This is #1 in an ever-growing series of answers to frequently-asked questions about touring bikes.
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.
In this case, it’s useful to have a working definition of the thing you want to buy. I don’t mean a boring dictionary definition; more like a set of criteria that distinguishes a touring bike from other subcategories of bicycle.
This is important because 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 cycle touring.
So, aside from having two wheels and brakes, what exactly is it that makes a bicycle particularly suitable for a long-distance cycle tour?
Another way of asking the question might be: how do touring bikes differ from road bikes, gravel bikes, hybrid bikes, or mountain bikes, all of which they can sometimes appear similar to?
In this, the first in a series of touring bike FAQ posts, we’re going to have a broad look at the basic design priorities of bikes sold under the ‘touring bike’ category of bicycle (in central Europe also known as a ‘trekking bike’).
This knowledge will help you navigate the minefield of variations you’ll find in this market – not to mention all the marketing hyperbole surrounding things like the trendy bikepacking scene, which (as I’ve written about at length) is best considered a crossover niche between cycle touring and mountain biking which may not be relevant to you at all.
Priority #1: Comfort
By far and away the number one priority 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 design affects comfort
Different types of bicycle encourage very different riding positions. Your riding position will affect your long-term comfort more than anything else.
- Road bikes and gravel bikes tend to be compact with dropped handlebars, encouraging a tucked riding position that many find an acquired taste.
- City, hybrid and mountain bikes tend to be much more upright, with city bikes in particular encouraging a so-called ‘sit up and beg’ posture. Folding bikes often fit this pattern too.
Most British and American touring bikes strike a balance between the two. Usually built with dropped handlebars, they often look a lot like road bikes, but they do feel noticeably more stable and rugged once you take them for a ride.
Touring bikes originating from continental Europe tend to be more upright and are usually specified with flat or so-called ‘trekking’ handlebars, though you can also find touring bikes of this type in the UK and USA.
What kind of position feels ‘right’ usually depends on your previous cycling experience, as well as aspects of your unique anatomy. Most newcomers and casual cyclists get on better with a more upright, relaxed riding position. Experienced riders looking for speed and handling often prefer more tucked riding positions.
How to achieve correct fit on a touring bike
Beyond general riding position, other main aspect of comfort is correct fit, which is a function of frame size, saddle height and handlebar positioning.
And the best technique for getting a bicycle fitted is to stop reading bicycle-fitting guides and blog posts like this one, 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 anatomy 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 experimentation. If you’re starting out from home, and something really is wrong, go back to your local bike shop to 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 (or adjustable) variants; handlebars can be raised or lowered by various means.
If none of this makes any sense to you: guess what? That’s what local 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.
Priority #2: Stability
The feel of riding a fully-loaded touring bike is quite different to riding 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 set of touring panniers.
Stability under load is mainly a function of frame and fork construction and choice of luggage system. Touring bicycles, in general, will have a longer wheelbase, with more distance between the front and rear wheels for increased stability. 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 fully-loaded touring panniers 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, simply know that a good touring bike will be built for the demands of touring!
Priority #3: Durability
When in use, touring bikes accumulate 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 component 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 (and sometimes not even that), after which point the components they attach to it – such as the ubiquitous Shimano chainsets – 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. That’s why you’ll be packing a fix-everything toolkit specific to your bike.
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 – with occasional servicing and notwithstanding an accident – should essentially last forever.
Priority #4: Simplicity
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 £10,000 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 a basic but well-thought-out toolkit. 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 area of availability for 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, whether you’re looking at mainstream do-everything touring bikes or expedition bikes for a round-the-world ride, you can be confident that the qualities of comfort, stability, durability and simplicity are likely to be 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 the trip you’re planning, of course.
But now you’re in a much better position to work this out.