Notes on building the (im)perfect touring bike

Whenever I hang out in bikeshops, I often get questions from fellow cyclists about the “perfect” touring bike. While the temptation to automatically say “ditch your rig and get something else” may be the most convenient answer, I often reflect on my own experience as to how I started doing long distance trips-starting with day trips until doing multiday tours. Another problem if you’re living in a developing country such as in the Philippines and other regions, is that most shops carry bikes of strict categories-either MTBs, Roadbikes etc (though there’s a lot of mixing and matching done by innovative riders!)-leaving you to start with you existing ride. While I admit that I too am a student of the discipline as there is so much to learn, I attempt to share insights from my experience in building my bike fit for long distance travel. Of course, what I share may run counter to other experienced tourers and may not be to your liking but these insights were gained through experience in actual rides, advice from other riders as well as preferences that have developed over the years.

As any one starting out with building or choosing a bike, one of the most important considerations regardless of type of riding you’ll be doing is PURPOSE. Many fall into the trap of buying or building a bike out of impulse only to realize that the rig isn’t really for him/her. Therefore, before spending your hard earned money it pays to think about what’s the reason why you’re getting a bike in the first place? Bike to work? Recreation? Exercise? Touring? Racing?  Obviously, your purpose may be varied and that has an impact on the bike you’ll end up choosing as well as the components and gear you’ll consider getting.

Second, while I hold the belief that any bike can be converted as a tourer, the extent of the conversion may vary from bike to bike and if there are so many changes that need to be made (which will obviously impact expenses), perhaps it would be wise to build or get a new one dedicated for the purposes of long distance trips.

Third, experiment with the build and its components. One of the common complaints we’ve experienced in long distance trips is that there are certain parts of our body that hurt or cause inconvenience. While the quick solution is to replace the certain parts, perhaps tinkering with things a bit might help. If time and resource permit, it may also be wise to get a bike fit which can definitely assure you that your rig is adjusted to your body measurements.

Further, in converting/selecting a build, I’ve had four key considerations that have influenced me in my continuous search for the “perfect” build:

  1. Comfort-Given that touring entails traveling long distances under varying conditions, it is important that the rider-the person actually powering the machine-is assured of a comfortable position while moving.
  2. Cargo capacity-Since touring entails unassisted travel, the assumption is your rig will be carrying your whole cargo. While some opt to use a backpack (which is torture for your back in the long run), it’s important to let the bike carry the stuff for you and you devote effort in moving the rig.
  3. Durability-Tours entail a great deal of stress on the rig and it’s important that the bike and components don’t break down. Imagine getting stranded in the middle of nowhere with your frame broken in half! Of course there are certain materials that are preferred (steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon) in these long distance trips but I found out that lighter (and more expensive) doesn’t necessarily mean better in the long run (especially if you factor in road conditions, weather, riding style and cargo).
  4. Versatility-Since there is a possibility of components breaking down, it’s important that the frame can take available components in the remote areas of destination. This also extends to the familiarity of bikeshop mechanics to the workings of your bike. Again, in certain areas, shop staff may not be familiar with the workings of your bike and this may pose problems if your rig breaks down and they have no idea how to fix it.

To contextualize, Here’s a rig I used for two years…

I got this Cannondale badboy 9 in early 2014 for the purposes of biking to work and short commutes. Though before I got this, I consulted online reviews and was even surprised that one used this for an extensive world tour (https://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?page_id=88741)…it had decent components and had the geometry that I preferred-something that is nimble yet relaxed (looked cool as well!)

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The Cannondale Bad Boy 9 (I named it Heisenberg)-has the rear rack mounts and internal cabling feature!

As I went further in my bike to work trips, I saw it more practical to use a rear rack for hauling my stuff and the rear rack mounts in the bad boy made the addition of this equipment much easier. Later, when I received a framebag, the internal cabling feature of the frame also helped as the attachment of the bag wasn’t a problem.

When I started doing long distance trips in early 2015, certain changes were made:

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Heisenberg, in Cagsawa Ruins Park, Legazpi Bicol Region

 

  1. Stock components from built bikes are decent but are heavy and may not last long. I recall the stock mechanical brakes broke down and replacements were difficult to find. I initially replaced it with a Shimano Deore Groupset and eventually had to change to SLX after a year and I found the braking power and shifting and durability of the components very satisfactory. In fact, I still use it in my Surly Troll.
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the gruesome climb at ‘Shotgun’, San Mateo, Rizal (Courtesy of Ollie Flores)

 

  1. The flat handlebar had to go since I needed more space for varying hand positions and the butterfly trekking bar was a suitable replacement. Until now, with my new rig (Surly Troll), this remains to be my most favored handlebar for touring. I recall Reynan Alibuyog of bicycle touring Philippines advising me that if my route had more asphalt or concrete paths, the butterfly fares better, but if trips entail a lot of off road touring, I’d be better off with the Jones loop.
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The Butterfly handlebar for more hand positions and space for lights and other stuff

 

  1. The next one was the wheelset. After a considerable time, I opted to get ZTR crests mated with Novatech hubs (which I eventually replaced with Hope pro 2 Evo) laced with Pillar spokes. While the wheels are obviously durable and took a beating from the rides I’ve had, they are quite light. The only hassle is that whenever flats are encountered, it was a pain to remove the tire. I didn’t run them tubeless but I recall only having two flats over a year and  roughly around 4000km using Continental Cyclocross Speed Tires
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Titlting at Windmills, Pililia Farm, Rizal (courtesy of Ollie Flores)
  1. For added comfort, I changed the saddle from stock to Brooks C17 (as the stock saddle lacerated my ass!). So far this has been the go to saddle for me

 

  1. Lastly, since I wanted to add more cargo in trips, I opted to have the thule pack and pedal rack which  can be mounted in front or rear of the bike. And since the bad boy’s fork didn’t have the mounts, this was a suitable choice.
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‘Fishing’ in Nuvali, Sta Rosa Laguna

After, many day trips, two multiday tours (Baguio and Bicol), I felt that the bike evolved from a lowly commuter to a comfortable touring rig fit for my needs…but like any cyclists, preferences change and I eventually let go of the bad boy in place of a new one but still inheriting components from the bad boy.

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After Heisenberg comes Grimace (Surly Troll) with most components from the older bike-along the Sierra Madre Route, Tanay Rizal

So there, while our experiences vary from rig to rig, trip to trip, the learning experience is a continuous one…

What about you? What’s your story about your conversion from an ordinary bike to your awesome, (im)perfect touring machine?

 

 

 

 

 

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