Oh, the excitement of a new bike! For enthusiasts like us, there are few things that compare. Although inspiration often comes from the places you’ll see aboard your new bicycle, the machine itself is also worthy of praise, so it’s always important to educate yourself about the available options. The bicycle industry is cranking away on new products, and touring bikes are enjoying renewed attention in 2017.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus on road and dirt-road touring using racks and panniers, or a combination of racks with panniers and bikepacking bags.
Glossary: Stack & Reach
If you scour bike specifications and geometry charts like we do, you’ll have no doubt noticed that most major bicycle makers list stack and reach alongside the angles and lengths you’re accustomed to seeing. So what do these figures represent? Essentially stack and reach are x and y coordinates based on the Cartesian coordinate system. They are dimensions taken with the center of the bottom bracket as the origin point (or “0, 0”).
• Stack is a vertical measurement from the center of the bottom bracket to the height of the fork’s steerer tube where the stem is attached. This is the y axis.
• Reach is a horizontal measurement from the center of the bottom bracket forward to the same location as stack, that is, the fork’s steerer where the stem is attached. This is the x axis.
With that explanation out of the way, we’ll move on to why stack and reach are so useful. There are few measurements in the world of cycling geometry that can be taken without qualifiers, but stack and reach figures allow direct apples to apples comparison between different bicycles. For instance, looking at top-tube lengths gives you a general sense of the distance between your saddle and your bars, but the seat tube angle, your seatpost, seat height, head tube length, head tube angle, and stem length all affect the actual linear measurement from your saddle to the bar. So look up the stack and reach numbers on your current bike. Get to know those figures. And when you consider a new bike, do so based on how you like what you’re currently riding. Do you like the reach but would like to go higher with your bars? Stick with the same reach measurement but look for a larger stack number.
The Importance of Being Fit
The double entendre of this section’s title is intentional. When considering a new bike, a professional bicycle fitter can help you spend your money wisely, avoiding expensive components that don’t work well for you and shortening the trial-and-error period of adjustment that accompanies a new bicycle. If you’ve never had a professional fit performed, the perfect time to do so is when you’re shopping for a new bike.
If you live in a rural area, you may need to travel to the nearest city to find a qualified fitter, but the trip will be worth it. Ask your cycling buddies for recommendations if necessary.
It’s also helpful to consider your current fitness level and how it relates to the fitness you aspire to. With increased fitness, a bike that was once comfortable can start to feel cramped. Likewise, with more miles under your belt, the more “seasoned” your seated area will be. This may affect saddle choice. It’s not uncommon for your fit to change over time. In fact it’s natural. As we injure ourselves, age, take up yoga (or quit yoga), our body’s strength and flexibility can vary wildly. Bicycle fit, like many things in life, evolves; it’s not a fixed set of measurements.
When considering a touring bike, look for sturdy tubesets used specifically for the heavier strains of a full touring load. Steel is still the dominant frame material for most touring bicycles and with good reason. It’s strong, stiff, and easily repairable when in remote areas. Aluminum is also a good candidate for a touring frame thanks to its anticorrosive properties and affordability.
Titanium bikes are also extremely robust. Their price correlates directly with the expense of processing the material and the difficulty turning it into a frame, but the performance a titanium bike can deliver is extraordinary. The vibration-damping and anticorrosive characteristics of titanium make it ideal for use in touring bikes. If the subtle looks of a Moots, Eriksen, or Seven are calling you, it’s hard to go wrong.
Although carbon bikes are the standard in racing, they are still the black sheep of the touring world. But there are more and more options for touring cyclists. The Specialized Diverge, Niner RLT, and Jamis Renegade are among a new wave of carbon bikes with carbon forks that sport rack mounts. If you plan to go light, these are worth considering.
For a deeper dive into the materials used in bicycles, please see the section on frame materials on page 18.
Touring bike geometry
Whatever material you choose, make sure that, if you plan on extended touring, your new machine was built with loaded touring geometry. Many bikes are touted as “light touring bikes,” which typically means that they have rear rack mounts. But that doesn’t mean they’ll handle a load well.
Here are some key areas to check when perusing geometry charts.
• Look for low bottom brackets with seven to eight centimeters of drop on bikes with 700c wheels. Bikes with 26in. wheels will have less. A low bottom bracket lowers the center of gravity of the rider and the bike, increasing stability.
• Longer chainstays make for a stable bike and keep your heels from hitting rear panniers. They also help make room for fenders, something to consider in many parts of the world.
• Taller head tubes help achieve higher handlebars without monstrous amounts of headset spacers and flipped stems. It also makes for a stronger front end, especially important when carrying a front load.
• It’s not exactly a geometry measurement, but do consider your front racks when you build up your touring machine. Be sure to use front-specific racks to keep the load as near to the steering axis of your bike as possible. This allows you to quickly react to a pothole or other obstacle.
Glossary: Q Factor
Q Factor, also known stance width or tread, is the distance between the bike’s crank arms, which is essentially the distance between your feet as you pedal.
The majority of road bikes have a bottom bracket width of 68mm (or the press-fit equivalent) with a Q Factor of about 150mm, which will vary depending on the bike’s crankset, the pedals, and where the cyclist affixes the cleats. Most mountain bikes have bottom bracket widths of either 68mm or 73mm — or 83mm in the case of downhill mountain bikes — with a Q Factor of about 170mm.
Fat bikes, on the other hand, usually have a bottom bracket width of either 100mm or 121mm, and a Q Factor of 200mm and up depending on the crankset used. (Some winter-specific cycling boots even require clipless pedals with longer spindles, widening the rider’s stance even more.)
If you’ve spent some time pedaling a fat bike — and especially if you’ve had knee issues in the past — the wide Q Factor is noticeable and usually not terribly comfortable.
It’s best to research the geometry of your new bicycle, but the braze-ons on a prospective frame will help illustrate its intended purpose. A frameset or bicycle with front and rear rack eyelets, fender mounts, three or more bottle-cage mounting points, a pump peg, and a spare-spoke braze-on will indicate a bike meant for long, fully loaded miles.
Borrowing from rigid bikepacking bikes, some touring bikes now include bottle mounts on the fork legs. These can be used with either bottle cages or with a waterproof compression sack and a cargo cage from Salsa, King, or Blackburn. If you plan on carrying most of your large items rearward, these can offer a lighter alternative to a front rack and panniers.
Although quick-release axles and skewers are still commonly found on touring bikes, increasingly on nicer models you’ll find thru-axles. This is an idea borrowed from motorcycles and more recently from mountain bikes. On bikes with disc brakes, they make a great deal of sense. Because they increase the size of the interface between the hub and the frame or fork, they ensure that the wheel is mounted in the same location time after time. There are several standards on the market now, as you’d expect, but the most common sizes for road and touring bikes are 100 x 15mm front and 142 x 12mm rear. Recently gaining ground is a smaller, lighter front option that measures 100 x 12mm. (For reference, on the mountain bike side of things, you’ll find these same specs as well as the wider “Boost” dimensions of 110 x 15mm and 148 x 12mm.)
When it comes to the parts that hang on your bike, pay special attention to a few areas. First, don’t overestimate the wheels that support your machine. Doing so can be a recipe for disaster. Go with tried and true, traditionally laced wheels with a high spoke count — 32- or 36-hole wheels with a three-cross lacing pattern are hard to beat. High-quality aluminum rims and durable hubs will keep you smiling for miles. If your travels will mostly be in developed countries, buying a bicycle with 700c or 29er wheels isn’t a problem. Conversely, if you dream of Tibetan sunsets and African safaris, stick with a 26in. wheeled bicycle. Sourcing spare tires, tubes, and rims is much easier thanks to the prevalence of 26in. wheels worldwide.
Finally, look for “tougher than nails” tires and tubes. Put simply, punctures stink!
Trail is the horizontal measurement of the distance between where your front tire makes contact with the ground and where a line drawn through your steering axis (also known as the head tube angle) would make contact. Wheel size, tire size, head tube angle, fork length, and fork offset (rake) all influence trail. It has much to do with how a bike turns into a corner or maintains a straight line.
There is a zone that is appropriate for bikes, but defining it is a bit tough because so much of bicycle handling comes down to personal preference. Generally speaking, a bike with more trail is more stable. But go for too much trail, and the front end will flop from side to side (think about a chopper motorcycle). Too little trail and a bike will be twitchy.
Without delving too deeply into this topic, please spend more time considering your low (climbing) gear rather than your high (tailwind, downhill) gear. Riding a bicycle up a mountain is far more fun than pushing one. Fortunately, modern touring bikes, especially those with triple chainrings (three gears on the crank), are typically low enough. But be sure to familiarize yourself with gearing. A good way is to load up your current bike and then hit your local morale-killing monster of a hill. After noting the results, consult a bike shop pro.
Brakes: Disc Dominates
The trend toward disc brakes is starting to take over road bikes. Historically associated with mountain bikes, the use of disc brakes is particularly appropriate when considering the increased loads of touring and the diverse weather that a touring cyclist encounters.
Proponents of disc brakes rave about the increased stopping power, intuitive modulation, and consistent performance in wet weather. They also allow a cyclist to continue riding despite a wheel that isn’t perfectly true since the rim won’t be contacting the brake pads.
While hydraulic systems are finding their way to the road, most disc brakes on touring bikes are mechanically actuated. SRAM, Hayes, TRP, and Shimano all offer quality disc brakes for touring bikes, but do be aware that both your frame/fork and wheels need to be disc compatible. This isn’t something you can easily upgrade on a rim-brake bicycle.
Disc brakes do come with their own set of issues — rotors have to be straight and calipers must be properly aligned. Be sure to remove your rotors when packing your bike for travel. Disc brakes do add weight to a bicycle as well.
Rim brakes, of course, have their own advantages and disadvantages. For one, they are simpler and more approachable for home mechanics. A rim-brake bicycle is also typically lighter than a disc-brake one. Finally, for world travelers, sourcing spare parts for rim brakes is easier. The downside is faster brake-pad wear and the necessity for true wheels as the rim is the braking surface.
Glossary: Seat Tube Angle
Seat tube angle is a measurement most riders understand, but its implications on rider fit are not as obvious. Measuring the inclination of the seat tube from horizontal, this angle sets up the fore/aft placement of your saddle. Typically ranging from 72 to 74 degrees, a small difference in seat tube angle can affect fit on a bike significantly, especially on larger bikes. Seatposts, with or without setback, can help to some extent, but ideally the seat tube angle should match a given rider’s morphology.
Too slack of a seat tube angle and it can be hard for a rider with short femurs to get his saddle far enough forward. Moving the saddle forward also effectively decreases the length of the top tube.
Too steep of a seat tube angle can be hard for a rider with long femurs to get his saddle far enough behind the bottom bracket. Pushing the saddle back also increases the distance to the front of the bike, meaning that a shorter stem is often required.
A very general rule when comparing bicycle geometries is that for a medium-sized bike in the 56cm range, every degree of seat tube angle change effectively alters the top tube length by one centimeter (assuming a rider maintains seat height and setback between the bikes). The effect is lesser on smaller bikes and greater on larger bikes as the seat height changes. Although referring to the seat tube angle can be handy, looking at stack and reach is a better way to compare geometries.
Drop or flat bars
This debate seems to have raged for many years, but our vote is that if you’ve had success with a certain handlebar arrangement, stick with it. In the end, enjoying the journey is the point. If you’ve had hand, arm, shoulder, or back issues in your cycling past, you may want to consider a change.
In general terms, many touring cyclists select a flat bar in order to achieve a more upright position and to move weight from their hands to the saddle. (This also usually requires a wider saddle to accept and distribute this increased pressure.) If your current bike has been retrofitted with flat bars for this reason, when buying a new bike, carefully study the geometry charts of newer bikes. With the influx of non-racers to cycling, manufacturers are offering more upright dropbar bicycles than ever before. It’s certainly worth another look around your local bike shop to see what they have on offer.
Many touring cyclists, both on road and off, prefer dropbars. If long miles are in your future, having the opportunity to move your hands frequently while remaining safely in control of your bicycle can help avoid soreness.
That said, there are some technical difficulties associated with dropbar touring bikes. To achieve gearing low enough for loaded touring, most riders require a triple chainring crank. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer component manufacturers producing touring triples, and even fewer that manufacture brake and shift levers to match a triple-chainring setup. This is why you see many off-the-shelf touring bikes with bar-end shifters.
Now that we’ve discussed handlebars, it’s time to draw your attention to the other contact points on a bicycle — namely the saddle, pedals, and shoes. Where you plant your posterior is often the most important decision you’ll make. Discomfort in that region has derailed many wonderful journeys. Be sure that you shop around if you’re having any issues. Also consider the interaction between the shorts you wear and the saddle you use. Some combinations work better than others.
Shoes and pedals fall into a similar category. You’ll want to have them sorted out well before you leave on a dream trip. Your shoes are the foundation of your personal powerhouse. If something is rotten in the state of Denmark when it comes to your shoes, you’re in for miles of discomfort.
Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to these questions. These are trial-and-error scenarios. If you run into chronic issues, once again, I recommend a bike fit with a qualified and experienced fitter.
Fare thee well!
We hope that wherever your two-wheeled travels take you, your ride is a good one. With the choice overload that we all experience at times, making a decision that we feel confident about can be tricky. If you have further questions after reading this Buyer’s Guide, be sure to check out the Adventure Cycling forums (forums.adventurecycling.org). Touring cyclists are a friendly lot who love to share their experiences and advice. Also, feel free to hit me up with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nick Legan is the Technical Editor of Adventure Cyclist and was the head mechanic for Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Illustrations by Seth Neilson