But I understand that outdoor enthusiasts occasionally have to splash out on new gear. Some, apparently, even enjoy doing so.
I personally tend to wait until my stuff is falling apart at the seams and covered in repair tape – and then wait another year for good measure. And when I do buy new gear, I try to avoid the purely price- and convenience-driven buying decisions that have got global capitalism into so much trouble.
So much for my buying habits. Here for your perusal are some of the more… tasteful Black Friday 2023 deals I’ve found while scouting around over the last couple of days.
All of the retailers or manufacturers listed here donate a percentage of their profits to charitable causes, and make transparent efforts towards sustainable business practices, considering that they all rely on the preservation of the natural environment to have an industry to operate in.
Terra Nova: Black Friday 2023 Tent Deals & Discounts
This “Green Friday” weekend, as well offering a generous 30% off all full-price products in their online store, they’re donating 5% of profits to EOCA, a charity whose outdoor industry member contributions fund a wide variety of hands-on, outdoor-oriented conservation projects around the world.
Alpkit: Black Friday 2023 Deals For Cycle Tourists & Bikepackers
UK-based direct gear retailer Alpkit have long had a policy of re-investing in outdoor causes, in part by donating at least 10% of profit annually via the Alpkit Foundation.
This Black Friday weekend they’ll be doubling the usual portion of sales proceeds in an effort to raise that figure yet further.
Among the wide range of deals of interest to cycle tourers and bikepackers, you’ll find their highly-rated Ordos tents and Pipedream sleeping bags, alongside a plethora of other outdoor accessories too many to list here. (I’m a big fan of their frame luggage, as mentioned on my big cycle touring kit list page.)
They’re also having a big clearance of ex-demo Sonder bikes – among them many solid base bikes (eg: the Santiago) for touring and bikepacking – though you’ll have to create an account and login in order to see them.
REI: Black Friday 2023 Deals for Cycle Tourists
While some consider this US-based outdoor cooperative to have become too big for its own good, REI still invest a portion of profits (the rest of which go as dividends to members) into charitable causes via the 501(c)(3) nonprofit REI Cooperative Action Fund, whose operations are fully funded by the cooperative.
Among the deals of interest this weekend, I spotted MSR’s rarely-discounted WhisperLite International, WhisperLite Universal and Dragonfly multi-fuel stoves, which have for decades been the burners of choice for riders setting off on long and meandering journeys around the world (see my round-up of cycle touring and bikepacking stoves here). It’s pretty rare to find these gold-standard stoves on sale like this, hence why I mention them here.
Of course, REI being capable of outfitting an entire bike trip, it’s worth checking their other deals too.
Amazon: Black Friday Deals for Cycle Tourists & Bikepackers
Amazon? What – you think I’d encourage you to line Jeff Bezos’s pockets yet further this weekend?! Come on…! 🤣
Yeah, that’s a pretty short list. But the truth is that I found a disappointingly small number of gear makers and retailers with a solid, demonstrable and transparent commitment to giving something back through their profits. Let’s hope the trend picks up!
In the meantime, if you are going to splurge this Black Friday weekend, allow me to encourage you to take a second to consider where your money goes, as well as how good that deal is.
If you do know of any socially responsible gear businesses you think are relevant to cycle tourers and bikepackers (and not just on Black Friday), I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Roughly ten thousand* people have written to me over the years with some version of the following question:
Hi Tom, I’ve been researching touring bikes, and I’ve narrowed my choices down to Bike X and Bike Y. Both look perfect on paper, have great reviews, and fit my budget, but I can’t figure out how to decide between them. Can you help? Cheers, Roughly ten thousand people
* this figure may be exaggerated
Well hey, thanks so much for asking! Of all the big, scary dilemmas faced by the newcomer to the intoxicating world of bicycle travel, the question of which is the best touring bike is perhaps the biggest and scariest of all.
And no wonder: your bike will be the object with which you’ll develop the closest relationship over the days, weeks, months and years of your cycle touring or bikepacking career. It’s common sense to make sure the relationship gets off to the best possible start.
My simple answer to the “Bike X or Bike Y” question has long been as follows:
If it’s hard to choose, there’s probably no meaningful difference, so go for a test-ride and buy what feels right.
Of course, simple answers can sometimes be too simple.
What if you can’t find a store nearby to test-ride any of the bikes on your shortlist?
What if your nearest store’s demo bike isn’t your size and so a test-ride doesn’t really help?
What if you’ve tried every bike on your list in various sizes and configurations and they still don’t feel right?
These and similar scenarios are more common than perhaps they should be. The touring bike occupies one of the smallest and least profitable niches in the bicycle industry, and this seems ever more true as cycling is endlessly reinvented and repackaged around ever-more-specialised pseudo-sporting trends (the current fads are to overuse the word “gravel” and invent brand new size variations for what were previously standardised components).
As a result, very few stores carry a wide selection of touring bikes in diverse sizes and configurations for test-riding. And the bad news is that the options appear to be dwindling yet further. I’ve written before about the slow demise of the touring bike, and my guess is that this will continue, forcing those who simply want to buy a solid, dependable touring bike to work ever harder in order to find one.
Here, then, are a few points of advice for all of those readers past and present who, for whatever reason, were or are struggling with touring bike choice for an adventurous bicycle journey, and turned to me for help.
1. Accept that buying a touring bike may take more time and effort than you want it to.
In Western societies that produce people who want to travel the world by bicycle, we have grown used to a pattern of consumerism which involves wanting something, rapidly digesting huge amounts of digital information, trying to divine the best choice between many slightly different versions of the same thing (this is where the title question of this post comes in), and pressing a button to make it appear on our doorstep – all without leaving our homes.
(Prehistoric humans, on observing this, would probably have called it magic.)
There are, however, certain purchases – houses, cars, fitted kitchens, etc – for which we’re happy to suspend this pattern and invest real time and effort into the buying decision. This is because we know that we will spend large amounts of time living with the consequences of these choices.
Yet I hear time and time again from people who have – consciously or otherwise – categorised the bicycle as just another thing it’s okay to buy online and have delivered by a gig worker in a clapped-out van. It isn’t.
(The most popular blog post I’ve ever written, What’s The Best Touring Bike?, doesn’t contain a single link to an online bicycle retailer. Even though I could easily monetise and earn money from affiliate links in this post – and many less scrupulous cycle touring blogs do this, despite it not being in their readers’ best interests – I prefer to stand by my principles and encourage readers to patronise local bike stores and small-scale bike builders instead.)
Yet when I suggest taking one or more touring bikes for a test-ride, I am perhaps guilty of omitting the details of what that might involve.
So here’s my attempt to remedy that.
The first thing to say is that going straight to your local bike store – while laudable and worthwhile – is not guaranteed to solve the touring bike choice dilemma.
This is because local bike stores, by their nature, tend to deal with servicing and selling bikes for casual riders – commuters, shoppers, children. Very rarely do they specialise in touring, and if so only alongside the more mainstream forms of cycling.
You might be lucky enough to find a seasoned cycle tourist working at your local bike store who’ll jump at the chance to help a like-minded customer, and for this reason alone it’s worth dropping in. But the odds of this happening are low – and therefore so are the odds of finding one of the bikes you’ve researched online, in your size, available to try.
What this means is that you’ll need to be a bit more strategic about finding a touring bike supplier.
You’re looking for someone who understands the specific needs of the bicycle traveller, has access to at least some of the bikes you’ve shortlisted, and is happy to spend time getting your bike built and fitted with you.
Time spent here is what will make the difference between a well-fitted bike that actually meets your needs, and the significant final assembly and inherent gamble involved when the same bike arrives by courier in a cardboard box, unopened since it left the factory in Taiwan.
You may be lucky enough to live close to one of these establishments, but it’s more likely that visiting one will involve a day trip, or even an overnight stay. In any case, contact them in advance of your visit so you know what the options are, and so the staff can prepare in advance if necessary. In other countries, I’d suggest starting with the ‘dealer locator’ page of your candidate touring bike manufacturers’ websites.
When visiting one of these specialists with a touring bike purchase in mind, you should not expect to wheel the bike of your dreams out of the door on day one.
It’s more likely you’ll spend time with a sales assistant inspecting the demo bikes on display, and then spend some time with an experienced bike fitter figuring out which of the available size options of your final choice of bike is the right one for you. This might involve a fitting session, probably on different but similar bike to the one you’re actually purchasing. It’ll depend on what the shop has in stock at the time.
(It’s worth saying that, if the differences between the bikes on your shortlist truly are marginal, this shouldn’t be cause for alarm. The goal is to approximate your frame size and to decide whether the cockpit geometry is going to suit your physiology, so the final decision can be made with confidence.)
What the store will do next is to order your chosen bike, in the available size closest to yours, then complete the assembly in their workshop when it arrives a few days or weeks later, as well as making any previously discussed modifications and additions.
If you live close enough to pay a second visit, you should be able to go back in and have a final tailoring session done at the workshop. At this stage, many stores will, within reason, offer like-for-like swaps of fitting components such as stems and handlebars – and then you’ll get to wheel the touring bike of your dreams out of the door. Otherwise, the store will repack the bike and ship it to you, leaving you only to attach the pedals and realign the handlebars yourself.
Regardless of how much in-store fitting is done, however, you should still expect to make further adjustments over the first few days and weeks of riding as you and the bike get used to each other.
Which brings me to my next point:
2. Though some will try to convince you otherwise, there’s no such thing as a maintenance-free touring bike.
If you’re used to doing your own bike maintenance, the prospect of adjusting and maintaining your new touring bike is unlikely concern you. You’ll chuck your fix-anything bike touring toolkit in a pannier or frame bag, hit the road, and figure out any issues on the way.
And if you’re new to DIY bike mechanics but you’re willing to learn, you’ll be pleased to hear that working on a touring bike should be quite straightforward. Bike tools are simple, affordable, and mostly standardised, especially compared to their motoring equivalents. Bicycles of this type also tend to be conservatively built, rather than following the latest industry-driven trends, usually using modular parts for which spares and alternatives are easy to find and fit. YouTube is brimming over with visual tutorials covering almost every topic imaginable, including bicycle maintenance.
(I’ll come back to the italicised bits in a short while.)
But if you’re under the impression that choosing the “right” touring bike will exempt you from getting your hands dirty, I’m going to burst that bubble.
Indeed, your reluctant involvement in the mechanical workings of your new touring bike will probably begin on your first day of ownership.
I want to repeat this for clarity: no matter how “perfect” any touring bike looks on the specification sheet or in the manicured photos and videos of the influencer who’s being paid to promote it, how clever-sounding the expensive new technology that promises to make it “maintenance-free”, or how precisely it was fitted in the retailer’s workship, you should still anticipate making additional adjustments to get it just right.
Let’s go through a hypothetical timeline of new touring bike ownership and the work you’ll have to put in.
Before a new touring bike is even ridden, many riders will make a few common modifications, including:
changing the stock tyres to match their intended style/duration of touring,
swapping out the saddle for an existing, favoured model (often a previously broken-in Brooks),
adding (or removing) racks and mounts to suit a particular luggage setup, and
adding (or removing) accessories such as mudguards, lights, phone mounts, hub generators and power supplies, etc.
Then, over the course of your first few rides, expect to find yourself making adjustments to, among other things:
the tilt, height and fore-aft position of your saddle, which felt fine in the workshop but proves uncomfortable for all-day riding;
the precise location and angle of your brake levers and shifters, which again calls for a little time in the saddle to find a natural position;
the mounting location of your panniers (if you’re using them) for heel and toe clearance, and that of any frame/cockpit bags to solve knee clearance and turning circle issues;
the angle and height of your handlebars, which might involve making adjustments to stem orientation and headset spacers, as well as handlebar rotation.
An experienced rider on a new bike might well head out for a ride carrying a small toolkit with the express intention of making all of these adjustments on the roadside, but as some aspects of bicycle tuning are quite delicate it does help to have some pre-existing knowledge.
(Do you know how much force it takes to, for example, tighten your stem clamp to the recommended 5 Newton metres you’ll find etched next to the bolt holes? It’s probably less than you think.)
Over the first days and weeks of a tour, expect to find yourself in a series of roadside locations doing some or all of the following:
adjusting the indexing of your gears as the new shifter cables stretch and bed in;
fiddling with the positioning of brake shoes or calipers to solve an increasingly annoying rubbing or squealing noise;
adding or removing headset spacers, or even changing your stem for one with a different rise or reach, to relieve discomforts that weren’t solved by adjusting the saddle;
making various other micro-adjustments that only reveal themselves over time and miles.
Yet further down the road, you might realise you’d have preferred flat bars to drops, necessitating a complete cockpit rebuilt; or that your skinny tyres, while certainly faster and more efficient, don’t exactly provide much cushioning during long days in the saddle; or that cramming all your life’s posessions into that fancy bespoke frame luggage set is actually really frustrating and you’d a rack and panniers might be better after all.
And… (here’s where I deal with the italics from a few paragraphs ago…)
When your very expensive maintenance-free Rohloff or Pinion or Gates Carbon Drive system or [insert proprietary new technology here] breaks irreparably – not because of a problem with its cleverly engineered design, but because you dropped your bike and broke it, or you forgot to change the gear oil on time, or a rat chewed through the rubber belt in the cargo wagon of a train, or it was badly strapped to the top of a truck while you were hitching a nasty section of potholed road – you may suddenly wish you’d chosen a bike you could fix on the roadside or at a small-town backstreet workshop, and that you’d spent the extra thousand pounds/euros/dollars on an introductory bicycle maintenance course and a good set of tools instead. (Of course, you might also be happy to fly home and get it fixed or replaced – we’re all different.)
Of course, I can’t tell you exactly what you’ll want to change and why and when, or what level of involvement in your bicycle’s maintenance you’ll be comfortable with, because these will be different for every rider as they grow into their relationship with a new touring bike and, in the process, learn more and more about themselves, their bike, and their particular style of bicycle travel.
I guess what I’m saying is that – right now, pre-purchase – it might be worth examining your expectations regarding what coming into ownership of a touring bike is going to involve.
What problem are you trying to solve by agonising over the choice between two bikes so similar you can’t decide between them?
Yes – research is important, and there are meaningful differences between the range of available bikes.
But if you’re expecting the choice between Bike X and Bike Y to be the last time you have to think about the details of your bike, I’d suggest you instead consider it to be the beginning of that story.
Indeed, the bike will become an inextricable part of the jouney(s) you’ll make with it. People name their bikes. They’re usually more prominent in people’s Instagram feeds than the rider themselves. They developer characters. (See, for example, Charlie.)
Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to work with your bicycle as you make your bike trip together.
And the choice between two marginally different touring bikes at the point of purchase isn’t going to change that.
3. If you’ve tried a range of touring bikes and none are quite right, something else might be going on.
The problem with mainstream, mass-produced touring bikes is that they’re, well, mainstream and mass-produced.
This presents the same problems for people with diverse physiologies as, say, the clothing industry. Do you struggle to find clothing and footwear that fits you without going to a specialist, a tailor, or the kids’ section? If so, you might have figured out why none of the touring bikes you’ve tried seem to fit.
To be fair, the bicycle industry has started to address its inherently ableist approach to bike design. Popular categories of bike now offer much more in the way of accessibility options than they used to. E‑bike proponents often point to pedal-assist as the technology that has brought cycling to more non-cyclists than any other.
With mass-produced touring bikes, however, things mostly remain limited to four or five unisex (ie: men’s, unfortunately) frame sizes per bike, with no variation for people with diverse sizes, proportions or ranges of mobility. Yes, modular components such as handlebars, stem and spacers, seatpost, and crank length do offer adjustability and tailored fitting, but only up to a certain point.
If, then, you do diverge from an average range of heights, builds, weights, ranges of mobility, or other aspects of physiology, and you’re finding this is limiting (or eliminating) the touring bikes available to you, my advice is once again simple:
Book an appointment with your nearest touring bike specialist offering bespoke framebuilding services.
You don’t have to go back more than a couple of generations to find a time when bespoke framebuilding was the norm, and every town would have one. The runaround I had as a teenager and a student was my road-racer grandad’s winter training bike, which bore the livery of the Sleaford framebuilder who’d made it to measure and which I later inherited (it was always a bit on the small side).
The modern-day example I usually point to in the UK is Oxford Bike Works, whose owner Richard Delacour I’ve been working closely with for many years on designing and keeping updated his flagship Expedition heavy-duty touring bike*. He does a line of batch-made stock frames, but also offers tailor-made UK-built frames for a small additional fee.
OBW isn’t the only outfit offering bespoke frames for tourers with diverse requirements. A look through my list of UK touring specialists will reveal that many of them also work in partnership with local framebuilders to offer a similar service. Some offer only bespoke frames, doing away with batch manufacturing completely.
Going down this route means you can expect a fit as close as, well, tailored clothing. I can’t overstate how enormously valuable this, not just to riders struggling with commercial framesets, but to any serious long-term bicycle user.
Incidentally, if you’d had your heart set on an off-the-peg bike, but you just can’t find the right fit among the available sizes and options, you’ll be pleased to know that many bespoke builders will be happy to let your (former) dream bike inform the details of the bike they build for you.
Trade customers of the main component suppliers usually have access to the same range of parts as the bigger manufacturers, and at much lower prices than you’d have access to in the consumer retail market. Although there will always be slight differences because of variations in frame geometry and component compatibility, a good builder will be able to closely parallel the specifications of an existing commercial touring bike so that your bespoke touring bike behaves as similarly as possible.
You’ll end up with a bike specified very similarly to the one you’d chosen, but with the geometry and fitting tweaked to match your particular physiological requirements, slightly different decals, and probably a handful of improvements and personalisations, making it a better match than any mass-produced bike could ever hope to be.
And then – far more importantly – you’ll be able to put the question of Bike X or Bike Y behind you and get on with the business of riding it!
Well – that was a slightly longer answer than I was expecting it to be. But I hope it comprehensively answers the question of whether you should choose Bike X or Bike Y (or something else) for your next cycle tour…
Thank you for bringing up these timely questions on the subject of winter cycle touring in sub-zero conditions! The northern-hemisphere winter is approaching fast, and I’ve said before that winter can be a source of fun and novelty for adventure cyclists, so it’s great to hear from someone planning a ride like this.
Let’s start with the question of whether you need special winter fluid for hydraulic disc brakes on a touring bike (or any other type of bicycle, for that matter):
It’s good to hear you’re thinking ahead about the potential for winter conditions to cause your bike and gear behave differently. They will, in many ways – and most of them are predictable, meaning you can prepare in advance.
In general, hydraulic braking systems use either mineral oil or automotive DOT fluid as their transmission medium. The good news is that both types of fluid function well at low temperatures, else they wouldn’t be an appropriate choice for systems such as brakes for cars and bikes, which let’s not forget are also sold in the countries you’re planning on riding through.
Having said that, the only way to guarantee the range of safe operating temperatures is to compare the specification of your brake fluid with the temperatures you’re likely to encounter. So let’s try and do that now.
The manufacturer webpage for your bike, the KTM Life Lontano P18, specifies Shimano BR-T615 brakes, which operate using Shimano’s own mineral oil (part number SM-DB-OIL).
Mineral oil could be argued to be a better choice than DOT fluid for very low temperatures, as it doesn’t absorb moisture over time. (Moisture absorption affects DOT fluid’s performance at extreme temperatures and is one of the reasons automotive brake fluid should be changed at regular intervals.)
However, “mineral oil” is a vague term, unlike DOT fluids whose performance characteristics are clearly defined. Unfortunately Shimano’s own website doesn’t seem to have any detailed information on the oil’s performance specifications, at least not that I could find.
This leads me to make the following educated guesses:
It seems likely that a mainstream brake manufacturer would fill their brake systems with a fluid appropriate for a wide range of conditions, and at least issue a warning for special cases. The technical documents accompanying these brakes have no such warnings, so my guess is that cold weather should present no issues.
Anecdotally, my Magura mineral oil-filled hydraulic disc brakes ran perfectly well in Arctic Scandinavia, so I’d imagine your Shimano mineral oil-filled brakes will too. (For the record, I encountered temperatures down to at least ‑33ºC.)
In short, if your brakes are well-maintained and checked before you leave, I think it’s highly unlikely you’ll have any problems related to the brake fluid. Frost-bitten fingers reducing your braking power seems more likely!
Regarding your choice of winter touring tyre, and particularly on choosing between Schwalbe’s Marathon Winter and Ice Spiker Pro tyres for cold weather cycle touring:
Both of these tyres have been in Schwalbe’s range of studded winter tyres for over a decade, and therefore are mature products road-tested over a huge number of real-world miles, so you can be pretty confident in their suitability for the task at hand. The question in your case is therefore more about the task than about the tyre.
Marathon Winters, as with the whole Marathon range, are designed primarily for general purpose longevity, with the studs added for grip on icy roads. The Ice Spiker Pros, on the other hand, are designed for mountain-biking in icy conditions, prioritising tyre volume and tread profile for maximum traction, as well as having almost double the number of studs as the Marathons. In other words, they’re different tyres for different jobs, albeit both in subzero conditions.
You haven’t mentioned anything about the details of your route. Judging by your choice of bike, I’d guess you’re planning on riding mainly on snowploughed roads and cycleways of hard-packed snow and ice, rather than going snow-biking on trails groomed for fatbike tyres or trying to venture off-road through deep snow. If I’m right about that, perhaps it will help if I say that in retrospect I’d have been able to accomplish my own Arctic cycle tour on the Marathon Winters, and I’d probably have found them to be more efficient in most of the circumstances I encountered. On the other hand, when I did go “off-road” and pedalled across the frozen surface of Lake Storsjön to Östersund, I was very happy to be able to let some air out of the Ice Spikers and have all 402 spikes in contact with the ice, even if only for peace of mind!
I hope this helps you prepare for your deep winter cycle tour, on which more of my advice can be found here. Don’t forget to let me (and everyone else here) know how you get on!
This is part of an occasional series of posts answering questions sent in by readers of this blog about cycle touring, bikepacking, and related topics. If you have a question of your own, first check out the absolutely massive advice & planning page, and if you still don’t find the answer, feel free to write in!
Of all the metaphors that capture the essence of bicycle travel, perhaps freewheeling is the most appropriate.
Think about it. When you stop pedalling and freewheel, you have ceased to exert any discernible effort. Yet you continue rolling forward anyway, propelled by your own momentum. Magic!
What makes this possible is the wheel – or, more specifically, the assembly consisting of axle shaft and rotational ball bearing. It is here, in the space between two atoms of polished steel, that can be found the transition between human and machine. Wikipedia informs us that bearings of this kind have been recovered from Roman shipwrecks dating back over 2,000 years.
(To understand the genius of this mechanical principle more deeply, grab some cone spanners and overhaul your front hub, or at least watch someone do it on YouTube.)
Similarly, when balance and curiosity pair up with that equally extraordinary invention known as the bicycle, they together express the same transcendental freedoms embodied by the free-spinning wheel and articulated in English with labels like “cycle touring” and “bikepacking”.
There are emotional parallels to be found on the road, too.