If racing bikes were sports cars, touring bicycles would be pickup trucks. Touring bikes are designed to carry gear. Touring bikes have fittings that allow racks to be mounted, and to the racks you attach panniers (bags) and other gear. Most people start bicycle touring with a rear rack, which moves the bike’s center of gravity aft. Adding front panniers allows you to carry more gear and to move the center of gravity back to where it was originally. Touring bikes have a longer wheelbase than racing bikes, which both ensures that your heels do not hit the panniers that you have a smoother ride.
Note: Nothing helps on Roman cobblestones.
Having tried over 30 brands and styles, the important features I chose to look for were:
• Good brakes, the bike will be carrying the extra load of your gear, and may need to stop quickly on a downgrade. Disk brakes are the best.
• Low gears to pedal up hills. Ideally the ratio of your smallest front cog to your largest rear cog should be 3:4 or less.
• Wider tires to ride on uneven surfaces or dirt.
• Fenders to keep you dry and block water the wheels throw up.
• Strength and durability in the wheels and frame.
• Reasonable weight. I look at the tradeoffs between weight, strength, and durability.
• Summary: A price, weight, durability, feature tradeoff matrix.
As in many fields, the arguments of steel vs. alloy are alive and well in the biking community. Those who like steel discuss the virtues of having a steel frame that can be fixed by a welder in the most remote reaches of Uzbekistan. My perception is that a new frame can be shipped just about anywhere in the world within a few days. I chose more features and an aluminum frame. I also chose 26 inch versus 700 mm tires. If you’re biking in the US, go for 26 inch — if you’re headed to Europe, go for the 700 mm.
I’ve learned that any off-the-rack bike will have shortcomings, and you will need to make changes. Short of a custom bike, here are my choices — from 3rd to 1st.
3rd -Trek 520 – $1,100 – Chrome Alloy
2nd – Surly Long Haul Trucker $930 – Chrome Moly Steel
1st – Novara Safari – $ 780 – Aluminum Alloy
These are all great bikes, and I would be happy with any of them. There are many good touring bikes available for many thousands of dollars, but you still need to futz with them to get them just right for your needs. Longer seat posts, special panniers, extenders on pedals, and other personal preferences make up the wish list. My thought was to start with a good basic bike that’s fully functional, and customize the bike as I get to know it. The Novara Safari is well designed, light, comfortable, and is the REI House brand bicycle — so if you have a problem, there’s a big name supplier to support you — even shipping parts overseas if necessary (and that’s where I intend to take it).