Last updated in January 2019. Photo above is of the VSF Fahrradmanufaktur line-up at Eurobike a couple of years ago.
The vast range of touring bikes on offer – that is, bicycles built specifically to serve the needs of cycle travellers – can be bewildering. So it’s no surprise that the single most frequently-asked question I get is: “What’s the best touring bike?”
Trouble is, it’s one of those questions with no quick and easy answer. “What’s best” means nothing without adding “for you”.
I want to start by asking two basic questions that, if you can answer them fully, will make choosing your touring bike much easier.
(Now might be a good time to put the kettle on.)
1. What kind of cycle tour are you actually going on?
First things first: the details of the ride (or rides) you’re planning will largely dictate your choice of touring bike. Resist the temptation to get bogged down in the details until you’ve clarified what your priorities for cycle touring are, and what kind of trip(s) you want to make.
What different kinds of bike trip are there? Well, styles of touring vary along several axes:
- Do you want to travel fast or slow?
- Will you be going ultralight or packing for a fully-loaded tour?
- Is your route mostly on-road (paved) or off-road (unpaved)?
- Are you travelling short-term or long-term?
In more recent years, an additional question might be:
- Are you going cycle touring or bikepacking?
These are the variables that will feed into your choice of touring bike, or, perhaps, bikepacking rig. If you’re not clear on the answer to each of them, it’s time to stop reading and go back to first principles.
A lot of bike trips land somewhere in the middle. That’s why mainstream, off-the-peg touring bikes can be good place to start, as manufacturers want to serve as broad a range of customers as they can – with the advantage that they’re relatively easy to find for a test ride.
Later in this article we’ll look at some specific examples of ‘premium’ touring bikes, as well as low-budget options and specialist expedition-level bikes.
2. What’s your budget?
Short of cash? It is perfectly possible to use any old bike for touring — as long as it’s about the right size. You will (eventually) get from A to B on the rusty heap that’s been sat in the garage for the last decade.
This kind of rhetoric gets chucked around a lot, usually by people doing tours on absurdly expensive, possibly sponsored bikes. So here’s how I put together a complete touring bike (plus gear and luggage) for £25.17, then rode it the length of England at a total cost of 25p.
Got some cash but still on a budget? Good quality second-hand touring bikes (or mountain/hybrid bikes adaptable for touring) can be had for a few hundred pounds. In the long term, expect to spend more time/money on maintenance and repairs than someone making the same journey on a new bicycle.
Got a budget for a decent bike? Common touring wisdom is to get the best quality bike you can afford, as it’ll pay off in the long term. Beware, however, of unnecessary upgrades, particularly when it comes to drivetrain components – there’s a line beyond which you’re unlikely to notice any real difference when you’re out on the road.
Let’s have a closer look at some commercially-available bikes throughout the budget spectrum.
The Best Sub-£1,000 Budget Touring Bikes In 2019
If you’re just getting started, there’s a growing range of good-quality touring bikes, luggage-enabled and ready to roll, that can be had for less than £1,000 – a lot less, in some cases.
Here are some of the most recommended options that have proven themselves over time, with a focus on the UK market (my biggest readership):
Adventure Flat White 2019 (£440)
At an RRP of £439.99 the cheapest off-the-peg touring bike in the UK, the Adventure Flat White has a lugged steel frame with all the frame features you’d expect, a basic but solid 14-speed drivetrain, mudguards and a rear rack to get you started with undemanding, lightly-loaded road tours close to home.
Launched in 2015, it’s still a relative newcomer to the market, but BikeRadar.com and my bike-building friend Richard of Oxford Bike Works both have good things to say about it (read his review here, as well as some helpful comments from owners of the bike).
Dawes Galaxy 2019 (£650)
At the entry-level end of long-running UK firm Dawes’s well-respected touring bike range is the Galaxy. Previously known as the Galaxy AL, it’s built on the same design principles as the rest of the range, but with an aluminium frame and a budget Shimano Claris drivetrain. For 2019 there’s a step-through frame option for riders with reduced mobility, or for an extra £50 the Galaxy Cross if flat handlebars and disc brakes are more to your tastes.
Ridgeback Tour 2019 (£750)
The Tour – the cheapest of Ridgeback’s touring bike range – has much in common with its more expensive siblings, but with a cost-saving aluminium frame and a basic Shimano Claris/Acera 24-speed drivetrain. Ridgeback have slowly bumped up the spec (and therefore the RRP) of the Tour over the last couple of years, putting it today at the top end of the budget category.
For more suggestions in this category, check out my growing list of sub-£1,000 touring bikes for low-budget bike trips.
The Best Premium (£1,000+) Touring Bikes In 2019
Most cycle tourists are not breaking records, but they do want to feel like they’ve got somewhere at the end of a day. They’ll carry all the essentials but pack a few personal luxuries too. Roads will comprise the majority of their trip, but they might find themselves on a dirt track every now and then. They’ll usually travel for a few weeks, make a few shorter trips closer to home, and occasionally go for a Big Ride of months or more.
This broad space is the domain of the premium touring bike.
Almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of the following bikes. They’re all mature, capable machines, tried and tested and with sensible price-tags, in need of nothing more than a nicely broken-in Brooks B17 saddle and a rider.
Expect to spend between £1,000-£2,000 ($1,600-$2,700 USD) on a new, fully-featured premium tourer, and for it to last many years and handle most touring scenarios very well.
Ridgeback Panorama 2019 (£1,350)
The Ridgeback Panorama is a steel-framed, disc brake-equipped touring bike with a durable selection of drivetrain components drawn from both road- and mountain-biking ranges. Though lacking a front rack, its road-oriented frameset places it well for fully-loaded, long-haul asphalt touring. It’s very much tried and tested, too: read Tim & Laura’s detailed review on this blog of the Panorama after a 6,000-mile road test (they subsequently completed their RTW trip on the same bikes).
Kona Sutra 2019 (£1,400)
Kona have long inhabited the left-of-centre in cycling, producing a fascinating range of bikes. The Sutra, too, is progressively-minded, with powerful disc brakes, bolt-through axles, and a nimble and sporty cyclocross-inspired steel frameset (shared with the firmly dirt-oriented Sutra LTD) all pointing to a happy blend of on-road and off-road use. I’ve been riding one since 2012 and I love it; you can still read my original long-term road test review here.
Surly Long Haul Trucker 2019 (£1,400)
While not as easy to find in the UK as the Dawes or Ridgeback ranges, the Surly Long Haul Trucker is perhaps the most renowned of the bikes in this list. It’s a supremely versatile and well-balanced on- and off-road adventure touring bike at a price affordable to many, also available in a 26″ wheel size for smaller riders or other cases in which that’s preferable. You’re left to choose your own racks and mudguards.
Surly Disc Trucker 2019 (£1,600)
Back when the jury was still out regarding disc brakes as a realistic and reliable option for touring, Surly went ahead and produced a disc-specific version of the Long Haul Trucker anyway, the cunningly named Disc Trucker. Everything else about it is the same as the LHT — tried, true, and one of the most versatile touring bikes on the planet. Read my full review here. (Photo above is of the 2017 model.)
More Premium Touring Bikes Available In Other Countries
The following bikes from non-UK manufacturers have been recommended by my blog readers as also fitting this category. Some of them are on the budget end, some straying into the top end, but I’ve listed them for the sake of completeness:
- Trek 520 (Worldwide)*
- Vivente World Randonneur (Australia)
- Co-op Cycles (REI) ADV 1.1 (USA)
- KHS TR 101 (USA)
Note: How to choose between premium touring bikes
What I’m hoping is pretty clear is that the touring bikes above are pretty much the same bike.
They’re all priced within a couple of hundred pounds of each other. They all have steel frames, wide gearing, drop bars but with non-aggressive riding positions, pannier racks or at least rack mounts, hybrid drivetrains cut from the middle of Shimano’s mountain-bike and road-bike ranges, and boring saddles (because they know you’ll swap the saddle for your favourite but can’t sell a bike without one). They’re all built primarily for paved roads, but could handle a dirt track or two if need be. So which to choose is largely a matter of taste.
The Best Expedition-Grade Touring Bikes In 2019
I’d like to draw attention to the existence of ‘expedition’ bikes, as opposed to ‘touring’ bikes. It’s by no means an industry standard term, but it’s a distinction that needs to be made.
The majority of cycle touring takes place relatively close to home, in the developed world, and for limited periods of time (a few weeks at most).
But occasionally a bike will need to survive for months on end in parts of the world where modern Western parts, spares and mechanical help are simply unavailable.
This is the domain of the ‘expedition’ bike. These bikes are usually characterised by having 26-inch wheels for maximum compatibility with the tyres, tubes and wheel parts ubiquitous in the developing world, allowing for much fatter tyres to be fitted for unpaved roads, using old-fashioned standard components such as 8- or 9-speed drivetrains, square-taper bottom brackets, V-brakes rather than rim brakes, etc, and having steel frames built for even heavier duty service in the long haul.
They don’t necessarily cost more than a top-end touring bike, but they have a slightly different focus in mind. Does this apply to you?
Ridgeback Expedition 2019 (£1,000)
Launched in 2014, tweaked in the years since and now thoroughly tested on longer trips, the Ridgeback Expedition is a strong contender for best value expedition-ready touring bike on the market. Read my full review here, and do check out the comments for more recent opinions from long-haul riders.
Surly Long Haul Trucker 2019 (£1,400) / Disc Trucker 2019 (£1,600) (26-inch models)
Surly have shown their versatility by producing expedition-ready 26-inch versions of the already super-versatile Long Haul Trucker and Disc Trucker models — near-perfect expedition bikes by all accounts. All the same praise goes here as for the 700c versions above. Again, you’ll need to add your own racks and mudguards.
Thorn Sherpa (from £1,368)
Thorn‘s 26-inch steel tourer, the Sherpa, starts at well over a grand and depending on specification could be double that, but the Somerset-based company have established themselves as creating ultra-reliable expedition bikes on an individual basis. You’ll need to book an appointment with St John’s Street Cycles in Bridgewater to get yours specified and fitted to your needs.
Oxford Bike Works Expedition (from £2,299)
My own expedition bike of choice is an Oxford Bike Works Expedition, which I created in partnership with independent Oxfordshire-based bike builder Richard Delacour.
Originally a one-off ‘ultimate expedition bike’ custom-built to my specification in 2015, Richard has been building these bikes out of his UK workshop for new customers ever since, and the feature list for 2019 has evolved significantly. As standard, each bike features a Reynolds steel frame, hand-built wheels, the best racks in the business, rim or disc brake options, custom thumbshifters, and tons of other expedition-specific touches. Click here to see the full details on the Oxford Bike Works website.
There are, of course, many more bikes available in the expedition bike category. Click here to read “A Massive List Of Touring Bikes For Worldwide Cycling Expeditions” (featuring 52 different bikes and counting).
You’ve probably got more questions about cycle touring, so do check out my absolutely massive advice & planning page for dozens more articles on every aspect of planning a tour.
If all the free content I’ve published still isn’t enough (or if you’d prefer to read it in some kind of logical order), you’ll be interested to know that I’ve written a total newcomer’s guide to cycle touring, which is available on Amazon as a low-cost Kindle ebook.
Finally, if you’ve reached the end of this article realising that you’d never be able to afford any of the bikes in this list, but you still want to go cycle touring, check this article out to find out how…