Bike Touring World The Ultimate Resource for Bicycle Touring

What Kind of Bicycle is Best for Touring

What Kind of Bicycle is Best for Touring

A proper bicycle for touring

When I consider a bike I think of the three most important criteria that surround a successful touring bike.

For me these three criteria are:

  • Proper fit
  • Ability to handle the terrain
  • Carrying capacity

Proper fit

“Fit” is absolutely and without a doubt the key one in this list of important criteria. You are going to spend lots of time on a bike and how comfortable you are on this bike will go a long, long way towards how successful your tour is.

Rather then try to “make something work” spend the time upfront on finding a bike that fits you properly and allows you to ride without pain. There are many styles of bikes to choose from including traditional upright bikes and recumbents. Look at the pictures in the sections that follow this page to get an idea of what these bikes look like.

Don’t be afraid to get out there and look at a bunch of different bikes in local and near-local bike shops. If you see a bike that interests you then ask for permission to take it for a test ride.

Consider contacting local bicycle clubs to see if anyone locally has a bike of the type you are considering. You may not get to ride the bike but many people really don’t mind helping you out by showing off their bike!

People have ridden around the world using bikes of all kinds including unicycles, racing roadbikes, mountain bikes, purpose built touring bikes and various kinds of recumbents.

While all of these bikes were obviously capable of being ridden to the tours completion it is important to think of two other very important factors that come into play when you think of the bike.

One method to achieve proper fit that worked for me personally was to request a “Fit Kit” session at a local bicycle shop. For me the shop was To Wheels in London, Ontario. I arrived for my fit kit appointment and was measured for a number of things. When the test was complete I answered a few more questions and the result was a series of recommendations for how my bicycle should be setup including saddle and handlebar height just to name a few.

I encourage you to mention the following needs when having a fit kit session:

More upright position

Requirement for a more upright or “see the scenery” type position. This position causes you to be a little less aerodynamic but you have the advantage of being able to really look around and see the scenery. If you are using drop bars you can still get lower on those windy days when you need to avoid the wind.

It’s for a touring bicycle

This is for a touring bicycle where you will be going for long distances regularily and for multiple days. Emphasize that you need to feel very comfortable and not cramped up since the distance and time you spend on the bike one day is likely to also be the amount of time and distance you spend on the bike the next day.

Cycling shoes

Take your cycling shoes with you. This can make a real difference when you are measured for saddle height.

Testing float

If you use clipless pedals there is an additional test that you can take to measure the float setting that you should use for your pedals.

Wear your helmet

Wear your helmet when you try the sample measurements on a bike. The reason for this isn’t just safety since you will be getting used to new settings but also to allow you to see how much neck bending you have to do in order to look around on the bike.

Ability to handle the terrain

This refers to being able to safely and reasonably easily ride a bike over all of the terrain that a touring route entails. While a light weight racing bike might be excellent for unloaded riding on smooth, paved roads it would be a very poor choice for riding on technical singletrack in the deep, dark woods especially if that singletrack included roots, rocks, sand and mud. It would also very likely be a poor choice if you needed to carry 100 pounds of gear with you on the bike.

Carrying capacity

The bike’s ability to carry weight is also important especially for self-contained/fully loaded touring. Overloading a lightly built frame could lead to a dramatic adventure out on the road.

Conversely having to pack too lightly for fear of overloading the bike could easily lead to having to leave behind some essential comforts.

Usually recommendations for a touring bicycle include traditional touring bikes, lightly modified mountain bikes and some types of recumbents.

Traditional touring and mountain bikes can usually handle rough terrain and carry a significant load as well. Then again there have been many instances of light weight racing bicycles being used for long distance SAG wagon touring.

I will follow up with some additional information on the various types of bicycles and bicycle related equipment in the sections that follow.

Common considerations when choosing a bicycle for touring

All touring bikes seem to have several considerations in common. Before I discuss the specifics of each type of bike I would like to discuss these common considerations first.

Here they are:

  • Load carrying capacity
  • Mounting points for fenders and racks
  • Low gearing
  • Reliable components
  • Water bottle holder

The next few sections will discuss each of these items in more detail. Please remember that whatever bike you choose it’s important that it have a good fit! A great bike but a poor fit is very likely to lead to an awful tour!

Load carrying capacity

When you load up the bike with 50 - 100 pounds of weight and go for a ride around the block how well does it handle it?

I currently use a Trek 520 for my loaded touring bicycle. I actually feel like my bike rides better fully loaded then it does with no load at all. The frame is made with carrying a load in mind and I think that it shows in the ride.

If you do the test and find that the bike feels really shaky then perhaps it’s time to consider a different bike. Before you get too upset though you might consider towing a trailer behind your bike instead. A trailer introduces other issues that will be discussed in the trailer section but it is something to consider.

You might be considering just ignoring the shakes and jitters. Please keep in mind that any problems you notice now riding around at normal speeds will be even worse when your speed is either blazing fast like during a downhill or incredibly slow like you would experience during a steep climb.

If you aren’t sure then carefully do a bit more trial riding or consider getting a second opinion from some knowledgable cyclists. The last thing you want to do is experience a high speed shimmy while descending a mountain at 60+ km/hour!

Mounting points for fenders and racks

Unless you decide to use a trailer (and sometimes even then) you will need to have a place to put your gear.

Sometimes people start a tour using a backpack or something similar to carry the load. The vast majority of these people quickly change to saddlebags or trailers before a long distance trip has ended. While a backpack can certainly hold lots of stuff most people find them hot to wear on the back and uncomfortable.

This leaves you with the option of a trailer or racks and saddlebags. In order to use racks you have to be able to mount them on the bike. To do this there are usually items called braze-ons. Mounting a rack to these is generally quite easy to do.

Sometimes light racing bikes are used for lightly loaded or SAG touring and the cyclist wants a rack despite the lack of braze-ons. For light loads there are clips that you can get to allow you to mount a rack on these bikes. Usually the amount of weight that you can carry is greatly reduced from the amount that you would normally be allowed to carry with the same rack.

Another use for braze-ons is to mount front and rear fenders on your bike. Back when I was a kid I can remember always removing the fenders from any bike that came my way with them on. I used to think that they lacked a certain something.

Now that I’ve grown up I love fenders and I have them permanently mounted on all of my bikes. Why the change you ask?

Fenders protect the bike, the gear and I from spraying water. Most tours that I’ve been on have included at least one day with some rain. The great increase in comfort during those days far outweighs the slight weight gain especially when you consider that the fenders are also protecting your nice dry sleeping bag!

Low Gearing

When you load a bike with tons of cargo it becomes a bit harder to move it up hills. Even riding on flat terrain you will notice that it takes some extra effort to move the fully loaded bike at a reasonable pace over the ground.

Most bikes come with gearing designed for an unloaded and unencumbered bike. While there are numerous examples in the world of touring of people who have toured successfully there are also many who changed to lower gearing, suffered less and continued touring for many more years without gearing related injuries.

I haven’t yet heard of anyone regretting carrying lower gears even if they haven’t needed them on a tour but I most certainly have heard people wishing that they did have lower gearing.

If you have a choice when selecting a bike pick one with low gearing whenever possible. More details about this will be covered on the gearing section.

Reliable components

Few things can wreck a tour faster then having a critical part disintegrate in the middle of nowhere (Of course some people would argue that minor setbacks like a broken bike provide an extra bit of spice to the adventure of a bicycle tour).

While you don’t necessarily have to have the world’s most expensive bike, it is important that you have a bike with reliable and trustworthy parts.

Remember that people have used bikes in various states of readyness to do continent crossing journeys. The difference between a well equipment bike with reliable components and one that is a poorly maintained wreck might come down to the number of flat tires, broken spokes and other failures.

It’s your tour. Would you rather relax watching scenery and eating ice cream or fix your bike instead?

Water bottle holder

Water is one of the most important things that you need to have when touring. Running out of water while pedalling along can be an unhappy experience!

Although there are many ways to carry water on a bike, water bottle holders are one of the most common ways of doing so.

Many bikes tend to have two water bottle holders although some mountain bikes only have one and most touring bikes seem to have three.

Water can be carried other ways including using water bladders saddlebag pockets so there are work arounds. Still having the ability to carry water on the bike itself is a major plus.

Types of bikes used for touring

As you’ve seen in the last few sections there are numerous types of bicycles that have been used for successful touring.

This section will discuss each of the types of bikes typically used for touring and then the sections that follow will consist of actual case studies of different people’s bikes. Each of the bikes have successful tours behind them.

For the purposes of discussion I intend to focus on some of the common bicycle types that are used for fully loaded/self-contained bicycle touring. I have decided to focus on this type of touring because I believe that the requirements are more strict for this group then for the other types of touring especially when you consider the carrying capacity requirements needed by this group.

Upright/Diamond frame bicycles

Upright or diamond frame bicycles are the traditional type of bike that most people instantly think of when they hear the word bicycle. Examples of this type of bicycle include light weight racing bikes, mountain bikes and general purpose commuting bikes.

Many successful tours have been completed by these kind of bikes. When considering an upright bicycle for touring you usually want to consider the following in addition to the info contained on the common considerations section:

  • Long chainstays
  • Handlebars

The next few sections will discuss each of these areas.

Long chainstays:

The chainstays are the two pieces of tubing that run from the seat post to the rear axle of the bike. The term long chainstays is used to describe having more space between the seat tube and the chainstays.

This is important for bikes that are going to use a rear rack and saddlebags (also called panniers). Longer chainstays allow you to have more room between the back of your foot when it’s on the pedal and the front of your rear saddlebag. Few things are more irritating then striking the saddlebag with your foot each time the pedals turn! Overtime you would also wear a hole into the saddlebag.

There are workarounds to some degree. You can try to mount the saddlebags further back on the rack. Some racks even come with longer mounting hardware to make this easy to do. The downside is that the more weight you have behind the rear axle the more it affects bicycle handling especially climbing steep hills.

People with smaller feet apparently have less problems with this. (grin)

Handlebars:

Having a variety of hand positions is one very important consideration to make when trying to select your handlebars. After a period of time your hands can become restless, numb or even painful unless you have different places to put them.

It’s not just about having a different position but also about being able to change the angles of your hands as they approach the handlebars. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a problem that may affect cyclists. It is thought that hand position on the bike plays a large role in this.

Another thing to think about is your ability to see the world. You are on a bicycle tour after all and possibly you are hoping to see more then just the pavement in front of your face. One way to do this is to have your handlebars mounted higher up. A common guideline seems to be to aim for having the handlebars at the very least, level with the seat.

I would be neglectful if I didn’t mention the issue of aerodynamics. At some point you will experience a day with strong winds. In what seems to be an application of Murphy’s law your route takes you right into the wind!

In this situation it’s nice to have a set of handlebars that allows you to get down lower from time to time. While you might not want to stay down low the entire time it’s still nice to know that you have an option!

Many people use drop bars on their touring bikes for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

When considering an upright or diamond frame bicycle common choices seem to include converting a mountain bike or purchasing a touring bike.

Touring bikes

Touring bicycles can be purchased new or used. Some bicycles that often receive mention are the following:

  • Surly LHT
  • Fuji Touring
  • Trek 520
  • Cannondale T2000 or T800
  • Heron
  • Bruce Gordon
  • Jamis Aurora

This list is by no means complete. As time passes I will continue to update the list with links to other bicycles that should be considered.

Mountain bikes

In the past ten years mountain bikes have been the best selling type of bicycle in North America. Despite the fact that only a very low percentage of these bikes are actually used offroad it’s the perceived features of these bikes that made them such good sellers.

When sitting on the bike you have a more upright position so you can have a much better view of the road. The wider tires cushion against road shock and the frame is perceived as being much more capable of withstanding abuse.

With all these features it’s not surprising that people have considered using a mountain bike to tour.

Surprisingly the easiest bikes to convert for fully loaded touring seem to be the ones that were popular from about 1990 to 1995. These bikes had the upright position, the sturdy frame and the wide tires but few came with front suspension shocks. The problem with front suspension shocks is that you need specialized racks to be able to carry front saddlebags on this type of bike. An alternative is to replace the suspension fork with an non-suspended fork especially one with mid-fork braze-ons.

Many mountain bike tourers complain about how awkward the bike feels when loaded. I suspect that the biggest cause of this is the need to load everything on the rear rack of the bike when you don’t have the option to use front saddlebags. I experienced something similar during my first tour on my Trek 520. During that tour I did not have a front rack or front saddlebags yet so everything was loaded on the rear rack. Climbing hills was harder especially when the front wheel would lift off the ground from time to time on the steepest grades and the rear wheel certainly appeared to be carrying a lot of weight. From the descriptions this sounds like the same problem that a lot of mountain bike riders experience.

For those people who really like front racks and front suspension a company called Old Man Mountain make front racks that work with suspended forks.

Multi-rider bikes like tandems, triplets and quads

Another exciting way to tour as part of a group is to ride a multi-person bike like a tandem or triplet. These bikes still only have two wheels but instead of having only one rider, several riders are on the same bike at the same time.

These kind of bikes allow two or more people to work together on the same bike. This means that there’s never a concern about keeping up with each other (and hopefully never a pressing need to get some “space” - grin).

Of course having two people on the same bike means that to some degree you are more limited in the amount of gear that can be carried. Although larger saddlebags are available you still end up with room for only four saddlebags on the bike, a handlebar bag and perhaps a trunk. Some people overcome this to some degree by towing a trailer as well.

Tandems have a reputation for being fast rides as well as giving people a real chance to test the strength of their relationship (grin). Still from what I’ve heard many people find riding multi-person bikes to be a very rewarding experience that adds an entire new element to the touring experience.

One additional tip that I’ve heard is a strong suggestion to get some sort of a lesson about how to ride a tandem or other multi-person bike before setting off on your first tour.

Recumbents

Recumbents have been used for many successful tours. Some of the perceived benefits include a more comfortable ride, a seating position that allows you to really see the scenery, greater visibility on the roads, and a better ability to handle headwinds with increased speed.

The most common disadvantage that I’ve heard has to do with hill climbing abilities. Apparently many recumbents are considered to have more difficulty climbing hills then upright bikes. Some of this could be due to not being able to stand up and really put your weight on the pedals when the hill gets steep. Another consideration would be your ability to balance the bike at low speed.

So many possible positives and a few potential negatives make this an option that should carefully be considered. Be aware that unlike upright bikes there are a huge number of recumbent designs and change is constant for this type of bike. This means that if one recumbent really doesn’t work for you it’s probably a good idea to check out a few more designs before deciding against a recumbent completely.

Folding bicycles

One of the common concerns for tours that don’t leave from the front door of your home is how to get the bike and all of your gear to the starting point. One option is to use a folding bicycle for your tour.

A folding bicycle can be easily stored away in a standard sized box that airlines will accept as normal checked baggage. This means that not only are you saving on potential extra fees for carrying your bike on an airplane but you usually also have the comfort of knowing that your bike is being carried just like any other luggage with less worries about the special handling (or lack thereof) that an oversized box or bike bag might receive.

Some bicycles come with a handy case that serves two functions. One of these functions is to carry the bike when travelling. Once at your destination the case turns into a trailer capable of carrying your gear behind the bike.

Some people are skeptical about the usefulness of these bikes on long tours. As is true with every other type of bicycle listed on this page as well as some that are not, folding bikes have been successfully used to cross major countries and continents.

Trikes

A trike is a three wheeled bicycle. Many of the types used on tour are recumbents, either delta (two wheels at the back and a single wheel at the front) or tadpole (two wheels at the front and a single wheel at the back) type designs.

The addition of a third wheel is popularly believed to increase rolling resistance but in fact due to better weight distribution the rolling resistance of trikes is on par or better than two wheeled bicycles. Tire selection is critical though.

Another perceived disadvantage is the need to take up more space on the road and whilst it can lead to tense moments on narrow roads, the larger footprint can also provide better protection in busy traffic and the novelty value causes most road-users to give trikes more respect (and space) than upright bicycles.

Trikes have several advantages not least among them is the ability to install really low gearing on the bike. Since three wheels make balancing much easier it is possible to keep on pedalling with insanely low gears and eventually make your way up very steep hills.

Trikes have been used very successfully on long tours including a 317 day tour from North Carolina to Alaska and back again by Heidi Domeisen.

Touring Bicycle Case Studies

The sections that follow will consist of actual case studies of different people’s bikes. Each of the bikes have successful tours behind them.

While each section contains a wealth of tips and tricks you might also want to consider some of the commonalities present in each case study. As remarkable as each individual report is there is also a ton of benefit from focusing on the things that appear to be common to all of the reports. As an example consider the type of racks, successful saddlebag types, gearing recommendations, choice of tires and saddles etc.

The differences are important too. One rider may mention a little known nugget of information that can go a long way towards you having your own very successful touring experience!

MTB - Evolution of a Touring Bike

Converted MTB

Read Jim’s story here


Jim is referring to his “Following Custer’s trail” tour in this article. He actually completed that tour the following year.

Jim needed to modify the following things before he had a mountain bike that was as comfortable to ride as his touring bike.

  • Road tires
  • Fully adjustable stem
  • Kickstand

As you can see from Jim’s “Following Custer’s trail” packing list, he likes to pack light and as a consequence he found that two saddlebags, a handlebar bag and stuff on top of the rear rack worked well for him.

Depending on your tour’s location, expected facilities and your own personal comfort level you may need to carry more stuff. One of the easiest ways to do so is to add a front rack along with front saddlebags.

Jim’s bike does not have front suspension. It is a good example of an older style mountain bike that was in use prior to the mass introduction of front suspension. Most recent mountain bikes have front suspension.

While there are companies that make suspension friendly front racks (Old Man Mountain is an example) often these racks can seem somewhat expensive. An alternative approach is to replace your front suspension fork with a simple unsuspended fork. Apparently these can often be located at local bike shops although there are companies that make these too.

Another approach is to use a trailer to haul your gear with you.

MTB - Using a mountain bike as a touring bike

During my Round Lake Huron tour I discovered that most Cross Canada cyclists appeared to be using mountain bikes to tour. This was in sharp contrast with my experience the year before when going around Lake Erie. On that tour I met cyclists crossing the US and the vast majority of them were riding “touring” bikes.

Understandably I was curious about what it’s like to tour using a mountain bike instead of a bike like my Trek 520.

Hoogie from New Zealand has been kind enough to step up and provide some information and pictures on his experience converting a mountain bike for touring and then using that bike for some interesting adventures.

The last major category that I am curious about is Expedition touring. I think of this type of touring as the type where you ride a series of technical singletrack trails or trails like the Great Divide ride while using a mountain bike. Hopefully at some point someone will step up!

So without further ado I turn this section over to Hoogie…..


Why did I convert a mountain bike for touring?

In the past when touring on my Trek 520, I really wasn’t happy with the way it handled on gravel roads on the narrow 700C wheels. I found that it felt a bit skittery on gravel roads, defitniely not confidence inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, the Trek is a still a good bike, but not for me on gravel or dirt. I had toured with some guys who had rebuilt some older model mountain bikes and they seemed to have no problems in the gravel or dirt roads, plus they could go exploring in the forests each evening too. The Trek really limited me to on-road touring only.

I have also toured on my aluminum framed mountain bike with a BOBYak, but it was really designed for racing rather than touring and it did get a bit uncomfortable after a long time in the saddle, plus it has front shocks.

Older model mountain bikes have in general the advantage of being steel framed, relaxed geometery, longer wheelbase, longer chainstays and have rack mounting points on the dropouts, whereas modern mountain bikes have a tighter wheelbase and more aggressive geometery more designed for carving around trees and cross-country courses, plus they now all have front shocks and no rack eyelets. Another observation is that older bikes still have the 1” headsets, and the quills/stems can be raised up much higher than you can get with a modern 1 1/8” threadless headset.

There are a whole lot of arguments over steel vs aluminum, I won’t get into it here, but my preference is a steel frame for my touring bikes.

I hunted around for ages for an older model with large sized frame that I could use as a donor bike, then the plan was to strip it completely and rebuild it with a more modern groupset and new wheels. After months of searching I happened to look in the window of the second hand store across the road from work and spied a Giant Yukon with a 21.5” frame. I did some quick measurements and some bargaining and came out of the store with the bike for NZD$140.

The Giant appeared to have been used as a commuter for most of its life, and looked to have spent most of its time in a garage. Most of the dirt was general road grime with no rust evident on frame or components. It was perfect … 4130 Cro-Mo steel frame and fork, long chainstays to keep panniers clear of heels, long wheelbase for all day comfort and there were double rack eyelets on both front and rear dropouts as well. I did notice that the downtube has been swaged/flattened at the bottom bracket to increase stiffness in that area.

The componentry was fairly basic, being largely comprised of Acera-X and Alivio, but it all appeared to be in really good nick, just needing a darn good clean, some TLC (tender loving care) and a bit of a tune up … So over the winter months I cleaned down the bike, stripped off all the components and gave them a good clean and service, replaced and regreased the bearings and gradually put it all back together … I think all I added or what it cost me were some new bearings [headset and both hubs], replaced the BB (bottom bracket) with one that came from my racing bike, some new brake blocks, new chain, new tyres [michelin wildgripper city 26x1.5”], and added some racks.

After completing it, I was thinking I should be riding this bike as a commuter while I gradually built up my supply of new bits before rebuilding it completely.

I was really happy with the way it rode. Unladen, it was comfy and handled really well, so after a few months riding the bike as a commuter and long day-rides, I started thinking “I wonder if I could tour on this bike the way it is?”, or “do you really need to have expensive gear to go touring?” … maybe it was just the cheapskate in me?

So after another good checkover and service, I packed up the bike as it was and headed over to Austraila for a tour in 2003 … Starting off in Melbourne I headed off across to and down through the Grampians and along the Great Ocean Road back to Melbourne. I didn’t even change the rear tyre after a 100mm nail went through both sidewalls on a training ride just prior to heading away on tour. I completed the entire tour with the tyre boot still in the tyre! Mind you, I did forget about it.

I also figured that if the bike got stolen or ruined, then I really haven’t lost a great deal of money [when compared to my new XT equipped Thorn Nomad!] … it also meant I slept well at nights, not overly worried about the bike locked to the tree outside the tent.

Converted MTB 2

The bike performed flawlessly, only needing a minor tweak to correct a stretching [bedding in] gear cable. The headset seemed to be a little loose, but I retightened this when I came back home and this can be put down as my fault when rebuilding the bike after changing and greasing the headest bearings.

The Giant rides really nice and handles predictably when fully loaded. The frame also feels quite solid and didn’t feel like it was flexing while pedalling or even dialing down hills.

I did manage to run out of gears going fully loaded down a long hill with a strong tailwind at around 40mph, but all my other touring bikes would have done the same. I found the gearing to be perfectly adequate for my relaxed sedate style of touring, being a 21speed [3x7] with old fashioned gripshifters on the handlebars … I find I only use a few gears on tour and there were enough low gears for grinding up the few steep bits, so I don’t feel as if I was missing out by not having the full compliment of 27 gears.

I also found that there are way more tyre choices for 26” wheeled bikes and they are more widely available too.

I was able to tackle gravel roads in confidence and I could explore dirt tracks on my rest days [smooth tyres and racks allowing!]

It must be good, because I also used this bike to go on a short tour in Marlborough late 2003. Again, all I did was give it a basic service, pump up the tyres, load on the panniers and tent and then hit the road. and again, there were no problems with the bike at all.

All the new componentry that was meant to go on the Giant hasn’t gone to waste though … I have purchased a Thorn Nomad frame and built this up as an expedition tourer, however this Giant Yukon now resides at my accomodation where I work and still gets used regularly for dayrides and commuting … it has racked up many miles and hasn’t missed a beat.

Converted MTB 3

So, there you have it … I didn’t actually convert the bike to use for touring, I just found one that would be ideal for the purpose, added the extra bits you need [smooth tyres and racks]. I also proved you don’t need to spend a whole heap of money to enjoy touring, or even needing to purchase a dedicated touring bike.

Although I would recommend that parts be upgraded if you are going to be looking at an extended tour, but the basics do just fine when starting out. You just need to hunt around some garage/yard sales or the second hand bike section in bike stores for one in good condition and go from there…

Would I do the conversion again?

Ummm, well yes, I have done so already … twice!

I picked up a mid-late 80’s Specialised Stumpjumper and fixed it up for very little money, but it was a bit small for me so I gave it to my brother. And I helped a co-worker build up a suitable touring bike using another Specialised Stumpjumper frame as a base, and hunting around on internet auction websites for good quality second hand components or new stuff on special at online bike stores. Before we put on the components the frame was stripped and powder-coated in metallic silver with a clear coat, it looks better than new! Solid touring bikes built really really cheaply.

Hoogie

Hybrid - The evolution of a light touring bike (or bikes)

This case study was provide by Jerry and Jeanette. They have been rding bikes for many years although they did take a break for a while to recover from a knee injury. In addition to the bikes described in this page they also tour using a tandem.

Back in the saddle again

It had been a long time since I had ridden a bike, close to 20 years. I was a lot chunkier than I was then. I had stopped riding because of knee pain so when I finally got the urge to try riding again, I thought, “I going to look for a nice comfortable bike, not one that I’m going to try to go flat our on.” My rotund shape did not favor bending over so an upright riding position was favored. Even so, the bike had to be light and sporty and capable of doing some light touring. The, “hybrid” bike seemed like the exact match.

Hybrid bikes

A hybrid bike has straight handlebars, mountain bike style, a compact frame with a slanting rather than horizontal top tube, lightweight construction, and appears to look like a mountain bike but without the front suspension. It has lighter, narrower tires and lighter, narrower wheels. The bike represents the marriage of the traditional road bike and mountain bike and hopes to combine the best features of both.

Dealer modifications at delivery

Trek, Cannondale, and Specialized, as well as a host of other companies, all made hybrid bikes. I compared equipment and prices and settled on a Specialized Sirrus Expert. The bike had a carbon fork, straight, mountain bike style handlebars, and an aluminum frame. The dealer agreed to swap out the rear derailleur for a long cage derailleur and swap the 11-25, 8-speed cassette for one with a 30-tooth sprocket. The basic bike was ready to ride home

Bolt-ons

The addition of some SPD pedals, a Blackburn rear rack, Cateye Mity III computer, a discount store headlight and rear flasher, and an under the seat tool bag with a small tool kit completed the basic bike. The bike had a beautiful padded leather, Italian saddle but it was just too hard for extended riding. It was changed to a vinyl covered, padded Serfas gel seat. It was now comfortable to stay in the saddle for extended time periods..

A bike for a wife, or: More money is not always best

My wife was also interested in cycling. She wanted a bike as well and wanted something similar to mine. I had ordered mine before the bikes were in the stores and it was delivered as an advance model. When the models were actually released for 2002, we found that a less expensive model, the standard Sirrus, was actually better equipped for touring. We ordered that model for her. The bike had two 32 spoke wheels, mine had a 32 spoke rear wheel but had a 28 spoke radial front wheel. The standard bike had 700-37 tires, mine were 700-26. The standard bike came with a steel fork with rack braze-ons, I had a carbon fork, no braze-ons. Finally, the chain rings on the standard bike were mountain bike rings, topping out at 44 teeth, my big ring was 52. At purchase, the dealer swapped the rear derailleur for a long cage derailleur and the smaller cassette for one with a 30 tooth large sprocket. To finish out the bike, I bought some of the same bolt-ons that I had for my bike, including a bigger, softer Serfas seat. However, instead of a Blackburn rack, we bought a Trek. It appeared to be of about the same quality. And instead of a Mity III cyclo-computer, we bolted on a Nashbar wireless.

Trunks, panniers and handlebar bags

The next consideration was storage for all our stuff while on tour. We’d done the camping thing for many years and had no desire to extend that hobby to bikes. The idea of setting up a camp after a long day’s ride, possibly hot and sweaty, and a nights rest with no chance of a shower before climbing into a cold sleeping bag inside a tiny tent did nothing for us. That attitude made things a lot easier. We’d only have to haul our clothes, personal items and a few maps.

The lighter load meant that we could get by with handlebar bags, small rear panniers and trunks. I had already ordered a trunk for my bike from Nashbar. We found another, nicer one for the other bike at REI. Jandd mini-mountain panniers seemed to be exactly the size necessary for the rear panniers. They are about ¾ the size of full sized panniers and have only two pockets per bag. They have an expandable zipper at the bottom should some extra space be necessary while on tour. Once assembled, we hung them on the bikes and found, (hallelujah!) that they fit and that our heels did not hit them as we pedaled.

The final consideration was the handlebar bags. We wanted something that would hold lots but didn’t have a fancy fastening system. We bought some large canvas cooler bags and using carabineer hooks, were able to hang them on the brake levers. We were ready to go touring.

Four thousand touring miles and ten thousand road miles later

Since our bikes were equipped for touring we’ve taken two European tours of a month each and two U.S. tours of a week each. In addition, we’ve put another six thousand miles in just riding locally. The road is a good teacher. Some things on the bikes are the same as when we started. Some have been changed, sometimes because things have broken, but mostly because of comfort or convenience.

Broken things

The first thing to quit was the wireless cyclo-computer on my wife’s bike. It packed up at the first rain. It was replaced with a Raleigh wired unit, a tried and true if not so sophisticated tool. The Cateye Mity III on my bike still works fine. I’ve purchased 5 additional Mity III’s for other bikes. All are working.

The Blackburn rack broke after about 500 miles. The welds where the struts attach to the drop-outs gave way on one side. The rack was replaced with a sturdier one, which in turn was replaced with another even sturdier Ascent Horizon rack when the second broke in a similar fashion to the first.

Wheels

Almost every touring guide states that 36 spoke wheels are a must. My wife’s bike has 32 spokes per wheel. The wheels are still perfectly true. My wheels do not have an equal history. I weigh in at 220 pounds, not a lightweight. With gear, my bike is hauling about 250 pounds total. My wheels started going out of alignment after 1000 miles. By 1800 miles the rear wheel had a serious wobble. Any attempts to straighten them did not last long. A veteran of thousands of miles of touring looked at them and diagnosed the problem as inadequate spoke tension. He increased the tension on the rear wheel dramatically and took the wobble out. I did the same for the front. Two thousand miles later, the wheels are still true and the problems seem behind me.

Convenience and handlebar bags

Handlebar bags can be too big. We learned that on our first tour. The large cooler bags worked well at holding things, too well. They made the bikes prone to falling over when leaned against things and when off the bikes, the bags were just too heavy to haul around for hours on end. They also got in the way of the headlights when we were riding at night.

We have new handlebar bags now, smaller ones. They can be found in almost any bike store or catalogue and are the simple two-compartment type with buckle on straps and stow-away shoulder strap that sell for $10-15 dollars. The only change made to the bags is to sew Velcro to the straps so the straps can be threaded through the buckles and folded back on themselves rather than go through the hassle of buckling and unbuckling each time the bag is taken off or mounted to the bike.

Handlebars, riding position and Carpel Tunnel Syndrome (CTS)

My wife’s bike is still in the same configuration as when purchased including her Trek rack. However, my hybrid looks a lot more like a conventional touring bike now. The major changes involve the handlebars and shifters. I suffer from carpel tunnel syndrome. Straight handlebars require that my hands are parallel to the tube and my wrists bent. Although I could shift my hands to different positions on the bars including accessory bar ends, they still require that basic parallel, bent wrist position. The hands soon become painfully numb.

Another problem with the hybrid is that the upright position places a large amount of weight on the rider’s rear and the upright body slows the rider in the wind. Leaning forward on straight bars increases the weight carried on the hands and feet but increases CTS symptoms. Both of these problems are addressed by changing the handlebars to regular touring bars with aero style brake levers.

The down turned touring bars encourage riding with thumbs looped over the hoods of the aero brake levers with a relatively relaxed grip. This riding position rotates the hands to a perpendicular position in relation to the bars and straightens the wrists. Riding with straight wrists relieves the CTS and allows more weight to be carried on the palms and also allows riding in a bent forward position, with more weight carried on the feet relieving pressure on the rear. While the position looks uncomfortable to the uninitiated, it allows for many pleasant hours of riding with almost no discomfort and is easy to learn. Time in the saddle has resulted in an even more pronounced bent position with the handlebars 1 ½ inches below the seat height and slightly farther away from the bars than when the bike was first set up.

The change had some added benefits. The bike is equipped with 9 speed STI shifting, (where the brake levers have built in shifters) as part of the modification. While the original Shimano Rapid Fire shifters were wonderful, the Shimano 105 STI system is fabulous. The rear cassette was changed to a 9 speed, 32 tooth, an increase of two teeth and one cluster ring to be compatible with the nine speed shifter. It’s amazing the difference that two teeth can make on a steep hill.

The final benefit is speed. While speed might not seem important at first, it certainly adds to the pleasure of riding, knowing that you have more control over your travel time. With the straight bars, I averaged about 12 mph, with touring bars, my average has increased to almost 16 mph. Over three hours of riding, that’s a difference of 12 miles, another hour’s riding at 12 mph or an hour’s more time at the pub at the end of the road. The lower position is equally advantageous when riding into the wind and will account for additional speed and mileage in that adverse situation.

Is a bike ever “perfect” for touring?

Nothing’s “perfect” and that includes bikes. Something will always need to be tweaked. Something can always be improved. Right now, I’m sure that my light tourer is just the way I want it. But, then I’ll see another touring bike, with a different arrangement and wonder, would that be better? Would that work for me? Would it be more fun? One of the wonderful things about bikes is that, even in this sophisticated age, they’re relatively simple. Handlebars, seats, racks, cassettes, cranks, chain rings, derailleurs and all kinds of stuff can be swapped, tried, discarded, traded and replaced. The end result is something that is uniquely yours, a virtual magic carpet, ready at your beckoning to take you to adventure.

Submitted by Jerry and Jeanette

A photo of Jeanette, Jerry and their grand daughter, Roxcie, in the Burgundy region of France during their summer 2004 bike tour.
Jerry and Jeanette are on the tandem while Roxcie is riding Jeanette's touring bike. The two girls actually traded off between the tandem and the single.
Handlebar bag.
This is our current choice in handlebar bags. The bag holds just enough and is easily transferable from bike to bike with no special attaching hardware. The shoulder carrying strap is stowed inside the bag. The yellow attachment on the bars is an inclinometer.
carpal tunnel syndrome bicycle touring
Jerry has a very severe case of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.

“The picture on the left shows the hand parallel to the bars, the fingers are clenched to hold onto the bars and the wrist is cocked. This position brings on CTS very quickly.

The rightmost picture shows the rider’s weight on the thumb webbing and the thumb’s “ham.” The hand is relaxed, fingers open and the wrist is straight. This position provides quite a bit, (but not perfect) relief from CTS.”

Touring Bike - My Trek 520 after numerous upgrades

Trek 520 in commuting mode
This picture shows my Trek 520 in commuting mode. Switching back to full on touring mode requires removal of the space arm on the front handlebar and mounting of the saddlebags and handlebar bag. Minimal effort required!

In 2002 I purchased my Trek 520. At the time of purchase I stayed with the factory default configuration. After all these guys had been making these bikes for decades and surely they knew exactly what was needed on a self-contained and fully loaded touring bike right?

Well the theory was great but as you will see in the page that follows I have made a number of upgrades to the stock configuration. In truth it would likely have been cheaper to have just started with a standard frame and add components or just order the changes at the time of original purchase rather then pay for some parts twice.

Since purchase the bike I’ve learned that the rumour is that Trek sells most of these touring bikes to club riders rather then fully loaded/self-contained touring cyclists.

The upgrades I list below all share a common goal. I have been aiming for a bike that has reliable parts that seldom have issues, a bike that works for touring and commuting as well as a bicycle that I can trust to get me home regardless of the length of the tour.

So without further delay let’s get started!

New saddle

Brooks saddle
My Brook's saddle after over 10,000 km of usage in both summer and winter including five tours.

The original saddle that came with the 520 now sets in a box of spare parts. After my first four day tour using that saddle I decided that something a little more butt friendly was in order.

I tried gel saddles and they worked for the first 30 to 40 km before becoming painful. From discussions with other bicycle tourists I kept hearing about how great a Brook’s leather saddle is. In fact it seems like over 50% of long distance tourers use them. In actual fact 95% of the upright cyclists that I’ve met on tour who were also touring were using Brook’s saddles.

My longest rides are 178.44 km and 169 km. On both days when the day was done my butt was pain free. No need to search further for another saddle!

People are often leery about forking out money for an old style bicycle saddle. Well I was too. Wallingford Bicycle Parts offers a program where you can return the saddle for a refund should you be unsatisfied with it. I purchased not one but two saddles from them (both Brook’s Champion Flyers). This winter I will likely purchase another one for my winter Icebike

It took about 400 km for my saddle to become fully broken in. Not everyone goes through this step. A buddy of mine has never had to break his in at all!

New Rear rack

Rear rack
This is my Axiom rear rack. If you look closely you can see that there is a rear light bracket just below the rack's deck. Normally I have the light on there. I just removed it earlier in the day to put in new batteries and haven't replaced it yet.

I used the original rear rack for three tours including my trip around Lake Erie. I never experienced problems with the main body of the rack but after a little less then 400 km my tail light bracket snapped off leaving me feeling a little less comfortable with this rack. The cause of the damage was likely vibration induced.

My new rack is the Axiom Tour de Monde. Here’s a blurb from their webpage:

AXIOM ‘TOUR DU MONDE’ STAINLESS STEEL RACK

THE STRONGEST Pannier Rack ever made!
Incredibly strong Tubular Stainless Steel construction
10.4mm diameter double welded stays
Micro adjustable alloy frame fastening brackets
Adjustable height to accommodate different wheel sizes
Stainless hardware
Triple stay design with sweepback support for heavy duty pannier support
Incorporated reflector bracket
Fits 24’, 26’, 27’, 28’, and 700C
1020 grams
Lifetime Guarantee
MAX CAPACITY = over 150 kg !!!

Suggested Retail Price: $119.90 [Cdn]

I now own two of these racks including one on my Icebike. It’s successfully survived a winter of salty roads. The rack itself worked well for getting me around Lake Huron. I never had any concerns about it and the tail light bracket is still going strong thousands of kilometers later.

Look Stem

Look stem
This picture shows the Look stem as well as the new fork that hasn't been cut down. Between the two I have tons of adjustability options.

When I first received my Trek 520 I could never get comfortable. It seemed that I would end up riding for about 70 km and then my shoulders and upper arms would be sore. After that I would stop about every 25 km to stretch the muscles.

The stem gave me additional options for easily raising and lowering the handlebars depending on my mood. I used to use these features regularily although I seldom use it since going through the Fit Kit process just before my Round Lake Huron tour.

New fork

I ended up replacing the front fork with another fork identical to the first. The reason for the replacement is that the original fork was cut down too much! While this may be great for racing bikes on a tour I want to see more of the scenery instead of just the road itself. As you can see in the picture I have many options when you look at the combination of a special stem and a fork with tons more space for upward adjustment.

New gearing

Drive Train
This is the current and possibly final drive train.

Originally the 520 came with front gearing of 52/42/30 and a rear cassette going from 11-32. This gave me 128.4 gear inches in my highest gear and 25.5 for my lowest. Conventional wisdom seem to be to aim for a high end gear around 100 and go for as low as you can on the bottom end.

My first change was to swap out the stock rear cassette with a slightly wider range, 11-34 one. This change dropped my low end from 25.5 gear inches to 24.0.

I used this setup for four tours including my Round Lake Erie tour but I found that on the steepest hills I would often wish for lower gearing. I could make it up the hills without it but I couldn’t help but reflect on all the unneeded higher gears and the missing lower gears.

A change was in order and just before my Round Lake Huron tour I implemented it. The change was to a mountain bike crank that gave me front gearing of 44/32/22. With my 11-34 rear cassette this gave me gearing from 108.6 for the high end and 17.6 gear inches for the low end. This dramatically improved the lower end performance of the bike while giving me plenty of high end performance as well.

Of course I didn’t stop there. The one thing I didn’t like was the varying gap size between gears Especially when cycling on the flats it often felt like I should go up or down a gear but the jump was just a little too big or small.

The solution for me came courtesy of Sheldon Brown. He offers a cassette called the CycloTouriste 13 Using this rear cassette I lose a bit more high end, preserve my low end and have nicely spaced gears. He also has an awesome gear calculator if you are interested in checking out your own gearing.

My final gearing has a high end of 92 gear inches and a low end of 17.9 gear inches. I haven’t yet found a hill that required a walk with this gearing. I also tend to enjoy hills more knowing that I can always sit back and just spin my way up the hill.

New tires

I used the original stock tires for my first four tours with this bike. The tires worked ok but I always wanted something a bit more durable and with better gravel handling capabilities. I ultimately purchased a set of Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires for my Round Lake Huron tour. At this point I intend to stick with these tires.

Front Rack
The Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires have reflective sidewalls as you can see from this flash assisted picture. The tubus front rack is also visible in this picture.

Front rack

I originally installed a used Blackburn front rack on the bike. Following my Lake erie tour I decided to upgrade to a Tubus Tara front rack. Tubus racks have a very good reputation amongst long distance cyclists. I crave equipment reliability on my tours so I decided to do the upgrade. The old rack has since been passed on to a friend who is currently giving touring a try.

Fenders

I installed some SKS fenders on the bike. These fenders are full length and stay mounted all the time. I like the comfort of not worrying about having a nice wet butt when riding on wet roads plus I enjoy knowing that mud and stuff stays off my gear and I too.

Other nice features on the bike

I really enjoy how nicely this bike rides when it’s fully loaded. The bike seems to become more responsive and have a smooth, silky sleek feeling.

The bike also has bar end shifters which are reputed to be one of the most reliably types of shifters available. These shifters feature the ability to do indexed or friction shifting giving you options if damage to the shifters or deraileurs occur.

Space for three water bottle cages exists on the bike by default giving you the ability to carry a reasonable amount of water on the bike.

V-brakes have great stopping power and that’s the kind of brake on the bike.

I haven’t experienced any problems with the wheels at all despite riding some technical singletrack using this bike.

What’s next?

Right now I don’t really have any plans for further upgrades. My bike is turning out to be very reliable and I feel confident that this bike will bring me home from any tour I embark upon. That’s a pretty important thing to feel good about.

I own numerous bikes but if I had to settle for only one then this would be the one that I would keep.

I might look into different handlebars sometime. This is more out of curiousity then it is actual need.

A review of my Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bicycle

In 2007 I replaced my Trek 520 touring bicycle with a Surly Long Haul trucker after discovering that the headtube had ovalized on my old touring bicycle. Within a month of the purchase I left on a fully loaded, self-contained tour tour around Lake Superior from my home in London. That thirty-seven day tour covered 3,677 km allowing me to write a review based on my extended time riding this bike,

How was the bike setup?

My Surly Long Haul Trucker started out as a simple frame replacement. Most of the parts originally came from my old Trek 520. Parts transferred included my Look adjustable stem, my mountain bike gearing and my racks.

The first new piece of equipment I needed to purchase for my Surly Long Haul trucker were new wheels. The frame size I purchased required 26 inch wheels instead of the 700C wheels that I had used with the Trek 520. A set of double-walled rims were purchased. A new set of Schwalbe Marathon Supreme 2.0 tires were installed on the rims.

While having the wheels built I also decided to purchase what I thought would be a luxury item. As a result of toying with the idea of randoneuring for years I had heard about the SON dynamo hub. I had the front wheel built using one of these for the front hub. Combined with an LED light I now had the ability to run lights constantly similar to what a motorcycle does and if I needed to ride once darkness fell then I had a good lighting system to do so without needing to worry about batteries.

My Surly Long Haul trucker was also fitted out with a wider Brooks B67 saddle. When touring I prefer to ride relatively upright so that I can really enjoy the scenery that surrounds me. The upright position seems to mean that a wider saddle provides much more comfort.

As part of the mountain bike gearing the bike was equipped with the special Sheldon Brown Cyclotourist rear cassette. This allowed each gear to be about the same distance apart in terms of percentage change providing me with the ability to smoothly change to a slightly higher or lower gear as conditions warranted.

How did it ride?

My initial impression riding the Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bicycle was that it felt slow. Comparing the feeling to the properly setup bicycle computer showed that the speed was actually quite good. During those times when I was riding with friends before the tour the speed seemed to be respectable and similar to other rides on the same routes. I believe that my positioning on the bike led to me having a different sense of speed.

During my tour I rode down one hill at 79 km/hr. In actual fact I was going even faster since my bicycle computer seemed to lose it’s ability to track my speed beyond that point. No speed wobbles or other dangerous sensations were experienced. It just seemed like the bike continued to ride smoothly.

In the past riding my Trek 520 it always seemed like my body would have to adjust to the bike during the first few days. During that time it wasn’t uncommon to experience some knee pain, a sore butt or aching shoulders. The Surly Long Haul Trucker seemed to suit my body alot better. The fit felt natural as soon as I started riding the bike and remained that way even thirty-seven days into the tour. This finding was important to me because feeling comfortable day after day makes a real difference during a long bicycle tour.

Another difference between the Trek 520 and the Surly Long Haul Trucker concerns the difference in riding unloaded versus riding loaded. With the Trek 520 it always felt like the bike became much more responsive and less flexible when loaded up. It was very much like loading the bike allowed me to experience its sweet spot. By contrast the Surly Long Haul Trucker seemed to ride the same regardless of the amount of weight loaded on the bike.

Touring Bike

Do I recommend the Surly Long Haul Trucker as a touring bicycle? Absolutely! After riding thirty-seven days without pain or problems the Surly Long Haul Trucker will remain my primary touring bicycle. It carries a load well and has the ability to act as a great commutting bicycle. The name “Long Haul Trucker” suits the bicycle extremely well because you really do feel that this is a bike that could take you anywhere!

Folder - Touring On A Folder

Jim Foreman was kind enough to also provide this case study about using a folding bicycle for touring.

Read Jim’s Story Here

In addition to folding bicycles another option is to use something called S&S couplings to give you a similar portable capability.

Recumbent - Touring on a recumbent

This case study comes from Wayne Estes. Wayne has over 23,000 touring miles behind him on both upright and recumbent bikes.

recumbent bike touring
My bike is rather unusual. The bike is a "Speed Ross" recumbent made in Cornwall, England in 1998.

Read Wayne’s Story Here

Jakub’s Amazing Bucket Bike

Jakub Ner has taken on the challenge of creating a bike that is unique in a number of very interesting and innovative ways.

The basic bike is a comfort or hybrid bike.

On top of the straight handle bars an aero bar is mounted.

The saddle is unusual. Unlike most saddles it has almost no nose.

Towards the back of the bike there are two very prominently mounted buckets. As you can easily see from the pictures at the right these buckets are quite large. In addition to being waterproof they also have the ability to carry a significant load.

Bucket Bike

The bottom left picture also shows the reflective sidewalls of the Schwalbe tires. The bike is currently in commuting mode with Schwalbe studded tires installed. You can actually see the studs by clicking on the top picture on the left.

Yet another feature on this bike is the sidewall generator and two lights mounted just above the front wheel.

As you can from the picture at the left Jakub has mounted the buckets using a milk crate, webbing straps and some nylon zip ties.

Bucket bike mounting
Jakub's innovative bucket mounting system.

This system has now been in service for over a month of daily commuting back and forth to work. Although it looks somewhat different then your typical bike it works extremely well for him.

I spent some time riding Jakub’s bike one night. At the time it was heavily loaded. The bike handled fine and in truth the hardest thing to get used to was the unusual saddle.

Jakub intends to take this bicycle on a loaded tour next summer. In order to do so he will likely replace the current suspension fork at the front of the bike with an unsuspended fork and attach two more buckets.

Jakub Ner

Touring Cycle Case Study - Why I Tour on a Recumbent Trike

I started riding long distances on a bicycle in the 70’s during the bike craze.

When we married, my wife and I actually tandemed and toured on a beautiful emerald green Schwinn Paramount. When our children came along the bicycling went out the window. Finally, about five years ago when my son was old enough, I trained for months for GOBA, the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure and we rode it successfully.

I had already gone through a Blackbent swb recumbent bicycle and was riding a Bikee RX bent. Since I live in a fairly hilly area (on the east side of Cleveland near the Chagrin River Valley) I found that the climbs were sometimes difficult on a two-wheeled bike. The first thing

I realized was that a trike would solve that problem: balance at any speed isn’t an issue when one has three wheels! The recumbent tadpole trike I bought, a Greenspeed GTO made in Australia was just the ticket, not only because it has super-low gears for crawling up any hill but also because it has disc brakes on the front two wheels for controlling the descents down those hills.

A short, three-day tour down and up the Little Miami Rail-to-Trail in Ohio on the trike helped me realize that it was a viable machine for longer, self-supported touring. With the addition of a headrest, I found that even though I was fatigued after cycling 60-70 miles, I didn’t have any pains, strains or migraines. That is, due to the recumbent design, I was sitting on a seat that evenly distributed my weight over a very large area compared to the standard seats on a “wedgie” bicycle, and my hands didn’t become numb since I wasn’t leaning on them. I also believe that I saved energy by not having to balance with continuous, minute corrections. If anything, I think that the addition of Arkel GT-54 panniers hung on the rear rack actually seemed to improve the handling. I did have some difficulty with loosening spokes on the rear wheel. This may be because I slightly exceeded the rated capacity as published by the manufacturer.

recumbent trike

In my humble opinion, cycle touring on a recumbent trike is the way to go. I never (knock wood) felt threatened by being lower to the ground or wider than a two-wheeler. Drivers seemed to give me wide berth as they passed me, probably because of the novel machine I was riding. Nevertheless, I use a pole mounted flag and three flashing red taillights. I also wear shirts in the hi-viz color that is becoming more popular. I never felt that the three-wheeler was a disadvantage though I’m sure I would be faster on two wheels. Since there are three “tracks” one learns to put potholes in the road between a front wheel and the rear wheel. One also learns to quickly forget about the perils of gravel. The trike cannot skid out from under you!

Although, in my opinion, the Greenspeed trikes are still the gold standard for touring there are several American manufacturers making viable choices. Check out the Catrike Road and Organic Engines trikes (from Florida,) the Trimuter (Illinois) and Wizwheelz (Michigan) trikes, and the Hellbent Spitfire for excellent, domestic machines.

recumbent trike 2

Upright versus recumbent bicycle for touring

Wayne Estes has toured over 23,000 miles during numerous bicycle touring adventures. Approximately 17,000 of those miles were covered on an upright bike while the remainder have occured using a recumbent bicycle.

Riding Recumbent

Wayne has decided to share his experiences of the differences between the two types of bikes to give people trying to decide between the two a much better idea of the benefits and disadvantages of each type.

Alex Wetmore has provided some of the pictures shown in this article as well. Alex is one of the administrators of the International Bicycle Touring Mailing list. That mailing list is one of the inspirations for this web site so it’s definately worth a visit.

Alex also has a bicycle touring website with lots of interesting information including details of his previous and current touring bicycles.

Recumbent bike advantages

  • Comfort

The main reason for most recumbent riders. Some recumbent riders couldn’t tour at all on an upright bike because long rides cause too much pain.

  • Aerodynamics

Many recumbent setups have a smaller frontal area, which makes the bike faster in a headwind.

  • Heads-up position

You ride looking up instead of looking down. It’s great for seeing the surroundings instead of staring at the pavement (but you don’t find as many coins on the road).

  • Adverse weather

If a fairing is used then you have some protection from wind and rain. A fairing is good for cold weather but generally not good for hot weather.

  • Trike Practicality

It is practical to tour on a recumbent trike, unlike with an upright trike. This can be very helpful for handicapped people who have balance problems. Or people who need to climb steep hills at extremely low speed.

Recumbent bike disadvantages

  • Recumbents are less stable at very slow speeds due to the lower center of gravity. Consequently, it’s harder to keep a recumbent bike in a straight line when going up a steep hill.
  • Recumbents are harder to ride on gravel roads and other slippery surfaces for 3 reasons:
    • Lower center of gravity, which literally causes you to fall over more quickly.
    • On a recumbent you can’t shift your body weight around to compensate for minor fishtailing of the wheels.
    • On a recumbent your legs are horizontal, so you can’t “fall standing up” when you lose control at low speed.
  • Recumbents are heavier than most upright bikes due to a longer chain, heavier seat, (sometimes) heavier frame. So recumbents are usually slower than upright bikes when going uphill.
  • Many recumbents use two different size wheels, which require you to carry more spare tubes and tires.
  • Lower seat height on recumbents makes it harder to see over traffic, and harder for motorists to see you over other traffic. (in practice, however, recumbents’ unusual appearance makes them MORE noticeable in the jumble of traffic)
  • You can’t stand up to use different muscles on a steep climb. On a recumbent you are a “sit down climber” 100% of the time.
  • On a recumbent it is more difficult to get started on a steep hill because you have to get your legs horizontal to start pedaling, and because of the lower center of gravity which makes you fall faster.
  • Recumbents usually don’t work with wireless cyclocomputers because the handlebar is too far away from front wheel. Even with wired computers, recumbents usually require an optional “long wire” mounting kit, or the wire needs to be spliced to make it longer.
  • Recumbents are typically more expensive for a given quality level because they are manufactured in small quantities. Recumbent manufacturers don’t get the efficiency of scale of a large bike manufacturer like Trek.
  • Recumbent designs aren’t “familiar” to most people, and may be more intimidating to diagnose and repair when problems occur. In practice, however, most recumbents use the same components, tools, etc. as upright bikes.
  • Recumbents tend to attract much more unwanted attention than upright bikes. But loaded upright touring bikes also attract a lot of attention. A loaded recumbent isn’t much worse.

Variations in recumbent design

The pros and cons listed above are generally true, but precise comparisons are impossible because there are extremely wide variations in recumbent design:

  • Short wheelbase / long wheelbase (80cm to 200cm)
  • Handlebar above the seat or below the seat
  • “straight” steering or “tiller” steering, directly coupled or remotely coupled
  • Small wheels, large wheels, or small front wheel and large rear wheel
  • Upright seat w/ low pedals, or reclined seat w/ high pedals
  • Wide range of seat heights (15cm to 70cm)
  • Wide range of seat styles (wide vs. narrow, mesh vs foam padding, etc.)
  • No fairing, or a wide variety of fairing options up to a fully enclosed streamliner
  • Two or three wheels

Some recumbents are built for comfort and some recumbents are built for speed. Same as with upright bikes, the “speediest” recumbents are usually too fragile for loaded touring.

Clothing considerations when touring on a recumbent bike

  • Padded gloves aren’t needed for comfort, but many recumbent riders wear gloves for crash protection.
  • Padded shorts aren’t needed for comfort, but many recumbent riders wear spandex shorts to prevent bees and wasps from flying inside their pants.
  • Rear jersey pockets are useless. Front pockets would be useful, though.
  • A recumbent rider is more likely to want a sun visor due to the “heads up” position.
  • Recumbent riders get more sun exposure on the “front side” and less sun exposure on the “back side” (you need to apply sunscreen in different places!)
  • Recumbent riders don’t need a cycling-specific jacket with a long tail because they aren’t hunched over forward.
  • Rain capes don’t work well on a recumbent.
  • Pedal reflectors are useless on a recumbent because they face down.

Luggage considerations when touring on a recumbent bike

Radical Combo
  • Many pannier configuration options
    • 2 large rear panniers
    • rear panniers + front panniers
    • rear panniers + underseat panniers (this configuration typically gives the best handling)
    • short but long recumbent-specific underseat panniers
    • sometimes you can hang a large custom bag to the back of the seat.
  • Trailers generally have the same pros and cons on both recumbents and upright bikes
  • Most recumbents don’t carry very many water bottles on the frame (mine is an exception!)
  • Recumbent riders usually can’t wear a hydration pack because their back is up against a seat. But recumbent riders frequently attach a hydration pack to the back of their seat. It works very well.
  • Handlebar bags cannot be used on many recumbents due to knee interference or because the handlebar bag obstructs the view of the road. The higher the pedals, the less likely you are to be able to use a handlebar bag.
  • Most recumbent frames have an adjustable seat angle which makes it almost impossible to have brazed-on attachments for the top of a rear rack. Clamps and custom brackets are usually needed to attach the top of the rack to the frame.
  • There is no “heel interference” with the rear rack, so you are free to mount the rear rack as far forward as possible, and hang the panniers as far forward as possible on the rack’s rails. This minimizes the weight behind the rear axle, which improves bike handling.
  • If the rear panniers have a rear outer pocket, it might make sense to “reverse” the panniers (right pannier on the left, and vice-versa) so that the “rear” pocket is actually on the front of the panniers. (see photo of Wayne’s bike)

Travel considerations with a recumbent

underseat panniers
  • Hardshell bike travel cases don’t work well with most recumbent bikes.
  • A recumbent requires more disassembly to fit in an airline/train bike box (remove seat, disassemble handlebars).
  • Short wheelbase recumbents fit in an airline bike box with both wheels on. Long wheelbase recumbents require at least one wheel to be removed to fit in an airline bike box.
  • There are “travel” recumbents such as the Bike Friday “SatRDay” folding recumbent and the Lightning “Voyager” which has S&S couplings.
  • Long wheelbase recumbents are somewhat more difficult to travel with (harder to pack in a box, harder to put on a car rack, harder to fit in a train, etc).

Other considerations with a recumbent

underseat rackseat removed
  • When encountering potholes a recumbent rider doesn’t have the option to get their body out of the saddle. Consequently, many recumbent riders need fatter tires to avoid pinch flats. Fatter tires also give you the option to lower the tire pressure for improved traction on gravel roads. The improved traction can compensate for the recumbent’s inherently poorer handling on gravel roads
  • Recumbents require you to use different muscle groups. A new recumbent rider is slower until he/she builds up the gluteous and hamstring muscles. But recumbent riders don’t need to toughen up the hands and tailbone area to do long rides!
  • Most people need lower gears on a recumbent than on an upright bike. That’s because you can’t stand up and mash the pedals for a short, steep grade like you could on an upright bike. You need a gear low enough to spin up the steepest grade without injuring your knees.
  • Most short wheelbase recumbents have heel overlap with the front wheel which prevents you from pedaling when making a sharp turn. It takes practice to learn the technique to avoid hitting the front wheel with your heel (the “inside” leg must be straight when making a sharp turn). In addition, some recumbents have handlebars that wrap around the knees, restricting how sharply you can turn the handlebar when the “inside” leg is bent.
  • Several aspects of riding a recumbent are significantly different than riding an upright bike. To some extent you re-learn how to ride a bike. In particular, it takes a lot of practice to become proficient at getting starting on a steep uphill grade

Bottom line

Recumbents aren’t for everybody, but they are much more comfortable for most people. There is a huge range of recumbent designs. Some of those designs may be great for you, and other designs may be awful for you. It really pays to test ride as many types as possible to get an idea of what recumbent types you like and don’t like.

Most bike shops aren’t knowledgeable about the special needs for loaded touring (recumbent or upright), so it pays to get as much advice as possible from experienced bike tourists to help you decide what bike is best for your touring needs.

Things to consider when selecting a bike

The following considerations for choosing a mountain bike were submitted by Andy Janz, whose touring experiences include the Northeastern United States, Eastern Canada (Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario), California, Arizona, Montana and the Canadian Rockies. In 1983 he spent two months touring New Zealand.

Quebec is one area that he really enjoys touring with all its bike paths, quaint towns and great back roads

Bike Frame Considerations

Mustang Bike

The photo on the left shows Andy’s bike which he built in 2002 using a mountain bike frame.

Typically two important features to look for in a touring frame are;

  • a low bottom bracket
  • a long wheel base

Both of these features contribute to a stable ride. Unfortunately, both of these features are hard to find on most mountain bike frames. Andy adds “It was my experience that when researching frames for this bike that most mountain bikes tended towards higher bottom brackets and shorter wheel bases.

Eyelets on the frame and fork for mounting racks are pretty much essential although there are a few products now available that allow you to mount racks on bikes without eyelets.

Gearing

One school of thought is that the gearing range for a touring bike should provide ratios with a high of 95 inches to a low gear that is 20 inches or even lower (i.e. in the high teens). Some may argue that gear ratios above 95 are also advantageous

One way of achieving useable gearing for loaded touring is to use a micro drive for a crankset (44, 32, 22 or 20) (also known as mountain bike gearing) and a 12 to 32 or 34 rear cassette.

For people who enjoy STI shifting, this may not be the ideal setup, because it is difficult to get STI to work on a micro drive.