All-road: Lightly loaded, multi-surface touring and exploring. Ideal bicycles are designed around randonee, brevet, cyclocross, gravel racer, or touring geometries and specifications. Riders generally carry enough gear for a long day or an overnight trip in small frame bags or backpacks.
Pete Koski, one of the engineers for Salsa, has had a hand in the design of many of Salsa’s renowned touring bikes. Here he shares some of the things the touring cyclist should consider when selecting the right bike for getting out and exploring the world.
A touring bike is the one bike that you don’t want to compromise or skimp on when it comes to standover height. A lot of people like the “flat” top tube aesthetic because it gives you more front triangle space. But when you’re suddenly approaching a cattle punch in the middle of a pot-holed dirt road in South America, you want to be able to effortlessly slide forward off the saddle and stop your 80-pound bike. You can’t do this if the toptube is making contact with your groin and you’re reaching for the ground with your tippy toes. Getting the soles of your feet squarely planted and keeping yourself and your entire rig from hitting the dirt is the goal.
This is highly personal. Generally speaking though, a dedicated touring bike should have a lower bottom bracket (BB) and longer chainstay/wheelbase than a similar sized road, gravel, commuting, or even mountain bike. The idea here is that the lower BB lowers your saddle, and therefore your body relative to the axles. This results in a center of gravity that makes riding and steering a loaded bike a little easier and more consistent. A lower BB drop also lends itself to lower standover heights, all things being equal. Longer rear-center lengths make for longer overall wheelbases that also help keep things stable and steady. This is an important function if you are trying to jockey your heavily loaded rig down a bumpy mountain road. Most other bike designs focus on shorter chainstay lengths for more performance-oriented handling into and out of corners, but this is not necessarily a key trait of, or a benefit for, a touring bike.
Traditionally, good touring frames have been constructed out of steel. Steel is tough and strong, and has a very long life span. There is also a prevailing notion that in the event of a field failure, finding someone that can weld steel is much more likely than finding someone that can weld titanium or aluminum, or repair a composite frame.
Frame Stiffness & Strength
This is one of the most important traits in a touring bike. A good touring frame and fork both need to be adequately stiff so that when fully loaded, rider input still makes it to the wheels in a timely manner. As you lean over into a corner and turn the handlebars, you, the bars, your saddle, and the cranks all lean and turn together. Your panniers and wheels, however, follow Newton’s first law of motion and want to continue along in a straight trajectory. This requires the rame and fork to transmit your steering input to the wheels and your load so they travel along in the same direction. The frame and fork twist and flex as a result of the difference in direction between the two masses (you and the gear), winding up like a spring until they have enough energy to pull the panniers and wheels over to the same direction you are trying to go. The time it takes for this re-alignment of masses and their direction can be felt as a wiggle and/or shimmy in the front and rear of the bike as you make steering inputs.
To minimize this effect, a good touring frame should be built using larger diameter and/or thicker tubes so that any steering inputs are more immediately and directly transmitted from you to the wheels and load. When you test ride a touring bike, it might look beefy, feel heavy, handle “slow,” and be a little more harsh compared to a bike designed to carry just a rider. However, once all your gear is loaded on, the steering and handling will actually feel much more like what you are used to on a non-touring specific bike, as the frame and fork tubing is designed to support and wrangle that extra weight.
Like the frame and fork, wheels are a key load-bearing structure. 32–count spoke, three-cross wheels are the generally accepted minimum, but 36-count is very common, especially for the rear. Like the beefier frame and fork idea, a sturdy rim and high spoke count enable the wheels to adequately support the rider plus gear, as well as keep up with steering input from the rider. Wheel size is always a huge debate. It used to be that any serious touring bike used a 26-inch (559) rim and tire size, as the odds of finding replacement tires, tubes, and spokes in remote locations was greater. With an increased popularity of 700c and 29ers, though, and better rim designs, the 622 rim size is a viable option. The choice really boils down to where you plan to tour and how easy a spare tire or tube will be to come by.
Touring bikes usually have a full complement of fittings for attaching racks (front and rear), fenders, and water bottles. Pump attachments and light mounts are also a bonus. The ability to configure a geared, singlespeed, and/or internally geared hub expands build possibilities even more.
This has nothing to do with good frame design, and everything to do with an experienced cyclotourist. In general, people load the rear of the bike with too much weight. Similar to driving a pickup truck or car with a load of bricks in the bed/trunk, the front end gets very “light” and the steering seems to float. In extreme cases, the front end can develop an un-damped oscillation at higher speeds (death shimmy!). This is generally an indication of improper weight balance and a sign that more items need to be shifted to the front panniers. Front low-rider racks that mount to the forks and position panniers next to the front axle are the best way to get a properly loaded and balanced touring bike. This location is also much lower than any rear pannier, and actually the best place to start placing the bulk of your load if you’re planning to tour with racks and panniers.