A couple of weeks ago, while updating the all-time most popular post on this blog, “What’s The Best Touring Bike?”, I realised something.
Every year, the list of touring bikes gets shorter.
First we lost bikes that were relatively obscure. One that comes to mind is the Revolution Country Traveller made by the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative. This was a fantastic value entry-level tourer and earned great praise as a result. But it was very limited in its distribution, and I’m guessing it didn’t turn much of a profit because it was just so cheap for what it was.
But then, a couple of years back, Dawes quietly announced that the entire Galaxy line was being retired, citing declining sales over time.
For those unfamiliar with the brand, Dawes are a British outfit who have been making touring bikes for decades. Indeed, when the first Galaxy was launched in 1971, it could be said that Dawes had created the first mainstream off-the-peg touring bike, at least in the UK. When the originator of today’s archetypical touring bike pulls their entire range without warning after almost 50 years on the market, you know something’s up.
The following year, something similar happened Stateside. Surly, who since 2004 had built the reputation of their Long Haul Trucker into a firm favourite of the North American cycle touring community, announced that the “LHT”, too, would cease to be manufactured. Their webpage for the bike and frameset has since been updated with a cute image of a gravestone reading ‘gone but not forgotten’.
These are two striking examples of a trend I’ve noticed while keeping that blog post updated over the 10 years since I originally wrote it.
But the list of discontinued touring bikes doesn’t end there. We’ve also lost the Ridgeback Tour, the entire Co-op Cycles touring bike range by REI, and the Adventure Flat White, all of which used to be manufactured at scale. At the bespoke end of the spectrum, Roberts’ truly legendary Roughstuff was another British classic whose story came to a slightly quieter conclusion. The picture is even more grim when you look at bikes designed for worldwide expedition touring, where the market is even more of a niche.
And the retailers have followed suit. As I write, the two big online bike retailers in the UK, Chain Reaction and Wiggle (which have now merged in any case), between them list a total of two touring bikes – or, more correctly, two versions of the same bike, the Fuji Touring. In fact, Chain Reaction have deleted the touring bike category from their website altogether. And across the industry the phrase “touring bike” is rapidly being replaced with “adventure bike”. Some of the bikes sold under this banner bear little resemblance to anything I’ve ever listed on that blog post.
This all begs the question ‘why’.
You might think the answer is obvious: the coronavirus pandemic has effectively cancelled the type of free and unrestrained travel exemplified by cycle touring, and manufacturers have simply cut their losses as a result, focusing on bikes for short adventures close to home.
But while there’s little doubt that the pandemic will have hit the cycling industry hard at the crossover with international travel, the downward trend in touring bike sales and availability had already begun before the pandemic.
There’s another easy target here, of course: the rise of bikepacking. I’ve written extensively about my views on this in another post. If you can’t be bothered to read it, the short version is that – in my humble opinion – today’s bikepacking boom is the result of an industry-wide campaign to make what were previously the concerns of a tiny cohort of time-rich mountain-bike travellers appear relevant to people who would otherwise just have bought a touring bike.
I might take some flak for holding this position, but I’ve been watching this industry for a long time, and I’m acutely aware that bikepacking was a thing long before it was a thing, even if its absurdly niche status meant we’d never quite needed the language to describe it. A good example of this is the Rough Stuff Fellowship. Today we would call them a bikepacking club, but they were officially founded in 1955 and they sure as hell didn’t call themselves bikepackers. It would be another two decades before the mountain bike was even invented. All that’s happened is that what they’ve been quietly doing for 70-odd years has suddenly become trendy.
So much for obvious explanations. The truth is that I haven’t conducted an industry-wide survey to gather empirical data on the matter, and I have no intention of doing so. Instead, I’d like to offer the community a few observations on the topic of what this all might mean for us:
1. Let’s first remember that we are experiencing a decline in the manufacture and sale of new touring bikes on an industrial scale. This is not the same as the death of cycle touring itself. It doesn’t mean that every touring bike already in existence suddenly vanishes, nor that smaller manufacturing operations won’t continue. (I just went down to my workshop to check, and my 2012 Kona Sutra is definitely still there.)
2. Let’s also remember that while we’ve lost bikes of real pedigree, none exhibited any major mechanical differences from each other. That’s because the core design principles for a good touring bike are tried and tested; no longer unique to any one brand. In any case, almost all manufacturing is outsourced to the same handful of factories in Taiwan, some of which I’ve visited and watched all the brands roll off the line together. In other words, what we’ve seen is the closing of a few chapters in the story of the bike industry, not the loss of some essential body of engineering knowledge.
3. Because touring bikes tend to be “forever” purchases, they’re intrinsically bad for business, so none of this should be a surprise. Most of us spend a rather large amount of money on the one touring bike we intend to ride for the remainder of our touring careers. These bikes were probably never particularly profitable for their manufacturers anyway, but they’re even less of a compelling product when you consider the unlikelihood of repeat purchases. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the touring bike would be an easy target for cost-cutting in times of financial duress.
4. Good news – limited choice should make it easier to choose a touring bike. Some personality types (I believe they’re known as “maximisers”) want to see all the options and spend endless hours picking over the most trivial of differences in order to somehow divine the best possible purchase. On the other hand, I recently received an email from a reader complaining that the only bike she could find in her local bike shop that fitted her was an extra-small Salsa Fargo, and that she didn’t want to buy it just because it was the only choice. I suggested that it being the only choice might actually be the best reason to buy it.
5. There’s probably never been a better time to buy a custom-built touring bike. Especially if it’s a “forever” purchase, and even more so if you have diverse physiological requirements, there’s a strong case for shunning the mainstream altogether and getting yourself a one-off touring bike that’s finely tuned to your individual needs. While expert touring bike builders can be found throughout the land, I shall cheekily take this opportunity to recommend to UK readers Richard at Oxford Bike Works, whose workshop is open to anyone within visiting distance, and whose flagship expedition touring bike I helped design.
What do you think? Is the touring bike dying out? Or are we just seeing a spurt in its evolution?
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