I see a lot of questions on different sites with people asking ‘What is the best touring bicycle?’ or ‘Can I use this bicycle to tour on?’ The best touring bicycle exists only as an idea. I tour on a bicycle that is NOT the “best touring bicycle”. A good deal of experienced bicycle tourers might think of it as a poor choice. In my eyes the best touring bicycle is more about you the bicycle tourist and not the bicycle. So what is the best touring bicycle? You may already own it.
I’m not going to BS you here. There are some unbelievable touring bikes that will make life a little more convenient. Perhaps even easier and more enjoyable while on the road but a successful tour is about the rider not the bike. Consider this:
Bicycle touring is neither easy nor convenient and even on the BEST touring bicycle you will go through hardship and despair while out on tour.
Some people don’t have the cash to dump on a Thorn or even a moderately priced Surly Long Haul Trucker. When you leave on your tour you need to feel confidence in that your bike is the ‘best touring bicycle’. The most important factor is that it fits, you like to ride it, and you know it’s mechanical ups and downs. You probably already own a bike. Ride it.
The best touring bicycles have the following characteristics:
- Ability to carry bicycle touring gear
- Wide-ratio gearing including a granny gear for climbing with a heavy load
- Sturdy set of wheels
- Longer wheelbase [chainstays especially for pannier clearance]
- Comfortable upright riding position
- Mechanically sound
- Ability to source replacement parts
I have ridden across the country 3 times on a Cannondale racing bike and a Specialized mountain bike. Neither of these can be considered the best touring bicycle.. The thing is I already owned them. I loved riding them. With a few inexpensive modifications I turned them into the best touring bicycle on the planet. It’s not really about the bike. It’s about you and your preferences. What do you like to ride? Can that bike carry the equipment you need to tour with? Yes it can!
So how do you turn your trusty steed into the best touring bicycle that exists?
1. Ability to carry bicycle touring gear
My bike has no rack mounts brazed onto the frame. I have used both of the following mounts in the past and will continue to use the Tubus Clamp set. Making sure your rack is mounted securely and tested is perhaps the most important part of converting your every day ride into the best touring bicycle you could have.
Tubus Adapter set for QR-axle-mounting
The Tubas axle mount adapter solves a big problem for bicycle tourists whose frame has no rack mounts and cannot use p-clips. Maybe it’s a carbon fiber frame. Maybe you just don’t want to mar the paintjob. Regardless this is a sturdy mount that will get many non touring bikes into touring mode. The only downfall is the added work of removing your touring load off of the frame when you are faced with rear wheel maintenance.
Tubus Clamp Set for Seat Stay Mounting
This is the holy grail of p-clamps. This is what I use. they are much more robust than any set of p-clamps I have ever witnessed in a bike shop. I wrap a piece of old inner tube around my seat stay and clamp. I have carried many big loads this way. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to carry a set of these as a back up even if you have braze-ons. At $6.95 these are a steal. They are the best and most secure p-clamps you can get.
I attach the top of the rack to a Seatpost Clamp with Rack Mount. No braze ons and 100% secure rack.
Honorable mention goes to Thule for their Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Tour Rack. It’s a novel idea but not tested enough for me to acquire yet.
2. Wide-ratio gearing for me that includes a granny gear for chimbing with a heavy load
Borrowed from cycling360media.com
Most mountain bikes already come with this right out of the factory. I tour on a 1994 hardtail with a pair of slicks. Outside of the tires and rack mounts I have made very little modifications to this bicycle. People are always asking about touring on a mountain bike. I would not tour on anything else.
Changing gear ratios can be tricky these days. In the 80’s and early 90’s almost all Shimano drivetrain parts were interchangeable. That isn’t the case anymore. A Shimano Ultegra chain specifically fits an Ultegra cassette and shifters. Trying to mix and match will create tuning and wear issues. You really need to make sure that when changing parts in your drivetrain that they were intended to work together. One change might precipitate another. Do you have enough clearance to add a third chainring or will you need to change your bottom bracket? Does that new cassette fit your current chain?
If you find that your current bicycle needs a whole new drivetrain to accomodate touring THIS would be a good reason to go and buy a bicycle just for touring. Make these decisions carefully. A new drivetrain could cost more than the the price of a used touring bicycle. Do not compromise and cut corners on your drive train.
3. Sturdy set of wheels
One upgrade I made for my upcoming tour is that I bought a custom handmade set of wheels from PeterWhiteCycles.com. Your wheels are the heart of your bicycle. The most important component. Whatever bicycle you ride make sure the wheels are in great shape. Rebuild the hubs, check the rims, and make them as true as possible.
Buying a set of handmade wheels was a luxury for me and I took the plunge because the wheels that came with my ’94 hardtail had cracked. I rebuilt my hubs and sent them off to Peter White for the nicest set of wheels I have ever owned. You don’t need a set of handmade wheels. Just make sure that you have tuned your wheels to be ‘as perfect as they can be’ before you leave on tour. On all three cross country tours I have ridden I was riding on factory spec wheels with lots of miles underneath them. Your wheels are your life.
4. Longer wheelbase [chainstays especially for pannier clearance]
Borrowed from uddhamsotto.com
Some frames are designed with a shorter wheelbase for increased handling. They will never become the best touring bicycle.
In the late 80’s and 90’s Cannondale produced the m700 and m800 ‘Beast of the East’. This frame specifically featured short chain stays and a bottom bracket with higher clearance. There is a good chance that if you set one of these up for touring you will never be able to prevent the back of your heel from striking the pannier on every pedal stroke.
Criterium bicycles also feature a shorter wheelbase. Short chainstays and in some cases fork rake that can cause the front tire and toe to overlap. The geometry of these frames will cause more problems than you can imagine in safety and annoyance.
Research the specific geometry of your specific bicycle and see what it was designed to do. The best thing you can do is attach a rack and load up some panniers and test it out. If if doesn’t work you will not be able to force it to work. Don’t compromise on this. Constant adjust ments to your pannier set up will become tiresome and you really don’t need an extra task while on tour.
5. Comfortable upright riding position
This is pretty subjective to how you ride. On a bicycle tour you will be doing a whole lot of looking over your shoulder at oncoming traffic and changing positions on the bike. I prefer a nice comfortable upright riding position most of the time. I prefer the robustness of a mountain bike that fits me more like a road bike. I would normally ride a 16 inch mountain bicycle but I have a 17.5 inch frame for my current mountain bike/touring bicycle.
Ask yourself or better yet go and prove it on a couple loaded test rides: “Is it comfortable to be on this bicycle for 8 hours?”
Chances are your everyday ride is what you are comfortable riding and I say don’t change. Ride that bike on tour. If you are changing to a tour specific bicycle make sure you have a couple hundred miles on it at least.
6. Mechanically sound
Nobody knows the intricacies of YOUR bicycle like you do. A new bike will bring a new set of advantages and disadvantages to the table. I choose to avoid any changes in this area and to convert my regular day to day bicycle into the best touring bicycle I could own. I only own one bicycle. I only want to own one bicycle. I know my bicycle inside and out. I perform all of the maintenance on my bike. How well do you know your bike? Do you trust it on tour? If you do there is no reason to buy a bicycle specific for a tour.
Get to know your bike because YOU are going to have to answer to it everyday on tour. Your local bike shop mechanic will not be there. It’s about you and not your bike. You don’t have to be a Tour de France mechanic but you should be able to make your bike rideable until you have an opportunity to seek professional help. Buy a tool kit and start tackling 100% of your bicycle maintenance today.
7. Ability to source replacement parts
That is my front fork for touring. 100% of you will agree that it is not an ideal part to be counting on when 200 plus miles away from a bicycle shop. I love it. I have 100% confidence in it. Don’t follow my lead and tour with parts like this. You should be able to coast into any town and know that you can replace or service your bike.
A mountain bike has the ubiquitous 26 inch wheel. Tires, tubes, spokes, bearings etc. can be found around the globe for this size wheel. This is one advantage of riding a mountain bike. Ride what you want but understand that the more custom you go the less replacement parts that will be available.
I have a replacement fork boxed up and ready to ship to me from a trusted supporter when I leave on my next tour. I hope I don’t have to use it.
The best touring bicycles are the ones that get the job done. They don’t have to be fancy. They don’t have to be expensive. They don’t have to be touring bicycles. Now go for a test ride!