Touring Bicycles

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Daisys & Sage: Fraser Plateau, B.C.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. ~Ernest Hemingway

Summary

The ideal touring bicycle shares many of the same characteristics as the randonneur bike.

A long wheelbase, roomy rear triangle and relatively low bottom bracket makes for a stable ride. A touring frame should accomodate larger tires and mudguards (fenders).

Desirable, though not imperative on a rando bike, braze-ons and eyelets for racks and fenders are de riguer on the touring bike. Unless you are planning lightweight “credit card touring” specifically, it is handy, and more durable, to have threaded bosses for low-rider racks on the fork blades, as well as twin eyelets on both front and rear dropouts — one set for fender stays, another specifically for racks. This avoids stacking fender struts and rack stays. A good touring frame also has threaded braze-ons at the top of the seat stays (where they meet the seat tube) to attach rack struts.

Heavily laden expedition touring on rough roads makes serious demands on all all braze-ons and some back road adventurers swear by sturdy P-clamps over threaded bosses for rack mounting. Certainly, a couple of clamps should be part of any repair kit on a remote tour.

If you are retrofitting an older frame for touring, a variety of hardware kits and alternate racks are available. See the luggage page for more information.

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Marinoni Tuismo Extreme(Click to enlarge)

Bicycles for touring

Racing bikes

Of all bicycle types, this is probably the most unsuitable, for anything other than day tours. With severe angles, short chainstays and lack of suitable bosses for racks and fenders, racing thoroughbreds are uncomfortable over the long haul.

Cyclo-cross bikes

The cyclo-cross bicycle has, along with a recent resurge of the sport, become popular as a general purpose machine. Generous tire clearance and cantilever brakes allow the cross bike to double as a touring bike. However, because it is a racing bike, stock gearing is usually inadequate (see below) for loaded touring and bottom bracket height is sometimes higher than normal. Most cyclo-cross frames do not have rack and fender attachment points. Check the chainstay length (as with any non-touring-specific bike); short stays can create heel strike problems when panniers are mounted.

Mountain bikes

Mountain bikes are often pressed into service, particularly for expeditions including unpaved tracks. “Hard-tail,” bikes, like my Rocky Mountain Blizzard, are recommended in this case. Front suspension forks require specialized racks, that won’t interfere with shock compression. There are a variety available, with various methods of attachment to forks without integrated braze-ons — from hose clamps, to replacement brake bolts to secure rack to brake bosses. There remains the issue of attaching rack struts at the fork end. This is usually accomplished by running the quick release skewer or axle through the end. The Tubus “Swing Rack,” avoids these issues with a design suspended from fork steerer and crown.

Hybrids

The “hybrid” bike is a bit of a mongrel machine, born out of the ’80s mountain bike craze. Of course, they are simply urban bicycles that have been around in one form or another since the dawn of the “safety bicycle.” They serve the urban commuter well and can certainly be used as a tourer, providing they are geared low enough. Stock hybrids however suffer the same drawback as the mountain bike: flat bars. These can be modified, of course, but different brake levers and shifters will be needed, if changing to drop bars.

Recumbents

“Bents” are certainly worthy of consideration as touring machines. Touring models are available from a variety of manufacturers, complete with cushy suspension, integrated racks and stock dynamo lighting. All wheel sizes are represented. Typically, touring recumbents will have 20″ wheels, or 26″ rear and 20″ front.

French randonneur/porteurs

The 650b wheel bike might seem like the perfect answer. And in many ways it is. With wider tyres and plush frame geometry common to the design, it is the perfect candidate. These bikes were, after all, developed for the unpaved roads of the French countryside, circa 1930! It should be considered that, even though there is a great renaissance occurring, 650b rims and tyres are not yet universally available. I have no reservation recommending such bikes for local adventures—sturdy folding tyres such as the Grand Bois “Hetre” are available—but they might not be the best choice for a tour in the Andes.

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Frame nomenclature
(original illustration by Keithonart)

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See what kind of bikes other VeloWeb readers use on tour.

Gearing

Chosen gear ratios should be based on load and landscape. I rode my first major tour, over the mountainous contours of British Columbia, on a racing drivetrain. After 500 kilometres, I had to look up a doctor to prescribe anti-inflamatories. Never choose gears based on fashion.

A fully-loaded, self-supporting tour will require ratios equal to the job. Unless one enjoys powerlifting all day, low (easy) gears are in order. Shimano makes the system of choice, with the lowest gear combinations available. The lowest gear possible with present (unmodified) Campagnolo systems—30X29 teeth—is 27 gear inches.

A front triple-crankset, with rings of 24-34-48, matched with rear cogs from 12 or 13 to 32 or 34 teeth should get you over the steepest climbs with ease. For instance, 24X32 produces a 22” gear. Paired with a 48-tooth chainring, the small 13-tooth cog will give you a high gear in the region of 99 inches—big enough for anyone but the aforementioned quadricep-enhanced athlete to cruise at a fair clip. Nothing above a 50-tooth chainring is needed for touring. Jumps of no more than 10 teeth, produce crisper shifting and avoid the dreaded “cadence loss”—a sudden, large change in the rate of pedaling.

How many gears? I’m inclined to stick with 8-speed cassettes, which are still widely available. Why? With wider chains common to 8-speed (7.2 mm), they last longer and are easier to keep in adjustment. Older 7-speed cassettes and 5- or 6-speed freewheels wear well, but the latter do not result in wheels as strong as modern freehub systems.

Another part of the gear system worth mentioning is the shifting mechanism. Bar-end shifters are simple and almost indestructible, not to mention inexpensive. I’ve used them for over 30 years, from Suntour friction shifters, to indexed DuraAce. The same could be said of down tube shifters, but “bar-cons” get my vote for ease of use. Of course, many stock touring bicycles come with integrated shifters/brake levers. These allow shifting from the comfort of the brake hoods. Don’t skimp here. If you can’t afford mid- to high-end, stick with bar-cons.

Though self-supported, laden touring requires lower gearing than sport touring, much that can be said about gearing for randonneurs applies here.

Wheels

Traditional steel spoked wheels are the way to go, preferably laced with 36 spokes. Touring bikes are no place for “bladed” spokes and other racing “innovations.” Hubs and rims should be of the highest quality. Don’t scrimp here.

Brakes

A lightweight sport-tourer will usually be fitted with caliper brakes, preferably of the long-reach variety (see the Sportivo “Randonnee”) to accomodate wider tyres and mudguards.

Touring bikes built to carry heavy loads will generally have cantilever brakes, while heavy-duty tourers, like the Marinoni Turismo Extreme illustrated above, are now equipped with powerful disk brakes.

Handlebars & Stem

Drop “maes” bars win out in the touring division every time. Well, not every time. I once did a major tour of the rutted roads of the sub-Arctic with flat bars. I have the nerve damage to prove it. If you only have, or need, upright bars, a good alternative is the pretzl-shaped “trekking bar.” These adapt well to mountain bikes and hybrids, affording more comfortable, varied hand positions and, in most cases, avoid a change of brake levers and shifters.

Fit

Whatever style of bicycle you choose, or already own, proper fit is paramount. If the frame is too small, this will necessitate a high saddle position relative to the bars; too large and you will find yourself too stretched out, not to mention in danger of doing yourself an indignity.

Compensating for a small frame is complicated by modern threadless headsets. Though they are sturdy and simplify stems changes, the amount of handlebar/stem height adjustment is limited. Most-off-the-rack bikes have had the fork steerer cut. Short of buying a new fork, the only option is to install a high-rise stem.

A traditional quill stem is easily adjusted, by loosening the stem binder bolt and raising the stem. Few new bikes are spec’d with them.

Though lugless, welded frames have expanded design options (especially for smaller riders), bicycle sizing has become more complex with the advent of “compact” geometry and sloping top tubes, since different manufacturers use different measuring protocols.

If the designer provides a “standover” height, it is easy to measure the distance between floor and crotch to determine the frame most likely to fit.

A ballpark figure for frame size can be arrived at by dividing inseam (cm) x .67. Saddle height can also be estimated using the formula: inseam (cm) x .883. The resulting measurement is the distance between the centre of the bottom bracket spindle and the top of the saddle. Depending on pedaling style, this should put you within a centimetre or so of “ideal.” For more in-depth sizing and adjustment tips, see the Bike Fit page.