Touring Bike Choices

There are several areas of continual controversy amongst a (generally) very conservative long-distance cycle touring community.  Most of these, I believe, originate in the two major types of people who do this stuff: there are travellers who just happen to use a bike, and there are cyclists who travel.  These differences in approach lead to different preferences.

I’ll just touch on a few of the issues here: aluminium vs steel frame; disc vs rim brakes; 26” vs 700c wheels, and derailleur vs hub gears.  My opinions are my own, and only represent my own experience from getting most of the way around the world (so far!) on two different bikes.  Ultimately, everyone will have their own view, and it’s largely a case of picking what suits you.  And balancing the cost of some pieces of kit with the benefits they may give you.

I pay for all of my kit myself, so there are no freebies getting special treatment here.  Just what I found worked best for me.

If there’s an overall recommendation, it’s to try stuff out to see what suits you, and then buy upper mid-range stuff, which tends to be much harder-wearing than cheaper kit, but without the exotic materials you find at the top end.

The Original ‘Beast’

The original trip plan involved visiting South America (lots of hard dirt roads), and possibly Africa (few quality bike shops).  So the original Beast was designed to take a lot of punishment, with things kept as simple as possible.  And where I could, I tried to build in redundancy (i.e. there was a backup plan for most breakages).  I was aiming for bulletproof.

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I’ve had aluminium mountain bikes since the early ’90s, so had no problem with going for an aluminium frame.  It’s lighter and stiffer than steel, meaning it’s more efficient at transferring pedalling effort to the back wheel.  With a combined bike and luggage weight of 40kgs (88lb), I wanted to make sure that my effort was pushing the Beast forward, rather than being absorbed by the frame.

People say that you can’t get aluminium welded as easily as steel in the developing world.  This may still be true in a very few places (though not anywhere I’ve been).

But I don’t really see this as a big issue in any case.  Bike frames are hard to break.  If you have a big enough accident to damage a touring frame, you’ll probably be in a much worse state yourself, and your ride will probably be over, or at least interrupted (I think my experience with the truck proves that!).  And I would not want to ride on a damaged frame in any case; I’d replace it as soon as feasible.

The downside of aluminium is that the stiffness can make for a harsh ride (and you need comfort if you’re on a bike all day, every day).  So the Beast was equipped with a steel fork, Tubus steel racks and fat, 2” tyres.  The theory (which seemed to work OK in practice) was that the fat tyres and the fork would provide a degree of comfort for me, while the racks would flex and take some of the pressure off the mounting points on the frame.

I went for 26” wheels, on the oft-stated basis that they are universally available outside the developed world.  This is no longer really relevant, as you can find cheap Chinese bikes with 700c wheels (and disc brakes) pretty much everywhere (except India) nowadays.  So it’s not really necessary to go for 26” wheels, unless you’re going way off the beaten track (or mud-clearance is really important to you).

The Replacement (the ‘Beastlet’)

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With the replacement ‘Beastlet’, I wanted to try out some alternatives.  Would a steel frame be more comfortable?  Would narrower tyres compensate for the increased flex in the steel frame, and enable me to get the power down OK?  Would 700c wheels roll better, and would they be rugged enough?  Were drop bars more comfortable than the wide flat-bar on the original Beast?  And how would SRAM components fare in comparison with the ‘standard’ Shimano option?

I kept the stuff that worked well, or which I considered to be ‘no-brainers’.  The ‘no-brainers’, for me, include 10-speed derailleur gears (albeit a 2×10, rather than a 3×10 configuration), Tubus steel racks, clip-on mudguards, Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tyres, and cable disc brakes.

I changed almost everything else: a steel frame and forks, drop bars, 700c wheels with 35mm tyres, SRAM components (a mixture of road / cyclocross and mountain bike parts).

The Differences: Comparison

I’ve surprised myself a bit by developing a strong preference for the steel frame and drop-bar combination.  The steel really is noticeably more comfortable than aluminium, and allows for narrower wheels and tyres.  The combination (for me) results in average speeds that are about 10% quicker than the upright, flat bar option.

This is mainly (I think) because the drop bars are so much better for climbing on the road.  I find the flat bar too wide for road climbing (although it would potentially be better for off-road touring).  It’s possible that I’m also a bit more aerodynamic with the drops, though this is likely to be marginal, given all the bags hanging off the bikes.

The drawback of the slimmer steel frame and larger wheels (at least on the Kona) is that there is very little clearance around the wheels.  If you hit sticky mud, the bike bungs up very quickly, which was not an issue with the much bigger clearances on the original bike.  This is where clip-on mudguards win, as you can just pop them off, and use them to dig the mud out of the frame…

There appears to be no performance difference between the Shimano (SLX/XT level) and the SRAM (X7/X9) components for touring purposes.  Both have operated flawlessly for me, and there’s nothing to separate them in operation.  I’d probably go back to Shimano for future bikes, just on the basis that it is much easier to find spares (simply because a lot more bikes are Shimano-equipped).  Although, if you plan ahead a little, it’s certainly possible to source SRAM spares in most places.  And SRAM, if anything, seems to last a little longer.

And I’ve had no issues with the 700c wheels.  They are probably a bit more comfortable and faster than the 26” versions, but there’s not a huge amount of difference.  The 26” wheels worked better on dirt, probably due to their increased width.

The Similarities (the ‘No-Brainers’)

Mid-to high end derailleur components have performed excellently on both bikes.  I switched from a 3×10 to a 2×10 drivetrain, as I wasn’t using the high range gears on the original bike.

A lot of long-distance tourists go for expensive hub gear set-ups like Rohloff.  The Rohloff is supposedly bomb-proof, and maintenance-free except for oil changes.  But I couldn’t feel comfortable with something so important being a ‘black box’, which you can’t understand or service on the road.

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Derailleurs are simple, easy to adjust, and can be bodged together with cable-ties, or removed altogether if they get badly damaged.  The bike will still run.  And they’re massively cheaper than Rohloff, which made the decision obvious; derailleurs all the way for me.  I’ve had no cause to regret this so far.  Though you do need to change the cassette and chain every few months, you’d have to do so about ten times before the Rohloff became a cheaper option.

Cable-operated disc brakes were a complete ‘no-brainer’.  They are long-proven technology (they’ve been around since the 1990s, and I’ve personally used them on mountain bikes for ages with no issues), and work much better in the wet than conventional brakes.

Put simply, if you’re dropping off a mountain in the rain at 40-ish miles an hour, with all that extra weight on the bike, you want to be able to stop.  I’d also argue that you don’t want to be continually weakening the wheel rims by using them for braking; this results in a lot of cracked rims for loaded tourers.

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Disc brake pads are tiny, featherweight, easily changed, and both Avid and Hayes’ stock pads last over 10,000km before they need changing.  I wouldn’t go for hydraulics, just because spare cables are hard to find; cable discs just need a brake cable, which you can find anywhere.  Both brands of brake have performed flawlessly so far, with the uglier Hayes possibly being my favourite due to a much lower price, and the ease of adjustment / pad replacement.

The Schwalbe Marathon Supremes have performed brilliantly on both bikes.  They are half the weight of completely ‘bulletproof’ tyres, roll very well on tarmac, and fold, so you can carry spares in your panniers.  I’ve only had six flats in over 26,000 km of loaded touring (at the time of writing).  And they last for well over 10,000 km if rotated between front and rear.  Which is pretty decent in my book.  The only weakness is on dirt, where the lack of any blocks makes the tyres squirm around quite badly.  If you’re going to be on dirt roads, you could consider the Marathon Mondial, which is the same carcass with more off-road grip.

I used the same, ‘cheap and cheerful’ Shimano SPD mountain bike pedals on both bikes.  At only £15 a pair, they’re almost disposable, but run perfectly for thousands of miles.  And they don’t damage your knees (that’s crosswinds).

Nearly the last of the ‘no-brainers’ are handbuilt touring wheels.  Although neither bike had expensive wheels (by quality bike standards; we’re talking roughly £110 a pair), the build quality on both has been excellent.  Neither set has buckled or shown any sign of weakness so far, and neither has gone out of true by more than a couple of millimetres.  There’s a good chance that factory-built wheels would not stand up to the rigours of touring so well.

Oh, and one final one.  Another very expensive option which is often described as ‘essential’ is a leather saddle (Brooks saddles are usually recommended).  I’ve just used the stock saddles on both bikes.  They don’t need breaking in, they don’t need special care, and they don’t cost over £100.  Try the saddle your bike comes with, and consider changing it only if you need to.  And, for goodness sake, use padded cycling shorts (which really are a no-brainer)!

The cost of a Brooks / Rohloff combination in the UK is around £1000 ($1450 in May 2016).  You can get an awful lot of days on the road for that sort of money…

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