Bicycles for Touring

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There is a lot of personal preference in choosing a bicycle or recumbent tricycle. You can make almost anything work depending on your personal constitution and the riding conditions. For example, the people that do the 400 mile ride on the Erie Canal with Parks & Trails New York (PTNY) ride the full spectrum of bikes: recumbent bicycles, recumbent trikes, tandems, road bikes, mountain bikes, folding bikes, hybrid touring bikes, fat tire bikes, and balloon tire bikes with coaster brakes. There is an important factor on that ride that makes the bicycle choice less of a concern: they ride unloaded. PTNY transports their luggage and camping gear from campsite to campsite. If you plan to ride with a load on a self-supported tour, there are other things to consider.

There are four well-known manufacturers of touring bikes: Rivendell Bicycle Works, Surly, Raleigh, and Trek. A Rivendell will cost up to three times more than any of the others. You will not see many on the trail because of that. Don’t despair, though, because bikes made by Surly, Raleigh, and Trek are very highly regarded by bicycle touring enthusiasts as well. A tandem touring bicycle is made by Co-motion Cycles. All of these bikes are made of steel, the preferred material for this use because it is more rigid, better suited for heavy loads, and theoretically easier to repair on the road. I know that there are other touring bicycle builders out there, but these are the well-known and popular production bikes.

Bicycle Selection

I’m not going to discuss recumbent bicycles or tricycles. I don’t believe that there is a recumbent available that will meet the needs for self-supported touring. They can go the distance, but they are not made to carry large loads. One of the riders that I met on the Erie ride this year had a recumbent trike that he claimed could carry panniers, but there may be a difference between being able to carry them and being able to go the distance with the load. Recumbent trikes are less efficient up hills and with a load they might be much more difficult to pedal. Their low profile and width make them less safe especially when the tour takes you on country roads with little or no shoulder. I have not seen a recumbent of any kind used for self-supported tours.

The field of potential bicycles narrows considerably when you consider loading it with up to 50 pounds of gear. The bicycle should be designed as a touring bike and you should be able to find reviews for it on the web. There are tandem bicycles, hybrids, and some mountain bikes that will work. On a tandem, you may need to pull a trailer to accommodate the gear for two people. My first tour was on a hybrid, so I know that it can be done. A mountain bike can work provided it doesn’t have suspension that would limit rack mounting options. I would also recommend street tires rather than off-road tires for a mountain bike, inflated to the maximum rated pressure.

The caveat with the selection of anything other than a bicycle designed for touring is that you are taking the risk that something will not be right. I dumped my hybrid in favor of a touring bike because my first tour was less enjoyable than it could have been. Lots of things from components to frame geometry may impact your ability to tour successfully.

You can achieve the best of all worlds by buying a frame set and building the complete touring bicycle from components. That’s another thing that I will not discuss in detail because there is a lot to it. After you buy a frame, you get to shop for everything, including evaluating viable alternatives in adequate detail.

Given these types of bikes, there are several things to consider when buying a bicycle for touring: frame size, handle bars, racks, wheel diameter and tire size, saddle, fenders, pedals, and safety equipment.

Frame Size

The frame size is critical because many of the other adjustments and geometries are affected by the size of the frame. The frame size is often measured by the distance from the center of the chain wheel to the top of the seat post. As this dimension gets larger, the top tube gets higher. You want to be able to stand over the top tube comfortably with your feet flat on the ground. This is good for standing while waiting for traffic or just resting. It also insures that there is adequate room to adjust the seat height. The seat height should be set so that your legs are nearly straight with the balls of your feet on the pedals and the crank all the way down. The manufacturer may also increase other dimensions as the frame size dimension increases, which help adapt the frame geometry for taller people such as the top tube length. Larger frames may come with slightly longer cranks.

The chain stay length of a touring bike will often be longer than on a road bike or mountain bike. A side effect of that is that it provides clearance for panniers. A shorter chain stay will position panniers closer to the back of your foot. If you have big feet like I have, you can find the back of your foot whacking the panniers on every stroke. Of course, the racks that you use need to be designed to provide that clearance as well.

Handle Bars

I feel that I need to mention handlebars because some riders have a strong preferences and strong opinions about them. If you purchase a touring bike built by one of the companies that I mentioned earlier, drop handlebars are standard. I prefer drop handlebars because I like the option of being able to go into the drops on downhill runs for stability or in a headwind to reduce drag. I also find that the lower positions give me more leverage on the pedals in some situations. The upright position that I am able to achieve by gripping the tops of the bars works well for me. Compared with straight bars, the shifters and brakes can be a bit awkward, but I feel that most people can adapt.

Some people prefer straight bars because, especially with extensions, the rider can sit more upright in the saddle when desired. Straight bars can be easier on your back because even when you are on the bar grips, you are not as bent over as you would be in the drops of a drop handlebar. You may also feel that the shifters and brakes are more accessible with straight bars. This type of handlebar is most common on hybrid or mountain bikes.

Butterfly handlebars are the favorite of people who feel that they need even more possible riding positions. However, I don’t see them very often on the road. This may be because fitting hardware such as shifters and brake levers is not straightforward and any location seems awkward. They are not stock issue on very many bicycles.

Racks

The racks that you choose need to accommodate the load and distribute it comfortably. I took my first tour on a hybrid bicycle, but not a bicycle designed for long distance touring. I was satisfied with the racks that I purchased with the bike, until I began my first self-supported 400 mile ride. I was using only rear panniers and they were loaded with about 50 pounds of gear. Luckily the rear rack was strong enough to handle the load. When you buy, be sure to check the load capacity. After I initially loaded the bike I was very surprised by the instability. When I got aboard and began pedaling, I needed to compensate for the high center of gravity. I was able to adjust and to make the trip successfully, but there is a better way.

My next touring experience improved significantly. I did an upgrade that included a new bicycle and touring racks. The new racks are designed to carry a heavy load. The rear rack carries the large panniers a couple of inches lower, bringing the center of gravity down a bit. The front rack carries the panniers very low, helping my center of gravity even more. It is easier to hold the bike upright when stopped and it feels more stable when riding with this setup.

There are a variety of racks and other ways to manage the center of gravity, such as the packing of the panniers themselves with the heavy stuff closest to the bottom. When you buy racks and when you pack, be aware of the center of gravity. Load up and try your rig before heading out on a long trip to be sure that your rig is stable.

Wheels and Tires

Wheels on touring bicycles are either 26 inch diameter or 700 mm diameter. I could go either way. I like 700 because the added 1.5 inch diameter intuitively will give you a better ride. If you find a 26 inch that fits you well, go for it. The key thing is that the seat tube is long enough to permit adjusting the seat to a comfortable height for long distance pedaling. You may find that a smaller frame will dictate the smaller diameter wheels.

The tires width should be 32 through about 40 mm. I recommend that range because they will work well on a variety of trail materials, including packed stone dust, dry dirt, or pavement. If you encounter mud, you will survive. Narrower tires will tend to sink more easily into stone dust or dirt and wider tires will have more friction on pavement. The tire sizes that I recommend can usually be inflated to 80 to 85 pounds per square inch, which also reduces friction, particularly when fully loaded. The tires should have a relatively deep tread pattern to give you good traction on wet pavement or muddy trails, but not a knobby, aggressive tread that will increase road resistance. Puncture resistance for both the tires and the tubes is highly recommended.

When touring fully loaded, tires should be inflated to the maximum rated pressure or close to it. This reduces the flexing in the side wall as the tire rotates and makes contact with the surface. Excessive flexing can cause tire side wall failure and uneven tire wear. When training on the same bicycle, the tires can be inflated 15% to 25% less so that the tires absorb some of the road vibrations for a more comfortable ride with less fatigue. When riding fully loaded the added weight acts to dampen the vibrations.

There is growing interest in tubeless tires. There are kits available to convert clincher-type tires to tubeless. Tubeless bicycle tires were invented for competitive mountain biking to achieve a number of things that are not relevant to touring. For example, they allow the cyclist to use a lower inflation pressure, which gives a smoother ride over rough terrain. For touring you want to use a high rated pressure to decrease rolling resistance. Tubeless eliminates “pinch” flats where the tube is pinched between a ground object and the rim, a common problem in competitive mountain biking. This is a situation that you will probably not encounter in typical touring, especially with the higher tire pressure.

My opinion is that tubeless tires are not useful for bicycle touring. One of the disadvantages is that inflating them requires a high pressure inflator. What I’m talking about is a compressor-type inflator. This is needed to establish the initial seal between the tire bead and the rim. As a consequence, you need to carry spare tubes with you because if you get a flat, a tube may be the only way to get back on the trail. There is really no rationale or clear advantage that would justify the use of tubeless for touring.

Saddle

Your saddle choice will affect your comfort and minimize chafing. The saddle should provide some support under your buttocks, but be narrow enough to avoid too much friction with you inner thighs. The wide part of the saddle should be providing the support, not the narrow nose of the saddle. The wide part can be overdone. A saddle with a very wide seat area may look and feel comfortable when you try it, but may cause a lot of pain when you try to ride on it for 50 to 60 miles per day. The place where that type of saddle fans out from the nose is the place that causes friction with your skin and clothing. Padding isn’t necessarily a good idea either because excessive padding can detract from the support needed. I recommend going to the web to find reviews for popular saddles to help with that decision.

The support provided under your buttocks is critical as is technique. Both men and women should avoid excessive crotch pressure from the nose of the saddle because it can cause physical problems and injury over time. There are a number of ways to achieve this, the main one being to be aware of your position on the saddle and slide back to use the wide area of the saddle for your primary support. I think that being able to achieve this kind of support is a key criterion for selecting a saddle. The geometry of touring bikes makes this easier to achieve in most riding positions than it would be on a road bike where the seat is much higher than the handlebar. The farther you need to lean forward in the drops of the handlebar, for example, the greater the pressure placed on your crotch.

I have used three different saddles before finding one that is optimal for me. For me it means that I can take my training rides in street clothes and not suffer any bad effects. On tours I can stay on the saddle for long distances without chafing or pain and I can do that day after day.

Fenders

If your bike doesn’t come with fenders, it should at least have clearance for them and lugs for mounting them. Some people prefer the look of a bicycle without fenders for all kinds of reasons. You are not trying to achieve a “look”. Fenders are for your riding comfort to reduce the dust being thrown up from the spinning tires and to prevent getting you or your gear wet when riding in the rain or when riding through puddles or wet pavement after a rain. Many times on a tour you will ride in the rain to avoid missing a campsite or hotel reservation and to avoid the need to re-plan a huge part of a trip.

Pedals

Stock platform pedals can often do the job very well. I have ridden many miles using stock pedals. After you get some experience you may find that an upgrade to toe clips or clipless pedals will help to reduce fatigue. The term “clipless pedal” is confusing because they do use clips. The difference is that the clip is integrated with the shoe. Another difference is that it is easier to release yourself from a clipless pedal than a toe clip. Release from a clipless pedal is done by twisting your foot while getting free from a toe clip requires that you lift your foot back out of the clip.

People tell me that being able to pull up and use different muscles helps as well, but I don’t share that view. I don’t believe that you can apply the same kind of power with the same kind of leverage as when thrusting your leg downward. I like clips because you can avoid the constant search for the sweet spot with your foot. You adjust the clip position for your taste and you do that once. There are clip systems and pedals available that allow you to use the pedals without the special shoes: clip on one side and platform on the other. There are also systems that use low profile clips so that you can walk in the special shoes. I recommend this type of pedal and shoe combination because you want to be able to walk short distances during breaks and at the end of the day. The shoes used with racing pedals and clips make walking difficult and uncomfortable.

Using either toe clips or clipless pedals requires some training. You need to anticipate stops or you will fall down. When you come to a stop and your feet are clipped to the pedals, you will fall over unless you are one of those people who can balance when standing still. It happened to me several times and it didn’t hurt much, but it was embarrassing.

Platform pedals are the best choice when you plan to ride lots of hills. For example, on my Adirondack trip I found that I needed to take frequent breaks when going uphill. In a low gear on an uphill grade, you don’t have much coast time to pull out of clips. It’s much easier and faster to stop and hit the ground with both feet when you use platforms. You don’t want to take the chance of falling over fully loaded in traffic on a grade.

Safety Equipment

The last two pieces of bicycle equipment that I want to recommend are for safety. The first is a rear view mirror. They come in many styles and use several methods to attach either to the bicycle or to your helmet. I like to keep track of vehicles approaching from behind. You can determine their speed and size quickly and adjust your behavior accordingly. For example, if you are on a New England side road with a car approaching from behind and from ahead, you may want to slow and pull closer to the shoulder or even bail out to the shoulder altogether. Some riders leave it to the car drivers to behave, but I err on the side of my own safety. Even on dedicated bicycle trails, I am often passed by faster cyclists who fail to hail as they pass. While less dangerous than a car or truck, this can be a collision hazard if you are not paying attention.

The second piece of safety equipment is a bell. I don’t think you need a bell if you prefer to hail to other people on the trail. I like calling out to people to let them know that I’m passing: “On the left” or “Heads up”. If you don’t like hailing, a bell works fine. It is important to let people know that you are approaching for your safety and theirs.

Trailers

Many people prefer using trailers to carry their gear on bicycle tours. Trailers have the advantages of getting the load off of the bike and are easy to pack. My view of trailers is that they offer an alternative way to carry your gear on a tour rather than extending the capacity of your bike. That is, instead of loading panniers, you would use the trailer. You would not load 50 pounds into panniers and another 50 pounds onto the trailer. If you use a trailer, avoid overloading it. Trailers may have the potential to carry a lot of stuff, but if it gets too heavy it will be unsafe and inconvenient. If the stuff would exceed two rear panniers, I would say it’s too much for a trailer.

Trailers have several disadvantages. They change the riding characteristics of your bicycle, especially with a heavy load of everything that you need for touring. That’s a nit because loaded panniers also change the feel of your bike. However, the weight of the trailer and the extra wheel or two adds drag. There are more things to break or go wrong with a trailer, including the tires, which are different than the ones on your bike, and the mechanical parts that attach to the bike frame. For those reasons, I’m not a fan of trailers and I haven’t seen them used on any of my self-supported tours except behind tandems.

With the bicycle put together and ready to go, you will need to figure out what gear you need to carry with you and how to carry it.

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