Finding a Good Bicycle Touring Frame

bicycle touring frame

Bicycle tours begin with the right bicycle touring frame. Consider geometry, compatibility, fit, function, and material to pick right bicycle touring frame.

In another article I suggest using any bicycle for bicycle touring. You don’t need a special bike to tour on; however, if you really want to limit the hassle of the “daily workaround” there are criteria that makes a bicycle frame a good bicycle touring frame.

So for a second let’s consider what is the wrong frame? I rode the wrong frame on every tour I have been on.

My first tour I rode an entry-level Cannondale racing bike on 700X20mm tires. A stiff aluminum frame coupled with a stiff aluminum fork, aggressive riding geometry, and no dropout mounts for pannier bags and racks. Almost every day there was a workaround because my frame was not bicycle touring friendly.

good bicycle touring frame

My last tour was on a super stiff aluminum composite frame with a suspension fork that is 22 years old. The frame was/is also too big for me. I love this bike but I want something a bit more bulletproof:

Good Bicycle Touring Frame

I have never ridden a factory touring bicycle in my life. Maybe I should…but I prefer to build my bikes. Fortunately this build will be more of a frame swap. It is simple but changes in the bike industry make finding compatible components and frames a bit tougher than you think. I am tied to a 26 inch wheel set I recently had built specifically for touring.

Okay lets roll back and review my “good bicycle touring frame” selection criteria:

What do I look for to find a great bicycle touring frame?

A touring bike’s geometry is specific to carrying loads. If you haven’t ridden a touring bike with filled front and rear panniers maybe this would be a good place to start. The steering and wheelbase are optimised for stability, there is ample heel clearance and the front end stands tall. It allows for varied riding and hand positions.

1. Geometry

The geometry of a bicycle is the special wizardry that separates one frame builder from another. There are certain frame builders [Grant Petersen] that are very well-known for creating bicycle frames that make exceptional touring bicycles.

Any Grant Petersen Bridgestone bicycle will make an excellent bicycle touring frame. Go visit and observe some exceptional craftsmanship in the form of steel, lugged tubing welded together. These beauties are no different from the thousands of Bridgestone’s [Nishiki, Kabuki, etc.] that were produced in the 80’s and 90’s. Grab one of them and you have a good bicycle touring frame.

There are a number of other reputable frame makers that also create frames specific for bicycle tourists. Surly Bikes produces two examples. The Surly Troll and The Long Haul Trucker are both good solid frame you could buy new and not break the bank. Both of these bicycles are popular on reddit’s r/bicycletouring and I have test ridden each. I prefer the Troll.

I am basically looking for a reasonably priced Bridgestone, Surly Troll, or any 90’s steel hardtail with similar geometry.

NOTE: Ten years ago this was easy as bicycles were way more plug and play friendly. Now you need to consider different wheel sizes, fork rake, fork length, suspension corrected frames, disc brakes, etc. There is a lot to consider when building a bicycle these days.

2. Compatibility

I need to be careful because I am going to be swapping a good deal of components from my current bike onto the new frame I buy. Here are some of the things I think about when scouring ebay auctions:

Where are the cables routed [front derailleur top or bottom pull]?

Correct brake mounts [disc vs vbrake vs cantilever vs the dreaded roller U break]. Some of the 90’s hardtail frames may have been designed around brakes positions that are unsuitable. You need to make sure things fit. I almost bought a early 90’s Kona Explosif until my research showed that they used a roller cam brake that placed the brake pivots in a position where a v-brake would not work.

Do not overlook the fork when you are selecting your frameset. Make sure the headset fits the fork [1″ vs 1 1/8″ vs 1 1/4″ headset] and that the steerer tube is long enough. Some of the new forks they are making will not work with just any bicycle: rake, length, suspension corrected, etc.

3. Fit

If the bicycle doesn’t fit you are going to hurt as you try to enjoy your vacation. Don’t make work for yourself. Learn how a bicycle should fit and buy the right frame.

4. Function

Does the bicycle function well as a touring bicycle? Are you going to be like me on my first 3 tours where everything is a non stop workaround? I want to go bicycle touring. I don’t want to be Macguyver.

My next frame will have proper rack and fender mounts. I also want a fork with proper rack, fender, and light mounts.

5. Material

No more spaceage, lightweight, un-obtanium frames for me. I want a steel frame and fork. I want a derailleur hanger that is part of a dropout. I love my current frame but not for where I want to ride next. It’s impractical and I’m asking for trouble. Steel, steel, steel ,steel!

So what frame did I get?

bicycle touring frame

My “saved” searches on ebay were plentiful but I finally narrowed it down to a couple frame manufacturers. Fork length and rake played a big part in my selection.

The 90’s hardtail Kona frames that had the “Kona Project Two” fork share a similar look and geometry to the Surly Troll.

I didn’t like the rear dropouts on the Troll but I wanted the Troll fork. Especially the 2017 version with many mounts for gear and racks. I started looking at Kona’s very closely. I almost bought the Explosif but I held off because of the roller cam brake.

It’s funny I never really favored Kona as a manufacturer but after taking a good look at touring bicycles I now want an older Kona. The Troll and the 90’s Kona have a seat tube that passes through the top tube and extends upward. The real selling point was that Kona was producing a suspension corrected frame as early as 1992.