It has taken me thirteen previous posts before I got round to writing this one. So far I’ve mainly described some of the rides I’ve been lucky enough to take through the wilds of Patagonia, the smoking volcanoes of the Atacama Desert or the bear country of the Great Divide. The bike itself has been almost incidental until now. My excuse? I just can’t seem to get excited about shiny parts, nor latest specs. I just like getting out riding.
In this month’s post though, I’ve decided to try and restore the balance and talk about what I look for in a touring bike. It also coincides with buying a brand new Rocky Mountain Vertex 930. Having battled for 20,000miles with my Claude Butler traditional tourer, this new purchase marks an end to my nine year mission as a follower of the One Bike Church. I came to the conclusion that not all bikes are made equally. I realise now that sometimes a different machine will get the job done better, and will prove more fun along the way.
At the risk of being a hypocrite and posting a slightly misleading title, I still believe that one-bike-fits-all touring will work for many cyclists. I’ve begun with a nod to that below, in the first two questions to ask yourself when searching for the perfect touring bike.
Have you got enough experience to know what you need?
To be brutally frank, if you’ve long dreamed of cycle touring, but been held back because you have “the wrong kind of bike” you are kidding yourself. A meteor storm of bicycle parts will not be enough to make you hit the road. Put simply, the perfect bike for a first overnight trip is the one you already own. Chuck everything in a rucksack, swing your leg over and just get out there.
Once you’ve done a few trips on a less than ideal bike, you are in a good position to know what needs changing.
How versatile can you make your existing bike?
The first and and only bike I owned as an adult (until a few weeks ago) is a classic long-wheel base Claud Butler steel touring bike. Think heavy cyclocross with a greater range of gears. I planned to do the majority of my riding on paved or gravel roads. The places I would travel would be remote and so I opted for strong and easily weldable steel. And whilst it might not be on the top of everyone’s priorities, the dark greyish-blue wouldn’t draw much attention when cycling through less developed countries.
For the first year or so, it seemed like a great decision. On paved roads, the 700C wheels zipped along. On long descents I got down on the drops and could ride it like a go-kart. All the power seemed to go into forward motion, with nothing lost to unnecessary suspension. To tackle gravel roads, I compromised, running the 35mm Schwalbe Extreme tyres. These were the maximum width I could fit through the narrow forks.
How do you know when you need a second bike?
Our relationship started getting rocky, once I wanted to tackle more singletrack terrain. Adding double reinforced rims gave me more leeway on rocky ground, and double taped handlebars somewhat dampened reverberation though the steel frame. The bicycle, I kidded myself, was a veritable Transformer, capable of tackling any terrain I threw at it.
Bikepacking style trips were now on my radar though, and I wanted to go faster, for longer through increasingly technical terrain. Snakebite punctures were common place, as I smashed the low density wheels into tree roots and rocks. The aggressive ride position constantly made me feel I would be buckarood over the handle bars on steep descents, and the high top tube offered little chance of escape and threatened to trap my legs if I did take a tumble.
Do your two different touring bikes cover the full range of terrain?
A particularly nasty wipeout finally knocked some sense into me: It was time to buy an appropriate bike. For the remoter expeditions I wanted to ride (more on that next month) I thought a rugged classic like the Surly Troll, or the Salsa Fargo would be up to the job. However what I really needed was an out-and-out mountain bike. I had the road touring covered. Any less of a leap and I would be limiting myself for the most technical tours. And when it wasn’t loaded, I could throw the MTB down the gnarliest terrain I might come across. All I needed to ensure was that it would come with a suitable range of gears for fully-loaded uphill grinding. Step in the Rocky Mountain Vertex 930.
Can the bike carry the kit you will need?
Of course you may already own a mountain bike, and be looking to buy a lighter speedier machine for road touring. Either way, you need to be sure that the bike can take the kit you plan to carry. I’m not going indepth into pannier and bikepacking bag choices in this post. But if you plan to use panniers and a rack, your road touring bike will need to have brazed-on eyelets. On the other end of the spectrum, if you plan to use a full-suspension bike with bikepacking bags it is worth considering that the rear shock absorber will eat considerably into the space for frame bags or water bottles.
As much as I wished it was true, there is of course no real perfect bike suitable for all bike tours. For many riders, a compromised and slightly cautious approach can mean that a single bike can open up a massive range of terrain. But if you really plan to ride fast on the roads and hard through the trees you would do well to buy two very different bikes that cover your wide range of needs.
Call for comment
- What changes have you made to your bike so it’s fit for purpose?
- Or are you an n+1 cycle tourist who can always justify a new bike?
Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and at his website matt-maynard.com.