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Hit the road on the most versatile bike type around

They’re a category that hasn’t had much love in the last few years, but touring bikes might be the most versatile machines around. Here’s why your next bike should be a touring bike.

Imagine taking off into the hills for days at a time — or longer — on the same bike that carries you comfortably for a Sunday ride in the hills, and gets you to work every day. That’s the appeal of touring bikes. Aside from situations that require pure speed, a touring bike will do almost everything you can imagine wanting to do on a bike.

Four things touring bikes are great for

Touring

Well, yes, that’s obvious, the clue’s in the name. Nevertheless, it bears saying that if you want to ride day after day carrying your gear and maybe even camping overnight, a touring bike is the traditional and arguably best bike for the job.

‘Arguably’ because the light-and-fast bikepacking approach eschews racks and panniers, instead strapping specially-made bags directly to the frame, handlebar and saddle. If you’re going down that route, then you probably want something lighter and faster, and you probably already know that.

For traditional touring, with a decent number of home comforts along for the ride like a change of clothes for the evening pub visit or a tent and other camping gear, a classic touring bike is the way to go.

A touring bike’s handling is designed to work with a load. You can bodge a rack and panniers on to a race bike, but you’ll almost certainly badly degrade the handling because the panniers will hang so far behind the rear wheel axle that they’ll make the frame wag under load. A touring bike’s long back end reduces this.

Commuting

Bike commuting (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Dave Atkinson:Flickr) 01

You can commute on more or less anything, but the things that make touring bikes stand out are that they come with mudguards and a rack, or at least the necessary mounts.

It rains at commuting times less often than you’d expect, but you can still get unpleasantly damp from wet roads even if it’s not actually raining. Mudguards help keep most of the water off you and can make the difference between a comfortable ride and getting sodden.

The best way to carry your stuff when commuting is a controversial subject, but if you don’t like a sweaty back, then panniers are the way to go. Not only will a touring bike likely come with a rack, but the chainstays will be long enough your heels won’t hit your panniers and they won’t make the whole bike waggle as badly if you give it some welly.

Shopping

Shopping (CC BY-SA 2.0 Richard Masoner).jpg

Shopping (CC BY-SA 2.0 Richard Masoner)

Want to carry a few days’ groceries home from Tesco? That’s going to be really uncomfortable in a rucksack. A cargo bike to carry it all may be cool, but it’s not going to fit in a tiny city flat. But a couple of large panniers will swallow a week’s groceries for one and a few days’ worth for a family. You might have to abandon the weekly mega-shop, but that opens up the chance to buy and eat more fresh fruit and veg. Win!

Day riding

A touring bike has a number of advantages over a race-style bike for a day’s pootling in the countryside, even though it’ll be slightly slower on the flat and up hills.

For starters there’s actually being able to sit up and enjoy that scenery you’re riding through, rather than Frooming along looking at your stem. Then there’s the comfort that comes from fatter tyres at lower pressure than a race bike’s, and the handy feature that a touring bike’s mudguards mean you won’t get utterly drenched and miserable if you get caught in a shower.

Throw on a pannier and you can carry stuff, which opens up the possibility of a picnic in a secluded spot instead of paying tourist-trap cafe prices for lunch.

Read more: 10 of the best touring bikes — your options for taking off into the beyond

What’s a touring bike?

So what are the details that give a touring bike its characteristics and versatility? Let’s take a look.

Load-carrying ability

Fully loaded touring bike (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Michael Rosenstein:Flickr).jpg

Fully loaded touring bike (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Michael Rosenstein:Flickr)

Many features of touring bikes serve the objective of being able to carry lots of stuff without too much fuss. That means you should expect to find at least a rear rack as standard on any touring bike, and preferably a front rack too.

The best place for a front rack is next to the wheel hub. Low rider racks have the least effect on the bike’s handling and spreading your luggage between the front and rear of the bike stops the front wheel from going light on climbs.

>>Read more: Your guide to racks and panniers — all your bike luggage possibilities from low riders to convertible backpacks

Riding position

Sabbath Silk Route - riding 4

Touring bikes usually put you in a more upright position than most road bikes, as touring is more about looking round, enjoying the scenery and smelling the flowers than covering ground at great speed. That’s great for town riding too. Being able to sit up but still have your hands near the brakes means you can see that driver doing something stupid and react in time to save your bacon.

Because you’re sitting more upright on a touring bike, you might find you need a wider saddle because you’ll have more weight on your bum. That’s one reason why Brooks leather saddles are popular with tourists: they’re wide, as well as being top quality.

Frame design

Roux Etape 250 - full bike from rear.JPG

Touring frames can be made of any material, though carbon fibre is rare and steel is still prominent as a result of tradition and its ‘springy’ ride. Titanium is revered among well-heeled touring riders for its ride and durability. Inexpensive touring bikes tend to have aluminium frames, which have the rigidity that’s useful for load-carrying.

Whatever the material, the frame tubes will tend to be beefier than those on a racier bike, because durability and stiffness are more important than weight.

In terms of geometry, a touring bike frame has a shorter top tube for a more upright position, shallower head angle for steady handling and longer chainstays. That last detail moves the pannier rack away from the rider’s heels so there’s clearance for panniers without dangling them out the back of the bike where they can make the whole bike wag.

Touring bikes have plenty of attachment points for accessories. Mudguard and rack fittings are mandatory and you’ll often find extra water bottle bosses under the down tube where they can be used for an extra bottle or more load capacity.

 

Tyres

Cannondale Touring - fork cable route
Wide tyres for comfort and traction on poor road surfaces

The need for both load-carrying ability and a comfortable ride means touring bikes tyres are wide. The minimum you’ll usually find is 32mm, but the new generation of adventure touring bikes often goes as fat as 45mm for dirt-road capability.

The need for grip on poor-quality, loose road surfaces means you’ll usually find a relatively deep tread pattern on touring bike tyres. Puncture resistant belts in tyres are common too; manhandling a fully-loaded bike to fix a flat is a bit of a pain.

Brakes

Cannondale Touring - rear disc brake
Disc brakes provide reliable, powerful braking on modern touring bikes

You’ll almost always find either cantilever brakes or discs on a touring bike. Side-pull brakes are rare because they don’t have the necessary reach to provide space for fat tyres and mudguards.

Disc brakes are becoming more and more common as the options available to manufacturers expand. They’re particularly suitable for touring bikes because they separate braking from the rims, improving stopping power and rim durability.

Wheels

Forget weight; touring bike wheels need to be strong. High spoke counts are common 36 per wheel is traditional), as are wide rims. Many keen touring riders end up buying handbuilt wheels because off-the-peg options are limited or simply not up to the job.

The trend to wider rims of the last couple of years has improved the options for touring riders too, making wheels inherently stronger and stiffer.

Gears

Touring bike gears.jpg
Touring gears: a combination of mountain bke rear derailleur and hybrid chainset for a very wide gear range

Carrying loads up hills requires low, low gears. It’s common to find a low gear below 1:1 on a touring bike, and tourers are almost the last drop-bar bikes that still commonly use triple chainsets.

Touring bikes often borrow components from mountain bikes and hybrids to provide the gear range needed for a touring bike. You’ll find chainsets with 48/38/28 chainrings and cassettes as wide as 11-36.

Gearing is another area where touring riders love to tinker. Many chainsets will take inner rings as low as 24 or even 22 teeth. Some tourists don’t see the need for high gears, so go for a 44-tooth big ring or even a ‘super-compact’ double such as 42/24.

>>Read more: Beginner's guide to cycling luggage

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Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

43 comments

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janusz0 [343 posts] 6 months ago
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Oops, quadruple post!

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janusz0 [343 posts] 6 months ago
0 likes

Oops, quadruple post!

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janusz0 [343 posts] 6 months ago
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Oops, quadruple post:)

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janusz0 [343 posts] 6 months ago
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pcristatus wrote:
dougie_c wrote:

. Front panniers suck aerodynamically.

I was interested to read that, as I recently read this article https://janheine.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/aerodynamics-of-real-world-bic..., in which some students lucky enough to gain access to a sophisticated wind-tunnel reported this: "Perhaps more surprising to many, front bags were more aerodynamic than rear ones. A handlebar bag was more aerodynamic than a Carradice saddlebag that extended just slightly beyond the hips of the rider (see photo at the top of this post). Front panniers (on low-rider racks) were more aerodynamic than rear panniers."

Thanks very much for pointing me at that article.  I'm now contemplating buying the two Bicycle Quarterlies that it refers to.

I haven't ridden with front panniers for several decades, but I think about it a) when I'm trying to start on a really steep hill with a big load on the back and b) when I've just bought more food and water that I don't have reasonable space for.  I suspect that another bag in the airstream, that my feet and rear panniers are going to travel through, will only make a small difference.  Modest front panniers would let me use smaller rear panniers*.

Handlebar bags are the most convenient place to put things that you really need to hand: Camera, passport, wallet, 'phone, etc. but, if they're heavily laden, they induce wobbles on fast descents, so I'm prepared to keep the camera elsewhere.  Low, properly centred, front panniers don't seem to have the same problem.  Most people report that front panniers damp steering wobbles, at the expense of making it difficult to make sudden turns to avoid potholes, snakes, etc.  I'd like to find a 2 to 3 litre waterproof handlebar bag that fits a Clickfifx or similar mount.  

For day tours, I now usually abandon the side pocketed saddlebag in favour of a  smaller Carradice Cadet which is about the same width as my arse so not adding much to it's drag coefficient.  For canping tours, I'm wondering about carrying a tent in a frame bag rather than on the rear carrier.

Anyway, I'd like to see more measurement like this.  Maybe cargo bikes versus bicycles with trailers in the windtunnel?  MRI tissue damage assessment of varying Q factor?  <ducks>There is more to life than racing:) </ducks>

*I made the mistake of riding with Altura 46 litre Arran panniers into Icelandic "headgales" once.  Ooh, my knees!  Packed Arrans are as wide as they are long!  Cd ≈ 1.0

 

Avatar
Dingaling [89 posts] 6 months ago
0 likes

Thanks for the info.

janusZ0

Yes Rohloff does the job. I had a Rohloff in 2003 on a MTB and got fed up with the noise it made. Also, while in Italy in the mountains, the screws on the left side worked loose and,when I spotted the problem, the transmission oil was all over my back wheel, on the disc brake pads and half the screws had gone. I put the brake pads on a hot plate and boiled the oil off and managed to get the right size machine screws from a metal workshop but never really trusted it after that.

CXR94Di2

I guess the XTR Di2 is for flat bar and not drop bar or have I missed something? It finally dawned on me that my hands are more comfortable on my road bike drop bars than my tourer's wider flat bar. I have managed with both of course but I would go for the drop bars if I can operate a triple.

BehindTheBikesheds

The TA Carmina looks like a nice flexible solution. Certainly worth looking further. At the moment I have only found a Campag ISIS axle but it is 111mm and TA calls for 116mm.

I like the look of Middleburn because it uses Hollowtech II  but it seems unclear whether it is made for an 11sp. chain.

Once again, thanks for the input. I will keep working on it.

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CXR94Di2 [2585 posts] 6 months ago
0 likes
Dingaling wrote:

Thanks for the info.

janusZ0

Yes Rohloff does the job. I had a Rohloff in 2003 on a MTB and got fed up with the noise it made. Also, while in Italy in the mountains, the screws on the left side worked loose and,when I spotted the problem, the transmission oil was all over my back wheel, on the disc brake pads and half the screws had gone. I put the brake pads on a hot plate and boiled the oil off and managed to get the right size machine screws from a metal workshop but never really trusted it after that.

CXR94Di2

I guess guess the XTR Di2 is for flat bar and not drop bar or have I missed something? It finally dawned on me that my hands are more comfortable on my road bike drop bars than my tourer's wider flat bar. I have managed with both of course but I would go for the drop bars if I can operate a triple.

BehindTheBikesheds

The TA Carmina looks like a nice flexible solution. Certainly worth looking further. At the moment I have only found a Campag ISIS axle but it is 111mm and TA calls for 116mm.

I like the look of Middleburn because it uses Hollowtech II  but it seems unclear whether it is made for an 11sp. chain.

Once again, thanks for the input. I will keep working on it.

No, Shimano Di2  road shifters are compatible with both Mtb and road derailleurs.   The only combination you cannot have is, one road and one mtb derailleur.  Both must be mtb.   

 

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hawkinspeter [3599 posts] 6 months ago
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CXR94Di2 wrote:

No, Shimano Di2  road shifters are compatible with both Mtb and road derailleurs.   The only combination you cannot have is, one road and one mtb derailleur.  Both must be mtb.   

Also, the mtb gear display and ANT+/Bluetooth unit (SC-MT800) is compatible with road components.

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CXR94Di2 [2585 posts] 6 months ago
0 likes
hawkinspeter wrote:
CXR94Di2 wrote:

No, Shimano Di2  road shifters are compatible with both Mtb and road derailleurs.   The only combination you cannot have is, one road and one mtb derailleur.  Both must be mtb.   

Also, the mtb gear display and ANT+/Bluetooth unit (SC-MT800) is compatible with road components.

 

True, I have the SC- MT800 on my Tripster

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NickJP [9 posts] 5 months ago
2 likes

My favoured way of carrying the majority of a touring load is on a front lowrider rack, both when I'm touring on my own bike and when we're touring on the tandem. I find it has the least effect on the steering of the bike. As an example, here's our setup when touring Tasmania in the 1980s - this was our complete luggage for a three week lap of the island:

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Legs_Eleven_Wor... [661 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

I like the idea, but for example, who in Britain actually goes shopping using their bike as a means of transporting their purchases?    You're either going to get threatened and/or assaulted by a driver on your way there or back, or else your bike is going to get stolen outside the shops.  

Shithole Britain.

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janusz0 [343 posts] 2 months ago
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Legs_Eleven_Worcester wrote:

I like the idea, but for example, who in Britain actually goes shopping using their bike as a means of transporting their purchases?    You're either going to get threatened and/or assaulted by a driver on your way there or back, or else your bike is going to get stolen outside the shops.  

Shithole Britain.

Britain is far from a shithole, although it's not the harmonious and equitable society that I'd like.  There are thieves, but a chain through both frame, wheels and substantial street furniture will divert them to an easier target, like an unlocked car.

I see others like me, with cycles and panniers or trailers shopping at local markets and shops.  About 10 years ago, the local Waitrose loaned out trailers and I see that the nearet Homebase has a cargo trike that you can borrow.  (What happened Waitrose?)

I shop with panniers and I suspect that there'll be a few others here that agree that bicycle shopping is the way to go.  For big volume shops, like a year's supply of bog rolls, or heavy, like a sack of cement, I'll hitch up the trailer*. 

In an ideal world, my N+1 may be a (pedelec?) long john.

*My Burley cargo trailer came with a mount that clamps into most rear triangles, although I prefer the mount that clamps on the end of the rear axle.  (It's been in use for nearly 24 years.)

Cars can be useful for transporting bicycles long distances.

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DutchFlyer [4 posts] 2 months ago
2 likes
mike the bike wrote:
burtthebike wrote:
dougie_c wrote:

Good article. My only disagreement is over its promotion of front racks and panniers.

Front panniers suck aerodynamically, and the heavier steering tires the upper body significantly. There's no need to weight the front of the bike to keep the front wheel on the ground going uphill, even if you're fully loaded at the back.

Having ridden many thousands of miles with front low riders, I have to disagree.  If anything, they improve stability, and I've never had any suggestion of getting tired arms from heavy steering.  If you are worried about aerodynamics, you wouldn't be riding a touring bike anyway.  Some of the climbs I've done have certainly benefitted from the extra weight on the front keeping it down.

Having ridden fully laden bikes with all the weight on the rear wheel and bulging rear panniers, and comparing it to the same bike but with about 30% of the weight in low riders at the front, my overwhelming preference is for the latter.

 

Correct sir.  I've done some touring and the bike feels so much better for having the weight spread between the front and the rear.  As for low-riders giving me a tired upper body .... I'm not sure that Dougie has ever ridden a laden touring bike.

I've also been running my Condor Heritage with a low rider front rack (Tubus Tara) since reading Jan Heine's article and find the handling much improved with no discernable difference in aerodynamics than when I ran panniers on the back. And I also agree that bike handling on steep climbs is easier with the load distributed on the front.

Avatar
DanaColby85 [5 posts] 2 weeks ago
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Legs_Eleven_Worcester wrote:

I like the idea, but for example, who in Britain actually goes shopping using their bike as a means of transporting their purchases?    You're either going to get threatened and/or assaulted by a driver on your way there or back, or else your bike is going to get stolen outside the shops.  

Shithole Britain.

I live in York and do all my supermarket shopping by bike (my second-string tourer, an old Ridgeback), as do many others. It's fairly easy to get from my house by car-free cycleways virtually all the way to the large retail parks at Clifton Moor or Foss Islands. Two panniers easily take a week's shopping; one-off large purchases such as microwave ovens or barbecues go on my bike trailer. I'm far from the only person who does this. I find shopping by bike pleasant, convenient, easy and cheap. I've never had any safety or security problems in a dozen years here and frankly don't recognise your tag of 'shithole Britain', having toured extensively in perhaps forty or so countries round the world. Does that answer your question?

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