The vast range of touring bikes on the market can be bewildering. So it’s no surprise that the single most frequently-asked question I get asked through this blog is some variation of this:
“Help! Which touring bike should I buy?”
Trouble is, it’s one of those questions which is meaningless without context.
In other words, the demands of your ride should dictate your choice of touring bike – not the other way round.
So before we start listing the best touring bikes in 2021, let’s pin down some critical details about your upcoming cycle tour, so we have a clearer idea of what ‘best’ actually means.
1. Exactly what kind of cycle tour are you planning?
Resist the temptation to go deeper into your research until you’re clear about exactly what kind of cycle tour you want to go on. Most bike trips fall somewhere on the following spectrums:
Do you want to ride fast or slow?
Are you touring short-term or long-term?
Will you be cycling ultralight or fully-loaded?
Is your route mostly on-road or off-road?
These are the questions that will help determine your choice of touring bike. If you’re not clear on the answer to each of them, it might be time to stop reading about bikes and go back to first principles.
A lot of cycle tours land somewhere in the middle of these spectrums. That’s why the big bicycle manufacturers tend to offer a single do-everything touring bike. The only specialisation of these bikes is that they are generalists, catering for a wide range of bicycle travel scenarios, as manufacturers strive to sell enough bikes to break even in the small and not-very-profitable niche of cycle touring.
Being distributed alongside much more popular categories of bicycle from the same brands, mainstream touring bikes are relatively easy to find for a test ride at your local bike shop. Cycle touring is a conservative niche, with specifications changing little year on year, meaning many of these touring bikes are well and truly tried and tested.
We’ll be looking at the most often-recommended examples of these touring bikes a little later on.
2. What’s your budget?
Short of cash? It is possible to use any bike for touring, as long as it’s about the right size. You will (eventually) get from A to B on the rusty heap that’s been sat in the garage for the last decade.
Got a bit of cash but still on a minimal budget? Good quality touring bikes can be bought new for under £1,000 (USD$1,200). Bikes at this price point are considered entry-level. They are similar in design to their more expensive siblings, but with cheaper components and fewer touring-specific accessories to hit the design goal of affordability.
Got a budget for a serious new bike? Accepted wisdom is to get the best quality bike you can afford without compromising your overall trip budget. This is the domain of the premium touring bike or expedition bike, in which the top design priority is durability, using higher-quality components and build principles to achieve that goal – often at any cost.
OK! Let’s have a look at the most tried-and-tested touring bikes throughout the range of budgets.
The Best Entry-Level Touring Bikes In 2021
If you’re getting started, there’s a growing range of cheap but good-quality touring bikes, luggage-enabled and ready to roll, that can be had for less than £1,000 (around USD$1,200). A lot less, in some cases.
These bikes are characterised by having cost-saving aluminium frames; cheaper, heavier and less refined drivetrain components (ie: gearing systems); rim brakes; and perhaps a basic rear rack to get you started. They are nevertheless designed and built specifically for touring, often sharing a frameset with models at the higher end of the budget spectrum.
Bikes at the entry-level are often prime for future upgrades for longer and more demanding tours – perhaps after you’ve tried your hand at a short cycle tour a little closer to home.
Here are some of the most highly recommended budget touring bikes that have proven themselves over time and miles:
Adventure Flat White (UK, £440)
Currently the cheapest off-the-peg touring bike I know of, the Adventure Flat White from UK company SportLine has a lugged steel frame with a full set of touring-specific frame features (three bottle cage mounts plus rack mounts front and rear), a basic but solid 14-speed road-oriented drivetrain, mudguards, and a rear rack to get you started with undemanding, lightly-loaded tours close to home.
Launched in 2015, it’s still a relative newcomer to this very conservative market, but is gaining a number of positive write-ups as time goes by. Add your favourite saddle and a couple of rear panniers and you’re away.
Note that Dawes have discontinued the Galaxy line for 2021, citing several years of declining in sales. The below information relates to the 2020 Galaxy.
The entry-level touring bike in long-running UK firm Dawes’s well-known range was the Galaxy.
Previously known as the Galaxy AL (the AL stood for “aluminium”), it was built on the same design principles as the more expensive models in the range such as the Super Galaxy and Ultra Galaxy. The regular model had a basic 3×8sp Shimano Claris mountain bike drivetrain, 36-spoke wheels, and Schwalbe Marathon tyres, which reinforced this bike’s intended use as a heavy-duty, durable and versatile tourer for asphalt and gravel.
The Dawes Galaxy was one of the most widely available touring bikes in UK high street bike stores, so you may still find a few 2020 models for sale. Check out this list of touring bike specialists for some starting points.
Fuji Touring LTD 2021 (Worldwide, £1,050/€900)
Japanese manufacturer Fuji’s entry-level touring bike, the Touring LTD, features a Reynolds 520 cromoly frameset with classic touring geometry, and is the only bike in the budget category with flat handlebars, which may appeal to those with a hybrid/city or mountain-biking background.
Strong 36-spoke 700C wheels on Shimano Deore hubs, plus a durable Shimano 3×9sp chainset from the middle of their mountain-biking range, point to high ambitions in a good-value package aimed at riders who want to take their time and explore in comfort on a bike that can tackle a wide range of terrain. The Vittoria Randonneur tyres may not be the longest-lasting, but at 40mm (1.6″) in diameter they’ll be comfortable on asphalt and gravel alike until you make the upgrade.
The Touring LTD does feature some throwaways, like toe clips and frame-mounted pump pegs (really?). Far more valuable is the fact it comes in no fewer than seven frame size, allowing more precise fitting, and fewer compromises for short or tall riders.
The more recently introduced (and more expensive) Touring Disc LTD features the well-regarded TRP Spyre cable disc brakes, and switches from flat bars and a mountain bike chainset to drop bars and road gearing, making it an altogether sportier and more performance-orientated bike than the standard Touring LTD, with a different kind of rider in mind.
The Tour – the cheapest of UK manufacturer Ridgeback’s touring bike range – has much in common with its high-end sibling the Panorama (see below), but with a cost-saving aluminium frame, rim brakes, and a basic Shimano Claris/Acera 3×8sp mountain bike drivetrain.
Ridgeback have improved the specification of the Tour over the last few years, putting it today at the upper end of the entry-level category. If you were looking at the Dawes Galaxy before, this is probably the closest UK-designed tourer in terms of design, specification, price, and availabilty.
The 2021 model is identical in specification to the 2019/2020 models, but gets a £50 price increase and a new paint-job.
Most experienced cycle tourists are not breaking records, but they do want to feel like they’ve got somewhere at the end of a day. They’ll carry all the essentials but pack a few personal luxuries too. Roads will comprise the majority of their trip, but they might find themselves on a dirt or gravel track every now and then. They’ll usually travel for a few weeks, make a few shorter trips closer to home, and occasionally go for a Big Ride of months or more.
This broad space is the domain of the premium touring bike.
Almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of the following bikes. They’re all mature, capable machines, tried and tested and with sensible price-tags, in need of nothing more than some luggage and perhaps a nicely broken-in Brooks B17 saddle – and, of course, an intrepid rider.
Expect to spend between £1,000–2,000 (USD$1,250–2,500 / CAD$1,750–3,500) on a new, fully-featured premium touring bike. It will last a lifetime if well cared-for and handle most touring scenarios very well.
Kona Sutra 2021 (Worldwide, £1,500)
Kona have long inhabited the left-of-centre in cycling. The Sutra, too, is progressively-minded. It was one of the first mainstream touring bikes to make the switch to disc brakes back in the early 2010s. Since then, Kona have adopted the stiffer and stronger bolt-through axle standard (another first amongst bikes in this list), and tightened up the frame geometry to produce a nimble and sporty cyclocross-inspired steel frameset, which is shared with the firmly gravel-oriented Sutra LTD but remains a touring bike at its core.
Mountain-bike 3×9sp gearing on road wheels and drop bars, plus mixed-terrain Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres and a Brooks B17 generously fitted as standard, all point to the happy blend of on-road and off-road use increasingly preferred by riders going on shorter, wilder adventures, as opposed to world-ranging epics. Where others have moved to integrated shifters and brake levers, Kona have (wisely, in my opinion) stuck with bar-end shifters; perhaps less ergonomic but certainly more durable.
The Sutra comes in six fine-grained frame sizes. Fenders and a decent rear rack are fitted as standard, but following the common trend, you only get the mounts for a front rack or lowrider.
As with many other bikes in this list, the 2021 specification is essentially unchanged, but a weaker pound means the price tag in the UK is a little higher than in previous years.
The Ridgeback Panorama is a UK-designed, Reynolds 725 cromoly-framed, disc brake-equipped, premium touring bike with a durable selection of 3×9sp drivetrain components from both road- and mountain-biking ranges. Its traditional, road-oriented frameset is prime for being built up into a fully-loaded, long-haul, asphalt touring machine. As with other bikes in this list, only the rear rack is fitted as standard, with lowrider fork mounts provided for later upgrade.
Weak points on the Panorama include the integrated shifters/brake levers, which break away from the principle of separating potential points of failure – and although you could theoretically swap them out for bar-end or even downtube shifters, it wouldn’t be the simplest task. The wheelset components are also nothing to write home about; get the spokes re-tensioned before taking this bike on a long-haul tour.
Back in 2012, when the jury was still out on disc brakes as a reliable choice for long-distance touring, Surly produced a disc-specific version of their legendary Long Haul Trucker (see below), cunningly naming it the Disc Trucker, which has evolved into one of the most versatile and tried-and-tested touring bikes on the planet. Racks and mudguards are excluded, the intention being for you to retrofit your own according to your needs.
The Disc Trucker platform has had a major update for 2021, about which more detail on the Surly blog. Wheel diameter now complements frame size, ie: bigger wheels suit taller riders and the vice-versa, for a whopping 11 frame/wheel size combinations. Similarly to the Kona Sutra (see above), performance tweaks such as bolt-through axles and touring/bikepacking versatility improvements have been implemented to match the kind of wilder, mixed-terrain rides for which the Disc Trucker is increasingly used.
The garish yellow paint option of the 2021 Disc Trucker won’t be for everyone, but Surly tell us that it’s also available in hi-viz black.
The following bikes from have been recommended by my blog readers as also fitting this category. Some of them are on the budget end, some straying into the top end, but I’ve listed them for the sake of completeness:
If you’re having trouble choosing between the premium touring bikes listed above, the reason is probably that – on paper – they are basically all the same bike.
They’re all priced within a couple of hundred pounds/dollars of each other. They all have steel frames, wide gearing, drop bars, non-aggressive riding positions, pannier racks or at least rack mounts, and hybrid drivetrains cut from the middle of Shimano’s mountain-bike and road-bike ranges. They’re all built primarily for paved roads, but could handle a dirt track or gravel road if need be.
So how to choose between them?
The answer is actually very simple. Go to your local bike shop and take a few for a test ride. You’ll quickly feel what’s right for you.
The Best Expedition-Grade World Touring Bikes In 2021
Finally, I’d like to draw attention to the existence of ‘expedition’ bikes, as opposed to ‘touring’ bikes. It’s by no means an industry standard term, but it’s a distinction I think is worth making.
The majority of cycle touring takes place relatively close to home, in the developed world, and for limited periods of time (a few weeks at most). That’s what the bikes in the premium category above are for.
But occasionally a bike will need to survive for months on end in parts of the world where modern Western parts, spares and mechanical help are simply unavailable.
This particular set of touring circumstances is the specialised domain of the expedition bike.
These bikes are usually characterised by having 26-inch wheels for maximum compatibility with the tyres, tubes and wheel parts ubiquitous in the developing world, allowing for much fatter tyres to be fitted for unpaved roads, using old-fashioned standard components such as 8- or 9‑speed drivetrains, square-taper bottom brackets, V‑brakes rather than disc brakes, etc, and having steel frames built for even heavier duty service in the long haul.
They don’t necessarily cost more than a top-end touring bike, but they have a slightly different focus in mind.
Launched in 2014, tweaked in the years since and now thoroughly tested on longer trips, the Ridgeback Expedition is a strong contender for best value expedition touring bike on the market.
The 2021 model has the same wide-range 3×9sp mountain bike gearing, chunky 26-inch wheels, and the same upright riding position as the original version, but now comes with flat bars and cable disc brakes as standard. Upgrade the rear rack, add a front lowrider and your favourite saddle, and you’ll be ready for the most remote of the planet’s backroads.
Like the rest of Ridgeback’s range, the Expedition should be available from any authorised Ridgeback dealer.
Buy the Ridgeback Expedition 2021 touring bike online in the UK from Tredz.
Surly Long Haul Trucker (Worldwide, £1,400 / $1,350 / CAD1,950)
Note that Surly have, in the F.A.Q. for this bike, quietly mentioned the discontinuation of the Long Haul Trucker “for the time being”. Let’s hope this is a temporary measure.
The Surly Long Haul Trucker is perhaps the most legendary of the bikes in this list owing to the proliferation of American riders hauling it around the globe. Since its launch in the mid-2000s, it’s proved itself a supremely versatile and well-balanced world touring bike at an affordable price.
A pure-bred world tourer – as opposed to its sportier sibling the Disc Trucker – the Long Haul Trucker is still proudly fitted with rim brakes, which is no bad thing if you’re riding it round the planet. You’re left to fit your own racks and mudguards, putting the Trucker halfway between an off-the-peg tourer and a configurable platform for a wide range of global adventures.
All sizes of previous years’ framesets were available to fit both 26″ and 700c wheel diameters. This thinking has been updated for 2021 on the basis that ‘fit comes first’, with the 42–58cm sizes made for 26″ wheels, and the 56–62cm frames designed for the 700c standard, with a slight overlap in the middle of the range. Tall riders who want 26-inch wheels for reasons not related to fit should probably look elsewhere.
Thorn’s 26-inch steel tourer, the Sherpa, starts at well over a grand and depending on specification could be double that, but the Somerset-based company have established themselves as creating ultra-reliable expedition bikes on an individual basis. They also make the Rohloff-equipped Nomad.
To buy one, you’ll need to book an appointment with St John’s Street Cycles in Bridgewater to get yours specified and fitted to your needs.
Oxford Bike Works Expedition (UK, from £2,299)
Originally a one-off ‘ultimate expedition bike’ built to my exact specification, Oxford Bike Works have been refining and custom-building the Expedition to order since 2015, and many have now circled the globe.
As standard, each bike features a hand-built Reynolds 525 cromoly steel frame, a choice of 26″ or 700C hand-built wheels, Tubus racks, rim or disc brake options, thumbshifters, and tons of other expedition-specific touches.
Oxford Bike Works are currently moving all frame production to the UK, minimising shipping emissions and allowing yet more individual tailoring.
To get one, start with a (free) Zoom consultation to determine your needs and preferences. All the details are on the Oxford Bike Works website.
More Globally Available Expedition-Grade World Touring Bikes
There is a narrow but surprisingly deep market for the kind of bicycle that will take you on a once-in-a-lifetime round-the-world cycling adventure. As well as the popular choices above, I’ve collected all the bikes I can find that fit this description into a massive list of expedition-grade world touring bikes, which currently features no fewer than 52 such bikes from manufacturers in nine different countries (and counting), all in one nicely-organised table.
This is part of a series of in-depth, continuously-updated blog posts about equipment for cycle touring. Check out my advice & planning page for tons more seasoned advice on every aspect of planning a cycle tour.
Still struggling to choose?
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These bikes all fitted the current vogue for adventure bikes – all-terrain geometry, tubeless fatties on big wheels, mounts and braze-ons aplenty. They were all damn fun to ride. And deliciously tempting. Because, as every cyclist knows, the number of bikes you need is always n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have.
Then something happened.
A friend of mine, who happens to be an environmental campaigner as well as a long-distance cyclist, collared me after my talk about the time I’d rescued a bike from a scrapyard and pedalled the length of England on it for £0.25. My friend thought it was a great example of minimising wastefulness by reusing discarded products, and how the world didn’t need any more new stuff; that our hobbies and passions shouldn’t be exempted from the principle of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.
Yes, everyone who doesn’t own a bicycle should probably get one, as the world needs more people riding bikes, she said. But people like us would do well to ask ourselves – whenever the moment comes – “do I actually need another new bike?”
I found myself nodding in agreement as we wandered back over to the Ghyllside Cycles gazebo to drool once more over the Karate Monkey. And then I saw my own hypocrisy.
No, I did not actually need another new bike.
Four months later, in September this year, I rode the length of Armenia off-road on the 2007-vintage Kona Explosif steel hardtail I’d originally built for my first big bike trip, way back before this whole bikepacking thing blew up.
So this article is going to be a bit of a nerdy one.
Because I’ll be going into a vast amount of detail about how I rebuilt this old Explosif for a tough bikepacking expedition, and how it actually fared on the ride itself (spoiler alert: a lot of things broke), with the goal of answering the question – how far can you push an old bike like this before it really does need replacing?
Assessing The Original Bike: Which Bits Still Work?
As you might imagine after so much fully-loaded world touring over so many years, the bike wasn’t exactly in mint condition.
The chromoly frame had accumulated a good share of dents and chips, including a big dent in the head tube from a memorable over-the-bars moment in eastern Turkey.
I also found a crack in the rear drive-side dropout, probably from jack-knifing my trailer too many times. But because it was a steel frame, I could get it repaired and resprayed (by Argos Racing Cycles in Bristol, if you’re wondering, who did a very professional job).
The bike suffered big crash a couple of years back when I broke my own unbreakable rule of never letting anyone ride my bike. It came back with the gear hanger bent and the derailleur smashed into several pieces. Oops.
It was then that I discovered – unsurprisingly – that Kona had stopped making spare gear hangers for this frame… ooh, about seven years ago?
Cue a lot of hunting around on internet forums, whereby I found a fabricator in Israel who specialised in one-off replacement gear hangers for old MTB frames. It wasn’t cheap, but that CNC-machined piece of metal meant I had a frameset which was was once again ready to ride Earth.
What I Changed, And What Stayed The Same
I was impressed by how many of the bike’s original components still seemed serviceable after 13 years – testament to choosing durable parts in the first place when building an expedition bike.
The wheels were almost entirely original: Sun Rhyno disc rims on Shimano XT disc hubs using 36 plain-gauge DT Swiss spokes per wheel, hand-built by Leisure Lakes Bikes in Coventry.
I do remember replacing the rear freehub body on a roadside somewhere in Turkey, and the loose ball bearings have been replaced many times. Unfortunately the rear hub races were pitted and rumbling, but I figured the hub would still make it from one end of Armenia to the other.
The only thing I replaced on the rear wheel was the rim tape, which had become misaligned and warped over time: I found some heavily discounted Nukeproof stuff at good old Chain Reaction Cycles that did the job.
And the front wheel was as good as new; it didn’t even need truing.
Sure, the wheels were way heavier than they needed to be for a ride like this. But did I really need a new wheelset? No, not really: they still went round when I pedalled.
I took off the old Marathon XRs – may they rest in peace – and fitted Schwalbe Hans Dampf 26x2.35” tyres – not because they were the perfect bikepacking tyre but because they were the fattest compatible knobblies at the biggest discount I could find at the time.
Really, these were enduro tyres, prioritising traction and puncture protection over weight and longevity, but I figured they’d actually be pretty appropriate for the kind of terrain we’d be covering.
Almost unbelievably, much of the original drivetrain was still going strong.
The Shimano 8‑speed trigger shifters hadn’t been touched since the day I installed them – the rear one skipped a shift occasionally when it was cold, probably because the grease was old and gummy, but no big deal (and I couldn’t find replacements anyway).
The ISIS crankset and two of the chainrings had now done tens of thousands of miles, as has the front mech, but seemed to be in good nick. The middle chainring – by far the most used of the three – had worn too much to play nicely with a new chain. With the ISIS system dead and buried, I had to very carefully file down the inside edges of a new Shimano 32-tooth chainring to make it fit the crank bolt mounts.
At the rear end of the drivetrain, the XTR derailleur had been running as smoothly as day one; I think I may have once replaced a bushing in one of the jocky wheels. The cassette – an 8‑speed titanium XTR model that cost a fortune but proved incredibly durable – had a little play in the rivets yet barely any discernible wear.
But the crash had not only smashed the derailleur but snapped off several sprocket teeth. Game over for the cassette.
Off it all came. Onto the freehub went a Shimano 8‑speed Megarange cassette with a 34-tooth big sprocket and a long-cage Alivio derailleur. Re-cabling was necessary, so I fitted full-length Jagwire outer sheaths, and finally got the opportunity to fit the Alligator inner gear cables I was given in 2013 while on a press trip in Taiwan.
I’d removed the original Chris King headset to install on Tom’s Expedition Bike, putting in a generic cage-bearing replacement to tide me over. Big mistake. When I removed the fork, fragments of the bearing cage literally fell out of the head tube.
In went a brand new FSA cartridge bearing headset, with a little help from a DIY headset press. The FSA was considerably more expensive than a generic headset, but would last years longer than a throwaway model.
The fork was the only really expensive new component on the bike.
For years I’d been running a Magura Odur 100mm coil-sprung fork, heavy but bombproof – it had helped considerably with comfort and control off-trail in places like Mongolia. In retrospect I should never have sold them on eBay, but I needed the money (I was living in London, riding the frame as a city single-speed while failing to make a living as a travel writer out of the RGS Members’ Room).
In any case, I found the perfect replacement: an end-of-line Fox Float 32 L. This used to be a top-end cross-country fork with a price tag to match. I was lucky to pick up a new 2015 model at a massive discount, the industry having moved on to wider-diameter bolt-through axles and tapered steerer tubes and other such new-fangled gubbins. It was lighter and plusher than the Odur, and (being air-sprung) easy to adjust the sag for different loads – all the better for bikepacking.
I’d attempted to bleed the front brake once, more out of curiosity than necessity, and only succeeded in making it more spongy by the time I gave up. I’d replaced the rotors once, and the brake pads perhaps two or three times, but aside from that they’d been running for over a decade and survived all the touring I’d done without issue. The pads looked like they had plenty of life in them, and the Fox fork was a disc-only model, so I kept them as they were.
The handlebars, stem and pedals had been changed so many times over the years I’d lost count. I never seemed to get it quite right, and was beginning to suspect that my body may have been mutated in some unreconcilable way.
For this trip I mounted some generic XC riser bars on a short-ish stem atop a stack of spacers, raising the handlebars for comfort and making space for a decent sized cockpit bag. I borrowed the Ergon GP‑1 Biokork grips off the expedition bike – they’re expensive, and I’m too stingy to buy two pairs when I can swap one pair of lock-on grips between bikes.
Build complete, I took it out on a few test-rides in Armenia in the weeks before the expedition, adding a full suite of Alpkit bikepacking bags and tweaking the rig as close to perfection as I could.
And you know what? Despite being more than a decade old and composed mainly from obsolete parts, that wizened old Explosif was as much of a joy to ride as it had ever been. Loaded up, it felt light and nimble yet reassuringly sure-footed on the challenging trails of the Lesser Caucasus. And I can honestly say that it was far more satisfying to recycle this sentimental old hardtail than to splash out on a swanky new one. Cheaper, too. Bonus!
When the time comes to ride, of course, a bike like this needs to do its job and stay out of the way while the adventure unfolds.
In the case of Bikepacking Armenia, that isn’t what happened at all.
I knew from experience that off-road riding increases wear and tear on a bicycle by orders of magnitude. Shocks and vibrations dislodge bolts and fixtures and expose weak points in any luggage setup; abrasive mud and dust eat away at exposed mechanical parts; technical riding introduces forces of a type and strength entirely unlike road touring.
But I was still unprepared for the extent to which this ride would completely trash my bike.
What Happened When I Actually Rode It
The expedition began pretty well. All of our bikes made it to the start line by Lake Arpi National Park, undamaged by transit. And though the early-September weather was unseasonably crap, with wintry winds bringing sleet and hypothermia and the team wearing every available layer beneath their waterproofs, my newly rebuilt bike took it all in its stride.
Until Day 4, that is.
I’d been spinning uphill for a few hours along a wet gravel road when we reached a junction. Beyond the junction, the road dipped for a hundred metres or so before continuing its climb. I let go of the brakes to freewheel, enjoying the sudden momentum. Then came a loud metallic crunch, followed by an ominous clockwork clattering. I braked hard and adjusted my pedal position in order to stop – or at least I tried to, but the cranks were locked in place. And I knew immediately what had happened.
A twisted tangle of metal greeted me as I squatted. Bits of my new Alivio derailleur were distributed between the spokes of the rear wheel in an attractive and unusually symmetrical pattern.
Three thoughts flashed through my mind at this point.
The first was mystification: how could this have happened while freewheeling on such an unremarkable stretch of road?
The second was a quick calculation: we were too deep into the mountains to turn back; it was just as well to continue over the pass and down to the next town, even if that meant pushing uphill for a few hours.
And the third was the memory of imagining this precise scenario when I’d very deliberately selected, for my original round-the-world adventure, a frame with sliding dropouts.
Within an hour of the incident, I’d got a singlespeed bike, a few spare chain links, and a mangled rear mech as a souvenir. And we packed our tea-making equipment away continued to ride.
Of course, the bit between the junction and the pass was by far the steepest section of the climb, and I did indeed end up walking most of it. But descending slip-and-slide down the rain-sodden valley on the other side, through ‘the most mud I’ve ever seen’ (as one rider put it), endless cattle wades and multiple river crossings, my low-torque singlespeeder – ironically – fared better than the fancy 1x drivetrains and Rohloffs the other riders were running.
And in the next town, my man-behind-the-scenes Ashot met us with a brand new 8‑speed derailleur he’d picked up in Yerevan for $25, along with the crate of workshop tools and spares we’d prepared earlier.
My second serious mechanical issue reared its head as we climbed out of the Aghstev valley and traversed the ridgeline towards Lake Sevan, topping out at a respectable 2,700m.
As the altitude increased, so, it seemed, the performance of my front brake decreased. It took a little while for me to make the connection between braking power and elevation. But over the course of the day, this inverse correlation became obvious.
I am sure someone will offer an explanation of what happens inside a poorly maintained hydraulic brake line as outside air pressure changes. As a layperson, my best guess is that my previous attempts to bleed the brake had in fact put more air in the system, and somehow this was causing a loss of power at altitude. Pumping the lever eventually became second nature, and longer stints of braking seemed to bring back a little bite, perhaps due to heat causing the hydraulic fluid to expand. But in any case, I ended up tackling many of the highest and most remote sections of the route on the rear brake alone.
(When I was eventually reunited with the tools and spares, I did put a new set of pads in, and this seemed to help a little as the pistons pushed back and forced out a little of the excess air.)
The third mechanical was the really catastrophic one.
In retrospect, it was long overdue. I mentioned that I’d last replaced the freehub body in Turkey with a generic Shimano-compatible unit. That had been 12 years ago. Since then, I’d flushed the internal grease out with petrol to avoid it solidifying on a winter ride through Arctic Lapland – after which, these units not being user-serviceable, I’d forced some light oil through it and left it at that.
I guess you could say I’d got my money’s worth out of that freehub body when, on the morning of Day 8, the internal ratchet system gave up and ceased to engage altogether, causing my pedals to spin fruitlessly on the driveway outside the Sevan Writers’ Residence where we’d been staying.
Now, there is a roadside fix for this. It involves tying the cassette to the spokes with cable ties or wire, losing your bottom gear, and riding fixed-gear until you get to a bike shop. But we were about to embark on a four-day backcountry traverse of the Geghama Mountains, which would be by far the most remote and high-altitude stretch of the route. And I really didn’t fancy doing it on a fixie.
Luckily, I’d arranged a resupply that night at the mountain lake where we planned to camp. Off went the riders, with Pete taking over guiding duties, while I strapped my broken bike to the roof of a passing Volga and took a lift to Yerevan with a single mission: find a new rear hub – or, failing that, a new rear wheel – and be back with the group by nightfall.
While the picture has changed since then in that high-end bikes and parts are now more widespread, the same rule still applies: the cheapest and thus most commonly found bicycles in places like Armenia are still the same Chinese ‘spam bikes’ with 26-inch wheels, because what’s new doesn’t reflect what people in poorer countries still ride.
The first shop I went to, MyBike, is actually one of the best in Armenia for high-end bikes and parts. Of course, they still had a few generic 26-inch rear wheels lying around in the back of the workshop, because people still want them. In the time it took for me to go and get a pizza for lunch (sorry team!), they’d disassembled my broken rear wheel, rebuilt the rim onto a Shimano-compatible 8‑speed rear freehub, re-indexed the derailleur, repositioned the brake caliper, and put it all back together – all for the equivalent of about $40.
Which is exactly why I’d specified a 26-inch mountain bike wheel with mid-range Shimano hubs in the first place.
The final unexpected mechanical issue I experienced on this ride came down to a simple error of judgement on my part. I’d underestimated how much extra work the brakes would have to do on this challenging off-road route. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I began to hear that dreaded scouring-scraping sound from my rear brake caliper on the descents. Now I was riding with a flaky front brake and a rear brake that would destroy itself in minutes if I used it!
In the end, I settled for the technique of deliberately overheating my front brake to bring back a little of its failing power and control the final descent of the trip – but then, with an elevation drop of over 2,000 metres as we plummeted down to the Iranian border, my front brake had magically returned to service by the time we reached the valley floor, pedalled along the river, and found the guesthouse in Meghri that signified the end of Bikepacking Armenia.
So what did I learn from all of this? More pertinently, was my decision to upcycle an old, obsolete mountain bike for such a tough endeavour a wise one?
In the end – and I’ve written about this before – it’s about your wit, not your kit. By definition, on an adventure, your circle of control is limited: you can do all the planning and preparation you like, but in the end you have to submit to the whims of the world and deal with what’s thrown at you.
There is a spectrum of preparedness, I think, on which different individuals feel comfortable at different points. And where you fall tends to be related to the level of confidence which will allow you to begin the endeavour in question – the point at which you accept that you’ve done all you reasonably can and just go.
Over the years, I feel I’ve traversed much of this spectrum, from excessive over-planning on my early trips to somewhere near the other end, where I am more or less happy to grab what’s lying around, walk out the door, and see what happens.
What happened on this trip illustrated that gradual change in attitude quite neatly. On one hand, my obsessive attention to detail when building the original bike paid off when, over a decade later, so many things went wrong, as I was able to fix the problems on the roadside or with a quick dash to the nearest bike shop.
On the other hand, it was making peace with uncertainty later on that allowed me to reappropriate this trusty old bike for a task that was – quite honestly – way beyond its designed capabilities, and ultimately to complete the expedition alongside riders on much ‘better’ bikes.
So now, in retrospect, and with more bikepacking trips coming up – do I actually need another new bike?
Honestly? I still don’t know…
Huge thanks to Chris Goodman for the fantastic additional photos. (Which ones exactly? Well, if I’m in it, he probably took it…)
Questions about touring bikes are by far the most frequently-asked on this blog – and many are from people buying or building bikes for epic expeditions across continents, or even cycling round the world.
So in 2015 I decided to take all of my experience and knowledge on the subject and actually design and build the ultimate expedition touring bike for a round-the-world ride.
Now, if anyone asks me what bike I’d recommend for a multi-year cycling journey, I can say: “Here’s one I made earlier!”
The bike above is the result – and it’s now the flagship expedition touring bike built by Richard Delacour of Oxford Bike Works.
Since the prototype “Tom’s Expedition Bike” was created, Richard has sent dozens of intrepid riders off from his Oxfordshire workshop on customised, hand-built versions of this bike – and between them they’ve circled the planet not just once but several times over.
In this 10,000-word mega-article, I’ll describe the process of designing and building this bike in an insane level of detail.
If you’re not actually interested in the nuts and bolts and would actually prefer a professional to put a bike like this together on your behalf, I would strongly recommend you drop Richard a line to set up a (free) phone or in-person consultation to see if he can help you.
Otherwise, grab yourself a cup of tea, and prepare for possibly the most in-depth look at building an expedition touring bike you’ll ever read…
Tom’s Expedition Bike: First Principles
In order for this project to be useful to as many people as possible, my task was to find the perfect balance of expedition touring bike design principles, distilling years of accumulated thinking behind world touring bike design into a single standard machine which could then be tweaked to suit each individual rider.
While some of the details reflect personal preferences – usually things like saddles, handlebars and luggage systems – there’s a surprising amount of consensus on good design decisions for a bike to take you round the planet.
There are always going to be a few purely aesthetic decisions (eg: frame paint colour, black or silver components, etc), and there will always be people who want to argue tiresomely about things like whether V‑brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’.
But the only real test of a bike like this is time and miles.
My favourite story-in-progress is that of Adam Sultan, who has (at the time of writing) crossed a continent and a half since 2016 and is now somewhere in deepest Southeast Asia after several years on the road.
This was actually the second time I’d built a bike for a round-the-world trip.
Way back in 2007, when I put together a bike for my own round-the-world attempt, I made a few mistakes.
Sure, I knew how to use the tools and put all the bits together. But 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 sales assistants in high-street bike shops, which is why it’s best to hunt down a specialist).
Needless to say, the resulting bike turned into a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster.
The second time 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 and rebuilding that entails.
During that time, I’d also worked in ‘proper’ bike workshops, restoring bikes of all types and ages, coming across and fixing pretty much every kind of bicycle-related mechanical problem there is.
Plus, in 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 their own experiences on the subject of designing and building bicycles for truly expedition-level bike trips.
And while researching articles for this blog, I’d pored over the design concepts and specifications of every world 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.)
6 Design Priorities For A World Touring Bike
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,
compatibility in the parts that’ll inevitably need 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 A World Touring Bike
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
As a starting point for the expedition bike, I chose the Oxford Bike Works expedition touring frameset in its V‑brake incarnation (there’s also a disc version).
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. For the colour, I chose a neutral shade of beige (the current stock colours are red, blue and khaki green; Richard does custom paint-jobs on demand).
This purpose-designed expedition touring frame reminded me of those reliable old-school steel mountain bikes I used to ride as a teenager, such as the Specialized Rockhopper used by Alastair Humphreys on the first part of his round-the-world ride, and earlier versions of my beloved Kona Explosif.
As such, it could be described as a classic expedition touring frame.
The Oxford Bike Works frameset is built from Reynolds 525 chrome-molybdenum (aka: cromo or cromoly) steel alloy tubing. There are lots of good tubesets out there, none better or worse than another in the hands of a good frame builder. Reynolds 525 is one of them, prioritising strength rather than lightness for long-term robustness 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 racks I was planning on fitting, Oxford Bike Works’ frame ticked all the boxes – and I’d reviewed a bike built on the same frameset the previous year, so I knew that it’d be a good fit for me and that I got on well with its upright geometry and reassuring handling characteristics.
Did I consider other frames?
Of course! Ultimately I chose Oxford Bike Works because of the personal service and the customisation options, the fact that the workshop was UK-based and I could visit it in person, and because I wanted to support a small, independent, local bike builder.
More advice & retailers
Read more about frame material choice for touring bikes here
You can get the 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 into each end of the frame’s head tube to allow the fork to rotate within the frame and thus for steering to happen.
It’s the most permanent of all the components fitted to a frame, and while it’s possible to remove and replace a headset, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll want to be doing on the roadside – not least because it’s easy to permanently damage your frame without the right tools.
Cheap headsets with cheap bearings are fine for cheap bikes. But it’s false economy when building a bike for fully-loaded long-term touring. The punishment dished out to a headset’s bearings on an expedition makes short work of cheap headsets. Fully-loaded front panniers, poor road surfaces, and the sheer volume of miles and hours spent riding will all work together to place exorbitant demands 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 replaceable worldwide. But the headset is a legitimate exception in that you’ll want to fit it… and forget about it.
There was no question in my mind about which headset fitted the bill: a Chris King 1 1/8” NoThreadSet threadless headset.
Of all the high-end headsets available, the Chris King had 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 headset with strong enough bearings for touring. He responded by designing and building pretty much the most durable bearings on Earth, in the process inventing the much-imitated ‘threadless’ headset design, and setting a standard of engineering precision that every other serious headset maker has attempted to imitate since.
The standard-issue NoThreadSet has been made in Oregon and sold worldwide for nearly 30 years, each unit coming with a 10-year guarantee, practically none of which ever get returned. That’s why the product has a cult following among mountain bikers (another category of riders who routinely trash their bikes). And it’s why it was the ideal headset for this particular job.
Rather than buy a new one for the prototype – they aren’t cheap – I did what Chris King envisions all his customers doing: removing the headset from my old bike and installing it on the new one. So my own expedition bike actually features a headset that’s 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 – which rather speaks for itself when it comes to why I’ve chosen it.
There’s always the buy-cheap-and-replace-often approach, of course. But I decided this was false economy. I’ll spend more on replacement bearings and getting them fitted over a 10-year period than the Chris King unit would cost in the first place.
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. Your average machine-built wheel is not designed for this kind of abuse. An extremely strong wheel is particularly needed at the rear of the bike where the weight of rider and luggage are most concentrated and rotational forces from the drivetrain are at their greatest.
Compatibility is also important, and this is mainly about the serviceability of the hubs and the availability of tyres and innertubes where you’re planning to ride. Globally speaking, 26-inch tyres and tubes are more widely available, though this statement is somewhat simplistic. V‑brakes will eventually wear down the braking surface of a rim, necessitating replacement, but if you choose a durable rim in the first place and actively avoid the worst conditions (ie: combinations of abrasive dust or mud, wet, and very long downhills), you might well never live to see this day.
For the rims, I chose the Ryde Sputnik, primarily for its reputation as a seriously bomb-proof world touring rim. It’s available in 26-inch and 700C sizes, and with 32 or 36 spoke holed. (The same rim was previously known as the Rigida Sputnik – only the name has changed.)
Another candidate was the Sun Ringlé Rhyno Lite, older models of which I’ve used in the past, but Sun have a habit of changing their designs rather frequently.
Strength being key, the extruded 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 double sidewalls combined with a thick, durable alloy (and regular cleaning) will ensure braking surfaces will last as long as possible – plus, the wheel won’t collapse if the braking surface wears too thin. 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. 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. 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 the 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 cup-and-cone ball bearings for maximum compatibility, bike-mechanic familiarity and ease of adjustment and replacement with basic tools and spares.
The same goes for the compatibility of parts in the case of the rear hub. Cassette-compatible freehubs are now the standard on all decent-quality bikes and spare cassettes are easily found. 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.
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 being 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 standard 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 Africa, you’re in trouble.
Hubs can be susceptible to the infiltration of dirt and water over time, so hubs with good-quality seals are infinitely preferable to those without. 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.
To tick these boxes, it was a toss-up between steel-axled Shimano LX HB-T670 (front) and FH-T670 (rear) hubs, as pictured below, and the similar but aluminium-axled XT hubs with additional weather sealing from rubber dust caps.
Unfortunately, according to feedback from Richard’s customers, the XT hubs seemed to exhibit reliability problems on long tours. LX hubs, then, are what I used and what you’ll still find on the current specification of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition. Regularly checked and serviced, there’s no reason they shouldn’t last a lifetime.
In the meantime, we await Shimano’s next generation of trekking hubs in the hope that they will feature both steel axles and rubber dust caps for double-defence sealing. (If you really wanted to, you could probably butcher one hub from each range and create your own.)
Remember that these hubs are designed for V‑brakes and don’t have disc rotor mounts. If you go with disc brakes, you’ll need disc-compatible hubs, of which the equivalents from the Shimano LX range are the HB-T675 and FH-T675.
(Even if you do start out with V‑brakes, you could always have your wheels built for future disc compatibility – some would argue that the slightly shorter spoke length also translates to a marginal increase in strength.)
When it came to spokes, the 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.
Sapim spokes are commonly considered the best in the industry in terms of quality and strength. DT Swiss also have a very strong reputation.
If you don’t want to build your own wheels, you’ll quickly discover that it’s possible to buy factory-built wheelsets off the peg, but I strongly recommend ordering a pair of hand-built wheels from a reputable wheelbuilder who is used to building touring and expedition wheels, which gets you the advice of a specialist wheelbuilder into the bargain. Just ensure they give you 3–4 spares to take with you.
Once upon a time there was one tyre to rule them all in the expedition touring scene: the Schwalbe Marathon XR. Hard-wearing, impervious to punctures and with enough tread to tackle pretty much anything, the XR was the default choice for anyone doing anything interesting on a touring bike. (I’ve still got a few pairs stockpiled in a basement somewhere.)
Now they’ve been discontinued, however, things aren’t quite so clear-cut when choosing tyres for expedition touring.
Other tyres from Schwalbe’s Marathon range are still top of the pile due to their proven longevity and world-class puncture resistance. The most robust models are rather heavy, and they aren’t particularly cheap, but they do incredibly well on long term tours, as thousands of riders have proved.
When you’re putting together an expedition bike, of course, you choose only the first set of tyres. Tyres are consumable – even the best ones wear out – and there are different tyres for different jobs. So the most appropriate 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 involve several pairs of tyres, and those chosen are likely to vary over the course of the journey.
Comfort being more important than speed, many long-haul riders will choose relatively wide (ie: high volume) tyres. A off-the-peg touring bike might be specified with 700×28C tyres (ie: 28mm-wide tyres for the 700C rim size), whereas a custom-built expedition bike might have 26×1.75” tyres (ie: 1.75 inch-wide tyres for the 26-inch rim size). Higher-volume tyres at lower pressures are more comfortable in the long run, as well as having better traction on rough road surfaces.
Don’t forget to factor in the tyre clearance offered by your frameset. A good expedition-specific frame should offer more space for fatter tyres than most regular touring frames.
For my build, I decided upon a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Plus 26x1.5″ tyres – fitted with the embossed air pressure figures mounted directly alongside the valve for easy readability while pumping. (It’s the little things.)
I know these tyres will happily cross a continent or two before they wear thin, probably having had fewer punctures than I’ll have crossed borders. They’re available in a range of sizes and diameters to fit all frames, wheels and rider preferences.
If I were hitting more than a few dirt roads from the word go, I’d probably go with the Plus Tour or Mondial and upsize to 1.75″ or 2.00″.
Drivetrain Components For Expedition Cycle Touring
The term drivetrain refers to the sprockets, chains and other mechanisms that transfer rotational kinetic energy from your legs to the rear wheel.
First, though, let’s remind ourselves of some of the core principles of world touring – strength, durability, compatibility and simplicity. Remembering these will help us wade through the ever-changing swamp of drivetrain technologies that the cycling industry has cultivated for us.
A Brief Rant On Product Diversification, Planned Obsolescence & Marketing Departments
So. Rather than make just one derailleur, one crankset, one bottombracket, etc., 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 Shimano et al a lot of money, and it could easily waste you a lot of money too.
There are indeed differences between ranges, but the truth is that they are utterly marginal. These margins are interesting to bike nerds and competitive cyclists but should be of no interest to you whatsoever. Lots of clever tricks are used save weight – but we’re talking grams here. We’re talking prices rocketing by hundreds of pounds to shave off fewer grams than the weight of your toolkit.
Remember: what you should care about is strength, durability and simplicity. These are qualities that mid-range Deore parts deliver better than high-end XTR parts because they haven’t been compromised in order to shave off a few more slivers of metal.
Bottom line: a drivetrain either works or it doesn’t. The bike either goes when you pedal or it doesn’t. That’s about how the bike as a whole has been built and maintained, not how much a derailleur costs or how shiny it is.
Shimano still have the longest reputation for making drivetrain products that are reliably fit for purpose at every price-point. 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 cables, chains, sprocket cassettes and jocky wheels. This is evidenced by any number of touring bikes still running on Shimano drivetrains from back when there really was only one derailleur to choose from, and so there’s very little reason to look elsewhere.
(When a double-blind experiment is conducted in which a hundred people are sent off to cycle round the world on 8‑speed Shimano Acera drivetrains, and another hundred on 12-speed Shimano XTR, and the latter group proven to have had a better time than the former, I will happily change my tune. Rant over.)
Gearing Recommendations For Expedition 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.
You’ll use three or four gear combinations for 99% of your riding: a couple of cruising gears, a ‘tailwind’ gear, and one very low gear for climbing hills. And that one low gear needs to be really low.
But you’ll find the same three or four gear ratios on basic 21-speed bikes from twenty years ago as on expensive 36-speed bikes straight out of the factory today.
Mountain biking tends to require a broader range of gearing than road riding, due to the heavier bikes and more challenging terrain involved, so expedition bikes almost always incorporate mountain bike component ranges in their drivetrains. 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.
My expedition bike was fitted with a basic, durable Shimano Deore front derailleur and a matching long-cage rear derailleur.
Honestly, Alivio derailleurs would have been fine too, except that in their 2016 incarnation the rear derailleur didn’t have a barrel adjuster, which – given the shifters I was fitting – was enough to warrant the Deore. On long tours, gear indexing is a relatively common area of tweaking (especially while new gear cables are bedding in), and you’ll benefit from the quick and easy tuning available from a barrel adjuster.
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 lugs 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 99% of scenarios.
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) – and how much hardcore mountain biking are you really likely to do? 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.
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 pedal cranks 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 in a standard 4‑bolt pattern. Choosing such a chainset, rather than a permanently riveted model, means that chainrings can be replaced individually 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 the frame size of your bike.
(By the way, doesn’t matter if you use a chainset described as 9‑speed with an 8‑speed chain and cassette system – there’s more compatibility here than manufacturers might have you believe.)
I chose a Shimano Acera HG41 11–34-tooth 8‑speed Megarange cassette, and 170mm Shimano FC-M361 cranks sporting 22–32-44T chainrings, plus a Connex-Wipperman 808 8‑speed chain. (Richard uses the KMC X8 99 chain on his current bikes.)
The crankset was chosen for the wide range of gear ratios it would offer, compatibility with square taper bottom brackets, 8‑speed chain compatibility (though chainrings rarely have cross-range compatibility issues in reality), the ability to replace individual chainrings using standard Allen key chainring bolts, unlike some other 8sp cranksets which feature riveted chainrings.
(You might notice in the photos that I also upgraded the middle chainring to a Middleburn Hardcoat 32t model, whose longevity was well known in touring lore. Sadly they’re no longer made…)
Further Reading & Retailer Links
Read about why I didn’t choose a Rohloff Speedhub here
There is one requirement of a shifter: to pull a gear cable in order to move a derailleur. Given that, it is amazing how many complicated ways the bicycle industry has come up with to do this.
For a round-the-world trip, we are interested in something that works, reliably, and with which there’s as little to go wrong as possible. By default, this means STI integrated shifters are out, as mechanical separation of shifting and braking will minimise complexity and prevent knock-on issues.
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-school downtube and bar-end friction shifters.
Turns out that these can be repurposed these as thumbshifters using the mounts borrowed from a pair of cheaper SunRacethumbshifters – a well-established trick, as we discovered when researching the topic. Paul’s Components also make ‘thumbies’ for achieving the same hack, thoughtfully including built-in barrel adjusters.
In this way, I fitted a pair of classic Shimano SL-6480bar-end shifters (sold under the Ultegra brand), with the left (front) running on friction and the right (rear) switchable between friction and 8‑speed indexing.
In terms of simplicity and inherent durability, there’s nothing to go wrong, unlike the complex internals of indexed trigger shifter pods, let alone road-style STI integrated shifters.
The friction-operated left shifter would 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 in this way is a habit that fast becomes second nature on the road.
If something did go wrong with the rear end of the drivetrain, I’d be able to switch the right (rear) shifter over to friction mode with a quarter-turn of a thumb screw, eliminating any compatibility issues that might come up when combining spare parts from different ages and manufacturers. I’d even be able to fit a cassette with the wrong number of sprockets and continue shifting happily away. No indexed shifter can offer this level of backup.
If you’re considering drop handlebars, of course there’s no need to hack the shifter mounts at all – just install them in the bar-ends as designed. Many popular touring bikes have just this setup, including the long-time favourite Kona Sutra.
After a long period of road-testing, Oxford Bike Works now fit the microSHIFT SL-N08 thumbshifters as standard, which are equivalent in functionality and – importantly – now proven reliable over time on tour.
The bottom bracket is the rotating axle and bearing assembly that sits at the intersection of the seat tube, the down tube and the chainstays, and to which the crank arms are attached. They come in a variety of styles, some being sealed cartridges units, and some featuring a number of pieces that come together when installed on the bike.
Many bottom bracket technologies have come and gone over the years. 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 three-piece, square taper style still used on the vast majority of cheap and cheerful bicycles currently in production.
Quality modern square taper units are typically sealed cartridges, which don’t allow access to the bearings for servicing but are far easier to install and replace. Choosing one of these means that when the unit inevitably begins to rattle and loosen after a few continents, you can either install a like-for-like replacement using standard-issue tools, or build a replacement from the old fashioned loose-bearing bottom bracket parts you’re likely to find in the back-street repair shops of the world.
Of these mid-range cartridge models – Shimano’s classic BB-UN5x line has been going for decades. At the top end is expensive precision-engineered units, such as those from Phil Wood which have developed a cult following on a par with the Chris King headset and will cost as much as an entry-level touring bicycle. Units come in a variety of sizes for different bottom bracket shell and chainset combinations, so again, make sure you get the right version for your frame and chainset.
There is certainly a case for going down the fit-and-forget route, splashing more cash on a unit which will never wear out. On the other hand, a correctly installed bottom bracket is much easier to replace than a headset. They’re also not the kind of component that’ll suddenly and catastrophically fail. You’ll usually get plenty of warning if your bottom bracket bearings are on their way out.
We fitted the expedition bike with a Shimano BB-UN55 square taper bottom bracket cartridge.
The vast majority of (affordable, utilitarian) bicycles on the road today use the square taper system, which is why Shimano are still making them – although you won’t find them advertised as part of any modern groupset.
This particular model has an excellent reputation for longevity, which is why it still turns up on commercial expedition bikes like Surly’s Long Haul Trucker and Disc Trucker.
It’s a sealed cartridge unit, which means that the bearings aren’t serviceable in the way that cup-and-cone bottom brackets with loose bearings are. On the other hand, it’ll be significantly more durable than a loose-bearing bottom bracket for the same reason.
When it does one day start to deteriorate – something that will happen over a period of time, giving you plenty of advance warning – you’ll be able to easily replace the entire unit with either an identical or compatible square taper bottom bracket, using standard tools. You’ll find the size information on a sticker when you remove the old unit so you can match it with the correct replacement.
When buying a bottom bracket, you need to know that various shell sizes and thread types will be available to match your frame, and different spindle lengths 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).
For this build, a 68mm shell, 113mm spindle and British/ISO thread was the appropriate choice.
(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.)
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
The big plus points for rim brakes are simplicity and compatibility: they’re standard issue on cheap mass-produced bikes the world over, meaning you replacement brake shoes in pretty much any bike shop on Earth. The same goes for cables, levers, even a complete brake set if need be – it all helps keep you on the road.
Disc brakes’ biggest advantage for tourers is longevity and, secondarily, performance in challenging conditions. They won’t wear out the wheel rims, as rim brakes inevitably will in the (very) long run. All else being equal, disc brakes might afford a slight increase in stopping power more precise control over braking. But how often this would actually matter is very much dependent on your trip. On a dirt-road ride in the Andes or the Himalaya – maybe quite frequently. On a long road tour of years in length – not very often.
The performance benefits of disc brakes are often overstated. And remember that not all brake setups are equal – a well-adjusted rim brake will still outperform badly-calibrated disc brakes.
V‑Brakes vs Cantilever Brakes
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 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, and V‑brake brake levers and calipers pull a longer length of cable. Both systems, if properly set up, will function equally well – there’s no inherent braking advantage or disadvantage to either – just remember that they aren’t cross-compatible out of the box.
For the expedition bike we went with a V‑brake setup, fitting black Shimano Deore BR-610 calipers and silver Shimano Alivio T4000 levers. (Deore BL-T610 levers would also have done the job, as they’re practically identical.)
Cables and brake shoes are standard Shimano all round; the shoes feature replaceable inserts, and once I run out of those I can fit any standard V‑brake shoe I can get my hands on.
The rims will eventually start to wear through from all that braking – but not until after literally tens of thousands of kilometres of riding. I’ll prolong their life by regularly cleaning the rims, especially after rain and muddy conditions and in mountainous terrain; I’ll changing the brake shoes well before they wear out completely; and I’ll keep an eye on the rim braking surface’s wear indicators (see above), planning well ahead for a wheel rebuild.
Had I gone for disc brakes (since 2019, Oxford Bike Works have offered a disc-specific frameset and build), I would have chosen one of the few models of cable-actuated (aka: mechanical) disc brake that have actually proven themselves on long distance tours: the Avid BB7, Hayes MX or CX, or TRP Spyre. You’ll find these specified on plenty of commercial high-end touring bikes.
The Avid and Hayes models are comparable in price and functionality and come in both road and MTB lever compatible versions. The TRP model is slightly more expensive and only compatible with road levers, but sports dual-sided actuation, theoretically reducing the risk of rubbing and providing more fine-grained braking control.
Ensure you choose disc calipers to match your brake levers – road and MTB parts don’t mix here. Caliper mount type and rotor size are functions of frame and fork design, so check the frameset manufacturer’s recommendations. Don’t forget that disc brakes also call for disc-specific hubs and special attention to rack and lowrider compatibility, especially at the front.
Further Reading & Retailer Links
Read more about the rim brake vs disc brake ‘argument’ here
Order Shimano Deore BR-T610 V‑brake calipers* and BL-T610 levers* from Chain Reaction Cycles
Order Avid BB7 disc brakes for road* or MTB* levers from Chain Reaction Cycles
Order TRP Spyre road disc brakecalipers* and rotors* from Chain Reaction Cycles
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.
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 and has been a touring favourite for many decades. For most people (about 80%, according to one bike builder I know), the saddle question ends here.
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 those from Specialized’s Body Geometry range, and those from Terry Saddles, both of which include women’s specific models.
When fitting a saddle, consider a micro-adjustable seatpost to allow fine-tuning of the saddle tilt angle, which is an often overlooked factor in saddle comfort.
The expedition bike was fitted with the Brooks B17 Special I’d been transplanting from bike to bike long before hipsters discovered them.
(This is the whole point of Brooks’ flagship leather saddle: you should only ever need to buy one in your lifetime.)
I’m just one of thousands of riders who’ve come out of the Brooks Breaking-In Period™ with a saddle that fits my anatomy more perfectly than any other saddle on Earth – because my anatomy created its shape in the first place.
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 more art than 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 cockpit components at no extra charge.
Newcomers to cycling often gravitate towards flat bars or riser bars, which offer a more upright riding position; less efficient but more comfortable. Almost all touring 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. Some people like butterfly bars for the variety of handlebar positions on offer, though others dislike their lack of rigidity and find bar-ends offer the same benefits without the compromises.
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.
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, my bike was fitted with a 610mm flat bar and an 85mm stem with a 15-degree rise.
After a few weeks of test-riding, I changed the flat bars for risers.
(Did I mention a substantial test riding period is recommended when getting a bike tweaked to perfection for expedition touring?)
It’s unlikely that my 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 – an Expedition might go out the door with flats, risers, drops, butterfly bars, or something else altogether.
Grips & Bar-Ends
What matters most when choosing grips (or grip tape for drop bars) for expedition touring is – 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 – make sure you install it correctly. (On my road tourer I’ve got on very well with Fat Wrap bar tape from Tasis Bikes.)
As mentioned above, many people add bar-ends 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 chose to fit Ergon’s GP1 BioKork grips, which get a multitude of positive reviews from tourers and other cyclists alike as a high quality, long-lasting ergonomic lock-on grip.
Richard added a pair of his own low-profile rubberised anatomical bar ends, which plugged into the ends of the handlebars. I’ve since found this low-profile combination suits me perfectly – the only minor issue is that I don’t have anywhere to put my mirror!
(The current 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.)
Order the Ergon GP5 combination grips and bar-ends from Tredz* or Amazon UK*
Pedal choice is firstly about footwear – mainly, whether or not you intend to wear SPD shoes. If you do, then you’ll probably be bringing SPD/clipless pedals over from another bike. If you’d prefer to wear ‘normal’ footwear (or you have no idea what SPD means), you’ll probably be looking at flat pedals.
After that, it’s all about durability. Cheap pedals are found even on high-end bikes, because you can’t sell a bike without them, but these stock pedals will disintegrate fast on an expedition. 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 sheer 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.
DMR’s much-imitated classic V8 pedals – originally a favourite among BMX riders wearing big flat skate shoes – are another good bet for expedition touring if you want lots of grip and surface area for use with chunky hiking shoes (or flip-flops). The V12 model has sealed cartridge bearings and, while more expensive, will prove more durable in the really long haul.
I went with the Shimano Deore PD-M324 combination pedals for this build. I usually prefer to wear light, versatile hiking shoes for cycle touring, for comfort and because I know my feet are strong enough to pedal in them – but I also have a nice old pair of SPD boots and I’d like to be able to use them.
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 Cargocromoly 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.
Order the Tubus Cargo and Tara online from Spa Cycles
Tom’s Expedition Bike: The Final Specification & Parts List
And there we have it. For convenience, here is the complete specification of the original bike build described above and illustrated in the photos:
Oxford Bike Works cromoly touring/expedition frame (Reynolds 525), 19″ frame size, 26″ wheel size, rim brake compatible
Oxford Bike Works cromoly touring forks, rim brake compatible
Desert Sand (custom colour)
Chris King NoThreadSet 1 1/8”, black
Shimano Deore RD-M591, top normal, long cage, black
Shimano Deore FD-M590, low clamp, dual pull, black
Shimano CS-HG41-8ao, 11–34T, 8‑speed
Shimano Ultegra SL-BS64 bar end, friction front, 8sp indexed/friction rear
from SunRace M96 thumbshifters
Shimano FC-M361, 170mm, 22–32-44T
Middleburn Hardcoat 32T (CR-104–90-32)
Shimano UN55, 68mm, British thread
Wippermann Connex 808s 8‑speed with connector link
Shimano S70C with cartridge shoe inserts (re-order code Y‑8A2 98030)
Shimano PD-M324, combination SPD/flat
Brooks B17 Champion Special
Deda 610mm flat bars
Ergon GP1 BioKork lock-on, standard diameter, large size
Oxford Bike Works rubberised anatomical bar-ends
Rear Carrier Rack:
Tubus Cargo (Classic) 26″
Axiom Rainrunner LX Reflex, 26″, to fit 1.5–2.2″ tyres, with rubber mudflaps
Marine-grade stainless steel bolt replacements, full-length outer cables, steerer tube spacers, Pletscher centre kickstand, System EX steerer-tube bell, custom frame decals
(To see the updated specification of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition, which is based on this design, 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.
Note: Autumn/fall is a transitional time in the cycling industry retail calendar, with this year’s models selling out and new stock starting to arrive. I will continuously update the listings below with 2021-season bikes as new information becomes available.
As cycle touring and bikepacking have exploded in popularity, many manufacturers have begun producing cheap, entry-level touring bikes aimed at cyclists and travellers on a low budget.
My all-time most viewed blog post, What’s The Best Touring Bike?, covers the most popular and reliable touring bikes across the budget spectrum. In this focused article, however, we’re going to have a specific look at some of the cheapest touring bikes that have stood the test of time and proven themselves reliable on real-world bike trips.
What To Expect From A Cheap, Entry-Level Touring Bike
When I say ‘low budget’ or ‘cheap’, don’t forget that a touring bike still needs the durability to cover a lot of miles while carrying a lot of luggage – otherwise it isn’t worth buying at all.
In this article, I have classified a cheap, entry-level touring bike as any touring-specific bicycle with a recommended retail price (RRP) of GBP £1,000 or less.
Why? Because the most popular ‘premium’ touring bikes cost a lot more than this. ‘Cheap’ is relative.
For under £1,000, you can expect to get a brand new touring bike from a reputable manufacturer that will serve you well if you understand its limitations.
And if you find a good clearance deal in the low season (see the note at the bottom of this article), you could pay even less.
Entry-level touring bikes are usually road-oriented, with classic touring geometry, 700C wheels, cantilever rim brakes, and drivetrain components taken from the budget end of Shimano’s mountain-biking or road component ranges.
They’ll generally be based on aluminium frames (which are cheaper to manufacture than steel), and will usually come with a basic rear rack and mudguards.
Don’t expect a front rack or lowrider to be included as standard, and expect contact parts like saddle, pedals, grips and tyres to be included to make the bike sellable, rather than because they’re good for long haul touring.
These bikes are a good choice if you want to give cycle touring a try but don’t want to invest too much in a high-end touring bike before you’re sure cycle touring is for you. If you choose carefully, entry-level touring framesets are often good for upgrading as your ambitions grow; and if you find you just don’t get on with bicycle travel, you can sell the bike and cut your losses.
First up from Adventure Outdoor Co (a sub-brand of Sportline, one of the UK’s biggest bicycle distributors) is the Flat White, part of their series of entry-level bikes. It’s an impressive effort to produce what is probably the cheapest off-the-peg touring bike on the market in the UK right now.
The cromoly steel frame in particular will attract a lot of interest, and it looks to be well thought out in terms of eyelets and braze-ons. The 2×7sp Tourney drivetrain isn’t going to impress anyone, but there’s no particular reason it wouldn’t take you a couple of thousand miles before needing attention – and spares for this range are abundant and cheap.
Note that Dawes have sadly discontinued the Galaxy line for 2021, citing several years of declining in sales. The below information relates to the 2020 Galaxy, a final few of which may still be available.
Long known as the archetypical British road touring bike, the Galaxy is the entry-level model in Dawes’ current range. For the money, you get a remarkably accomplished machine with one of the longest-running British bike manufacturers’ names behind it.
Very close on paper to the Ridgeback Tour (see below), the Galaxy is fitted with Schwalbe Marathon tyres, which will get you across a continent or two before needing replacement. Gearing is definitely road-oriented, with a low ratio of 28×32.
The Dawes Galaxy is one of the most widely available touring bikes in UK high street bike stores, so you may still find a few 2020 models up for sale.
Ridgeback Tour 2021 (UK, £850)
Ridgeback’s touring bike series has gone from strength to strength in the last few years, with an increasing number of long-distance riders using the Panorama, and a move into 26-inch wheel territory with the Expedition. The Tour is their entry-level offering, and for the price, you’ll find an impressively well-specified aluminium-framed touring bike.
The 3×8sp mountain-bike drivetrain with an Acera rear derailleur and an 11–32t cassette gives the Tour a good range of gear ratios, and the Continental Contact tyres are above average: expect to get a good few thousand miles out of these.
Other plus points include 36-spoke wheels, toe clips, a sturdy rear rack, and a range of 5 frame sizes. Ridgeback are well distributed; it shouldn’t be hard to find a dealer in your area.
If you think you might want to upgrade at a later date, you might also consider the steel-framed Voyage (RRP £1,100).
Read more about the Ridgeback Tour and find dealer listings on the Ridgeback website, or buy online from Tredz.
Fuji Touring LTD 2021 (Worldwide, €900)
Japanese manufacturer Fuji’s entry-level touring bike, simply named the Touring, features a Reynolds 520 cromoly frameset with classic drop-bar touring geometry. It’s prime for upgrades and additions, with three bottle cage mounts on the frame, and lowrider mounts on the fork.
Strong 36-spoke wheels on Shimano Deore hubs, plus a durable mid-range Shimano MTB 3×9sp groupset and bar-end Microshift shifters, point to high ambitions in a good-value package.
Extra touches include LED front and rear lights, toe clips, a choice of two colours, and no fewer than seven frame sizes – particularly interesting for short or tall riders. A disc brake-equipped version is available too.
Pro Tip #1: How To Get A Cheap Touring Bike Even Cheaper
Whether online or in store, getting discounts on touring bikes is all about timing.
New season models start rolling out towards the end of the calendar year, but sales decline at this time too. This is when most stores will start clearing old stock to make space for new season bikes. Discounts are generally around 25–35%, but can be more.
Late spring and summer is peak bike-buying season, making it the worst time to get a good deal on a bike.
Pro Tip #2: How To Avoid Buying The Wrong Bike
As I’ve mentioned many times elsewhere, the best way to avoid getting the wrong bike is to test ride it first.
You’ll also benefit from getting the bike set up by an expert bike fitter for your unique size, shape and comfort preferences.
Read this article for more on why this is such a critical stage of choosing a bicycle, be it a cheap touring bike from the list above or top-end expedition bike to take you round the world.
Related to this, if you’re having a hard time choosing between a small number of models on your shortlist, it’s probably because the one to choose will be the one that feels right when you test-ride it – and you haven’t test-ridden them yet.
Pro Tip #3: Some Advice On Upgrading Cheap Touring Bikes
As mentioned earlier, many of these bikes – particularly those with steel frames – are prime for upgrading if you decide to make touring a more regular thing, or you have something more adventurous in mind.
Among the best places to start are with the wheels (changing the stock wheels for a hand-built pair), the tyres (upgrading to a more durable set such as the Marathon Plus or Mondial), and the racks (Tubus’ cromoly racks are second to none).
You might also consider getting the basic headset switched out for a more durable cartridge-bearing unit.
Upgrading these parts will make your bike a much more capable long-haul touring machine, as they’re critical structural parts that you’ll want to make as fail-safe as possible.
Drivetrains, pedal bearings, gear and brake cables and the like will wear out, of course, but that’s true of bikes twice the price – and in any case, these are things you can easily replace when you’re on the road.
Are there any other cheap yet reliable touring bikes I’ve missed from this list? Do you have first-hand touring experience with any of the bikes above? Feel free to share your opinions in the comments below!
When visiting the UK earlier this year, I popped over to Oxford Bike Works to catch up with Richard Delacour and to check out a prototype of the new Expedition Disc touring bike he’s been working on.
This disc-equipped specification will be part of Richard’s custom-built bike lineup as of 2019, so I wanted to share some insights on what else makes this new touring bike different from the original Expedition and, perhaps more interestingly, why he decided to go down the disc brake route after years of steering clear of them (neither pun intended).
Why Put Disc Brakes On An Expedition Touring Bike?
First and foremost, lest riders of the original Expedition be alarmed, the Expedition Disc is not a replacement or an upgrade over the Expedition. It’s just a bike for a slightly different type of rider and tour.
Richard and I originally conceived Tom’s Expedition Bike, which became the Oxford Bike Works Expedition, as the ‘ultimate expedition touring bike’, in which simplicity and durability were paramount for a ride of months or years through the back of beyond. The original Expedition remains absolutely my go-to bike for this particular type of tour.
The Disc, on the other hand, was born out of a growing demand Richard was experiencing for a bike that would suit a rider who also had a lot of long-distance riding in mind, but perhaps over a series of shorter, more adventurous trips. They might also be considering throwing some dirt-road touring into the mix, and could therefore feel comfortable with a little more mechanical complexity in exchange for better braking performance in specific situations.
Given the changing priorities of many of today’s bicycle travellers, therefore, it made sense to tailor a bike to better suit this growing community of riders.
The Durability Of Disc Brakes On Long-Distance Cycle Tours
As longer-term readers might remember, part the rationale for sticking with rim brakes on the Expedition was the relative lack of proven durability and reliability of any particular model of disc brake on ultra long-distance tours in the developing world.
The picture today is different: cable-actuated disc brake technology has come of age. Models such as the Avid BB7, Hayes CX and TRP Spyre have been showing up on the spec sheets of disc-equipped world tourers from the big commercial manufacturers for several years, with few significant issues reported, and spares are a lot easier to find as a result of the increased global availability of high-end bikes and parts.
Some riders will no doubt chime in here to say that they’ve been running discs for much longer than that. I too was touring on hydraulic discs – of all things – as far back as 2007, perhaps ill-advisedly (though I still use that same set of brakes on my bikepacking rig today).
But that’s the point: these disc brakes have proven themselves over enough time and miles for even the most conservative bike designers to now consider specifying them on flagship touring models like the Expedition Disc – the TRP Spyres, in this case.
There’s also the option for early adopters to try out the rather amazing-sounding Juin Tech R1cable-actuated hydraulic calipers that have recently found huge favour with the cyclocross community.
With discs, the tolerances involved mean that they tend to rub on occasion, especially when the frame flexes under stress. The rotors can be rather vulnerable, especially when the bike is disassembled for transportation (fixing a bent rotor is almost impossible). It’s also true that, in the majority of regular touring scenarios, they don’t actually offer significantly improved braking over rim brakes. Let’s not forget that rim brake-equipped bikes have been taking people round the planet for over a century.
But I see the ever-increasing popularity and accessibility of shorter, more adventurous tours off the beaten track as a good reason to offer them. A set of properly set-up and bedded-in disc brakes offer significantly better modulation, slightly more power, and generally better performance in the mud and wet. I’m also much more confident in the durability of the components and the availability of spare parts than I was just a few years ago.
Disc-Specific Frames & Forks For Touring Bikes
Disc brakes do, of course, call for a frame and fork that are built for the job. This isn’t just about having bolts in the right places. Because the position of the brake calipers is much closer to the axles, the act of braking exerts a stronger rotational force on the wheel attachment points of frame. So it’s not just a case of welding new disc brake mounts onto a frameset that was designed for rim brakes.
To that end, the new Oxford Bike Works Expedition Disc frames will be individually fillet-brazed from Reynolds 525 and 631 chromoly tubing by a UK-based master frame-builder.
To keep prices from soaring (as tends to happen with made-to-measure framesets), they’ll be batch-produced in Richard’s already-popular range of four sizes, so he can continue to offer value for money while at the same time customising and fitting each bike to order (which was what impressed me most about his approach in the first place). The frames themselves will continue to come with the same 10-year warranty as before.
While both the 26-inch and 700c frame geometries will be essentially the same as those of the Expedition, the stiffer disc mount-equipped fork and rear triangle will make for an ever-so-slightly less springy ride, as is the case with disc-specific frames in general (though if you can accurately tell the difference in a double-blind test I will personally mail you an extra-large Snickers as a prize).
Three frame colours are available: the ever-popular red gloss, a new semi-matt khaki green, and anthracite grey. Custom colours and decals have proved surprisingly popular on the Expedition – maybe because if you’re buying a bike for life, you might as well really make it your own – and so this will continue to be an optional extra.
A final reminder that each of Richard’s bikes is fitted in-person to each customer’s size and body shape and built to their preferences, so if there’s anything you don’t like or you have any special request, you can just ask him, and – if it’s possible – it shall be done.