Unless you're planning to go touring across deserts and unpaved mountain ranges, for your first tour you definately don't need a high end touring bike. In Europe, spare parts are never far away, and in my experience, bicycles are tougher than we give them credit for. It's all metal right? We are mere flesh and bone, and unless you are riding an old bike, or have a particularly hard bang, it's actually quite hard to break this stuff.
If you are planning on heading further afield, crossing deserts, and riding along unpaved roads in places where spares are hard to come by, then it is worth investing a little more for more reliability.
Here are the lessons I have learnt from the four bikes I have owned during my ten years of being an obsessed bicycle traveller.
my first touring bike.
When my friend and I decided to go on our first bike tour across France years ago, we were both pretty broke.
We were looking for the best bicycles we could find for a couple of hundred pounds each. Considering how the tour went, I did extremely well. I ended up with something similar to this --> (for sale on ebay UK at the time of writing for €250)
At the time I didn't know what to look for, but the bike I ended up with ticked a lot of important boxes for bicycle touring.
- It was newish - no rust, no old sluggish components, very little unnecessary resistance while pedaling..
-It had a comfortable upright seating position - it's very important not to be bent over too far forward, your neck and wrists will start to hurt after long days in the saddle.
-It had plenty of gears - great for hills, especially when loaded with camping gear.
Any comfortable city bike / trekking bike / touring bike that can take a rear-rack will do. Look for second hand bicycle that would have cost about €500-€600 new. You're bound to find something that has been look after, and isn't too old for between €200 and €300.
Make sure that the frame isn't too small! You need to be stretched far enough forward, or you can end up with back pains. I rode for a month on a bike that was too small for me, and it caused me grief for months afterwards.
One thing worth modifying if your are going to be cycling in the mountains, is the rear and/or front casette. It shouldn't cost you more than €70 to change your racing gears for climbing gears. You will want the largest chainring at the back to have 32-36 teeth, and the smallest chainring at the front to have 22-24 teeth. Your knees will thank you!
This advice does not apply to the nutters out there (of whome I have met a few) who start out with a massive tour. If your first journey will take you from Argentina to Peru, or Germany to India... if you are going to be travelling for months, in/to a country where spares are hard to find, on remote tracks that will give your bike a real hiding, then you're going to need something more like the bikes below.
The Surly Long Haul Trucker
By the time I was back from my first trip, I had caught the bug good and proper. I had never experienced anything like it. The combination of getting to know another country so intimately, camping every night, and getting fitter every day had me by the short and curlies. I was beginning to dream of longer tours, further afield. I wanted a proper touring-bike.
A little research taught me that a touring bike for extended journeys in remote places should have a steel frame. Steel is more flexible than aluminium, which makes it less likely to crack. This is important when you're putting the added pressure of heavy luggage on your frame. If it does crack, steel is also much easier to weld than aluminium, increasing the likliness of swift repair job.
I scoured the internet trying to find out which steel framed bikes were being used the most for long tours, and compared the prices of the most popular models. The most bang for your buck dedicated touring bike I could find, and also the most widely used, was the Surly Long Haul Trucker. It is the entry level world-traveller, cheaper than other dedicated steel framed touring bikes, because it's a factory built bike made in Taiwan. This shouldn't put you off, it's a very strong frame, and very reliable. I spent €1200 building mine, investing in strong wheels and racks, but otherwise using cheap components. It took me on a 10,000km journey from Germany to Turkey, and then from Uzbekistan to Japan. The only repair job I had to perform on that whole journey was to tighten a loose spoke.. once.
Of the roughly forty bicycle travellers who I met during that journey, about half of them were riding Long Haul Truckers.
The only thing I would have changed on my LHT if I could do it all again, would be to take the frame that fits 26" wheels instead of 28". Smaller tyres are more solid, they give you a lower center of gravity, making the bike more responsive, and it's easier to find fatter tyres for them, which make travelling off-road more comfotable.
Surly have since added bikes to their assortment with exactly this in mind, such as the ECR, the Ogre and the Troll. These are appealing because they are go anywhere bikes. They make the grade of versatile world expedition bike, whilst remaining cheaper, because they are built in a factory in Taiwan.
My surly was stolen in Barcelona, after I had finished my epic journey to Asia, and returned to Europe by plane. I wasn't too upset at the time because I'd done enough cycling for a while, but when the time came for the next epic journey, I had to find another bike.
The Rotor Komet
I had shot a bunch of films on my journey to Asia, and was tryng to use those to get us sponsorship for our planned journey from Argentina to Peru. After presenting my films at a bicycle expo in Berlin, I was approached by the owner of a small bicycle company who specialize in hand built expeditions bicycles. He declared himself willing to support our upcoming venture, and hey presto, we were suddenly owners of some fo the toughest bikes you can buy.
The Rotor Komet falls in to the cattegory of custom built touring bikes.. In this case a dirt-touring bike, which was exactly what I had been hoping for. They are built especially for touring on rough bumpy tracks, use 26" wheel, and will withstand whatever you throw at them.
Rotor's bikes have been used to cross the frozen Baikal Lake in Siberian winter (temperatures as low as -40°c), and in endurance races running the length of the African continent. We used them to cross the Bolivian Altiplano via the infamous Lagunas route, the hardest bicycle journey either of us have ever done, and they felt simply indestructible.
Had we had to buy our bikes with the components we chose, they would have cost €2300 each, but alot of that is atributable to the Rohloff Speedhub, which costs upwards of €600 and the SON Hub Dynamo which retails for about €270. If you were to use the same components I used for my Long Haul Trucker, the Rotor would only cost about €300 more than the Surly did. For the extra money you get a frame that is tailor made to fit your body, built in a small workshop, paying more attention to detail. The frames are built from better steel, making them feel more solid than the LHT even though they weigh slightly less.
There are many smaller bike-companies creating expedition machines that fall in to this category. A few that come to mind, having heard positive things about them, are Patria and Tout-Terrain in Germany, Thorn cycles and Roberts in the U.K. and Koga from the Netherlands.
Surly Karate Monkey
The epic and challenging stretches that we toured in South America made us realize that we prefer to tour in places where there is no asphalt, little traffic, incredible nature, and challenging riding. This has made us drift further and further towards bikepacking.
Bikepacking is a mixture of mountain-biking and touring. You basically leave three quarters of your luggage at home, which makes you able to push or carry your bike up hills. Luggage is carried in the frame of the bike, over the handlebars, on the fork, and behind the seat. This stops your bags from bouncing around on the bike, or getting caught on bushes, shrubs or rocks. The use of a light-weight, centralised luggage system makes you a lot more manouverable. You can actually do some proper mountain-biking along tracks that would otherwise only be traversible on foot or by horse.
Since returning from South America, Pia and I have both invested in bikepacking rigs, pictured above is my new Surly Karate Monkey. While it also has a steel frame, and connections for attaching racks, it is shares many characteristics with a mountain bike. Here are some of the features that set it apart from a touring-bike.
The frame has room for 3" wide tyres (as seen in the photo, which are known as + tyres). These are only filled to half the pressure of 2.0" touring tyre, making them bouncy. This gives some suspension, and has the characteristic of swallowing bumps like smaller rocks and tree roots. These tyres will also grip better in sand, a problem we had to deal with alot in Bolivia.
The top bar, which sits between your legs in front of the saddle, is angled downwards from the Handlebars, giving more clearance for you nutsack/vadge. This is important for cycling downhill along walking tracks. It allows you to walk the bike through tricky sections without having to get off. A touring bike is generally not built with this in mind. The top-bar that runs parallel to the ground can potentially tip you forward over the handlebars in a tricky situation on a steep downhill.
The rear wheel of the Karate Monkey is also significantly further forward than on a touring bike. You are almost sitting directly above the back wheel. This makes the bike much more responsive and manouverable when flying down a hill.
It can also run a suspension fork, which most touring bikes cannot.
Many of these bikes are appearing on the market now, 90% of them coming from the U.S. Popular models include the Advocate Hayduke and Seldom Seen, Marin Pine Mountain, Jamis Dragonslayer, Salsa Fargo, and here in Germany the Bombtrack Beyond+. Unfortunately a few of these aren't available in Europe.
There is a downside to bikepacking. Not being able to bring as much luggage means needing to resupply more often, and less room for spare-parts and tools. If something does go wrong, it is harder to find parts for a lot of these bikes. They use modern mountain biking components, which are much harder to source in less developed countres. For longer distance journeys I think something like the Rotor Komet is a better steed. We did not buy these bikes to replace our komets, but to compliment them. If we are going to spend a month traversing a Kyrgyzstani mountain range, we will take our bike-packing rigs. If we are going to spend 6 months crossing Australia, we'll probably take the Rotors.
Don't let waiting for the perfect bike stop you from going on your first tour! Start with something cheap and simple, but make sure it is comfortable, big enough, has climbing gears, and isn't too old. If you get the bug as bad as I did, then plan what bike you want to get based around what sort of riding you want to do. For a cross-continental bike-trip, It's pretty generally accepted that it's better to go for 26" wheels and tyres at least 2" thick. This is because you will be more prepared for the unexpected, but it also gives you the option of getting off the main road, eliminating traffic, and delving deeper in to nature, without costing you much energy when you are on the asphalt.
If you pick something versatile, then you will have the option of swapping between thinner and thicker tyres depending on the journey.