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Sizing and Choosing a Touring Bicycle

Updated on December 1, 2014
Examples of the types of bicycles that would have been similar to those used on one of the first reported cycling tours from Liverpool to London.
Examples of the types of bicycles that would have been similar to those used on one of the first reported cycling tours from Liverpool to London. | Source

Traveling by Bicycle

Perhaps you haven't heard but traveling by bicycle has been around for a long time and hundreds of thousands of people around the world do it today - there is probably some poor sweaty guy huffing up a hill in Mexico right now, loving every second.

Back in March 1869 the Times of London reported on among the first cycle touring trips from Liverpool to London (231 miles):

"Many enquiries were made [about the bicycles] as to the name of 'them queer horses', some called them 'whirligigs', 'menageries' and 'valparaisons'.

Today, no one confuses a bicycle with a queer horse and those initial trips of 200+ miles have now turned into multi-hundred thousand mile expeditions around the world. A German cyclists, Heinz Stücke, for example, had put in over 300,000 miles by 2006 having been on a worldwide cycling tour since 1962.

Our family is currently 3000 miles in, on an epic cycling trip from Northern British Colombia, Canada to Central and South America. While we are inclined towards adventure, we knew very little about what to look for in a touring bike when we started. We hope we can help you get out and explore the world with our essential aspects to consider when pursing a touring bicycle.

Jump on your whirlgigs for great trips big or small!

The Touring Bicycle

Our Surly Long Haul Truckers
Our Surly Long Haul Truckers | Source

We've seen and met folks from Germany and the States who have bought bikes from Walmart or a used Huffy off craigslist.org by throwing their legs over the beast and nodding an affirmative.

One couple we met used old milk creates and trash bags as saddle bags on a Schwinn they'ed bought at a department store. By the time we met some of these folks, they'd traveled thousands of miles. So, if you really don't have the cash to fork out for a $1000+ bicycle, than no sweat. Find a bike that fits you and hit the road!

Sizing

On the other hand, if you do have some funds, getting a "proper" touring bicycle will probably save you a lot of headache due to mechanical issues and questions of proper fitting. We recommend heading to a local cycling shop near you armed with your basic measurements. Use a hardcover book between your crotch (with the spine facing upwards) to measure:

  1. Inseam/Stand-Over Height. The top spine of the book to the floor
  2. Torso Length. The top spine of the book to your collar bone (that little v spot before your soft throat begins)
  3. Reach. Drop the book and then measure from your armpit to the mid part of of your palm on both arms.

Standard measurements you should take when considering the correct size bicycle frame for yourself.
Standard measurements you should take when considering the correct size bicycle frame for yourself. | Source
A handy online tool from eBicyces that gives you an idea of the frame size that will most likely fit.
A handy online tool from eBicyces that gives you an idea of the frame size that will most likely fit. | Source

Armed with these basic measurements you should be able to hit up your local bicycle shop and they can point you in the right direction for the proper size frame.

There are a few different places online where you can get an idea of the frame size. I punched in my measurements at eBicycle and it spit out a 52cm frame for a road bike - which is the size of my bicycle currently.

The best practice is to hop onto a bicycle and ride it around a bit to get a feel for how comfortable you are within a few +/- cm range.

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Another handy online sizing chart that will give you an idea of the size of bicycle you should be looking at.
Another handy online sizing chart that will give you an idea of the size of bicycle you should be looking at. | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Trek 520 road bike fully loaded.A mountain bike with suspension fully loadedA Recumbent two wheel bicycle with saddle bags. An expedition touring bike by EKLM fully loadedA recumbent 3 wheel (trike) loadedA Trek 7500 hybrid loaded. Link here is to a forum.Surly Big Dummy fully loaded. Example of a long/cargo bicycle.A tandem bicycle fully loaded.
A Trek 520 road bike fully loaded.
A Trek 520 road bike fully loaded. | Source
A mountain bike with suspension fully loaded
A mountain bike with suspension fully loaded | Source
A Recumbent two wheel bicycle with saddle bags.
A Recumbent two wheel bicycle with saddle bags. | Source
An expedition touring bike by EKLM fully loaded
An expedition touring bike by EKLM fully loaded | Source
A recumbent 3 wheel (trike) loaded
A recumbent 3 wheel (trike) loaded | Source
A Trek 7500 hybrid loaded. Link here is to a forum.
A Trek 7500 hybrid loaded. Link here is to a forum. | Source
Surly Big Dummy fully loaded. Example of a long/cargo bicycle.
Surly Big Dummy fully loaded. Example of a long/cargo bicycle. | Source
A tandem bicycle fully loaded.
A tandem bicycle fully loaded. | Source

Bicycle Types and Considerations

When I say that getting a "proper" touring bicycle will save you some pains when it comes to sizing and mechanical issues, it's a bit misleading. Really, you can use a mountain bike, cross-over, recumbent 2 wheel or trike bike, a tandem bicycle or adapt a standard road bike frame for touring purposes.

There are some fundamental things to keep in mind though before you purchase a bicycle for touring purposes:

  • Size. As we already pointed out, the size of your future touring bike is probably one of the most critical factors in determining your touring steed. Without a bicycle that properly fits your whole touring experience will probably be a short lived awful experience.
  • Material. There are plenty of opinions out there on what's the 'best' material for a frame carrying weight and taking the abuse of long miles. We would say the most common frames we see are steel and aluminum. We went with steel because it is currently more the 'accepted' standard of a strong yet forgiving frame that can be fixed somewhat easily if cracks do occur. With any other material than steel, figuring out a way to fix a broken frame is probably going to be much more difficult.
  • Chain Stay Length. Apart from the frame size, you'll want to pay particular attention to the chain stay length (the length of the bar from the center of the back wheel to the center of the chain ring(s)). You will need to find a bicycle with around a 45cm+ chain stay, otherwise you'll be banging your back heel against your pannier (saddle) bags - which is supremely irritating and takes a lot of jerry rigging to avoid with a chain stay too short.

A Custom Mountain Bike Tour Bicycle

Bicycle frame diagram showing basic frame nomenclature
Bicycle frame diagram showing basic frame nomenclature | Source
  • Braze-ons/Mounting Points. We would recommend that there be at least three standard mounting points for a couple of water bottles and an accessory like a mini pump - although four mounting points, in our opinion, are even better! There should at least be mounting points on the mid-section of the front fork for accommodating a front rack. Additionally, having a mounting point between seat stays (angular bar that connects to the base of the seat post) is helpful for mud guards and certain types of back racks.
  • Toe Overlap/Clearance. This is one of those things that could go either way, some people are driven slightly insane if they take a bit of a sharp turn (usually at slow speeds) and the front wheel comes in contact with your toes, for other people its not a problem. For example, I road a Novara Safari from REI for a few thousand miles and never had a problem (even with a mudguard on) with toe overlap.

    When we swapped out our Novaras for the beautiful Surly Long Haul Truckers, for the first hundred miles or so I was distinctly aware and driven a bit crazy by my toe coming in contact with the metal stays for the mud guard. This, for me, often happens on steeper hills where speed is slow and because we carry a lot of gear there is a little bit of dodging and weaving that takes place while you're huffing up a hill.

    That being said, after another 100 miles or so, I've gotten accustomed to the toe overlap and it bothers me very little now. Additionally, taller riders like my wife (I have a 52cm frame and she has a 58cm) will probably not have toe overlap as the "issue" tends to affect smaller frame bikes. All we are saying - be aware of the toe overlap.

Three types of common touring bike handle bars: A: Butterfly, B: Dropbar, C:Flat Bar
Three types of common touring bike handle bars: A: Butterfly, B: Dropbar, C:Flat Bar | Source
  • Wheel Size. If you buy a brand new bike, you'll notice that most are coming out with 700cc wheels (except for most mountain bikes). If you intend to go on a multi-thousand mile trek through remote areas say in Central and South America or even Europe and China, you may consider going with currently the more universally standard 26" wheels with standard valves - which, in the USA, are getting harder to find as a stock item.
  • Handlebar Type. This is more a matter of preference and comfort and not in-itself a game stopper if the bike you are pursuing has one type of handle bar over another. The most common types are flat, drop, and butterfly handlebars. For me, I've used butterfly and drop bars. I prefer the butterfly bars as they give lots of hand positions and can alter significantly your posture when you want to take a break from one stance to the next.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Surly Long Haul Trucker is a solid choice among long and short distance tourists. Its got all the basic factors (chain stay length, 26" wheels, mounting points, etc.) that you'd want in a touring bike.This is the newest iteration of the Novar Safari touring bicycles. It comes (unfortunetly in our opinion) with 700cc presta wheels. The 2014 Safari that we road for 3000 miles+ were pretty similar and were a great ride.We've never ridden these bikes, but I've read positive reviews about the frame and its components, and as far as a complete bike meant for touring the price is not to outrageous.This is a budget item. I can't claim to know the quality but I've read of folks doing cross America tours with this bike.
The Surly Long Haul Trucker is a solid choice among long and short distance tourists. Its got all the basic factors (chain stay length, 26" wheels, mounting points, etc.) that you'd want in a touring bike.
The Surly Long Haul Trucker is a solid choice among long and short distance tourists. Its got all the basic factors (chain stay length, 26" wheels, mounting points, etc.) that you'd want in a touring bike. | Source
This is the newest iteration of the Novar Safari touring bicycles. It comes (unfortunetly in our opinion) with 700cc presta wheels. The 2014 Safari that we road for 3000 miles+ were pretty similar and were a great ride.
This is the newest iteration of the Novar Safari touring bicycles. It comes (unfortunetly in our opinion) with 700cc presta wheels. The 2014 Safari that we road for 3000 miles+ were pretty similar and were a great ride. | Source
We've never ridden these bikes, but I've read positive reviews about the frame and its components, and as far as a complete bike meant for touring the price is not to outrageous.
We've never ridden these bikes, but I've read positive reviews about the frame and its components, and as far as a complete bike meant for touring the price is not to outrageous. | Source
This is a budget item. I can't claim to know the quality but I've read of folks doing cross America tours with this bike.
This is a budget item. I can't claim to know the quality but I've read of folks doing cross America tours with this bike. | Source

Complete Touring Bicycles

While cycle touring is a pretty popular activity, there really isn't a mass market for touring bicycles specifically. If you are a novice coming into tour cycling trying to determine the bicycles out there that are suited for touring can be a bit overwhelming. We've tried to narrow things down a bit for those just looking to get a complete bike with often standard components.

These are just some of the most common touring bikes you can come across doing a basic scouring of the internet. These bikes are relatively inexpensive in comparison to world traveler/expeditions bikes by a maker like Koga-Miyata, who make specifically a wold traveller bike.

Take note that you can buy a cheaper bike with a solid and workable touring frame and change basic components as you learn more about what works best and what needs replacing. Starting off buying a $2000+ bicycle if you're new to touring is not something that we recommend for you or your wallet.

Got More Questions about Touring Bikes?

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