Tech Talk: Touring Bicycles 2015 and Luddite Resistance

…In which Skyler dangerously ventures into the hemisphere of the ‘Opinion Piece’…

In our travels of North and South America, we’ve noticed a sort of uniform among the ‘common’ touring cyclist. It varies depending on the rider’s nationality. The uniform ridden by North Americans, and an increasing number of Europeans, on tours outside of North America is a bicycle model that has been around for over a decade – the Surly Long Haul Trucker. This bike is usually adorned with Tubus front and rear steel racks, four bursting Ortleib panniers, road-style drop bars, extremely stiff, puncture-resistant Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires, high spoke-count 26″ wheels, rim brakes, and a Brooks leather saddle.

This photo is pulled from album of loaded touring bikes, over on the strange social experiment/touring forum crazyguyonabike.com. This page, and 33 other like are, are dedicated to photos of Surly Long Haul Truckers. Even more fascinating, the owner of the website seems to earn a healthy income in donations from the very people who must struggle with the website's archaic layout and interface. Mind, I don't think most of those contributors like change.

This photo is pulled from album of loaded touring bikes, over on the strange social experiment/touring forum crazyguyonabike.com. This page, and 33 other like are, are dedicated to photos of Surly Long Haul Truckers. Even more fascinating, the owner of the website seems to earn a healthy income in donations from the very people who must struggle with the website’s archaic layout and interface. Mind, I don’t think most of those contributors like change.

Even among those that don’t wear ‘the uniform’, of which there are many, the common wisdom behind this bicycle set-up for touring is widely accepted without challenge. To understand why this particular vehicle is so popular, a look back in the pages of adventure cycling points to an answer – this bicycle looks remarkably similar to the hacked-together road bikes qua touring bikes of the 1970s, that Golden Age of adventure cycling. Indeed, all these above-mentioned pieces of kit are a refined version of those 1970s and ’80s touring rigs that so proved their worth 40 years ago. Each item on the list offers a solution to the classic problems of a long-distance cyclist: flat tires, sore butt, sore hands, broken racks, broken wheels, wet luggage. (That these are mostly mediocre, band-aid solutions that generally fail to tackle the root of each of these problems is beside the point.) According to popular knowledge, they are proven, trust-worthy. A safe choice.

Countless people, usually without knowledge of who they are following, complete the ride from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego each year, unknowingly emulating the pages of a 1973 National Geographic article in which Dan Burden wrote about beginning of a three year “Hemistour”, which was eventually completed by June and Greg Siple, founders of the ACA. This bicycle special issue of National Geographic has been credited with bring cycle touring, and the idea of a Panamerican ride into the American popular psyche.

Dropping a few thousand dollars on a touring bike and luggage can feel like a high-stakes game. In our risk-averse society, the ‘uniform’ gets offered as the only safe, rational choice over and over again, online and especially by sales people in bike shops. No, it’s not always a Long Haul Trucker, but it usually looks the same.

Many people who buy into this marketing are genuinely seeking adventure. A few are even wildly successful in finding it. But, without risk there can be no adventure. Since the 1970s we have witness the slow strangulation of adventure cycling in the hands of a heavily prescribed, low-risk cycle tourism. It’s not that people stopped exploring by bicycle these past decades, but those trips, partly due to the short-comings of these bicycles, often equated adventure with suffering, and have been overshadowed by millions of kilometres ridden on highway shoulders. I’ve met many cyclists who go to great lengths to avoid unpaved roads, yet complain about traffic, a few have ended trips early out of boredom of riding paved roads, and many others who have only have horror stories about their forays onto unpaved, rough roads. Seriously, blame the bike.

Part of this prescription has been the wide acceptance of a sort of anti-technology or “Luddite” attitude. (Yes, I know this is a narrow, and misleading understanding of the Luddites. Forgive me.) And this attitude is what grates me, particularly when taken to an anti-social or egotistical extreme. The condescending scowls direct toward my fat tires – “isn’t that slow and inefficient?” they say, without asking for an answer – the incredulity and skepticism toward thin-casing, tubeless tires are not helping inspire anyone. Generally it is those who haven’t travelled by bike since the touring craze of the ’70s and ’80s who express genuine interest at my answer to their usual question “how many flat tires have you had on this trip?” (Only one that required a patch in 8000km of off-pavement tubeless riding, by the way.)

In the last few years, a few unassuming personalities on the “fringe” of the cycling world have been ignoring convention, riding previously unimaginable routes, and, by all indications, having way more fun than the rest of us. In 2014, Scott Morris and Eszter Horanyi rode the Continental Divide Trail, forging what is probably the longest and most technical bikepacking route in world. On these 5100 km of trail, they rode full suspension mountain bikes, and carried no panniers.

More inspiration comes from my friend Joe Cruz, who has been been bikepacking since before bikepacking meant anything in the cycling world. In the last few months, he’s toured the back roads of Crete on a folding Bike Friday (with tiny 20″ wheels), bikepacked Utah and Colorado on a carbon fibre fat bike with front suspension, and most recently explored Slovenia on a cheap rental bike. Despite being a tenured professor, he seems to get more riding in than your average unemployed cycling dirt bag. He’s ignoring* “the rules” of cycle touring and his indomitable stoke proves, once again, that the best touring bike is the one you go touring on, the best route to follow is whichever is the most fun.

And then there are Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox, a young couple who, like many of us, started off touring in the very narrow sense offered by tradition – drop bars, panniers, and paved roads. (Scroll down to the comment section to read Nick’s own words about his early touring days. Thanks Nick!) Now, seven years later, rather than just ignoring* the touring conventions, Nick’s is perhaps the strongest voice in outright resistance toward that Luddite mentality. The stories on his blog, instead, offer an alternative form of lifestyle and travel, where trips are planned on a whim, routes chosen for the quality of riding, and the pace set by chance encounters.

(*Ignoring might not be the correct word. Some of the old-time touring wisdom really is worth its salt. Steel frames and leather saddles are still popular among the rebels. But it’s not a choice based on blind faith and adherence to any expectation.)

Nick’s fully loaded touring bike, lap-top computer and all.

Right now, Lael is racing the Tour Divide, the world’s longest unorganized off-pavement race, on a full-carbon Specialized Stumpjumper. She rode her bike to the start in Banff from Anchorage, Alaska. And, despite a chest infection that slowed her down in the first week of the race, she’s on pace to break the women’s record. Based on her current pace, she might have been breaking the men’s record up front with Jay Petervary and Neil Beltchenko had her health been better from the start.

Lael Wilcox is currently breaking records on the Tour Divide in a cotton T-shirt.

Both Lael and Jay have press-fit bottom brackets on their bikes, which allows for frames to be build with carbon bottom bracket shells, which cannot be threaded. When they both had to replace their bottom bracket bearings mid-race, spectators were quick to comment “You see! We told you so. The old ways were better after all.” Read any new product release or review and you’ll find the comments full of this sort of resistance to new bicycle technology. But Lael rode that bike 3500km from Anchorage to Banff, and another 2500km in the race, before it failed. Jay used his on his training bike for months before the race. These are consumable parts, in the most exposed part of a bicycle, being ridden in the sort of conditions that kill bearings. There is no big lesson to be taken from those bearing failures. The lesson I’ve found is that it is those with open minds, and, most of all, strong legs and lungs that are changing the face of bike racing. On the side, Lael and Nick are leading a renaissance of adventure cycling.

This is the first year I’ve followed the Tour Divide Race, and it’s all surprisingly exciting.

Cass Gilbert, though he surprised me with his residual faith in ‘the rules’, has inspired more people to abandon those conventions than anyone. Looking back in the records of his five year journey along the length of the Americas, you can watch his steady abandonment of the ‘uniform’, culminating in his switch to a fat bike in his last months in South America, which opened a new world of route possibilities. Importantly, his philosophy is to always point his fat bike down those scenic “detours”. It’s not surprising that there is a whole generation of Pan-American riders who have donned a new uniform in Cass’s image, and ventured off onto the back roads of this hemisphere. Once free of the Panamerican Highway’s pavement and traffic, on bikes that are fun to ride on rough roads and trails, those of us who have subscribed to Cass’s mode of travel have invariably found ourselves venturing further from established tourist networks, and uncovering more excellent routes off the beaten path.

It was with this alternative philosophy in my head, inspired by those mentioned above and many others, that Panthea put me in charge of building her a new touring bike. I’ll talk about the result of that build, and spew more opinionated verbal diarrhea on things like carbon fibre, suspension, and new hub standards in the next instalment of this Tech Talk nonsense. By the way, I would not recommend to anyone to have their gear-nerd boyfriend build them a bike. The bike your gear-nerd boyfriend wants you to want might not actually be the bike you want. Panthea will soon be able to comment on the success of this dangerous venture.

For those who ride the uniform and have a blast at it, ride on. Joe is right. The best touring bike is the one you go touring on. But, seriously, your rock-hard, stiff-casing tires are not the epitome of efficiency. Just ask those racers breaking records this year on the Tour Divide. They’re are all running supple, tubeless mountain bike tires. Punctures are a 20th century problem.

Still, if you’re new to the sport, spending your money on travel will be much more rewarding than building your dream touring set-up. Panthea and I have ridden thousands of happy miles on 1990s hard tail mountain bikes that we acquired for a few hundred dollars. Do whatever it takes to get out the door, and don’t worry about it.

Another from the May 1973 issue of Natiotional Geographic, a landmark publication in the cycle touring heyday of the 1970s.

Another from the May 1973 issue of Natiotional Geographic, a landmark publication in the cycle touring heyday of the 1970s.

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21 thoughts on “Tech Talk: Touring Bicycles 2015 and Luddite Resistance

  1. Enjoyed this post exploring the various ways to tour with your stuff, and I love the old photos you show from National Geographic. I don’t know that Nick and Lael actually toured on Surly LHTs, but rather other models of Surly. My understanding is that Nick has always been into traveling light. I met him during his ride down the GAP/C&O in 2010 or so and he was not carrying much– definitely no panniers. Also, I love how Joe Cruz tours on the Bike Friday. That bike goes places!

    • This is why editors exist I guess: I’d better beef up my fact checking. Lael did ride a LHT at some point, but I think you’re right, they started on second-hand vintage bikes of some cheap variety. Anyway, I’ll check my facts and make corrections.

      • We left on a tour in 2008 form ME to FL. Lael used the 1980 Bianchi that she had been riding in Tacoma, loaded with only a Carradice and a small Brooks handlebar bag, and two water bottles. I carried four half-filled panniers (never could figure out how to fill them). The luggage system on her bike needed some refinement, but the capacity is remarkably similar to what she is using now. We bought her a Surly LHT in Key West, where we worked for a few months. I continued to ride the 1995 Trek 520 until I swapped some parts and sold it in favor of a Schwinn High Sierra, which afforded greater tire clearance. We’d ridden some of the GAP/C&O on our very first trip, and was inspired by this and other brief off-pavement forays. I took the Schwinn to France to meet Lael for several months and loved it. On that bike I grew from 42mm tires, to 47, then to 51-55, and the same is true of how she used the LHT. Eventually, we made the leap to a fatbike when we moved to Anchorage in December. Weeks before that, the fate of the LHT was sealed after riding some of the Monarch Crest Trail in CO (https://gypsybytrade.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/any-bike-anywhere-laels-big-day/).

        I think you allude to the fact that the Hemistour riders selected wider tires to handle the many unpaved routes on their tour. It has been written in a few places that they used 650B (including an article in the Rivendell Reader), but they we almost certainly riding 650A (590mm) tires, better know as 26x 1 3/8″, the classic three-speed and utility wheel size, but different from the 597mm Schwinn S-6 size. The English imported bicycles and their standards all over the world. Ian Hibell, who had pioneered the route from south to north, was likely riding 27x 1 1/4″ tires. This is all to say that I think that the Siple and Burden clan knew what they were in for and selected the best tire for the job, just as you suggest tubeless MTB tires are the best tires for many of your rides. The 26×2.125″ cruiser tires common in America back then likely would have been hard to find south of the border. and there would not have been any capable bike designs for that tire size yet, aside from heavy cruisers. That was just beginning to happen in a few places in the same year…

        For many riders, the Surly LHT actually is the off-the-beaten path choice for a touring bike, compared to the vintage Japanese frames, the Trek 520, etc. which have much tighter tire clearance. The fact that it fits a 2.0″ tire and can reasonably be ridden off pavement has probably enabled and inspired more riders to the end of bicycle touring that we currently enjoy. For lots of people, the LHT is simply a uniform. But for many it is a sensible way to dress for paved and unpaved tours. It is not a mountain bike, I’ll agree with that for certain. In a similar vein, I’ve seen riders with carbon fiber 29ers and piles of Revelate gear and dry bags strapped to the bike struggling to ride the Divide. A Surly Long Haul Trucker with a set of panniers might have done just as well.

        Most importantly, a lightly loaded bike of any kind is better than the “fully loaded” model. The thing that bothers this neo-Luddite the most, is all the stuff that fills those panniers. What is it and why do you have it? It is not about grams, but simplicity.

      • Excellent read Skyler. I’ve heard of many ‘uniformed’ pan-am riders with ‘OrtliebX4’ who end up with flat bars and a framebag/seatbag setup by the time they reach Patagonia. Ride and learn. Luckily the LHT is pretty damn versatile. As Nick says, it’s about simplicity.

  2. Reblogged this on Kite*Surf*Bike*Rambling and commented:
    One of the most informative articles I have read about touring and bike trips. That double pannier setup (yes I have one of those too) is being cast asunder by the new touring setup which relies more on the evolution of Bikepacking than anything else….

  3. I own a LHT which I have always love, but on my current trip I am riding a Surly ECR with 2.3″ slicks and loving it. 11 gears, disk brakes, jones h-loop bats and big tyres make for a joyful ride. Despite that still mixing up my classic and new school kits for luggage.

  4. Great piece. Touching on many areas of my current pondering. I still road tour on my 1978 Dawes Galaxy with Brooks (third one, they work) and panniers. On the road I might argue panniers can add to highway visibility. But I also tour off road. Until bikepacking bags came along, rear racks and rigid mtb’s made a poor choice in much of Western Canada and trips were mostly weekenders with bags off day rides. Since getting a Pugs with 50mm rims for summer (82’s for winter) I’m happy to take that anywhere off road. Yet the toll of substantial road riding it to dirt or FSR’s has me considering an Ogre (or maybe Fargo) build. Both allow running front suspension if I want to or service as a rigid dirt road bike, giving choices for GDMBR tour or similar without Pugs weight. But primarily it offers road to trail access from the front side of the Rockies without needing a vehicle or pickup. Makes everything from s24O to longer dirt tours accessible right from my door. But no way I would be doing this without the evolution of soft luggage. Handlebar rolls, frame bags etc that are very robust and waterproof represent a freedom to roam we are lucky to be living with. I’m interested in where the build takes you, keep us questioning our choices please. That said I am not sure I can bring myself to trust carbon off road touring!

  5. The thing I love about bike touring is that there is an honesty to moving efficiently over challenging terrain that does not tolerate any bull shit. People can say whatever they want, they can festoon their bikes with whatever gear they want at home and they can plan any audacious route on paper, but the truth comes out in the actual riding.

    If you can accomplish your goals and enjoy yourself doing it than you made the correct choices. Frequently there are more than one set of answers to a bike touring challenge that will be successful. At that point it comes down to style and preferences.

  6. First trip 1991(quick, the baby’s coming) ever (not even an overnighter before) was 4000km in western India on a Karakoram GT MTB. Mainly pavement rougher than many single track I’ve ridden. Bike was fine but, inexperience an’ all, went through a few back spokes. Second trip 2012 (kids are in uni now): cheap Trek bought in Bangkok for a ride from Darjeeling to the southern tip of India. Bike didn’t miss a beat but I met a guy on a Thorn. Very expensive meeting, that one; it lead to getting a Trohloff (trohloff.bike, dmorg.org)from CycleMonkey. Love it to death. Rode and pushed it through HP and J&K for the summer. Perfect, except for the panniers weighing it at about 70lb. Plus the 30lb around my waist. But what an absolutely gobsmacking trip. Off to Spain in a few days; trying pack lighter this time. Struggling a bit to a PorcelainRocket bar bag and short cables. I’ll figure something out.

  7. Great article. Glad I read this before looking into a touring bikes for upcoming trips. Was especially looking into the LHT, and hadn’t even considered the other options there.

    The argument about bottom brackets detracts from your overall argument, I think, though. 6k life span for a bottom bracket seems to be pretty terrible to me, when old square taper bottom brackets last way way longer. The lifespan is clearly much poorer. Compass’ SKS bottom brackets have a 10 year warranty..

    There may be other advantages to the newer style BBs though (such as making the frame easier to make for the carbon frames highlighted above). But that’s obscured by the discussion about lifespan.

    • Oh man, don’t even get me started on square taper bottom brackets. I can immediately tell, when I get on a bike, if it uses a square taper bottom bracket. They flex like crazy, and are the perfect catalyst for me to destroy a set of cranks, and turn them from square-taper to round-taper. In the unlikely scenario where I didn’t sheer a spindle, or round-out a crank arm within 1000km, perhaps it could last a bit longer than an x-type bb on dirt.

      Logan succeeded in destroying one of those prized SKS bbs in less than 6000km in Africa. How? Because he was riding on dirt. Sure, you can get 20000km out of any BB ridden in dry condition, and only on pavement. But, if you ride on dirt roads, especially in rain, 6000km is better than I’ve done.

      Comparing the lifespan of a square-taper BB to pretty much any other style of BB is like saying solid rubber tires are better than inflatable tires, because you can’t get flats. Fortunately, there are a million better bottom bracket options available now.

      • I also detest square taper BBs, they break, round out cranks, and get creaky and tired far too quickly. The worst. The GXP BB I’m running now is leagues better in every respect, just about 10000km in and still going strong.

        Great article, by the way.

  8. Great read. Touring bikes have been transforming in past couple of years and a lot people are missing it. Having a lot of bikepacking efforts concentrate around traveling “ultralight” and quite often in race-convention is not helping the cause of convincing the “luddite” who is there for the long-haul. Most touring types I’ve talked to want to be self-suffucient. For them this usually means carrying pasta supplies for the next two weeks and a bunch of other things they probably don’t really need. It’s wants versus needs. Providence against fear. Fear can get quite heavy and would easily fill up the remaining space in Nick’s old four pannier setup.

    Perversely the touring bikes seem to have made a full circle, the modern bikepacking setup more closely reassembles those used in the early days of bike travel than anything else. One just has to look at bike luggage that was used by people like Kazimierz Novak, Horace Dall, Frank Lenz or Arthur Richardson to get the picture.

    Though I have to disagree on the girlfriend’s bike thing. The bike, her bike-nerd-boyfriend wants to build for her IS the bike she WANTS to ride. I was hard pressed to convince Saška to go with a Krampus instead of an Ogre, but I was persistent. Now, try to make Saš ride something else. Good luck with that.

  9. Pingback: Bike Check: Skyler’s trail Krampus, Panthea’s B-Side, and more Tech Talk | Off Route

  10. Hi Skyler, I really enjoyed reading your article. I personally can relate to and agree with everything you’re talking about here. I think for many of us it’s a matter of being open and evolve out of the stagnation of the conventional… In my humble opinion, at the end it all comes down to what lies behind the choices each of us make, and I think we should always ask ourselves if those choices are being made in a conscious, independent way based on our outlook, or they are the consequence of what is common or widely accepted as the “right” way. That said, I see no problem in tackling endless-boring to death-asphalt routes in fully loaded touring beasts, as long as that was a conscious choice based on personal preferences. There is no right or wrong way, but all of us should find ‘our’ own best way, regardless if that way is or is not within the confines of the conventional…

    • Of course I totally agree we should challenge those ‘conventions’… by the way I really liked this: “Since the 1970s we have witness the slow strangulation of adventure cycling in the hands of a heavily prescribed, low-risk cycle tourism”…. very true!

  11. I read your post a while ago when it first appeared and now I’ve re-read it again a couple of times. Although I agree with some of what you say, it raises the question: Aren’t you just exchanging one uniform for another?

    In my early teens, I rode a single speed steel city bike, using my newspaper delivery bags stuffed with camping gear and clothes to go on a tour in The Netherlands where I grew up. I had a blast. Over the years, I’ve had many bikes and the last dozen or so years I’ve toured on a Trek 520 (great bike similar to LHT); a Trek 2700 aluminum/carbon racer (not recommended); a custom-made steel Rodriguez 26″ travel bike with 2″ tires, drop bars and 3x8sp, now rebuilt with a Jones bar and XT 3×9-spd set up (truly weird looking because of the very long steerer tube); and lately, a Surly ECR with 3″ knards (soon to get a Rohloff).

    I’ve had lots of great adventures on all of them, both on and off pavement, and will continue to do so, as will most other people on many kinds of rigs. Perhaps it’s not about the bike (hmmm, who said that?) but about just getting out there and riding on whatever and wherever one wants to go.

    Keep riding and keep writing. I greatly enjoy it.

  12. I have a custom built Surly Long Haul Trucker and it works perfectly for me it is strong, comfortable and reliable on and off road, loaded and unloaded.
    I also use a Brooks saddle and Marathon tyres and yes I did buy the bicycle, saddle, tyres and many of the components based on other peoples experiences that they have shared online and I am very happy that I did, and the fact that it has became so popular is not something that bothers me because this stuff really works well and I really don’t care what other people are thinking or ridding, what ever floats your boat.

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