Last updated onwith an update on pedal choice. I constantly revise this human-written, AI-free article to reflect the latest thinking on the design and construction of custom-built expedition touring bikes.
Some of the most frequently-asked questions I get on this blog are about designing and building custom touring bikes, whether DIY or built to order.
Especially now the world has opened up to bicycle travel again, these questions often come from people planning cycle tours or bikepacking trips of ambitious scale – across multiple continents, or even around the world.
In many cases, these budding riders are concerned that an off-the-peg touring bike just won’t be good enough for a bike trip that – especially at the planning stage – feels extraordinarily demanding. It follows that a custom-built touring bike is the best way to be sure absolutely every detail has been thought through.
In other cases, riders have physiological limitations, highly specific personal preferences for their bike, or special purposes (surfboard carrier? On-board juicer? Full set of diving gear? I’ve seen them all!) for which no mainstream touring bike can provide. Custom-building a unique touring bike is therefore the only way to meet those needs.
Another motivation I sometimes hear is to save money by building a DIY expedition-grade touring bike that would cost a small fortune to buy – even though, as I’ll discuss later, the assumption that it’ll save you money is only true under very specific circumstances.
And of course, there are always folk who just want to get their hands dirty! (See grease monkey. This is a category I fall into.)
I totally understand these reasons for looking seriously at a custom-built touring bike. I’ve felt all of these motivations myself at various points during my 16-year cycle touring career.
I also believe that the “round-the-world epic” is a uniquely valuable and life-changing type of bike tour; one I encourage everyone to try at least once. Indeed, this belief is one of the foundations of this blog. Doing it myself is what originally inspired me to write on the topic, and helping others is what has motivated me to keep this blog growing since 2006! Hence, this and hundreds of other human-written, 100% AI-free articles on the subject.
Anyway. I soon figured that the best way to answer these questions was to actually design and build the ultimate custom-built expedition touring bike and document the process in full.
Now, when anyone asks me how to custom-build a touring bike for a multi-year cycling journey, I simply point them to this blog post and say: “Here’s one I made earlier!”.
The bike pictured above is the result of that process. I spent about about a year conceptualising it in my head in 2013–2014, then a further year between 2014–2015 developing the first prototype in partnership with Richard Delacour of Oxford Bike Works.
I’ve been riding it ever since, and recently overhauled it for my 2023 ride up the east Australian coast. Here’s how it looks today:
In this 14,000-word mega-post, I’ll describe the process of designing, building, maintaining and updating this bike in an insane level of detail.
Beyond this particular bike, the Oxford Bike Works Expedition – the company’s flagship custom-built expedition touring bike – is based on the prototype.
In fact, Richard has sent hundreds of intrepid riders off from his Oxfordshire workshop, each on a unique version of this heavy-duty expedition touring bike. Between them they’ve circled the planet several times over.
This has been nice to see, because nothing proves a design concept better than real-world use.
If, having read this far, what you’re really looking for is a list of commercially-available expedition touring bikes available to order around the world, or checking out what mainstream off-the-peg touring bikes are on sale globally these days, you may wish to click away right about… now.
Otherwise, grab yourself a pot of tea and prepare for possibly the most in-depth look at building an expedition touring bike you’ll ever read.
The Ultimate Custom-Built Expedition Touring Bike: First Principles
For this project to be useful to as many people as possible, my task was not to design my ultimate expedition bike. That would only be useful to one person: me.
Instead, it was to find a balance of expedition touring bike design principles, distilling decades of thinking on the building and testing of round-the-world touring bikes into a baseline specification and set of build principles.
This could, in theory, be tweaked and customised each time the bike was built, in order to suit each individual rider, their needs, their preferences, and their fascinating ideas for making things unique.
Why take this approach? Well, some of the details of a touring bike should reflect personal preferences and riding styles – usually the choice of ‘fitting parts’ like saddles, grips and handlebars. There are also aesthetic decisions which add personality to a bike, such as frameset paint, component colour variations, and the like. Luggage systems are also much more diverse than they used to be, though a well-designed bike should be able to handle all of them.
But these are details. When you go back to basics, there’s a surprising amount of consensus on good design principles for a touring bike to take you round the planet.
And that’s because the only real test for a touring bike – custom-built or otherwise – is time and miles.
When the dust settles after a lap of the planet, looking at what worked and what didn’t makes a lot of the intellectualising you’ll find on internet forums feel a bit redundant.
One of my favourite stories is that of Adam Sultan, who crossed a continent and a half between 2016–2018 on one of these bikes.
A confession: this was actually the second time I’d built a bike for a round-the-world trip.
Way back in 2007, when I designed and built an expedition bike for my own round-the-world attempt, I made a few mistakes.
Sure, I knew how to use the tools and assemble all the components. But I was 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 a noble assistant in a high-street bike shop, which is why it’s best to hunt down a specialist).
I built and rebuilt my way through a parade of very cool steel mountain-bike frames (including, if you’re interested, a Marin Rock Lobster, a Rocky Mountain Hammer, a Voodoo Bizango, an On-One Inbred and a Specialized Rockhopper) and component combinations before eventually settling on a Kona Explosif cromoly hardtail, which I finished building four days before setting off to try and cycle round the world.
By that point,I’d lost so much perspective that the result was an absolute Frankenstein’s monster:
(Incidentally, I did eventually rebuild the 2007 Kona Explosif frame into an off-road bikepacking rig – full details in another post.)
The second attempt 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, rebuilding, and ever-growing wishlists of improvements I’d accumulated in that time.
I’d also spent a year as a volunteer bike mechanic for a charity who upcycled donated bikes for people in need of transport, during which time I’m pretty sure I fixed pretty much every kind of bicycle-related mechanical problem imaginable.
Plus, during 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 what worked and what hadn’t regarding bicycles for expedition-grade journeys.
Finally, while researching other posts for this blog, I’d pored over the design concepts and specifications of every expedition touring bike built by every specialist manufacturer I could find the world over.
In other words, I’d done my riding – and 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.)
I’ll spare you the rest of the origin story – but if you’re really interested, you can read it in a separate blog post.
Six Basic Principles When Designing A Touring Bike To Go Round The World
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:
- comfort during long days in the saddle in all conditions,
- strength overall and especially in the bike’s luggage-carrying capabilities,
- versatility in the bike’s ability to handle the majority of what the world is likely to throw at it,
- durability in the bike’s core structure and in the components that experience wear,
- serviceability in the components that’ll need maintenance, overhauling and replacement over time and miles, and
- 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.
A Quick Note On The Superficial Boringness Of Expedition Touring Bikes
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 & 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-compatible incarnation (there’s also a disc version).
This purpose-designed expedition touring frame reminded me of the old steel-framed mountain bikes I used to ride as a teenager, such as the Specialized Rockhoppers of the ’80s and ’90s used by many of the round-the-world riders who inspired me to try cycle touring in the first place. My beloved Kona Explosif also came from this pedigree.
As such, the Oxford Bike Works offering could be described as a classic expedition touring frame.
The Oxford Bike Works frameset is built from Reynolds 525 chrome-molybdenum (aka: cro-mo or cromoly) steel alloy tubing. There are lots of good tubesets out there; Reynolds 525 is one of them, prioritising strength rather than lightness for longevity 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 panniers I was planning on fitting, the Oxford Bike Works frame ticked all the boxes: front-triangle eyelets for three bottle cages, standard rack mounts on the rear dropouts and seatstays for a bombproof Tubus expedition pannier rack, fork mounts for a front low-rider, and external cable guides for easy maintenance and replacement of brake/shifter cables.
These are features you’ll find on any purpose-built expedition or touring frameset designed with a traditional 4‑pannier luggage setup in mind. Without them, you’ll either have to find workarounds for adding racks, lowriders, and other frame-mounted accessories, or have them added to your frame by a specialist framebuilder (at considerable expense).
In terms of fit and riding position, I’d reviewed a bike built on the Oxford Bike Works in-house frameset the previous year, so I knew that it’d be a good fit for my body shape and riding style, and that I got on well with its upright geometry and reassuring handling characteristics.
After spending a day at Richard’s workshop near Steventon in Oxfordshire, we determined that the medium (19-inch) frame with 26 inch wheels would fit me best (700C/28″ wheel-compatible frames are also available; a detailed discussion of wheel size for touring bikes can be found here).
For the colour, I chose a neutral shade of beige. OBW stock colours vary depending on the manufacturing batch; Richard also does custom paint-jobs.
Did I consider other frames?
Of course! I also considered the (now discontinued) Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Spa Cycles Steel Tourer, and spent quite a while looking around for a suitable second-hand steel mountain bike frame.
Ultimately, though, I chose Oxford Bike Works because of the personal nature of the business, the fact that the workshop was UK-based and I could easily visit it, and because I wanted to support a small, independent, local bike builder.
These, of course, are all off-the-peg framesets, which won’t necessarily suit every body shape, riding style, and specific set of touring needs, of which there are as many combinations as there are riders! If you’re struggling to find an expedition touring frameset that suits you, my advice would be to seriously consider having a bespoke frame built to measure.
More advice & retailers
- There are loads of expedition-ready framesets available around the world from this massive list of expedition touring bike builders, some of whom also deal in bespoke frames.
- Read more about frame material choice for touring bikes here
- If you’re in the UK, you might be able to get the stock Expedition frameset direct from Oxford Bike Works if you ask nicely, though Richard’s primary business is complete, custom-built bikes.
Headsets For Expedition Touring Bikes
Frame and forks are wedded together by means of a headset. This is a stack of bearings, races and seals that is pressed or tapped into each end of the frame’s head tube to allow the fork to rotate within the frame and thus for steering to happen.
Being an interference fit, the headset is the most ‘permanent’ of all the components fitted to a frame. While it’s possible to remove, overhaul and refit a headset on the roadside, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll want to be doing – not least because it’s easy to damage your frame without the right tools.
Cheap headsets with cheap ball-bearings are fine for cheap bikes. Parts are readily available and they’re relatively easy to adjust and maintain. But most bike builders would consider them false economy when building a bike for fully-loaded long-term touring. A headset’s bearings experience a great deal of wear and tear in the expedition scenario. Fully-loaded front panniers, poor road surfaces, and the sheer volume of miles and hours spent riding will all work together to place increased forces over greater amounts of time 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 serviceable and replaceable worldwide. But the headset is one you’ll probably want to fit and forget about.
There was no question in my mind about which headset fitted the bill: a Chris King NoThreadSet threadless headset.
Of all the high-end headsets available, the Chris King has 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 traditional headset with durable enough bearings for his touring bike.
Clearly an overachiever, he responded by designing and building some of the most precise and durable headset bearings on Earth. In the process, he invented the much-imitated ‘threadless’ headset design, and set a standard of engineering quality that every other high-grade headset manufacturer has attempted to imitate since.
The original NoThreadSet has been made in Oregon and sold worldwide for over 30 years, surviving all of the bike industry’s attempts to de-standardise and diversify component design in order to make more money. Each unit originally came with a 10-year guarantee, and when practically none were returned, King upgraded it to a lifetime guarantee.
This goes a long way towards explaining how and why, back in the ’90s and ’00s, the product developed a cult following among downhill mountain bikers (another type of rider who routinely place extreme demands on their bikes).
It’s also why I felt the Chris King NoThreadSet was the only candidate for my ultimate expedition touring bike.
Rather than buy a new one for the prototype (at £235/$207 a go they aren’t cheap), I did what Chris King envisions all his customers doing: removed the headset from my old Kona Explosif and installed it on the new one. In other words, my prototype actually ended up with a headset that had 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.
There’s always the buy-cheap-and-replace-often approach of a traditional headset, of course, and if you’re a seasoned mechanic and you know how to grease bearings and adjust preload with a lightweight toolkit, you may decide to save money upfront in this way.
Most of us, however, are not that diligent or disciplined. My bet is that most riders will spend more on replacement headset parts and getting them fitted over the lifetime of a touring bike than the cost of one Chris King unit.
Alternative headsets of a similar design – by which I mean headsets for unthreaded fork steerer tubes and with sealed cartridge bearings pressed into each cup – include the Hope Conventional 1⅛-inch headset (£105), the FSA Orbit MX Threadless (€87) and the Cane Creek 40 ($64). They’re all modelled on the same design principles as the King and are considered to be high quality headsets.
When buying a headset, remember to get the correct size and type for your frame. For most classic steel frames like this one, 1⅛-inch is the most common, though head tube sizes have diversified a lot in recent years.
Reviews, Installation Advice and Retailers for Headsets
- Read BikeRadar’s review of the Chris King NoThreadSet
- Read Park Tool’s illustrated guide to installing a threadless headset.
- Buy the Chris King NoThreadSet online in the USA direct from Chris King, or in the UK from Saddleback.
- For other worldwide retailers, check out the official Chris King dealer locator.
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. Just as with the bike as a whole, strength and durability are key qualities of a touring wheelset. An extremely strong wheel is particularly important at the rear of the bike, as this is where the weight of rider and luggage are most concentrated and rotational forces (ie: torque) from the drivetrain is at its greatest.
Serviceability is also important. Choose standard parts from mainstream manufacturers, so you can easily find parts and supplies to service your wheel hubs every few months, and find the right-sized tyres and innertubes in the places you’re planning to ride in.
Globally speaking, so-called 26-inch tyres and tubes for 559mm-diameter rims are more widely available, though this statement is somewhat simplistic, as I’ve written about elsewhere. Hubs that run on ball-bearings, however well-sealed, will eventually require servicing, so you’ll need to ensure your toolkit includes the right-sized cone spanners and suitable all-purpose grease (though you can usually borrow a spoonful of grease from the nearest car mechanic).
If you fit V‑brakes to your expedition bike, they will eventually – perhaps over a period of several years – wear down the braking surface of a rim to its minimum acceptable thickness, necessitating rim replacement. This always means a full rebuild of the wheel in question – and if you can’t find a like-for-like rim replacement, it might also mean a new set of spokes of a different length to suit the new rim’s profile.
Prolong the life of your wheels, then, by choosing a durable rim in the first place, and actively avoiding the worst conditions for brake longevity (ie: combinations of abrasive dust or mud, wet, and very long downhills). The same will be true if you go with disc brakes instead of V‑brakes, which act upon a separate disc rotor instead of the rim (though this itself introduces a new set of maintenance concerns).
For the rims of my ultimate expedition bike’s wheels, I chose the Dutch-designed Ryde Sputnik V‑brake-compatible rim in the 559mm-diameter size and with 36 spoke holes per rim. The decision was mainly based on its reputation as a bomb-proof world touring rim. It accepts 26-inch tyres with a range of widths from 28–62mm, or up to 2.4″. This upper limit is considerably wider than most riders would choose to go, and wider than any of the popular Schwalbe Marathon tyres currently available (more on tyres shortly).
(This rim was previously known as the Rigida Sputnik – only the name has changed.)
Strength being key, the extruded double-wall 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 the thick, durable alloy braking surfaces (and regular cleaning) will ensure the rim will last as long as possible when used with V‑brakes. 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 (and the number of spoke holes of the Ryde Sputnik). 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 of the same size. 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 a Presta valve hole, but it’s better to start out with maximum compatibility options.
For hubs, the key is durability in the first place, followed by ease of maintenance worldwide. This points to hubs that use a traditional cup-and-cone axle design running on loose ball bearings. If this sounds like gobbledygook, know that it just refers to the way bike wheel hubs have been made for decades – meaning maximum compatibility, bike-mechanic familiarity and ease of adjustment and replacement with basic tools and spares.
(Park Tool, as usual, have a very thorough article on servicing cup & cone-bearing hubs, which includes exploded diagrams and photos of disassembled components.)
The same goes for the compatibility of parts in the case of the rear hub assembly. Rear hubs with replaceable, cassette-compatible freehubs – ie: the splined extension protruding from the drive-side of the rear hub, that spins freely in one direction only – are now the standard on all decent-quality bikes. Spare cassettes – ie: the assembly of different-sized toothed sprockets attached to the right-hand side of the rear wheel’s hub – are easily found.
In terms of cross-manufacturer compatibility, 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. As a rule of thumb, most manufacturers of entry-level parts produce Shimano-compatible products to match what most entry-level bikes leave the factory with.
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 is 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 all-purpose lithium 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 nowhere, you’re in trouble.
Hubs are susceptible to the ingress of dirt and water over time, so hubs with good-quality external rubber seals are preferable to those without. Properly installed, such 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.
When it came to choosing wheel hubs for the ultimate expedition bike, the choice at the time was between steel-axled Shimano Deore LX HB-T670 (front) and FH-T670 (rear) hubs, as pictured below, and the similar but aluminium-axled Shimano Deore XT T‑8000 hubs with additional weather sealing from rubber dust caps.
Unfortunately, according to feedback from Richard’s customers, the XT hubs were exhibiting reliability problems on long tours. LX hubs, then, are what I used on the prototype. Today you’ll find the almost-identical Shimano Deore HB/FH610 hubs in the current specification of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition. Regularly checked and serviced, there’s no reason they shouldn’t also last a lifetime.
(Shimano’s ideal but currently non-existent expedition touring bike wheel hub would feature both steel axles and rubber dust caps for double-defence weather sealing. If you really wanted to, you could probably thread a Deore steel axle with XT seals, washers and locknuts to create your own.)
The hubs mentioned above are designed for V‑brakes, which means they don’t have machined mating faces and bolt holes for disc rotors. If, after reading through this discussion, you go with disc brakes, you’ll also need disc-compatible hubs. Luckily there are direct equivalents in the Shimano LX range: the HB-T675 rear and FH-T675 front hub.
(If you’re obsessed with maximum mechanical redundancy, you might have your V‑brake-compatible rims built onto disc-compatible hubs for cross-compatibility with both braking systems. Some might also argue that the shorter spokes of a wheel built onto a disc hub with a bigger flange diameter also translates to a slight increase in strength.)
When it came to spokes, my ultimate expedition bike’s 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.
Now, an important note on buying wheels for touring bikes.
Though factory-built wheels are much better quality than they used to be, and you’ll find them on most mainstream touring bikes, few machine-built aftermarket wheelsets manufactured at scale are designed and built specifically for expedition touring.
This is why I strongly recommend having your wheels hand-built by a reputable wheelbuilder who is experienced in building touring and expedition bike wheels.
Yes, this will undoubtedly cost more. But when you finish choosing your ideal rims, rim tape, hubs, spokes, etc, you’ll probably find that your precise combination isn’t available commercially anyway; at least, not outside a handful of true touring bike specialists. In any case, hiring a wheelbuilder also gets you the advice of a specialist, who will usually be happy to talk through your choices and perhaps even help improve your final wheelset specification.
Just ensure they give you a few spare spokes of the various lengths involved to take with you – I recommend at least two rear drive-side spokes, one, rear non-drive-side, and one front spoke. You can then Gaffa-tape them to a seatstay or another available part of the frame where they’ll be out of the way.
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 the original wheels for my prototype, 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
- Want to build your own wheels? First read the classic reference The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding by Roger Musson.
- Use the DT Swiss spoke calculator to find out what spokes you’ll need for your hub/rim combination.
- Buy the Ryde Sputnik 26-inch rims online in the UK from Spa Cycles.
- Buy the Shimano Deore FH-T610 36-hole front hub online in the UK from Tredz, Spa Cycles (also in-store) or eBay.
- Order the Shimano Deore HB-T610 36-hole rear hub online in the UK from Tredz, Spa Cycles (also in-store) or eBay.
- Order Sapim spokes from Spa Cycles.
Tyres For A Round-The-World Cycling Expedition
Once upon a time, one tyre was king in the expedition touring world. That tyre was the Schwalbe Marathon XR. Hard-wearing, impervious to punctures and with enough volume and tread to tackle pretty much anything, the XR was the default choice for anyone doing anything that might be described as ‘epic’ on a touring bike. (I’ve still got a few stockpiled in a basement somewhere.)
Now they’ve been discontinued, however, things aren’t quite so clear-cut when choosing tyres for expedition touring bikes.
Thankfully, Schwalbe’s Marathon range includes several other tyres which remain firm favourites among long-haul cycle tourers. As its name suggests, the Marathon line of tyres has world-class longevity. Depending on the exact model, you’ll either get good or excellent puncture resistance. And they all prioritise rolling efficiency over heavy-duty traction, which is rarely needed in a touring scenario anyway. The most robust tyres in the Marathon range are rather heavy, and none of them are cheap, but they’ve been proven to perform incredibly well on long term tours, as thousands of riders will tell you.
When you’re building an expedition touring bike, of course, you choose only the first set of tyres. Tyres are consumable. Even the best ones wear out eventually. And of course, there are different ‘best tyres’ for different riding conditions.
What that means is that the optimal 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 inevitably require several pairs of tyres. What you use is likely to vary over the course of your journey, as availability and conditions dictate.
Comfort being more important than speed, many long-haul riders will choose relatively wide (ie: high volume) tyres. An off-the-peg touring bike might be specified with 700×28C tyres (ie: 28mm-wide tyres of the 700C diameter), whereas a custom-built expedition bike might have 26×1.75″ tyres (ie: 1.75 inch-wide tyres with a nominal diameter of 26 inches). Higher-volume tyres at lower pressures are more comfortable on rough roads, as well as having better traction – and you can inflate them to a higher pressure for those nice stretches of good asphalt.
Don’t forget to consider the tyre clearance offered by your frameset. Expedition-specific frames and forks usually offer more space for fatter tyres than regular road touring frames. If you’re planning to fit fenders (aka: mudguards), you’ll need to match them to your chosen tyre size too.
For my prototype ultimate expedition bike, I decided upon a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Plus 40–559 (26×1.5″) tyres.
What I had in mind for the prototype was a rider planning a tour starting on the good roads and occasional gravel/dirt tracks and bike paths – the variety of surfaces that constitute many designated long-distance cycle routes in the developed world – before possibly venturing further afield. For this kind of riding, I know the Schwalbe Marathon Pluses will happily cross a continent or two before they wear thin, probably having had fewer punctures than they’ll have crossed borders.
If you’re hitting a higher proportion of dirt roads from the start, I’d suggest looking at the Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour or Mondial, and increasing the volume to somewhere in the 1.75–2.2″ range of tyre widths – as wide as your frameset can take, really. (It’s worth mentioning that there’s a much greater diversity of tyres being used in the off-road bikepacking scene.)
Whichever tyre you choose for your ultimate expedition touring bike, make sure you match tyre size to rim diameter and ensure tyre width doesn’t exceed frame/fork clearance.
As with most manufacturers these days, Schwalbe quote tyre sizes using the standardised, metric, measurement-based ISO system, as well as quoting the equivalent size in traditional systems for those who haven’t caught up yet. For example, using ISO terminology, my so-called 26×1.5″ tyres are actually 40–559 tyres, ie: with a 40mm inflated width and for a 559mm-diameter rim. Similarly, a traditional 700×40C tyre expressed in ISO sizing is 40–622; that is, 40mm width for a 622mm-diameter rim.
(Head starting to ache? Read Sheldon Brown’s classic article on bicycle rim/tyre sizing systems and how to translate between them. My rule of thumb: choose one sizing system and stick to it!)
Pro tip: I always fit my tyres with the embossed air pressure range figures mounted directly alongside the valves. Why? So I don’t have to hunt around for them while I’m inflating/deflating a tyre on the roadside. Yeah, it’s the little things.
Retailers for Schwalbe Marathon Plus/Tour Expedition Touring Bike Tyres
- Buy the Schwalbe Marathon Plus road touring tyres online in the UK from Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle, Amazon or eBay, or in the USA & Canada from Chain Reaction Cycles or Amazon.
- Buy the Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour mixed-terrain touring tyres online in the UK from Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle, Amazon or eBay, or in the USA & Canada from Chain Reaction Cycles or Amazon.
- Buy the Schwalbe Marathon Mondial off-road expedition touring tyres online in the UK from Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle, Amazon or eBay, or in the USA & Canada from Chain Reaction Cycles or Amazon.
Drivetrain Components For Expedition Touring Bikes
The term drivetrain refers to the sprockets, chains and other mechanisms that transfer rotational kinetic energy from your legs to the rear wheel.
But before we go any further, let’s remind ourselves of some of the core principles of expedition touring bike design: strength, durability, serviceability and simplicity.
Why? Because remembering these principles will help us navigate the minefield of drivetrain technologies the cycling industry has created for us.
A Brief Rant On Planned Obsolescence And, Particularly, The Way Shimano Do It
So. Rather than make just one derailleur, one crankset, one bottom bracket, etc, you will notice that 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 these companies a lot of money, and it could easily waste you a lot of money too.
There are indeed some functional and aesthetic differences between ranges. But the truth is – in the context of cycle touring – they are utterly marginal. These margins are interesting to bike nerds and competitive cyclists but should be of no interest to an expedition bike builder.
For example, lots of clever manufacturing tricks are used save weight in order to convince buyers that a given product will help them win races or improve their Strava rankings. But when you calculate the total cost for an entire bike, you realise it would cost you thousands of pounds/Euros/dollars to save fewer grams than the weight of your do-everything cycle touring toolkit on components that do exactly the same thing.
Strength, durability, serviceability and simplicity – these are qualities that Shimano’s entry-level Alivio and Acera parts deliver better than high-end XTR parts costing ten times the price, because they haven’t been compromised in order to shave off a few more slivers of metal.
When you’re on a cycle tour or bikepacking trip, you care about one thing along: whether or not the drivetrain works. That’s usually more about how well your bike has been maintained than how much the derailleur cost.
Shimano still have the longest reputation for making drivetrain products that are reliably fit for purpose at every price-point. That’s why the cheapest bikes on sale at big-box stores will almost definitely be fitted with OEM Shimano components straight out of the factory. The products on offer in the lucrative high-end consumer market are made in the same factory using the same technologies.
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 shifter cables, chains, chainrings, sprocket cassettes and jocky wheels. You’ll find old touring bikes still running on Shimano drivetrains from back when there really was only one derailleur to choose from.
Today, my money’s on the lower-mid-range of Shimano’s mountain bike drivetrain components – anything from Acera to Deore LX, depending on your chosen number of gear ratios. This is where you’ll find the sweet spot between availability, value, functionality and cross-compatibility, particularly when it comes to finding replacement parts far from home.
Rant over! Sorry about that. Let’s now have a look at what drivetrain components I actually chose for my prototype ultimate expedition bike, and how we arrived at those decisions.
Choosing Gear Ratios For 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.
Why? Think about day-to-day riding scenarios. You’ll use three or four gear combinations for 99% of your riding: a couple of everyday cruising gears for varying conditions, one ‘tailwind’ gear, and one very low gear for climbing hills. And that one low gear needs to be really low.
Mountain biking tends to require a broader range of gearing than road riding, due to the heavier bikes and more challenging terrain involved. For that reason, expedition bikes almost always use mountain bike drivetrain components.
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.
Choosing Derailleurs For Touring Bikes
My prototype ultimate expedition bike was fitted with a Shimano Deore FD-M590 front derailleur and a matching long-cage RD-M591 rear derailleur.
Alivio derailleurs would have been fine, except that the rear derailleur model available at the time didn’t have a barrel adjuster for precise adjustment of the gear indexing. Because the shifters I was fitting (see below) didn’t have barrel adjusters, we chose to upgrade to the Deore. On long tours, gear indexing is a relatively common adjustment, especially in the days after new gear cables are fitted, and I wanted this procedure to be as simple as possible.
Today’s Shimano Alivio RD-T4000 rear derailleur does indeed have a barrel adjuster. I’d probably choose it 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 layout 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 most scenarios.
You’ll notice that Shimano derailleurs are often described with the number of speeds, eg: 9‑speed or 10-speed. This is slightly misleading, as it’s the shifter indexing that dictates the number of speeds, whereas the derailleur’s range of motion is the same across ranges, meaning they’re usually cross-compatible.
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)? 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
- Read Wiggle’s detailed derailleur buying guide.
- See the range of Shimano derailleurs available to buy online:
Choosing Sprocket Cassettes & Chainsets For Touring Bikes
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 crank arms 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. Choosing such a chainset, rather than a permanently riveted model, means that individual chainrings can be easily replaced 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 thus how long you want the pedal stroke to be. Finally, while the current trend in the mountain-bike component consumer market is for single or double chainrings, the smart money for expedition touring is still on entry-level triple chainsets (Alivio, Acera, etc) with three chainrings, designed for 8‑speed and 9‑speed drivetrains. These will maximise your gear range, wear slower over time, and save you money in the first place.
(It doesn’t matter if you use a chainset described as 9‑speed with an 8‑speed chain and cassette system – they’re cross-compatible.)
I chose a Shimano Acera HG41 11–34-tooth 8‑speed Megarange cassette, a Shimano Acera FC-M361 triple chainset with 170mm crank arms and 22/32/44-tooth chainrings, and a Connex-Wipperman 808 8‑speed chain.
You might notice in the photos that I also upgraded the middle chainring to a Middleburn Hardcoat model, whose longevity was well known in touring lore. Sadly they’re no longer in production.
At this point, you might also be wondering why I didn’t go with an internally geared hub such as the Rohloff.
In my view, the choice between internal geared hubs and traditional derailleurs mainly depends on two things: how much you value serviceability, and how much money you want to spend upfront. I’ve written extensively on the Rohloff vs derailleur debate in my Touring Bike FAQ series of posts.
Further Reading & Retailer Links
- See the range of Shimano chainsets aka: cranksets available online (click & scroll down for cheaper 8- and 9‑speed models):
- See the range of Shimano sprocket cassettes available online (click & scroll down for cheaper 8- and 9‑speed models):
- See the range of bike chains from various brands available online (click & scroll down for cheaper 8- and 9‑speed chains):
Choosing Gear Shifters For Touring Bikes
There is one requirement of a shifter: to pull or slacken a gear cable, usually in order to move a derailleur and thus shift the chain from one sprocket to another. Given that, it is amazing how many complicated ways the bicycle industry has come up with to do this.
For a round-the-world ride, we are interested in something that works reliably over a long period of time. As well as high build quality in the first place, it also means choosing a shifter mechanism with as few moving parts as possible.
This eliminates STI or “integrated” shifters, in which brake lever and gear shifter and their mechanisms are combined into a single unit, as a sensible choice. By keeping shifting and braking mechanically separate – as they have been for most of the bicycle’s history – we minimise complexity, isolate possible points of failure, lessen the consequences if something does go wrong.
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-fashioned downtube and bar-end friction shifters.
And it turns out that these can be repurposed as thumbshifters by attaching them to the handlebars using mounting clamps borrowed from elsewhere.
In this way, I fitted a pair of (now discontinued) Shimano Ultegra SL-6480 8‑speed bar-end shifters, with the front running on friction and the rear switchable between friction and 8‑speed indexing with a quarter-turn of a thumb screw.
To adapt them for flat handlebars, we borrowed mounting clamps from a pair of SunRace M96 thumbshifters – a well-established trick, as we discovered when researching the topic. Paul’s Components also make “thumbies” for achieving the same result with shifters from Shimano, SRAM and Microshift, and come with built-in barrel adjusters (and at considerable extra cost).
In friction mode, these shifter 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 quickly becomes second nature on the road.)
If something did go wrong with the drivetrain, friction shifters eliminate many of the compatibility issues that come up when combining spare parts from different ages and manufacturers. I’d even be able to fit a 9- or 10-speed cassette and chain if I had no other choice, or switch from a triple to a double crankset – all without changing the shifters. No indexed system can offer this kind of redundancy.
If you’re considering drop handlebars, there’s no need to hack the mounting system at all – just install them in the bar-ends as designed. Many popular drop-bar touring bikes have or had this setup, including my 2012 Kona Sutra.
Since the Shimano SL-6480 shifters were discontinued, the Oxford Bike Works Expedition has been fitted with microSHIFT SL-T08 thumbshifters as standard. These offer front friction shifting and switchable rear friction/index shifting, have built-in barrel adjusters, and – critically – have now proven themselves reliable over many years on the road. (Bar-end versions are available if you’re building a bike with dropped handlebars.)
- Order the microSHIFT SL-T08 thumbshifters from Amazon (USA) or Bikemonger (UK)
- See the full range of microSHIFT thumbshifters and bar-end shifters.
Choosing Bottom Brackets For Touring Bikes
Bottom bracket is a catch-all term for the various bearings, seals, spacers and support cups supporting a rotating spindle to which the crank arms are attached.
This component is installed – usually by threading, occasionally by pressing – into the bottom bracket shell, which is an integral part of the frame. The name comes from the way frames were traditionally built. It stuck, and “bottom bracket” is now the generic term for all varieties of this assembly.
Though their function is superficially very simple, bottom brackets come in an annoyingly wide variety of styles. It is very easy to get overwhelmed with how many different systems there are for what boils down to making sure the pedals turn smoothly! As well as that, many failed bottom bracket technologies have come and gone in a relatively short timeframe, meaning plenty of touring bikes are now out there with obsolete bottom brackets that are ever more difficult to service and replace.
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 square taper style still used on many entry-level bicycles currently in production.
Cartridge (aka: integrated spindle) units have sealed bearings, meaning they are easier to install and replace and require no adjustment but cannot be disassembled for servicing. Good quality units last a very long time, however, and they rarely fail catastrophically. What will likely happen instead is that the bearings begin to rumble after a few continents. When this happens, simply plan to renew it with a like-for-like replacement the next time you stop for a maintenance session. If you can’t find a replacement cartridge unit, you can fit a basic cup-and-cone bottom bracket from the parts you’re likely to find in the back-street repair shops of the world. Your cranks and the rest of your drivetrain will remain compatible, and the disruption to your ride will be minimised.
Of the modern cartridge models, Shimano’s midrange BB-UN5x line has been going for decades, with the BB-UN55 the most recent incarnation. The cheaper BB-UN300 can be found on plenty of new entry-level mountain bikes and would be compatible in a pinch, though probably not as durable. At the top end are expensive precision-engineered units, such as those from Phil Wood which, over their 50+ years in production, have developed a cult following on a par with the Chris King headset (see above) and will cost as much as an entry-level touring bike.
When buying a bottom bracket, you need to know that different shell sizes and thread types of any given model should be available and must match your frame’s bottom bracket shell. Different spindle lengths are also 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.
(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.)
As with headsets, there is a strong argument for going down the fit-and-forget route, spending more cash on a top-quality sealed unit which will never wear out. On the other hand, a threaded bottom bracket installed to the correct torque with a good smear of copper grease is much easier to remove and renew than a press-fitted headset. Yes, it does require a specialist tool – but it’s one every bike shop will have and which any amateur mechanic can use.
We originally fitted the ultimate expedition touring bike with a Shimano BB-UN55 square taper sealed cartridge bottom bracket.
For this particular build, a 68mm shell, 113mm spindle and British/ISO thread was the appropriate choice.
As mentioned earlier, the majority of (affordable, utilitarian) bicycles on the road today still use the square taper system, which is why – despite their strategy of introducing ever more planned obsolecense into the bike industry – Shimano are still making them. The BB-UN5x series had an excellent reputation for longevity and was around in various iterations for decades, but was recently discontinued. Today, the BB-UN101 and BB-UN300 are Shimano’s only offerings in this category, both being part of their entry-level categories of mountain-bike components, and their durability for touring remains unclear.
This recommendation may change as other manufacturers seek to fill the niche left by the departure of the much-loved and dependable Shimano BB-UN5X series, but for now it has proven a worthy substitute.
Further Reading & Retailer Links
- Read Park Tool’s detailed, illustrated article about spindle length choice and other chainline concepts. They also have a good guide to the bottom bracket identification process.
- The Shimano BB-UN55 square taper bottom bracket series has been discontinued but you might still find a few on eBay.
- Buy the Token Resolute square taper bottom bracket online direct from Token or via eBay, or (in the UK) from their distributor i‑Ride.
Choosing Brakes For 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 For Touring Bikes
This one is a potential rabbit hole, so I’ve written about the choice between disc brakes and V‑brakes on a touring bike in detail as part of my Touring Bike F.A.Q. series. To recap:
Both types of brake stop bikes, so the choice has little to do with functionality. The advantages of rim brakes on a cycling expedition are simplicity and serviceability. They’re standard on cheap, mass-produced “mountain bikes” the world over, meaning you’ll find parts in every bike workshop on Earth. Repairs are generally easier as components are generic and cross-compatible. Properly configured, they’re as powerful as disc brakes in all but the worst conditions.
The biggest advantage of disc brakes for cycle touring is in long-term durability, especially now the principle has been tried and tested on round-the-world tours. Simply put, disc brakes won’t gradually wear out your wheel rims, whereas rim brakes inevitably will – eventually. A secondary benefit is performance in challenging conditions. All else equal, disc brakes have more reliable stopping power in wet, muddy and/or icy conditions. You also get more precise control (aka: modulation) over braking force.
What To Know When Choosing Disc Brakes For A Touring Bike
If you go with disc brakes, ensure you choose disc calipers to match your brake levers – road and MTB parts don’t mix here. The easiest way to do this is to buy a complete brake set.
Caliper mount type and rotor size need to match frameset specifications: there are a couple of different types of fork/frame mount for disc brakes and you may need an adaptor to make your combination work.
Don’t forget that disc brakes also mean getting disc-specific hubs when you have your wheels built. Yet again, multiple disc rotor mounting systems exist (Shimano use a splined flange whereas some other manufacturers use six threadlocked Torx-head bolts against a machined mating surface), so make sure disc rotors and hubs are matched.
Finally, it can sometimes get a little crowded around the dropouts when you fit disc brakes, pannier racks and mudguards fenders together, so expect a little trial and error when fitting. Spacers, shims and extra-long bolts can all help here.
V‑Brakes vs Cantilever Brakes For Cycle Touring
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 they both 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. Flat-bar V‑brake levers and calipers pull a longer length of cable. Both systems, if properly set up, will function equally well. Just remember that they aren’t cross-compatible.
For the ultimate expedition bike, we chose to use the V‑brake system, fitting black Shimano Deore BR-610 calipers. Since the Deore line has moved to hydraulic disc brakes, today’s equivalent caliper would be the Shimano Alivio BR-T4000, which you’ll now find listed in the ‘trekking’ category (though they were originally intended for mountain bikes).
We paired these calipers with compatible Shimano Alivio BL-T4000 brake levers for flat bars. Being British, we connected the left-hand lever to the rear brake and the right-hand lever to the front brake, which people from various other countries may find weird.
Cables were standard Shimano. We switched out the standard 90º brake noodles for flexible ones, and installed the rear brake cable with a full-length housing to reduce dirt and moisture ingress – a little workshop trick to improve longevity.
(Some builders like to spray a bit of silicone or Teflon lubricant through the housing. I would only do this if I was expecting a lot of wet or humid weather. In dust, sand and heat I prefer to run cables dry. Never use grease or oil in any case as they’ll clog up with road grime and seize.)
We fitted Shimano BR-M770 (aka: S70C) brake shoes, which are sold as a Deore XT-series upgrade, designed for severe conditions and with increased stopping power for heavy luggage loads.
These shoes feature replaceable cartridge shoe inserts (re-order code WP-Y8A298030), meaning my on-bike tools and spares kit weighs a little less. Yay! If I run out of rubber, the cross-compatible nature of V‑brakes means I’ll be able to fit any standard V‑brake shoe I can find.
Had I gone for disc brakes (since 2019, Oxford Bike Works have offered a disc-specific frameset), I would have chosen a cable-actuated mechanical disc brake that had proven itself on long distance tours.
Further Reading & Retailer Links
- Buy the Shimano Alivio BR-T4000 V‑brake calipers online:
- Buy the Shimano Alivio BL-T4000 V‑brake levers online:
- Buy Jagwire flexible brake noodles from Amazon
- Read my take on the rim brake vs disc brake argument here
Cockpit Design For Expedition Cycle Touring
So-called ‘cockpit’ components are the parts of the bicycle that interface with your body: the saddle, the handlebars, the grips, and the pedals.
Needless to say, you’re going to get to know these parts rather intimately over the course of your journey, so you want to get them right before you hit the road.
Saddles For Touring Bikes
There are some saddles you simply tolerate. With others – just as with your favourite pair of shoes – you enter into a kind of symbiotic relationship. The Brooks B17 is one such saddle, has been a touring favourite for many decades, and has been Brooks’ best-selling product for more than a century.
For about 80% of riders, according to Richard at Oxford Bike Works who has now built more than 100 bespoke expedition bikes, the saddle question ends with a Brooks – either the classic B17 or one of the various derivatives for diverse body shapes.
A minority of people, however, discover they do not get on with the leather Brooks, whether for physical or ideological reasons. 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 the Brooks C17 Cambium (a vegan version of the B17 series), Specialized’s Body Geometry gel-impregnated range, and those from Terry Saddles, both of which include women’s specific models. Unfortunately, none yet have quite the hundred-year reputation of the Brooks.
When fitting a saddle, consider a micro-adjustable seatpost to allow fine-tuning of the saddle tilt angle and fore-aft position. This is an often overlooked factor in saddle comfort, but is as important as seat height in determining the correct overall fit of a bike.
Finally, if you do go for a leather saddle, make sure you regularly treat it with Proofide (for Brooks saddles) to prolong its life and prevent cracking. (Pro tip: apply it to the underside to keep your shorts clean!)
The prototype ultimate expedition touring bike was fitted with the Brooks B17 Special I’d been transplanting from bike to bike long before hipsters started putting them on fixies.
I was just one of countless riders who’d come out of the Brooks Breaking-In Period™ with a saddle that fitted my anatomy more perfectly than any other saddle on Earth – because my anatomy created it in the first place.
Unfortunately, some fucker stole it. So I’m currently breaking in another Brooks B17, and planning to transplant an old Flyer from my Kona Sutra to the expedition bike next time both bikes are in the same country!
- Buy the Brooks range of saddles online in the UK from Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle or Amazon.
- Buy the Brooks range of saddles online in the USA from REI or Amazon.
- Buy the Brooks range of saddles online in Canada from Amazon.
Handlebars & Stems For Touring Bikes
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 part art, part 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 new cockpit components at no extra charge.
Newcomers to cycling often gravitate towards the kind of flat bars or riser bars they may have experienced as children, which offer a more upright riding position; less efficient but more comfortable. Almost all touring bikes (aka: trekking 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.
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.
Some people like butterfly bars (aka in Europe: trekking bars) for the variety of hand positions on offer, though others dislike their lack of rigidity and find bar-ends offer the same benefits. I personally like them, and I consider the flexion a benefit as it helps absorb bumps in the road. They can make things somewhat cramped when adding extra mounts and accessories, however.
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.
After several hours of trial and error, the prototype ultimate expedition touring bike was fitted with a 610mm flat bar and an 85mm stem with a 15-degree rise.
After a few weeks of riding, I changed the flat bars for risers.
And after a few more years of riding, I changed the riser bars for butterfly bars.
(Did I mention a substantial test riding period is recommended when getting a bike tweaked to perfection for expedition touring?)
It’s statistically unlikely that replicating my current 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.
Now, when Richard consults with a new customer, he has them try out many different options. There’s more variation in this part of the custom build than in any other department – a new bespoke Expedition might go out the door with flats, risers, drops, butterfly bars, Jones bars, or something else altogether.
Grips & Bar-Ends For Touring Bikes
What matters most when choosing grips (or grip tape for drop bars) for expedition touring is – yet 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. Watch a decent tutorial video before wrapping your bars; it’ll save time, money and frustration.
As mentioned above, many people add bar-ends to flat or riser bars, allowing for a variety of hand positions during long days of riding, for efficiency on long climbs, and to make your bike look super retro.
I originally fitted Ergon’s GP1 BioKork grips to my prototype ultimate expedition touring bike. These get a lot of positive reviews from tourers and other cyclists alike as a high quality, long-lasting, ergonomic, lock-on grip made from natural materials.
On the prototype, Richard added a pair of unbranded low-profile rubberised anatomical bar ends, which plugged into the ends of the handlebars. The current baseline 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.
As mentioned above, I’ve since switched to butterfly bars. They aren’t quite long enough to take the standard-sized Ergon grips alongside brake levers and shifters, so I’ve wrapped them temporarily with cheap Deda cork tape until I get round to upgrading to nice plump Tasis Tape, which I have on my road tourer and absolutely love.
It’s worth mentioning that all of the Ergon grips mentioned above are available in shorter variants for compatibility with grip-shifters, including the Rohloff internally-geared hub. Handy!
- Watch Park Tool’s video on how to wrap handlebar tape correctly
- Buy the Ergon GP1 BioKork grips online:
- Buy the Ergon GP5 Comfort combination grips and bar-ends online:
Pedals For Touring Bikes
Pedal choice is firstly about footwear – mainly, whether or not you intend to wear SPD shoes while riding.
If you do, then you’ll probably be bringing SPD (aka: clipless) pedals over from another bike.
If you’d prefer to wear ‘normal’ footwear (or you have no idea what SPD or clipless mean), you’ll be looking for a good pair of flat pedals.
Regardless of interface, durability is key when choosing pedals for long-distance cycle touring. Cheap pedals are found even on high-end bikes, because you can’t sell a bike without them, but these stock pedals will likely fail quickly on an expedition of months or years in length. 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 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. I used a pair of these for many years in conjunction with Shimano MTB boots, and they were my pedal of choice for the original prototype expedition bike.
More recently, having moved away from SPD shoes towards light trail shoes (and occasionally flip-flops), I revisited Richard at Oxford Bike Works for a few tweaks and upgrades (more info in this blog post), asking for a versatile and long-lasting pair of flat pedals. I came away with a pair of Shimano PD-EF202s. These are relatively high-grade flat pedals with a broad platform and a moderate grip profile. They run on 3/32″ loose ball bearings, making them serviceable in the field, and have 6mm hex key (Allen key) fittings at the inboard end of the axles, eliminating the need to carry a standard 15mm pedal spanner.
DMR’s much-imitated V8 pedals – originally a favourite among BMX riders wearing big flat skate shoes – are another classic choice for expedition touring if you want lots of aggressive, adjustable grip for technical riding and plenty of surface area for use with chunky hiking shoes. The V12 model has sealed cartridge bearings and, while more expensive, will likely prove more durable in the really long haul (though you’d be wise to pack a service kit).
It’s worth mentioning that some riders feel the grip pins of the DMRs are too aggressive for on-road touring with casual footwear. That’s the main reason why I went for the Shimano PD-EF202s above on the latest update to this bike.
- Buy the Shimano PD-M324 combination pedals online:
- Buy the Shimano PD-EF202 flat pedals online:
- Buy the DMR V8 loose bearing flat pedals online:
- Buy the DMR V12 sealed bearing flat pedals online:
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; Thorn specify their own-brand racks on their expedition bikes; and Tout Terrain even incorporate a permanent rear rack into their framesets – but Tubus still top the longevity podium.
For my 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.
For the front rack (or, to be 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 most frames and panniers and almost definitely will not break.
Tom’s Expedition Bike: The Final Specification & Parts List
And there we have it. For convenience, here is the complete specification of both the original 2014 prototype and the same bike in its current configuration as of 2023:
|Component||Original 2014 prototype||Updated 2023 configuration (if different)|
|Frame:||Oxford Bike Works cromoly touring/expedition frame (Reynolds 525), 19″ frame size, 26″ wheel size, rim brake compatible|
|Forks:||Oxford Bike Works cromoly touring fork, rim brake compatible|
|Colour:||Desert Sand (custom colour)||Red (fork only)|
|Headset:||Chris King NoThreadSet 1 1/8”, black|
|Rear Derailleur:||Shimano Deore RD-M591, top normal, long cage, black||Shimano Acera RD-M3020, black|
|Front Derailleur:||Shimano Deore FD-M590, low clamp, dual pull, black|
|Cassette:||Shimano CS-HG41-8ao, 11–34T, 8‑speed||Shimano Altus CS-HG400‑8, 11–40T, 8‑speed|
|Shifter Levers:||Shimano Ultegra SL-BS64 bar end, friction front, 8sp indexed/friction rear|
|Shifter Mounts:||borrowed from SunRace M96 thumbshifters|
|Chainset:||Shimano FC-M361, 170mm, 22–32-44T, with middle ring switched for Middleburn Hardcoat 32T (CR-104–90-32)||Original triple chainrings replaced with 26–42T double (see this post for details)|
|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||Shimano DH-3N72 generator hub, 36H, black|
|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 26x1.75” 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||Shimano PD-EF202|
|Saddle:||Brooks B17 Champion Special, black||Brooks B17 Champion, brown|
|Handlebars:||Deda 610mm flat bar||BBB MultiBar butterfly (aka: trekking) bar, 570mm x 25.4mm, black|
|Grips:||Ergon GP1 BioKork lock-on, standard diameter, large size||Deda cork bar tape, grey|
|Bar-Ends:||Oxford Bike Works rubberised anatomical bar-ends||none|
|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, full-length outer cables, steerer tube spacers, Pletscher centre kickstand, System EX steerer-tube bell, custom frame decals||Ursus Power centre-mounted side kickstand, VeloCharger USB transformer/regulator|
(To see the current specification of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition based on this prototype, check out the Oxford Bike Works website.)
How To Actually 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 built many bikes 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.
Pro Tips For Budding 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-built for you if you like the idea of a personalised specification but lack the experience to put it together yourself.
I hope that this article has comprehensively covered the process of designing and building a touring bike for a round-the-world cycling 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 a bike, 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 using literally any old bike and packing plenty of initiative, flexibility and open-mindedness in your panniers alongside your tent, camping mattress, stove, cookset and toolkit.
Bogged down in research for your next big bicycle adventure?
I wrote a book to help with that. How To Hit The Road is designed to take the pain out of planning a bike tour of any length, duration or budget. Available as a low-priced ebook or paperback.
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.
And if you’re interested in taking a bike like this one on a massive cycling adventure, you could do a lot worse than dropping Oxford Bike Works a line to discuss your plans and book a consultation – as many happy riders have done over the last five years – with no obligation whatsoever.