Roughly ten thousand* people have written to me over the years with some version of the following question:
I’ve been researching touring bikes, and I’ve narrowed my choices down to Bike X and Bike Y. Both look perfect on paper, have great reviews, and fit my budget, but I can’t figure out how to decide between them. Can you help?
Roughly ten thousand people
* this figure may be exaggerated
Well hey, thanks so much for asking! Of all the big, scary dilemmas faced by the newcomer to the intoxicating world of bicycle travel, the question of which is the best touring bike is perhaps the biggest and scariest of all.
And no wonder: your bike will be the object with which you’ll develop the closest relationship over the days, weeks, months and years of your cycle touring or bikepacking career. It’s common sense to make sure the relationship gets off to the best possible start.
My simple answer to the “Bike X or Bike Y” question has long been as follows:
If it’s hard to choose, there’s probably no meaningful difference, so go for a test-ride and buy what feels right.
Of course, simple answers can sometimes be too simple.
What if you can’t find a store nearby to test-ride any of the bikes on your shortlist?
What if your nearest store’s demo bike isn’t your size and so a test-ride doesn’t really help?
What if you’ve tried every bike on your list in various sizes and configurations and they still don’t feel right?
These and similar scenarios are more common than perhaps they should be. The touring bike occupies one of the smallest and least profitable niches in the bicycle industry, and this seems ever more true as cycling is endlessly reinvented and repackaged around ever-more-specialised pseudo-sporting trends (the current fads are to overuse the word “gravel” and invent brand new size variations for what were previously standardised components).
As a result, very few stores carry a wide selection of touring bikes in diverse sizes and configurations for test-riding. And the bad news is that the options appear to be dwindling yet further. I’ve written before about the slow demise of the touring bike, and my guess is that this will continue, forcing those who simply want to buy a solid, dependable touring bike to work ever harder in order to find one.
Here, then, are a few points of advice for all of those readers past and present who, for whatever reason, were or are struggling with touring bike choice for an adventurous bicycle journey, and turned to me for help.
1. Accept that buying a touring bike may take more time and effort than you want it to.
In Western societies that produce people who want to travel the world by bicycle, we have grown used to a pattern of consumerism which involves wanting something, rapidly digesting huge amounts of digital information, trying to divine the best choice between many slightly different versions of the same thing (this is where the title question of this post comes in), and pressing a button to make it appear on our doorstep – all without leaving our homes.
(Prehistoric humans, on observing this, would probably have called it magic.)
There are, however, certain purchases – houses, cars, fitted kitchens, etc – for which we’re happy to suspend this pattern and invest real time and effort into the buying decision. This is because we know that we will spend large amounts of time living with the consequences of these choices.
Yet I hear time and time again from people who have – consciously or otherwise – categorised the bicycle as just another thing it’s okay to buy online and have delivered by a gig worker in a clapped-out van. It isn’t.
(The most popular blog post I’ve ever written, What’s The Best Touring Bike?, doesn’t contain a single link to an online bicycle retailer. Even though I could easily monetise and earn money from affiliate links in this post – and many less scrupulous cycle touring blogs do this, despite it not being in their readers’ best interests – I prefer to stand by my principles and encourage readers to patronise local bike stores and small-scale bike builders instead.)
Yet when I suggest taking one or more touring bikes for a test-ride, I am perhaps guilty of omitting the details of what that might involve.
So here’s my attempt to remedy that.
The first thing to say is that going straight to your local bike store – while laudable and worthwhile – is not guaranteed to solve the touring bike choice dilemma.
This is because local bike stores, by their nature, tend to deal with servicing and selling bikes for casual riders – commuters, shoppers, children. Very rarely do they specialise in touring, and if so only alongside the more mainstream forms of cycling.
You might be lucky enough to find a seasoned cycle tourist working at your local bike store who’ll jump at the chance to help a like-minded customer, and for this reason alone it’s worth dropping in. But the odds of this happening are low – and therefore so are the odds of finding one of the bikes you’ve researched online, in your size, available to try.
What this means is that you’ll need to be a bit more strategic about finding a touring bike supplier.
You’re looking for someone who understands the specific needs of the bicycle traveller, has access to at least some of the bikes you’ve shortlisted, and is happy to spend time getting your bike built and fitted with you.
Time spent here is what will make the difference between a well-fitted bike that actually meets your needs, and the significant final assembly and inherent gamble involved when the same bike arrives by courier in a cardboard box, unopened since it left the factory in Taiwan.
For UK readers I maintain a list and interactive map of British bike stores and workshops that specialise in touring bikes.
You may be lucky enough to live close to one of these establishments, but it’s more likely that visiting one will involve a day trip, or even an overnight stay. In any case, contact them in advance of your visit so you know what the options are, and so the staff can prepare in advance if necessary. In other countries, I’d suggest starting with the ‘dealer locator’ page of your candidate touring bike manufacturers’ websites.
When visiting one of these specialists with a touring bike purchase in mind, you should not expect to wheel the bike of your dreams out of the door on day one.
It’s more likely you’ll spend time with a sales assistant inspecting the demo bikes on display, and then spend some time with an experienced bike fitter figuring out which of the available size options of your final choice of bike is the right one for you. This might involve a fitting session, probably on different but similar bike to the one you’re actually purchasing. It’ll depend on what the shop has in stock at the time.
(It’s worth saying that, if the differences between the bikes on your shortlist truly are marginal, this shouldn’t be cause for alarm. The goal is to approximate your frame size and to decide whether the cockpit geometry is going to suit your physiology, so the final decision can be made with confidence.)
What the store will do next is to order your chosen bike, in the available size closest to yours, then complete the assembly in their workshop when it arrives a few days or weeks later, as well as making any previously discussed modifications and additions.
If you live close enough to pay a second visit, you should be able to go back in and have a final tailoring session done at the workshop. At this stage, many stores will, within reason, offer like-for-like swaps of fitting components such as stems and handlebars – and then you’ll get to wheel the touring bike of your dreams out of the door. Otherwise, the store will repack the bike and ship it to you, leaving you only to attach the pedals and realign the handlebars yourself.
Regardless of how much in-store fitting is done, however, you should still expect to make further adjustments over the first few days and weeks of riding as you and the bike get used to each other.
Which brings me to my next point:
2. Though some will try to convince you otherwise, there’s no such thing as a maintenance-free touring bike.
If you’re used to doing your own bike maintenance, the prospect of adjusting and maintaining your new touring bike is unlikely concern you. You’ll chuck your fix-anything bike touring toolkit in a pannier or frame bag, hit the road, and figure out any issues on the way.
And if you’re new to DIY bike mechanics but you’re willing to learn, you’ll be pleased to hear that working on a touring bike should be quite straightforward. Bike tools are simple, affordable, and mostly standardised, especially compared to their motoring equivalents. Bicycles of this type also tend to be conservatively built, rather than following the latest industry-driven trends, usually using modular parts for which spares and alternatives are easy to find and fit. YouTube is brimming over with visual tutorials covering almost every topic imaginable, including bicycle maintenance.
(I’ll come back to the italicised bits in a short while.)
But if you’re under the impression that choosing the “right” touring bike will exempt you from getting your hands dirty, I’m going to burst that bubble.
Indeed, your reluctant involvement in the mechanical workings of your new touring bike will probably begin on your first day of ownership.
I want to repeat this for clarity: no matter how “perfect” any touring bike looks on the specification sheet or in the manicured photos and videos of the influencer who’s being paid to promote it, how clever-sounding the expensive new technology that promises to make it “maintenance-free”, or how precisely it was fitted in the retailer’s workship, you should still anticipate making additional adjustments to get it just right.
Let’s go through a hypothetical timeline of new touring bike ownership and the work you’ll have to put in.
Before a new touring bike is even ridden, many riders will make a few common modifications, including:
- changing the stock tyres to match their intended style/duration of touring,
- swapping out the saddle for an existing, favoured model (often a previously broken-in Brooks),
- fitting existing preferred and/or footwear-specific pedals,
- adding (or removing) racks and mounts to suit a particular luggage setup, and
- adding (or removing) accessories such as mudguards, lights, phone mounts, hub generators and power supplies, etc.
Then, over the course of your first few rides, expect to find yourself making adjustments to, among other things:
- the tilt, height and fore-aft position of your saddle, which felt fine in the workshop but proves uncomfortable for all-day riding;
- the precise location and angle of your brake levers and shifters, which again calls for a little time in the saddle to find a natural position;
- the mounting location of your panniers (if you’re using them) for heel and toe clearance, and that of any frame/cockpit bags to solve knee clearance and turning circle issues;
- the angle and height of your handlebars, which might involve making adjustments to stem orientation and headset spacers, as well as handlebar rotation.
An experienced rider on a new bike might well head out for a ride carrying a small toolkit with the express intention of making all of these adjustments on the roadside, but as some aspects of bicycle tuning are quite delicate it does help to have some pre-existing knowledge.
(Do you know how much force it takes to, for example, tighten your stem clamp to the recommended 5 Newton metres you’ll find etched next to the bolt holes? It’s probably less than you think.)
Over the first days and weeks of a tour, expect to find yourself in a series of roadside locations doing some or all of the following:
- adjusting the indexing of your gears as the new shifter cables stretch and bed in;
- fiddling with the positioning of brake shoes or calipers to solve an increasingly annoying rubbing or squealing noise;
- adding or removing headset spacers, or even changing your stem for one with a different rise or reach, to relieve discomforts that weren’t solved by adjusting the saddle;
- making various other micro-adjustments that only reveal themselves over time and miles.
Yet further down the road, you might realise you’d have preferred flat bars to drops, necessitating a complete cockpit rebuilt; or that your skinny tyres, while certainly faster and more efficient, don’t exactly provide much cushioning during long days in the saddle; or that cramming all your life’s posessions into that fancy bespoke frame luggage set is actually really frustrating and you’d a rack and panniers might be better after all.
And… (here’s where I deal with the italics from a few paragraphs ago…)
When your very expensive maintenance-free Rohloff or Pinion or Gates Carbon Drive system or [insert proprietary new technology here] breaks irreparably – not because of a problem with its cleverly engineered design, but because you dropped your bike and broke it, or you forgot to change the gear oil on time, or a rat chewed through the rubber belt in the cargo wagon of a train, or it was badly strapped to the top of a truck while you were hitching a nasty section of potholed road – you may suddenly wish you’d chosen a bike you could fix on the roadside or at a small-town backstreet workshop, and that you’d spent the extra thousand pounds/euros/dollars on an introductory bicycle maintenance course and a good set of tools instead. (Of course, you might also be happy to fly home and get it fixed or replaced – we’re all different.)
Of course, I can’t tell you exactly what you’ll want to change and why and when, or what level of involvement in your bicycle’s maintenance you’ll be comfortable with, because these will be different for every rider as they grow into their relationship with a new touring bike and, in the process, learn more and more about themselves, their bike, and their particular style of bicycle travel.
I guess what I’m saying is that – right now, pre-purchase – it might be worth examining your expectations regarding what coming into ownership of a touring bike is going to involve.
What problem are you trying to solve by agonising over the choice between two bikes so similar you can’t decide between them?
Yes – research is important, and there are meaningful differences between the range of available bikes.
But if you’re expecting the choice between Bike X and Bike Y to be the last time you have to think about the details of your bike, I’d suggest you instead consider it to be the beginning of that story.
Indeed, the bike will become an inextricable part of the jouney(s) you’ll make with it. People name their bikes. They’re usually more prominent in people’s Instagram feeds than the rider themselves. They developer characters. (See, for example, Charlie.)
Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to work with your bicycle as you make your bike trip together.
And the choice between two marginally different touring bikes at the point of purchase isn’t going to change that.
3. If you’ve tried a range of touring bikes and none are quite right, something else might be going on.
The problem with mainstream, mass-produced touring bikes is that they’re, well, mainstream and mass-produced.
This presents the same problems for people with diverse physiologies as, say, the clothing industry. Do you struggle to find clothing and footwear that fits you without going to a specialist, a tailor, or the kids’ section? If so, you might have figured out why none of the touring bikes you’ve tried seem to fit.
To be fair, the bicycle industry has started to address its inherently ableist approach to bike design. Popular categories of bike now offer much more in the way of accessibility options than they used to. E‑bike proponents often point to pedal-assist as the technology that has brought cycling to more non-cyclists than any other.
With mass-produced touring bikes, however, things mostly remain limited to four or five unisex (ie: men’s, unfortunately) frame sizes per bike, with no variation for people with diverse sizes, proportions or ranges of mobility. Yes, modular components such as handlebars, stem and spacers, seatpost, and crank length do offer adjustability and tailored fitting, but only up to a certain point.
If, then, you do diverge from an average range of heights, builds, weights, ranges of mobility, or other aspects of physiology, and you’re finding this is limiting (or eliminating) the touring bikes available to you, my advice is once again simple:
Book an appointment with your nearest touring bike specialist offering bespoke framebuilding services.
You don’t have to go back more than a couple of generations to find a time when bespoke framebuilding was the norm, and every town would have one. The runaround I had as a teenager and a student was my road-racer grandad’s winter training bike, which bore the livery of the Sleaford framebuilder who’d made it to measure and which I later inherited (it was always a bit on the small side).
The modern-day example I usually point to in the UK is Oxford Bike Works, whose owner Richard Delacour I’ve been working closely with for many years on designing and keeping updated his flagship Expedition heavy-duty touring bike*. He does a line of batch-made stock frames, but also offers tailor-made UK-built frames for a small additional fee.
OBW isn’t the only outfit offering bespoke frames for tourers with diverse requirements. A look through my list of UK touring specialists will reveal that many of them also work in partnership with local framebuilders to offer a similar service. Some offer only bespoke frames, doing away with batch manufacturing completely.
Elsewhere in the world, many of the makers listed in my massive list of expedition touring bikes available globally feature tailor-made frames as part of their ranges too.
Going down this route means you can expect a fit as close as, well, tailored clothing. I can’t overstate how enormously valuable this, not just to riders struggling with commercial framesets, but to any serious long-term bicycle user.
Incidentally, if you’d had your heart set on an off-the-peg bike, but you just can’t find the right fit among the available sizes and options, you’ll be pleased to know that many bespoke builders will be happy to let your (former) dream bike inform the details of the bike they build for you.
Trade customers of the main component suppliers usually have access to the same range of parts as the bigger manufacturers, and at much lower prices than you’d have access to in the consumer retail market. Although there will always be slight differences because of variations in frame geometry and component compatibility, a good builder will be able to closely parallel the specifications of an existing commercial touring bike so that your bespoke touring bike behaves as similarly as possible.
You’ll end up with a bike specified very similarly to the one you’d chosen, but with the geometry and fitting tweaked to match your particular physiological requirements, slightly different decals, and probably a handful of improvements and personalisations, making it a better match than any mass-produced bike could ever hope to be.
And then – far more importantly – you’ll be able to put the question of Bike X or Bike Y behind you and get on with the business of riding it!
Well – that was a slightly longer answer than I was expecting it to be. But I hope it comprehensively answers the question of whether you should choose Bike X or Bike Y (or something else) for your next cycle tour…