Choosing a bike for adventure touring

Or, how I couldn't choose and decided to get as many as possible

When I got into this, I didn’t know anybody who did it, so it was just websites and YouTube.  And guys on the horizon, so to speak, and I wanted to be out there too.  Five years in, I look back and wish somebody could have have told me a lot of this stuff before I started.  We’re not a tribe; not like road cyclists or mountain bikers.  There’s no right and wrong way to do what we do.  There’s just the path and how to ride it, how to manage the pain, and which way at the crossroads.  So while I was out there, here’s what I’ve learned about bikes and gear.

You can tour on any bike.  So if you just have one bike and don’t want to buy another, or can’t afford to, just get out there.  You’ll eventually arrive, probably, at your intended finish point, just maybe later, and a bit more knackered.

That said, some kinds of bikes really aren’t ideal for touring.  Unless your route is real tough (if what you're really doing is mountain bike touring) you don’t want anything with rear suspension; they tend to be heavier and there’s more to break and less obvious places to attach your gear, but the real problem is the wasted energy with all that flex (unless you can lock it out completely).  Caveats: if you’ve got a bad back or something, a soft tail can get you onto trail where you might be really uncomfortable otherwise.  I know a couple of guys who roll that way.  And seat dampeners are great.

Forget about single speed and fixies unless yours is a different sort of crusade.

Heavy cruisers and bikes with less than 10 gears probably aren’t going to be much use either, and high performance tarmac-focused road bikes are probably not a great option unless your route is sealed-only and you’re just going out there with your bike and your credit card and staying in a hotel every night; or, someone else is moving your stuff while you ride.  That last is a great option if you just want to explore the routes of the Vuelta, Giro, Tour etc; but it's not really adventure touring. 

Note: a solution popular with our German cousins while visiting France and Italy is to take a train over with the bike, which should be an expensive carbon model, and a 50L rucksack with everything you'll need for a fortnight including dress shoes so as to be comfortable while talking loudly in restaurants in the evenings.  They then, quite often, ride around like that, on monster hills, in temperatures averaging 30 degrees.  I can't recommend it.  

There's a lot of choice out there in types of bike.  The bike industry has for some years been going down a path of increasing specialisation, with bikes designed to fit in a narrowly defined role but to perform exceptionally when used for just that; the art of getting better and better at doing less and less.  But I know a lot of people who ride, and very few of them just do enduro, just do cross country race, or just ride tarmac.  So I know a lot of people who have quite a few bikes.  This is probably what the retail layer is really trying for… but there’s no need to buy into that, particularly. You can do a lot on just one bike. If you’re going to do adventure touring, doing a lot on one machine is a big part of the game: carry gear, climb big hills, cover large distances (= go fast when you can). You’ll have to deal with a huge variety of terrain and, chances are, you will have to get off and push some of the time and you may have to carry it.  And when you pitch up for a few days and ditch the bags, is your bike right to explore?  So when I went out shopping, here's the list of features I was looking for:

  1. Light weight
  2. Low and wide gearing
  3. Able to carry gear easily
  4. Good handling on and off road
  5. Efficient
  6. Comfortable
  7. After arriving, a fun bike to explore on
  8. Tough and reliable
  9. Reliable brakes unaffected by conditions

So; forget steel, it’s too heavy. Weight is the number one most important factor in adventure touring (even if you're not racing).  The rougher the surface, the lighter the bike has to be, it just works this way. Yes, I know you can get a steel frame welded. But the fact is if you have a frame break your trip is over for a few days at least. Unless you are in Central Asia or Tierra del Fuego, you can probably just order a new frame and have it shipped. It’s really not that likely on most trips. And I don’t want my bike fixed by somebody who usually mends fenceposts or shoes horses, anyway. 

Forget rim brakes, they’re easier to fix in the field but if you’re going down a slick grassy slope in the semi dark… well, discs are just better. So I recommend a carbon or aluminium bike with disc brakes; mechanical disc brakes if you can get them because if you do have a complete failure you can in principle repair them in the field.

Basically, this leaves endurance, gravel or adventure road bikes, cyclocross bikes, some hardtail mountain bikes and a wide variety of hybrid / tour bike.  Most expedition tourers are steel framed so I didn't consider them. 

Touring bikes

So.  Not very long ago, if you went into a bike shop and uttered the word “touring”, you’d be shown (if they had anything at all) a steel bike with a long wheelbase, drop flare or butterfly handlebars, pannier mounts front and rear, a kickstand and either 26” or 700c wheels. The load would be carried low close to the wheel axles, and the long wheelbase would mean your heels would easily clear the rear packs, and ensure very stable handling.  It would weigh 20kg unloaded, be built like an outside toilet, and have something like 30mm tyres; these would be almost immune to punctures and would weigh a kilo each. I’ve ridden these bikes. They’re tough, stable, incredibly heavy and generally handle like a barge. The modern incarnations are better, certainly, the Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Koga World Traveler for example are good bikes and almost everything on them can be repaired in the field or by somebody in a garage with a weld kit in almost any part of the world. This seems to be the major sale point of the classic touring bike… but the thing is, not everyone wants to ride across India or central Asia. And with that in mind, why are these bikes then so heavy and so little fun to ride? And why do many bike stores, especially those with older staff, still tell you this is what you need?  So, a good safe choice, but not the way I went.  

Mountain bikes

The rougher your trip, the more likely you are to want to take a mountain bike; they're built for rough country. But there's a huge range of mountain bikes now, and one end of the spectrum is what I eventually bought - a cross-country (XC) race bike of the type you see at XC competitions (at least before they started to go softtail).  I have zero interest in racing, XC or any other kind, but the high spec models are very light, stiff, handle well, climb well, go almost anywhere, have perfect gearing for touring together with high performance groupsets, and have wheel rims compatible with most road and cyclocross tyres (if you buy a 29er). 

So, I bought a carbon XC race bike with a high-end groupset. It’s light, handles well (the wheelbase is maybe a little short), will take basically any type of 700c or 29er tyre and happily will carry 10-12 kg of gear (The flat bars are perfect for attaching loads and attacking rough country, although all other things being equal I prefer to ride drop handlebars) while taking a load of punishment. It doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and as long as it’s lubed well will do a month at a time out there without needing any work. The tyres I run depend on the type of route, but usually I use either ‘cross tyres or semi slicks; if I’m touring where there are lots of mountain trails I sometimes use fat tires (the fastest rolling MTB tyres I’ve yet found are 2.1" Maxxis Crossmarks). My two hardtails weigh 9.6 and 10.3 kg respectively with pedals, unloaded. In my opinion, a lightweight hardtail or the similar “expedition touring” type of mountain tourer which is basically a modified hardtail with a hard front, different handlebars and a slightly longer wheelbase, is still the best option for adventure touring.  Partly for the reasons above, but also because the geometry is ideal both for distance riding (provided you set it up well) and carrying loads. 

This logic probably only holds up to a certain weight of kit; the frame or the wheels of this type of bike are not designed for carrying heavy loads so will fail at some point.  My usual loadout would be 10-12 kg and I rarely go out with more than 15; I ride a large frame and weigh 75 kg.  Plenty riders ride large frames who are 85 or even 90 kg, using the bikes for their intended purpose, XC, where they'll likely come in for more punishment than mine gets; so I think I'm well within the design limits for this frame.  If I was carrying 25kg, as some people do, maybe not. 

 

XC hardtails: go-anywhere, carrying anything; brilliant

It's worth noting that XC race bikes are about as close to a road bike as a mountain bike can get.  This is pretty much what I was looking for (when buying an adventure road bike, I basically wanted a road bike that was as much like a mountain bike as possible). 

When I was recovering from an operation a couple of years ago, I put skinny tires on my XC bike and pumped them up hard, put aero bars on, and used it as a road bike for a few weeks.  Being light and stiff and allowing a low position, it performed really well. 

It's worth making this point: somewhere between the fastest mountain bikes and the toughest road bikes is the perfect multi-surface long-distance tourer for adventure riding.  Adventure road bikes are not that; the gearing isn't right and generally the feet aren't big enough.  But they're getting there.  We're so close.

Hybrids and commuter bikes

Many bikes with the above descriptions will make good touring bikes, offering a comfortable riding position, wide gear range, mount points for panniers (great if you’re mainly touring on the road), fenders, and they’re often pretty reasonable price-wise. You also often get a bike that’s a good commuter ride as well. The main problem with these types of bike is the weight: you’re unlikely to get an aluminium ride in this category weighing less than about 14kg, and some will be closer to 20kg. That’s unloaded. Many of these bikes, although tough, stable and reliable, are really not much fun to ride. I'm also a bit wary of the durability of some hybrid and commuter bikes - the groupsets used at the popular pricepoints don't look like they would stand up to a lot of abuse.  That said a hybrid or commuter is probably a solid choice, but doesn't float my boat.

 

Hybrids: tough, and more capable than you think, but they can lose their appeal once you've carried them over a few obstacles

Road bikes

The only type of touring you can realistically do on a tarmac-focused road bike is, well, on the tarmac. You and the bike will get shaken to bits if you try too much of anything else. Most road bikes I've tried will hold up fine on gravel for long periods (they're often a lot tougher than they look).  You can even ride stretches of singletrack on a road bike if you're determined - I've seen guys going down a trail near my house on what looked like carbon and alloy road bikes (Transient in Wellington, a grade 3 trail I think).  Whether you'd be comfortable enough for a long trip, though, is another thing, and eventually if you ride like this, something's going to break.  My bet would be the wheels, which of course have to be pretty much dead true if you have rim brakes. 

Carrying much gear on a modern road bike can be a problem too; older bikes may have mounting points on the frames for panniers, but that ain't for me. The modern direct-attach frame bags from companies like Revelate will fit most road bikes, except for the front roll-style packs which will likely be too long to fit between the drops.  On the plus side, road bikes have much larger frame triangles than mountain bikes or hybrids, so you can often fit the largest size of frame bag, or a top-half-only style frame bag and still get one or even two bidons in there.  You might find that the handling of your road bike changes dramatically when you add gear to it, and you might want to check the bike itself will actually stand up to the extra load. 

You might also check a few other things on the bike, like whether the brakes are really good enough if you were to add another 10-15kg to the bike.  Think about the worst conditions you might have to ride in - conditions when you don't go out when at home.  If you're touring, you'll get caught in that, maybe at the start of a big descent.  Are your single-pull rim brakes good enough for an unknown descent in the dark in wet conditions with a load on?  

It's not adventure touring, but assisted touring, where somebody takes your stuff from base to base while you cycle there with the absolute minimum, is a brilliant option for road touring.  If you want to explore the Alps or Pyrenees or something, taking a fast road bike and doing it this way is a great solution. 

Cyclocross bikes

Cyclocross bikes are lightweight, versatile road-geometry bikes designed for riding around in a muddy field in winter, in what must be one of the most ludicrous disciplines I have yet come across.  The bikes, however, are brilliant and popular because of their speed and versatility. Most cyclocross bikes have 33-35mm tyres on them, but some allow you to put MTB-size tyres on. CX tyres are usually knobbly as most races are muddy, especially late in the season, or even just late in the race, but very versatile file tread styles are available too.

The problem with using these bikes for touring is basically comfort.  Cyclocross bikes are as stiff as fast road bikes, and often less comfortable to ride, despite having more cushioning from all that extra rubber and air between the wheel rims and the ground. The problem is the position most cyclocross bikes put the rider in: it’s aggressive, mainly due to the bottom bracket shell (the hole in the bottom of the frame through which the crank bearing turns when you pedal) being higher off the ground than in most types of bike, while the front remains low.  The height enables the rider to clear more obstacles by “hopping" the wheels over one at a time, without grounding the drivetrain (and falling off); it also lets the rider pedal through tighter corners. But because this bit of the bike is so high off the ground, the whole bike is raised in the middle, pitching the rider forward and putting more of the weight on their arms. Fortunately for cyclocross racers, this is actually an ideal position in which to go full tack on a race circuit; but cyclocross races only last 60 minutes, whereas we want to ride all day. Try and ride in that position all day and you will hurt your back. If your neck doesn’t go first.  Of course you can put the saddle down, but that may result in less than optimal pedaling. 

 

Cyclocross bikes: big tires, stiff.  Quite nice; and much, much better viewed here than in a freezing muddy field

All that said, cyclocross geometry does seem to vary a lot between manufacturers. I like CX bikes, just never got around to buying or building one. I particularly like Specialized’s Crux, which is one of the more relaxed CX bikes I’ve tried. It’s stiffer and a bit higher, and seemed to have longer reach than the Diverge, but I could get comfy on this real quick I think, especially if I went one size smaller. But I don’t think, comfy enough for long tours, despite the fact that basically some CX bikes now pretty much out-hardtail the hardtail. 

CX: the new XC.

Gravel bikes / Adventure road

As of the 2014 year, a new type of bike appeared on the market: the adventure road bike. This is a bike that looks like a road bike but will go off road (sort of) as well, and be as comfortable as possible while doing it. Actually adventure road bikes are basically fancy gravel bikes with a few extra features and a cool paint job, that you can buy off the shelf instead of spending many winter nights in your garage building one from strange-looking bits ordered on the Internet (when true adventure cyclists are drinking single malt whisky and looking at new frame bags and promising routes on the Internet).

Gravel racing has been around for a long time in places that have a lot of gravel roads; like North America. What’s different now is that manufacturers are putting serious development and marketing money into custom, ready-to-order bikes for the gravel / adventure market because they reckon that, although you have no intention of entering any gravel races, they can entice you to buy an extra bike. Your road bike won’t take you where this bike can, and although your mountain bike can take you there, it’ll do it a lot more slowly, and it's, well, a mountain bike.  There, I’ve said it. These bikes are being marketed at road bikers who want more flexibility but don't need or want a mountain bike (or already have one, or two, or three). Just look at the gearing…. see my rant about this.

Adventure / gravel bikes look superficially like cyclocross bikes but in most cases they’re quite different to ride. Put them next to each other and you’ll basically see that the adventure bike’s bottom bracket is lower, the head tube taller, the seats stays flared, the wheelbase slightly longer, and so on; it’s an endurance road bike, not a race bike.

On paper then, adventure road bikes look like they'd be just about perfect for adventure touring; fast, lightweight, nice handling, gear easily attachable.. what's not to like?  Well, stability is an issue, if you're not used to riding road bikes; adventure bikes have more stable handling than the average fast road bike, but they can still feel positively twitchy in the corners compared to an MTB or hybrid, if that's all you've ridden, and of course, adding bags can make that worse.  And there's another, much bigger problem, one I still can't get my head around; the gearing

Main photo: Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt; essential to have the right equipment

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