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Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #7: What Should I Remember Before Handing Over My Cash?

There are a few aspects of touring bike choice so utterly basic that they’re often lost in the quagmire of internet-based research.

This is particularly the case when browsing websites for advice on touring bikes: features and technical specifications are a lot easier to talk about than the all-important intangibles.

In this final Touring Bike FAQ article, we’ll look at a few of the key concerns for you as a bicycle buyer, builder or tweaker that should always precede specification- or technology-based worries, particularly when it comes to handing over your hard-earned cash.

1. Does It Feel Right? (a.k.a. Go For A Test Ride)

By far the most important criteria for a bike you’re going to be riding all day, every day, is whether or not it feels right when you ride it.

This is something that months of theoretical research into touring bikes will never tell you, and something that you’ll discover within a few seconds of actually trying one out.

For a short trip, if the bike you already own is comfortable enough, why change it? Even a bike that perhaps doesn’t feel perfect is still unlikely to cause problems for short, spontaneous, drop-everything-and-go trips. Assuming you haven’t forgotten to bring a multi-tool, you’ll be able to adjust various bits of the bike until it feels less uncomfortable. Miracles can be performed through saddle adjustment alone. Handlebars are easy to raise or lower.

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For anything longer, or involving any kind of significant time and money investment, though, you can barely afford to risk an expensive, carefully-chosen bicycle feeling all wrong when it arrives by courier in a big cardboard box.

The most common cause of discomfort when cycling for longer periods of time is to do with incorrect sizing. Unless you’re already an experienced cyclist who can hazard a guess as to the best of nine or ten size options, the easiest way to get this right is to get sized up at your local bike shop. You’ll be able to test-ride a variety of bikes, and when you settle on buying one, they’ll be able to adjust or swap components that affect fit.

Depending on your budget, this is also a strong argument in favour of a custom-built touring bike.

The result? A touring bike that feels right. If you’re going to be spending the majority of your waking hours on it, there’s not much more important than that.

(What? You were thinking about buying a touring bike online without test-riding it first…?)

2. Does It Suit Your Touring Style? (a.k.a. Choose The Right Tool For The Job)

Not all touring bikes are built for the same kind of touring. That’s why, when choosing a bike, it’s really important to start by considering the demands of the trip you have in mind. Your ride should dictate your bike, rather than your bike dictating your ride.

Fast, light, on-road and short-term is a combination usually found together in touring.

At the extreme end of this scale are ‘credit card tours’, in which the traveller packs little more than a toothbrush, a credit card and the clothes on their back, and travels with the philosophy that they’ll buy what they need when circumstance demands it (including accommodation). The Himalayas have been crossed by bicycle in this way, though it might be worth starting out with something a little less ambitious.

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Road and hybrid bikes with minimal luggage carrying abilities are fine for this kind of touring, and the niche is well served by the numerous light touring bikes on offer.

Slow, heavy, rough-road and long-term are likely to co-incide too.

Many years ago, on a deserted road in Egypt’s Sinai peninsular, I met Katya and Mirko, a Slovenian couple who truly did live on their bikes.

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Their heavy-duty mountain bikes were piled high with luggage; a guitar sat atop a heap of jewellery-making equipment in a two-wheeled cargo trailer. From there, they would ride to Israel, where they would spend time making and selling jewellery in order to fund the next stage of their journey through life. At the time of writing they are riding through South-East Asia.

For those in it for the long haul, heavy-duty ‘expedition’ bikes are available, if not as commonly seen as your standard road tourer. They’re built specifically to cater for the demands of fully-loaded world travel, and you’ll find they differ in a few very specific ways from ‘standard’ touring bikes.

Most tours fall somewhere in the middle. You are not breaking records, but you do want to feel like you’ve got somewhere at the end of a day. You’ll carry the essentials for riding, camping and cooking in varying weather, but pack a few personal luxuries too. Roads will comprise the majority of your trip, but your might find yourself on a dirt track every now and then. You’ll usually ride for a few weeks at a time, make a few shorter trips closer to home, and occasionally go for a Big Ride.

The majority of bikes sold as ‘touring bikes’ are designed to cater for this broad category of rider. If this is the first time you’ve been asked to think about your specialist touring requirements, it’s likely you fit this category, and you’ll be pleased to hear that you’ve got bags of choice.

If a mainstream tourer doesn’t fit your plans, on the other hand, consider a custom expedition build. You might also find inspiration in my personal bikeography, covering the bikes I’ve used myself over the last few years of touring.

That’s it for the Touring Bike FAQ series! I hope you’ve found it useful. Further questions about touring bikes? Ask away in the comments below…

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Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #6: What’s The Best Way To Avoid Buying The Wrong Bike?

When it comes to actually buying the touring bike they’ve spent months researching, people often look to online retailers, who can often undercut high street bike shops by a respectable percentage. This is for various reasons:

  • there’s no physical shop front to maintain,
  • fewer trained and experienced staff are needed,
  • there’s no need to spend time fitting and specifying each bicycle to each customer,
  • customer service demands are more limited as the customer can’t bring a product back in person,
  • and let’s not forget economies of scale; all of which reduce overheads and enable competitive pricing.

These, however, aren’t reasons to buy a touring bike online.

They’re reasons not to buy a touring bike online.

What Matters Most When Buying A Touring Bike?

It’s really critical to understand what your priorities as a touring cyclist should be – especially when getting kitted out with the single most important piece of gear you’ll need: the bicycle itself.

While your overall strategy might well be to save as many pennies as physically possible in order to spend more time on the road, part of pulling this off successfully requires understanding where it is worth dropping a bit of cash to avoid unnecessary problems later on. The purchase of a touring bike is one of these places.

If you’re unconvinced, think about it this way:

If you were buying a new car or a house, and you knew that your daily life would revolve in a very real way around making a well-thought-out decision about which car or house to buy, would you choose a 10% discount in return for not being able to test-drive the car, not being able to look around the house; simply being sent the keys in the post and trusting from the description and photographs alone that it would be right for you?

I’m willing to wager that you’d rather be sure that what you’re buying is right. You’d rather pay full price and then drive economically or make a few cost-cutting lifestyle tweaks to reduce your bills.

In order words, you’d rather spend money where it makes sense, and save where it’s safe to do so.

A new touring bike is not a new car, and probably doesn’t carry the same weight in your mind when thinking about major purchases.

But it should.

Once you’re on the road, your bike isn’t just the equivalent of a car; it’s the equivalent of a car you drive all day long – that you might as well drive for a living. Sacrifice your daily coffee for a few weeks. It’s a compromise worth making.

The Critical Importance of Fitting & Sizing

Whether the bike itself is new or second-hand, cheap or expensive, it needs to feel right. And in order to feel right, it needs to fit you pretty precisely.

Ill-fitting bikes are the most common cause of injury and chronic discomfort among cycle tourists, and it’s also worth mentioning that ill-fitting bicycles are one of the key reasons many of us don’t ride bikes past adolescence: we’ve never ridden a bike that actually fits us.

Fitting a bicycle is not a magical art, but there are a few prerequisites:

  • experience on the part of the fitter;
  • the ability to make small adjustments to or substitutions of components depending on the unique physiology of the rider, and
  • the ability for the rider to put in enough riding to identify issues and have them resolved.

Taking the first pedal stroke on a correctly sized and fitted bicycle is, for a surprising number of adults, a real revelation, and something that committed cyclists often forget.

Why You Shouldn’t Buy A Touring Bike Online

At this point, a quick glance back at the reasons mail-order bike stores are cheaper will remind you why mail-ordering a bike is a poor choice for the touring cyclist.

Forget about test-riding bikes and being able to get that intuitive and all-important “this is right” feeling from the bike you’re potentially going to be riding for months or years on end. You won’t know you’ve made the right choice until the big cardboard box turns up at your home, at which point you’re pretty much on your own.

Any self-respecting bike shop owner, on the other hand, will happily devote hours of staff time to sizing and fitting a bike for you, and will within reason swap out components that affect bike fit and ergonomics, such as stem, handlebars, saddle and grips at little or no extra cost while the bike is still brand new.

With a mail-order bike, it’s “like it or lump it” – stock components or nothing (or make your own modifications), and no set-up help either.

Finally, a bike shop with whom you’ve made a significant investment will often offer a post-purchase “check-up” during which you’ll be able to tweak the setup after a few test rides.

In other words, that 10% or so you’d save online is the difference between a bike that fits, feels right, has been set up correctly, and has been tweaked to fit your body and riding style; and a bike that’s come straight from the factory in a cardboard box, which you have to finish building and setting up yourself, and for which the only after-sales service you’ll get is an automated email asking you to review your purchase on the website. Given that you’ll be racking up more cycling hours on tour than in any other cycling discipline, it’s probably not a 10% worth saving.

This is really important. Sorry to bore you by repeating myself, but it is amazing how many people will happily spend days, weeks or even months researching touring bikes online, yet when it comes to actually making possibly the most significant purchase of their cycle touring lives to date, they’d rather risk getting the wrong size or even on receiving (in pieces) a bike which in reality doesn’t quite agree with them, for the sake of saving a few quid.

It’s understandable to a point, as it fits with the buying habits that many of us exhibit on a daily basis, but we must realise the importance of avoiding it in this particular case.

Let’s not forget that the bicycle will be, for several hours a day, the sole interface between you and the world. It’s practically an extension of your body in that sense. It’s too important to leave key aspects of this symbiotic relationship to chance. I will repeat this so that there can be no possible room for ambiguity: do not buy a touring bike online.

So feel free to research an expensive bike online, then find a good price and a nearby store that will meet your needs – but don’t skimp when it comes to the crunch.

Exceptions To The Rule

Now, there are a couple of legitimate cases when you might get away with ignoring this unashamedly categorical advice not to buy a touring bike online.

The first is when:

  1. you know exactly which bike you need and are utterly confident in its suitability for your tour,
  2. you know exactly what size will fit you (from previous experience of fitting and riding similar bicycles, not just by looking at sizing charts), and
  3. you are an experienced enough mechanic to build it, fit it and tweak it to perfection yourself.

Pay close attention: if you don’t honestly, truly satisfy these three criteria, you’ll be better off with a slightly cheaper bike and spending the savings on visiting a store and getting it sized, fitted and set up properly.

Like an expensive tailor-made suit, the poshest touring bike on the market will not be the slightest bit of use if it doesn’t fit you. Comparatively, a scrapyard-rescued bike that’s properly sized and set up will be a comparative joy to ride.

There are of course people who will fit these criteria, but let’s face it – they are the people least likely to be reading this article.

The second case is when the touring bikes you’ve got your eye on are simply unavailable in your local area.

I’ve received a few emails from readers where this has been the case, and the only way to get their hands on a new and high quality touring bike has been to have one couriered in (in a cardboard box, in pieces) from abroad.

This should be considered a last resort, and the benefits of doing this should clearly outweigh travelling to a place where quality touring bikes are available, buying one locally, and beginning a tour from there.

Don’t forget the custom-build option. It makes a lot of sense if you’re in it for the long haul, and it’s not half as expensive as you might think.

And finally in the Touring Bike FAQ series: What Should I Remember Before Handing Over My Cash?

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Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #5: Derailleurs Or Internal Hub Gears (Rohloff)?

There are people in this world who you could put in a room and let them argue until the end of all time about whether or not a touring bike should be equipped with a Rohloff Speedhub.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Rohloff, it’s a rear wheel hub that costs the best part of a grand and automagically changes gears without the use of the derailleur system (the collection of cogs, cables and moving parts that’s used to change gears on almost every bicycle on the planet).

Rohloff Speedhub internals

Internet-based wanderings will unearth no end of people who ‘swear by’ Rohloffs, and no end of kit-list webpages from folk who’ve shelled out the requisite cash to equip their bike with one. They’re ultra-reliable, less messy, simpler on the outside, smoother to use, and you can change gear while stationary.

They are not, however, essential items of equipment for round-the-world touring.

People have indeed cycled round the world with Rohloffs. But more people have cycled round the world with traditional derailleur gears, having had a century’s head start.

The decision to invest in a Rohloff is not about whether it will will get you through a very long bike trip ‘better’ than a derailleur. As evidenced by the Database of Long Distance Cycling Journeys, they’ll clearly both do the job.

It’s more a question of the differing approaches that people take towards touring.

Why People Do (Or Don’t) Choose A Rohloff Speedhub

The first main difference in reasoning lies in how people deal with the fear of something going horribly wrong.

When the non-user-serviceable Rohloff Speedhub breaks, you send it back to Germany and spend a couple of weeks waiting in whichever city you had to hitch-hike to when it happened. Rohloff repair or replace the hub and send it back to you.

You hope that this happens before a) the locals customs department get hold of it, and b) your tourist visa runs out.

Eventually, you continue with your tour.

When a derailleur breaks, you try to fix it yourself, because all the parts are exposed and relatively simple, you’ve been on the road for long enough to know how to fix your bike, and you’ve long since stopped caring about getting greasy fingers.

If you can’t fix it, you remove a few links from your chain and turn your bike into a single-speeder until you get to the next city, where you check into the local hostel to find another cycle tourist awaiting the return of his or her Rohloff hub from Germany. You find a new derailleur or gear hanger or cassette or chain or chainring from any local bike shop.\

Eventually, you continue with your tour.

The second point of divergence regards whether people would prefer the reassurance of a Rohloff or an extra £1000 towards their tour.

What would an extra £1000 in spending money mean for your tour?

Touring Bike Derailleur

Consider that there’s no difference between the two systems that will occupy your mind when you’re actually turning the pedals of your bike. You’ll have better things to think about. Ultimately, both systems will allow you to change gear when you need to – until something goes wrong.

So if money is no object at this stage of your bike-choice process, the only real way to decide between the two is by rather whimsically thinking about which you like the idea of best.

Out of sight, out of mind for tens of thousands of miles – until it possibly breaks catastrophically? Rohloff it probably is.

Not as shiny, and needing occasional tweaking, but familiar to every bicycle repairman on the planet? Derailleur it probably is.

Still can’t decide? Flip a coin, cover it up, and then think about which side you really wanted it to land on…

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: What’s The Best Way To Avoid Buying The Wrong Bike?

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Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #4: Disc Brakes or Rim Brakes (V‑Brakes)?

There’s plenty of debate over whether V‑brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’ for touring. And, as usual, there’s no clear-cut answer.

V‑brakes, for our purposes, are a generic and misused term for the several varieties of caliper brakes that work by pinching the bicycle wheel’s rim between two brake blocks to create friction and slow the bike.

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Disc brakes on pushbikes are a relatively new appearance, having been modified and transplanted from motorbikes, and were primarily hydraulic and aimed at the high-end mountain biking market when they first appeared. Later, cable-actuated disc brakes appeared, using the same cables and levers as V‑brakes. All of them feature calipers that act upon a metal ‘rotor’ bolted onto the wheel hub, rather than the rim.

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The big debate has arisen because disc brakes are a departure from established, proven technology and functionality. Tourers are generally reluctant to risk the reliability of their rides on new-fangled technology.

In the last few years, however, several models of cable-actuated disc brake have been round the world, and have been tried and tested. That they are now featuring regularly as standard or as optional upgrades on some of the most stalwart touring bikes available — the Surly Disc Trucker, for example — is a reflection of the fact that disc brakes have now well and truly crossed over from ‘new-fangled’ to ‘tried and tested’.

The case for disc brakes on touring bikes

Disc brakes’ advantages mainly lie in their braking functionality. They offer a finer degree of control over braking, known as ‘modulation’. All else being equal, they can also provide slightly more stopping power. With fully-loaded touring bikes easily weighing three or four times the weight of an unloaded bike, the prospect of an increase in braking power is a tempting one.

For ultra long term tours, disc brakes offer another perceived advantage: they won’t wear out your wheel rims. It takes far longer to wear out a disc brake rotor with disc brakes than it does to wear out a wheel rim with V‑brakes. This is accentuated in wet, dirty conditions when grit and crap on V‑brakes will grind away at wheel rims like sandpaper.

In the long term, using V‑brakes will more or less guarantee that you’ll need to replace the wheels of your bike, or rebuild them onto new rims, at some point (you will get plenty of advance warning of this if you keep your eyes open; most good rims feature wear indicators for just this purpose).

Most long-haul tourers seem happy enough knowing this, and plan or prepare accordingly. They also know that a wheel is as likely to need rebuilding because of snapped spokes or worn-out hubs as it is because of a worn braking surface.

The case for rim brakes on touring bikes

In this light, it’s easy to see rim brakes as an old-hat, low-budget, sub-optimal choice for braking. But this is not true.

The braking power argument is often given undue importance. It might well help a downhill mountain biker win a race, and that’s why mountain bikers love hydraulic disc brakes – but that’s very different to 99.9% of the scenarios a touring cyclist could expect to encounter.

We’ve all ridden bikes with crap V‑brakes that are poorly installed and badly maintained, but a properly-adjusted set of modern V‑brakes can deliver a similar level of raw braking power to a cable disc brake, given due care and attention.

So that’s why you’ll still find V‑brakes fitted to tourers with price-tags well into the thousands of pounds. At the end of the day, they simply work. They’ve been doing so since pretty much forever.

Rim brakes have one huge advantage for the long-haul traveller: compatible parts can be found in one form or another on almost every bike on the planet, whereas disc brakes still rely on non-standard, proprietary brake pads and calipers.

Rim brakes operate upon the simplest possible principles, and if kept properly adjusted they’ll do the same job of stopping a fully-loaded touring bike that they’ve been doing for decades. There’s a huge amount to be said for that simplicity.

As with so many noisy debates in touring equipment choice, then, the underlying point is easily forgotten. And in the case of brake technology, the more important question is not whether rim brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’. At the end of the day, they both stop bikes.

The real question is which would be more appropriate for your tour.

Big mountains and/or off-road touring in the short term? You might benefit from the increased control and power of disc brakes.

Long-haul bicycle travel all over the globe? Your priorities are likely to be better served by the simplicity, durability, ease of adjustment and the availability of spares that come with V‑brakes.

Where do your plans fit into all of this?

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: Derailleurs or Internal Hub Gears (Rohloff)?

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Films Iran 2014

Karun Wins People’s Choice Award at Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival 2015

Being able to call myself an ‘award-winning filmmaker’ is a notable bonus when it comes to getting a certain type of person to take notice of my work.

Like a well-designed book cover or a blog post optimised to attract search engine traffic, film awards are a way to advertise the fact that what you’ve made might be worth looking at. Given the near infinite competition for public attention, only a martyr would ignore the value of such things.

Those in my line of work, however, are all too aware of the double-edged sword of this type of self promotion. Charlatans use it to aggressively advertise vacuous works or shoddy services. People become distrustful when everyone, suddenly, is an award-winning filmmaker. It’s also fairly cringeworthy to do it – or, at least, it is where I come from; a culture in which to draw attention to one’s achievements is considered boastful and shameless and distasteful.

It’s OK, though, to be proud of your work if it’s something that merits such pride. Most well-balanced people, I think, are capable of perceiving when something they’ve made is substandard or exceptional. They are capable, therefore, of matching the look of the box with the quality of the content. (This is, at least, what I aspire to do.)

And I really am proud of what we’ve achieved so far with Karun. It’s early days, and we’ve still got the full-length film to make, but being able to spread such good vibes about a place I love is a real privilege.

I don’t make films in order that they win awards or gain industry recognition. I make films because there’s something I want to say, and I want to say it to as many people as possible – to put what I believe in out into the world. That’s my prerogative as a filmmaker.

But winning the People’s Choice at Edinburgh, as Karun has just done (whoop!), indicates that – if our story sticks in more minds than any other – Leon and I are getting the stuff we believe in out there. This is why the People’s Choice award is perhaps the only award I’d take as a measure of personal success as a filmmaker.

In a few weeks’ time, the award-winning (!) short film Karun will be made freely available to newsletter subscribers.

Festival submission rules prohibit us from making it fully public (yet). But we’ve spent months of our lives shooting and editing this film, and we want to go beyond the film festivals and share it with you as soon as we can.

Click here to get on the mailing list, if you haven’t already, and look out for an email about it very soon.