I (unfortunately) did not go long tours (yet). Yet, I travelled quite long distances, and tried lots of bikes and equipment. This blog post is not a structured, or an in-depth one, but includes some useful tips.
You don’t need a super fancy bike to cover long distances, but a nice bike helps drastically. It doesn’t matter if it’s steel or aluminium, but carbon fiber is a risky frame material: it collapses without a prior warning, and impacts can internally damage frames. While you’ re bike touring, your bike will fall eventually, even it is standing still, because of unbalanced loads, etc.
Get a bike with long chainstays. Longer chainstays not just provide comfort, but also makes the bike more grounded. Added benefit is, your feet won’t rub to your panniers.
Stay away from carbon forks.
If you have an old steel frame, you may want to add some extra mounting points for bottle cages, or add some for forks to carry extra load.
Get wheels with at least 32 spokes. If you want a lighter set, get 32 spokes at front, 36 at back, at least. Even if you’ re using disc brakes, I suggest rims compatible with V-brakes. You’ll benefit both ways: your rims will be stronger and you can always come back to rim brakes if you want later – if your frame and fork have brake bosses, obviously. You won’t be able to find a new MTB or gravel frame with bosses, manufactured in the last decade. Yet, significant number of hybrid or touring bike frames still have them; but I bet this won’t last long.
Rims with eyelets are stronger and more durable. Take a look at some high-end, aluminium rims: some don’t have eyelets, but thicker, reinforced areas around nipples. Strangely, I’ ve seen more cracks near nipple area with rims with eyelets, just because people think eyelets make rims invincible. They tend to put incredible tension on spokes, and rims eventually crack. Too much tension is worse then slacker spokes, because it also destroys comfort.
I suggest cup and cone style hubs. Or, hubs with standard cartridge bearings on all ends, especially if you’ re travelling to less developed countries. (Like some Mavic rims)
26 or 27.5 wheels are better then 700c (29); because they’ re stronger, lighter and lowers center of gravity which is good for stability – you’ll probably pack your home into your pannier on your first long ride. Slightly less comfortable then 29 rims, you can go for wider wheels to compensate. 29″ rims are surefire way to find all kinds of tire, which is excellent, but have major disadvantages: your bike will be bigger, but not in a way you want: if you have average height, front tire can greatly kill maneuverability – big tires on small frames does not make a great combo, especially on touring bikes which you have to ride in every condition, and sometimes make sharp turns. You’ll know what toe overlap is, when you ride a 29″ bike on long tours.
A good, solid wheelset is the most important asset of a touring bike. Do not go light, cheap on rims, tires, hubs, even inner tubes. Riding a wheelset with less then 32 spokes is looking for trouble. Find a good wheelbuilder. There are not many. Take your time. Test wheels before long rides, and learn at least to replace a spoke. Have a few of them with you. You can even tape them to your racks, frame tubes, etc. Get some nice, double or even triple butted spokes. Do not listen to people saying they’ re weaker, aero spokes are better, etc. Aero spokes are a joke. In fact, they are not even “aero” – you’ll know when you got caught in a sidewind. Besides, you’ll need two tools to replace an aero spoke. Aero spokes is an industry conspiracy: they started making rims with much fewer spokes, so spokes have to be thicker to compensate. Why? Because it takes much less time, even with machines. With 32 or 36 spokes, you can still ride if 2, even 3-4 spokes are broken. With a 20 spoke wheel, good luck if your rim survives it. It is also much easier to true a 32 or 36 spoke wheel.
Do not even think of 1x if you’ re bike touring. A 2×10 or 2×11 is adequate for light touring, but I think nothing beats a 3x setup, or a Rohloff gear hub. Rohloff’ s are very expensive, but if you like gear hubs, it’s the obvious and best choice. A great downside is, they need a special frame.
The other advantage of going 3x is, you can choose a shorter cage rear derailleur if you can keep your cassette under 34t max. I think 44-32-22 with 11-32, even 11-28 is perfect for 26 inch wheels. 44-32-22 cranksets are still common. For the mid-range, look to Shimano Alivio group. Sram doesn’t make 3x cranksets anymore, except the very low end S1200. Sram or Shimano are not the only manufacturers, though: For the crankset, SR Suntour XCM-T can be good candidate, for example. It’s for 10 speed, uses Octalink bottom bracket and quite cheap. Or, if you’re riding 26′, you can go for road triple cranks, provided you’ re travelling light and trained hard.
For derailleurs, prefer steel cages. Aluminium is nice, hard enough and light, but if you hit it, it does not bend as much as steel and break. You can bend back steel cages on most cases. This is often overlooked, as horrific chain jams does not occur often with road bikes.
Get good shifters. You can save on derailluers, but crappy shifters won’t last long. You’ll be probably shifting more than normal, as it is harder to keep the cadence with extra load, and varying grades. Crappy shifters gather lots of crap, and plastic parts inside does not have examplary longevity. Besides, when you shift that much, you miss some precision and comfort.
Cabling is important too. Do not try to save on cables or housings. With good cables and housings, even lowest end components works nice. With worn out, or bad quality cables and housing, even XTR’s will suffer. Nothing beats Shimano cables here. They’ re slick, available in many colors, durable and fairly priced. They perform better than “boutique” brands costs 3x more.
It is not a good idea to save weight from seatposts. Get the longest and meatiest one possible, from a reputable manufacturer. This is the part that will get quite stressed out. Especially, if your rear rack (no pun intended!) is connected to seat post. Carbon seatposts are a joke for touring bikes. Even if you baby them, you’ ll eventually damage it, either when adjusting it, tightening rear rack mounts, or simply by hitting your bike somewhere. I stress: get a long seatpost, and do not try to cut it short to save some ridicilous grams; you’ll regret it later. I see some people riding with 20cm, fully extended seatposts, which acts as a crowbar. Seat post and top tube insersect is where there is lot of tension; some manufacturers even make these intersects bigger and beefier, while some steel bikes have extra supports. You don’t want to pry it.
I see lots and lots of tourers cooking pasta, as if that’s a tradition. That’s very wrong.
You will probably arrive your camping site just before the sunset, and this would be the last meal of the day. After lots of effort, your muscles are burned out, and have to repair themselves. That means, you need protein!
If there is a supermarket or grocery store in near vicinity, you can get and boil eggs without cracking them. Or go creative with omelette recipes. Another nice food is canned fish. You don’t need to cook it, does not need a prep work, or takes up much space.
Another nice thing about having a protein-rich dinner is, you’ll not wake up starving. Pasta, or foods with simple carbohydrates will raise and deplete your sugar levels quickly, causing hunger. You’ ll not need energy while you are asleep, and it’s hard to sleep while you’ re starving.
Pastas or carbohydrate rich food is better to be eaten in the morning to supply energy throughout the day. You’ ll need carbs to pedal. Still, I advice against “fast carbs” like pastas, bread, processed rice. They burn like petrol; but bike touring is not track cycling. You’ ll need slow carbs that will sustain your energy for long hours. Beans and nuts are perfect for the purpose, if you are comfortable with beans. Unprocessed rice, or whole grain bread is good for long rides.
You have to carry some tools, depending on duration of the tour, terrain you ride, and distance you cover. With any tour, you’ ll need spare inner tires, a patch kit, and a multi tool. That’s bare minimum, even for a very short ride – short ride meaning, a distance that you cannot comfortably walk back home, carrying your bike. That distance is not even a “ride” territory, let alone “touring”.
Dogs are the best friend of man, worst enemy of a bike tourer.
No matter you’re on the tarmac or in the woods, always look out for dogs. They may instantly cross your road, triggering a panic crash or fall. %99 of the time, they’re not dangerous. Some look for play, some are afraid of bikes and try to intimidate you, some are protecting their territory, or trying to impress their owners.
Whenever I encounter a dog, I slow down rapidly as I can, and prepare to unmount. They almost always run to you and bark, if you’re on your bike. First, I place myself between the bike and the dog(s) if I mounted already, as some protection. They are friendly most of the time, play with you, but generally will bark again when you mount your bike. I know some dogs that bark fiercely that we played like 100 times before. They can’t help it.
Funny but bad bearings trigger dogs! They whine at very high frequencies that we don’t hear, but dogs do. A few years ago, dogs were constantly attacking my car, one dog went above and beyond to bite the bumper when the car was moving! When I replaced the wheel bearing, they started acting normal. Everything happens for a reason.