Buying or building a touring bike

Building a Touring Bike – Which Bike For Cycle Touring?

This post on buying or building a touring bike assumes no prior technical or mechanical knowledge of bikes. I’m writing it to help anyone that has ambitions to cycle tour but doesn’t know what touring bike to get or what extras they might need to buy.

The most common questions I get asked are about buying or building road touring bikes for around £500 (840 USD). For road touring bikes £500 is also the price point at which reliable, entry-level, bikes become available so that’s what I’m going to assume here.

If you’re considering your first tour then I’m especially honored that you’ve visited cyclefar.com. I’m sure that, armed with the right knowledge, you will love cycle touring and I expect you have some big adventures ahead of you!

Let’s begin building a touring bike!

Basic Considerations for Building a Touring Bike

  1. Your touring bike should be robust and be able to carry all of your equipment via racks and panniers.
  2. It should use common components that can be easily replaced on the go if necessary.
  3. It should have the appropriate range of gears for the places you intend to ride.
  4. It should be the right size for you
  5. The lighter your touring bike can be whilst meeting the above requirements the more fun you will have.

Technical Things You Should Know Before Buying Your Touring Bike

Bikes are endlessly diverse so I’m going to be practical about technical advice and simplify it. I hope this will be more useful to a first time buyer than listing every exception to the rule.

Threadless (A-head or Ahead) and threaded (quill) stems
Building a Touring Bike Bicycle Stems - Ahead and Quill Types.
Bicycle Stems – Ahead and Quill Types.

If possible always use modern standardised components when building a touring bike. The Ahead threadless stem is one of those modern standardised components. The old ‘quill stem’ is an outdated design and, for simplicity, is best avoided. If you see a quill stem on the bike you can also assume that it is an old bike and other parts of the bike will be similarly old and potentially outdated.

Choose a bike with an a-head stem and the chances are that other components on the bike will conform to modern standards too. This makes them easier to replace and upgrade in the future.

Touring Bike Wheel Sizes

There are two common wheel sizes used today; 26″ mountain bike size and 700C road bike sized. The 26″ might occasionally be referred to as 559mm and 700C might occasionally be referred to as 622mm.

Lighter weight road touring bikes typically use 700C wheels and more robust touring bikes, using mountain bike geometry, use 26″.

The 700C will be faster and lighter on roads and the 26″ will be stronger and able to fit more rugged tyres for trails, gravel tracks and other rough terrain. Either are absolutely fine for building a touring bike with.

If you are cycle touring with other people and you all have the same wheel size you’ll be able to share inner tubes, tyres and spokes if you need to.

Make sure your touring bike has attachment points for racks!
Building a Touring Bike - Attachment Points For Bicycle Racks
Check For Attachment Points For Bicycle Racks

By far the best way to carry your gear for road touring is to mount it to your bike. Make sure your frame has suitable attachment points for a rear rack.

You should see eyelets on the rear dropouts (just above where the axle for the rear wheel hooks into the frame) and two more towards the top of the seat stays (just below and behind the saddle).

Use V-Brakes – Avoid Disc Brakes

When building a touring bike use V-brakes. V-brakes are cheap, reliable and effective, they have great clearance for big tyres and spare parts can be found everywhere.

Building a Touring Bike - Shimano Deore V-Brakes
Shimano Deore V-Brakes

Disk brakes bring with them complications for cycle touring. For an easy life I would suggest avoiding them.

  1. They can interfere with rear racks.
  2. They often use brand specific parts that are harder to replace on a tour.
  3. Good disk brakes are expensive and you’re unlikely to find any on a £500 bike.

Disk brakes are less suitable for cycle touring than rim brakes as they stop the bike from the center of the wheel. As the brakes are applied the rotational stress on the wheel puts tension on the spokes. With the extra weight of equipment and luggage on the bike the stress on the spokes can be enough to snap them.

Modifications To Consider

The most important parts of your bike to consider to maximise comfort are the contact points; the handlebars, pedals and saddle. The next most important component of your touring bike are the tyres.

Handlebars
Building a Touring Bike - Butterfly Bars
Butterfly Bars With Leather Wrap

If you have straight bars you will probably have rubber grips over them. Handlebar grips can be replaced cheaply and easily and there are many ergonomic shaped varieties aimed at long distance cyclists you may like to consider.

Other types of handle bar such as butterfly bars and drop bars are wrapped in handlebar tape. Handlebar tape can be made from cork, leather, cotton gel and a variety of other synthetics. Choose a thickly padded tape for comfort over long periods of cycling and consider wearing gloves with gel inserts if you feel you’d like extra padding.

The more positions you have available for your hands to rest on your handlebars the less likely you are to become fatigued or injured on long rides.

For more on handlebars see the Cycle Touring Handlebars post.

Pedals
Building a Touring Bike - Shimano DX SPD Pedals
Shimano DX SPD Pedals

If you’re using cleats I’ll assume you have a system in place already, if not then you may like to consider them. I recommend Shimano’s mountain bike SPD system for cycle touring.

If you don’t want to use cleats then I recommend wide platform pedals combined with a narrow flat bottomed sports shoe.

Sometimes the soles of running shoes are very wide at the bottom, this can be a problem as they hit the crank as you turn the pedals.

Saddles
Building a Touring Bike - Saddle
Building a Touring Bike – Brooks B17 Special Saddle

Women, you will almost certainly need a women’s specific saddle. They’re wider, shorter and designed to fit the geometry of your pelvis which looks nothing like a man’s (thankfully).

Amongst my friends and family the feedback I have is that leather and gel types work well. I’m unfussy but have enjoyed using a Brooks leather saddle on my touring bike for the last few years.

The position of your saddle is key, spend some time tilting it backwards and forwards and sliding it along the rails to get it just right.

To see more on saddles see the Cycle Touring Saddles post.

Saddle Height Myth

When I was younger I remember being told the perfect height for a bicycle saddle was where you could sit on it and just reach both feet to the ground. This isn’t necessarily true. The ideal height in my opinion is much higher. I have my saddle raised so that there is no way I can reach both feet to the ground.

The ideal height for a saddle in my opinion is the highest point where you can still comfortably apply pressure to the pedal at the bottom of it’s stroke.

Choosing The Right Tyres
Cycle Touring Tyres Marathon Extremes
Cycle Touring Tyres Marathon Extremes

If I had to recommend one tyre for cycle touring on roads, with the added possibility of accidentally going off road for short periods, it would be the Continental Travel Contacts [review].

They are a great value serious touring tyre and offer superb puncture resistance. I would say the tread is designed 80% for roads and 20% for trails making those treks from the road to your free camp a little easier. Would you like to learn more about wild camping?

For more options on tyres I have an article on The Best Tyres For Cycle Touring.

Quick Summary

So here’s a quick summary of what you need to buy or build a touring bike. Look for a bike that meets all of the Basic Requirements that I mentioned at the beginning as well as;

  • an a-head stem
  • 700C or 26″ wheels
  • eyelets for racks and,
  • v-brakes

Consider holding back some of your budget for modifying;

  • Handlebars
  • Pedals
  • Saddle and,
  • Tyres

If you found this article on buying or building a touring bike useful please consider leaving a comment or sharing.

I recommend taking a look at Chain Reaction Cycles. That’s where I go to get most of my bicycle components.

11 thoughts on “Building a Touring Bike – Which Bike For Cycle Touring?”

  1. I read this article 6 months ago when planning my summer trip around europe. It came in very handy and I thank you kindly. I had a hell of a time! It set something alight inside of me and I now work for an independent bike dealer called The Bike Shed. We’ve just received a batch of Dawes touring bikes, which reminded me of this article. So in the interest of sharing with my fellow tourers, if anyone doesn’t want to build their own bike, head over to http://www.bikesheduk.com/Dawes-Touring-Bike-Sale

    I’m sorry for advertising, but I feel I’m among friends here.

  2. Might want to update your article with the new adventure Touring bike made for 29ers. They accomodate much larger tires which are more friendly on rough roads and dirt/trail touring!

    1. Hi Jim,
      Thanks for your comment. I have to admit to sitting on the fence with 29ers, I can’t tell if they are just a fad or if they have real potential. They will be heavier and less durable than a compact 26″ and also outside of the US and Europe, 26″ is the standard wheel size. 29″/700c is rare in some countries so spares might be an issue, especially when you consider the specialist nature of the tyres you would need. Big tread, long wear life, etc.

      Do you have hands on experience with 29ers, how do you find the weight of all that wheel and rubber? Do they really make a difference offroad? Love to hear your thoughts it’s an interesting new area for touring, hopefully I’ll get to have a ride on one when I’m back in England!

      1. In the states, the 29er is no fad particularly in the MTB world. It is just short of main stream. In the Adventure(off payment) Touring world, as manufacturers, such as Surly, make new frames they are peaking interest. I know around the world, the 26er is the mainstay. As paved roads get more crowded we are using the dirt/gravel roads more and more. They are plentyful. There are the more adventuresome tourist that self-contain on the unmaintained gravel roads in our mountains. The wider tires available in the 29er is a huge advantage in these loose gravel, sand and muddy situations. I guessing they would be perfect for the rough mountains of Scotland or Wales. The bonus is the 29er tires can be mounted on the wider 700c touring rims! So you can use the larger tires for unpaved off-roads or mount the smaller tires for paved touring. The 29er is simply the 700c with wider rear stays and wider front fork blades to accommodate wider tires. The weight difference is minimal and they roll over rocks/roots much easier than the 26er with less momentum needed. You don’t get that sudden stop that happens with a 26er with a larger obstruction. The 29er simply rolls over it.

        1. Thanks Jim, that’s interesting. I don’t think I can recommend 29ers in this posts as this is for people just getting into touring. I want to keep it simple and show people how to make a ‘bread and butter’ tourer that can be built and maintained in almost any country. But I now plan to write another just for 29ers!

  3. Thank you James! This is fantastic advice, informative and to the point, can’t wait to get my fist touring bike & get pedalling :)

  4. Hi Noel,
    Your trip sounds brilliant. Quite a keen milage too, good luck! Out of interest, what tyres will you be putting on the 29ers for the tour?

  5. Hi James
    My wife and I have done some superlight touring on road bikes but wanted something a little more dual purpose.
    Thanks to the bike barn 1/2 price sale we purchased a couple of decent quality (and Light) 29″ MTB last weekend, plan is for these to turn into our tourers over the next 6 months, (29″ = 700C by the way).
    We have a dual purpose tour from dunedin to queenstown and back with the otago rail train in between, thought we would take 8 days to do 615km with 6.5km of climbing so that should be a good test in october

    1. Hi James, I have no idea what tyres at this point, I was wondering about something like a Continental Contact II Reflex City Road Tire or Vittoria Journalier Tech Commuter Tire as it is primary a road trip but open to suggestions from others who may have done something similar.

      1. Noel, as you might know I’m a fan of the Travel Contact, that tyre will serve you very well for a spot of off road. But, having said that, the Contact II would be a dream on the roads. A very tough choice! I guess it depends on how much off road you think you’ll do, if it’s not that much then I’d be tempted to go the Contact II route perhaps.

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