If you own only one bike, make it a touring bike... people use them to get to work and home (with groceries!), they're great for day trips through the countryside (handling steep backroads with ease), they're good for century rides, and of course they excel at bike camping! Here's a selection of 2017 bikes available in the Madison area and probably other cities, too. (Most links on this page will open in a new window.)
This is not a complete list, but rather represents "classic" style touring bikes, suitable for worldwide self-contained road tours (there are other types of touring bikes for different kinds of touring). This is the kind of riding I love the most because the pace is just right for exploring an area, I get a sense of empowerment (you can travel indefinitely like this!), it's easy to meet people (they're curious about the journey), and I'm happiest when out in fresh air and sunshine.
The process of buying a touring bike is somewhat daunting, since there are so many choices (and all a bit different... and none perfect) and information is scattered. Hopefully putting it all in one place like this will help, along with important things to think about, especially gearing.
Let's talk about gearing, which is perhaps the most important -- and overlooked -- feature of a bike.
I think the most enjoyable biking is in hilly or mountainous areas; it's scenic and the downhills are super fun! However, when you're touring and carrying a heavy load in an area like this, you want low (easy) gearing available for climbing those hills. Sadly, most bikes don't come with enough low gears. Ask around... nobody complains they have too many low gears.
Gearing is measured in "gear inches" (GI), which is a number that's directly proportional to the distance you travel in one pedal revolution (GI = distance / pi). The lower the number, the easier it is to pedal. Somewhere in the range of 17-21 GI is a good easiest gear for the average person. If you're particularly strong and/or young, perhaps you could go a little higher for your lowest gear. But be careful... you can easily ruin your knees or back with the wrong gearing. I rode a bike into my mid-40's where the lowest gear was 27 GI and lived to tell the tale, but it was work getting up those hills and I did have back troubles. I redid the gearing so the lowest is now 20.3 GI, which gave me two additional lower gears.
It's recommended that you pedal from 60 to 90 rpm (revolutions per minute), so in the table below I included the speed at which you'll be traveling while in the lowest gear. It's a little easier to relate to mph than GI. :) Note that even with Surly's relatively low GI of 18, you'll still be moving at 3.2 mph (at 60 rpm), which is a whole lot faster than walking up a steep hill pushing a heavy bike. However, some people prefer to walk since it can be good to use different muscles throughout the day.
It's possible to have your local bike shop build up a bike with easier gearing, but this will cost more. Most bike shops can build up a bike including Revolution Cycles and Cronometro, which are not listed below since they don't stock off-the-shelf touring bikes. Even simpler, it might be possible to have your mechanic give your bike easier gearing by swapping the smallest chainring for a smaller one (it is possible on the Surly bikes down to 22 teeth; haven't checked on the others).
|Custom build of 2017 Soma Saga with 24/42t double crankset and 9-speed 11-32t cassette|
While I spent a lot of words on low gears, medium gears is where you'll spend most of your time, probably in the 10-20 mph range. Make sure you have a good selection of gears in your favorite range and easy access to them (from the same chainring is ideal).
The high gears are the least important and many touring bikes have some which are rarely -- if ever -- used. For example, most bikes below give you a highest gear with 48t in the front and 11t in the rear. That translates to 32 mph at 90 rpm. If you're able to go that fast, chances are you're going down a hill or have an unusually strong tailwind... do you really want to be pedaling while going that fast? Personally, I'd rather coast and focus on safety at that speed.
One important final word about gearing... all of the bikes below come with a triple crank (three chainrings at the pedals). This is traditional in the world of bike touring. However, I think a double is superior... they're simpler, and more bike- and biker-friendly. Check out my article about using a double for touring bikes. You'll learn why I think a good gearing scheme is a 22/40t double crank (or 24/42t with 26 inch wheels) with a 9-speed 11-32t cassette.
Here are some other important things to think about.
It's best to avoid hydraulic disc brakes; while they are reliable, if they do break, and you're in the middle of nowhere, they'll be next to impossible to fix.
The biggest advantages of cabled disc brakes over rim brakes are:
However, parts for disc brakes are not as widely available as parts for rim brakes and some bike shops may not be able to help you if you need repair. Also, disc brakes add about $200 to the price of a bike and you'll need to change the pads more frequently. Personally, I prefer rim brakes for touring, but here's a comprehensive list of advantages and disadvantages of disc brakes so you can decide for yourself. Interestingly, it seems the industry has embraced disc brakes for touring bikes; if you prefer rim brakes, your choices are limited or you can do a custom build.
If you end up going the custom route, you can purchase just the frame for most of the bikes below. Some companies like Seven, Soma, and Gunnar make nice touring frames, but not complete bikes. The Seven Expat SL is made of titanium and is popular. The blue Soma Saga (review here, picture above) is unique, and offers:
9-speed cassettes used to be the de facto standard for touring bikes, but 10-speeds are becoming more common (10-speed cassettes used to be harder to find). Either is fine; the advantage of 10-speed cassettes is more variety in choices for gearing, if you need it.
Many bike tourists use the Brooks B17 saddle. While it's rock hard at first, it theoretically breaks in to fit your bottom perfectly. This works well for most people, but hasn't worked so well for me. You'll still need biking shorts with good padding.
These all come with disc brakes unless otherwise noted and frames are made with steel. Most range in price from approximately $1250 to $1750 when outfitted with the Brooks B17 leather saddle and a rear rack. The "t" suffix stands for "teeth" (in the chainring/sprocket).
|Bike/Website||Reviews||Gearing||Lowest speed at 60 rpm (gear inches)||Speed range in middle and large chainrings at 90 rpm||Additions / Subtractions||Colors||For Sale at... (price => outfitted price)|
|Trek 520 Disc||26/36/48t; 11-32t, 9-speed||3.9 mph (21.9 GI)||8-24 mph, 11-32 mph||+Rear rack||Black||Trek Store, Machinery Row, Motorless Motion (~$1400 => $1550)|
|Surly Long Haul Trucker||26/36/48t; 11–32t, 10-speed||26 inch wheels: 3.6 mph (20.2 GI)|
700c wheels: Same as Trek
|26 inch wheels: 7.5-22 mph, 10-29 mph|
700c wheels: Same as Trek
|-Disc brakes||Black, Cream||Motorless Motion, Erik's Bike Shop (~$1350 => $1550, but no disc brakes)|
|Surly Disc Trucker||26/36/48t; 11–36t, 10-speed||26 inch wheels: 3.2 mph (18 GI)|
700c wheels: 3.5 mph (19.5 GI)
|26 inch wheels: 7-22 mph, 9-29 mph|
700c wheels: 7-24 mph, 10-32 mph
|Blue||Motorless Motion, Erik's Bike Shop (~$1550 => $1750)|
|Salsa Marrakesh||26/36/48t; 11-34t, 9-speed||3.7 mph (20.7 GI)||8-24 mph, 10-32 mph||+Brooks B17 saddle, +rear rack||Orange, White (ACA edition)||Motorless Motion (~$1600)|
|Kona Sutra||28/36/48t, 11-34t, 9-speed||4.0 mph (22.2 GI)||Same as Salsa||+Brooks B17 saddle, +rear rack, +fenders||"Very Dark Red" (black)||Trail This in Mt. Horeb (~$1400)|
|Masi Giramondo 700c||24/32/44t; 11-34t, 10-speed||3.4 mph (19.1 GI)||7-21 mph, 9-29 mph||Gray||Erik's Bike Shop (~$1050 => $1250)|
|Specialized AWOL||30/39/50t; 12-36t, 9-speed||4.1 mph (23 GI)||8-23.5 mph, 10-30 mph||+STI shifters||"Oak Green/Taupe" (gray)||Erik's Bike Shop (~$1200 => $1400)|
|Co-op Cycles ADV 1.1, 2.1, 3.1||26/36/48t, 11-34t, 9 or 10-speed||Same as Salsa||Same as Salsa||1.1: -Disc brakes, +rack|
|Gray, "Nutmeg", "Oregano"||REI (1.1: ~$1100 => $1250, but no disc brakes; 2.1: ~$1200 => $1350; 3.1: ~$1100 => $1300)|
|Jamis Aurora||26/36/48t; 11-32t, 9-speed||Same as Trek||Same as Trek||-Disc brakes, +fenders||Blue||Budget Bicycle Center (~$930 => $1130, but no disc brakes)|
Before you leave this page, I also want to let you know that Southwest Wisconsin offers some of the best conditions in the U.S. for bike touring! Also known as the "driftless" area, the topography is interesting, the numerous back roads are lightly traveled, the scenery is spectacular, the downhills are fun, the small towns can be sweet, and there's a fair amount of camping. There are lots of hiking and canoeing opportunities along the way, too.
If you're local, there's a new Madison bike touring meetup you might want to join (I'm a member). Also, here are some rides and tours from Madison that I designed.
Thanks for checking out this page! Please send me an email if you have corrections or feedback.