Are you thinking about going on a bike tour and wondering what is the best bike to take? My first answer to that question would be that you should take the bike you already have. Don't let not having that perfect bike keep you from going on an adventure. I've seen people touring on the sleekest race bikes that don't allow for racks, by towing a trailer, and I've seen plenty of commuter and mountain bikes turned into perfectly adequate touring bikes with some modifications. If you don't already have a bike, you should get the bike you can afford. Don't blow all your money on a fancy bike and leave yourself nothing left for traveling. With that said, there are loads of options out there. Here is the process we went through in choosing our touring bikes for this trip.
CURRENT BIKE CULTURE
The vast majority of bikes today are geared toward two groups: road racing and downhill mountain biking, with bike commuting in a distant third, and touring as a sort of eccentric uncle that gets little to no attention. Even in a fairly bike savvy town like Seattle, where there are dozens of bike shops, only a few carry any touring bikes and even if they do they often have little to say about them. Are bike shops carrying only ridiculously specialized bikes because that is what people are buying or are people buying these corporate sponsored expensive toys because that is all the bike shops carry? Don't ask me, I find it mind boggling.
Outside this mainstream bike culture of carbon fiber and full suspension bikes, there is a vibrant community of custom steel bike builders. Like microbreweries or indie music, these bike builders are often more focused on craft than profit, and they are creating bikes of exceptional quality and creativity. With custom though comes cost and unfortunately that puts a custom frame out of reach for most of us. Falling into a category of its own, not custom, and not corporate, is Rivendell Bicycle Works, based in Walnut Creek California.
DRINKING THE RIVENDELL KOOL-AID
For the last 20 years Rivendell has been producing lugged steel framed bicycles of exceptional quality, with a focus on versatility, at a fraction of the cost of a custom frame. In an ever evolving lineup, they currently have half a dozen frames, with varying degrees on roadness to ruggedness. At well under the cost of a custom frame, and even cheaper than most high end mass production bikes, Riv's bikes are still not cheap, costing from $1200 to $2300 for the frame alone. Don't be turned away just yet thought, even if you can't afford one of their bikes there is plenty to be leaned about what will make a good touring bike from the folks at Rivendell.
A good touring bike, or a good bike in general, is a versatile bike. And by that I mean a bike that can do nearly anything with a few adjustments. Add some baskets for a trip to the grocery store, or bags for overnight camping, strip it down and do some miles on a day ride, or put on some bigger tires and get off-road. You won't be breaking any race records or doing extreme downhill with a versatile bike, but you probably wouldn't be breaking any records on Lance Armstrong's bike either, would you? So lose the spandex, carbon fiber and shocks and get a comfortable bike that you are going to want to ride; to the store, to work, camping, or across the country.
Steel is the strongest and longest lasting material for building bike frames and lugs are a strong and beautiful way to join steel tubes together. It was the only way steel bikes were built before the mid 80's when TIG welding quickly took over as a faster, cheaper alternative. TIG welding is just as strong as lugs but not nearly as interesting. For some folks that doesn't mean a damn thing, for others it means a lot. For me I suppose it means a lot. Call me a snob or a dandy, but I care about how things look as well as how they function. Fortunately there are loads of pre '85 lugged steel frames out there in great condition that are functional and classy. Search garage sales, estate sales, thrift stores, or craigslist. You should be able to find one for a couple hundred dollars max. A few things to look out for are braze-ons for attaching racks to the back and the front of the bike, and for good fork clearance to allow for larger tires and fenders. Tire clearance can be the toughest thing to find on these old bikes.
THE RALEIGH WYOMING
In 2008, when I first had dreams of bike touring, I found an '83 Raleigh Wyoming on craigslist for $25 that still had the original tires on it. I stripped it of its old seized up parts and built it up new, mostly with components that Rivendell recommends and uses to build up their own frames. It wasn't perfect but the finished product was a versatile, functional, touring rig. I had to spread the rear wheel stays to accommodate a 135mm wheel, which even then was only 7 speeds. And the front fork was only wide enough to fit 38mm tires without fenders. For years I used this bike for commuting and day trips (including one century ride), but I never did make it out touring. The responsibilities of house and job made that long distant trip an impossibility.
THE LAST THINGS FIRST
When Heide and I decided to quit our jobs, sell everything, and go WWOOFing in Europe for a year we started toying with the idea of biking from farm to farm. Eventually we couldn't come up with a reason why not to do it and the idea stuck. Realizing the logistics of needing appropriate clothing for all seasons, work wear for the farms stays, and camping gear to keep the bike rides affordable, we realized this wasn't going to be a lightweight touring setup, we would be fully loaded. I had the Raleigh all set up and ready to go but Heide needed a bike and we didn't have much time to go searching from a sturdy old frame to build up ourselves. We needed something tour ready quick.
CHOOSING A TOURING BIKE
We seriously looked at both the Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Salsa Vaya, and read good reviews for both. The LHT has established a great reputation for itself, and rightly so. It is a tank, capable of handling serious loads, with all the right details geared towards touring, including a place to hold extra spokes. Its a great and affordable option for touring. Having primarily ridden mixte frames, Heide was more drawn to the slightly sloping top tube geometry of the Vaya. These are both good touring bikes but the 'versatility' of each had us wondering. Heide felt more comfortable on a step-thru frame, especially in traffic, and couldn't see herself using either the Vaya or LHT as a daily commuter once the touring was done. And then there is the matter of aesthetics; we weren't keen on the idea of getting a bike for this amazing trip we had decided to take without being in love with it.
Eventually I turned Heide onto Rivendell's mixte frame, the Ives Gomez, which is built with a stout enough sloping top tube to handle loaded travel (this is a discontinued frame, their new mixte is the Cheviot). It had all the features we wanted: a step-thru frame, load carrying capabilities, accommodation of wide tires and fenders, versatility as a daily bike after the touring was done, and it was beautiful lugged steel.
After Heide had decided (or I had convinced her) on a Riv bike, I couldn't help myself from getting one as well, and settled on the Sam Hillborne (read all about it in Riv's brochure).
Halfway through our trip, I can report that these bikes are a true joy to ride. We are more focused on being comfortable than fast, enjoying our time on the bikes more than we expected. Originally conceived of as just a form of transportation between farms, the biking has come to define our trip as much as the WWOOFing has. We are loving the rides, and loving our bikes!
SPECS ON THE BIKES:
FRAME GEOMETRY + HANDLEBARS
The primary difference in the geometry of the Sam Hillbourne with the Raleigh is that the top tub is shorter, creating a more comfortable upright riding posture without the need for a ridiculously extended stem on the handlebars. This I have found, combined with the switch from drop bars to moustache bars, has made distance riding considerably more comfortable. I am still positioned aggressively enough for hills, yet able to take some strain off the wrists and neck on the flats. I had always thought of drop bars as the only choice for a touring set up and moustache bars as silly/boutique handlebar, but with the type of riding we are doing I am truly glad I made the switch.
Heide opted for the full upright riding position accomplished with the Bosco bars. Although they make tight turns and peddling out of the saddle on extreme inclines a little more difficult, the Boscos provide optimum comfort on the flats, with very little weight in the wrists or strain on the neck.
COMPONENTS + WHEELS + ADD-ONS
I built the Sam up with everything off the Raleigh and, except for a few extra bells and whistles, the Gomez was built up with Riv's standard build kit so I won't go into too much detail here as you can read about it on their website. A few things worth mentioning is that the Schwalbe Marathon GreenGuard tires we are riding are bullet proof. They have seen some rough road conditions under heavy load and there has only been one flat so far (on the first day of the trip), knock on wood. We are also rather impressed with the lighting setup on Heide's bike, including a Schmidt EDelux II on front and a Busch & Müller Toplight Line on the rear, both run off a SON28 Schmidt Dynamo front hub. Read all about these amazing lights and hub at Peter White Cycles.
PLANES + TRAINS
Getting the bikes to Europe was easy and affordable. Each airline is different, but Iceland Air only charged $60 per bike in extra cargo fees. We were required to dismantle the bikes a little to fit them into boxes, but reassembly in the airport was quick and easy. I used blue tape to mark the handlebar stems and seat posts at their desired position before disassembling.
Getting the bikes on and off trains has been a little more difficult than expected, as we haven't wanted to break them down for each train ride. Many of the fast trains in Europe cannot accommodate fully assembled bikes, forcing us to take the slower local trains. Our train trip from western Germany to central France took over 24 hours on 7 trains. Also, many smaller train stations do not have lift or ramp access to the platforms requiring the loaded bikes to be carried down and up flights of stairs. If you are planning on any train travel while touring you should completely rule out the option of using a trailer, getting loaded bikes on and off the trains is hard enough, with a trailer would be impossible. My advice would be to bring as little on the bikes as possible. While we appreciate the luxuries we have brought along with us we could certainly stand to pare down a bit.
I hope some of this info is useful to anyone looking to get a touring bike, or at least explains why we ended up brining Riv bikes on our trip. And I hope that the stories of our travels help inspire you to get out there on your bikes. Read about our custom designed, handmade bike bags Heide whipped out for us on the BAGS page. And feel free to ask us any questions you might have about our bikes, bags, or travels: firstname.lastname@example.org Happy adventuring!