

Cockpit Design For Expedition Cycle Touring

So-called ‘cockpit’ components are the parts of the bicycle that interface directly with your body, specifically the saddle, the handlebars, the grips, and the pedals.

Needless to say, you’re going to get to know these parts very well over the course of your journey, so you want to get them right before you hit the road.

Saddle

There are some saddles you simply tolerate. With others – just as with your favourite pair of shoes – you enter into a kind of symbiosis. The Brooks B17 is one such saddle and has been a touring favourite for many decades. For most people (about 80%, according to one bike builder I know), the saddle question ends here.

A minority of people, however, discover they do not get on with a Brooks. If that’s you, there’s no remedy other than to try as many alternatives as you can until you find one that feels right. Padded shorts may help, as may gel saddles or covers, but there are no shortcuts around trial and error. Alternative saddles often suggested include those from Specialized’s Body Geometry range, and those from Terry Saddles, both of which include women’s specific models.

When fitting a saddle, consider a micro-adjustable seatpost to allow fine-tuning of the saddle tilt angle, which is an often overlooked factor in saddle comfort.

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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 fits my anatomy more perfectly than any other saddle on Earth – because my anatomy created its shape in the first place.

Until some bugger stole mine, at least.

Retailer Links

Handlebars & Stem

When choosing handlebars and a stem, you’ll be concerned with achieving a comfortable riding position, rather than worrying about what kind of aluminium the handlebars are made from, or how aerodynamic you’re going to be on the downhills.

Getting the combination right is more art than science. The best recipe combines intuition on the part of the person building the bike, self-knowledge on the part of the person riding the bike (who may the same person), and a lot of trial and error. This is why spending time trying out lots of options at a local bike shop comes so highly recommended, and why many bike shops offer like-for-like replacements of cockpit components at no extra charge.

Newcomers to cycling often gravitate towards flat bars or riser bars, which offer a more upright riding position; less efficient but more comfortable. Almost all touring bikes of continental European origin are set up in this way. Flat and riser bars put the hands and arms in a more natural position for most riders, and longer bars offer more leverage over heavy front panniers or handlebar bags. Some people like butterfly bars for the variety of handlebar positions on offer, though others dislike their lack of rigidity and find bar-ends offer the same benefits without the compromises.

Drop bars are a common feature of road-oriented British and American touring bikes. Unless you are coming from a road-riding background and/or are used to the feel of drops, they are unlikely to be most comfortable choice for long-term world touring. Even if you’re a roadie, it may be worth at least trying out a more relaxed flat/riser bar option.

Achieving a comfortable, relatively upright riding position that’ll make long days of leisurely riding more pleasant is often helped by adding appropriately angled stem and steerer tube spacers.

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After several hours of trial and error, my bike was fitted with a 610mm flat bar and an 85mm stem with a 15-degree rise.

After a few weeks of test-riding, I changed the flat bars for risers.

(Did I mention a substantial test riding period is recommended 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

What matters most when choosing grips (or grip tape for drop bars) for expedition touring is – again – durability and comfort, but also consider ease of installation and removal. Gear shifters and brake levers sometimes need to be removed during maintenance and repairs, and lock-on grips really help in this situation.

You should expect grips to wear out over time. Cheap grips and those made of softer rubber might feel more comfortable to start with but usually wear out faster. Prolong the life of your grips by wearing riding mitts or gloves.

On drop bars, good cork or leather grip tape should last for many thousands of miles – make sure you install it correctly. (On my road tourer I’ve got on very well with Fat Wrap bar tape from Tasis Bikes.)

As mentioned above, many people add bar-ends for a variety of hand positions during long days of riding, for efficiency on long climbs, and to make your bike look super retro.

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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.

Richard added a pair of his own low-profile rubberised anatomical bar ends, which plugged into the ends of the handlebars. I’ve since found this low-profile combination suits me perfectly – the only minor issue is that I don’t have anywhere to put my mirror!

(The current specification of the Expedition includes the Ergon GP5 combination grips and bar-ends, which have proven the most popular choice among Richard’s customers so far.)

Retailer Links

Pedals

Pedal choice is firstly about footwear – mainly, whether or not you intend to wear SPD shoes. If you do, then you’ll probably be bringing SPD/clipless pedals over from another bike. If you’d prefer to wear ‘normal’ footwear (or you have no idea what SPD means), you’ll probably be looking at flat pedals.

After that, it’s all about durability. Cheap pedals are found even on high-end bikes, because you can’t sell a bike without them, but these stock pedals will disintegrate fast on an expedition. Pedals rotate on their axles thanks to lots of tiny ball bearings, and cheap, badly-sealed (or unsealed) bearings won’t take kindly to the sheer volume of daily pedalling to which they’ll be subjected.

You could bring a service kit and several sets of new bearings, but buying good quality flat pedals in the first place is a better choice for minimising maintenance. Even so, expect pedals to need servicing on your way round the world. Thankfully, 15mm is the worldwide standard thread for pedals, so finding compatible tools and parts is unlikely to be an issue. (Just make sure you install them with a dab of grease so they don’t fuse to your cranks!)

There are few SPD/clipless pedals that can boast the proven longevity of the Shimano Deore PD-M324, which features an SPD clip on one side and a flat platform on the other, making for a very versatile expedition pedal if you do intend to wear SPD shoes.

DMR’s much imitated classic V8 pedals – originally a favourite among BMX riders wearing big flat skate shoes – are another good bet for expedition touring if you want lots of grip and surface area for use with chunky hiking shoes (or flip-flops). The V12 model has sealed cartridge bearings and, while more expensive, will prove more durable in the really long haul.

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I went with the Shimano Deore PD-M324 combination pedals for this build. I usually prefer to wear light, versatile hiking shoes for cycle touring, for comfort and because I know my feet are strong enough to pedal in them – but I also have a nice old pair of SPD boots and I’d like to be able to use them.

Retailer Links

Carrier Racks & Lowriders For Expedition Cycle Touring

Racks and lowriders bolt onto the forks at the front and the frame at the rear of the bike, and allow you to sling panniers off the sides, and in the case of racks strap pretty much anything on top of them too. (Usually this is a tent, but I’ve seen acoustic guitars, cooking pots, wooden crates containing small dogs, scuba diving equipment, and all manner of other accessories lashed to the rear racks of bikes.)

There’s nothing glamorous about these parts, but they’re pretty critical. If the tubing snaps at a stress point, a weld fails, or a bolt shears off, your worldly possessions are going to be bouncing around without support. The likelihood of such a breakage increases with time and miles, with additional weight, and with the roughness of road surfaces.

Cheap racks are fine for short tours, but it should be obvious why for a heavily-loaded expedition bike you should choose models that are as strong and durable as possible.

The main brand you’ll hear about is Tubus from Germany, who manufacture a range of tubular steel rear racks and lowriders. Under normal expedition use, the chances of them breaking are practically zero, except in an unlucky accident – when the steel construction will make it possible to get them temporarily repaired by welders the world over. Their model range is compatible with many frames and panniers, with adaptor kits for lots of unusual configurations, and they’re extremely simple. That’s why you’ll see see thousands of tourers on the roads of the world using the classic combination of the Cargo rear rack and Tara lowrider.

Other reputable rack manufacturers include Blackburn, Surly and Old Man Mountain, and Thorn specify their own-brand racks on their expedition bikes – but Tubus still top the longevity podium.

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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).

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.

Also popular is the Tubus Logo, which is designed for bikes with shorter wheelbases (eg: gravel bikes or old-school mountain bikes) where additional heel clearance is needed. I previously fitted one to my Kona Explosif for that exact reason.

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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.

Retailer Links

  • Order the Tubus Cargo and Tara online from Spa Cycles

Tom’s Expedition Bike: Complete Specification

Here is the complete specification of the original bike build described above and illustrated in the photos. To see the evolved 2019 specification of the custom-built bike derived from this design, check out the Oxford Bike Works website.

Frame: Oxford Bike Works 26” cromoly touring/expedition frame (Reynolds 525)
Forks: Oxford Bike Works cromoly touring forks
Colour: Desert Sand (custom colour)
Headset: Chris King NoThreadSet 1 1/8”, black
Rear Derailleur: Shimano Deore RD-M591, top normal, long cage, black
Front Derailleur: Shimano Deore FD-M590, low clamp, dual pull, black
Cassette: Shimano CS-HG41-8ao, 11-34T, 8-speed
Shifter Levers: Shimano Ultegra SL-BS64 bar end, friction front, 8sp indexed/friction rear
Shifter Mounts: from SunRace M96 thumbshifters
Chainset: Shimano FC-M361, 170mm, 22-32-44T
Middle Chainring: Middleburn Hardcoat 32T (CR-104-90-32)
Bottom Bracket: Shimano UN55, 68mm, British thread
Chain: Wippermann Connex 808s 8-speed with connector link
Rims: Ryde Sputnik 26” (559), 36H, silver, Schrader valve
Front Hub: Shimano Deore XT HB-T780-S, 36H, silver
Rear Freehub: Shimano Deore XT FH-T780-S, 36H, silver
Spokes: Sapim Race double butted (front, rear non-driveside), Sapim Strong PG (rear driveside)
Rim Tape: Velox 19mm cloth
Skewers: Allen/hex key (non-QR)
Tyres: Schwalbe Marathon Plus 26×1.75” with SmartGuard
Innertubes: Schwalbe AV13, 26”, Schrader valve
Brake Levers: Shimano Alivio BL-T4000, silver, pair (mmm… BLT)
Brake Calipers: Shimano Deore BR-T610-L, black
Brake Shoes: Shimano S70C with cartridge shoe inserts (re-order code Y-8A2 98030)
Pedals: Shimano PD-M324, combination SPD/flat
Saddle: Brooks B17 Champion Special
Seatpost: Humpert
Handlebars: Deda 610mm flat bars
Stem: Deda
Grips: Ergon GP1 BioKork lock-on, standard diameter, large size
Bar-Ends: Oxford Bike Works rubberised anatomical bar-ends
Rear Carrier Rack: Tubus Cargo (Classic) 26″
Front Lowrider: Tubus Tara
Mudguards: Axiom Rainrunner LX Reflex, 26″, to fit 1.5-2.2″ tyres, with rubber mudflaps
Extras: Marine-grade stainless steel bolt replacements, steerer tube spacers, Pletscher centre kickstand, System EX steerer-tube bell.

How To Build Your Own Expedition Touring Bike

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.

Insider Tips For Expedition 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.

Go Ride!

I hope this article has comprehensively covered 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.

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.

Yes – I will reiterate this advice until the day I die – you do not need bags of money and top-end gear to go cycle touring.

Have fun!

I’d love to hear about your own experiences and the bikes you end up building, so feel free to post your story in the comments below.

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