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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

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).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)

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

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

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

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

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 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

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.

17 comments

Avatar
Topcat [39 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

Touring bikes are great. I had avoided getting one as It was very unapealing over a fast touring "audax" or cross bike. However a long tour and advice from a friend swayed me to a bike more 'up to the job'

I built up a Surly Long Haul Trucker from a frame and haven't looked back. It's done loads of commuting, a long tour through France, Italy & Austria and many off road tracks. It comes out whenever I just want to go for a bike road, or have to take something that would be a pain in a rucksack. 

I think that anyone considering a hybrid should really be steered to a touring bike. They really are a do everything bike and with good touring tyres like Vittoria Voyager Hypers can have a rolling resistance not far off a road bike.

Avatar
stenmeister [338 posts] 11 months ago
6 likes

The other week you said I should get a mountain bike! I'm now at n+2 

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Winders [5 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Why not get a touring MTB like a Surly Troll or Ogre then? Back to n+1 now.

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dougie_c [33 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Good article. My only disagreement is over its promotion of front racks and panniers. They're best avoided, though if you're planning a tour with family, I guess you'll have to accept the additional burden. 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.

How to keep your gear down to two rear panniers, a rackbag, and a wee barbag is a separate article, but it can be done.

Avatar
Rod Marton [83 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
dougie_c wrote:

 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.

Depends how extreme a hill you are going up. I can think of a few where I've had to be right over the handlebars to keep the front wheel down. Actually the bigger problem is downhill, where the bike can shimmy if there is too little weight at the front.

I've come across lots of opinions on how to load your bike, from front panniers only to everything on the rear, and I think it depends really on bike geometry and personal preference. Personally I would only use front panniers for expedition touring, where you need the extra space, but I would always have a barbag to move some weight to the front.

Avatar
cyclisto [183 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
Topcat wrote:

I think that anyone considering a hybrid should really be steered to a touring bike. They really are a do everything bike and with good touring tyres like Vittoria Voyager Hypers can have a rolling resistance not far off a road bike.

 

Totally agree! I wished there were as many tourer options as there are for hybrids. A alu hybrid with drop bars, mini V-brakes, slick tires and a simple 3X8 drivetrain is what most people really need to move around in towns, comfortly and fast. Why are there so few options??

Avatar
Tompotblenny [4 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

I have an old Specialized Tricross Sport with triple chainset and upgraded TRP brakes. Whilst slightly heavy, it's done tours of England and Ireland fully loaded through to local CX and canal side bimbles. Best £350 I have ever spent on a bike and it's fun whatever you do with it. And the TRP v brakes are excellent and knock the spots off the TRP disc brakes on my CX machine. If I had to keep just one bike this would be it!

Avatar
GeordieByker [1 post] 11 months ago
1 like

I have a trek 7.4 tourer, and my wife a Claud Buttler Explorer 400, we are just about to set off on our second 3 week cycle camping trip to Europe for her 60th birthday. Best holiday experience ever.

Avatar
Dantenspeed [7 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Going to get some in for review then? How about this beast from Trek:

www.trekbikes.com/gb/en_GB/bikes/road-bikes/adventure-touring-bikes/920/920-disc/p/1432999-2016

Avatar
unconstituted [2355 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
Dantenspeed wrote:

Going to get some in for review then? How about this beast from Trek:

www.trekbikes.com/gb/en_GB/bikes/road-bikes/adventure-touring-bikes/920/920-disc/p/1432999-2016

 

Love that Trek. Trek is one of my least favourite bike brands, but that bike is smashing. Either the Trek or a Cinelli HoBootleg. Happy with either!

 

http://www.wheelies.co.uk/p75880/Cinelli-HoBootleg-2016-Touring-Bike.asp...

Avatar
RMurphy195 [78 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

The biggest issue with touring bikes is buying one - or at least, being able to see and try examples before you buy.

I use mine all the time for all sorts of things - day rides, popping to the library, just tooling around,on roads, towpaths, cycle trails, the south down way - you name it, it'll go there. Well, almost anywhere! My current machine has disc brakes, so hopefully I won't have bulging rim syndrome again!

Avatar
pcristatus [16 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
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-bicycles/, 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."

I've never used front panniers, but had been considering it after reading the above.  Could you provide any more info on why you say they suck aerodynamically please?

Not arguing you are wrong, just looking for more info.   I note your subsequent point on front panniers"... and the heavier steering tires the upper body significantly. " also, thanks.

 

 

 

Avatar
vbvb [619 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
unconstituted wrote:
Dantenspeed wrote:

Going to get some in for review then? How about this beast from Trek:

www.trekbikes.com/gb/en_GB/bikes/road-bikes/adventure-touring-bikes/920/920-disc/p/1432999-2016

or a Cinelli HoBootleg.

Ha, yes, I agree with you two! I saw the 920 on the road the other week. Magnificent, and a lovely straight-lines front rack. The Cinneli hits some of the same buttons and has those really stylish cable outers. I need a bigger wallet / garage! They should make the Specialized Awol in some sort of muddy green shade too, I reckon.

 

Avatar
mylesrants [373 posts] 10 months ago
1 like

I bought a Specialized diverge  comp. at the start of the year and cant recommend it enough.

Put a 0 layback seatpost and longer stem so as I can interchange with my road bike with very little position change.

Lessons a road racer of thirty years learnt when heading touring.

1,Hydraulic discs are magic.

2,  34 inner ring is a joy.

3, If you go touring, bring half what you think you need, then half of that.

4, 28mm tyres are the future.

5,  3 carbon road bikes in the garage, the diverge gets most use.

 

Avatar
burtthebike [766 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes
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.

Avatar
mike the bike [887 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes
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.

Avatar
AndrewDeKerf [10 posts] 10 months ago
0 likes
cyclisto wrote:
Topcat wrote:

I think that anyone considering a hybrid should really be steered to a touring bike. They really are a do everything bike and with good touring tyres like Vittoria Voyager Hypers can have a rolling resistance not far off a road bike.

 

Totally agree! I wished there were as many tourer options as there are for hybrids. A alu hybrid with drop bars, mini V-brakes, slick tires and a simple 3X8 drivetrain is what most people really need to move around in towns, comfortly and fast. Why are there so few options??

 

My wife has a Specialized Vita hybrid we bought 2nd hand a few years ago for £200. It has a 3x8 drivetrain, mini V-brakes, rack mounts, clearance for wide tyres and guards, Sugino cranks and MKS pedals, and a riser bar so you can get the bars up nice and high (not possible with modern obsession with cutting the steerer on most new bikes).

We have toured in France and done some long day rides with it. It is so easy to work on, and there's not much you couldn't do on it. Makes me feel silly for spending so much money on my 'niche' steel framed bikes whenever I walk past it in the garage.