In my previous post I mentioned the various different genres of bicycle that are commonly used for long distance cycling and cycle touring. Here I will discuss the different options that are available for various bicycle components so that you can understand more about the different choices available and how different components may suit your type of riding (terrain or style) better than others. This won’t be a list saying ‘this is what you need to buy to go touring’ but merely a brief presentation of the options available, their strengths and weaknesses, so that hopefully you can come to your own conclusion about what bike (and relevant components) you will need for your cycle.
The first thing to consider when looking for a new bike for touring is what type of bike you want to be riding on. As discussed in my previous post this will largely be down to your riding style and terrain that you will be cycling on. It is this choice that will determine what type of frame you will be cycling on. As discussed, different frames and genres of bike have different characteristics and therefore the first step is to weigh up which of these options is in line with your riding then make a decision.
After you have decided what type of bike/frame you want to be riding the next question you face is what geometry would you like that frame to have. The choice here is slightly decided by the type of bike you have chosen however there is significant variability between different road bikes for example. The best thing to do is to try out sitting on and riding as many different geometries as you can so you can find out what feels the most comfortable to suit your riding style. This will probably mean that someone going for a record breaking attempt, like Mark Beaumont’s Africa cycle, would opt for a more aggressive aerodynamic geometry as whilst it would be a bit more uncomfortable you would gain from the improved aggression and speed. Whereas someone who is going to cycle predominantly to work and then go on some more relaxed cycle tours would probably benefit more from a more relaxed geometry favouring comfort whilst sacrificing only a little bit of speed.
The final question to answer when selecting a frame is what material of frame you want to be riding. Each material (steel, aluminium, titanium, carbon fibre) has a distinctive feel and therefore again it is probably best to try out a few different types. In addition to the feel other factors such as price and practicality will also factor into your choice of this. For example aluminium frames are significantly cheaper than carbon fibre and steel frames are really practical as they can be easily fixed and welded wherever you are in the world whereas if a carbon frame cracks that is pretty much the end of it.
The next major question to answer when choosing your bike is what type of gears do you want on it. There are a multitude of options here and many are not mutually exclusive and therefore you can have many different permutations of what I will present to suit your own preferences. If you are just picking between general types of gears you essentially have a choice between road groupsets or mountain bike groupsets. These specific names need not be taken so literally though as a mountain bike groupset may obviously still be of great advantage to a cycle tourist with a very heavy bike cycling predominantly on the roads. In a similar way a road groupset on an adventure road or cyclo-cross bike can be really useful for faster off-road excursions and races.
The next thing to consider is the gear ratio of your bike (click link to see explanation). This determined by the number of teeth on the crank and the rear cassette. It can therefore easily be changed by changing your cassette (an inexpensive way to get ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ gears). However changing your front crank can be significantly more expensive and therefore it makes sense to purchase a bike with your desired crank on initially. Generally you have a choice between triple, double, or compact cranksets (or you could be brave and go for a single cyclo-cross type or fixie crank). For a more heavily laden bicycle the triple and compact cranksets offer greater versatility for cycle touring. However even within triple crankets there is a large difference between road and mountain bike groupsets in the number of teeth and therefore resulting gear ratio. It therefore makes sense to consider how heavily laden your bike will be for the majority of your riding and how mountainous the terrain you will predominantly be cycling on. For example for my upcoming cycle from Alaska to Mexico I anticipated that my bike would be much more heavily laden than usual and I knew that the route was going to cover a lot of mountains and therefore I opted for mountain bike gears with a triple front crank and a nice large cassette on the back giving me a nice ‘granny gear’ for spinning up steep ascents.
In a similar way that you have a lot of choice with your type of gears you equally have a large choice between the different ways in which you can select different gears, i.e. different gear shifter types. In general there are three broad types: STI (like on most road bikes –it stands for ‘Shimano Total Integration’, referring to how the gear shifter and brake lever are fully integrated), friction shifters (on older road bikes and many touring bikes), mountain bike (trigger shifters on flat handlebars). Your choice here will often be decided by your choice of groupset however it is possible to change your shifters independently of your groupset.
STI shifters are probably the most efficient and offer a variety of hand positions on your handlebars whilst still being in control of the gears, a good quality to avoid hand numbness. They are very easy to use and change gears however this added ease-of-use comes at the price of reliability. They are very easily broken if you are involved in a crash, as Tom showed on our cycle tour around Europe. Therefore if you are going touring in a country far away from spare parts and good bike mechanics then this may not be the best option for you. However if you are going for a record breaking attempt then you could even match electronic STI shifters with an electronic groupset. This is what Mark Beaumont did when he cycled from Cairo to Cape Town however if you want to opt for the electronic option you will have to think about charging of battery packs on the move.
Friction shifters have moved on a little bit since they were the staple method of shifting in the 70s. They are incredibly simple, you move a metal bar that pulls on the wire and this pulls and changes the gear. Now they are commonly indexed (so you can just click the bar into place and it will select the correct gear). Whereas un-indexed friction shifters allow you to fine tune the gear selection, which you get used to very quickly and is good as it can eliminate all chain rub on your front derailleur by just doing fine movements that aren’t possible on indexed shifters. The reason that these are commonly found on touring bikes now is that they are ideal for tourers who don’t need the fast access to gears but require something rugged that can be easily fixed anywhere in the world. It is for this option that I selected a bike with bar-end friction shifters for my cycle from Alaska to Mexico. I also ride an old racing bike at Oxford that has downtube friction shifters so I am used to not having constant access to changing gears and find it a very enjoyable and dynamic way to ride.
The final option are mountain bike shifters, these are present on most bikes with flat handlebars and therefore your choice of this type will be dictated by your choice of handlebar. These are probably the easiest type of gears to use as most people learn to ride on bikes that use these types of shifters. However as always your choice of shifters will be down to personal preference and you should always pick what your feel comfortable riding with.
Handlebar selection and the resulting available hand positions available on your bike is an important factor to consider when selecting a new touring bike. Most cycle tourists will spend a lot of time on the bike and therefore having different positions that are comfortable to put your hands can really help avoid the development of niggling pains in your wrist joints and back. Again the decision comes down to what you prefer but it is important that you realise there are a multitude of different options available so you should be able to find something that works perfectly for you. I will focus on the different types rather than materials for this section as I assume that the vast majority of cycle tourists would opt for metal rather than carbon fibre handlebars.
Drop handlebars are the type found on all road bikes. They offer many different hand positions, and again can be purchased in different shapes, widths, and thicknesses, so you should be able to find something that works for you. These allow you to get into a nice aerodynamic position for faster descents but also provide a few more comfortable positions on the brake hoods and tops for the majority of your more relaxed riding as a cycle tourer.
Flat handlebars are commonly found on mountain and hybrid bikes, however are commonly found on many touring bikes. They offer a nice upright and relaxed riding position that conveys very easy bicycle control. Although this type of handlebar does not offer as many hand positions as other types they can be combined with bar-ends to increase the amount of hand positions. Alternatively you could opt for butterfly handlebars. These are growing increasingly more popular with cycle tourists as they offer many hand positions and they all are upright, comfortable, and confer easy bicycle control. Therefore I believe the choice is ultimately between butterfly and drop handlebars. I opted for drop handlebars on my touring bike because I like to be able to get into a more aerodynamic position on descents and strong headwinds. I am also very used to riding with drop handlebars and therefore feel the most comfortable using them for long periods.
Whilst they won’t make or break your decision to buy a bike (apologies for the poor pun), they are an important factor to think about. There are a few different major types that each have advantages and disadvantages, which I will attempt to outline and discuss.
The major choice when it comes to brakes is rim brakes versus disk brakes. I will not focus on hydraulic versus cable operated as this is more of a specialist choice and for long distance cycling I believe the added simplicity and ability to fix easily cable operated brakes offers a significant advantage. Rim brakes have the advantage that they are cheap, easy to find replacements, and have been used for cycle touring for many years. They are easy to install and easy to maintain although the pads wear significantly faster than disk brakes. However if your wheel becomes un-true (i.e. it doesn’t rotate straight, as is slightly more common with heavier laden touring bikes) then these brakes will almost always have to be disconnected otherwise they would risk rubbing on the rim as the wheel rotates. This happened to my friend Tom whilst halfway around Europe and he finished the last 1000 kilometres without a front brake. He managed this fine (although it probably would have been easier to find a bike shop to re-true his wheel) and this shows that it is possible although your braking ability will be significantly reduced.
Disk brakes on the other hand are slightly more expensive than rim brakes but offer superior braking performance in all conditions, don’t damage your rims, and allow effective braking if your wheel isn’t fully true. This is because the braking surface is attached to the hub of the wheel and therefore if the rim becomes untrue the braking surface will not be affected and thus braking can still occur at maximum efficiency. Due to the braking surface not being on the rim this means that the rims don’t get worn away under braking and therefore your wheels should also last longer. In addition to this, the main benefit for the majority of riders is the enhanced braking power and braking manipulation that disk brakes offer to the rider. This is particularly relevant for cycle tourists as the additional power can be useful in stopping a heavily laden touring bike. It is for this reason that I opted for disk brakes on my touring bike for my Alaska to Mexico cycle. However if you prefer the cheaper and simpler option of rim brakes then you will not be alone as I believe the majority of cycle tourists opt for rim brakes.
There are many components to wheels that each deserve a mention and a thought when considering buying a new touring bike, predominantly these cover the wheel size, hub, and tyres. I will highlight options for each of these parts including my opinions on the relative pro’s and con’s for each.
Your choice of wheel size will largely be dictated by your choice of frame and bike. The main decision you will face is 700c versus mountain bike wheels. I would advise making this choice by considering the type of tracks you will do most of your riding on (e.g. off-road or on-road), your riding style (e.g. relaxed or racer), and how much comfort you want whilst riding. 700c wheels are the staple for all adult road bikes and as such there is a multitude of choice available. They are slightly larger and narrower than mountain bike tyres and therefore offer less rolling resistance, ideal for road riding. However many touring rims will also accommodate very wide tyres, offering the best of both worlds (the ability to ride off-road and also minimal resistance on-road).
Mountain bike wheels, by their very nature, are suited for off-road excursions. So if you are headed off into the wilderness then these will obviously be the choice for you. They are generally heavier but this heaviness adds extra rigidity and toughness when compared to 700c wheels. Therefore if you want wheels that will take a battering and not need as much TLC then these are the choice for you. As they generally take wider tyres they aren’t superbly suited to road cycling with a large amount of rolling resistance. However if speed doesn’t matter and you enjoy going a bit slower and more comfortably then mountain bike wheels may be the best choice for you.
Linked in with your choice of wheels is your choice of tyres. There are a wide array out there for both types of wheel from narrower slick ones for mountain bike wheels to wider chunkier ones for road wheels, and everything in between. To address this issue you must think about the terrain you will predominantly be cycling on. Once this has narrowed down your selection you must then think about the weight of the tyre. Heavier tyres, like the marathon plus, are very tough to install and do pack some hefty weight compared against lighter race tyres. However they offer unparalleled puncture resistance. So whilst you may be a fraction slower with thicker tyres you will probably have to stop for punctures less often. In fact I have never had a puncture using my marathon plus tyre. On my previous cycle tour around Europe I opted for just one marathon plus tyre on my rear wheel, as that was where all the weight was and I had a lighter tyre on my front wheel. This worked really well for my touring set up, it wasn’t overly heavy but offered the necessary puncture resistance. However on my Alaska to Mexico cycle I will have more weight over the front of the bike and therefore have marathon tyres front and back. I will also be cycling on some gravel roads and therefore have opted for wider 35c tyres to give me some extra grip and comfort over rougher terrain.
It is likely that you will get wheels with your bike or if you buy wheels then they will already come with hubs and therefore buying new hubs may seem a tad excessive. However if you swap out your normal hubs and replace them with dynamo hubs then you can actually harness some of the power you are generating. Many hubs on the market now are incredibly efficient and in our technological age offer a lifeline to long distance cyclists wanting to charge up gadgets on the road. There are a huge amount available on the market, and I will do a follow up post on my eventual selection of hub and it’s performance (the shutter precision PD-8). However this is definitely something to consider if you are going on a long journey, or even just a shorter commute to work. Although they seem expensive it is green energy making you electrically self-sufficient, an invaluable piece of equipment for any long cycle tour if you ask me.
Where to carry your equipment is an important question when going cycle touring or selecting a new cycle touring bicycle. Bike-packing (attaching bags to your bike without panniers or trailer e.g. frame bag, handlebar bag, seatpost bag) is an option for anyone wishing to travel a bit lighter no matter what bike they are cycling. If you are less of a minimalist then you essentially have options between panniers or a trailer.
Panniers are great, they are widely available and don’t have to cost an arm and a leg (although if you want them to then you can get some very expensive ones). They are incredibly versatile and used by cyclists all over the world for transporting items whilst cycling. If you are just going on a shorter cycle tour then you can just equip yourself with rear panniers (provided you have the correct mounts on your frame) whereas if you are travelling with more gear for a longer time you can equip yourself with front panniers as well (again if your forks have the correct eyelets). Most are easy to carry and store when off the bike, so if you spend a few days in a hotel room you can easily transport all of your kit up to the room. Furthermore they can easily be stored in the bottom of a wardrobe at home when not in use. However one drawback is that, depending on how much you pack, they add a significant amount of weight to your bike, increasing your risk of getting a puncture, and making those slogs up hills slightly harder. However you will get that no matter how you are carrying extra weight.
Trailers are easily attached to a wide variety of bikes and are commonly used in many cities across the world for the transportation of goods. Therefore they are ideal for cycle tourists wanting to transport a lot of equipment without wanting to compromise the weight of their bike or if their bike is unable to take panniers. You can even get what I would call the ultimate trailer for a bicycle, a bicycle caravan, though that would certainly be tough getting up steeper hills. They obviously are a bit harder to store in the long term when off the bicycle. However they offer a valid alternative to panniers that require consideration, especially if you are favouring more off-road riding.
The advice I have been told over and over again is to ditch the saddle that come with your bike and invest in a new saddle. After all it is where you will be sitting for the majority of your day, so you want it to be comfy don’t you? Personally I really like the Prologo saddle that came with my Cannondale and therefore I am reluctant to shell out money for a new one. However you should be cautious when looking at reviews of saddles as everyone has a different shaped backside and therefore will suit a different style of saddle. Saying that I have only heard great reviews about Brooks saddles and therefore if I do eventually invest in a dedicated cycle touring saddle their B17 would definitely be on the list for ones for me to try out.
I have already written a semi-comprehensive post on this topic so see that for advice on pedals.
This post has merely scratched the surface as to the full spectrum of options available however I have tried to present a good overview of the main options available that you will commonly have to choose between when selecting a new bike. If you require more information about the options for a certain component comment below or send me an email and I will do my best to get a comprehensive reply or blog-post out as soon as possible.