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.