A Guide to Touring Carbon

My name’s David, I’m a cyclotourist and I tour carbon.

This little guide is for people who are interested in touring carbon. It’ll be half Why and half How.

I’ll start with a quick FAQ, and then I’ll have an in-depth section on what kind of bike to choose for carbon touring.

FAQ

  • Can you tour on a carbon bike?

Yes. YES. Yes you bloody well can.

  • My friend says you can’t tour carbon.

I’ve done about 2000k on tour (and at least as much just riding loaded). I’ve had a thousand things go wrong but not one has been because of my bike.

  • My friend says you shouldn’t tour carbon.

It’s a personal preference. Depends on you, and the bike, and the tour. I might not tour carbon through Siberia or the Sahara. But I might. 

  • Carbon bikes aren’t strong enough for touring.

I don’t know. Carbon’s pretty strong. They make diamonds out of it now.

  • Seriously.

I’m basically serious. Some people think of carbon as flimsy or delicate. IT’S NOT. I’ve put 10k on my carbon frame, under a lot of weight, on some awful fucking roads and offroad, and had a couple really gnarly crashes that have put me in the hospital. My carbon bike’s been fine, every time.

  • What do you mean by a carbon touring bike?

I mean, particularly, a bike with a carbon frame. Definitely a carbon fork. Probably also a carbon seatpost. Maybe carbon handlebars, or even components. Probably not carbon wheels, but it’s not out of the question.

My carbon touring bike is a 2011 Specialized CruX Expert. Frame, fork, and seatpost are carbon. The components that he came with (SRAM Apex) were all metal. The components he has now (Shimano Ultegra 6703) have some metal, some carbon. I tour on alloy wheels with steel spokes (Velocity Dyad 36ers, Shimano Deore XTR hubs and skewers). My rack is aluminum (Old Man Mountain Sherpa).

  • There are no carbon touring bikes.

There are no “touring bikes.” There are bikes that bike companies call “touring bikes.” But anything with two wheels can be used for bike touring – and is, somewhere, right now, by some crazy guy on a bike.

Most carbon frames are not designed to handle a bunch of pack weight. But neither are most steel frames – and they do fine. Don’t confuse purpose with ability. My bike was designed for cyclocross racing, but that doesn’t stop it from carrying my panniers over a mountain range.

…also, a few companies are now making “carbon adventure bikes.” With mount-points for racks and everything. So 😛

  • Explain this to me using a metaphor!

Think of bikes like cars. Any car can go on a road trip. You might want a “touring car.” But you don’t need one. Any car that’s in good shape will get you around the world.

And, hey, how would you like to take a cross-country road trip in a sports car with the top down? That’s what I do when I tour carbon.

  • No way, I think steel is much better.

That is totally reasonable! Two tourers, three opinions 🙂

There are a BUNCH of reasons someone might prefer steel, or any other bike material. My point here is that it’s a matter of personal preference. Nothing less – but nothing more.

  • What are the drawbacks of using carbon?

Really: not that many.

  • What are the benefits?

It’s really light. It’s really strong. It’s really comfortable. Heck, a lot of metal-frame bikes come with carbon forks because they absorb shock so well. It’s just more comfy!

Also a lot of carbon frames come with lifetime warranties. Those do not suck.

  • Aha! But what happens when your frame breaks in the middle of the Gobi?

The accidents that will wreck your carbon frame are the same accidents that will wreck your steel frame. Some accidents will total either type of bike. Some accidents will send either type of bike to the repair shop. But there’s a middle ground of accidents where a steel bike can be repaired, and a carbon bike cannot.

This is a very important consideration if you’re touring in a place where there are welders (or blacksmiths) but not bike shops or post offices. If this is the tour you’re doing, carbon might be a bad decision. Or it might be a risk worth taking. Or a risk that can be minimized, and hedged.

  • When is carbon right for touring?

For my money, carbon is right when:

  1. You want to go fast, or cover a lot of ground in a day.
  2. You want to be comfortable when you’re riding, and after.
  3. You want to be light when you’re going up a mountain.
  4. A carbon bike is what you have, and you don’t want to go buy another one.
  5. Your racing bike is carbon, and you just can’t freakin’ stand it to switch to steel.

A GUIDE TO CARBON TOURING BIKES

This guide has a couple of uses. You can use it to pick out the right carbon bike to buy for touring. You can use it to evaluate a bike you’re buying for another purpose to see if it could one day be used for touring. You can use it to evaluate a bike you already have to see if it’ll rock your next tour. Three for three.

First off, every bike can be used for some tour. Just ask the people who tour on mountain bikes. Just ask the people who, every year, go Land’s End to John O’Groats on unicycles. The first guys to bike around the world went on 60-pound fixies with wooden rims. And none of the roads were paved.

Secondly – and this is important – there is no One True Touring Bike. There’s not even an ideal bike for a particular tour and rider. Maybe there’s always something a little bit better – but you quickly get to the point where the incremental improvements get very little indeed. At some point you have to get off your keister and start pedaling.

So you can ask “What’s the best carbon bike for touring?” But you might as well ask “What’s the best bike for mountain biking?” or “What’s the best car for commuting?” It doesn’t mean much.

Instead, I’m going to tell you what questions to ask. Then I’m gonna lay out the possible answers to those questions, and from those answers, tell you what carbon bikes are appropriate – or when, in my opinion, you shouldn’t go carbon.

…or if you’re lazy get a cyclocross bike, throw on an OMM rack and a triple, and head for the feckin’ ‘ills.

THE QUESTIONS

  • How do you like to ride?

As with most things in touring, personal preference is key. If you like to tour sitting upright on a flat-barred commuter, they make those in carbon. If you like to tour, like me, pounding out a century a day – tour on something with drops, powerful gearing, and aggressive geometry. These are choices you have to make for any touring bike. Carbon does not change the calculus.

  • How good a rider are you?

I put this in here just because some people seem to think that you have to be good at biking to ride carbon (or to justify it). No. No and no and no and no. First no is because “good at biking” is meaningless – at best. Second no because a bike frame is not going to make it harder to pedal or harder to steer. Third no because a carbon frame, in my ‘umble opinion, is more comfortable than steel – making it a better choice for newbies and experienced alike. Fourth no because carbon is lighter than steel 100% of the time, making it a better choice for people who are touring on planets that have gravity.

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are at bicycling, or what physical shape you are in. Also… you’re going on tour. You’ll be experienced, and in great shape, by the end of it.

  • What kind of ‘road’ will you be riding on?

Basically the choice here is the same as for a steel bike. If you’re going to be touring on one type of terrain, you can get a bike that’s specifically designed for that type of terrain. Or you can ride any ol’ bike and chances are it’ll be pretty much the same. If you strap some stuff to the bike when you do it, the calculus is not likely to change.

I’ll go through each type of ‘road’ and analyze each.

1- PAVEMENT. Ideal for touring carbon. Go light. Go fast. Go far.

2- SHITTY PAVEMENT. I’ve ridden my fair share of this. I’d make sure your wheels are very tough – which generally means alloy – but it won’t matter to the frame. Except the carbon will absorb more shock. (Especially if it’s a Trek with an iso-speed decoupler or two, or a Pinarello K8-S with a seatstay suspension, or a Specialized – like mine – with Zertz inserts).

3- GRAVEL. All pro graveure racers ride carbon. Touring is no different. Widen your tires, since you’re under load. Then hammer away.

4- COBBLESTONES. There’s a reason the Roubaix is only raced by carbon bikes. See #2 and then buy some chamois creme.

5- DIRT. I’m talking dirt paths here – not stumpjumping. So long as you’ve got the tired for it, blaze that firetrail.

6- SAND. Wide, wide tires. Or call a taxi. I hate sand.

7- SNOW. Are you touring on a fatbike? Can I come?!?!

8- OFF-ROAD. Just be careful. A lot of cyclotourists seem to think that when you put panniers on a road bike it turns into a mountain bike. The opposite is true. If you’re touring carbon, be EXTRA CAREFUL about obstacles, including curbs, tree roots, boulders, and falls. Unless you’re touring on a carbon mountain bike frame. In which case, dude, strap your shit in and shred some a that fuckin’ gnar-gnar.

  • How heavy are you?

Generally speaking, carbon road bikes are designed to accommodate one Fleming, one bidon, and one jaunty little cycling cap. And that’s it.

Pretty much every bike comes with a stated Maximum Rider Weight. This is usually the least of the maximum weight given for the frame, for the wheels, and sometimes for the components (seatpost, handlebars, stem, crank, pedals).

This is true for metal bikes too. A lot of aluminum bikes have lower weight capacities than a lot of carbon bikes. Some steel bikes are no better. Some few carbon bikes are optimized for carrying a heavy rider. And some carbon bikes, like mine, are just built like Soviet tanks and so it isn’t a problem.

Hop on the scale. Then look up the tech specs for the bike in question. When in doubt, call the manufacturer. Or post on reddit, that usually works.

  • How heavy will your kit be?

Most carbon bikes aren’t intended for touring. So they don’t have a published maximum loadout weight. You have to estimate.

To be conservative, I would recommend this: take your bodyweight. Then add the weight of all the stuff you’re going to bring (your “load” or your “kit”). Then add the weight of however many bottles of water you’re planning on bringing, and the same for food. Then add ten percent. If all of this is less than the LOWEST maximum weight on ANY PART OF YOUR BIKE… you’re good to proceed to step two.

Step two is just for your kit weight. Figure out what your kit will weigh, then see how it fares on this scale here:

1- THE ULTRALIGHT. An ultralight kit weighs less than a top-of-the-line new racing bike. Call it the new Emonda – 5kg soaking wet. Even a Shiv can handle 5kg, on a rack or a triangle bag or a radonneur bar. If this is your whole kit, fuck it, tour on a Bolide. See you over the horizon.

2 – THE LIGHT. A light kit weighs less than your (carbon) bike. My CruX weighs about 16 pounds or so. My touring kit is just about here. If your kit weighs less than your bike, you’re golden on anything but the most aero TT bikes. On any road bike that is at least Tour minimum (6.8kg) – tour, and tour hard.

3- THE MEDIUM. A medium kit is one that is up to twice the weight of the bike. Some 15-pound racing bikes will not like 29 pounds of gear in one place. So there’s two things you can do here. One, you can get a heavier-duty carbon frame – for cyclocross, say – that might weigh as much as a whole pound more than a racing frame (!!!). I’ve strapped a fucking 105-pound anvil to my rack to wheel it across campus and my frame didn’t bat an eye. Or two, you can distribute your weight better – no more than the weight of your full bike at any one point. This can be accomplished by mixing a rear rack, a front rack, a triangle bag, a handlebar bag, a saddlebag, a seatpost bar and trunk bag, or even a backpack… or a trailer.

4- THE HEAVY. This is a kit that is more than twice the weight of your carbon frame. We’re talking 40 pounds of gear. That’s a lot of stress to put on a carbon frame. My advice here is to get a really heavy duty frame – a cyclocross frame that the manufacturer approves of for mounting a rack, or an MTB frame. Just get a trailer. Or two. Or consider buying a motorcycle. Or consider packing less!

  • How far will you be from Civilization?

What this question is meant to figure out is, how hard will it be for you to fix your bike if it breaks?

We’re not talking about a bent spoke or a gapped chain. I’m talking about a break in your bicycle frame. A snapped fork or a shredded downtube. Basically we’re asking, “what happens if I get run over by a Mack truck?”

I’m going to propose the following hierarchy. Once you’ve planned out your tour a bit, look at this and give it a score.

BELGIUM (1): There’s going to be a town every few kilometers. Each town has a full-service bike shop that stocks carbon bikes and knows how to fix them. Near the bike shop is a pub that serves amazing beer. If something happens to your bike you can drag it into the bike shop, have a Belgian Gatorade or two, then come out to find either a fixed bike or a warranty-covered replacement. Quick as can be.

CIVILIZATION (2): You’ll never be more than a quick hitch or a few hours’ walk from a bike shop. The shop might not do a lot with carbon but they know how to wrench. Worst case scenario, you cool your heels for a few days while waiting for a replacement frame to come in. Then the LBS swaps your components over, and you’re on your way.

THE COUNTRY (3): You’ll never be more than a day’s long walk from a town with a post office. Might even have a store – a big-box store, even a toy store – that has some kind of bike section or another. If your frame breaks you can either buy some crappy aluminum thing to tide you over, or you can hang out for a few days and wait for Amazon Prime to ship you a new and mighty steed.

THE BACKCOUNTRY (4): If your bike breaks you’re in for a tough time. You might have to sit in some little village for a week waiting for a lift to the next village. Or you might have to find some local expat or jefe through whom you can order a FedEx delivery where “overnight” means “three weeks if you pray”. Or you might have to ditch your frame and walk two days carrying all your stuff, and wheels and maybe components too. Basically what I’m saying is, you’re not in Belgium anymore.

WILDERNESS (5): If your bike breaks, you’re fucked. RIP.

Now if you’re in a #1 situation, there’s really no reason not to tour carbon. None in the world. A broken carbon bike is not going to be any different for you than a broken steel bike (might even be easier, because of warranties). A catastrophic accident turns into a pit stop. So if you’re touring in Western Europe, or Scandinavia, or Japan, or either coast of the United States…  basically, tour carbon and tour hard.

If you’re in a #2 you’re not really any worse off. Maybe, before you go on tour, write down the telephone number for the company that made your frame, and the size of the frame, and its make and model. Maybe price out a cheap replacement in case of dire emergencies – maybe DEFINITELY make sure you have insurance that will reimburse you if you need to cover with a new frame. Also, hell, if your carbon frame gets wrecked, feel free to replace it with a $50 steel frame from ebay (or bought locally through CraigsList). Send your poor broken carbon frame back home, and deal with it when you’re finished touring.

If you’re in a #3 situation you’re not much worse off either. You might have to hitchhike to the next town, and stay in that town a few days waiting for new parts to arrive. This might cost you money in housing. And it might tax your knowledge of the local language. And it might require you to swap components onto the new frame, requiring a knowledge of How Bikes Work (at least enough to follow the instructions from YouTube videos). The best thing you can do is travel with a few emergency dollars (or the local equivalent) in your pocket, and a few important phrases memorized (I recommend “Is there a bike shop?” “Is there a hostel?” “Is there a post office?” and above all “Can I have a lift?”)

A #4 is where things get interesting. This is when you’re sightseeing in Lesotho, or in a desert in western China, or mountain-hopping in the Andes, or biking for Nunavut or Uluru. This is when you’re in a place which has no regular traffic (on its dirt roads), no cell phone reception, and not so much as a homestead for fifty miles in any direction. Let me just say that there aren’t that many places in the Lower 48, or in Europe, that fit this description. But if you’re in one of these places, and IF you’re in that rare situation where an accident is such that it would leave a carbon bike irreparable but a steel bike fixable, having a steel bike means that a village blacksmith, or the welder at the nearby army outpost, can save your bacon. So if you’re planning for this kind of adventure touring – yeah, consider touring steel instead.

And #5 is when you’re doing something really awesome and/or really dumb, like fatbiking to the North Pole, you cockwit. Is that case, a crack in your frame might as well be a crack in your skull. The question is, then, if by traveling with steel you’re going to be any better off. Unless you’re planning on touring with a mini acetylene torch, or a hammer and a pair of bellows, then you’re just as screwed with carbon as you are with steel.

  • What about racks?

Most carbon bikes don’t have eyelets for mounting racks. So you have three choices.

One, get an OMM rack that mounts to your brakes and skewers. I did this. OMM racks also happen to be the best in the world. So that makes things easier.

Two, get a rack that clamps to the frame or seatpost. There are some clamps that are designed specifically to clamp to carbon. Either buy a rack with such a clamp, or buy a rack and an after-market carbon clamp.

Three, use something other than a rack – triangle bag, front pack, saddle bag, radonneur bar and trunk bag, trailer, even a backpack.

(Aside: now that we’re 3D-printing our frames, how hard would it be to add in an integrated rack? How cool would that be?!?!)

  • How about components?

Same analysis as for a steel frame. But I’ll gloss it anyway, because it’s so relevant to touring in general.

Most tourists recommend touring-specific or MTB components. They are hard as nails, which is a big plus. They also tend to be geared very low, which most people want for a tour.

But I think a lot of tourists think that racing components are fragile. They are not. And the better the components – IE the lighter they are – the stronger they are. Why? Same as with frames – because they’re made out of carbon. The middle groupsets (Apex, 105s, Athena) are made out of aluminum. The highest-end groupsets (Reds, DA, most Campy) are made out of carbon. As a result, the better the components, the more durable they will be.

The second is gearing. The more spread you have, the better. The highest highs, the lowest lows. A double’s great but a triple’s even better. I have the 10-speed Ultegra triple (52-39-30) and it’s absolutely lovely. And the new 11-speed Campy Athena triple (or the FSA Goss) make me think the road triple isn’t going anywhere.

CONCLUSION

I tour carbon. Maybe you should too.

If you’ve got a carbon bike, consider taking it on tour. Definitely consider that before you go out and n+1.

If you don’t have a touring bike, consider getting a carbon bike. They’re light, fast, comfortable, strong, dependable, and really fuckin’ comfy.

If you’re going into the wilderness, or the less developed world, you might not want to tour carbon. But you totally can. Just know the risks, and the rewards.

But remember: the bike’s not the starting point. In some ways it should be the last thing you decide on, after learning enough to decide on everything else. The most important thing you can do before touring is know what kind of tour you’re going on. The second most important thing is to know how you ride. The third most important thing is to like your bike. The fourth is to saddle up and pedal away.

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