Choosing the best touring bicycle

best touring bicycle
Image courtesy Giorgio Galeotti via Flickr. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

A touring bicycle is a unique breed of machine. It allows you to go on cycling holidays — biking across Europe or the US or any other vacation adventure you can plan.

You’ll become a worldwide traveler, seeing life from your bicycle saddle. But you are not limited to world travel and tourism, remember.

A good touring bicycle can be used for commuting, picking up a few groceries at the store, and just riding around the neighborhood. We’ll look at what makes a touring bicycle in this article.




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Touring bike frame

Riding a tour means you are on your bike almost every day and that means you need a bike designed with comfort in mind over the long haul.

The frames are usually made of steel, which is a forgiving and springy material. Although this does depend on the frame builder and how the frame was designed, steel is generally not as stiff as an aluminum touring bike.

A steel touring bike, also, lends itself to easy repairs on the road, if needed.

For instance: you are on the road touring and your steel frame cracks or breaks. A steel frame can be rewelded together. The only problem is hitching a ride to the next town that has a welder.

When an aluminum bike frame cracks or breaks, it can not be rewelded. But let’s not get caught up with bicycle frame materials: A well-crafted bicycle will last a long time.

Frame geometry

The best touring bicycles will also have little tweaks to the geometry.

The head tube will be higher on these bicycles. This will allow the rider to get in a much more upright position, which provides all-day riding comfort.

The chainstays will be longer. This provides additional clearance so you feet don’t hit the panniers, but it also alters the ride characteristics — along with the head tube angle and fork rake.

The head tube angle and fork rake on touring bikes is designed to make them stable, rather than twitchy like a race bike.

Frame features

The ideal touring bike accepts wider tires, which provides a less jarring ride.

There will also be mounts for racks, fenders, bottle cages, and — sometimes — extra spokes.

The racks allow you to add panniers to your bicycle. The panniers are needed to carry all the camping equipment and provisions if you are doing a fully-loaded bike tour.

The fenders will keep you dry, and the bottle cages will provide you with plenty of space for water bottles because you are always going to need something to drink, especially if you tour the desert.

Touring bike parts

If you’re just looking for the best touring bike for the money, you probably won’t need to worry so much about these parts. (Suitable parts will already be on your bike or you can upgrade.)

But if you are custom building, you’ll have the option for different types of wheels, brakes, shifters, and gears.

Wheels: Size can be 700c or 26-inch.

A 26-inch wheel is popular on smaller frames, so the rider doesn’t have toe overlap with the front wheel. This size wheel is also popular with long-distance touring riders who travel through remote, undeveloped countries. (A 26-inch tire and tube is more common than its 700c brethren.)

Whichever you have, your wheels need to be robust.

You’ll be carrying a heavy load with all your supplies and camping gear, so you’ll want a minimum of 32 spokes for the front wheel and 36 spokes for the rear wheel.

For light bicycle touring such as an overnight trip, it’s possible to use wheels that have fewer spokes because you won’t be bringing a lot of camping and cycling gear with you.

Another option if you have wheels with low spoke counts or you have a modern racing bike that doesn’t have rack mounts is to pull a trailer.

Brakes: Touring bicycles use cantilever brakes. These type of brakes have more clearance than caliper brakes that are found on road bicycles. The linear-pull brakes allow you to put wider tires and fenders on your bicycle.

A few modern touring bicycle brands use disc brakes, which can improve braking in wet conditions. One problem with discs is that they are more complicated than cantilever brakes and could cause a problem if they break in the middle of nowhere.

Shifters: Many modern bicycles have indexed shifting, which works well and is reliable. But some people want to do away with anything that could break on tour, so they choose to use barcons or down-tube shifters.

Either way, you’ll need a way to shift through the gears

Gear ratios: Touring bikes usually have three chain-rings that range in size, but two common setups include 28/39/52 and 44/32/22.

The first uses a road bike chain-set with a granny ring, and this set may work for credit card touring and commuting.

For somebody who is building a custom touring bike, he/she may want to consider the 44/32/22 crank-set. Mated with the correct cassette, the gaps with this crank-set will be minimal, and you’ll still be able to pedal a loaded touring bike up a mountain.

I hope this article has helped you answer what makes a touring bicycle.

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