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 there is indeed an ongoing 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. In the short term, a bike is a bike is a bike.
The thing about aluminium
You may have heard people say that aluminium is a big no-no for touring, and you are probably wondering why.
The truth is, the “don’t use aluminium” mantra is way too categorical to be helpful. It generally reflects the fact that many long-distance cycling gurus hear the phrase ‘cycle touring’ and immediately think of their own epic trans-continental 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.
New, decent, affordable touring bikes are available in both steel and aluminium frames. It’s worth mentioning that the best value basic touring bikes on the market today are invariably of the aluminium variety, simply because it’s cheaper to manufacture and thus cheaper for you to buy. (The Revolution Country Traveller from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-Op springs to mind.)
The thing about steel
The more expensive bikes on offer, however, particularly at the ‘expedition bike’ level, are almost universally made of steel.
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 far 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.
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 machine shop 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’ll be hitching a ride to the nearest airport to find a welder who deals with aluminium.
This again needs a little qualification, however, because once again it is simplistic and assumptive. A rough-welded repair to a steel frame is never to be as strong as the original build, and a heavy-handed welder is as likely to blow a new hole in your steel frame as fix an existing one. 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 simply because most long-term touring bikes are made of steel.
They have traditionally been so, their designs rarely require complicated 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 the type of metal the bike was made from.
Many folk seem to think that the question of 700C (road bike) or 26-inch (mountain bike) sized wheels for a touring bike is a big deal.
You can make this decision by answering two very simple questions:
Am I likely to spend a lot of time touring in the developing world?
Am I likely to spend a lot of time touring on unpaved roads?
If the answer to either of the above questions is ‘yes’, get a bike with 26-inch wheels.
While theoretically a tiny bit slower when rolling, they’re also stronger on balance and less liable to fail in the middle of nowhere. Also, dirt roads will be much easier riding with the higher-volume tyres that are available in this size.
But the main reason is that 26-inch tyres, tubes and spokes are available much, much more widely than 700C ones in the regions mentioned above. In the long run, that’s what matters most, because they are the things most likely to need replacing.
If you’re riding worldwide, it makes sense to ensure that you’ll be able to source spares easily, and choosing 26-inch wheels will help with this. That’s why all true expedition bikes for world touring are built on them.
Chances are you will need to replace a complete wheel once the braking surface has worn through, which is something you’ll be able to do in most major cities, or by having one sent out by courier. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s keeping your bike on the road that matters most.
If the answer to both of the above questions is ‘no’, it doesn’t matter one bit what wheel size you end up with.
You can completely ignore wheel size and focus on more important things, such as finding a local bike shop to test-ride touring bikes in your budget range. Because once you’re riding, it won’t matter one bit what wheel size you’re using.
You will not spend your days on the road wondering how much more enjoyable or efficient this would be if you’d got an extra two inches of diameter to your rims. And you’ll find tyres and spares for both size wheels across the developed world, which is a place where people ride both road bikes and mountain bikes for fun, and bike shops are plentiful and fully-stocked.
For what it’s worth, if you’re buying a new touring bike for a short road tour, it’s more likely you’ll end up with a 700c-wheeled touring bike, just because there are many more to choose from and test-ride. If you’re already a road-bike rider, you’ll naturally gravitate towards these bikes too.
So rather than fret about what wheel size your bike should have, ask yourself the two simple questions above, which will give you a quick and easy answer.
Then you can get on with asking yourself more important questions, like “can I actually fix a punctured tyre on the roadside?”, and “do I have the tools and skills to replace the bearings in the wheel hubs after 10,000 miles of riding?”
P.S. A third good reason for choosing 26″ wheels is if you are really really short, in which case a frame built for smaller wheels will probably fit you better anyway.
If you’re researching touring bikes online, chances are you don’t yet have a touring bike of your own – or if you do, you may be unsure of whether it’s really fit for the cycle tour you’re planning.
Choosing a touring bike is something people invest a lot of time and money in, either buying a dedicated touring bike or adapting another type of bike for the specific concerns of longer, loaded rides, from those of a few days in length right up to rides anticipated to continue for years.
But aside from having two wheels and brakes, what exactly is it that makes a bicycle particularly suitable for cycle touring?
In this article, rather than getting bogged down with specifics, we’re going to have a broad look at the basic properties of a bike fit for travelling on. This knowledge will help you navigate the minefield of variations in the field of cycle touring – not to mention all the marketing hyperbole that inevitably goes along with it.
By far and away the most important criteria for a touring bike is comfort. This isn’t just about the saddle. How is the whole bike going to feel to ride, day after day, for the duration of your tour?
The longer your trip, the more an uncomfortable bike will nag at your body. It’s eventually got to become a part of you; something you no longer notice.
How bicycle type affects comfort
One aspect of comfort is the type of bicycle, which will affect your posture, and that will affect comfort more than anything else.
Road bikes are compact with dropped handlebars encouraging a tucked riding position that many find an acquired taste.
General-purpose, city, hybrid and mountain bikes are much more upright.
Most British and American touring bikes strike a balance between the two (even if they look like racers, they do differ in a noticeable way once you take them for a ride).
Touring bikes originating from continental Europe tend to be more upright, though you can also find such bikes in the UK and USA.
What kind of position feels ‘right’ is usually a function of your previous cycling experience, plus aspects of your unique anatomy. Most newcomers and casual cyclists get on better with a more upright, relaxed riding position.
How to achieve correct fit on a touring bike
The other main aspect of comfort is correct fit, which is primarily about frame size, saddle height and handlebar positioning.
And the best technique for getting a bicycle fitted is to stop reading bicycle-fitting guides, go to a respectable local bike shop and ask someone whose ability to make their mortgage payments depends on their being able to fit bikes accurately to people.
A large part of the comfort equation can be solved by simply trying out a range of bikes and sizes at a store that provides for test riding and also offers like-for-like swaps on components that affect fit, such as stems and bars. The rest of the equation is solved by riding the bike, hard and far, paying attention to your body, and tweaking as appropriate.
Finding a comfortable bike that suits you down to the ground is not a science in the first instance; it’s more a case of listening to your gut when you’re trying new bikes out for size, or making a judgement of your existing bike:
“Does this feel good to ride?”
A positive answer to this question usually comes in the form of a big grin spreading across your face and a sudden urge to pedal off into the distance. In the same way, a negative answer is an intangible suspicion that something isn’t quite right. Listen to your instincts here. A good bike fitter will spot fitting issues right away, particularly one who’s experienced in the discipline of touring.
At that point, you can start fine-tuning sizing and setup. You and whoever is helping you are interested getting to a point where you are sitting on the saddle and holding onto the handlebars and pedalling around the block and it feeling right.
Some mechanics will talk esoterically about plum lines and standover height and whether you can see the front axle in front of the handlebars or not, but the interplay of bike design and genetics is a delicate one, and ultimately only you can make the call.
Rule of thumb: if it feels right now, and it still feels right after a day of riding, and you don’t wake up crippled the following morning, it probably is right – more or less.
And any adjustment thereafter is likely to be minor and a simple matter of experimental tweakage. If you’re starting out from home, and something really is wrong, there’ll be no shortage of bike shops to help make further adjustments. It won’t be long before you’re married to a bike that’ll serve you for years on end with no further tweaking.
Be aware that ‘reach’ – the horizontal distance between your backside and your hands – is just as much a factor as saddle height, and that if you come from a road racing or mountain-biking background you may be surprised at how spacious a tourer feels compared to compact and nimble competition bikes. If that’s you, don’t underestimate frame size based on previous experience in these disciplines; start with a frame size higher than you’d usually ride and take it from there.
Saddles can be adjusted fore and aft; stems can be changed out for shorter or longer variants; handlebars can be raised or lowered by various means.
If none of this makes any sense to you: guess what? That’s what bike shops are for. Yes, they’re more expensive than buying online, but you’re paying for the knowledge and experience of the staff, as well as the bike itself.
The feel of riding a fully-loaded touring bike is quite different to that of the same bike unloaded, and very different to a bike from a specialist discipline.
A fully-loaded tourer will at first feel cumbersome and heavy, but you’ll soon learn that the mark of a well-designed tourer is its stability under such circumstances; the reassurance you get from the response of your bicycle to the terrain and to your efforts when you’re riding with a full complement of luggage.
Stability under load is mainly a function of frame, fork and rack design. Touring bicycles, in general, will have a longer wheelbase, with more distance between the front and rear wheels for increased stability, and often the pedals (and therefore saddle) will be a little lower to the ground, creating a lower centre of gravity – less manoeuvrable in a tight spot, but more reassuring and gentle to ride for a hundred miles a day!
Frames built for touring will also reflect the fact that heavy loads will exert unusual forces upon the bike, and thus it is common to find heavier-duty tubing and joints to make a frame stiffer in the right places and to reinforce vulnerable points.
If, by the way, you don’t know what any of this means, it can be summarised in the slightly obvious sentiment that a good touring bike will be built for the particular demands of touring!
When in use, touring bikes therefore rack up distance much more rapidly than almost any other kind of bicycle. It is no surprise, then, that primary amongst the qualities of a good touring bike is durability.
To better understand what this means in the real world, it helps to think of the bike as a collection of interacting parts – almost a living organism, rather than a single object. Each part has been designed and manufactured individually before being fitted to a frame, with the resulting creation being known as a ‘bicycle’.
A bicycle ‘manufacturer’ usually manufactures only the frame, after which point the components they attach to it – such as the ubiquitous Shimano gears – are broadly the same between bikes of a particular kind.
So it’s helpful to think of each part performing a specific function in combination with others, and that durability is more about how long an individual part lasts.
When a ‘bike breaks’, it’s usually just one part that breaks, even if the entire bike is rendered unrideable as a result. And so it’s usually just one part that needs to be repaired or replaced. Knowing this makes the prospect of a breakdown far less worrying: the problem is very likely to be small, isolated, and simple.
Some parts of a bike are relatively impervious to wear and tear; generally the big, chunky metal bits that don’t move much. Some parts will wear slowly with use, and other parts will wear relatively quickly and predictably in the grand scheme of things – usually parts that are designed to be replaced.
On very long tours, it helps to think of some of these parts as consumable items; in particular tyres and brake pads or blocks. Just like a car, parts of a bike can and do wear out. Just like a car, these parts can be individually repaired or replaced when it happens. Touring is no different in this respect.
For short- and medium-length tours, buying a good quality bike is partly about being confident that the ‘wearing’ parts are durable enough in the first place to last the duration of the tour. For long-term tours, it is more about knowing that the consumable parts are ones that can either be sourced and replaced on the road, either at bike shops or carried as spares, depending on the availability of bike shops on your route.
It’s usually also in the touring bike buyer’s interests that the ‘non-wearing’ parts are strong enough to last indefinitely with minimal maintenance. These are things like frames themselves, gear shifters and brake levers, luggage racks, cranks (pedal arms), saddle, and so on; things that notwithstanding an accident should essentially last forever.
Tied up with durability is simplicity. The bicycle, of course, is an inherently simple machine to begin with, depending upon tried and tested principles that have not changed in a century. But today’s bicycle manufacturers have become very adept at introducing additional complexity at various points in the basic design.
Usually the complexity is there for the purpose of making the bicycle in question more suited to a certain discipline of cycling. This specialisation can reach ludicrous extremes, as a quick look at the form and construction of a £5,000 road bike or downhill mountain bike will demonstrate.
For touring bikes, the only real specialist requirement is durability, specifically when fully loaded – and, in that respect, bike builders recognise that fewer complexities mean a lower likelihood over time of things going wrong.
An illustration of this line of thinking can be seen in the fast-moving world of bicycle couriering. Many bike messengers (including those who have also toured long-term) will tell you that nothing is more demanding of a bicycle than belting around city streets delivering packages all day, with speed, efficiency and reliability the sole criteria by which one keeps his or her job.
The result? The bicycle couriering community adopted (or developed) the fixed-gear bicycle. Two wheels and a frame. No shifters, no derailleurs, no freewheel, no mudguards, and often just a single brake. In other words, the minimum level of complexity possible for a bicycle still capable of being ridden.
The reason? Less to go wrong; higher probability of still being able to pay the rent next month.
A touring bike breaking down is unlikely to render you homeless – but you do want to be reasonably sure that either you or the next bicycle mechanic you find will be able to get the bike back on the road if something begins to fail.
In this respect, simplicity means easier to fix with basic tools. It means a higher likelihood of being able to source compatible spares. And, if you’re going really remote, it means it’ll be more likely that the person you’re confronted with when you’re acting out the mime routine for ‘bicycle mechanic’ will have a frame of reference for what they’re looking at.
It’s worth mentioning that simplicity becomes more important once you’re touring outside the realm of availability of new and fancy cycling equipment – which means, of course, that if you have an inkling that you might one day head further afield on the bike you’re looking to buy, you should probably assume that you will do, and make your buying decisions accordingly.
What does simplicity mean in concrete terms? Well, it means no carbon or titanium. It means established wheel sizes. It means no hydraulics or electrics. It means no air-sprung suspension – preferably no suspension at all unless you’re going off-road long term. It means no brand new shiny expensive ultralight top-end components. It means as few parts as possible that require unusual tools to remove or repair. It means no belt-drive drivetrains, and for my money it means no internal hub gears, though there will always be disagreements about that.
It means traditional, cross-compatible components that work on established principles and that are known and available worldwide. It means tried and tested consumable parts, and mechanisms adjustable with basic tools. It definitely means Shimano.
Luckily, most touring bike manufacturers know all of this already. And so, when you’re looking at the vast range of new, touring-specific bicycles, you can be reasonably confident that the qualities of comfort, stability, durability and simplicity are already inherent in their designs.
There’s a good chance that your existing bike will score marks in several of these areas, and with a couple of repairs and upgrades could be perfectly adequate for your tour.
It depends on the details of your bike and what you’re planning, of course. But now you’re in a much better position to work this out.