Getting the Kinks Out: A Guide on Touring Bike Customization

I have it just how I like it… here’s how I like it.

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Biking up Mt. Greylock today.

Buying a touring bike is part science, part finance, and part luck. I really milked the last one. When I bought my Raleigh Port Townsend, I was just getting into cycling and had no experience buying bikes. I trusted my shop to take care of things for me, and lo and behold, I had a perfectly serviceable steel-frame touring bike from Day 1.

It was all downhill from there. I crashed, abused, and beat the poor thing to the brink of death on a monthly basis. I’ve been in four accidents, and I’ve replaced almost every replaceable component at least once. If you ride hard, or ride frequently, you might end up doing the same. Here’s a guide on getting the most out of your touring bike, from off-the-shelf to off-road.

Part I: Drivetrain

Most touring bikes come with a decently built drivetrain right off the shelf, but not all. My Raleigh Port Townsend, for instance, uses only 2 chainrings and a traditional road cassette, which is not ideal for climbing. The Surly Long Haul Trucker uses a neat mix from several manufacturers; chainrings from Andel, Shimano XT derailleurs, and a 9-speed SRAM chain. The decently-specced Nashbar TR1 Touring Bike comes with a triple ring specced out with Shimano Tiagra, a step down in quality and price from other builds.

So, how do you upgrade your drivetrain?

First off, see if your local shop will swap out drivetrain parts for you right when you buy the bike from them. Most shops are more than willing to order you an upgrade (or downgrade) and replace the part on the bike before you ride it, since they can sell the stock parts themselves. When I bought my Raleigh, I immediately swapped my Shimano Sora rear derailleur for a Shimano Deore 9-speed derailleur and a matching casette.

This gave me a little more consistency in difficult gear ratios than I had with the short-cage derailleur that came stock with the Raleigh. It also made up for the extra chain growth from running the larger cassette with a 34/50 chainring in the front. If that doesn’t make sense to you, put it this way; I got a bigger cassette, and a bigger derailleur to match.

I ended up breaking that derailleur, though, so I upgraded to a Shimano XT rear derailleur and it was the best money I ever put into the bike. Shifting cleanly for months between adjustments removed a serious headache from riding the bike. Things were precise, snappy, clean, and I really got to feel like I was fitting the gears to my ride, rather than focusing a ride around shifting gears. It’s difficult to quite describe the nuance, but I HIGHLY recommend upgrading your rear derailleur.

There’s a reason everyone uses three rings; It’s a lot easier on your legs. Having your “grandma gear” as low as you can go lets you keep pedaling when inclines slip past 20% grade. I now have Terminator legs because my 2-ring setup is all I’ve ever known, but I was bad and I should feel bad for not sticking a tiny ring on there.

Finally, I stuck a stainless steel chain on there, a Shimano Ultegra/XT 9-speed, which handles my Northeastern Winter much better than cheaper chains. You don’t need to spend a fortune; upgrading your derailleur and your chain costs less than a pair of nice shoes, and can make a huge difference.

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Part II: Contact Points

Some of your most important components are the ones that contact your feet, hands, and butt. After all, you’re going to be on your touring bike for 10-12 hours sometimes; might as well enjoy it!

Right when I got my bike, I upgraded the seat to a WTB Pure V, which I like well enough. I like that it doesn’t seem to matter if it gets wet; I ride through thunderstorms and don’t ever look to see if it’s soaked up water. What little moisture does get held usually evaporates by morning, or is ignored by my lycra. Having a good seat is crucial to being able to put in long miles, so you’ll need to find a rump-whisperer at your LBS and try a few.

More cushion is not necessarily better. You need support underneath your sit bones, two bony protrusions underneath your buttocks. If you’ve got padding crammed against the soft tissues between your legs, your future progeny might not survive your tour. Don’t hurt yourself.

I found these pedals really ideal for touring: Shimano PD-A530 SPD Dual Platform Bike Pedal

These pedals have a platform on one side and an SPD clip on the other. SPD clips are the “mountain bike” variety, although you can really use whatever cleat system you want. Mountain bike shoes usually have rugged soles, perfect for hiking to a camp spot or walking into a grocery store. Paired with this pedal, your flexibility is limitless. I leave these pedals on my bike all the time, and jump on my bike in sneakers every single day on the platform side. When it’s time for a ride, I clip in with my cleats. I prefer Mavic Rush shoes, because I have wide feet.

Handlebar tape is something that gets focused on a LOT. I wouldn’t worry too much about making a 3-layer cake with your bar tape; alternatively, just get a good pair of gloves. My bar tape is Arundel Gecko Bar Tape in fur-black. Looks very clean and has a great feel to it bare-handed. I originally wanted to mess around with trekking bars or flat handlebars, but drops gave me the hand positions I really needed without any superfluity. Your mileage may vary; don’t hesitate to try something new.

Make sure you get your bike professionally fitted. Having your seat just a few inches too low can cut your efficiency by 20% and leave you with an impending knee surgery. Be careful, and get a professional to help you get it exactly right. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure your bike is sized perfectly before you buy it; one frame does not fit all.

Part III: Wheels

The wheels on your bike go round and round, and so will you if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Most stock wheelsets on touring bikes are boat anchors, but that’s okay; they’ll last a long time. I put 3,000 miles on my stock wheels before the nipple receptors in the rim started blowing out. I replaced them before the catastrophic accident.

I use Mavic 719 rims, 32 spoke 3-cross laced in the front and 36 spoke 4-cross laced in the back. My spokes are DT Swiss double-butted with brass nipples. I have a Shimano Ultegra hub in the rear and a Shimano XT Front Disc Hub in the front. I didn’t even own a disc brake when I chose the front hub, but I knew I wanted one eventually. Lo and behold, one month later I crashed my bike in Montreal and had to replace my fork, so I swapped in an AVID BB7 Mechanical Disc Brake  at the same time and was good to go.

How’d I choose my wheel components?

For the rims, I went with a mountain bike rim because they’re built to withstand some serious punishment. There’s a weight penalty, but it wasn’t egregious. This is limiting, though; my Mavic 719 rims have a minimum tire width of 28mm, which is about as thin as I’d go anyways, but I won’t be winning anything beyond a Randonneur on these. Even though I have a disc brake in the front now, I still got the rim-brake rim in case I need to switch back for some reason (like a crash away from home).

For the hubs, I got the nicest hubs I could afford. Why? Sealing. Ultegra/XT hubs can go through hell and high water before they need to be repacked. They’re not invincible, but they’re a lot stronger than the cheaper Sora/Deore alternative. I prefer cup-and-cone hubs to a sealed cartridge because I can always repack cup-and-cone hubs with a frisbee full of gasoline on the side of the road in a third world country. Sealed cartridge hubs might last a helluva lot longer, but there’s no DIY option for mortal mechanics.

Always get brass spoke nipples. They don’t corrode and won’t blow out as quickly as cheaper alloys.

For tires, I prefer Schwalbe. Less flats, less problems. I rode a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Supremes into the ground- thousands of miles. The sidewalls gave out before the tread did. You get what you pay for, though, and these paid out in ride quality. They were nice and quick! Today, I’m using Schwalbe Little Big Bens, my winter/bikepacking tire and the largest (38mm) tire my rear triangle will accommodate. Sometime soon, I’m upgrading to the new Schwalbe Marathon , because apparently the 2014 ones have a new compound that won’t crack in the sidewall like all my other ones. I’m hoping it lives up to the marketing.

Part IV: The Frame

Ah, here’s the hard part. Your new touring bike’s frame and fork. First off, let’s tackle the distinction between a mountain bike frame and a road frame.

Mountain bike geometry places the rider in a more upright position, and this makes sense for a mountain biker, since you want to see what’s coming up on the trail and keep your weight balanced on your feet. Mountain bikers don’t care particularly about aerodynamics, so getting racing-low isn’t necessary. For touring, mountain bike frames are more comfortable for slower riders. They’re also nearly always built very strong. Some good mountain bike frames like the Surly Troll and the Salsa Fargo are staples of bicycle tourists.

Mountain bikes are less efficient than road bikes; the geometry just doesn’t match the biomechanics of the human body quite as well. The aerodynamic riding profile and perfect balance of forward lean makes a tucked roadie hard to catch. For touring, efficiency can make a big difference if you’re covering hundreds of miles. If you have even an inkling of a speed-demon in you, get a road frame. Some of the great road frames are the aforementioned Surly Long Haul Trucker, the REI Novara Safari, and the Bianchi Volpe. 

Remember that conversation about bike fitting? It’s crucial. You need to find a good balance between top tube length and standover height, and make sure you’ve got a long wheelbase so your heels don’t tap your panniers. If you miss here, you’ll be kicking yourself until you buy a new bike, so proceed with caution and listen to your local bike shop like it’s gospel.

I broke the fork on my Raleigh in a crash last November in Colorado, and replaced it with a Surly LHT fork. It’s great; high-quality cromoly 4130 steel and the absolute definition of touring-specific accoutrements like rack mounts and bottle bosses.

If I were buying a new touring bike right now, it would probably be a Surly. Originally, I hated Surly; no european paint finishes or delicate frame geometry. However, I have really come full-circle. They’re high-quality bikes, and they go places; I don’t think there’s a more well-traveled frame out there right now. I’d love the opportunity to ride one into it’s grave, though my Raleigh looks like it’s got a few more decades, so it’ll be a Troll or Ogre.

Part V: Racks and Bags

Racks and bags are an essential part of a touring rig, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons here, mostly from mistakes.

For racks, I don’t particularly advocate getting the $100+ Tubus racks that most people advocate. Cheaper racks do the job, as long as they’re above the baseline aluminum ones with cheap welds. I like the Axiom DLX Streamliner for a back rack, since it keeps the panniers nice and far away from my heels. It’s also minimalist, with no sheet metal and extra bars on top using up valuable calories. For the front, I use a Racktime Topit, and it’s probably more rack than I need, but it’s proving very durable.

I do suggest distributing your weight carefully. In 2013, I toured with two Ortliebs mounted in the back (way far back, thanks to the Streamliner). That made me back-heavy and caused me to fish-tail and crash in the middle of the desert, costing me a new rim and four permanent scars (more of a bonus if you ask me). Keep your panniers low, and put the heaviest stuff in the bottom. Going with two rear and two front bags is a good start, but see if you can’t go lighter! I love frame bags like the Revelate Designs Tangle Frame Pack, and highly advocate one for your center triangle over a handlebar bag. It’ll make the bike a lot more stable.

The best panniers are the ones that hold your stuff without bouncing, sagging, or shredding on your first crash. I stand by Ortlieb because Ortlieb stands by me. My back-rollers and front-rollers have never failed, except that one time the mount broke for Jim. I had taken them apart and removed the plastic sheet “to save weight.” Lesson learned; it didn’t really work, and some zip-ties got the bags home. Ortlieb replaced my mount for free and got me rolling again.

Wrap-Up

I think my takeaways from getting my bike the way I want it were as follows:

1. A dollar spent on contact points feels like it counts as double. Invest.

2. Buy it right the first time or you’ll be buying it again.

3. Wear it out before you upgrade it, because why not?

4. Find people smarter than you, and listen.

 

Happy trails, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Getting the Kinks Out: A Guide on Touring Bike Customization

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