When you’re in the market for a new touring bike, it’s important not to dive too deep until you’re clear about what kind of cycle tour you actually want to go on.
Especially with the current trends towards ultralight bikepacking, gravel bikes, touring e‑bikes, etc, manufacturers will work extremely hard to sell you something you never knew you needed.
They’ll even give top-of-the-range bikes to social media influencers (yep, they’ve discovered cycle touring and bikepacking too!) to promote products that for most riders are a waste of precious travel funds.
If you’re not careful, before you know it you’ll have bought all the gear for a tour that looks little or nothing like the one you originally dreamed of.
So let’s take a break from industrial-strength marketing tactics and pose three critical questions about your current circumstances and future bike touring plans.
You can do this by talking to yourself, grabbing a pen and paper, jotting down notes on your smartphone, meditating on each question, or whatever form of self-reflection works for you.
Just try not to rush it – this is one buying decision you really don’t want to get wrong.
1. What type(s) of riding are you planning to do?
It’s often said that no two cycle tours are ever the same. But I’ll bet yours can be placed somewhere on the following spectrums:
- Will you ride fast or take it slow?
- Are you touring short-term or exploring long-term?
- Will you be cycling ultralight or going fully-loaded?
- Is your route mostly on-road or off-road?
If you’re not sure where your planned bike tour falls on these spectrums, it might be time to stop reading blogs about touring bikes (bookmark this page, though!) and write down a few thoughts about what kind of experience you actually want to have.
Your answers are important because they’ll change your criteria for choosing the right touring bike – and being clear on your priorities as a buyer is the best way to shine a light through the fog of marketing spiel and the (often undisclosed) commercial interests of influencers.
If you’re finding yourself getting stuck, I’ve written a introductory series of short posts on the possibilities of bicycle travel that may spark inspiration, an position piece on the difference between bikepacking and cycle touring, and an entire ebook about planning bike trips of any length, duration or budget which explores these questions (and more) in detail.
Back to the original question, the law of averages dictates that most bike tours are somewhere in the middle of these spectrums.
That’s why the major bicycle manufacturers – Trek, Kona, Cube, Fuji, etc – tend to offer a single, do-everything touring bike.
The only specialisation of these bikes is that they are generalists, catering for a wide range of bicycle travel scenarios, as manufacturers strive to sell enough bikes to break even in the small and not-very-fashionable niche of cycle touring.
Being distributed alongside road, commuter, mountain and gravel bikes from the same brands, mainstream touring bikes are relatively easy to find at your local bike shop. This is good, because going for a test ride is the single best way to avoid buying the wrong bike.
Cycle touring is a traditional and conservative niche, with touring bike specifications changing little year on year, meaning many commercial touring bikes have a tried, tested, and relatively undiluted heritage.
I’ve listed the most highly-regarded mainstream touring bikes in this popular and regularly-updated blog post. A large proportion of people exploring the touring bike market will find that one of these touring bikes will serve their needs very well.
If you find an off-the-peg touring bike isn’t a good fit, digging deeper will reveal a vast diversity of niche touring bikes, from off-road and gravel oriented adventure bikes and bikepacking rigs to recumbent touring bikes, custom-built touring bikes and framesets, touring e‑bikes, tricycles, hand cycles, tandems and triplets, unicycles, penny farthings… yes, whatever the most esoteric kind of pedal-powered vehicle you can imagine, I’ll bet you someone’s taken one bike touring!
2. What’s your startup budget for equipment?
The next basic question is a financial one.
What’s your budget for your new touring bike?
Hold on – you have already budgeted for your bike trip, right?
So you already know what the on-the-ground costs of your trip are likely to be, and how much money you’re putting aside for the big equipment binge before you hit the road?
If you’re in the early stages of planning a bike trip, I’m guessing there’s a chance you haven’t got this far. You may still be wondering just how much you’ll need to spend on the single most important piece of gear of all, so you know what kind of number to put in that budget you’ve been meaning to make.
Well, the good news is this:
A new touring bike can be as cheap or expensive as you want it it be.
Let’s take a quick look at what you might expect from touring bikes at the range of price points, from next to nothing up to thousands of pounds or dollars.
No-budget or low-budget touring bicycles.
Short of cash? No problem. It’s possible to use almost any bike for touring, as long as it’s about the right size. All it needs to do is carry you – and your luggage.
This isn’t just rhetoric. See the photo above, then click here to read the story of how I put together a touring bike for £25.17. If you don’t have a budget for a new touring bike, my advice is to dig where you stand.
You will (eventually) get from A to B on the rusty heap that’s been sat in the garage for the last decade.
Or if you’re coming to touring from another cycling discipline – say, road biking or gravel riding, mountain biking, or bicycle commuting – then you already have a bike. For your first tour at least, and if money is limited, all you need to do is adapt your existing bike to carry a few bits of luggage.
Pannier racks are available to fit bikes with traditional frame mounting points, and some brands offer mounting kits for those without. Trailers are cumbersome but take the strain off the bike and are perhaps the easiest adaptation, usually requiring nothing more than a replacement rear axle skewer or bolt. And mountain-bikers are better served than ever by the explosion of frame luggage, which even outdoor megastores like Decathlon and REI produce and sell.
Entry-level touring bikes for newcomers to cycle touring
Got a bit of cash but still on a budget? Capable touring bikes can still be bought new for well under £1,000 (USD$1,200 or CAD$1,500).
Touring bikes at this price point are considered entry-level. These bikes usually differ from premium models by having cost-saving aluminium frames, cheaper drivetrain components (ie: gearing systems), rim brakes aka: V‑brakes rather than disc brakes (though this is changing), and often only a basic rear rack to carry a pair of panniers.
They are nevertheless designed and built specifically for light touring (sometimes called ‘trekking’ in parts of Europe), often sharing a frameset with models at the higher end of the budget spectrum.
Entry-level touring bikes are often prime for future upgrades for longer and more demanding tours – perhaps after you’ve tried your hand at a short cycle tour a little closer to home.
To help you get your head around the commercial options at this end of the scale, I’ve published a list of so-called ‘cheap’ touring bikes in this round-up post.
Premium touring bikes for exploring almost anywhere
Got serious funds for a serious new touring bike? Accepted wisdom is to get the best bike you can afford – without compromising your overall trip budget.
This is the domain of the premium touring bike. The top design priority here is long-term durability, using higher-specification components, framesets built specifically to the rigorous demands of long-term touring, and the highest quality touring-specific accessories (racks, lights, etc) available.
There’s a rich selection of bikes at this price point, and almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of them. It’s a mature niche filled with capable, tried-and-tested machines, with sensible price-tags and in need of nothing more than some tough panniers and perhaps a nicely broken-in Brooks saddle – and, of course, an intrepid rider.
Expect to spend between £1,500–2,000 (US$1,600–2,200 / CA$2,000–2,800) on an off-the-peg premium touring bike. It will last a lifetime if well cared-for and handle most touring scenarios very well.
Many of the bikes that appear towards the middle of my list of the best off-the-peg touring bikes fit the description of the premium touring bike very well.
Expedition touring bikes for the toughest rides on Earth
Shortly beyond mainstream touring bikes, we find ourselves entering expedition touring bike territory.
This is an obscure and daunting place most commonly visited by riders planning transcontinental or round-the world rides. It is also, however, where riders come to find the holy grail: a unique bike for which every single aspect of the design, build and fit will have been tailored to your exact needs.
Likely prices might start from £2,000 (US$2,200 / CA2,800) for a custom build on a stock frame up to double that or more if bespoke framebuilding is involved. If you’re planning the ride of a lifetime or a lifelong touring career, and you have the necessary funds, it’ll almost definitely be worth the investment.
I try to keep up-to-date this massive list of 43 expedition touring bikes available around the world to give you an idea of what this end of the market looks like.
And I’ve also partnered with Richard Delacour at Oxford Bike Works to offer the Expedition – a line of custom-built touring bikes produced to order in Oxfordshire, England, and designed with exactly this kind of ride in mind.
If you’re mechanically inclined, you might even consider – as I did once I had several years of touring experience under my belt – building your own ultimate round-the-world expedition bike.
This bike, in fact, was the prototype that led to the above-mentioned Expedition being launched.
3. Where are you buying your new touring bike?
Don’t forget that not all touring bikes are available everywhere.
Many of the big bike manufacturers have global distribution networks – but their one-size-fits-all touring bikes, by definition, don’t always cater for everyone’s needs.
Smaller, more specialised bike retailers (such as these in the UK) can offer far more in the way of individual tailoring – but they typically operate on a local or regional level, limiting their potential customer base.
This means that the touring bike-buying decision will change with where you’re looking.
I generally encourage you to consider that a good thing: you’ll have a smaller, more manageable selection of bikes to choose from, and you’ll have a reason to get to know your local bike shop staff while you’re avoiding buying the wrong bike by test-riding it first.
If you can’t find the right touring bike for you locally, however, another option is to incorporating the bike-buying process into your trip.
Plan your starting point around a shop or bike builder you’ve contacted in advance, and spend a few extra days at the beginning of your trip getting your bike fitted and built.
It’s worth mentioning that many of the manufacturers in this list of expedition bikes available around the world – currently representing 9 countries on 3 continents – also build ‘regular’ touring bikes.
This approach makes even more sense if you’re flying long-haul to your starting point and you want to save the money, hassle and emissions associated with flying with a bike.
Congratulations! You’ve now got a much better idea of the key criteria for touring bike choice. Why not celebrate by reading about something completely different, like how cycle touring actually makes you live longer?