Non-touring cycling friends often ask me: ‘What’s the best touring bicycle you can buy?’ In many respects, it’s a hard question to answer as the
choice of bike hinges on so many factors, not least the kind of journeys you are planning to undertake. In many cases, the bike in your garage or shed will do.
For the purposes of this post, though, I will focus on the ‘dedicated’ touring cycle, which can be loosely categorised as ‘traditional touring cycles’, ‘expedition touring cycles’ and ‘others’ – including folding bicycles for touring. Not intended to be a definitive list, it does feature models that are available for purchase in the UK.
I thought it was about time I updated this post as it it generates so much traffic on this site. So, I’ve had another look at the touring bike market in the UK with a couple of new names providing frames and bikes to the domestic market.
And if this isn’t enough to satiate your touring bike appetite, check out this site. Touring bikes in action all over the world.
Traditional touring cycles
Very much a British institution and the prefered choice of geography teachers for years, the traditional touring cycle (usually) has a steel frame, a long wheelbase and relaxed riding position. It will have numerous gears to allow you to ‘spin’ up steep gradients with luggage, powerful brakes (usually cantilever) strong 700c wheels and bosses for rear and front ‘low loader’ racks.
The traditional touring cycle has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent years, which is a good thing as they are very versatile machines well suited to commuting, the weekly shop and, with a lighter set of wheels, the Sunday club run. The embodiment of this type of bike is the Dawes Galaxy, but there are a number of alternatives, including cycles from specialist frame builders both in the UK and abroad (if you can get them).
Dawes Galaxy £1,149
For many the quintessential touring cycle, it fell out of favour for a while due to concerns over frame quality.
Now the Galaxy line up appears to be better sorted, with a number of variants with differing spec levels. You can even have a titanium one of you’ve deep pockets, retailing at £2,700. The standard Galaxy comes with a Reynolds 631 steel frame and an excellent Tubus cargo rear rack.
To Dawes’ credit, you now order your bicycle online and the company supplies the machine to one of its network of touring specialists who then set the bike up to your requirements.
This gives you the opportunity to add upgrades such as a better wheelset, for example. Good to see on this model are the bar-end gear shifters. They may not be the slick STI units used by racers, but they are far easier to set up and fix if you have a problem on tour. Also, if your indexing goes awry, you can switch them to ‘friction mode’ so your gears will still work.
Ridgeback Panorama £1249
Very similar to the Galaxy both in terms of price and specification, the Ridgeback features a better tubeset, Reynolds 725, and STI shifters rather than bar ends. The rack is not as good as the Dawes, though.
This is a handsome machine that features a more traditional looking frame than the Dawes, which now features an oversized down tube. If you are considering a bike from one of these ‘big players’, it would be worth trying them side by side before making a decision.
Paul Hewitt Cheviot (approx £1600, depending on spec)
Paul Hewitt has made quite a name for himself both as an excellent wheelbuilder and supplier of touring cycles. The Cheviot, and higher specified Cheviot SE, are highly regarded in the cycling press and well priced.
Hewitt also offers a bike fitting service when you are placed on a ‘jig’ and the machine set up accordingly. If you can get to Leyland in Lancashire, then this is a major plus as proper fit is hugely important, particularly on a machine that you may be riding for eight hours a day.
The Cheviot features an excellent off-the-peg frame and you can specify the components you desire, or can afford. You’ll have the option of a hand-built wheelset, too, taking account your weight, the amount of luggage you will carry and riding preferences. These will be superior than the factory supplied options of the major manufacturers.
Hewitt now offers a full custom frame building service, too, and a range of other frames.
Surly Long Haul Trucker £1,200
The Long Haul Trucker has been proven on numerous tours around the world. It has a great pedigree and following. You can have 700c if you fancy a more traditional mount, or can opt for a 26-inch wheeled version if you’re going to encounter the rough stuff or, in fact, are a shorter rider. It’s quirky, a bit different and well worth considering.
A slightly different take on the traditional touring cycle, the Country Explorer from Edinburgh Cycle Co-op features a more compact Reynolds 525 frame for stiffness and mechanical disc brakes. The latter should, in theory, stop you better and definitely reduce wear on the rims. However, discs don’t work brilliantly with drop levers (but well enough) and be a bit fiddlier to adjust than cantilevers, although disc converts would argue the counterpoint vehemently.
The main plus of this bicyle is the price. £675 is good value for a well specified touring machine that’s ready to roll. There’s plenty of scope for upgrades as you grow into your bike.
Spa Cycles Ti Touring (from £1,550)
I confess I have a real soft spot for Spa Cycles as it represents a bit of a dying breed (despite grumbles on forums about patchy customer service). A proper local bike shop, it has managed to develop a strong mail order business while eschewing the hassles of fancy e-commerce websites and the like. Very much a does what it says on the tin, it kind of mirrors my approach to touring cycles… function reigns.
Spa has developed a reputation for its touring-specific wheelsets. I have some and can vouch for them. The shop has also supplied keenly priced, ‘own brand’ touring-specific components including chainsets.
Now, Spa is supplying its own touring bikes built around Chinese Titanium frames. Again you have the option to specify as your heart desires, but a cycle built using quality Shimano components and some great wheels will come in at around £1550.
But why Titanium? This material has the benefits of steel as a frame building material – essentially comfort through controlled flex – but does not rust. The drawback is that it’s more expensive. Cheap Titanium frames are not necessarily better than high-quality steel in terms of ride, either.
Koga Randonneur £2,000
This one’s a bit difficult to categorise. Dutch bike manufacturer Koga attained prominence in the UK after round-the-word cyclist Mark Beaumont used one. Koga bikes don’t necessarily fit the traditional tourer mould (note the butterfly handlebars), although you could specify a machine that is very similar from the vast array of options on offer. The company also offers aluminium alongside steel frames, which has the traditionalists herumphing as they prefer the ‘feel’ of steel and continue to claim that it’s easier to fix a steel frame anywhere in the world should the worst happen. Others may prefer the stiffer feel of aluminium, though. It’s all a matter of taste.
Be warned: the Koga can be a pricey option, particularly if you pick the best from the options list and spec your own model.
Jamis Aurora Elite £1200
Jamis is a US bike firm and its standard touring rig, the Aurora, is available in the more basic guise retailing at £700 to the top of the range Elite pictured here. The bikes are available from Evans which means it would be easy to try before you buy. The Elite uses a trusted Reynolds 631 frame, built in Asia, and boasts a decent Shimano drivetrain. However, some riders in hilly areas or with heavy loads might prefer something with a lower ratios. The bike also has disc brakes, increasingly common on heavy duty road and cross machines. Wheels are Mavic rims on Shimano hubs with 36 spokes.
Full custom frame touring bicycles
If you really have deep pockets and want the ultimate touring cycle, then there are a number of frame builders in the UK that will build the bike of your dreams.
In fact, the renaissance in small UK frame builders has gathered pace over the last couple years and if you want to see some of these artisans’ work first hand, you need to visit the wonderful Bespoked Bristol show.
All the below will provide you with the best, and the range of options may be mind-boggling (something to bear in mind if you’re new to cycling). A trip to the Bristol show will introduce you to a whole heap of others!
Expedition touring bicycles
Cycling across the desert… the Andes… the Himalaya? You may want to consider an expedition touring cycle. These are similar to the traditional machine, but feature 26 inch wheels more commonly found on mountain bikes and will have geometry tweaked for the rough stuff.
Frames may have thicker gauge tube sets, more substantial fittings for racks and other reinforcements. The emphasis will be on strength at the expense of weight, perhaps, and the wheels and tyres will suit a wider range of terrain – with a possible penalty of increased rolling resistance on sealed roads.
Flat bars may be more common on this kind of machine to provide improved handling over rough terrain and provide more options for brakes (V-style rim brakes and disc brakes generally work better with flat bar levers than drop bars).
Paint finish will be tough not just for the trail as this bike is likely to encounter rough handling airports and railway stations, or when lashed to the top of a bus! Transit can also be helped by the inclusion of S&S couplings, which allow the frame to be split in two without compromising overall integrity.
It’s also worth noting that many of the previously mentioned custom manufacturers can make you an excellent expedition-touring bike… at a price!
Thorn Nomad or Sherpa £2,000 upwards and £1,250 upwards respectively.
It is impossible to talk about touring bicycles without mentioning Bridgewater-based Thorn cycles. Thorn is the unashamed specialist and, while offering a full custom service in the past, its business is now centred around a range of Taiwanese framesets in numerous sizes which, the shop claims, can be tailored to cater for folk of all sizes.
The shop produces a traditional tourer (the Thorn Club Tour, which I own) but is well known for the almost slavish devotion to 26-inch wheeled bikes and the Rohloff Speedhub – a sealed, German 14-speed hub transmission which offers reliability you’d expect from the £1,000 price tag, and a back up service to match.
The Thorn Nomad is an expedition bike using the Rohloff hub and, in essence, will allow you to carry for too much equipment for your tour. The frame is Thorn’s own custom tube set with a specialist Reynolds double plated fork. Once the fit has been established, either at Thorn by appointment or via their online fitting form, customers can pick from a menu of options to create the ideal partner for their tour. With that Rohloff constituting a hefty proportion of the final bill, expect to pay handsomely for this purpose-designed machine.
The Sherpa is, by and large, a derailleur geared version of the Nomad. The forks are different, but there are a similar range of frame sizes and options. You pays your money and takes your choice.
I own two Thorn bikes and have been very happy with their performance. However, they are not for everyone. The shop’s ‘we know best’ attitude in the marketing literature can be irksome, and not everyone likes the stack of steerer spacers which characterises their mounts. That said, these machines are tested into the ground around the world and there are many satisfied owners out there.
Surly Troll (£1000 upwards)
In fact, the Surly Troll is a do-it all-bike. A commuter, a single speed mountain bike, a Rohloff geared load lugger… the list goes on. While not that pretty, function really reigns with the Troll. Take those horizontal drop outs for example. You can run hub gears and single speed… or derailleur gears if you’re old skool… or new skool.
The geometry will take a suspension fork at the front, while removable brake tabs allow you to run V or cantilever brakes while there are fittings for discs. There’s also facility to fit ‘fenders’ and racks at the same time. Choices, choices.
While not an all out expedition bike and perhaps more suitable to lighter weight bikepacking, the Troll is well capable of carrying reasonable loads over rough terrain and benefits from a more nimble mountain bike ride. So, you could have a Troll for touring, swap the wheels and tyres and blast down some singletrack at the weekend. Happy days.
(Note: I heard recently that the Troll is ‘rated’ to 300lbs for rider and luggage, the same as the Long Haul Trucker. This may be a bit of an arbitrary measure for some, but reassuring nonetheless for the larger riders – like me – out there.)
Tout Terrain Panamericana £3,000 upwards
You could describe this as the Bugatti Veyron of touring cycles: expensive, beautifully made, over engineered and a bit quirky. Tout Terrain bikes are all about function, though, without the Veyron’s posing pouch attributes.
The most pointed expression of these qualities is the Panamericana. Named after the system of streets that connect Alaska with Tierra del Fuego, the Panamericana is a fully suspended touring machine with an integrated stainless steel rear rack.
The integrated rack is a feature of the Silkroad too, Tout Terrain’s regular expedition offering and very similar to the Thorn Nomad. It’s a nice idea, doing away with the ‘weak link’ of rack bolts but, as any cycle tourist will tell you, racks get a lot of abuse and are prone to chips and scratches.
The Panamericana has a complex suspension arrangement at the rear which is designed to work with the integral rack. With a suspension front fork, you are limited with front luggage options. Some would say the front suspension fork rules out front racks altogether on safety grounds.
The Panamericana has thoughtful touches such as a steerer stop to prevent the bars twisting and crashing into the top tube. It is available in a range of specifications, too, including a gold Rohloff version, which comes in at over £5,000. Yes, five grand!
Other bicycle touring options
You can use folding cycles for touring. I have used a Bike Friday Pocket Llama for a short tour and it was versatile and comfortable. If the terrain is not too challenging, your could use the best folding cycle, the Brompton, given its excellent luggage carrying options.
But if you insist on the very best, and are patient, then you could buy a Moulton.
Alex Moulton’s iconic alternative cycle design is going strong. While the cheaper Pashley version for £1,800 is tempting, well-heeled folk could wait for a New Series to be built to their specification and spend up to £15,000. I’m not sure I would want to tour on such a beautiful machine, though. I could never let it out of my sight!