Everything depends on your philosophy… and your budget…
It is often difficult to choose a bicycle especially if you haven’t done much cycling before. When you start looking into it, you usually face a simple problem: a lot of people actually travel by bike but everybody has a different opinion based on his experience and what material he or she bought. In France, a lot of shops are more into racing bikes and their choice are driven by lightness and speed whereas touring cyclists are more interested in robustness and comfort. Better go to a dealer who has experience of touring bikes!
We don’t have precise solutions, rather advice based on our experience and those of cyclists we met. Other cyclists probably have different opinions.
Most of the choices you make when choosing a bicycle are guided by YOUR philosophy of travelling and that’s what matters most. If you know your philosophy, making decisions will be easier.
"I don’t care if the bike breaks or if it gets stolen, I’ll just buy another one!"
Go to Decathlon and get a cheap bicycle.
“I want a good bike but I don’t to put all my money in it”
Buy a good bike in a specialised shop with some Shimano LX parts
“I want a very robust bike, I don’t want to have to fix it”
Better get a top-end bike like the Koga Miyata fitted with Shimano XT gears, 36 or 48 spokes wheel, Marathon XR tires etc.
“I want to travel comfortably, no matter the speed, the most important is to have a good time”
Get a recumbent :o)
The different types of bicycles
There are different types of bikes but not all of them are fit for touring.
Not really made for touring because fragile (frame, wheel, tires ...) and lacking comfort.
Not really made for touring due to its heaviness and a bit too basic equipment.
Good for touring, it is very robust, a bit heavy and might lacks comfort a bit, especially in the way your body is positioned. You also have to find a way to fit a rack. Or you can get a BOB trailer.
Obviously the best bike for touring due to its robustness, polyvalence and multiple possible positions for the body (less pain).
Some famous brands: Koga Miyata (WorldTraveller and Randonneur), Thorn, Giant (Expedition), Trek, Kona, Reise & Mueller (Intercontinental).
We are not in a rush and we like comfort so, for us, recumbents are great. We don’t get the usual pains in the upper part of the body and there are no sterility or numbness problems as indicted by some cyclists on regular bikes. Our feet sometimes get numb though.
You have to bear being more visible and subject to questions and laughs all the time. From a technical point of view, except the frame, all parts are the same as on a standard bicycle. For us, the biggest downside of a recumbent is its performance (or rather, lack of) when going uphill. We are much slower than a regular bike. Also, a recumbent is more difficult to carry in public transport (more bulky) and it takes a lot of time to pack before flying. And, as our friends Amanda and Olivier rightly said, you get bugs up your shorts more often. That’s what happens when you cycle with your feet up … :o)
Be it a 26x26 or 26x20 wheels, recumbents are visible because they are unusual. So please, could people stop saying the opposite!
Some famous brands: HP Velotechnik (Street Machine), Nazca (Pioneer, Explorer), Challenge (Seiran, Wizzard), Optima (Condor, Orca), and M5.
It is one of the most important parts of the bicycle.
Steel or aluminium?
We heard a lot: “Steel is better because if it breaks, you can weld it anywhere in the world”. We think this is out of date now. Aluminium frames are of very good quality and they have less chances of breaking. Aluminium is also lighter.
Made to measure or not?
Most of brands like Koga Miyata, Giant etc. have several sizes of frame which are way enough. These types of brands know their business and you don’t need to question too much the equipment they put on their bicycles.
We had so many discussions on that subject… Make sure you choose good ones (i.e.: rim-spoke-hub). A spoke that breaks is painful to replace, especially if it is on the rear wheel, on the derailleur side!
Diameter of the wheel: 26" vs. 700 (28")
We would recommend 26" wheels. They are more robust (the spokes are shorter) and easier to find around the world. They provide enough comfort (if for example, the wheel falls in a pothole). A 700 wheel opposes less resistance to the road (more ‘rolling’ than a 26").
Rims and spokes
Take at least a 36-spoke rim. You can fit more, up to 48 spokes, to be sure, especially if you carry a lot of weight. But they are more expensive and more difficult to replace (less easy to find).
We chose a rim with double eyelets (Rigida Spoutnik), as some people recommended, and we are very satisfied with it. We also met several cyclists who were happy with the new V-shape rims (like Rigida Explorer). Go for high rims to get shorter spokes.
Get good quality spokes and big diameter (we put 2.3 mm), reinforced at the ends if needed (DT Swiss is one of the best brands).
Once again, go for good quality. Without going for the expensive DT Swiss hubs, Shimano XT or LX are strong enough (XT is better than LX).
It depends on your philosophy: do you want to go fast or do you prefer a tyre that will last.
The thinner the tyre, the more ‘rolling’ it gets. If it is wide and with big crampons, you will be able to cycle on rough roads and your tyre will last longer. Most tyres on touring bicycles are of very good quality, reinforced with Kevlar to avoid punctures.
Some famous brands: Schwalbe, Continental and Michelin.
With Schwalbe, the most famous tyre for travelling is the Marathon XR, highly durable (up to 10,000 km and more according to some cyclists). There is also the Marathon Plus, strong and more rolling but not as good on rough roads than the XR. It is a very good option if you cycle mostly on roads. If you are unsure of the condition of the roads you will ride on, go for the XR.
We discovered an alternative recently: the Travel Contact from Continental. The centre of the tyre doesn’t have crampons which makes it more rolling. Crampons on the sides give a good adherence on rough roads. It is reinforced to avoid punctures. It looks like a good alternative.
Whatever the tyre, its width is important as it defines the area of the tyre in contact with the road. The thinner the tyre the smaller the contact area, the tyre is very rolling. The larger the tyre, the larger the contact area, the better the tyre damps shocks, you get better comfort.
If you only go for good roads, you can afford thin tyres (37 – 42). For rough roads larger tyres may be better (47 - 50).
There are a lot of different ones but the most famous one among touring cyclists is still the Brook saddle. Better take a suspension for your saddle if your bike doesn’t have one. We also heard about saddles with a hole in the middle which is supposed to release the pressure. It may be more comfortable according to some cyclists. Anyway this is such an important element that you should really try it before you leave.
It is critical as it defines the way your body is positioned and therefore the level of comfort.
The handlebars and its element should be able to move in several directions in order to adapt to your physiognomy.
Get padded grips as this is where the whole weight of your upper body will concentrate. ‘Butterfly’ handlebars can take several positions which is really useful as it enables you to change the position of your hands and back.
Some famous brands: Modolo.
On a recumbent, you have the choice between ‘handlebars underneath’ and ‘handlebars above’. After a few trials, we definitely prefer ‘handlebars underneath’. The lungs are more open, we breathe better, the arms are relaxed and the view is great! And when we go downhill, we feel like being the captain of a spatial ship!
Sprockets and chainrings
How it works
The choice of chainrings and sprockets is essential as the combination of the two defines the relation between the strength you put on the pedals and your speed. The bigger the chainring and the smaller the sprocket, the higher the strength you put on the pedals, it is ideal for going downhill. The smaller the chainring, the bigger the sprocket, the less strength you have to put on the pedals, it is great for uphill.
Remember: you shouldn’t be on the biggest sprocket and the biggest chainring at the same time as this puts too much constraint on the chain.
On flat road, 90 rpm is a good pace and uphill, 60 rpm.
Choosing sprockets and chainrings
Most bicycles are fitted with 3 chainrings and 8 or 9 sprockets. The chain is different depending if you have 8 or 9 speeds. 8 speeds are thought to be easier to find but it is changing fast and it is now easier to find 9 speeds.
Regarding the chainrings, it depends on your strength and the hills you will climb. Strong cyclists can go for 52-42-32. ‘Weaker’ cyclists or those who cycle up mountains, go for 44-32-22 (that’s what we have chosen). Some go even below with chainrings of 20 teeth or even 18 (mountain bikes). A 52-teeth chainring is useful to go fast downhill but the weight of your panniers will help you gather speed anyway. So we think a 52 is not so useful while travelling but a 22 is essential to go uphill without putting too much constraint on your legs and knees.
Some famous brands: Shimano, SRAM, and Specialite TA (the best but more expensive).
Chainset and pedals
Two parameters to keep in mind:
Length of the cranks
We found a lot of information on this subject and you can easily find the size of the cranks that fit the length of your legs (there are tables on internet). Most bicycles are fitted with 170 or even 175 mm, not necessarily the right length for all cyclists.
Even if a lot of people say it doesn’t really matter, we disagree, especially if you have knee pain. We took shorter cranks to limit the angle of flexion of the knees, even though the torque produced would be smaller. But this is our own opinion and a lot of people thought we were crazy!
Holding the feet on the pedals
Again, opinions vary and the best is to try by yourself. Basically there are three solutions:
- A basic pedal without anything to hold the foot: this enables you to wear your usual shoes but your foot will move and you can only push on the pedal, not pull.
- A pedal fitted with straps: you can wear normal shoes, you foot moves less and you can pull on the pedal.
- A clipless pedal (SPD): you foot is completely held and you can transmit a maximum of power to the pedal by pulling on it. The downside is that you have to buy a special pair of shoes fitted with a metal cleat underneath (more expensive than just straps). We have chosen Shimano off-road pedals with a side for the cleat and a flat side (some people prefer to ride without the cleats on when there is traffic or when going downhill).
We went for the third option and are very satisfied even though it means carrying one more pair of shoes without cleats. The sole of a cycling shoe is very rigid and there is a risk of damaging the cleats when walking a long time on it. Thanks to the cleats, our performances have got better. SPD shoes are very useful on recumbents as our feet have the tendency to fall (with the cleats, we don’t have to ‘carry’ our legs).
It doesn’t really matter, it is a very basic part.
It is an essential part of the bicycle so better go for good quality. Shimano LX or XT are very good (XT is better than LX). It is better to choose one of the new models with inverted ratio because the ‘resting’ position of the derailleur (relaxed spring) is on the higher sprocket which is also easier to start cycling.
There is an alternative to the chainrings/sprockets derailleurs, a genuine gearbox for bicycle: the Rolhoff. It is a mechanical wonder and Rolhoff will send you a new one for free anywhere in the world if needed. The disadvantage is its price: about 1000 €. Also Rolhoff only offers 32 spokes rims.
Another difficult choice. There is no ideal solution, it depends on your priorities.
1. V-brake with mechanical cable
It is the cheapest and most common option. The downsides are a weaker braking and a longer time for adjusting the pads onto the rim.
2. V-brake with hydraulic cable
More expensive and more difficult to repair but it is still very strong. The advantages are a better braking and a shorter fitting time.
3. Hydraulic disc-brakes
More expensive and less easy to find, even though we saw them everywhere we have been. The big advantage is the quality of the braking. These brakes are sometimes difficult to adjust. The wheel is specific so more difficult to find and hydraulic is more difficult to repair. But good brands like Magura make excellent quality cables.
We went for option 1 but after seeing option 2, we think it is the best. The quality and comfort of the braking, as well as the ease of fitting, are, we think, huge advantages. Considering the quality of the system, it shouldn’t break easily. But it is more expensive.
Some famous brands:
Option 1: Avid, Shimano
Options 2 and 3: Magura is excellent
All cyclists we met on regular bicycles had Tubus racks. For recumbents, most brands have their own design.
Less conventional than regular bicycles, we have opted for recumbents for the comfort and also because we thought it was an original idea. We attract attention more but, actually, outside Europe, any cyclist attracts attention.
Several models exist: 2x20" wheels (racing bikes), 2x26" wheels, front wheel of 20" and rear wheel of 26". After hesitating a lot, we chose a 20"x26". We would have preferred a 26"x26" model but we were not satisfied: either the handlebar has a direct link with the front wheel which means you have to be very tall; or the handlebar has an indirect link with the front wheel and we were afraid it wouldn’t be strong enough (we learnt later that our friends Amanda and Olivier, cycling on Nazca Pioneers haven’t broken it in 15 months travelling around the world).
We had several criteria but we put strength first and chose our bicycles according to the experience of other touring cyclists. We chose identical bicycles to limit the number of spare parts to carry.
For those who wonder, the seat doesn’t move forward (but it does recline of a few degrees), it is the chainset that moves forward or backward (the tube at the front glides in the frame). On a regular bike, the saddle moves up or down.
HP Velotechnik Street Machine
- Chainrings: this recumbent has 27 speeds (9 sprockets and 3 chainrings). To make it easier when going uphill, we changed the chainrings for Specialite TA 44/32/22.
- Cranks: in order to limit the angle of flexion of the knees (Sylvie having knee problems), we fitted shorter cranks: 155mm for Sylvie and 160mm for Ben.
- Luggage rack: the one under the seat is an option, very useful to carry a second pair of panniers.
- Brakes: we use V-brakes, easier to find than hydraulic brakes.
- Rims: Rigida Spoutnik at the rear, Alex Rims at the front.
- Tyres: Marathon XR at the rear, Marathon Plus at the front. The first set of tyres lasted 16.000 km. We have widened the rear mudguard with a hairdryer so the XR could fit.