Best Bike for Long Distance Touring
There’s nothing like the freedom of long distance touring on a bike. But how do you find the best bike for long distance touring? For those who feel at home on a bike, it’s an opportunity for travel without limits. No packed trains, planes or buses. No traffic jams. No congestion. Just you and the open road. Cycling epic distances certainly isn’t easy, but it can be an epic experience you’ll never forget.
You do need the right bike though. ‘Right’ doesn’t mean two half decent wheels with aging brakes brakes though. If you want to travel long distances safely, your bike must be designed to withstand the pressures. Touring bikes are by far the best option because they are made to roam. They usually have more spokes to deal with the added weight, smaller wheels that are easier to repair in any corner of the world, and thicker tires to help them tolerate virtually all outdoor environments.
This article is an in depth guide to finding the best bike for long distance touring and how to choose one for your next adventure.
The Basics of Long Distance Touring
It’s worth noting that everyone has their own definition of ‘touring’ or ‘long distance cycling.’ Bike models come in roughly defined categories but there’s a lot of overlap. For the purposes of this article, a touring bike is any bicycle capable of travelling long distances on paved roads.
These bikes can tolerate some off roading. However, if you want to venture off road frequently, consider an even more rugged ‘bikepacking’ style model.
Touring is all about the journey. These bikes are built for the long haul. They deliver only moderate speeds, but they’re true workhorses. Touring bikes are for getting places but only after you’ve admired the views.
Different Types of Touring Bike
It’s common to see bikes advertised as ‘touring bikes,’ but this is only a loose category to define endurance-based models. There are many types of touring bikes. If your old faithful steed has a proven ability to endure days or weeks of long adventures, she’s a tourer. Don’t limit your search to models clearly labelled as touring bikes. Not all are categorized this way.
Instead, look out for these descriptors:
Road Endurance Bikes
Road endurance bikes look remarkably similar to standard road bikes. Always check the specifications before buying. They have the same basic shape as a regular bike but tend to come with drop bars rather than flat bars. Other differences include an upright ride position (as opposed to a tucked position typical on regular road models) and a weight balance that accounts for the eventual added weight. Most road endurance models feature front and rear rack mounts for extra storage.
These models have many of the same features that make road endurance bikes so impressive. Yet, they are generally larger with bigger, rougher tires for even more grip and surface tolerance. This is the type of bike you need if you’re planning to off road regularly.
Adventure models are great at withstanding gravel, dirt, mud, rocks and other obstacles. Frame compliance is built into most to ensure they can be used comfortably on bumpy surfaces.
It’s hard to say whether a road endurance or an adventure bike is the best choice if you frequently switch things up and transition between varying terrains. It really depends on what you spend the most time enjoying.
Road endurance models can tolerate off road travel; they’re just not made to do it over long distances. They are the best option if you intend to stick to paved surfaces but know rougher shortcuts are a possibility.
If you prefer to stay off the roads, opt for an adventure/gravel bike instead. It will carry you over rugged terrain more comfortably and look good while doing it.
Key Features of a High Quality Touring Bike
As already mentioned, touring bikes come in a wide variety of styles and can roughly be described as ‘bikes that travel long distances.’ They are built differently to standard road models. They have a geometry designed to accommodate extra weight so that touring enthusiasts can carry supplies on those long trips.
This next section highlights the features that enable touring bikes to travel long distances. Keep them in mind when shopping or even repurposing an existing bike. It should have these important characteristics.
Touring bikes have longer wheelbases than standard road models. This allows the bike to carry more weight while still remaining stable and minimally ‘bouncy’ on uneven terrain. It improves maneuverability by further stabilizing the steering. To measure it on a prospective model, take into account the distance between the front and rear hubs.
It’s not true of all touring bikes but some have longer chainstays to make them more stable and create space for rear racks.
Steel is by far the most popular choice of material for touring bikes. It is super durable yet surprisingly tolerant of mild flexing and other pressures such as road vibrations and unexpected shocks hidden in rough terrain. Chromoly steel is the world’s most popular touring material.
As chromoly steel is slightly stiffer than standard steel, the chance of breaks is a little higher. Even still, the risk of a component snapping is extremely low. Plus, steel is one of few frame materials that can be welded back together when damaged and continue to be used like new.
We strongly recommend you buy a steel touring bike for extended cycling adventures.
The more spokes on a bike’s wheels, the stronger its wheels, usually. For a high quality tourer, look for wheels with 32 spokes minimum. If you intend to carry a lot of weight (camping gear and other supplies) or ride off road regularly, opt for a bike with a higher spoke count.
Overlapping spokes are another helpful indicator of strength and durability. The more times your bike’s spokes cross over one another, the stronger its wheels. You’ll notice bikes designed for speed racing have no intersecting spokes. Whereas endurance models may intersect two or even three times.
Wheel size is another factor that’s closely associated to the terrain you’ll be riding. The best wheels for you depend on where you plan to tour. If you’re intending to stick to paved roads and developed areas, 700c wheels should suffice. This is a fairly standard size used on regular road bikes as well.
For off road excursions and wild rides through mud, grass, and gravel, a slightly smaller 650b (27.5’’) wheel size might be better suited. Bigger doesn’t always mean better. In this instance, you want compact wheels that are fully compatible and easier to spin up.
Standard 700c wheels are compatible with a variety of tire sizes. 32mm wide tires are probably the most common choice but 28mm and even 25mm tires are often used. When browsing tires, remember the correct way to read a description such as ‘700×32’.
The first number (700) represents diameter and the second (32) represents width. Measurements are always in millimeters. The ‘c’ is left over from French tire classification systems and isn’t really relevant to modern bikes.
If your wheels can accommodate them (not all are capable), consider 35mm wide tires. They’re excellent for long journeys because the added width increases shock absorption, rideability and comfort overall.
The added weight will slow the bike down a little but, as explained, tourers aren’t made for speed anyway. Why not enjoy passing landscapes in comfort and style? You should only put 35mm tires on a tourer if there’s enough room for them to turn without rubbing the bike’s frame.
When it comes to tread, on the other hand, thicker and harder is better. Also, rougher and more knobby your tires, the better they will be at gripping the road. Look for chunky tires with defined traction patterns.
You’re strongly advised to use specially designed puncture resistant tires. It’s not nearly enough to carry a puncture repair kit on a distance trek unless you’re determined to stick to developed areas. Otherwise, you need reinforced tires to reduce the risk of getting stranded on dark trails or dangerous roads.
Tires with integrated puncture resistance are a little heavier than those without reinforcements. They’re still recommended as they can greatly reduce the number of superficial tears and prevent serious damage. You still need to carry the regular puncture repair kits and patch tools. Skilled cyclists are prepared for all eventualities.
If you’re an experienced cyclist, you’ll know it’s common for bikes to be sold without pedals. It gives the user a chance to pick pedals that match the type of shoes they plan on wearing. So, you may need to buy your pedals as a separate accessory. They come in two types: platform and clipless.
There’s nothing wrong with the classic platform pedal for long distance tours, this is what most people prefer. Performance is adequate and always reliable. However, you might want to take advantage of the more sophisticated options.
Clipless pedals are simply offer a way to attach a cyclist’s foot firmly to their pedals. The benefit of this is more efficient travel with reduced energy expenditure, something that can become very important on long journeys.
When your feet are attached, momentum can help pull them back upwards after you have pushed the pedal downward. Less force is needed to bring the pedal back around and up again for another push.
What Is the Best Gear Set Up for a Touring Bike?
Not all cyclists enjoy getting bogged down in the details. Others relish the technical talk and eagerly talk about cranksets and cassettes with the same excitement they plan long distance tours. We’ll keep things simple as specs can get confusing quickly when gearing is the hot topic.
The simplest way to unravel the mystery of perfect touring gears is to cheat. If a bike is advertised as an endurance model – and its other specifications match – it almost certainly has optimized gearing. You can go ahead and buy an adventure or road endurance model knowing it will come with the appropriate gearing for your needs.
Typically (in most, but not all cases), standard gearing encompasses a 3x crankset accompanied by a 9- or 10- speed cassette.
Don’t Over Complicate Things
The temptation to opt for the fanciest gearing system in the shop may be tough but it’s probably risky. The more complex the gears are, the more maintenance they’ll need. Consider a high end, specialized set up only if you have the know how to tweak, fix and optimize it while on tour. The problem with specialty components is they often require specialty tools or, worse, specialty mechanics to get them back on the road.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt you can benefit from smoother gear transitions and a broader gear range with high end components. Just keep in mind the difficulties you might have if you breakdown while touring.
One exception to the rule is internal geared hubs. They’re newer to the touring scene and have almost no maintenance requirements. They deliver an exceptionally smooth drivetrain while withstanding remarkable amounts of pressure and strain. Internal geared hubs are extremely reliable for this reason and rarely break.
Internal geared hubs are superb for long distance cycling. Whether they work for you depends on how much you can trust them. They’re not known to break but experienced tourers know nothing is impossible. Do you want to deal with the fallout of a breakdown you can’t fix?
If you want to keep things simple, a classic derailleur gear system should withstand all challenges when out on tour. It’s also the most affordable option.
Prioritize Easy Gears
Ideally, you want more easy gears than harder ones. Perhaps it’s an odd arrangement in standard conditions but long distance touring is different. When you approach a steep trail, those easy gears are going to help you climb with minimal effort. Look for the lowest gear inch count of around twenty inches.
Sheldon Brown’s gear calculator is an amazing tool.
Lightweight isn’t Always Best
Again, the temptation is to go for shiny, lightweight components and swanky parts designed for speed. While it’s great to go fast when touring, prioritizing speed and lighter weight components could be problematic. Over long distances, heavier components are most likely going to wear better, absorb shocks more efficiently and ensure you reach the end of your journey. The best bike for bike touring will have ‘old faithful’ components that you know to be reliable.
What Is the Best Brake Set Up for the Best Long Distance Touring Bike?
It’s worth thinking about your bike’s brake system because long distance touring typically involves more weight. Maybe you’re carrying camping equipment. Perhaps you’ve got a pannier full of snacks and wet weather clothing. In any case, the extra weight is going to affect the way your brakes respond.
Disc brakes are made of two brake pads that latch tightly onto a rotor. This rotor is attached to the wheel’s hub. Some varieties use hydraulic power. Others are mechanical. Generally, hydraulic disc brakes offer better performance.
They require less effort and produce more clamping force. The only problem is they can be hard to fix out on the road. If yours break, you may need to visit a repair shop. Mechanical disc brakes are easier to repair but they deliver significantly less stopping power.
Compared with rim brakes, disc brakes are excellent in all weather conditions. They can tolerate steep descents with minimal strain. They are trickier to repair without expert assistance but also cheap to replace particularly if using mechanical brakes.
The best bikes for long distance touring will come with disc brakes.
When purchasing a fully furbished ‘out of the box’ touring bike, you’re likely to receive rim brakes as standard. They work by using pads to grip and hold the wheel rims. Unlike disc brakes, rim brakes are usually easy to repair while out on the road. Spare parts are affordable, but more importantly, widely available throughout the world. You should be able to fix a broken rim brake by yourself provided you’re carrying the right tools and have basic repair skills.
The downside to using rim brakes is they perform less effectively in wet weather and sometimes struggle in muddy terrain. You must also apply a lot more force to get a quick response from a heavily loaded bike. Keep this in mind when adding extra weight.
If you’re still unsure, think about the type of journeys you’re likely to go on. If you’re not charging up mountains for days, rim brakes are good enough to do the job. Disc brakes are technically better but not everybody needs maximum power. It may be worth trading a little stopping power for low maintenance care, especially on very long treks.
Braze-ons are threaded fittings on the bikes frame that accept bolts; a bike designed for touring will have a lot of them at your disposal so that you can effortlessly attach racks, water bottles, and other accessories. They’re normally located on the fork, dropouts, down tube, and/or seat tube. If the bike you’re using doesn’t have braze-ons where you need them, there are fittings and work-arounds so that you can attach what you need, you’ll just have to be a little inventive to accomplish your needs.
Front and rear racks are standard for long-distance bike tourers. They allow you to attach panniers and strap on extra gear. The best bike for long distance touring will usually come with racks, but others will require you to buy racks separately.
Most touring bikes come with a dropbar handlebar. A dropbar handlebar is great because of all the different hand positions it provides—on a long-distance tour, it’s nice to be able to adjust your position to give particular muscles a break.
But some bike tourers like flat handlebars, more like what you would find on a mountain bike. These usually allow a comfortable, upright riding position but lack the multiple hand positions that dropbars offer.
A lot of bike tourers believe fenders a necessary addition for preventing spattered mud and rain from dousing them while riding. They’re not difficult to add, but you need to consider the size of your tires and whether your bike frame has enough clearance when the fenders are on.
The Final Word The Best Bike for Long Distance Touring
If you’re currently preparing for your first long distance cycling tour, remember these key things. Speed isn’t always the top priority. For touring, endurance is much more valuable.
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