What to look for in a touring bike

cycling the dalton highway

We started our Pan-American journey on the Dalton Highway in Alaska. Long known as one of the most remote roads in North America, it was a challenge we had never tackled before.

Thinking about heading out for a bike tour? Here are our thoughts on what to look for in a touring bike.

Depending on where you are going, you may or may not need a really good bike. For a one or two week trip, use whatever bike you have. It may not shift perfectly, it may shake and rattle a bit, but it will get you where you are going.

On the other hand, if you are planning an extended trip, a good quality touring bike that can withstand the demands of hard touring is essential. I also learned the hard way that fit is critical. I would strongly suggest finding a local bike store that deals with touring gear – they are a great source of info!

We’ve been around the block a time or two as to what we wanted in a bike. Over the years, we’ve toured on a wide variety of bikes – touring specific bikes, mountain bikes, and road bikes. We like to think we’ve figured out what works best for us – but then we find out about something else…

family in andes

We learned what we liked and what we didn’t while cycling from Alaska to Argentina. Here is our little family in the Colombian Andes.

Here’s what we considered priority and (I think) if we were to head out again, we would look for:

Steel frame

cycling in UtahOne of our priorities was a steel frame. I realize there are people out there who will say it doesn’t matter – if your frame breaks apart nobody will be able to weld it back together and you’ll need to get a new frame anyway. I totally agree with that.

However – a more likely scenario is that the frame won’t completely break into two, but rather you’ll break a small braze-on or something. That can be successfully repaired if you have a steel bike.

Many years ago, as I loaded my bike on a bus in India, I broke a small braze-on that held my brake cable in place. Fortunately, I was able to get it welded back together in the small village I was in and we continued on our way. If my bike had been aluminum, I’m not sure where I would have had to go to get it repaired.

Sometimes, steel isn’t an option. Even though we wanted steel frames, we couldn’t find a steel bike small enough for the kids – so we ended up with an aluminum bike for Davy. It worked and all was well. I would still recommend steel, but know that aluminum is okay too.

I’ve elaborated on this idea here: Steel or aluminum for a touring bike?

Low gearing

Low gearing is essential – as low as possible. Honestly, we don’t care about the high gears at all – if we are going fast enough to use a great big chain ring, we’ll coast. If you are lugging heavy loads up steep hills, you want low. Low, low, low.

The trouble is that most bike manufacturers don’t quite understand the needs of bike tourists and they put great big ginormous rings on the front. It’s worth paying the extra money to have them removed and replaced with smaller ones. And in the rear, go as big as you possibly can.

Handlebars

biking in snowThis comes down to personal preference. I wanted butterfly handlebars; John wanted drops. We all have different preferences, and the important thing is to go with what is comfortable for you.

The one thing I would warn against is the typical straight mountain bike bars. Although they are fine for short rides, they are not ergonomically designed and, over time, will cause trouble.

We have all found that two (or even three) layers of handlebar tape is a good thing. And good bike gloves are essential.

Brakes

John and I had rim cantilever brakes. Davy has disc brakes. If we had it to do over again, I’m not sure which we would choose.

Disc brakes have greater stopping power and seem to last longer. Supposedly. For some reason, we had major problems with Davy’s rear brake and he did a good portion of our journey with front brakes only. There are also many different sizes of disc brakes, so you’ll need to carry spares with you as the chance that your particular type of brake will be available is slim. Disc brakes also make putting a rack on the bike difficult, if at all possible.

The cantilever brakes don’t have quite as much stopping power, but certainly enough. I never felt like I couldn’t stop, even with my heavy bike and trailer behind me. The rim brakes do heat up the rims considerably on long descents, so we spend quite a few hours sitting on the side of the road letting our wheels cool down. Replacement pads for cantilever brakes were easy to find pretty much everywhere.

We also had a drum brake installed on the tandem to give it a bit more stopping power, as John didn’t trust only the cantilevers. With all the weight on the tandem, having more brake power was a good thing!

Wheel size

cycling NicaraguaWheel size makes absolutely no difference if you are riding in the US or someplace where you can find all sizes of tires. However, in many parts of the world, 700c tires are difficult to come by, so seriously consider getting 26” wheels if you plan to tour the world.

Unfortunately, a bike large enough for me with 26” wheels was unavailable in the USA at the time I needed to buy my bike. I could have paid a lot to get one shipped in from Europe (where they were very common), paid an outrageous amount for a custom bike, or go ahead and get the 700c. In the end, we opted for the 700c bike, figuring that we could pay for a plane ticket back to the USA to pick up a new wheel if needed, and it would still be cheaper than getting a custom bike made.

I’ve written up my more complete thoughts on this issue here: 700c vs 26″ for a touring bike -The definitive answer  Be sure to read the comments for opinions from others.

A note from John – Especially in Central and South America, many people use a bicycle as their main mode of transportation. The bikes are basically mountain bikes which means parts for them are plentiful and cheap.There are two philosophies in choosing a bicycle for the trip: Buy an expensive bike with high quality parts and hope nothing on it breaks, or go with a basic 26” mountain bike with your favorite components. We went with the first option and had to replace several parts during our journey. Our wheels, disc brakes, and hubs were all non-standard and if damaged or broken needed to be ordered from the States.

If you are comfortable touring on a standard mountain bike, the second option should be considered. Pretty much anything that goes wrong with your bike can easily be fixed locally. Except for the higher end bicycle shops in the cities, the quality of these parts are not that great but should last for a reasonable amount of time.

What bikes did we ride?

John and Daryl rode a custom Rodriguez tandem.

I rode an REI Novara Randonee (I swapped out the handlebars for butterfly bars and put lower gearing on).

Davy used an REI Novara Safari

family cycling in New Mexico

Prior to our journey from Alaska to Argentina, we spent a year cycling around the USA and Mexico. On that journey, John and the boys used a Santana triple, while I rode a Trek.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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7 Responses to What to look for in a touring bike

  1. Emily of Roads Less Traveled April 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    How cool to have found a family out on a long-term cycling adventure. Years ago our cycling friend Tim Travis kept telling everyone on our weekly group rides in Arizona that he was going to ride his bike to the bottom of South America some day. Well, he did, and he kept on going and from what I gather is a superstar of the bike touring community now…

    Seeing this ordinary guy take off on his travel dream got us inspired, and six years ago we started traveling full-time via RV and sailboat. We have cyclo-cross bikes in our trailer so we can do group road rides in some towns and hit the trails in others. Since we sail the coast of Mexico in winters we don’t ride much then — it’s too hard to take two bikes onto the beach in a dinghy!

    We’re at a cross-roads in our own travels now and occasionally kick around the idea of cycling Europe. Good to have found your site in case we get serious about going that route.

    You readers might appreciate an in depth review we did of the Kuat NV Bike rack which we use on both our trailer and our truck… they won’t need it when they cast off on their long-term cycling adventures, but between now and then they might find it handy for carrying their bikes…

    http://roadslesstraveled.us/kuat-nv-bike-rack-review/

  2. mark chaple January 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    all good stuff a good web site a must for all cyclists’

  3. Kenny Fagan August 22, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Nice article. I ride a 29er mountain bike with disc brakes. First bike was a 26 mountain bike with conventional brakes. Chosen to go for bigger wheels gives smoother ride on dirt roads in Africa. Just little risky for spares. Thought well there is always a bus taxi or truck moving in Africa to get a lift to help.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 25, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

      @Kenny Fagan, There are always trade-offs. Do you want the comfort or ease of replacements? I hope your Africa trip is magical!

  4. Kenny Fagan September 10, 2014 at 4:46 am #

    I live in South Africa so have only toured in Africa so far. My next trip is in December. Have decided not to cross boarders this time to see if I could attract other South Africans to join me. Will be doing Pretoria/Johannesburg to East London(Eastern Cape).

    All the best wishes.

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