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Selecting A Touring Bike - 101





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People have successfully completed bicycle tours on all different kinds of bicycle; one-speeds, mountain bikes, touring bicycles, folding bikes, etc. It is amazing what people are riding out there to get to where they want to go. Depending upon the characteristics of the tour each kind of bike can have its advantages and disadvantages.

We are not snobs about brands (decals), paint color or finish.  It is what is underneath that counts and how all the pieces fit together with respect to the individual rider and their specific needs.

A lot of the basic decision in selecting a touring bike get back to the comfort of the rider. Touring cyclists spend a lot of time in the saddle so it is pretty important that bicycle is comfortable over a long period of time:  Remember, what is comfortable when you first sit on it, might not be comfortable after 40 or 60 miles.  There ARE some things that we've learned about bikes.

Fit: Having a bike that fits is by far the most important issue for comfort.  If the bike is too small it may not be a problem initially but bicyclists tend to get fatigued prematurely and sore.  If the frame is too big they tend to be uncomfortable and dangerous.  Bicycles are sized, in inches or centimeters, by the measurement along the seat tube from the top tube to the bottom bracket (theoretically – because it varies by brand.) The final determination of a safe size comes when the bicyclist straddles the top tube, stands with both feet flat on the ground, and checks the clearance between the top tube and his/her crotch. The recommended clearance depends on the type of riding you will be doing -- 1 to 2 inches for road riding and double that for off-road riding. Your crotch and 3 inches below it is a fixed distance above the ground. But because the bottom bracket isn't the same distance above the ground on all bicycles and 'sizing' varies by brand, the 'right size' may be different from bicycle to bicycle. Typically, people use mountain bikes 2 to 3 inches smaller than they use touring bicycles. Here is a rough guide for mountain bike sizing based on a person's height: under 5'4" - 16" (40cm); 5'4" to 5'8" - 18" (44cm); 5'8" to 6 feet - 20" (49cm); over 6 feet - 22" (54cm). One way to get around some of the sizing problem is to use a bicycle with slanted top tubes. One size (17", 42cm) fits almost everybody from 4'10" to 5'10".  But the height is only one of the critical measurements; the other is the length of the top tube, which gets far too little attention.  A proper top tube length is the key to avoiding sore hands.

When the fit of the frame is correct, your center of gravity will be over the pedals and your grasp on the handlebars will be to steer, brake and balance the bike, ideally, with very little weight on your hands.

For a discussion on children's bikes go to "Choosing and Buying a Children's Bike"

Drive Train: Selecting the proper drive train adds to the comfort and flexibility of the experience.  Gears give us the ability to balance the work between our legs and our lungs.  Too long (hard) a gear will cause it be difficult to push the pedals over short distances, too short (easy) a gear will cause you to tire over longer distances.  From there we can look at the composition of the components: Certainly the difference between one gear cog on the rear hub to five, six or seven gear cogs on the rear hub increases your ability to respond to changes in terrain and your energy level five, six or seven fold.  If the five gear cogs are sufficiently different in size, your load is not too heavy, and the terrain is relatively flat, five to seven gears might be sufficient.  If the terrain is more dramatic, adding a second chainring on the pedal crank will significantly increase your range of gear ratios because you can use those five to seven cogs with each of the two chainrings.  It will double the number of gears, but it probably won't double the range of gear ratios since there generally is some overlap in the gear ratios achieved from each chainring  Similarly, adding a third chainring will further increase the range of gears ratios.  This may be a life saver in mountainous terrain. (Some bicycles achieve these three ranges with an internal three speed rear hub.)  Adding more gear cogs on the rear hub will probably not increase you range of gear ratios.  Additional gear cogs add to the number of gears available to choose from, but they don't increase the range of gear ratios available.  At the level of efficiency that most touring cyclists ride at more than above 21 gears tends to be only marginally beneficial.

Gear ratios can be described in “gear lengths”.  These are calculated by taking the number of cogs on the chain ring, dividing that by the number of cogs on the rear gear, and multiply that by the size of the tire.  For example: a 48 cog chain ring, a 12 cog rear gear and a 27” tire produces a 108” gear – this is a pretty high gear.  A 30 cog chain ring, a 30 cog rear gear and a 27” tire produces a 27” gear – this is a pretty low gear.  This kind of range is suitable for cruising on a long decline and tackling a moderate mountain pass.  Calculating the gear length for all of the combinations of chain rings and rear gears will show precisely how much overlap there is between the ranges.

It then goes without saying that the bicycling experience is improved if drive train is well maintained and properly lubricated.

Handlebars: Handlebars are another important consideration.  Because touring bicyclists spend so many hours holding the handlebars a choice of multiple hand positions and some padding is desirable.  Straight bars put you in an upright position and tend to have only one or two hand positions.  Headwinds tend to be part of the reality for long distance cyclists so the ability to lower the upper body, stretch out and reduce the frontal area exposed to the wind is desirable. Riding upright, which is comfortable for the first few miles tends to put a bend and stress in the lower back.  Reaching forward for drop bars helps keep your back straight. For these reasons most bicycles designed for bicycle tour use "drop bars". Some bicycles have "H bars", which provide a variety of hand positions but don't make it as easy to lower your body to the wind.  With either style of bars, ideally, you should not need to have any weight on your hands.

Saddle: A comfortable seat is often a major factor for how much people enjoy bicycle touring.  It may be counter intuitive, but the softest saddle is generally not the most comfortable saddle for very long. Over time they start to be hot and sweaty, can rub a lot, and lead to sores -- not a comfortable situation. A comfortable saddle over time supports where the "sit-bones" contact the saddle, but doesn't have much other surface contact.  This is why many designs of touring saddle are fairly minimal.

Frame: Discussions on frames can quickly get pretty esoteric.  The frame geometry does affect comfort.  Some of the factors are frame material, tube diameter, tube wall thickness, frame angles and fork rake. No single factor carries the day and the factors interact with one another.  In the end, if the frame is too "soft" it will be inefficient and if the frame is too "hard" the ride with be harsh and beat you up. So like Goldie Locks, you want it to be someplace in the middle and just right. (See our article on frames for more discussion on fame materials.)  The specification for the part of the frame where the tires sit can be very important.  Make sure that the frame dimensions are sufficient to accommodate that size of tires you want to use. Largely because of tire selection (see below), as the expected quality of the roads on your route deteriorate the needle with will swing from suggesting a road touring bike frames to mountain bike frames suitable for touring. For more discussion on this see Selecting and Preparing a Bike for Remote Areas.

Suspension systems tend to add weight and inefficiency, and lose their effectiveness once a bike is loaded with gear, so they are generally absent from touring bikes. Suspension system can also be problematic for racks and cages -- the frame needs to be able to accommodate the accessories you plan to use.

The issue of 'men's' or 'women's' frame is more about of aesthetics than function. Under normal conditions there is little to no performance difference between frames with high top tubes (men's bikes) and slanted top tubes (women's bikes).  Bicycles with slanted top tubes are worth considering because they are more versatile in the size of rider who can use them.

So when looking for a touring bike our suggested guidelines are:

  • Frame size: one that fits and is comfortable.  Center of gravity over the pedals, no weight on the hands.
  • Frame material: steel alloy (or for some light touring aluminum might work)
  • Frame geometrics: 17.5 to 18 inch chainstay generally takes care of the rest
  • Gear range (for mountainous terrain): 20 to 30 inch low gear and 100 to 115 inch high gear.

Folding touring bikes are a special case: For those flying around the world for their bike touring excursions a folding, suitcase bike (i.e. a Bike Friday) is worth serious consideration.  Their compromise comes from the small wheel that can drop further into holes and alter the inertia of the bike, and the shorter wheel base that changes the center of gravity to be much more over the front wheel, so they handle a little differently than a full-size bike.  This is likely to catch up with you specifically going downhill on a rutted, gravel road and even then good riding skills can get you through. 

Brakes: It is said that a bicycle will always stop -- brakes just let you determine when and where. If you want that choice, put some energy into the selection and especially the maintenance of your brakes. The heavier the rider, the heavier the load and the more downhill on the route and the wetter the conditions, stronger the brakes need to be. Among the strongest type of brakes are disk, cantilever, u-brakes, roller-cam and drum brakes. Drum brakes are expensive and usually found only on tandems or cuizers. Most touring bikes use cantilever brakes.  Disk brake sets are a little heavier than cantilever brakes, but are more powerful, don't wear on the rims and have some other advantages that make them popular for touring.  If you are a heavier person, expect to be carrying a particular heavy load,  expect to have long or steep descents, or expect wet, gritty conditions, disk brakes are advantageous for solo riders and strongly recommended for tandems. U-brakes and roller-cam brakes have tended to be problematic and clog with mud very fast under those conditions.

Wheels & Spokes: There are alloy rims and steel rims. Alloy rims are more effective when wet, easier to keep true and easier to tap dents out of, but they dent easier. Steel rims are strong, but they are dangerous in wet weather and when they start having problems they can be tough to get back in true. Other things being equal, the smaller the diameter of the wheel the stronger it is: a 20" inch wheel is stronger than a 24" wheel, which is stronger than a 26" wheel and so forth. Usually, the wider the rim, the strong the wheel will be, the more spokes the stronger the wheel will be and the wider the flanges on the hub (wheel spokes attach) the stronger the wheel.  The selection of wheels will impact your choice of tires.  Very narrow rims tend accept only very narrow tires, so tour bike rims are generally wider than racing bike rims.  In general, within reason, wider rims have access to more tire sizes and tread designs.

Spokes are available in different gauges. 15g spokes are standard. 14g spokes are stronger. Double butted 14/15/14 spokes are strong and light. The preferred, economical, material for spokes is stainless steel.

Tires: Too many tire problems can be a big downer on a bike tour so having a sturdy tire is desirable. At the same time, the narrower the tire and the higher the pressure the less the rolling resistance and the easier they are to keep rolling.  But then again a bigger air chamber, thicker casing and slightly lower tire pressure absorbs some road vibration and make a more comfortable ride.  Once again it is about compromise and finding the just right happy medium.  For a touring bike wheel (700c or 27") you want something larger than the racing tires (18mm to 25mm) but probably smaller than the cyclecross tires which are 48mm.  Most touring cyclists find something in the 30s.

One of the major features of mountain bikes is their durable wheels and tires. Most mountain bikes have 26 inch wheels, which are a slightly small diameter than tour bike wheels, and the rim is usually wider, so they tend to be stronger, more trouble free and more stable than comparable touring bike wheels. They are also easier to find tires for in very out of the way places.  The beefy tires on mountain bikes are also relatively trouble free and if properly inflated, they are very effective at protecting the rims from dents. But wider the tire have higher rolling resistance, weigh and have more surface exposure to punctures, so bigger does have drawbacks. If you will be doing a lot of riding on smooth roads you need to find the happy medium, which is probably towards the smaller size of what is available for mountain bikes. If you will be cycling on both paved and unpaved surfaces consider combination a tire with solid raised center bead and a more aggressive edge tread. The center bead makes easier rolling on paved roads and the tread will help you in the dirt.  Many tires these days come with some sort of 'puncture protection'.  Like steel belted radials for cars, some bike tires have a plastic or Kevlar belt that helps prevent most punctures.  They cost more, but can be a good investment.

Tubes: Inner tubes can be made out of a variety of materials and there are at least three types of valves in the world. There are also some airless tubes on the market. The construction material of pneumatic tubes may affect its puncture resistance and will determine what type of glue and patches you need to repair a puncture. The most common inner tube material is butyl rubber. Butyl rubber can be repaired with the glue and patches found in patch kits around the world.

Airless tubes solve some problems but they have a much harsher ride, are 6 to 10 times as expensive as regular tubes, are at least twice as heavy, have twice the rolling resistance and don't carry heavy loads well.

Pedals & Toe Clips: Conventional pedals give you the flexibility to use multipurpose shoes, which cut down on the number of pairs of shoes you will have to pack. Toe-clip can be a great cycling aid and help you gain some efficiency as you pedal, though they tend to make novices feel uneasy. If you are trying them for the first time or don't have a high level of confidence, don't tighten the straps initially and when you are in urban traffic, sand, mud, rocks and other technical situations. They are not essential, but once you learn how to use them you can ride much more efficiently. The further you ride, the greater the benefit.

Clip-in "clipless pedal" and cleats are another step up in the efficiency of the transfer of energy from your body to the drive train. They require special shoes, have a learning curve and can require some maintenance.  If you have never used toe clips, "clipless" pedals are easier to learn than toe clips because you don't have to unlearn the backward motion needed to dismount from toe clips.  If you are likely to be dismounting in dirt (in any of its states from dust to mud) it is best to stay away from any pedals that have hardware on the bottom of your shoes that can clog. This pretty much eliminates cleats and clipless pedals.

For more discussion on accessories and equipment see Selecting and Preparing a Bike for Remote Areas.

Summary: When choosing a bicycle you should take a number of factors into consideration, including: the frame; size; gearing; drive-train; brakes; wheels; tires; and versatility. Cutting edge bicycling has its fads -- many of which have come and gone -- but you can bicycle tour on pretty basic equipment.  This means separating fad from function. You are going to have a lot more fun if the bicycle is comfortable.  Your selection will depend on your personal situation. The important decision for the purchaser is to pay enough so they are not getting junk and to not pay too much for marginal improvements that aren't useful or beneficial for you.

Bon Voyage!



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