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This page last updated on: October 7, 2018
By David May
Which Bicycle for Touring?
The best bicycle for touring varies because of variations in: the type of touring; terrain; road or path surfaces; and availability of bicycle parts and repair.
Bicycles Provided by Bicycle Tours
Bicycle tours usually provides bicycles, or rent them at moderate prices. (The exception is tours targeted for avid road bikers.) Given the additional costs and difficulty of providing your own bicycle, riders on a commercial tour have a strong incentive to ride the bicycle the tour provides, perhaps with the addition of their own pedals or seat.
The tour companies provide a great variety of brands, but mostly they use hybrids or road bikes, fitted with only a basket or a rear trunk, that is, usually without fenders (mud guards). That is reasonable in areas where rain is infrequent, because the tour company transports baggage by van and transports riders and their bikes if there is heavy rain of long duration.
For self guided tours, commercial or self-organized, in regions where it may rain, most riders will want fenders. However, my reading of online forums on the topic of fenders indicates that, in areas where rain is not that likely, at least a quarter or a third of riders are willing to undergo the gauntlet of riding in the rain in order to ride a light-weight road bike or the bike that they have. After all, that is what Tour de France riders do! It isn't fun or edifying to ride in continuous heavy rain; so on a self-organized tour it may be possible to wait the rain out, or to change ones accommodations.
Using a Road Bike on a European Tour
Those who own light-weight road bicycles can use their bike to tour in Europe if (1) they are going to ride mainly on good quality roads; (2) they are not going to ride in the rain, or don't mind being sprayed; (3) they will have their baggage transported, or they will only travel with bicycling clothes and a few tools that can fit in a clamp-on rear rack trunk (or very small pannier) and a small handlebar bag.
Road bike owners should strongly consider changing to wider tires (if their bike permits), and perhaps more robust rims if they are going to carry even minimal baggage, or if they are going to ride on any back roads.
Some aluminium road bikes permit the fitting of narrow fenders in combination with a narrower tire width. Tours on such bicycles obviously must be limited to quality roads.
City Bikes used as Touring Bikes
There are three reasons to consider City Bikes—that is bikes with an heavy durable frame and an upright riding position (and a bike rack): (1) you already own a city bike and you aren't going far; (2) second if you are going on a tour in the Netherlands, which has flat but often has bumpy bicycle paths, where distances are short, and where virtually everybody rides city bicycles—often with only 3 or 7 gears; and (3) if you wish to rent a bicycle for a short tour, because almost every city or larger tourist town has city bicycles for rent.
The disadvantages of city bikes are: (1) They are more work to pedal, both because of weight and inefficient riding position for applying power. (2) They will be very difficult to pilot into stiff winds or at higher speeds, because of the additional wind resistance of the upright riding position. (3) They will be very difficult to ride up steeper inclines, because of heaver frames, lack of the lowest gears, and inefficient riding position. With these disadvantages, except for very powerful riders, it will be difficult to cover long distances riding a city bike.
Types of Touring and the bicycles they require
**Very Light Cycle Touring, roads only.
This has been discussed above. Many riders will use a road bike, perhaps with a clamp on rear rack. Others will use a hybrid.
**Light Touring on a Hybrid or Touring Bike with rear panniers, roads and bike paths.
This is the kind of bicycle touring I usually do in Europe, and I will discuss equipment selection below.
**Heavy Cycle Touring on roads and bike paths, with front racks, camping out.
The best bicycle for this kind of touring is also discussed below.
**Heavy Cycle Touring in areas with limited repair facilities and bike shops.
You will need a heavy steel frame and reliable components that can be repaired anywhere. Since I have never done this type of touring, or talked with those that have, I do not discuss the issues unique to this kind of tour.
Not discussed on this site.
What is the role of Bicycle Geometry for Cycle Touring?
Good question! I can find no authoritative answer. What I have noted is that the wheel base (axle to axle distance) is approximately the same for city bicycles, hybrid bicycles and touring bicycles (104 to 105.5 cm for a mid-sized frame, for example). Racing bikes of all types, of course, do have a shorter wheel bases. Since I first wrote this page, it seems that a discussion of bike seat position is moot. When I go through the on-line catalogue of the bike brands, all the bikes have the seat placed in about the same position, which is about one-third over the rear wheel. (Not having a space between the seat and the rear wheel saves material. Saving material saves money and makes for a lighter bicycle...which the market demands.
A partially upright position allows for a better view—which, after all is a principal reason for touring, and puts less strain on the neck over many hours. Since most tour riders will be riding in a somewhat upright position, a forward position for the seat and pedals would appear to more easily allow for such a position, and also balance the weight on the bike better (if no front panniers are used). In my experience, and from what I read on the Internet, too much weight in the rear can make a bicycle twitchy—that is, hard to keep pointed in the same direction, and hard to steer. O.K. So perhaps this doesn't matter if you are a racer, or a recreational rider without panniers, or even if you have panniers divided between the fron or rear. But it now is difficult to recommend a reasonably priced bicycle for carrying weight only in the rear.
On a touring bicycle, pannier weight should be divided between front and back, in a ratio between 60-40 and 40-60. If using a hybrid, most of the weight should be in the back. Experimentation will teach you the best distribution for your own bicycle and riding position.
Over the years I have developed some opinions on components, through experience and by listening to bicycle shop salespeople, both in the USA and abroad. I have often found the USA bicycle shop salespeople to be exceptionally knowledgable about bicycles and components, though not necessarily aware of the specific conditions you might encounter in your touring, nor the requirements of various types of touring in Europe.
Before adapting an existing bicycle (or buying a new one), you should think carefully about the type of touring you will be doing and the region in which you will be doing it. Of course your first bicycle tour might be in relatively flat and even roads, and if that tour works out well, you may graduate to more difficult terrain. So perhaps you may start out with an off-the-shelf bicycle and later adapt it. Or if you are going to do a more difficult tour, you should probably adapt your bicycle before you leave. You definitely need to know whether you are going to do "light touring", staying in lodgings and eating in restaurants, or "heavy touring", camping and cooking. Ask your bike shop about the durability of your bikes components, and upgrade them if necessary. (If you are interested in the mathematics of bicycle speed and power, click here.)
Gearing: The ideal gearing for a rider is in fact highly dependent upon his or her physical capacity, upon his or her bicycle's total loaded weight, upon its efficiency, upon its loaded aerodynamic qualities, upon the quality of the roads, and, above all, upon the steepness of the terrain to be covered. In general though, average riders will not want racing or road bike gearing for touring, and will require a triple crankset.
Most commercial guided tours provide bicycles with hybrid-touring (typically 48-38-28 front, 11-32 rear)—which is sufficiently easy for inexperienced cyclists not carrying their own baggage, except on mountainous tours—or even easier, mountain bike gearing (typically front 42-32-22, rear 11-34). Unless you know that you will be riding only in flat or lightly rolling countryside, or are having your baggage transported, I recommend mountain gearing, or close to it, and would swap out the front chain rings accordingly, and if necessary, the derailleurs.
Wheels,Tires and Tubes: It seems that most hybrids and touring bicycles are being delivered these days with 32mm width tires or larger. In the past I have on my trips ridden on 700 x 28c tires with a minimal flat tread which I thought to be the best balance between flat-resistance and efficiency on the smooth roads of Europe. (I usually walk my bike on dirt roads that have many pointed rocks, or on portions of roads or bike paths with cobblestones.) As I have been carrying about 30 pounds of baggage and have weighed 180 to 190 pounds, I have inflated my tires to their maximum recommended setting. I needed top quality tubes. (Be sure your bike pump can handle road bike pressures.)
Keep in mind that the tires chosen for Europe can usually be slightly narrower than those chosen for the USA, because throughout much of Western Europe, for whatever reason, road surfaces are better than in the USA. There are some bumpy, back roads with potholes, but not many. Most bicycle paths are smooth, which has a dual impact: the chance of pinch flats is less, and the ride is more comfortable even at high pressures. Neophyte bikers: for road biking, the best tire tread is no tread, i.e., a completely smooth tire. Knobby tires are for mountain bikes.
Recently I have been riding on wider tires, 32 or 35 c. They are more comfortable, have less chance of flats, and actually have lower rolling resistance. There disadvantages are that they have more inertia (important for racers who need quick starts, but not to users); that they have more wind resistance (only important if you plan to pedal at speeds over 15mph) and that they the have more weight – a consideration on bicycle tours over hilly terrain.
For a very knowledgable presentation about choosing appropriate tires, tubes and wheel sizes for bicycle touring, please read my loose translation (with permission) of a French bicycle builder's web site. For a definitive account of wheel and tire sizes, please see this site: sheldonbrown.com/tire-sizing.html
Spoke and Spoke Count, Rim Strength: Rims with 36 heavy duty 2mm (14 gauge) spokes are ideal, but rims with 32 medium weight spokes can suffice for light touring. Hub and rim technology keeps changing: The rims of today are far better than those of 20 years ago. Ask your bike shop if the rims and spokes of the bike you have, or are buying, are sufficiently strong.
Wheel size: The bigger the wheels, the smoother the ride. For trips outside of Europe, I have read that 26 inch wheels and tires are more easily available. Some bicycle manufacturers argue that using 26 inch wheels on smaller frame sizes improves the fit for smaller riders. Nevertheless, most touring bikes, hybrids and road bikes continue to have 700c wheels. They would be my first choice for medium to large bike frames.
Shifters:One reads and hears that bar-end shifters are best for touring bicycles, because they have less that can go wrong and are easier to repair. That is surely true for touring in the less-developed regions of the world. Personally, however, for the type of touring I do in Europe, I prefer to have the shifters located where they are immediately available. I don't wish to take my hands off the handlebars if I need to shift to a lower gear while climbing or riding in traffic, or coming to a stop.
Light and Bell: Consider also whether you want a headlight, a taillight and a bell (horn). In some countries a bell is obligatory (Germany, Austria ). In others use of a bell is highly unusual, and will scare people, but still is occasionally convenient. In Austria, a headlight and a taillight are mandatory; in Germany, a headlight and a tail light are mandatory for riding after dark. You could wait to buy these items locally, if and when you need them.
Pedals: Almost all serious riders use "clipless", i.e., snap-in pedals, that, once you master them, are in my opinion safer than flat pedals or cages, and most efficient.
Shoes: Shoes that you can easily walk in are less efficient than non-flexible shoes, but do you really want to spend all day in Europe in the saddle? I like to walk comfortably around towns and monuments. If you are doing a "very light" road bike tour without support, then you may not want to carry an extra pair of shoes, and flexible shoes can suffice for casual evening wear.
Seat: As for bicycle seats, a bike store can arrange for you to try different options, and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Fenders: It is the consensus of the bike stores I have talked with that quick mounting, detachable fenders do not work well on road or hybrid bicycles. I have had poor success with fenders attached with straps. Choose bolt on fenders. Most riders without van support would not go on a multi day tour in rainy regions without fenders, though some don't mind the spray. Bikes sold for touring and some hybrids have fender mounts.
Touring bicycles for light and heavy loads– hybrids and touring bicycles
I have used a hybrid from the 1990s myself on all of my European tours. These have been light touring, i.e., staying at hotels, b&b's or hostels, carrying only rear panniers with no more than 30 pounds of weight total. However, my bike is not an off the shelf hybrid: It has upgraded wheels and derailleurs and a mountain bike range of gears. Most commercial bicycle touring companies supply hybrids, but without fenders.
One major reason for using a hybrid is price. Touring bicycles often start for (list) about $1,150 and can easily cost over $1,500. By contrast, a hybrid with good reviews may cost half of that. However, the market keeps changing; most hybrids do not provide mounting lugs; and I can no longer offer any suggestions as to hybrid models that are suitable. Almost all have 26-36-48 chain rings combined with up to 32 teeth in the rear...so this is a maximum low gear of about 1.2 pedal turns to rear wheel turn, which I find too low for carrying baggage in hilly terrain (though it might not matter forfor a strong rider).
I have decided to limit my previous discussion of touring bicycle brands. Each year the specs change. For example,one brand, which would have required major upgrading last year, now would only require minor upgrading
I will suggest, though, consideration of the REI line, "Co-op Cycles" (ex-Novarra), particularly their ADV 1.1. Though this bicycle comes with a 34 tooth maximum rear gear, it can accommodate a 36 tooth gear, and with a front 26 this gives a ratio of almost 1.4. Typical mountain bike gearing would give about 1.45. Then there is the Trek 200, that come with fenders and a rear rack at a reasonable price, but I cannot find complete specs on line.
Also, at a higher price-point, it appears that Surly trekking bicycles have a larger distance between the seat and the rear wheel.
Buy in the United States or in Europe?
Generally Americans are better off buying their bicycles in America for two reason: most important, they will have time to shop slowly, have their bicycle modified, and to try it out; secondly, in general sales or VAT taxes are much lower in America.
Touring bicycles are available in Europe, including some US brands. In general bicycles bought in Europe will be more expensive for comparable quality, due to high cost structures and the VAT.
In France there is the Peugeot CT01, equipped with rear and front panniers, front and rear disk brakes, 27 speeds and Shimano LX "trekking" transmission parts. I cannot find full specs. Price is €999. It is not sold outside Europe.
In Britain, Dawes makes a full line of touring bicycles, some with drop handlebars and some with straight handle bars, with varying qualities of components. Thorn builds touring bikes to order, and has a very informative web site. Prices are astronomical.
In Germany and Austria, there are the Kettler and Ortler lines, both of which have a range of touring bicycles and hybrids, mostly of moderate quality and price.
Folding Bikes for Touring?
A number of makes of folding bicycles are available, often costing up to double the cost of a non-folding bicycle, for example the Rodriguez W2, the Ritchey, the Montague, the Dahon, the Bike Friday, or the Brompton. The advantage of these bikes is the often lower cost taking them on flights, and the convenience of transport in cars, trains and airplanes. This is particularly true of the ones with tiny wheels, that collapse in less than a minute. However, do you want to go on a bumpy cycle path or a multi-day trip on these tiny wheels? I have seen them on the road, and talked with their riders. In the judgement of these riders, they got the job done, but were slower and less stable and less comfortable than bigger wheeled bicycles.
The folding bikes with 26 inch or 700c wheels are road-worthy (and bike path worthy), but they must be disassembled to fit in a suitcase.
You can mount fenders or front and rear panniers on many folding bicycles, but then they will not fold into their suitcases.
What if you want to do a point to point trip with no easy way back to the starting point? It would not work out for you. (Well, you could pull the suitcase on a trailer behind your bicycle, perhaps loaded with your extra clothes, but this would be inconvenient and cumbersome, and require putting the trailer on the airplane at high expense or inconvenience.)
Given their advantages and disadvantages, folding bicycles seem best for fair-weather day trips and short loop trips: You would check into your hotel or hostel, friend's house or campground, leave the bicycle suitcase there, and take off by bike for the day unincumbered