Types of Bikes
This is probably one of the harder questions that I regularly get asked by people searching for advice. What kind of bike should I get to tour on? Essentially, you could ride just about any bike and go on a tour. Depending on the length of time which you will be touring, it might play some factors in your decision making process.
If you are on a tight budget and already have an existing mountain or road bike, there is nothing wrong with using them for your tour. With a little careful planning and forethought, just about any bike will do.
In 2012, I did my first bike tour through Java, Bali and Lombok, Indonesia, cycling a total of about 1500 km on my BMC 29er hardtail mountain bike. For this tour, I only carried two Ortieb panniers on a rear rack that I attached to the seatpost clamp and an Ortlieb handlebar bag. The downside of this was that there was a lot of lateral flex on the rear rack, which caused a lot of resistance when climbing big-ass Indonesian volcanos. Click to read the full story on my tour through Indonesia.
Aside from attaching a rear rack, I changed the tires from 2.25″ Rocket Rons to 1.75″ or 1.5″ Schwalbe touring tires and used duct tape to tape up my beloved mountain bike so as to protect the paint better while on the tour.
Using an existing bike was the perfect way to do a first tour. Now, with the advent and popularity of bike packing bags, using a mountain bike with a bikepacking setup is a great way to tour, allowing the tourer to easily get off the beaten track while providing ample space to carry everything they need.
A year and a half after my first bike tour, I was back in Canada and picked up my old Oryx road bike from my parents house. It was a relatively cheap road bike and quickly became my commuter bike. I later used this 20-speed road bike equipped with Shimano Sora to do several short 550km bike tours: Helsingbor to Berlin, Osaka to Hiroshima, and Kuala Lumpur to Penang.
At the time I still didn’t have a dedicated touring bike, but used a seat post mounted bike rack to attach a dry bag filled with whatever I would need to survive for a 2-3 day bike tour. The downsides of this bike was that I couldn’t carry much gear, so on the occasion where I wanted to camp along the way, I was forced to wear a backpack in order to carry everything I would need. Definitely not recommended to tour while wearing a backpack. Not only does it make it very hot, but it also can easily lead to strained muscles due to the having to support the bag while also bent over to reach the handlebars.
When using a road bike for touring, it’s important to keep in mind that they don’t have heavy duty wheels, so it is not possible to carry as much weight. In my interviews with Rob Lea and Walter Reich, both of them did their touring while enjoying the benefit of a support vehicle. This allowed them to not need to load their bikes down with too much gear, allowing them to keep their bikes as light and fast as possible.
If wanting to use a tradition pannier setup, I would recommend using smaller ‘front’ panniers on the rear of the bike and a partial frame bag to carry additional gear. You can also use the top of the rear rack to attach a small bag if necessary. For more of an understanding of using a road bike for tours, you can check out my blog post on cycling from Osaka to Hiroshima, Japan.
Traditional Touring Bikes
Traditional touring bikes are perhaps the most popular way to tour the world. The advantages of a touring specific bikes are that they are build with stronger materials such as steel or chromoly steel, having heavier duty wheels with 32 or 36 spokes, a more relaxed geometry which allows the riding to keep a more upright riding position. For traditional bike tourers using a four pannier setup, using a touring bike is definitely beneficial. They also have relatively narrow tires so are more suited to cycling on paved, gravel and dirt roads, but don’t do exceptionally well in off-road situations.
The disadvantages of traditional touring bikes are that they are generally quite heavy and because they are so resilient, people tend to carry more stuff than they actually need. It is also possible to spend a small fortune on accessories such as a Rolhoff rear hub, dynamo front hub, and specialty handlebars. It is also possible to buy a touring bike designed around the Pinion Gearbox, a gearbox system where all the gears are right at the pedals, keeping the centre of gravity centred in the bike and low to the ground. To learn more about this type of gearing system, check out Interview 010 with Harry and Roellie.
If you are looking to do a long distance bike tour, or a determined to get the best piece of equipment possible for the job, getting a traditional touring bike like a Surly Long Haul Trucker, Kona Sutra, Trek 520, Fuji Touring, to name just a few. Any one of these bikes will provide you with high quality components, heavy duty wheels, and a frame that will be able to take a beating for years to come. To learn more about the Surly LHT, check out Interview 026 with Adam Hugill. To learn about the Kona Sutra, check out Interview 033 with Ian Finlay where he goes into quite some depth about the upgrades he did, what worked well, and would he would do differently.
To learn more about the most popular touring bikes, click here (coming soon)
For this section I’m using the name adventure bikes, but in reality it is difficult to put a direct name to this type of bike. When speaking of adventure bikes, I am talking about the types of bikes that people strap seat bags, frame bags and handlebar rolls too. This could entail gravel bikes, endurance road bikes, mid-fat bikes, and fat bikes.
First off. Gravel bikes and endurance road bikes are quite similar, in that they are built to be quite light, sturdily built, have lots of bosses to attach water bottles, bags, and cages to the bike. Gravel bikes regularly use mountain bike gearing and now with the recent development of gravel specific groupsets, such as Shimano GRX and Sram AXS. Endurance road bikes more commonly use road bike groupsets, but with smaller front chainrings. Both bikes have a higher front stack, which helps the rider keep a more upright position. With the recent growth of both gravel racing and ultra-distance endurance racing, you can expect to see a lot more development within this market. To learn more about using ultra-endurance bikes for touring check out my interviews with Jonas Deichmann: Interview 013 and Interview 023. You can also learn about more from Chris Bennett in Interview 020 and and Ben Davies in Interview 031.
Mid-fat bikes such as the one rode by Tristan Ridley in Interview 017, and fat bikes are great bikes for embarking on adventures. While being fairly similar, the mid-fat bike usually has a tire just a bit bigger than a mountain bike, up to about 3.25″. A mid-fat bike is easier to take on a tour as it is easier to pack, weights significantly less than a fat bike and still gives many of the benefits such as the ability to ride in snow, sand, mud, etc. Needless to say, a fat bike with 6″ tires will be able to go into deeper snow, deeper sand, and generally really mucky terrain. They also provide a nice amount of natural suspension, since they ride with relatively low pressure.
Folding bikes make for a great way to tour, particularly for people that travel a lot. They are a great way to keep baggage fees down, as they can generally be packed into a suitcase – and sometimes even as overhead carryon baggage.
Folding bikes typically have wheels between 16-20″. Possibly the most popular folding bike in the world is the Brompton. Made in the U.K. and being one of the smallest folders, they have limited gears, use 16″ wheels, thus a slightly rougher ride. They are also expensive and cost about $1500 USD. To learn about cycle touring on a Brompton, check out Interview 002 with Fin Madden. German-made Birdy bikes provide front and back suspension on 18″ wheels with the ability of installing their front and back racks for mounting pannier bags. In 20″ wheel sizing, Bike Friday makes touring specific folding bikes that have both front and back racks, are sturdily build and capable of handling most any challenge. While cycling in Northern Thailand, I used a Bike Friday New World Tourist while cycling over 100km each day with an elevation of 2500-3500 metres. Not only did it climb well, but it descended like a beast, reaching a top speed of about 85kph. To read more about this adventure or to watch the video, check out my blog post Cycling the Mae Hong Son Loop.
The downside of folding bikes is that they are definitely not meant to be dong anything off road, and only truly shine on paved and gravel roads. Anything bumpier then that will make for a miserable ride. In my experience they are also nearly impossible to ride with no hands and the rider had to be more careful when cornering and pedalling as the lowered bottom bracket made it more likely to result in ground strike.
Other Touring Bikes
There is really no limit to what can be used as a touring bikes. Throughout my journey hosting this podcast I have interviewed the Swag Family, an Australian family that rode two tandems around Australia over the period of a year. I have interviewed two French guys that cycled from France to SE Asia on a tandem bike with a recumbent front seat modified to allow someone with arthritis to use their hands to pedal. To see more about these guys check out my interview with Mi Pieds Mi Mains. Matt Galat, JaYoe, is riding a recumbent tadpole trike while doing an intermittent journey around the world which he estimates will take him 15-20 years. In Interview 024, the Hungarian cyclist Victor Zicho rode a recumbent bike from Hungary to India through the mountains of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan following the footsteps of a famous Hungarian explorer. In Interview 018, French cyclist Arthur Desclaux build a bamboo bike on a shoestring budget so that he can cycling around the world.
There really are very few limitations when planning what kind of bike to use on a tour. Any bike can be used to tour, it’s just that some bikes might take more maintenance than others. By keeping in mind the type of terrain you will be crossing, how much luggage you need to carry, and how long you expect the bike to last for are the 3 main things you must consider. You may also choose to use a trailer rather than panniers, or even to use both of them like Arie Hoogerbrugge is for his tour from Canada to Patagonia. Listen to Interview 032 to learn more about Arie’s tour and equipment.
Otherwise. the ball is in your court.
Enjoy and keep on pedalling.