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

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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.

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. Instead, it will cause you discomfort, pain, and, eventually, injury. Comparatively, a scrapyard-rescued bike that’s properly sized and set up will be a joy to ride, in spite of what it cost.

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?

Comments (skip to respond)

10 responses to “Touring Bike FAQ #6: What’s The Best Way To Avoid Buying The Wrong Bike?”

  1. Yes, fully agree with all this. I’ve had a few bikes over the last 15 years, but two stand out: and they were both shop-bought, and fitted/tweaked by professionals. My last bike was bought online, after months of research, but in the end it didn’t work for me. Wrong shape, size and feel. There is no substitute for a decent bike shop with passionate professionals who ride themselves. And they are in short supply these days..

    1. Your experience sounds about right! And while touring bike shops are in short supply, I was still pleasantly surprised while updating this list to see how many are still in business…

  2. Hi Tom,

    Great article and wise advice! I have a question: do you know what bars are on the red bike in the picture? 


  3. Kent Greenough avatar
    Kent Greenough


    You have stressed the importance of “fit” numerous times in articles and blogs, is it possible to see an article on the specifics of creating the perfect fit. I have ridden horses all my life, taught horsemanship for twenty years and yet I meet so many other riders who have no real knowledge of how to fit a saddle to their horse. I suspect the same is true in bicycling.



  4. Agreed to the article. I have bikes bought in a store and online, and the only advantage of the online option is the potential price discount. My bike was slightly too big because the shop had the sizes wrong on their website. Also, when I had a problem (rear wheel badly built), although the shop was excellent in customer service, it was still a hassle to box the wheel, post it, I still had to remove the cassette, tyre and tube myself (they did not want it), etc.

    Finally, something I learnt the hard way. In a time where most bikes come with hydraulic brakes, it’s worth to remember that UK & Ireland set up the brakes the opposite way to most other countries. Meaning that if you are German and buy in a UK shop, or you are Irish and buy in an Italian shop, the brakes would be linked to the “wrong” brake lever. With normal cable brakes it’s easy to fix, but with hydraulics it is a big PITA…!!

    1. Jim platter avatar
      Jim platter

      I agree with the author 100% on the choose over save a few dollars by getting online verses get from the bicycle shop. Buy from the shop and you build a relation ship. Example, I was in Kansas, my son we were in Ericks bicycle store. My son wanted this Specialized Rock Hopper. Two bikes in the store a black one and an orange one. We wanted the orange one. They said the orange one was already promised to some lady. Begrudgingly we bought the black one. We had rode 50 plus miles. A few days later back in the store and the orange one was still there. We questioned about the orange one. Long story short, they took the computer off the black bike put it on the orange bike and now my son is on the orange bike at no extra cost. They didn’t have to do that! Plus we had been in for a few follow up adjustments and they were quick to work on his bike at no extra cost. Try to do that with a bike you bought on line! It’s not going to happen! But from a local bicycle store build a relation ship, it’s well worth the few extra dollars!

  5. Unfortunately some of us live in countries with nearly no bikeshops that store touring bikes, they could order them but what if you do not like the bike? I have friends who bought quality bikes online and are happy with them (Cubus and Rose). But your articles have proven that I could continue touring on my alu bike with Nexus‑8 and cantilever brakes since it all is in the head if you will go touring or not. Thanks!

  6. Mike Grenville avatar
    Mike Grenville

    I agree with Ellie. I’m delighted with my bike from Oxford Bike Works — the only snag is that since breaking my leg two months ago (slipped on ice cycling) I havn’t been able ride it and the ride along the Iron Curtain Trail I have planned for this spring is rescheduled for 2016.

  7. Great advice here, would definitely back up the shop visit and custom build. I’ve just come back from Oxford Bike Works and have to thoroughly recommend it! If anyone has been as obsessed with research as I have you know what components you want and getting the bike from OBW works out about 10% more expensive than online bought, for which I’d want to swap out parts and possibly pay for a proper fitting, negating the money saved, and 15% more expensive than self build, this saving does not include any postage, the tools I’d need to buy and the inevitable things I’ve forgotten or got wrong. To my mind Oxford Bike Works offer outstanding value for money. (By the way I’m not affiliated, just enthusiastic!)

Something to add?