What is a touring bicycle?

The cycling industry isn’t all noble, despite what the marketing might try and convince you of. Bicycle manufacturers are mainly large corporations, trading for profit, with dividend-hungry shareholders lining up, and it’s in their best interest (but not yours and mine) to have as many different, cross-incompatible products as possible available. And yes, that extends to whole bicycles, with the industry being very eager to encourage the belief in N+1. (For the uninitiated, N+1 is supposedly the formula for the correct number of bicycles to own, where N = however many bikes you currently own).

This has led to a whole array of different bikes. With some, it’s very obvious why they’re different: folders, or BMX bikes, for example. With others, the real difference (not the marketing BS) is less clear-cut, for example a steel-framed road bike versus a carbon road bike. Yes, I’m aware at elite level those differences become quite pronounced, but let’s face it, the average club rider has no hope of ever becoming a pro-cyclist. Mountain bikes seem like a great solution, till your start digging and discover the many different types of MTB – no suspension, front-suspension, full-sus, and then those crazy downhill racers. Once you start realising the difference between the MTB disciplines, you also start understanding the need for these different styles of MTB bikes.

Some aren’t very clear-cut at all – to most people, there’s mainly only a marketing difference between a gravel bike and an adventure bike, though at the competition end, there could be a staggering difference in weight, quality and price of components used.

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And standing to the side is the touring bicycle. What is a touring bicycle, and what makes a good touring bicycle? The first part of that question is very simply to answer: it’s a bicycle you use to go touring. Yes, that quite literally means it’s any bicycle. The first cycle tourers used penny farthings, and a friend of mine goes cycle touring on his trusty 3-speed Brompton, so cycle touring certainly can be done on any bicycle.
The second part of the question is far harder to answer. For starters, a good touring bicycle is comfortable. Cycle touring usually means riding longer distances – Andrew Sykes racked up a 260 mile day when crossing Europe, though thankfully that was the exception, rather than the rule. Also, usually (though not always) people doing cycle touring carry at least some luggage on their bikes. This means that a good touring bike can handle a load, which in turn suggests it has lower gearing than what you’ll find on say a road bike. This is because it takes more effort to drag yourself, plus all your kit, up those hills, and is the excuse I use to explain why two joggers once overtook me on a hill. The next thing you’d expect from a touring bike is that it’s reliable. Often, that means it will share more components with MTBs than with road bikes, though of course weight saving is becoming increasingly important in MTB circles, too.

A good touring bicycle is one that you should be able to repair by the road side, and it will therefore usually use less cutting-edge components, so finding spare parts can be easier in less-developed and far-away places. Most touring bicycles tend to use derailleurs, but the best ones use sealed hub gears, such as that from Rohloff or from Shimano’s Nexus range. This is because usually, there’s less that will go wrong with hub gears, and some touring bicycles even use belt drive systems (though that does require a specialist frame that splits, so the one-piece belt can be fitted).

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Touring bicycles tend to be steel-framed, simply because the frame can be repaired in far-off places, should it crack, while a cracked carbon fibre frame would be the end of your tour. However, that doesn’t mean a touring bike has to have a steel frame – mine has an aluminium frame, with carbon forks.

Ultra-distance riders, competing in races like the Trans-Continental, typically use frame bags and seat packs to carry their luggage, as it’s more aerodynamic, and those bags can be fitted to most bikes. Such riders often use road bikes, because speed is of great importance to them. However, most cycle tourers use panniers, as you can normally fit more stuff into panniers. Pannier add wind resistance to a bike, which can add up to a noticeable difference in time needed to cover a set distance. Surprisingly, added weight doesn’t make quite as big a difference as you may have expected, but the extra wind resistance of just a pair of rear panniers can add 12 minutes to a 60 mile ride. Usually, going slower isn’t a problem when cycle touring – after all, cycle touring is best don at a slower pace.

To add panniers to a bike, you need to add a rear rack, and a front pannier rack if you wanted front pannier, too. Road bikes typically don’t have mounting points for racks, while touring bike frames have those as a default. If you think you’ll ever go cycle touring (and if you can, you really should go!) then pick a bike up to the job. Touring routes can include bumpier routes, and touring bikes typically have fatter tyres than road bikes. You don’t have to buy a dedicated touring bike though – gravel/adventure bikes tend to make good touring bikes, too. Mine’s a Genesis CdA adventure bike (admittedly with some modifications) and I love it.

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Or, as my mate Caspar keeps demonstrating, a Brompton with only 3 gears can make an equally good touring bike!

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