Load up and head for the hills. A touring bike gives you the freedom of self-contained travel under your own steam, carrying whatever you need, from a change of clothes to a full set of camping gear. It's a category that has become blurred in recent years as sportive bikes have met cyclocross bikes and birthed adventure bikes capable of filling the role of the classic touring bikes. Hearing the call of the open road? Let's look at your options.
Bikes for the long haul, touring bikes are stable when loaded up so you can pack gear for a weekend or more of independent back-roads riding.
Powerful brakes, upright riding position and tough wheels and frame make tourers good round-town bikes too.
Traditional British touring bikes and new-generation adventure bikes blur into each other; like many bike classifications, it's a spectrum not a bucket.
The best touring bikes will hold their own just fine on a Sunday club run too.
The classic touring bike is beefed up old-style road bike, tweaking for load-carrying stability. These bikes feature cantilever brakes for stopping power, massive gear ranges with very low ratios, long wheelbases for stability, mounts for pannier racks and mudguards, a more upright riding position and steady handling.
If you're used to close-coupled road bikes the feature of a touring bike you might notice first is the big gap between rear wheel and seat tube. That's a function of the bike's long chainstays which do two things. They allow panniers to be mounted further back for heel clearance while at the same time putting the weight over the tyre contact point so the back end doesn't wag.
When it comes to frame materials, steel is still real for touring bikes. Cycle tourists like its springy resilience, and expedition riders heading for less civilised spots like the way it can be repaired by any village mechanic with a welding torch.
But there are now aluminium-framed touring bikes that take advantage of the rigidity that comes from the over-sized tubing necessary to build in aluminium. We're not aware of any dedicated touring bikes in carbon fibre, but trips like Mike Hall's 2012 round the world record show it's more than reliable enough. Strap a set of Thule Pack 'n' Pedal racks on a carbon cyclo-cross or adventure bike and you'd have a pretty damn good tourer. Just make sure it has long chainstays.
Standard road bike frames are short on add-on features; but the best touring bikes can have lots. You'll find extras like a third set of water bottle bosses under the down tube; a peg for a full-length pump; fork bosses for a low-rider rack; fittings for dynamo wiring; and even a mount for spare spokes.
Where components on road bikes are chosen for low weight and aerodynamics, the vital criteria on touring bikes are strength and reliability. Wheels usually have at least 32 spokes, often 36 or even more, and be built on wide, beefy rims. You'll find 32mm tyres to cope with the loads, and many modern touring bikes will take even wider rubber.
For other components, touring bikes often borrow from mountain bikes. Triple chainsets give 27 and 30 gears, though it's not the number that matters but the range. A 28/36 low gear is not unusual, and the latest super-wide mountain bike sprocket cassettes offer the possibility of even lower gears.
Cantilever brakes are traditional, but discs are becoming more and more common for all the same reasons they took over on mountain bikes: greater stopping power and all-weather reliability. An extra advantage of discs for long-distance tourers is that they don't wear the rims, and a minor ding leaves the brake still working and the wheel turning.
Because the riding position is more upright than that of a race-style road bike, touring bikes tend to have wider, more supportive saddles. Cycletourists swear by Brooks leather saddles for their durability, comfort and ability to hold a saddle bag for extra luggage capacity.
Speaking of luggage, you'll need a rack to carry panniers, and the sturdier it is the better. The best racks are made from tubular steel or aluminium for light weight and rigidity; good rear racks have some sort of triangulated bracing to stop them from swaying from side to side.
Panniers carried on a low-rider front rack have far less effect on the bike's handling than bags at the top of the wheel. If you want to travel light, packing front panniers on a low-rider is an often-overlooked option. In the 1980s adventurer Nick Sanders rode round the world on a bike with just front panniers, albeit fairly large ones.
In the selection below we've homed in on bikes specifically billed as touring machines. But in reality you can tour on almost anything. Lots of riders like mountain bikes or hybrids for their more upright riding position. If you travel light you can strap enough gear to a road bike, sportive bike or cyclo-cross bike to get you from one hotel to another, or you can go with a BOB trailer or similar on any sort of bike, as long as you have the gears to tow it up hills.
ATR stands for Adventure, Tour, Race; this third iteration of the bike feels like it's come of age in terms of its adventure capability whilst keeping the comfort, road manners and reasonably light weight it's always had for covering distance at speed. It is an excellent frameset, around which you can build any number of different bikes.
The Tripster ATR V3 is, simply, a lovely thing to ride. It has the sort of unhurried calm that translates into distance at a reasonable speed. Mostly I've been riding the Tripster on 36mm Challenge Strada Bianca TLR tyres, which are big enough to cope with proper gravel roads – which we're lucky enough to have a bit of round here – while not giving too much away on the flat. Set up like that, with a Shimano GRX Di2 groupset and a flared bar, the Tripster feels like a bike that's at home on the road, but comfortable well beyond it too.
Spa Cycles' Wayfarer is an out-and-out touring bike with a quality frame and fork and a solid spec for an attractive price.
The Wayfarer almost got a bad review from tester Dave Atkinson who wrote "the bike delivered a chattery, jarring ride over anything less than good surfaces. There's no doubt that the nearly 15kg weight of the supplied build is one of the reasons it's a grind on the climbs, but even on the flat, where the weight counts for less, the Wayfarer was reluctant to maintain any pace. The best description I can offer for the ride is that it was like piloting a tandem when the stoker's trying to have an easy day."
And then he changed the tyres.
"The transformation was incredible. I had my stoker back! Now, when I put in some extra effort, the bike responded by going quicker! I found myself riding in the middle ring where I had been in the small ring, and the large where I'd been in the middle. Not only that, but the tooth-rattling, jarring ride over rough tracks was tamed.
"It's the most remarkable turnaround. The Wayfarer went from being a bike I couldn't wait to see the back of, to one that I'd certainly recommend for serious touring duties, though the overall weight means there are better places to look in Spa's range for more versatile all-rounders."
Nominally a gravel bike, Marin’s carbon fibre Headlands 1 is a bike with multiple personalities. You can ride it like a hooligan on twisty technical trails while bunny-hopping rocks and roots, cover huge distances in comfort on gravel tracks, or just potter along with everything but the kitchen sink strapped to the bike. It’s a true all-rounder.
On a ride laden with bags full of stuff, tester Stu Kerton found "The Headlands 1 stays very composed under load, letting me just sit there and just tap out the miles enjoying the scenery. Even as darkness fell and I got tired it behaved, and if I did make a mistake it was easily rectified without too much panic.
"For an epic journey across the wilderness, the Headlands should stand you in good stead. It’s a very comfortable and easy bike to ride for a long time, plus you know – should you want it or need it – you’ve got the handling and feedback to get you out of trouble."
They need to be robust and reliable, so the best touring bikes don't come cheap, but the Ridgeback Tour is very good value for money. Its aluminium frame has the obligatory rack and mudguard mounts, and there's even a pump peg on the left-hand seat stay so you can carry a proper pump without it getting in the way. With a triple chainset, rack, mudguards and cantilever brakes it's very much a classic traditional tourer.
Most touring bikes have 700C wheels, but for sheer robustness the original mountain bike 26-inch size is hard to beat. The smaller wheels are stronger and allow for fat tyres like the 47mm Schwalbe Marathon Reflexes fitted here.
The Reynolds 520 butted chromoly frame has fittings for a low-rider front rack, and a third bottle cage. There's even a pump peg behind the head tube.
In 2017, Ridgeback upgraded the brakes to disks and switched to a flat handlebar, making this very much a mountain bike-style tourer. Low-gear fans will be pleased to see a 36-tooth largest sprocket.
From Bristol builder Temple Cycles, the Classic Tour recalls a bike category that was common back in the 70s and 80s, but has almost vanished, the 'fast tourer'. These were bikes with lightweight frames and caliper brakes, intended as all-round road bikes for the Sunday club ride, evening training, riding to work and the odd weekend away. Without the beef for mega loads and months-long expeditions, fast tourers were still sprightly when unladen, which helped make them versatile.
Temple Cycles Tom Wood says the Classic Tour has 'fast tourer' roots, but "can also handle longer adventures. We've got quite a few customers currently summer touring across Europe, so it sits somewhere between the Dawes Galaxy and the Surly LHT on the list."
The Classic Tour comes with an eclectic mix of components including a triple chainset and a mix of Shimano Sora and Deore components that allows a 28/36 low gear.
This is the disc-braked version of Surly's beloved Long Haul Trucker, the bike that helped revive interest in touring bikes in the US. Surly didn't mess about in designing the Truckers as dedicated touring bikes. For example, the Disc Trucker has the longest chainstays of any bike here designed for standard 700C tyres — only the Trek 920's are longer. That's a sign of a bike whose main job is to carry stuff stably, with speed less of a priority.
The double-butted chromoly frame is hung with an eminently sensible, reliable selection of parts including an old-school triple chainset, TRP brakes and Shimano derailleurs.
You don't get racks and mudguards, but that means you can choose your own; the price is reasonable for a bike with this spec without them.
Old meets new with a twist of hub gearing here. The frame is made in England from Reynolds 531 and 631 tubing, but rather than the cantilever brakes and derailleur gears you might expect from a UK-made traditional touring bike, you find a combination of TRP Spyre cable discs and Shimano's eight-speed Alfine hub gear.
Italy's not a country you associate with touring bikes, but riders who have Cinelli's Hobo Bootleg fast tourers, made from rust-proofed Columbus Cromor steel tubing swear by them.
The Hobootleg will take 38mm tyres with mudguards and racks, though they're not supplied in this latest version. You do get a triple chainset though, with shifting from Campagnolo's rare Athena 11-speed triple gearing.
The bike brand of Somerset touring and tandem specialist SJS Cycles, Thorn is a highly-regarded maker of semi-custom tourers. The frames aren't made-to-measure, but you have a vast range of options in every aspect of the spec.
The Club Tour Mk4 has a Reynolds 725 heat-teated chromoly steel frame that's available in two top tube lengths for each of its four sizes and three fork options. Thorn's brochure is well worth printing out and digesting if you're thinking of buying any sort of touring bike — there a wealth of wisdom and experience there.
The Club Tour will take tyres up to 40mm and the Mk5 is also compatible with 650B wheels. It's available with cantilevers or disc brakes or even one of each.
Trek's first model was the steel-framed 520 touring bike, the descendant of which is still available. The 920 is as far from that style of bike as it's possible to get and still call it a touring bike.
This is a bike intended to take you anywhere it's feasible to ride a laden bike, with fat, knobby 2.0in 29er mountain bike tyres, a low-ratio double chainset, hydraulic disc brakes and SRAM mountain bike derailleurs with SRAM's S700 brake/shift levers.
You also get Bontrager tubular aluminium racks, but unlike almost every other bike here it doesn't come with mudguards. Trek obviously sees you taking off on muddy trails where guards might just clog up, but there's room for guards if you're sticking to dirt roads and less gloopy trails.
The top model in Genesis's touring range — which starts with the £1.200 Tour de Fer 10 — this is a fully-equipped, thoroughly modern touring bike. The frame is made from heat-treated Reynolds 725 chromoly tubing, and it's fully detailed: rack and mudguard mounts, obviously, plus a third water bottle, carriers for spare spokes and even a pump peg behind the head tube.
Every one of those extra braze-ons comes equipped, and there's a Busch and Müller lighting set, powered by an SP PD-8 hub dynamo. It's a heck of a package.
Simon Stanforth was inspired to start a company specialising in expedition touring bikes by Richard and Nicholas Crane's 1985 bicycle ascent of Kilimanjaro. Designed for "touring at pace", the Conway is Stanforth's collaboration with adventurer Sean Conway. This is the bike Conway rode to set a record for the fastest crossing of Europe: 3,980 miles from Cabo da Roca in Portugal to Ufa, Russia in 24 days, 18 hours and 39 minutes.
The Conway is fillet-brazed from Reynolds 853 tubing, uses a mixture of Shimano 105 and Ultegra in the transmission and TRP SPyre disc brakes, and a host of options are available to customise it to your needs.
The great advantage of a tandem for touring is that two riders can travel together without any problems arising from one being faster or slower than the other. Based on the same frame as the Velocity Sport we tested in early 2018, the Velocity Tour gets a full suite of touring gear, including wide-range gearing (you simply cannot have too low a bottom gear on a tandem), top-quality Tubus racks and Brooks leather saddles.
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John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.