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.


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.


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!

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?

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.


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?

Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #4: Disc Brakes or Rim Brakes (V‑Brakes)?

This is #4 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?

While many high-end touring bikes are nowadays fitted with disc brakes, there’s still plenty of debate over whether V‑brakes or disc brakes are actually ‘better’ for touring. 

And, as usual, there’s no clear-cut answer. I’m sorry about that.

V‑brakes, for the purposes of this post, are a generic and misused term for the several varieties of caliper brakes that work by pinching the bicycle wheel’s rim between two brake blocks to create friction and slow the bike.


Disc brakes on touring bikes are relatively new, appearing gradually on mainstream touring bikes over the last decade or so. 

They were originally hydraulically actuated, having been modified and transplanted from motorbikes for the high-end mountain biking market. 

Later, cable-actuated disc brakes appeared, using the same steel cables, housings and levers as V‑brakes. All disc brakes are characterised by having calipers that act upon a metal ‘rotor’, or disc, which is bolted onto the wheel hub. The braking surface of the wheel rim is not used.


The big debate originally arose because disc brakes were a departure from traditional established touring bike design, which exclusively used cantilever or V‑brakes acting on the wheel rims. Tourers are generally reluctant to risk the reliability of their rides on new-fangled technology.

As the years passed, however, several models of cable-actuated disc brake started to prove their reliability on a growing number of round the world rides, with the TRP Spyre series seen most frequently.

That they are now fitted as standard on some of the most popular touring bikes available is a reflection of the fact that disc brakes have crossed over from ‘new-fangled’ to ‘tried and tested’ – as well as there being several objective advantages to using disc brakes over V‑brakes on tour.

The case for disc brakes on touring bikes

Disc brakes’ advantages over V‑brakes mainly lie in their braking functionality. They offer a finer degree of control over braking, known as ‘modulation’. All else being equal, they can also provide slightly more stopping power. With fully-loaded touring bikes easily weighing three or four times the weight of an unloaded bike, the prospect of an increase in braking power is a tempting one.

For ultra long-term tours, disc brakes offer another perceived advantage: they won’t wear out your wheel rims. It takes far longer to wear out a disc brake rotor with disc brakes than it does to wear out a wheel rim with V‑brakes. This is accentuated in wet, dirty conditions when grit and crap on V‑brakes will grind away at wheel rims like sandpaper.

In the long term, using V‑brakes will more or less guarantee that you’ll need to replace the wheels of your bike, or rebuild them onto new rims, at some point (you will get plenty of advance warning of this if you keep your eyes open; most good rims feature wear indicators for just this purpose).

Most long-haul tourers seem happy enough knowing this, and plan or prepare accordingly. They also know that a wheel is as likely to need rebuilding because of snapped spokes or worn-out hubs as it is because of a worn braking surface.

The case for V‑brakes on touring bikes

In this light, it’s easy to see V‑brakes as an old-hat, low-budget, sub-optimal choice for braking. But this is not true.

The braking power argument is often given undue importance. It might well help a downhill mountain biker win a race, and that’s why mountain bikers love hydraulic disc brakes – but that’s very different to 99.9% of the scenarios a touring cyclist could expect to encounter.

We’ve all ridden bikes with crap V‑brakes that are poorly installed and badly maintained, but a properly-adjusted set of modern V‑brakes can deliver a similar level of raw braking power to a cable disc brake, given due care and attention.

So that’s why you’ll still find V‑brakes fitted to tourers with price-tags well into the thousands of pounds. At the end of the day, they simply work. They’ve been doing so since bicycles were invented.

Rim brakes have one huge advantage for the long-haul traveller: compatible parts can be found in one form or another on almost every bike on the planet, whereas disc brakes still rely on non-standard, proprietary brake pads and calipers.

Rim brakes operate upon the simplest possible principles, and if kept properly adjusted they’ll do the same job of stopping a fully-loaded touring bike that they’ve been doing for decades. There’s a huge amount to be said for that simplicity.

As with so many noisy debates in touring equipment choice, then, the underlying point is easily forgotten. And in the case of brake technology, the more important question is not whether rim brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’. At the end of the day, they both stop bikes.

The real question is which would be more appropriate for your tour.

Tackling lots of big mountains and/or dirt-road bikepacking in the short term? You might well benefit from the increased control and power of disc brakes.

Riding round the world for the next few years? Your priorities are likely to be better served by the simplicity, durability, ease of adjustment and the availability of spares that come with V‑brakes.

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: Derailleurs or Internal Hub Gears (Rohloff)?

Bikes Touring Bike FAQ

Touring Bike FAQ #3: Steel Or Aluminium Frame Material?

This is #3 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?

Discussing the pros and cons of different metallic alloys is probably not something you ever thought you’d find yourself doing until you began researching touring bicycles.

But you will undoubtedly have discovered that there is a never-ending debate over whether steel or aluminium as a frame material is a better choice for touring bike.

Let’s cut to the chase: if you are planning to keep your touring relatively short term and confined for the time being, it categorically does not matter one bit what your bike is made of, any more than it matters what colour they’ve painted it.

That’s my categorical answer. Now for the nuances.

The thing about aluminium

The Revolution Country Traveller was a very capable aluminium-framed entry-level touring bike (until they discontinued it).

You may have read somewhere on the internet that aluminium is a big no-no for touring. If so, you are probably wondering why.

The way I see it, the “no aluminium” dogma reflects the tendency for long-distance cycle touring nerds on the internet to project everyone else’s definition of a ‘cycle tour’ onto their own real or imagined epic trans-continental bicycle journeys – when in reality there are a lot more people happily pootling about their home countries for a few days or weeks at a time. Not everyone wants to cycle round the world and write a book about it.

If you take a quick look at the touring bikes available today, you’ll notice that touring bikes are available in both steel and aluminium frames. 

Of these, the cheapest touring bikes invariably have aluminium frames, simply because it’s less costly to manufacture at scale and thus cheaper for you to buy. 

The thing about steel

The Kona Sutra is a typical mid-range steel-framed touring bike from a relatively major manufacturer.

The more expensive bikes on offer, however, particularly in the tiny niche of world expedition bikes, are almost universally made of steel – to be specific, usually cromoly steel or ‘cro-mo’, a particularly strong type of steel alloy including elements of chrome and molybdenum.

Aluminium was originally introduced as a frame material because it enabled manufacturers to mass-produce frames more cheaply and in more specialised and cooler-looking forms, not because its physical properties were better suited to the construction of a standard diamond-shaped bicycle frame.

Stiff aluminium fatigues more quickly than pliable steel, and this is one of the arguments for steel over aluminium for ultra-long tours: in the really, really, really long term (we’re talking years, if not decades), steel will endure more abuse before structurally failing than aluminium will.

This comes with a caveat: frame material won’t matter a jot if a frame is being subjected to stresses it was never designed to handle in the first place. And I might as well mention that I am yet to hear of a touring cyclist ever ‘wearing out’ an aluminium touring bicycle frame through fatigue (though apparently there’s now one in the comments).

The other main argument for steel as a frame material for long-term touring – which makes a little more sense – is that you’re more likely to find a fabricator or welder who can work with steel in the event of a breakage, whereas if you break an aluminium frame in the middle of nowhere, you may be hitching a ride to the nearest airport to find someone who deals with aluminium.

This again is simplistic and assumptive. A stick-welded repair to your precious handmade fillet-brazed cromoly frame is never going to be as strong as the original build, and a heavy-handed welder is as likely to blow a new hole in your frame as fuse the cracked dropout. In reality, a frame structurally compromised in an accident will either need replacing or attended to by a professional framebuilder, regardless of frame material. A local welder might well fix things up enough to get you to the next city, but they’re unlikely to restore your bike to its former glory.

The bottom line, of course, is that the scenarios in which frame material would have any bearing upon the outcome are also the scenarios in which your own flexibility and resourcefulness will play a far more important role. Breaking any type of frame will involve a major disruption to a long-term tour, whichever way you look at it, and a breakage is more likely to happen because of a crash or in transit than through sheer use – in which case frame material won’t make a difference either way.

So which to choose?

If you want to know my personal take on the steel versus aluminium debate, it’s this: the main reason people buy steel-framed bikes for long-term touring is because most long-term touring bikes are made of steel.

They have traditionally been so, their designs rarely require extravagant tubing assemblies, and the world of touring is too addicted to the tried-and-tested-ness of steel to accept a shift to anything else. And why would it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ostensibly it’s also due to the arguments above, but dig into the world of long-term touring and you’ll hear countless stories of broken frames which are material-agnostic and have been purely due to the inevitable spells of bad luck that characterise all tours when looked at in the long term.

You’ll also hear stories of how these breakages were dealt with and note that the outcomes have far more to do with the attitude of the riders in question than with what goddamn type of metal the bike was made from. Sheesh.

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: Disc brakes or rim brakes?