Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Choosing a Touring Bicycle

The first step in choosing a touring bike that is best for you is determining what kind of touring you want to do. A simple definition of the various types of cycle touring is difficult as there are varying degrees of each type. However, as I see it, the 3 main types can be broadly thought of as Randonneuring, Creditcard touring, and loaded touring or expedition type touring.

Randonneuring has its roots in long distance racing over relatively short periods of time. Races such as Paris-Brest-Paris are amoung the oldest cycle races in the world. Today there are many recreational randonneurs and it is not a sport which one can make a career of. Randonneuring events are defined by their distance, such as 200kms (ranging up to 1200kms) and participants choose when and where to sleep (if at all). Randonneurs usually carry a bar bag, saddle bag or both. The bicycles have slightly more relaxed geometries than a road bikes. They are typically characterized by having a little more trail and longer chainstays (both of these contributing to a longer wheelbase). Randonneur bikes utilize all different styles of brakes and gear ranges depending on an individuals preferred style and level of fitness.

Rivendell Rambouillet courtesy of roadbikereview.com

Creditcard touring may involve long distances and can last days to months. Usually the rider carries panniers with extra clothing and gear. These tourists typically stay in hotels or hostels and buy their food along the route. The type of bicycles used varies greatly, but they should be able to handle well with a small to medium load and accept a medium width road tire (say 32mm) with fenders. The ideal bike may be similar to a randonneur or a "European style" city/trekking bike.   

German Brand Kettler makes a very practical fully equipped city bike, the like of which are rarely seen in North America

Loaded/Expedition touring is characterized by more equipment. Expedition tourists carry food, and camping gear. They must be equipped to be on the road for several days without stopping for food and they have all the equipment necesary to cook and sleep. A loaded touring bike has a long wheelbase and accepts front and rear racks. Prior to the mid-late 1990s touring bikes often could not accept a tire any larger than 32mm with fenders making them less than ideal for expedition touring in which you may be travelling off pavement. This is largely because touring was popularized in Europe where the road network is very dense. The better option for expedition touring was a mountain bike that could accept large knobby tires, fenders and had a very strong frame able to stand up to the abuse of uneven terrain. As such many mountain bikes produced in the 1980s and early 1990s came with all the necessary braze-ons for racks and fenders. Today there are many acceptable expedition touring bikes available such as the Surly Long Haul Trucker, Soma Saga, The Cannondale T-series and the Koga-Miyata World Traveller to name but a few.

Soma Saga with custom speced components equipped for trekking

Today, the old argument over which frame material is best is essentially moot. Components like shifters, wheels and tires are far more likely to fail than an aluminum or steel frame so your bicycle should be chosen based on the specification of the components and the frame features and, most importantly, fit.

Many people wishing to purchase a touring bike want it to be multipurpose. I often hear someone say they want a bike to commute on and do the occasional tour. If you want a touring bike that is multipurpose the first step is to be honest with yourself and decide how much time will be spent commuting on it with light weight, riding recreationally with no weight and touring. If, for example, you spend 90 percent of your time commuting and 10 percent touring, and you want a bike that is efficient and quick, an expedition style touring bike may not be for you. If you commute with lots of weight and do not require the bike to be fast then an expedition style bike may be a good choice and a repurposed steel mountain bike may be just as good a choice if not better. Today there are also many hybrid bikes that make excellent touring bikes, but carful attention must be paid to gearing and wheels.

For the occasional light tour, some recreational riding, picnic day rides and commuting a sport touring bike may be for you. For many years the sport touring bike was one of the most popular bikes in North America. By the 1990s as mountain bikes became popular this all purpose road bike all but disappeared. Today however it is making a come back. The sport touring bike is perfect for someone who wants a quick agile commuter and can load up for the occasional weekend camping trip or even a short one week tour. This bike is very similar to the randonneur though there all small nuances that make the two different. Most bike shops will not have a proper sport touring bike today but they will become more numerous as North Americans adopt cycling as a viable means of transportation in the coming decade. Look for models from large manufacturers such as the new Raleigh and Masi bicycles in Canada. However, many smaller companies like Soma and Surly or smaller yet custom handbuilt bicycle makers sell sport touring models as well.


  1. Hey VBN,
    I'm looking at buying a Nishiki International touring bike. It looks like it has cantis, 3 water bottle bosses, hopefully low-rider bosses,full fenders, rear rack, etc. What would you think is a fair price for such a machine? Thanks in advance.

    Blog looks good and sounds interesting. Will continue to check in.

  2. HI Nogonoma, thanks for posting. I owned a Nishiki International for many years. Three bottle bosses indicates a mid to late 1980s model which I'd expect to have 700c wheels as opposed to 27". This is a good think. In my experience you should be able to run a 32mm tire with fenders. As such I feel that they are at a disadvantage for expedition touring. That will make a good road touring bike. My only complaint with old touring bikes is in the big frame sizes they can whippy when loaded. In medium and small sizes they are excellent. Depending on condition I would value an international in the Victoria market between $150-$350.

    Low rider bosses aren't a make or break. I prefer the U clamps because they are stronger and more versatile for positioning.

    Check out my old blog to see some kitted out Nishiki Internationals:


    Good luck!

  3. Hey VBN,
    Ended up buying the Nishiki today for $350. 700c wheels with Sansin sealed hubs, front 36o & rear 40o. Runs 7-speed Suntour XCE components with Accushift barcons. Measurements are tt 54 cm c-t-c & st 52 cm c-t-c. Dia Compe cantis with newer Tektro levers. SN is: CJ01491. Thanks.

    I'm located in Vancouver.

  4. FYI. The bicycle you have posted as a Rivendell Rambouillet is actually a Heron Randonneur.

  5. VBN,

    I'm in Victoria visiting for a week or so before heading back to Montreal by van. Just before leaving Montreal I had my beautiful old Miele Road bike stolen.... So I'm looking to maybe buy something else while I'm in Victoria, and I was hoping you might have a lead on something, or at least somewhere to look. I'm looking for an older chromoly touring/race bike, probably european or japanese, for around the $200 mark. Any Ideas? I appreciate the local advice.