QUESTION PRESENTED: can Our Hero get away with using *his* bicycle for his cross-country funtimes… or must he go and buy a touring bike?
OR, to put it more broadly: do you need a “touring bike” to go touring?
This is the most difficult decision I shall be making concerning this trip. Also, potentially, the most expensive. I’m going to try to answer this question thoroughly, reasoning step-by-step, & try to come to a good conclusion for me & my summer plans. Also, I hope, a model for those in the same predicament – as to conclusions of analysis, or at least as to what factors to analyze.
Special thanks to the wonderful people on the Adventure Cycling fora: http://forums.adventurecycling.org/index.php?topic=12267.0 – y’all are, individually and collectively, THE BEST.
If you go to any good bike shop (cough cough Gorham Bike & Ski, Congress Street, Portland, ME), there will be a selection exclusively of ‘touring bikes’. Not a large section. It won’t be much bigger no matter where you go: a Surly Long Haul Trucker. A Trek 520. Maybe a Salsa Vaya or a Kona Sutra or some Co-Motion two-months-salary-last-forever. But it’s a very small family.
…and once cosmetic differences (colors, stock panniers) are removed, you realize the family resemblance is *striking*. The differences between any of the aforementioned bikes are essentially trivial. Crank-heads might spend hours and paragraphs arguing the various merits of one over another. For myself, I’d rather be out riding. And whichever of these bikes I was riding, I wouldn’t much notice the difference.
So what is a touring bike?
It is a label, a marketing term, that has come to refer to a certain sort of bike with a particular purpose. The name carries no absolute weight. You could market a fixie as a touring bike. You might end up with a lot of people with very sore ankles. But you wouldn’t be wrong – and people have, God save us all, gone touring on fixed-gear bikes.
But Fun With Absurdity aside, the purpose of a touring bike is to get you from point A to point B, where the distance between the two is measured in the hundreds or even thousands of miles at a stretch, and where “you” includes somewhere from fifteen to a hundred pounds of mischegas & crapola.
A touring bike is a bicycle designed to be ridden long distances, over consecutive days, while carrying heavy or cumbersome loads.
Not every bike will do this – or at least not well & reliably. These bikes are designed from the ground up for just this purpose.
To that’s the purpose; how does it achieve it? Why is this bike different from all other bikes?
A touring bike is made out of steel. It utilizes bar-end shifters, about the only sort of bike to do so (as opposed to brifters – on road bikes – or MTB shifters on mountain bikes and most hybrids). It is big and long (“ample wheelbase,” “long chainstay,” “relaxed geometry”), making it ostensibly more stable and comfortable. It has mountpoints for racks and panniers. It has heavy wheels with redundant spokes. It has a wide variety of gearing – usually 30 speeds, with gear-inches ranging from the teens to the triple digits.
(In more detail: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?page_id=148087)
This as compared to my bike, my Hanno. I ride a Specialized 2011 CruX Expert Carbon. It is a cyclocross bike. It is not a touring bike. Very few people would even consider touring on it.
My bike is made out of carbon. It uses brifters. It has somewhat aggressive geometry. It has no mountpoints. It has light 20-spoke wheels. It has only 20 speeds, with a lowest gear-inch of ~25. Viz. http://www.specialized.com/us/en/bikes/archive/2011/crux/cruxcruxexpertcarbon
The biggest advantage of my bike is that I already own it. On the other hand, I might bike 10,000 miles this summer. I would rather not die in the process. Or even be substantively inconvenienced. I do have the cash. The question, really, is: is it worth it to buy a traditional touring bike – or can I make use of the bike I already have?
Money’s not the only consideration. Nor, even, is comfort and efficiency. This is also an interesting exercise. (Last period got cancelled today, and it’s only in the high 30s; I can’t ride, so time for me to blag.)
The general consensus is that the touring bike is the apotheosis of the mature technology. Your parents, even your grandparents toured on bikes little dissimilar from these. Your grandchildren will tour on much the same. This is it, folks. This is the Stratocaster. This is the American Standard toilet. It does the job. It is what it it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But we should look a little closer than that. Because, on the one hand, maybe things have changed sufficiently that real improvement can be realized from new innovations. And, on the other, maybe we’ve realized that the old standards aren’t as important as they once were thought to be… or have since come to be thought, by means of the hardening of conventional wisdom, or the marketing efforts of Big Touring Bike.
Here’s my thinkings:
The Touring Bike is traditionally made of steel. Not aluminum, not carbon, not anything exotic: steel.
Steel is the oldest material of bike construction. On the one hand, it is not sexy or moderne. On the other, it is the most tried and true. That, I do believe, is the main reason for its being preferred: history. Call it tradition. Call it entropy. It’s a little bit of both.
It is the heaviest construction material. An LHT, from tip to tail, weighs about forty pounds. This, to me, is an insane weight for bike to be when contemplating an afternoon’s ride. Now imagine pushing forty pounds of bike across ten thousand miles of America. The mind, and the thighs, recoil.
Whereas a carbon bike – such as my Hanno – weighs some sixteen pounds, eggs to apples. To justify the disparity, I would want the steel to be substantively better than the carbon for this purpose.
The general consensus is that steel is sturdier than aluminum, and yet more forgiving than carbon. While any of the three *can* be toured upon, steel is considered a good balance between the two.
For example: let’s say you get hit by a Mack truck. After the ER puts you back together with duct tape and bailing wire, you’re going to find that your steel or aluminum bike is likely to be tied into a pretzel. The steel can be untied whereas the aluminum can’t. Whereas a carbon bike put through such a ringer will be a pile of splinters suitable for scattering like ashes.
The advantage of steel, then, is its ability to be repaired. The disadvantages are that it is about twice as heavy as carbon, that it is more likely to require repair… and that I already own a carbon bike.
So I must ask myself: is reparability sufficient to merit A) egregious weight increase, B) decreased durability, C) a thousand bucks additional investment?
The answer which I give is: NO.
My bike’s geometry is somewhat more aggressive than that of a traditional touring bike. Fortunately it is less aggressive than a straight road bike or God forbid a time-trial’r (I am glad, so glad, that I didn’t buy that Roubaix).Unfortunately, over 10,000 miles, most people want all the comfort they can get.
Bicycle geometry can be divided roughly into two considerations: rider posture, and bicycle handling.
First: posture. Riding on Hanno will cause me to lean a little farther forward, be a little more cramped up. Day in, day out, this can lead to sore muscles, cramps, aching joints. After a hundred days, or more, this might rise to the level of compelling interest.
On the other hand, these things can all be the result of biking on a touring bike. I cannot imagine riding two days’ back-to-back without ending up looking like an early Christian saint… post-martydrom. Some pain is going to be occasioned by this endeavor. It should be minimized – but only within reason.
I have ridden sixty mile jaunts on my Hanno. I have not been unduly burdened thereby. Perhaps I will find elsewise… but I won’t know until I’ve got a few hundred, or even a few thousand miles of road behind me. For the moment, though, I know that I could complete this trip of mine by going only sixty miles per day, and could go there an’ back again at only 84mpd – not much more than I’ve already done in a single day’s riding. Therefore I can say with some confidence that my bike, while perhaps not quite as perfected to touring as a traditional touring bike, shall serve my purposes. At least, I’m well willing to take the chance, as I consider it to be rather small.
Second: wheelbase and chainstay-length. My same objection arises, namely that my bike has never proven troublesome because of its shorter wheelbase or chain-length. Quite the opposite: touring bikes, though cruise-y, are also to my riding-style rather insufferable. They handle like boats. Like fucking sailboats. If you have a good rhythm and are on a straight line, you can cruise forever. If you have to turn, you do not simply turn; you have to all but tack. I do not like what riding I have done on bikes of traditional touring geometry. If I was touring exclusively on the straight line between Bismarck, ND and Grand Falls, MT, I might appreciate it. But riding in New England, on side-streets, on curves, up and down hills… good Lord, man. To keep the nautical metaphor, such conditions are far less like the open sea than moving through a shifting sandbar. For such conditions I should rather have a little skiff, than a superyacht. Even if I must sacrifice the comforts of the yacht to achieve it.
And even if it turns out that I should have been happier with a touring bike… the difference shall not, I think, be great; nor would it be sufficient to justify dropping a thousand and a half on a new bike.
Nobody likes bar-end shifters. Period.
The reason people use them is because of, again, repairability. If a bar-end shifter breaks, A) it’s apparently easier to fix them, and B) you can even use them, sort of, until you fix them. Which is pretty rad.
But first and last, let’s be clear: they suck. A lot. So there’s that.
And as to the arguments advanced in their favor: 1) I don’t plan on encountering any accident which can fuck up my shifters but which also leaves me sufficiently non-dead so as to want to keep riding. Either my bike is fine, or it is broken but so am I (The Lemma of The Mack Truck). 2) If my brifters do get fucked up, I will go somewhere and get them fixed. I am biking the Northern Tier, or a reasonable modification thereof: there will be no time throughout the trip when I am more than a short hitchhike from a well-traveled path. Nor will I ever be more than a day’s ride from a bike shop – for most of the trip, I expect I will not be more than 20 or 30 miles between towns which contain little bike shops. If something breaks, it can be fixed – by professionals. And then there’s 3), which is that – if my shifters break, I am not going to be able to fix them. Brifters or shifters. That is past my technological abilities for roadside repair. So the question is a wee bit mooted anyway.
Also: oh my God to bar-end shifters suck.
As a result: NO.
A traditional touring bike has an extremely wide range of gear-inches: as low as 15″, as high as 120″. (Trek 520: 17.6 to 92.0; Surly LHT: 15.8 to 113.0). Mine is 27.9 to 119.9.
I spend most of my time riding in the highest gears – 16th to 20th. I do not think I have ever ridden below 40″ – except on this one hill near Cape Porpoise, which I would charitably describe as “near-vertical New England motherfuckery.” Following the Northern Tier, staying on well-traveled roads, I do not expect that I shall be spending much time in low gears. Even if I was, I cannot imagine I should notice the difference between 17 and 27 – since both of them are in the category of “faster just to walk.”
Of all the arguments advanced herein, this is the one which strikes me most as thin. As a result I will be talking to my bike guy about putting in a new cassette for touring, one which offers a lower option. But unless it’s, like, super cheap, I don’t think it’s that important.
It would be nice if my bicycle was a little more conducive to the mounting of racks and panniers. But in the end, I don’t think it’ll matter that much.
As I’ve said in earlier posts, I am going to be following the touring philosophy known as Ultra Light Touring. Meaning: I’m gonna carry as little crap as possible. This because A) when you do the math on pushing so much as one ounce some 10,000 miles, it makes you want to burn your bike & book a plane ticket; B) the goal of this trip is to bike, and that’s really it. Seeing friends along the way shall be a wonder. Seeing America, I can only imagine. Getting a few hours of reading or writing done, every day, doesn’t sound bad. But really, the goal is to bike – everything else is a pretty red bow, or else is done in service of the bikin’.
Also, I am going to be spending the entirety of my touring-time in America, and along major roads, and in well-biked areas (yay Adventure Cycling Association!). I do not have to bring very much. I am not Randy packing his technical books for the Phillipines (CRYPTROLL’D). I am just a guy out for a series of jaunts, one day at a time.
As a result, I am not touring with a huge amount of stuff. I will be touring with as little stuff as possible. A two-pound tent. A one-pound sleeping bag. A few changes of clothing. My tablet. That’s about it. It shall weigh less than the bicycle itself – so less than 16.5 pounds all told. I am hoping that, through judicious food choices, it shall weigh even less than that. (That is the subject of the next post.)
(Aside: when you think about all that a tablet computer contains, in under sixteen ounces, you really have to just stop and think that maybe cyclotourism is not quite a mature activity; that technology is still improving it, ounce by ounce.)
Because of this, I am not intending on using panniers. Or even a front rack, most likely. I am hoping that a rear rack & a few stuff-sacks will be sufficient for all my gear, and that my CamelBak will hold my water and food – and that is all.
As a result, mount-points are not particularly necessary for me. Between the new Thule tube-grip racks, and the Old Man Mountain canti-mounts, I have plenty of choice. (I will be making that choice soon. Expect a post on this subject within the next few weeks!)
As such, there is no need for me to worry about my frame’s lack of mountpoints. I can use what I have without any problem. So: NO.
The traditional touring wheel is heavy-duty: steel, with thick rims, a high spoke count, redundant spoke geomtery, and room for heavy tires. Some people go so far as to tour, even on-road, using other sorts of wheels, even MTB wheels – with tires to match.
My bike’s wheels are light, low spoke count, not much redundant, and currently rocking CX semi-offroad tires.
Instead of sticking with these wheels/tires, for reasons I shall elucidate, I will be buying new wheels and new tires. The latter I will buy off the shelf. The former, I shall be having custom-made to suit my specific frame – b/c awesome, b/c yes, and also b/c the price is no different (yay Maine being cheap!).
Tires, first. I have never ridden with slicks in my life. However, between the amount I ride (mainly on pavement), and how heavy I am, my CX tires turn to slicks pretty damn quick. As such I will just be biting the bullet and picking up a set of road tires. Probably Armadillos… because that’s what my bike pro told me to buy 🙂
Spoke geometry: my current wheels are very plain. What would be better is three-cross; that is, each spoke is crossed by two other spokes. Thus if one, or even two consecutive spokes bend of break, you are not incapacitated. On my current bike, one bent spoke is enough to throw off a wheel-true; one broken spoke is enough to stop be rolling. Not good.
Spoke count: the more, the better. Redundancy is the basis of survivability. Also, the more spokes, the more evenly distributed the weight. This is key for touring, even ultralight touring (doubly so, when you are – at least starting out – as big of a guy as am I.)
Spoke size: the bigger, the better, because the bigger, the stronger. I will be using large-gauge spokes. (More specific information to be posted when I’ve finished making my selection, IE agreeing with the pros at the bike shop.)
Rims: haven’t settled yet. But: thick ones. Because an extra ounce or two is a price worth paying for a few thousand miles more life.
I will be meeting with my designer next week (there is no end to how much I loved typing *that*), and expect delivery by the end of classes on the 22nd of this month. I look forward to breaking them in over reading week, making any adjustments necessary during finals’ week… and then:
hitting the road.
You do not need a touring bike to go touring. You need a bike that is safe, sturdy, dependable, and one with which you are comfortable.
What those words mean to you, you shall have to determine – by analysis, and by acquiring sufficient knowledge that you are able to make good analysis. But an exercise in learning does not necessarily translate, whatever your conclusions, into an exercise in buying new parts, or a new bike…
…but an exercise in learning, such as this blog post here, is of its own sort of value. I am very glad to have undertaken it.
Portland, Maine [home]
GPS coordinates: 43.6538,-70.2668
Nearest geographical feature: Casco Bay