Get on and pedal
Placed like this, the question has no answer and must be analyzed, making some clarifications and distinctions. Before entering into the merits of it, it is right to do a premise: cycle tourism was born at the end of the XIX century and in those years of course no one had the possibility to choose the right bicycle from a wide range of proposal such as those offered by the market today... It was already so much to have a bike.
This means that anyone can leave with any piece of iron equipped with two wheels and one transmission: “our” friend Girumin, who has made many nice trips with his Graziella bike, is the proof.
Therefore you can brush up the ramshackle object that your grandpa kept in the cellar since the end of WWI, oil it here and there and leave! But if you have some money aside, some room in your cellar and the desire to use it for more than one weekend a year, then I suggest that you do a double investment: read this article till the end, spend a few hours to think about the touring bike right for you and then open up your wallet, even without ruining yourself, to buy the most appropriate means of transport for your goals.
The right bike for every cycling tour
There are different types of cycling trips and to each of it, it is possible, even without ruining yourself, to associate a type of bicycle. For brevity, being aware not to be exhaustive, I’m going to divide the trips by bicycle in the following categories:
- Slow or fast travel;
- Travel by road or off-road;
- Short and long-term travel;
Short-term travels are usually also fast travels but the specification whether “road ”or “off-road” stays the same. With short and/or fast travels you travel light, with little luggage or with the assistance of a support means that helps to transport them. In this case my advice is to think about a lighter and more powerful bike, that allows you to make more kilometers and save effort in the few days that you will have at disposal. If you prefer dirty roads, perhaps with some paths, choose a mountain bike with suspension fork. If you know you only want to deal with paved roads or cycle paths choose a tourer or hybrid bike.
Generally speaking I always advice against travelling with a racing bike: the position is not designed for comfort but for performance. The only exceptions are in the case you make a travel to train yourself, to beat a record or in the case it’s the only bike you have at disposal and you don’t want to face another expense.
If you’re preparing to take on a longer travel you have to think especially about the solidity of your touring bike and leave lightness in the background. In this case the keyword is “slowness” and therefore a few more kilos on the hubs, the frame will make no difference... throwing down a few from your belly could be the solution! In this case buy a robust touring bike, that will give you less problems in the future, reducing maintenance and failure probability.
Choosing your right touring bike you will have to evaluate the quality of the whole vehicle but passing through a judgment on the individual components and in particular considering:
- wheels and tires
Steel is a material still pretty used for touring bikes, especially for those more suitable for great expeditions requiring solidity and reliability. The commonest material used nowadays in bicycle manufacturing is aluminum while carbon is being increasingly used especially for top range bicycles, which are very light. For practicing cycling tourism avoid to buy a bike made of carbon given the fragility of the material. There are titanium bike but the budget is still exorbitant while wooden or bamboo frames are still suitable to a narrow niche of collectors. The great benefit of steel is its relative ease of welding: if you should have problems or breakings in less developed countries from a cycling point of view, it will be quite easy for you to find a blacksmith able to weld your steel frame, more difficult to find one who is able to fix an aluminum frame and virtually impossible to find someone that can fix carbon or titanium frames.
Therefore, if you are considering to make expeditions or trips also in countries in the southern part of the world my advice is to think seriously of a steel bike, otherwise “make do” with an aluminum bike that is usually the best compromise between quality, price and weight. Since I’ve spoken of the frame, it’s quite obvious to wonder which is the right size of a frame. The answer is extremely difficult and, for a discussion on the topic, I will soon publish another article about how to calculate the right frame size.
The correct position of the bike in any case is now considered a science and anyone has some specificities that are not resolvable with a simple formula therefore if you have posture problems there are many biomechanics experts who can help you if you want.
Nowadays major companies produce frames in series of a few different sizes and therefore it is essential to use the various components to adapt your posture according to your size. Once chosen the frame, the components that affect the position are mainly three:
- the saddle, adjustable in height, tilt and advancement;
- the handlebars, adjustable in height and progress;
- the pipe that connects handlebars and fork;
- the cranks.
To be comfortable on the saddle it is essential to adjust correctly the position of the saddle and that’s the reason why I suggest that you read our suggestions on how to adjust the position of the saddle.
Before adjusting the position it is indeed important to buy the best saddle for your comfort while travelling. As for the frame, also in this case there is no standard procedure for the choice. How a friend of ours cheerfully says: «A saddle for each bottom!». In more technical terms, depending on the points of support of each individual, the right saddle varies in shape and padding. The aim is to get a pressure reduction on soft tissues and arteries, in order to improve the blood flow in the perineal area.
Many shopkeepers often have available test saddles, that give to their clients to find the right one suited to their anatomy. Generally forget about the carbon losing, very rigid, but don’t exaggerate in the opposite direction: overly broad saddles or very padded, pedaling for many hours a day, cause rubbing problems to the inner thigh and irritations.
The choice is personal. So far we have always used MTB straight handlebars but we are well aware of their limits. “Off-road” handlebars, with folds, allow to have two postures on the saddle but the position, in our opinion, is too restrictive for cycling tourism that should allow you to enjoy the landscape you’re passing through.
In the Nordic countries and increasingly also here the new trend is to have trekking handlebars (or “butterfly handlebars”), that allow to vary the position of your hands and guarantee anyway a posture quite upright on the saddle, more proper for travelling. If I should give you some advice I’d say to opt for this solution, perhaps with an adjustable pipe.
Wheels and tires
The wheels of the bike are one of the components that professional and amateur cyclists take utmost care of. In fact the weight on the rotating elements is what reduces more efficiency of pedaling making us work harder. But once more, as performance is not a goal of those who practice cycling tourism, I suggest to aspire more to solidity than lightness. A circle and a solid hub will allow you to get a few more bumps and increase the load without fear while a good number of rays will ensure the continuation of the journey also in case of breakage of one of them (at least to end the stage).
Regarding tires, the choice depends largely on the type of trip you'll face, but the ideal solution to combine smoothness and tightness is a compromise between the two.
Travel tires are many and very different one from another. I personally always use tires that have a tessellation not excessive, for a better grip off-road, preferring tread smaller than two inches to guarantee also a good fluency. Also in this case I do not mind much weight and I often try to assemble reinforced travel tires to avoid or minimize the possibility of drilling.
The types of pedals to choose from are two:
- clipless pedals, if you are already accustomed to using them. Avoid racing bike pedals and choose MTB pedals, like SPD or Crank Brothers, even better if with "cage" to improve the support on the pedal.
- flat pedals (with or without pin) to improve the adhesion of the shoe to the pedal. This is the solution to be preferred if you've never used cleats. You have some loss in the push but they can be used with the shoes you always use, without having to purchase specific shoes.
The solution that could combine comfort of flat pedals with the efficiency of quick release is that of mixed pedals, with a free side and the other with cleats. This opportunity allows you to use the cleats during a longer stretch of pedaling and to let your foot loose, for example, while visiting a city or a site of interest, when you often get on and off the bike.
Also in this case your choice will be restricted, if you want something traditional, to two types: VBrakes or disk brakes. Always thinking of keeping the bike as simple as possible in order to avoid problems during the journey, the V-Brakes are the ones less complicated. Disc brakes have a more efficient and fast braking but repairing them may become a bit more complex. In addition the V-Brakes also have the advantages of being lighter then disk brakes.
Regarding garnishing, I suggest that you choose the triple model with low gears as those assembled on mountain bikes, especially if you plan to travel facing climbs and descents. The weight of the luggage has a great influence on the gear that you can push: also on a paved climb not too pendulous it can happen to come down to speeds lower than 10 km/h.
After spending a few hours to look for the components best suited to you, also testing them on site, you will need to go and purchase. You can buy a touring bike already assembled but in this case you won’t have the possibility to customize it with specific components chosen by you. If you decide to buy the different components and the frame and then assemble it personally or with the help of your mechanic, you can buy the material also on the Internet: in this case make sure to buy through a reliable dealer and do not be fooled by too low prices.