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:
- you know exactly which bike you need and are utterly confident in its suitability for your tour,
- 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
- 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?