QUESTION: What’s the difference between a touring bike and a road bike? —Scott B.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: At first glance, a touring bike doesn’t look much different from a standard road bike, and in fact, touring bikes, just like road bikes, are primarily designed for on-road travel.
They both have the same basic configuration, and both have drop handlebars. But if you differentiate them as if they were motor vehicles, the road bike is a sports car and the touring bike is a pickup truck. It’s possible to tour in either vehicle. but if you’re carrying a lot of gear, the pickup is better suited to the task.
The frames of many road bikes today are constructed of aluminum or carbon fiber, especially as you get into the higher-end bikes. Many touring bikes are made of chromoly steel, which though a little heavier, is very durable and provides a stable ride.
A chromoly frame is unlikely to break, even while carrying 50 pounds or more of gear plus the weight of your body. If that should happen, however, it may be repairable at a welding shop, which you can often find in communities around the globe, even where no bicycle shop exists. There are some decent touring bikes made of aluminum, and they are usually quite durable, but if the frame breaks on the road, you probably won’t be able to get it fixed.
The geometry of touring bike frames put you in a more upright position, which is less fatiguing over long distances. Touring bikes have longer wheelbases (the horizonal distance between the front and rear wheel hubs), which provides greater stability and better steering when carrying loads. The longer wheelbase is primarily attained by setting the rear wheel farther back than most road bikes do.
This allows more room for rear panniers (saddlebags) and permits them to be mounted far enough back so that you aren’t whacking them with your heels as you pedal. (One giveaway that you may be looking at a touring bike is the distance between the back of the seat post and the nearest edge of the rear tire. It usually will be greater than the distance between those two points on a road bike. For example, on my road bike, that space is ¾ of an inch; on my touring bike, it’s 1½ inches.)
Typically, the wheels on touring bikes will have a lot of spokes — at least 32, but more often 36 and sometimes even 40 — to make the wheel strong enough for carrying loads. And it’s common for touring bikes these days to have tires that are 35 mm wide, for stability and comfort.
Touring bikes come with lower gears to help with climbing while the bike is loaded. While most new road bikes have only one or two chainrings, and as many as 12 cogs on the rear cassette, new touring bikes may still come with triple chainrings and no more than 9 cogs. And on tourers, the whole sifting system favors simplicity — no electronic shifting that can be difficult to repair when you’re riding through Timbuktu or wherever.
As mentioned, touring bikes usually have drop handlebars, but those are not so much to help you go fast as they are on road bikes as to give you several options for where to place your hands over the course of long days in the saddle.
New touring bikes, like most bikes of any kind today, are likely to have disc brakes, which work fine. If you are acquiring an older tourer, however, it will probably have brakes that stop against the wheel rims, but they may be the type that provide additional stopping power, such as cantilever rim brakes.
Touring bikes also have plenty of braze-ons (points of attachment) where water-bottle cages, a tire pump, racks or other accessories can be fastened to the bike with screws. The bike may come with racks already mounted, and most have room for fenders to be added to help when caught on the road in bad weather.
Touring bikes are mainly for on-road use with traditional panniers. People who do off-road touring (usually called “bikepacking”) often use mountain bikes with pack systems that attach directly to the frame and handlebars rather than to racks, but those bikes and that pack system can work for on-road touring as well, especially if the rider swaps the knobby tires for road tires.
Beyond that, most bikes — road, mountain, gravel, etc. — will work for touring, especially if you’re not carrying all your gear, as in van-supported tours or where you are “credit-card” camping (staying motels and eating in restaurants).
In 1995, when I rode my first tour across America, I was pedaling a Schwinn Sprint, which started life as a general purpose 10-speed (2 chainrings and a 5-cog cassette). It was a steel frame bike, so it was already strong, but I had revamped it to an 18-speed (3 chainrings and a 6-cog cassette) to give me lower gears, and I had a new rear wheel hand built for strength. So if you are new to touring, you may want to consider whether the bike you already have will do the job, with perhaps a little adapting.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.
Dave Minden says
At 68 I still love loaded touring, but the big challenges are more than I can do, like touring in the mountains. I’ve seen ‘integrated’ ebikes for bikepacking and touring, and also ‘DIY’ ones with added motor and transmission. Given equal cost, would you suggest an older touring bike rigged with a motor, or a mountain bike with motor, or a newer gravel bike with added motor?
Maybe Stan it’s your gears that are not low enough for you and loaded touring? You should have a freewheel or cassette with a range of 11 to 36 T, and 3 ring gears with ranges from 44/32/24, so that when climbing with a loaded bike cranking a 80 rpm you would be doing about 4.3 mph. You can play with this gearing, tire size, and cadence with this calculator, and put in your current gears and tires, then do what I suggested and see what happens: http://www.bikecalc.com/gear_speed Also for ease of pedaling check your tire size, you don’t need 45c tires if you are touring on pavement, all you need is 32 to 38 at the most, this will reduce some road friction, but in exchange for that you have to use more psi which could make the ride less comfortable, if you’re worried about the comfort level then I suggest that you look into Redshift Sports Shockstop suspension stem and seatpost, yes it cost money, but it will take out most of the harshness of riding. I would also try finding lighter weight camping gear so you can reduce the load weight you have to crank up hills with, every little ounce you can take off will help in the long run. That is why backpackers and bikepackers are constantly searching for lighter stuff, and they are constantly throwing stuff out they don’t need, all in an effort to reduce carrying weight; but as you know the real lightweight stuff cost a lot of money, so you have to keep everything in balance with your checkbook.
If you do decide to go with an electric motor I probably wouldn’t try to retrofit one, there have been issues with doing that sort of thing. Probably the best E assist bike for doing touring on is the Raleigh Centros Tour that they claim can go 128 miles on a charge…of course that’s on flat ground with no wind and no load, but the 128 miles is the longest I could find in a very quick search, and that bike is tour ready unlike quite a few others, but if you use the motor only for climbing I would suspect that around 60 miles with a load climbing a steep grade would seem close to the right miles of use. That battery and motor obviously will add weight to the bike, so I would look into trying to carry lighter stuff, or not as much stuff, which would help you also if you decide to try changing the gears and not get a Ebike. You could use this Raleigh as a long distance touring bike, you’ll just have to make sure you stay in campgrounds with an electrical outlet someplace so you can keep the battery fully charged at all times. Not sure if this bike is sold in the US, you might have to contact Raleigh to find out where they sell it, if they don’t sell it here you can always ask if they send bikes to the USA. The motor and battery is a Bosch system, very commonly found in the USA. Trek stores have because their Verge bikes use them, the rest of the bike components are also commonly found in the USA. That bike also has a suspension fork, I’m not real keen on suspension forks especially being used on the pavement where they serve no purpose except to take more watts to propel the bike forward, so either it will need to be locked out, or replace it with a rigid fork, something that’s a bit odd to do with a $3,000 bike! So you might want to look around more than I have time for to see if there is another Ebike made for touring that doesn’t have a suspension fork.
Personally I would try changing the gears and narrowing the tire size down a bit, and use nearly smooth tires. I’m darn near the same age as you, and do mostly camping at this point since I’m not retired until late next year. But I went with a bike that came with those gears I mentioned and with a 60 pound load, plus a 35 pound bike, plus 180 pound clothed human riding it, I don’t have any issues. But I don’t know what issues you might have that might be causing you problems riding steep grades with a load.
Stan Purdum says
I have never personally tried touring on either a mountain bike or a gravel bike. However, I’m now 77, and last year, I converted that 1995 Trek 520 pictured in the article above into an ebike. See my description of that process at https://www.roadbikerider.com/convert-touring-bicycle-ebike/.
It was an excellent choice for the conversion, and even with weight of the motor and battery, the 520 is still the stable, smooth-riding, sure-footed bike it always was. Obviously, for ebike touring, you have figure out how to stay within the distance range of your battery, or carry a spare, or arrange to partially recharge the battery sometime during the day. But for on-road touring, I love my touring bike.