The search for the perfect touring bike

It has taken me thirteen previous posts before I got round to writing this one. So far I’ve mainly described some of the rides I’ve been lucky enough to take through the wilds of Patagonia, the smoking volcanoes of the Atacama Desert or the bear country of the Great Divide. The bike itself has been almost incidental until now. My excuse? I just can’t seem to get excited about shiny parts, nor latest specs. I just like getting out riding.

In this month’s post though, I’ve decided to try and restore the balance and talk about what I look for in a touring bike. It also coincides with buying a brand new Rocky Mountain Vertex 930. Having battled for 20,000miles with my Claude Butler traditional tourer, this new purchase marks an end to my nine year mission as a follower of the One Bike Church. I came to the conclusion that not all bikes are made equally. I realise now that sometimes a different machine will get the job done better, and will prove more fun along the way.

RockyMountainbikepack

At the risk of being a hypocrite and posting a slightly misleading title, I still believe that one-bike-fits-all touring will work for many cyclists. I’ve begun with a nod to that below, in the first two questions to ask yourself when searching for the perfect touring bike.

Have you got enough experience to know what you need?

To be brutally frank, if you’ve long dreamed of cycle touring, but been held back because you have “the wrong kind of bike” you are kidding yourself. A meteor storm of bicycle parts will not be enough to make you hit the road. Put simply, the perfect bike for a first overnight trip is the one you already own. Chuck everything in a rucksack, swing your leg over and just get out there.

Once you’ve done a few trips on a less than ideal bike, you are in a good position to know what needs changing.

How versatile can you make your existing bike?

greatdivideclaudbutler

The first and and only bike I owned as an adult (until a few weeks ago) is a classic long-wheel base Claud Butler steel touring bike. Think heavy cyclocross with a greater range of gears. I planned to do the majority of my riding on paved or gravel roads. The places I would travel would be remote and so I opted for strong and easily weldable steel. And whilst it might not be on the top of everyone’s priorities, the dark greyish-blue wouldn’t draw much attention when cycling through less developed countries.

For the first year or so, it seemed like a great decision. On paved roads, the 700C wheels zipped along. On long descents I got down on the drops and could ride it like a go-kart. All the power seemed to go into forward motion, with nothing lost to unnecessary suspension. To tackle gravel roads, I compromised, running the 35mm Schwalbe Extreme tyres. These were the maximum width I could fit through the narrow forks.

How do you know when you need a second bike?

rightweatherwrongbikewater

Our relationship started getting rocky, once I wanted to tackle more singletrack terrain. Adding double reinforced rims gave me more leeway on rocky ground, and double taped handlebars somewhat dampened reverberation though the steel frame. The bicycle, I kidded myself, was a veritable Transformer, capable of tackling any terrain I threw at it.

Bikepacking style trips were now on my radar though, and I wanted to go faster, for longer through increasingly technical terrain. Snakebite punctures were common place, as I smashed the low density wheels into tree roots and rocks. The aggressive ride position constantly made me feel I would be buckarood over the handle bars on steep descents, and the high top tube offered little chance of escape and threatened to trap my legs if I did take a tumble.

Do your two different touring bikes cover the full range of terrain?

lightweightroadtour

A particularly nasty wipeout finally knocked some sense into me: It was time to buy an appropriate bike. For the remoter expeditions I wanted to ride (more on that next month) I thought a rugged classic like the Surly Troll, or the Salsa Fargo would be up to the job. However what I really needed was an out-and-out mountain bike. I had the road touring covered. Any less of a leap and I would be limiting myself for the most technical tours. And when it wasn’t loaded, I could throw the MTB down the gnarliest terrain I might come across. All I needed to ensure was that it would come with a suitable range of gears for fully-loaded uphill grinding. Step in the Rocky Mountain Vertex 930.

Can the bike carry the kit you will need?

RockyMountainbikepack

Of course you may already own a mountain bike, and be looking to buy a lighter speedier machine for road touring. Either way, you need to be sure that the bike can take the kit you plan to carry. I’m not going indepth into pannier and bikepacking bag choices in this post. But if you plan to use panniers and a rack, your road touring bike will need to have brazed-on eyelets. On the other end of the spectrum, if you plan to use a full-suspension bike with bikepacking bags it is worth considering that the rear shock absorber will eat considerably into the space for frame bags or water bottles.

Final thought

leightweightroadtourcloseup

As much as I wished it was true, there is of course no real perfect bike suitable for all bike tours. For many riders, a compromised and slightly cautious approach can mean that a single bike can open up a massive range of terrain. But if you really plan to ride fast on the roads and hard through the trees you would do well to buy two very different bikes that cover your wide range of needs.


Call for comment

  • What changes have you made to your bike so it’s fit for purpose?
  • Or are you an n+1 cycle tourist who can always justify a new bike?

Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and at his website matt-maynard.com.

 


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12 thoughts on “The search for the perfect touring bike”

  1. Cosmic Ray says:

    Sorry dude, but I already own the perfect touring bike. It’s a hand built 29″/700c x whatever. I designed it myself to allow for tire widths 22mm to 2.2″. Everything that turns is Phil Wood or Chris King. It’s made of steel.

  2. Scott Taylor says:

    My touring is almost all done on paved roads or trails, usually along a river or similar flat terrain. I have what I have always considered to be the perfect touring bike, a 1985 Trek 720 – ultra long wheel, steel bike that just eats up the miles and can take a good load. It is actually my second 1985 Trek 720 as “Art” – my first one that I saved to hang on the wall, hence the name – encountered the back of a car and pranged the frame. I also have a British hand-built Revell Romany that is identical to the 720 that I bought to replace Art to get through our tour after the accident.
    The combination of the relaxed frame geometry and the steel frame make for a very comfortable ride, but it is rugged enough to take a gravel road if the need arises.

  3. Flashalan says:

    Is there a part 2 you kind of left this hanging. Good but to short.

  4. I ask myself sometimes Scott if the day has come to hang my Claud Butler up like yours. But it just keeps on going. If I damage the frame like you, perhaps I will build the wall mount.

  5. Hi Flashalan. Sorry about that. Let me know what I missed out and will try and cover it in a future post. It wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive account. Just some reflections on what worked for me. Of course, as I say there’s no real perfect touring bike…

  6. Fabien Beaufils says:

    Interesting article! I didn’t know you got a new bike!!

  7. BluesCat says:

    Definitely need different vehicles for different tasks. I have a Subaru Impreza for my daily driver (when I’m not riding the bikes) and for taking my wife out on dates; I have a pickup truck for hauling around all the stuff I need to haul around (mostly garbage if you ask the wife I mentioned).

    Likewise, I have a Sun EZ Sport recumbent with high pressure tires for zooming to work on the 360+ sunny days we have in Phoenix; I have a Giant Yukon SE hard-tail, with inverted tread tires, for those infrequent rainy days and for riding with my two granddaughters.

    Both bikes have the same rear rack, so my Vaude Road Master quick-release panniers can just plop back and forth in an instant.

  8. Matt Maynard says:

    Nice one Blues Cat. Isn’t it great to have panniers or bikepacking bags that you can easily switch between bikes! Means you don’t think twice about getting out there.

  9. LightRider says:

    What is perfection?
    if we define perfection with words like “ride, anywhere”, the selected bike will be an MTB or XC, more or less.
    if now we link perfection with words like “standards, find, bike, parts, allmost, anywhere”, the perfect bike could be a 26 inch. Or it could be an older model for the task.
    if we link perfection with terms like “fast” or “energy saver”, the perfect bike is a touring bike or something alike.

    I go on for the routing bike 😀

  10. I have a TREK hybrid with front and rear racks. I use “kitty litter” panniers with pannier hardware from Canadian MEC. These leave all items inside absolutely dry, no matter the weather. Also changed the rear cassette to a 12 – 36 but kept the 11 toothed cog for down hill runs. Changed the 28 tooth for a 22 so I can climb hills/mountains easier as I’m 70 years young. . And a SALSA ANYTHING cage that’ll hold a cleaned out 96 ounce juice bottle. I also have a ‘LOONEY BIN’ bottle holder as it’ll hold a 32 ounce GATORADE or a 48 ounce bottle of water from the supermarket. Also used a BOB trailer for my camping experience in DEATH VALLEY!! I try to do all my own work- can’t have all the bike tools but I’m trying!! Love bikin’ and meeting touring and local cyclists in the Pittsburgh, Pa. area

  11. Blake says:

    I too was a follower of the “One Bike Church”, as you put it, for some time. But due to circumstance after a nasty crash, had to replace the old faithful with another bike and then your current mindset of a single bike that can do everything is really turned on its head and you actually realise that there is a bike for specific purposes – so now I actually have 3 different touring bikes – I dont ever believe I’ll go back to just the one!

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