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Equipment Planning & Logistics

Do I Really Need Ortliebs? A Buyer’s Guide To Panniers For Cycle Tours & Expeditions

Last updated on April 23, 2023 with new pricing for 2023-season products. As with much outdoor and cycling gear, retailers are currently struggling to keep up with demand for cycle touring panniers, so some of the items linked to in this article may temporarily be listed as out of stock.

One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a bicycle, carrying a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket, and became the first person in recorded history to cycle round the world.

Today’s cycle tourists, of course, pack much more gear than that. That’s because we want to enjoy seeing the world, rather than bribing and bullying our way through our bike tours as Stevens did. 

To carry all the cycle touring equipment used today – ultralight tents, camping stoves & cookware, touring-specific toolkits, and other core kit-list items – most bike tourers attach panniers to their touring bikes. 

Indeed, the humble bicycle pannier has been the traditional luggage of cycle tourists for more than a century. (Even trendy bikepackers are finally starting to catch on!)

A scene every experienced rider will be familiar with: rebuilding bikes and attaching panniers in the arrivals hall of a faraway international airport.

This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll fit your budget, your style of cycle touring (aka: bikepacking), and the equipment and supplies you’ll be carrying with you.

It’s based not just on my own 16 years of bike touring experience but that of countless veteran riders who I’ve cycled alongside and interrogated about their own gear setups, with the goal of creating the most well-balanced cycle touring pannier buying guide possible (no pun intended).

Within the listings of the best touring panniers on the market right now, I’ll include direct links to manufacturers’ webpages and buying links for retailers in Europe and North America (affiliate links are identified with an asterisk (*); click here to read my full affiliate policy).

But I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, so let’s start by laying out the basics about panniers for cycle touring before we dive into the details. 

(If you prefer to skip the newbie questions, you can also go straight to the pannier listings.)

What Exactly Are Bicycle Panniers?

Touring panniers needn’t be a fashion accessory, but now Brooks have entered the market they’re starting to become one.

Panniers are purpose-made bags designed to be hung off the sides of a bicycle or motorbike (or, originally, slung over a pack animal). 

They are almost always designed to be used in pairs, for what I hope are obvious reasons of balance and stability.

I am reliably informed by several readers in the comments section that the name ‘pannier’ originates from a French word meaning ‘bread basket’. So now you know.

Do I Need Two Or Four Panniers For Cycle Touring?

Literally a ‘classic’ setup – two pairs of Ortlieb Classic panniers on front and rear racks.

The traditional setup for long-distance cycle touring is four panniers – a small pair at the front and a larger pair at the rear – plus a handlebar bag and a few other bits.

This is simply because, when you make a list of everything you’d need for a transcontinental or round-the-world ride, buy it all, and try to fit it onto a bike – it usually fills four panniers.

If you can live with the compromises of packing light, a single pair of rear panniers can suffice for fair-weather road trips of many months.

For lighter-weight bike tours, two panniers (either front or rear) can offer sufficient capacity. Many short summer rides close to home, with lots of bike shops, resupply stops and other facilities on your route, would fit this category.

You might also use two panniers on longer rides with a minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach, because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need to pack.

Combining bikepacking bags with a small pair of panniers is a good way to achieve a nimble and versatile road touring setup.

Increasingly you’ll also see a hybrid approach, with a pair of small front or rear panniers supplemented by bikepacking luggage such as frame bags, seat packs and cockpit pouches. Panniers can then be removed and stored temporarily for shorter side trips, allowing more flexibility over the traditional setup.

In any case, you’ll rarely see panniers used exclusively as a means of storing belongings and supplies. They’re almost always used alongside rack-top drybags, baskets, handlebar bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require you to stop and unpack everything just to find one commonly-used item.

I am yet to meet a more fully-loaded cycle touring couple than Katya and Mirko.

Sometimes, in very special cases such as deep winter, desert crossings, or just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a trailer instead of (or as well as) panniers, which is a topic I’ve covered elsewhere.

How Do Cycle Touring Panniers Vary In Design?

There are as many ways to use a rear carrier rack and panniers as there are cycle tourists!

Bicycle panniers for cycle touring (as opposed to panniers for, say, grocery shopping) come in a variety of sizes, colours and materials, and are generally labelled as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They usually (though not always) are sold in pairs, sometimes with differences between left and right, and sometimes without.

Front panniers tend to be smaller, and for good reason: whatever weight you’re carrying on the front wheel will feed directly into the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter is therefore better, particularly on rough roads.

A typical front pannier might have a 10–15 litre capacity (ie: 20–30 litres per pair). Larger panniers at the front would also be at risk of hitting the down-tube of the bike (or even the ground) when turning sharply, or interfering with disc brakes.

Rear panniers tend to have about twice the capacity; around 20–30 litres each (ie: 40–60 litres per pair). Tandem panniers can be even bigger.

As mentioned above, a single pair of rear panniers might suffice for even the longest trips if packed thoughtfully with lightweight gear.

What Kind Of Pannier Rack Attachment Systems Are There?

Brooks’ high-end panniers use tried and tested Ortlieb mounting hardware.

A variety of attachment systems exist today, but they almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the back of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retaining tab on the back of each pannier to hook around the rack tubing and stop them swinging about.

Although pairs of panniers can be identical out of the box, setting up the attachments to fit your racks will usually result in them being configured as ‘left’ and ‘right’ panniers from that point forward.

Riding the Zagros Mountains of Iran with two pairs of all-in-one panniers we borrowed from an Iranian cyclist in Esfahan.

You’ll occasionally see a pair of panniers attached together with a strip of fabric between them, the whole of which is then slung over the rack. As a general rule, don’t buy these unless it’s the only thing you can get, as this style is far less durable and versatile than individual panniers and rack mounts.

What Materials Are Panniers Made From?

In terms of design and construction material, there are two main categories of pannier: fully waterproof and semi- or non-waterproof (often aka: “water resistant”).

Riding off-road in northern Mongolia with an Extrawheel Voyager single-wheel trailer and two large pairs of panniers.

Fully waterproof panniers are usually made of laminated fabric with sealed seams, often using the same ‘roll-top’ closure system found in drybags for paddlesports. As with any waterproof gear, you should always pack a simple repair kit – a length of Gaffa Tape at the very least, or perhaps a roll of Tenacious Tape.

Non-waterproof (or sometimes “water-resistant”) panniers are usually made of heavy canvas, with backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof backing plate on the rear to protect against road spray. The repair kit you should pack for this type of pannier is a heavy-duty needle and thread.

(As for which type is better, we’ll come to that later on.)

Some people get hung up on the colour of the material. There’s an argument that using black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will result in your belongings being well and truly cooked. Conversely, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety, although panniers of all colours are adorned with the same reflective patches.

Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference. If it’s really that hot, lighter colours will be of limited benefit, and you – the rider – should always be more visible than your panniers. My advice is to choose whatever colour panniers you like… and make a hi-viz vest the first thing you put in them.

This is a ‘concept’ bike I saw at Eurovelo 2014. Almost nobody would actually choose to ride something like this.

In short, there’s a lot of variety out there. There are, however, a few specific makes and models of bicycle pannier that have proven themselves over many decades on very long and demanding tours.

We’ll start, however, by looking at basic, budget-friendly panniers, and work our way up to durable and hard-wearing panniers capable of withstanding years of constant daily use.

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No-Budget Panniers For Cycle Touring

Somewhere in Cornwall at the start of my #FreeLEJOG money-free ride to Scotland, with a scrapyard bike and a donated pair of panniers.

For the most ultra-low-budget of trips, you are very welcome to stop reading this article; take whatever cheap or free second-hand panniers you can find on eBay*, Freecycle, Gumtree, or get donated or lent to you; add a basic sewing kit, a roll of Gaffa Tape, some cable ties and a few plastic carrier bags, and leave.

I did this in 2013, wrote a detailed article about it, then cycled the length of England with no money to prove the theory.

Panniers can be made at home using cheap plastic cool-boxes and some basic hardware. Photo © Jamie Bowlby-Whiting

If you’re good at DIY, consider making your own panniers (or getting good at DIY).

Rectangular buckets with lids are available from hardware stores and pet shops and can be converted into panniers with a few commonly available fixings. Cool-boxes have travelled across continents in the same way (see photo above). The REI blog has a lengthy and useful post on making your own DIY bucket panniers*.

One reader even emailed me a video he’d made about how to make a pair of panniers out of a discarded pair of jeans. Get creative!


Cheap Panniers For Cycle Touring

Light summer touring in Europe is perfectly possible with a pair of cheap and simple canvas panniers from Halfords.

When it comes to cheap panniers at the bottom end of the market, a trip to any mainstream bike shop or outdoor retailer (eg: Go Outdoors or Decathlon in the UK, REI in the USA, or MEC in Canada) will demonstrate the endless options in this category.

None can really be said to be better or worse than any other, due to the lack of substantial documentary evidence besides customer reviews (which should always be taken with a pinch of salt, because who exactly are these customers anyway?).

To help you choose reasonably durable cheap panniers, and keep them on the road as long as possible, here are a few tips:

  • Cheap panniers are often aimed at commuters and shoppers, rather than cycle tourists, so see if you can find something that at least claims to be designed for touring use.
  • Avoid anything that relies on zips for closure of the main compartment, as cheap zips are liable to break. Go for something with straps and buckles/clips instead.
  • Avoid cheap and flimsy ‘waterproof’ material in favour of thicker canvas, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with plastic bags or drybags as necessary.
  • Consider buying or making waterproof pannier covers, which are essentially giant elasticated shower caps; they’ll get you to the next shelter (especially when paired with an effective mudguard to stop road-spray soaking the bags from behind).
  • Finally, pack a sewing kit, Gaffa Tape, and cable ties. I know I’m repeating myself, the point being that you can save a lot of money and solve a lot of problems with a pragmatic attitude.

Recognisable budget brands in the UK and Europe include Altura, Topeak, and Elops (Decathlon’s in-house bike luggage brand, which includes the Ortlieb-esque roll-top waterproof panniers pictured below).

What you’re looking for at this end of the spectrum is a capacity that matches your packing needs, compatibility with your racks, and as few things to go wrong as possible.

Of course, if it’s a simple question of what you can beg, borrow or steal, anything is better than nothing!


Mid-Range Panniers For Cycle Touring

There are a few mid-range models of pannier that don’t quite meet the criteria for high-end expedition panniers but have nevertheless been shown to cope well with some very long and arduous bicycle journeys. 

Here I’ll list a few of the best known examples, as well as introducing a couple of lesser-known brands that show promise in this category.

Crosso Dry (Poland, £55/£60 front/rear)

A pair of Crosso Dry 30-litre front panniers mounted on the rear rack of a Kona Sutra touring bike (in combination with frame luggage).

Crosso is a Polish company which has been manufacturing panniers commercially since 2006. If you’re based in Europe and can find a retailer, they make for a good option in the mid range, being considerably cheaper than the big-brand panniers. They’re quite basic in terms of design and materials, but in many ways this is a good thing, and they will serve you well if you look after them.

The waterproof Dry panniers come in front/universal and rear pairs with a capacity of 30 and 60 litres per pair respectively, with roll-top closures and welded seams, and a choice of 10 colours. (I’ve had a pair of the rear ones for 12 years, which I’m still happily using after a few repairs.)

Full Crosso touring luggage on an island-hopping ride through southern Thailand.

The standard attachment system features two fixed steel hooks at the top, with an inverted hook on an elasticated strap at the bottom to secure the pannier in place. Once you get used to the system it is very easy to mount and dismount the panniers, and it’s surprisingly stable.

Not all racks have a lower horizontal rail to attach the bottom hook, so there is also the more expensive Click option, using traditional-style fixtures from German company Rixen+Kaul (who make the popular and widespread KlickFix system). These might be a better choice for extremely long journeys as the fixtures are replaceable.

Carradice CarraDry (UK, £55/£85 front/rear)

UK-based Carradice’s CarraDry panniers are waterproof, feature a generous capacity (58 litres per pair at the rear) and are very good value for money. They share a very durable mounting system with the heavy duty Super C expedition panniers (below).

Though they can’t be described as 100% watertight, with a lidded drawstring closure system rather than a roll-top drybag-style closure, they’re made of a similar laminated synthetic waterproof fabric as the other panniers in this section, with welded seams and waterproof zips, which will still keep out the heaviest rain. Like other Carradice products, they feature outer pockets as well as the main compartment.

The CarraDry might be a good choice if you’re looking for a high quality pair of waterproof panniers (and you don’t plan on floating them across deep rivers), but your budget can’t quite stretch to the top-end Ortliebs, and/or you want to support this long-running British maker.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller City (Global, €85/€95 front/rear)

The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a cheaper, simplified version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below). 

The Ortlieb City range is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are the same as the higher end Ortliebs in terms of shape, capacity, waterproofing and construction materials, made slightly lighter and quite a bit cheaper by a couple of missing features.

So what do you lose by saving some cash? Aside from the limited choice of colours, the most significant thing you lose is full roll-top closure. Instead, the top buckles attach to clips on the sides of the pannier, and there’s no extra cinch strap over the top (although you can add one afterwards). This is a less flexible setup with a variable sized load, and less waterproof in the case of a pannier being completely submerged.

There is also no shoulder strap or inner pocket, though neither of those are hugely important for touring. The rack attachment system is the slightly older QuickLock1 mechanism, previously used on Classic/Plus panniers which are still going strong after decades – again, not a huge issue.

On the plus side, all of this reduces the overall weight; 760g per pannier for a rear Ortlieb City as opposed to 950g for a rear Ortlieb Classic. And, as mentioned, it reduces the price too.

In my opinion, the extra versatility and feature set of the Classic/Plus panniers is probably worth the extra money if you’re already looking at panniers of this kind of quality. If you’re commuting with a pair of City panniers already and thinking about a tour, however, you’ll get on absolutely fine with them.

Alpkit Toliari (UK, £100/£120 24/40l pairs)

Relatively new on the British pannier scene (whoop!) is the waterproof Toliari pannier range from the certified B‑corporation and direct retailer Alpkit.

If the quality of the rest of their products is anything to go by, they’ll prove durable and well-made, which is why I’ve included them here, but it’s important to say that they are relatively untested on really massive multi-year expeditions.

Available in two sizes (12/20 litres per pannier) in a single graphite colour and sold individually, they’ll probably be of most interest to brand loyalists, being about the same price as the Ortlieb City panniers whose reputation will likely win more buyers, especially outside the UK.

Having said all that, Alpkit’s social and environmental credentials are pretty hard to beat.

  • Buy Alpkit Toliari panniers direct from Alpkit in the UK, with worldwide shipping also available.

MEC World Tour (CA$240/260 20/30l pairs)

Canadian outdoor equipment retail cooperative MEC has been outfitting adventurers since 1971. Their World Tour bicycle panniers, available in 20- and 30-litre capacities for front and rear use, are a solid and reasonably-priced mid-range option.

Simply designed with one main compartment plus a small front pocket, the panniers are water-resistant, although not fully waterproof – MEC does offer optional rain covers if you want more protection from the elements, as well as a wide selection of dry bags for the contents.

The widely-used Rixen and Kaul hook mounting system is easy to work with and compatible with almost all racks and carriers, and the designers have also incorporated extra gear loops on top of the pannier – useful for strapping on extra bits that you might pick up on the road.

If you’re based in or starting a tour from Canada, the MEC World Tour pannier is a decent option if you want something simple, durable and very functional without putting a huge dent in your bank balance.


The All-Time Best Expedition Panniers For Cycle Touring

Here we’re going to look in detail at panniers that have at least a decade (often two or more) of proven and documented reputation as being suitable for long-haul rides. I’m talking multi-year, round-the-world odysseys with a single set of bags. That kind of ‘long-haul’.

A full set of Ortlieb Plus panniers mounted on a Ridgeback Panorama touring bike, ready for a round-the-world adventure. Photo © Tim Moss / TheNextChallenge.org

As you might expect, the biggest concern at this end of the market is durability. Panniers take a lot of abuse, and not just the bag material – it’s also where fabric and rack mounts meet that forces will be concentrated over thousands of miles of bumpy roads.

Holes in canvas can be repaired with a sewing kit, and waterproof material can be patched with Aquaseal, Tenacious Tape, Gaffa Tape, even puncture patches, all of which are part of a more general gear first-aid kit. Broken attachment systems are harder problems to solve. Buying top-quality panniers from a tried-and-tested brand will largely – though never entirely – negate this risk.

The same pannier-buying considerations apply to expedition panniers as they do to budget ones. Are they compatible with the racks on your bike? And are they appropriately sized for the gear you’ll be carrying, plus food space?

Four large Crosso panniers, a cargo trailer and a giant dry-bag were needed to carry the gear necessary for my deep winter expedition into northern Lapland in 2011.

As mentioned at the start of this article, many of today’s bicycle travellers could get away with two large rear panniers, a varying rack-top bundle and a bar-bag. Packing for a round-the-world ride traditionally calls for four panniers – a smaller pair of panniers at the front and a larger pair at the rear – because any trip of many years in length will inevitably require flexibility.

You’re unlikely to know exactly what your capacity requirements are until you’ve got your gear laid out in front of you, but as a rule it’s better to distribute weight evenly and have a little extra space than to be overloading your bags and having an unbalanced bike.

Remember that – regardless of ‘official’ capacity rating – most roll-top or buckle-lidded panniers will cinch down or expand a certain amount to accommodate what’s inside.

A very typical luggage setup for a long-haul touring cyclist, consisting of two small panniers at the front, two large panniers at the rear, a bar-bag, and a rack-mounted drysack.

OK! Let’s look at the all-time best expedition panniers available today that have accumulated the most miles around the world on tours of every length, location and level of challenge. (All the RRPs I’ve listed below are per pair.)


Ortlieb Cycle Touring Panniers

Let’s get this out of the way: the single most interesting thing about Ortlieb’s range of roll-top waterproof panniers is that they’re the most popular of all the panniers being used on world-ranging tours.

Indeed, in a highly unscientific Twitter survey I conducted while first researching this article, about ⅔ of respondents used Ortliebs.

Seeing everyone using them attracts more people to buy them, and then claim that they’re the “only choice” despite never having used anything else. And so the inertia continues.

Of course, about ⅓ of respondents didn’t use Ortliebs, yet somehow were still perfectly happy.

So: do you really need Ortliebs?

Well, there’s no doubt that they make very good panniers. They’re about the right size for most users. They’re available in a choice of colours. They’re compatible with most touring racks. They’re durable (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring a repair kit), and come with a 5‑year warranty. And they’re in the same price range as most of the other expedition panniers in this list.

In short: the price is competitive and they’re proven to work. You certainly don’t need them, but they’re highly unlikely to disappoint you.

(By the way, second-hand Ortlieb panniers are prime for being snapped up for cheap in early spring, because they’re the kind of thing people buy in January when resolving to start cycling to work and a few weeks later sell barely-used on eBay. Take advantage.)

Ortlieb panniers come in several varieties. Let’s look at those of most interest to bicycle travellers.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Plus (Global, €125/€145)

If there was a Standard Issue Cycle-Round-The-World Kit (now there’s an idea), it would probably include a pair of Ortlieb Sport-Roller Plus (formerly known as Front-Roller Plus) panniers at the front and a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus panniers at the rear of the bike, all in matching his-and-hers / his-and-his / hers-and-hers / theirs-and-theirs colours.

At 25 litres per pair for the Sport-Rollers and 40 litres per pair for the Back-Rollers, they’re slightly smaller in rated capacity than other panniers in this list. As with all roll-top panniers, however, you can make fewer rolls when closing them to create more space.

The buckles at the top can either be clipped together, as with a regular drybag, or clipped into a carry strap which then secures to the front of the pannier via a retaining tab near the bottom edge. For additional peace of mind when overloaded, another short strap can be fastened over the top of the closed pannier.

Other useful features include a small handle attached to the rack mounting points for easy attachment and removal of the pannier to the rack, and a removable pouch attached to the backing plate on the inside of the pannier for flat items such as travel documents and diaries.

The current version of the Plus panniers makes use of the QuickLock2.1 attachment system, which is an updated version of Ortlieb’s original system with broader compatibility with the range of racks on the market today (this includes the popular Tubus racks, if you’re wondering). With this system, the hooks are locked in place by sprung retainers, which are released when you pull up on the grab handle for easy removal. Inserts are supplied for different rack tubing diameters to ensure a secure, rattle-free fit.

What distinguishes the Plus series from the Classic series (see below) is the fabric used in their construction: a high-grade Cordura-branded nylon weave which is laminated on the inside. This makes the outer surface almost as abrasion-resistant as a canvas pannier, while remaining waterproof due to the laminated inner. As weave is less dense than laminate, the Plus is therefore slightly lighter than the Classic; 840g per rear pannier as compared to 950g.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Classic (Global, €110/€130)

Slightly heavier, cheaper and less abrasion-resistant, going for the wipe-clean Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic and Back-Roller Classic will save you a few days’ food budget whilst still giving you the sleep-easy feeling of ‘having Ortliebs’. As noted above, the fabric used in construction is a lighter and slightly more basic double-laminated polyester. Besides this, every other aspect is the same.

(It’s worth noting that I have never heard of anyone buying the Classics and then later wishing they’d bought the Pluses. Apart from that guy in the comments. There’s always one.)

Ortlieb ‘Pro’ Variants

The Ortlieb Sport-Roller and Back-Roller Plus/Classic panniers above are available in a further variation: Pro.

What makes them “pro”? They’re bigger. Instead of 40 litres per pair, you get a whopping 70 litres of capacity.

Can your rack handle that amount of weight? Does your bike have enough heel clearance? Do you need an extra 30 litres of pannier space? 

Truth is, the people who’d benefit most from these panniers would be tandem riders (which is who they’re made for), and perhaps people biking in deep winter. The rest of us can just strap a big drybag to the rear rack and only fill it when necessary.


Carradice Super C (UK, £99/£130 front/rear)

A pair of Carradice Super C rear panniers soaking up the dust in the Sudanese Sahara.

Carradice’s Super C range is a classic line of British hand-made bags and panniers, the designs changing little in decades. (I’ve had a pair of the rear panniers hanging off various touring bikes for 15 years and counting.)

Stitched from heavy-duty waxed ‘cotton duck’ canvas of the type used for military kit and old-school tents, they’re far more resistant to abrasion than waterproof panniers with laminated fabrics or even synthetic canvas. You’ll hear stories of pairs of Super Cs being used for upwards of 30 years, by which time Ortliebs will be straining your tea, so if it’s pure longevity you’re after, they’re some of the best panniers going.

The front (or ‘universal’) panniers have a capacity of 28 litres per pair and, aside from the removable fixtures, are symmetrical in design, with one large main compartment and a small outside pocket in which I might be tempted to store a few snacks. The rear panniers have a capacity of 54 litres per pair, with an outside pocket at the rear. Both sizes have buckled lids with adjustable straps, in addition to a drawstring for the main compartment.

Carradice’s attachment system, based on two self-locking hooks along the top inside edge of the bag and with a retaining tab on the rear, has proven its durability on many a round-the-world tour. The fixtures are very adjustable, making them compatible with a wide variety of racks (adapters are available for rack tubing thicker than 13mm), and enabling them to be shifted back a long way for heel clearance. These fixtures are removable – always a good idea when transporting the panniers on planes, trains and buses.

What they are not is 100% watertight. Although the waxed canvas will keep any amount of rain out, it will eventually absorb water if fully immersed, and the lidded closure system will never be as watertight as a roll-top pannier, as discussed above.

Despite this, they are supremely durable receptacles for the (drybagged) gear you’ll keep inside, and I’ve never come across anyone who regretted buying them.

As an example of an ultra-durable canvas pannier, the Carradice Super Cs are certainly the best in the UK, with one of the longest heritages of any pannier on the market.


Vaude Aqua (EU/UK/Canada, €147/€158 front/rear)

Vaude’s full Aqua bicycle luggage line on display at Eurobike 2014.

Part of a bigger line of commuter and messenger bags, German manufacturer Vaude make the very nice 100% waterproof Aqua touring panniers in front and rear variants.

These are strikingly similar to the Ortlieb Classics (see above), and not just superficially: they are also made in Germany, also come with a 5‑year guarantee, also have a versatile one-handed attachment system, also have inside pockets and shoulder straps, and also have a (smaller) following of satisfied users who’ve taken them round the world by bicycle.

The biggest difference is that they’re slightly larger (despite being about the same weight), with a rated capacity of 28/48 litres front/rear compared to 25/40 for the Ortliebs.

If you’re concerned about your environmental impact (and obviously you should be), you might be interested in the fact that the Aqua panniers are ‘climate neutrally manufactured’, ie: all manufacturing and shipping emissions have been carbon offset, and are fully PVC and PFC free. Indeed, Vaude have put a great deal of emphasis on their green credentials in recent years.

Why don’t more people don’t buy them, then? Simple: they’re not Ortliebs.


Arkel GT-54 (Canada, CA$525 rear)

Arkel are a small Canadian outfit established in 1988 whose panniers’ reputation (and price) exceeds even that of Ortliebs. Their top-end GT-54 classic touring panniers come from an entirely different line of thinking, full of pockets and sections and zips and straps and other finery – consider them the Rolls Royce to Ortlieb’s Land Rover.

There are plenty of riders out there who would claim that these panniers are, in fact, the very best in the world.

Slightly more affordable – and perhaps easier to get hold of if you’re based in Canada or the USA – is their ORCA range of waterproof panniers, which are of the simpler roll-top design and come in three different sizes. More like Ortliebs, basically.


Bonus: The Great Cycle Touring Pannier Waterproofing Debate

There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ can be worrying for people who are spending several hundred pounds/euros/dollars on a full set of panniers, and planning to put a lot of stuff inside them that they really don’t want getting wet.

The debate boils down to whether you should buy fully waterproof, roll-top, seam-sealed, drybag-style panniers and never worry about rain or river crossings ever again, or whether there’s any other type of pannier worth considering.

The time a pannier detached itself and floated off downstream during a river crossing in northern Mongolia. We’ve all been there.

Here’s my take.

Although the 100%-waterproof option looks appealing, I haven’t met a long-term rider (ie: who’s spent years on the road) whose 100% waterproof panniers have stayed 100% waterproof.

This is nothing to do with quality. It’s because no piece of fabric can survive an unlimited amount being bashed into things, falling off the bike, being trodden on, tripped over, tied to sharp metal roof racks on buses and taxes, thrown into aircraft holds and pickup trucks, or ripped apart by hungry bears hunting for the smell of toothpaste (true story).

Some riders anticipate this and prepare for it by bringing a repair kit. Some don’t, and then criticise their expensive panniers for not being 100% waterproof. A lucky few somehow manage to avoid getting a single hole in their panniers, and claim this as evidence that they’ll be ‘bomb-proof’ for everyone else. They won’t.

If very heavy rain and wading through rivers is likely to be a regular feature of your trip, then drybag-style panniers and a patch kit is probably the better option. 

If you don’t mind a little extra ‘pannier admin’, however, there is another legitimate approach: waterproof what’s inside the pannier as and when you need to.

Canvas panniers looking good on a piece of freshly-laid asphalt in the Sudanese Sahara.

For a little extra effort, this approach will allow you to exploit the many advantages of breathable, canvas panniers:

  • Wet gear (and smelly gear) can be isolated from the remaining contents and allowed to dry during a day’s riding,
  • Fuel bottles and other potentially messy items can be prevented from contaminating other contents,
  • In hot weather, perishable food can be kept longer in a breathable pannier than inside a sealed drybag,
  • Canvas panniers are easier to repair with a needle and thread or by giving them to a local tailor or cobbler,
  • Top quality cotton canvas is, all else being equal, more abrasion-resistant than laminated synthetic fabric, and on a long tour this will bear the brunt of the punishment while the drybags inside remain protected.
  • Canvas looks cooler. The odd hole here and there will simply add to a pannier’s character, thus getting you more likes on Instagram.

The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybags inside the pannier (good ones are made by SealLine, Sea to Summit, Alpkit and many other brands); either one large drybag used as a pannier liner, or lots of smaller ones for organisation and selective waterproofing (or a combination of the two).

Mongolian river crossing, take two – this time with the panniers removed from the rack!

Either approach will carry your gear and keep it dry if you know the strengths and weaknesses of each and have a packing routine to match.

I’ve used both types myself on long-term rides in all conditions, from a free pair of shopping panniers for a rainy spring ride through England to heavy-duty canvas bags across the Middle East and Africa to roll-top waterproof panniers and canvas bags together in Mongolia. Analysing which of these systems is ‘best’ is not something I feel the need to spend any more time discussing, because all of them can be made to work.

The truth is that most long-term riders use roll-top waterproof panniers – in particular, the Ortlieb ones mentioned above – because everyone else does. It’s a conformity thing. Non-conformists might prefer the tramp-like image engendered by dusty canvas. If you can’t decide, flip a coin.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty burned out from discussing the minutiae of bags with hooks on them. Time to grab a bike, tent, stove and cooking pot and hit the road!


Still struggling to choose?

How To Hit The Road is here to take the pain out of researching and buying equipment for a long bicycle adventure, with contributions from over 50 veteran riders. Available now as a low-price ebook or print-on-demand paperback.

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Categories
Bikes

A Massive List Of Expedition Touring Bikes For Round-The-World Rides

Last updated on April 6, 2023, removing a number of bikes from the list that are no longer in production. I’m sad to see so many small-scale touring bike builders out of business post-Covid – let’s hope new talent will start to fill the gaps they left!

Upgrading an Oxford Bike Works Expedition bike at their workshop near Abingdon, UK.
Upgrading an Oxford Bike Works Expedition bike at their workshop near Abingdon, UK.

After an irritatingly huge amount of research, I’m pleased to present to you a tabulated list of expedition-grade world touring bikes being built around the world, featuring bicycles from 43 manufacturers and small-scale makers in 9 countries on 3 continents.

The list below is designed as a starting point for you to research suppliers of bicycles that have been designed not for short cycling holidays, nor as mainstream do-everything touring bikes, but for long-distance, heavily-loaded bicycle journeys in remote parts of the world on varied and challenging terrain. 

In other words, this is a list of touring bikes designed for the most demanding cycling expeditions on Earth.

A Santos Travelmaster touring bike fitted with Brooks panniers.
The Dutch-built Santos Travelmaster is a long-standing classic among bikes for round-the-world rides.

There’s no clearly agreed-upon name for this category, so ‘expedition touring bike’ is the one I’m using here.

Why bother listing them all in one place? Simply because expedition touring bikes (and the accompanying specialist knowledge) can be hard to find in this ultra-tiny niche, and my goal with this blog is to help you get out riding on the right bike.

Expedition touring bikes rarely appear even in specialist bike shops and usually have to be specially ordered, often involving at least one in-person visit to a workshop or factory.

Because so many of these bikes are built to order, the table is sorted by country of origin. Your ability to test ride the bike is critical in a sensible buying process at these prices and for this purpose, so where you’re based plays a big part in the expedition bike buying decision.

You’ll find columns comparing each bike on the main differences I’ve written about in detail in my touring bike FAQ series of posts, including wheel size, frame material, drivetrain type, braking system, etc. This means you can easily shortlist the bikes that fit your requirements without trawling specification charts. Some are available in different configurations, eg: derailleur and Rohloff models of the same bike, so I’ve mentioned this (and the difference in price) where appropriate.

Where there is a bigger range of options and upgrades, the price for the cheapest option (frame and/or complete bike) is listed. Many manufacturers allow you to ‘configure’ your bike online. Have fun seeing how high you can get the final price to be!


CountryBrandModelFrameWheelsDrivetrainBrakingBarsPrice FromURL
AustraliaVelosmithJotaSteel26”RohloffV‑brakes / DiscFlat6,860 AUDvelosmith.com.au
AustraliaViventeAnatoliaSteel700C (28”)DerailleurDiscTrekking2,750 AUDviventebikes.com
AustriaKTMLife RideAluminium700C (28”)DerailleurHydraulic discFlat1,000 EURktm-bikes.at
FranceAlex SingerCyclo CampingSteel650BVariousVariousVariousContactcycles-alex-singer.fr
FranceGilles BerthoudBerthoud JM-19Steel650BDerailleurDiscDropContactgillesberthoud.fr
FranceRando CyclesGlobe-TrotterSteel26”DerailleurV‑brakesFlat2,000 EURrando-cycles.com
GermanyBoettcherSafariSteel26”Derailleur / RohloffV‑brakesFlat1,350 EURboettcher-fahrraeder.de
GermanyIdworxGrandone Travel / All RohlerAluminium26”Derailleur / RohloffDiscFlat5,100 / 6,000 EURidworx-bikes.de
GermanyIntecM01Steel26”DerailleurV‑brakes / DiscFlatContactintec-bikes.de
GermanyNorwidSpitzbergenSteel26”1,200 EUR (frame)norwid.de
GermanyPatriaTerraSteel26”Derailleur / RohloffHydraulic rimFlat2,582 / 3,694 EURpatria.net
GermanyPoisonMorphinSteel26”Shimano AlfineV‑brakes / DiscFlat1,732 EURpoison-bikes.de
GermanyRad-SpannereiHardo WagnerSteel26” / 700C (28”)Derailleur / RohloffVariousVarious950 EUR (frameset)rad-spannerei.de
GermanyRotorReiseradSteel26” / 700C (28”) / 29”RohloffV‑brakes / DiscVariousContactrotorbikes.com/
GermanyTout TerrainSilkroad IISteel26” / 27.5”Derailleur / Rohloff / PinionDiscVarious3,500 / 4,700 / 4,500 EURen.tout-terrain.de
GermanyUtopia VeloSilberMöweSteel26”DerailleurV‑brakes / hydraulic rimFlat2,787 EURutopia-velo.de
GermanyVelotraumVK2 / VK3Steel26” / 27.5”DerailleurV‑brakes / DiscFlat2,790 / 2,890 EURvelotraum.de
GermanyVSFTX-800 / TX-1000 / TX-1200Steel26”Derailleur / Rohloff / PinionHydraulic rim / DiscFlat2,600 / 4,800 / 5,600 EURfahrradmanufaktur.de
ItalyCinelliHobootlegSteel700C (28”)DerailleurCantileverDrop1,690 EURcinelli.it
NetherlandsAvaghonS28Steel700C (28”)Derailleur / Rohloff / PinionHydraulic rim / Hydraulic discVarious2,910 / 4,010 / 4,710 EURavaghon.nl
NetherlandsKogaWorldTravellerAluminium700C (28”)DerailleurDiscFlat2,600 EURkoga.com
NetherlandsSantosTravelmaster 2.6 / 2.8Aluminium26” / 700C (28”)RohloffV‑brakesFlat4,615 EURsantosbikes.com
NetherlandsSNELSteel Ride 26 / 28Steel26” / 700C (28”)DerailleurV‑brakesFlat2,000 EURsnelfietsen.nl
SwitzerlandAariosExperienceSteel26”Derailleur / RohloffV‑brakesFlat3,460 / 5,300 EURaarios.ch
SwitzerlandMTB CycletechPapalagi GiSteel26”Derailleur / RohloffDiscVarious3,600 EURmtbcycletech.com
UKBob JacksonWorld TourSteel700C (28”)645 GBP (frame)bobjacksoncycles.co.uk
UKCondorHeritage / Heritage DiscSteel700C (28”)V‑brakes / Disc1,000 / 1,100 GBP (frame)condorcycles.com
UKGenesisTour de Fer 20 / 30Steel700C (28”)DerailleurDiscFlat / Drop1,800 / 2,200 GBPgenesisbikes.co.uk
UKMercian CyclesKing Of MerciaSteel700C (28”)1,340 GBP (frame)merciancycles.co.uk
UKOxford Bike WorksExpeditionSteel26” / 700C (28”)DerailleurV‑brakes / DiscVarious2,790 / 3,000 GBPoxfordbikeworks.co.uk
UKRidgebackExpeditionSteel26”DerailleurDiscFlat1,350 GBPridgeback.co.uk
UKSpa CyclesSteel TourerSteel700C (28”)DerailleurV‑brakesFlat950 GBPspacycles.co.uk
UKStanforthKiboSteel26”DerailleurCantileverFlat2,800 GBPstanforthbikes.co.uk
UKThornNomad Mk3Steel26”Derailleur / RohloffDiscVarious2,400 / 3,300 GBPthorncycles.co.uk
USABilenkyMidlandsSteel26” / 700C (28”)Derailleur / RohloffV‑brakesVarious3,047 / 4,927 USD (frame / complete)bilenky.com
USABruce GordonRock ‘n Road TourSteel26”DerailleurV‑brakesDropContactbgcycles.com
USACo-MotionPangaeaSteel26”Derailleur / Rohloff / PinionDiscDrop2,400 / 4,000 USD (frame / complete)co-motion.com
USAKonaSutraSteel700C (28”)DerailleurDiscDrop1,900 USDkonaworld.com
USARivendell Bicycle WorksAtlantisSteel650B / 700C (28”)DerailleurV‑brakes1,750 USD (frame)rivbike.com
USARodriguezUTBSteel26”Derailleur / RohloffV‑brakesVarious3,400 USDrodbikes.com
USASalsaMarrakeshSteel700C (28”) / 29”DerailleurDiscDrop1,150 / 2,050 USD (frame / complete)salsacycles.com
USASurlyDisc TruckerSteel26” / 700C (28”)DerailleurDiscDrop2,050 USDsurlybikes.com
USATrek520Steel700C (28”)DerailleurDiscDrop1,830 USDtrekbikes.com

If these price tags make you feel physically sick, by the way, and you’re not afraid of putting in a bit of effort, you can probably get a touring bike for cheap or free. Check out the story of how a scrapyard touring bike made it all the way across Eurasia. There are also plenty of mainstream touring bikes available at more reasonable prices.

If you know of any expedition touring bikes in production that are missing from this list, let us know in the comments. Thanks!

Categories
Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #7: What Should I Remember Before Handing Over My Cash?

This is #7 in an ever-growing series of answers to frequently-asked questions about touring bikes. If you’re new here, why not start with #1: What Exactly Defines A Touring Bike?

There are a few aspects of touring bike choice so utterly basic that they’re often lost in the quagmire of internet-based research.

This is particularly the case when browsing websites for advice on touring bikes: features and technical specifications are a lot easier to talk about than the all-important intangibles.

In this post, we’ll look at a few final checklist items you should review as a touring bike buyer before you commit to what might be the most significant purchase of your cycle touring career. 

1. Does It Definitely Feel Right? (ie: Have I Taken It For A Test Ride?)

By far the most important criteria for a bike you’re going to be riding all day, every day, is whether or not it feels right when you ride it.

This is something that months of theoretical research into touring bikes will never tell you, and something that you’ll discover within a few seconds of actually trying one out.

For a short trip, if the bike you already own is comfortable enough, why change it? Even a bike that perhaps doesn’t feel perfect is still unlikely to cause problems for short, spontaneous, drop-everything-and-go trips. Assuming you haven’t forgotten to bring a multi-tool, you’ll be able to adjust various bits of the bike until it feels less uncomfortable. Miracles can be performed through saddle adjustment alone. Handlebars are easy to raise or lower.

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For anything longer, or involving any kind of significant time and money investment, though, you can barely afford to risk an expensive, carefully-chosen bicycle feeling all wrong when it arrives by courier in a big cardboard box.

The most common cause of discomfort when cycling for longer periods of time is incorrect fit. 

Unless you’re already an experienced cyclist who can hazard a guess as to the best of nine or ten size options, the easiest way to get this right is to get sized up at your local bike shop. You’ll be able to test-ride a variety of bikes, and when you settle on buying one, they’ll be able to adjust or swap components that affect fit.

Depending on your budget, this is also a strong argument in favour of a custom-built touring bike.

The result? A touring bike that feels right. If you’re going to be spending the majority of your waking hours on it, there’s not much more important than that.

(What? You were thinking about buying a touring bike online without test-riding it first…?)

2. Does It Suit My Touring Style? (ie: Is This The Right Tool For The Job?)

Not all touring bikes are built for the same kind of touring. That’s why, when choosing a bike, it’s really important to start by considering the demands of the trip you have in mind. Your ride should dictate your bike, rather than your bike dictating your ride.

Fast, light, on-road and short-term is a combination usually found together in touring.

At the extreme end of this scale are ‘credit card tours’, in which the traveller packs little more than a toothbrush, a credit card and the clothes on their back, and travels with the philosophy that they’ll buy what they need when circumstance demands it (including accommodation). The Himalayas have been crossed by bicycle in this way, though it might be worth starting out with something a little less ambitious.

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Road and hybrid bikes with luggage-carrying abilities are fine for this kind of touring, and the niche is well served by the numerous mainstream touring bikes on offer.

Slow, heavy, rough-road and long-term are likely to co-incide too.

Many years ago, on a deserted road in Egypt’s Sinai peninsular, I met Katya and Mirko, a Slovenian couple who truly did live on their bikes.

2Nomads

Their heavy-duty mountain bikes were piled high with luggage; a guitar sat atop a heap of jewellery-making equipment in a two-wheeled cargo trailer. From there, they would ride to Israel, where they would spend time making and selling jewellery in order to fund the next stage of their journey through life. At the time of writing they are riding through South-East Asia.

For those in it for the long haul, heavy-duty ‘expedition’ bikes are available, if not as commonly seen as your standard road tourer. They’re built specifically to cater for the demands of fully-loaded world travel, and you’ll find they differ in a few very specific ways from ‘standard’ touring bikes.

Most tours fall somewhere in the middle. You are not breaking records, but you do want to feel like you’ve got somewhere at the end of a day. You’ll carry the essentials for riding, camping and cooking in varying weather, but pack a few personal luxuries too. Roads will comprise the majority of your trip, but your might find yourself on a dirt track every now and then. You’ll usually ride for a few weeks at a time, make a few shorter trips closer to home, and occasionally go for a Big Ride.

The majority of bikes sold as ‘touring bikes’ are designed to cater for this broad category of rider. If this is the first time you’ve been asked to think about your specialist touring requirements, it’s likely you fit this category, and you’ll be pleased to hear that you’ve got lots of choices.

If a mainstream tourer doesn’t fit your plans, on the other hand, consider a custom touring or expedition bike like mine. You might also find inspiration in my personal bikeography, covering the bikes I’ve used myself over the last few years of touring.


More questions about touring bikes? Ask in the comments below and I’ll add more FAQ posts to this series. Magic!

Categories
Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #6: What’s The Best Way To Avoid Buying The Wrong Bike?

This is #6 in an ever-growing series of answers to frequently-asked questions about touring bikes. If you’re new here, why not start with #1: What Exactly Defines A Touring Bike?

When it comes to actually buying the touring bike you’ve spent months researching, it can be tempting to start researching online retailers. After all, that’s how we buy everything else these days.

Online-only bike retailers can often undercut high street bike shops by a large amount, for various reasons:

  • there’s no physical shop front to maintain,
  • fewer skilled and experienced staff are needed,
  • there’s no need to spend time fitting and specifying each bicycle to each customer,
  • customer service demands are more limited as the customer can’t bring a product back in person,
  • economies of scale reduce overheads and enable competitive pricing.

These, however, are not reasons to buy a touring bike online.

They’re reasons not to buy a touring bike online.

Look at that list again.

What Matters Most When Buying A Touring Bike?

It’s really critical to understand what your priorities as a touring cyclist should be, especially when buying the single most important piece of gear you’ll need: the bicycle itself.

While your overall strategy might well be to save as much money as possible so you can spend more time on the road, doing this successfully requires understanding when it is worth spending a little more to avoid unnecessary problems later on. 

The purchase of your new touring bike is one of these occasions.

If you’re unconvinced, think about it this way:

If you were buying a new car or a house, and you knew that the quality of your daily life would depend on making a well-thought-out decision about which car or house to buy… would you choose a 10% discount in return for not being able to test-drive the car, or not being able to look around the house? Would simply being sent the keys in the post, having looked at the online description and photographs alone, be worth the money saved, given the stakes involved if you made a mistake?

I suspect you’d rather be sure that what you’re buying is right. You’d rather pay full price and then drive economically or make a few cost-cutting lifestyle tweaks to reduce your bills.

In order words, you’d rather spend when you need to, and save where it’s safe to.

A new touring bike is not a new car, and probably doesn’t carry the same weight in your mind when thinking about major purchases.

But it should.

Once you’re on the road, your bike isn’t just the equivalent of a car; it’s the equivalent of a car you drive all day long – that you might as well drive for a living. 

So sacrifice your daily coffee for a few weeks. It’s a compromise worth making.

A touring bike fitting session in progress at Oxford Bike Works, Abingdon, England.

The Critical Importance of Fitting & Sizing

Whether the bike itself is new or second-hand, cheap or expensive, it needs to feel right. And in order to feel right, it needs to fit you pretty precisely.

Badly-fitting bikes are the most common cause of injury and chronic discomfort among cycle tourists. It’s also worth mentioning that ill-fitting bicycles are one of the key reasons many of us don’t ride bikes past adolescence: we’ve never ridden a bike that actually fits us.

Fitting a bicycle is not a magical art, but there are a few prerequisites:

  • experience on the part of the fitter;
  • the ability to make small adjustments to or substitutions of components depending on the unique physiology of the rider, and
  • the ability for the rider to put in enough riding to identify issues and have them resolved.

Taking the first pedal stroke on a correctly sized and fitted bicycle is, for many adults, a real revelation, and something that committed cyclists often forget.

Yet More Reasons Not To Buy A Touring Bike Online

At this point, a quick glance back at the reasons online-only bike stores are cheaper will remind you why mail-ordering a bike is a poor choice for the touring cyclist.

Forget about test-riding bikes and being able to get that intuitive and all-important “this is right” feeling from the bike you’re potentially going to be riding for months or years on end. You won’t know you’ve made the right choice until the big cardboard box turns up at your home, at which point you’re pretty much on your own.

Any self-respecting bike shop owner, on the other hand, will happily devote hours of staff time to sizing and fitting a bike for you, and will within reason swap out components that affect bike fit and ergonomics, such as stem, handlebars, saddle and grips at little or no extra cost while the bike is still brand new.

With a mail-order bike, it’s “like it or lump it” – stock components or nothing (or make your own modifications), and no set-up help either.

Finally, a bike shop with whom you’ve made a significant investment will often offer a post-purchase “check-up” during which you’ll be able to tweak the setup after a few test rides.

In other words, that 10% or so you’d save online is the difference between a bike that fits, feels right, has been set up correctly, and has been tweaked to fit your body and riding style; and a bike that’s come straight from the factory in a cardboard box, which you have to finish building and setting up yourself, and for which the only after-sales service you’ll get is an automated email asking you to review your purchase on the website. Given that you’ll be racking up more cycling hours on tour than in any other cycling discipline, it’s probably not a 10% worth saving.

This is really important. Sorry to bore you by repeating myself, but it is amazing how many people will happily spend days, weeks or even months researching touring bikes online, yet when it comes to actually making possibly the most significant purchase of their cycle touring lives to date, they’d rather risk getting the wrong size or even on receiving (in pieces) a bike which in reality doesn’t quite agree with them, for the sake of saving a few quid.

It’s understandable to a point, as it fits with the buying habits that many of us exhibit on a daily basis, but we must realise the importance of avoiding it in this particular case.

Let’s not forget that the bicycle will be, for several hours a day, the sole interface between you and the world. It’s practically an extension of your body in that sense. It’s too important to leave key aspects of this symbiotic relationship to chance. I will repeat this so that there can be no possible room for ambiguity: do all the web-based research you like on the best touring bikes, but do not buy a touring bike online.

Instead, find the nearest specialist bike shop that will order and assemble a touring bike or expedition bike to meet your needs, negotiate for a good price, and enjoy the resulting comfort and after-sales service.

Exceptions To The Rule

Now, there are a couple of legitimate cases when you might ignore my otherwise categorical advice not to buy a touring bike online.

The first is when:

  1. you know exactly which bike you need and are utterly confident in its suitability for your tour,
  2. you know exactly what size will fit you (from previous experience of fitting and riding similar bicycles, not just by looking at sizing charts), and
  3. you are an experienced enough mechanic to build it, fit it and tweak it to perfection yourself.

Pay close attention: if you don’t honestly, truly satisfy these three criteria, you’ll be better off with a slightly cheaper bike and spending the savings on visiting a store and getting it sized, fitted and set up properly.

Like a tailor-made suit, the most expensive touring bike in the world will not be the slightest bit of use if it doesn’t fit you. Comparatively, a scrapyard-rescued bike that’s properly sized and set up will be a comparative joy to ride.

The second is when the touring bikes on your wishlist are simply unavailable in your local area.

I’ve received a few emails from readers where this has been the case, and the only way to get their hands on a new and high quality touring bike has been to have one couriered in (in a cardboard box, in pieces) from abroad.

This should be considered a last resort, and the benefits of doing this should clearly outweigh travelling to a place where quality touring bikes are available, buying one locally, and beginning a tour from there.

And finally in the Touring Bike FAQ series: What Should I Remember Before Handing Over My Cash?

Categories
Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #5: Derailleurs Or Internal Hub Gears (Rohloff)?

This is #5 in an ever-growing series of answers to frequently-asked questions about touring bikes. If you’re new here, why not start with #1: What Exactly Defines A Touring Bike?

There are plenty of people in this world who you could put in a room and let them argue until the end of time about whether or not a touring bike should be fitted with a Rohloff Speedhub.

I am not one of these people. You probably aren’t, either.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Rohloff, it’s a brand of internal gear hub for the rear wheel of a bicycle which costs more than a new entry-level touring bike.

Internal gear hubs like the Rohloff are designed to offer a wide range of gear ratios which are selectable with a single cable-operated handlebar shifter, eliminating all the derailleurs, sprocket cassettes, chainrings, and other gumpf used to offer selectable gear ratios on most other bikes. Competing models include the Alfine range from Shimano, and more recently the Pinion range of crank-mounted gearboxes.

Rohloff Speedhub internals
The mystical internal workings of a Rohloff Speedhub revealed. Image © Rohloff AG.

Internet search spirals will unearth no end of people who ‘swear by’ Rohloffs and endless ultra-detailed kit-lists from folk who’ve shelled out the cash to equip their bike with one. 

Among arguments often heard in their favour against traditional derailleur setups, they’re more reliable, less messy, simpler on the outside, smoother to use, and you can change gear while stationary.

But they are not essential items of equipment for touring bikes.

People have indeed cycled round the world with Rohloffs. Yet more people have cycled round the world with traditional derailleur gears, having had a century’s head start.

The decision to invest in a Rohloff is not about whether it will will get you through a very long bike trip ‘better’ than a derailleur. As evidenced by the Database of Long Distance Cycling Journeys, or my massive list of worldwide expedition touring bikes, they’ll clearly both do the job.

For me, it’s more a question of the approach you take towards cycle touring, travel, and possibly life in general.

The Real Reason People Choose (Or Don’t Choose) A Rohloff Speedhub

I’ll wager that the single biggest reason for differences in choice relates to how people respond to the fear of things going wrong.

When your non-user-serviceable Rohloff Speedhub breaks (and they do), you send it back to Germany and spend a couple of weeks waiting in whichever city you had to hitch-hike to when it happened. Rohloff repair or replace the hub and send it back to you.

You hope that this happens before a) the locals customs department gets hold of it, and b) your tourist visa runs out.

Eventually, you continue with your tour.

When your derailleur gets mashed into your spokes, you try to fix it yourself, because all the parts are accessible and serviceable, you’ve been on the road for long enough to know how to fix your bike, you’ve got the right tools, and you stopped caring about getting greasy fingers a long time ago.

If you can’t fix it, you remove a few links from your chain and turn your bike into a single-speeder until you get to the next city, where you check into the local hostel to find another cycle tourist awaiting the return of his or her Rohloff hub from Germany. You find a new derailleur or gear hanger or cassette or chain or chainring from any local bike shop.

Eventually, you continue with your tour.

When all’s said and done, the only difference was how the broken gears got fixed – by you, by the nearest bike shop, or by a technician in Kassel-Fuldatal.

That time my derailleur actually did get mashed into the spokes and I actually did have to single-speed my bike for a few days before fixing it. Photo © Chris Goodman.

The second part of the decision is whether you would prefer the reassurance of a Rohloff or an extra £1,000 towards your bike trip.

What would an extra £1,000 in spending money mean for you?

Consider that there’s no difference between the two systems that will occupy your mind when you’re actually turning the pedals. You’ll have better things to think about. Ultimately, both systems will allow you to choose the right gear when you need to – until, inevitably, something eventually goes wrong.

So if money is no object at this stage of your bike-choice process, the only real way to decide between the two is by rather whimsically thinking about which you like the idea of best.

1. Out of sight, out of mind, out of pocket (sorry) for tens of thousands of miles – until it possibly breaks catastrophically? Rohloff it is.

Or

2. Needing occasional servicing and parts replacement, but fixable on the roadside and by every bicycle mechanic on the planet? Derailleur it is.

Still can’t decide? Flip a coin, cover it up, and then think about which side you really wanted it to land on.

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: What’s The Best Way To Avoid Buying The Wrong Bike?