A touring bicycle is a bicycle for people who love long distance cycling with the ability to carry gear for self-supported bike travel. It’s less about speed and more about the time spent on the bike and distance covered. The panniers make it possible to bring a little comfort on the cycling trip. On tarmac or mild dirt roads is where the touring bike comes to its own. The cyclist will experience a comfortable and stable ride on a journey through countries, continents or even the world.
In this article I will explain the basic characteristics of a touring bicycle. It is written for those who are thinking about starting bike travel and want to know more about bicycle touring and the characteristics of a touring bicycle in particular.
Characteristics of a touring bicycle
The touring is bicycle is a classical bike. It is built with specific characteristics in mind to suit paved roads and mild dirt roads at the best. There have been innovations and evolutions through the decades, but the basic characteristics have remained the same. A strong and stiff frame, mounting options for front and rear racks, geometry set for comfort and stability are examples of these basic characteristics.
A strong and stiff bike
What characterizes a touring bicycle the most is the ability to carry even over fifty kilograms of luggage and the cyclist itself without buckling. And so the frame, wheels and pannier racks need to be able to withstand a lot of force.
A strong bike
Steel and aluminum are the go to materials for building touring bikes. Aluminum being the lighter material and steel being the heavier but more comfortable material of the two. Building a strong aluminum frame will need more material and oversized tubing in comparison to steel. Because of the oversized tubing and characteristics of aluminum, aluminum bikes are more ‘stiff’ than most steel bikes. In the next paragraph I’ll explain why this is important. Steel is the more durable of the two and easier to weld or repair when broken. Titanium is another material frame builders use. It is light, strong, expensive and rarely used.
Many bigger manufacturers like Koga Miyata, Idworx and Santos build aluminum bicycles. Surly, another big manufacturer, uses steel as their preferred material. Which material is better is a very personal affair and up to you to decide. Overall, aluminum bikes look more modern and tend to be lighter but less comfortable. Whereas steel bikes have a more nostalgic and classic look, provide a more comfortable ride but can be a few kilograms heavier.
A stiff bike
A stiff bike, as are certain geometric characteristics, will determine how stable a bike handles at high speeds. At high speed descents, a fully loaded touring bicycle has the tendency to wobble at the front end. To prevent this from happening, a stiff frame with good lateral stiffness especially, is crucial to process the lateral forces put on the bike by the panniers. And so the energy transfer in forward motion with a stiff frame is more efficient, thus more stable. One thing is certain, you want to be able to stay straight at a descent with speeds of fifty or sixty km/h.
To build a strong and stiff bike for carrying the packed panniers, a touring bicycle is not the lightest of bikes. It is one of the stand out characteristics of a touring bicycle. The high weight of the bike is the compromise for carrying lots of weight, which can add up to fifty kilograms. The bicycle has to get you and your gear as comfortably and safely as possible from A to B. Therefore, manufacturers don’t focus on building lightweight bikes. Unfortunately, this means fast travel is out of the question for the average touring cyclist. You will just have to spend many hours on the bike to cover a long distance.
Mounting points for pannier racks
A touring bicycle is always built with mounting points on the frame. The options for racks for bicycles without mounting options are very limited and it will never be as strong as when it is fixed on the mounting points. There will be points for front and rear racks and bottle cages. On top of the rear panniers you place another bag for instance a rack pack. In total the volume of bags can add up to around ninety liters.
Geometry of a touring bicycle
The geometry of a touring bike is engineered in such a way that you’re more upright than for example on a road bike. In practice this means the head tube is often quite large. There’s no need to be in an aerodynamic position anyway, because a fully loaded bike already is utterly unaerodynamic. A comfortable position is more important to be able to ride days in days out and get that mileage in.
Next to a geometry designed for comfort, stability of a touring bicycle is very important. So the geometry is set in a way that the bike can go downhill in a stable manner. The front end of the bike is ‘slack’ and usually the wheelbase is a bit longer than most other kind of bikes. These factors will result in stability at high and low speeds.
Handling of the touring bike
Because of the weight of the bike, the long wheel base and slack front end, the handling of a touring bicycle is not as nimble as for instance a mountain bike or a road bike. Manufacturers choose stability over handling. A wider handlebar can compensate for the sluggish handling of a touring bike. You will gain a bit more control with it on the more technical roads or when you have to evade something or someone.
Wheels and tires
Because bicycle touring is mainly done on paved roads, the tire width is usually 1.6 inch going up to 2 inch. Cycling on tarmac with 1.6 inch tires has less rolling resistance than wider tires, thus more speed. Off-road cycling is definitely possible even with thin tires and still a lot of fun. Compared to for instance 2.6 inch tires you will probably have to push the bike (hike-a-bike) a bit more and will take a little bit more force and strength to get the job done.
Wheels are either 26 or 28 inch conventionally. One of the benefits for 28 inch wheels is more distance covered with one full repetition of the wheel in comparison to a 26 inch wheel. Another benefit is they also provide a slightly more comfortable ride in comparison to 26 inch wheels. There is more wheel surface in contact with road surface. As a consequence, the bigger wheels process small bumps in the road better than smaller sized wheels. The downside of a bigger wheel is a compromise in handling. Smaller sized wheels handle just that bit better.
Modern touring bicycles often have the option of running 27,5+ inch wheels and tire width of 2.4 or 2.6 inch. The diameter of these sized wheels are equal to the 28 inch wheels, but have the option of running wider tires. Wider tires give more traction on dirt roads because of the bigger road surface contact. However, wider means more road surface contact and thus more friction. As a consequence, you’ll need more power output to get to a certain speed compared to thinner tires
The most common drivetrain used on touring bicycles is the ordinary derailleur as known on mountain bikes and road bikes. There are different kinds for instance 3×10 or 2×10 with shifters on the frame, the handlebar ends, or the drop bars. The mechanic of these derailleur hasn’t really changed for decades, however they do evolve. For example, in the 70’s these derailleurs came with 2×6 gears. Nowadays there are 1×12 drivetrains. Shimano and SRAM are the go to manufacturers for these kind of drivetrains.
Internal gear hubs
In 1998 the company Rohloff introduced an internal gear hub, the Rohloff Speedhub, for bicycles. It is a fully enclosed gear system without any parts sticking out except for the shifter box. The Speedhub is pretty much maintenance free and could easily make 100.000 kilometers. All the Rohloff needs is an oil change every 5000 kilometers. It is located in the rear wheel and replaces the normal wheel hub of the rear wheel. The system is a bit heavier than the more conventional derailleur system, but for touring bicycles, weight isn’t an issue. The gear hub has 14 gears and around the same gear ratio as a conventional derailleur system.
The Pinion gearbox is another internal gear system, however different than a Rohloff Speedhub. It is located around the bottom bracket, has 18 gears and is a little bit lighter than its competitor. The maintenance of the Pinion gearbox is comparable to that of the Rohloff. It has a reputation of being as durable as the Rohloff. Pinion is making grounds to its competitor Rohloff and the discussion which of the two is better is unconcluded.
Even in a basic description of characteristics of a touring bicycle like this article, there are many aspects which make a touring bicycle. This article just scratches the surface about what makes a touring bicycle. Every part of the touring bike is worth an extensive google search before buying a touring bicycle.