Choosing the best touring bicycle (updated January 2013)

Thorn Club Tour parked up for the nightNon-touring cycling friends often ask me: ‘What’s the best touring bicycle you can buy?’ In some 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. That said, the simple answer to the question more often than not would be: ‘The bike in your garage or shed.’ A solid mountain bike, road bike or hybrid will be sufficient for your first tour.

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 GalaxyDawes 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 PanoramaRidgeback 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 Touring BikePaul 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 TruckerSurly 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.

Revolution Country ExporerRevolution Country Explorer £675

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 Touring Titanium CycleSpa 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 RandonneurKoga 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 Aurora Elite OrangeJamis 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!

Chas Roberts
Dave Yates
Bob Jackson
Viliers Velo
Paul Hewitt
Ellis Briggs (also do an off-the-peg tourer similar to the above examples)

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 Raven NomadThorn 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)

surly-troll-3It is, perhaps, a wee bit disingenuous to list this bike in the expedition section. I have one, so I’m biased!

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.)

You can read more about my Troll build here.

Tout Terrain PanamericaTout 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

Alex Moulton New SeriesYou 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!

More on choosing a set of cycle touring wheels here…

My choices of tyre for cycle touring and long rides…

Interested in how to load a touring bicycle? Here’s how I do it…

… and read my views on my favourite tent for cycle touring.

How about putting it all into action? Cycle touring the Hebrides.


30 thoughts on “Choosing the best touring bicycle (updated January 2013)

  1. Love my Thorn xTc. Slow and heavy, so you need patience, but after a ten hour day in the saddle, riding from Doolin Pier to Cong, I woke up feeling fresh and ready to go again. Steel is very kind.

    However, all the calls of “Courage!” on French cols got to me and I joined the carbon owners club. Much more of my effort goes into forward progress on the Spesh Roubaix than on the xTc. I am dramatically faster on carbon than on steel even when the xTc is stripped down to its lightest sensible weight.

    I think I may end up with ultralight backpacking kit in a rucksack on a carbon 29er hardtail for future tours. It could be the best kit for a slow pedal along the Tour Divide route. But what state would I be in after a ten hour day?

  2. Thanks for dropping by. I am still thinking about this carbon business for my next bike… not sure if I will benefit from a featherweight bike not being a featherweight myself. I need to take one for a spin…

    Personally, I don’t like riding with a rucksack. I’d much rather carry my gear on the bike, or use a trailer.

  3. It is really nice to see the traditional British steel touring cycles living up again. They really are a good choice for versatility. Personally I also like to ride some singletrack and poor roads on my outings and have chosen a Salsa Fargo with ultralight gear without panniers. I don’t like a rucksack when riding. It is ok up to a couple of kilograms, but after that it quickly becomes uncomfortable.

  4. Two kg just covers the water I start with and I still have fun most days on a mountain bike. I have mountain biked with ultralight camping gear and still been playful descending a rutted, mildly technical line through heather. As you say, the weight needs keeping right down. Away from wilderness areas, a cyclist has a fair chance of finding food each day so not a lot needs carrying. Bivy gear, puncture repair stuff and brew kit should cover it unless you are into hygiene.

    My backpacking bivy bag is shower proof and goes under a tarp, but the Cave is best with branches about 4 feet long to hold it up and they are not always available near a wild pitch in Britain, so I’m considering the switch to a waterproof bivy bag and a micro tarp, which could shelter the stove even if only held up by the handle bars. The idea of removing a wheel then standing the bike on its forks seems all wrong to me. And it would still blow over, even after mud had clogged the drop outs.

  5. Hello guys,

    Thanks for the comments. I really wanted the add the Fargo to the list as I think it’s a really interesting bike. However, I’d already got to 2000 words so thought I’d better knock things on the head! I’m no mountain biker, but the idea of blasting up a track in a Scottish Glen, say, with a bivvy really appeals. I’m a fan of the bivvy and use it quite a bit for overnighters in the hills these days. I have a big agnes three wire which is a bit OTT but big enough for me at least. It has a basic pole structure which I use sometimes, sometimes not, depending on the weather. It’s eVent which is very breathable and waterproof. The venting options with the the zip and hood are good, too, and there’s good bug netting. It’s very expensive over here though. I bought mine in the States and saved a packet.

    More info here

  6. We love our Bike Friday New World Tourists – great for touring, take a full camping load, the low stepover makes them easy to get on and off when the rear rack is piled high, plus excellent for the supermarket run, and fit in the vestibule of Mr Branson’s trains so often we don’t even need to fold them.

    1. Hi folks, thanks for dropping by. I have a Pocket Llama which I used as a commuter for five years and for one tour. It looks a bit sorry now. I hope to get the frame resprayed and sorted in readiness for a rebuild later this year.

  7. I’d always coveted a purpose built touring bike: Harry Quinn, Mercian, Southern Cross, but couldn’t justify the cost until 5 years ago. I went and got measured for a Hewitt. It was a wonderful ride and was my pride and joy but I sold it, and now ride an On One that I have built up myself from a frame.
    Quite frankly the purpose built bike was no more comfy than the On One, and now I can take to the broken surface bridlepath and towpath whenever they make more sense than the road. The Hewitt just wasn’t suitable for anything other than tarmac and I found that much too limiting.

    1. I know of someone who had a similar experience. I would love a Mercian to replace my Thorn Audax and may get one for my 40th. However, every time I ride that bike it puts a smile on my face… even if it is a bit too small for me. Would hate to lose that feeling.

  8. This has been really helpful – thank you. I have just completed the C2C from Whitehaven to Sunderland on a bike which is over 25 years old and it’s now time go get a new one. I’ve been to Spa Cycles as I’m just down the road and am tempted by the Super Galaxy. Your post has helped me make up my mind.

    1. Glad to have been of help. I hope you get a great deal of pleasure from your bike and may it take you to some beautiful places.

  9. northernwalker says:
    Thanks for dropping by. I am still thinking about this carbon business for my next bike… not sure if I will benefit from a featherweight bike not being a featherweight myself. I need to take one for a spin…

    I tour on a Thorn Nomad, which I very much enjoy, and which I feel is best in its class (the big Truck class 🙂 ) Sometimes I yearn for a feather-wieght bike however for those short overnights and such, loaded only half way. Carbon? No .. not for me. The thought of a scratch in the frame leading to breakage would make me too careful with it and in that way ruin some of the abandon that I enjoy so much in my touring. And do they make carbon that can take my 220lbs? And does 220lbs on a carbon bike not make me look like I’m missing some ironic point? 🙂
    No, no carbon for me.
    I do want a lightweight tourer though, something to make me feel super fast! A Thorn Club Tour!

    1. I’m with you re touring bikes Pavel. I’d never want a carbon tourer. As you say, I’d be constantly worrying about knocks and scratches. I did think about a carbon road bike for a while, but then decided it wasn’t for me. To be honest, I don’t like how they look. All that heavily manipulated tubing etc etc I’ve just weighed my Surly troll, which is ready for its Summer tour to Iceland (it went on the scales for airline baggage purposes). That’s definitely in the big truck class now with all the racks and other accessories on board!

  10. I’m glad they sorted out the Galaxy, and would like to go back to one – but my Galaxy frame broke and Dawes only replaced it with a Horizon Frame. I had to pay for all the new parts and the was never happy with the heavier Horizon. I loved my Galaxy but I’m reluctant to trust Dawes again.

    1. Hmmm… Sorry to hear that. I think there are better options on the market nowadays. I think Dawes need to work hard to recapture some of the old ‘magic’.

  11. This is great – always good to get experienced advice on touring. A few years ago, looking to upgrade to a better bike, I wanted something I could use for fun/fitness rides, commuting (in New Forest) and also crucially for short tours – max 5 days. I settled on a Specialized Tricross Sport. It’s alloy of course with carbon forks and a compact frame geometry, but wheels / tyres can handle a gritty forest trail (at their limit) and it has moderately close to road bike ability. Fitted rack, mudguards & two bottle holders, reflectors etc etc (standard bike is as basic as a road bike) and A530 pedals. A compromise but makes a great all-rounder that does work. Still deciding on serious tourer – that won’t be a compromise!

    1. Hi Charlie, thanks for your feedback. It’s great to hear you’ve had such a positive experience with your Tricross. As I say at the top of the post, you don’t have to buy a touring bike as so many bike models are versatile enough to handle many touring applications.

      I have gone full circle in some ways, having now sold my traditional touring bike in favour of a multi-purpose machine in the shape of my Surly Troll. This reflects the riding I am now doing, with a bit more focus on gravel roads, and the fact that I have shifted (If you’ll pardon the pun) to a Rohloff.

      I have ridden a Tricross and really liked it. It was the single speed model which doesn’t seem to have a place in Specialized’s line up anymore. Shame, it was a really nice ride 🙂

  12. H
    Hello. As I already have one, I`m thinking of taking a Thorn Mercury the length of Africa (East side) next year. I wonder if anyone has any views as to it`s suitability?

    1. Hi Mark, Seems like a fine choice (and a fantastic journey). You might want to consider something that could potentially handle heftier tyres though… but that depends on your route choice. The oft-quoted preference for 26″ wheels may also apply in your case so your can benefit from the greater availability of spares.
      My limited experience of Africa (Morocco, Kenya – where I lived for a while – and South Africa) points to variable road conditions. I’m sure others with more experience of cycling in this part of the world will have a view though.

  13. Hi folks,

    northernwalker, I’m planning a cycling trip this winter in Morocco. I’m flying in from South Africa, but I can’t seem to find a good touring bike in Johannesburg. Do you have any suggestions about where to pick one up? (I’m currently living in Mozambique, so it’s difficult to go and explore).


    1. if you can’t source a specialist tourer, what about an MTB? If it has braze ons for racks then all the better. If not, you could haul a trailer or use some specialist bike packing luggage. The MTB might be better choice if you fancy tackling some of the pistes.

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