Test ride: review of three very different touring bikes
You can rig-up just about any bicycle for touring and get by just fine, but when it comes to comfort, stability, usability and utility, it's hard to beat a purpose-built touring bike. A touring bike is built for long days in the saddle, has a strong frame and practical mounting points for carrying a load as well as a wide selection of gears to haul that load up and over any road. But there are many variables when it comes to touring bikes and you'll need to think about the type of touring you plan to do when selecting one. I popped into touring bike specialists Cheeky Transport in Newtown, Sydney, who very kindly let me spend a few hours playing and test riding three very different touring bikes that they recommend: the Tout Terrain Silkroad, the Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Surly Ogre. Here's how it went:
Surly Long Haul Trucker (Classic)
The Long Haul Trucker (pictured above) by Minnesota-based US company Surly is designed to do exactly what its namesake suggests: haul heavy loads over long distances. Its chromoly steel frame – which is not only harder and stronger than normal steel, but has a great strength-to-weight ratio – is sleek and versatile and ideal for mounting front and rear panniers.
“It's got a tall head tube [for comfort], long wheel base, long chain stay, classic angles, it's stable, handles well, has a nice rake in the fork, and lots of tyre clearance,” says Nick Boyakovsky from Cheeky Transport. “Lots of people have ridden these bikes around the world. It's a reliable, classic touring bike.”
The Long Haul Trucker comes with a 9-speed derailleur set-up, providing a range of 27 gears.
“Certainly derailleur gears give you a wide range of high and low gears; like a 26/36/48 on front, what you might call a hybrid-triple, or a 22/32/48 like a mountain bike triple, and an 11/34 or 11/36 or 11/32 on the back gives you a pretty decent high gear and crucially a nice low lower gear,” Nick says of the size of the chain rings and cassette, which are measured by the number of teeth on each.
Surly has kept the Long Haul Trucker at an affordable price point of about $1,900 with pedals by selecting good quality but mid-range components, allowing the bike to ride nicely out of the box. It comes with a 26/36/48 crankset and an 11/34 cassette, Microshift Bar-Con bar-end shifters, Shimano Sora front derailleurs and Shimano LX rear derailleurs, 700c wheels in the larger frame sizes and 26 inch wheels in the smaller sizes. All aspects of the bike can be customised.
My two bob
I love the classic geometry of this bike. Give me a cup of coffee and I will quite happily sit and stare at its beautiful diamond-shaped frame for hours. The bike was comfortable and I liked the drop-bar handlebar set-up. There is also a certain comfort gained from knowing that this bike has happily facilitated countless great bicycle tours over the years. I also like the flexibility in gear choice that derailleurs bring, even if some of the gears are practically duplicates. Out-of-the-box, this bike comes with bar-end gear shifters, which, personally, I don't like now that I'm am so comfortable with brake/shift levers, which allow you to change gears without taking your hands away from the handlebar, making gear changes faster while maintaining optimum control of the bike. Unfortunately, many brake/shift levers are designed for 10-speed road bikes, however, there are a few 9-speed versions about and my preference would be to get my hands on something like the Shimano Ultegra STI 9-speed.
You want this bike because...
You want a tried and true touring bike with a classic style frame. You expect most of your touring will be on paved road or well maintained dirt road and you appreciate the more affordable price point. You also prefer derailleurs to hub gears, like V-brakes or cantilever brakes (although a Disc Trucker version is also available) and are comfortable making your own adjustments and repairs if necessary.
Tout Terrain Silkroad (Expedition)
The Silkroad (pictured right) by German company Tout Terrain is a top-end touring bike capable of carrying a total load of 160kg. Its frame is built of chromoly steel and has a stainless steel rear rack integrated into the frame design, providing a stiffer and more stable overall design. Out of the box, it comes with hydrolic disc brakes and a 14-speed Rohloff hub gear, which is the key component contributing to the bike's $4,300 price tag. While the frame can also be bought separately and fitted with a derailleur gearing system, it is specifically optimised to house a Rohloff, which is the only hub gear manufacturer that produces a wide enough gear range suitable for touring.
“It's the only bike that we've seen in Australia where we've been able to offer a complete Rohloff-specific heavy-duty touring bike,” says Nick Boyakovsky from Cheeky Transport. “As far as a dependable, get on, don't worry about it, the Rohloff and the integrated rack make it set and forget and you don't have to worry that your bike is going to fail on you.”
The Silkroad's designers have put a lot of thought into the practicality of this bike, integrating little features such as stops on the headtube that prevent the wheel from swinging around when the bike is parked, preventing the bike from potentially falling over. The stops don't interfere with the steering in any way.
My two bob
I really enjoyed riding this bike. It was comfortable and had a particularly lovely steering action, complemented by the BBB Multibar butterfly handlebars that Cheeky Transport had replaced the out-of-the-box flatbar handlebars with. Honestly, I really got a kick out of riding in circles on this bike, it just felt that good! But importantly, it also travelled very well in a straight line. The Rolhoff hub gear system had a wide selection of gears and switched beautifully. As I'm conditioned to riding a derailleur system, I was very sensitive to a slight vibration in the pedals produced by the hub gears, particularly when riding uphill in a lower gear. These vibrations should reduce as the gears wear in and reach a sweet spot about a year in. I also liked the integrated rack, although it may make the bike harder to pack in some bike boxes. Overall, this was a very sturdy bike that felt like it would handle everything from an on-road tour to a rugged expedition.
You want this bike because...
You don't mind paying a premium for something that is strong, reliable, practical and comfortable and you want something that will be low maintenance. You also want something that is well suited to a broad range of touring conditions and sits comfortably between a classic road touring bike and a mountain touring bike.
Surly Ogre (Bikepacker)
The Surly Ogre (pictured right) is one for the bikepackers. This touring bike incorporates a tourer's needs with the geometry of a 29er adventure bike, without suspension.
“Compared with the traditional touring bike, the Ogre has a more mountain bike DNA,” says Nick. “It has a bikepacking influence; designed for independent adventure touring and the capacity to carry stuff on your bikes without having to carry stuff in panniers.”
Frame bags are available that specifically fit the Ogre, meaning ultra-light riders can hit the trails without panniers at all. However, don't make the mistake of thinking this bike won't carry panniers; on the contrary, you can mount just about anything on it.
“The fork looks like it's got shingles,” says Nick, referring to the numerous eyelets and low-barrel mounting bosses dotting the fork.
The chromoly steel frame, nice fork design and fat tyres compensate for the absence of a suspension fork while at the same time allowing for a wider variety of options for mounting your gear at the front than on a suspension fork. Out of the box, the Ogre comes with Shimano Deore front and rear derailleurs, a 26/36/46 chainset and a 11/34 cassette at a price of about $1,900 with pedals. However, the bike is also designed with features to allow a neat Rohloff installation if preferred, which would push the price up into the $4,000 range.
My two bob
This is one mean touring machine. I've never seen as many eyelets in the front fork of a bike as in the Ogre. Basically, if you can't mount it on the Ogre, you can't mount it, full stop. I like touring on mountain bikes because I tend to get well off the beaten track, so I like the frame geometry of this bike combined with the mounting capabilities. I would personally swap out the flatbar handles for something more like the BBB Multibar for more choice in hand positioning. Cheeky Transport had swapped out the derailleur with a Rohloff 14-speed hub gear on the model I test rode and I quite liked how the two worked together.
You want this bike because...
You'll be touring on dirt trails and are tossing up between whether you should buy a mountain bike or a touring bike. You also like the convenience of swapping out the knobby tyres for slicks to achieve a nice on-road performance. You like flexibility in the way you like to carry your gear and also like the convenience of being able to purchase frame bags that fit the Ogre.
The final word
Each of these touring bicycles serve a slightly different touring niche: classic road, off-road, and expedition (a bit of everything). They are all well made chromoly steel bikes, which is a fabulous material for sturdy hauling bikes. There were aspects of each of these bikes that I appreciated, but if I were asked to pick one over the other, I would choose the Tout Terrain Silkroad because of its versatility in a wide variety of terrains. Further, pushing aside its price tag and all thoughts of its high-quality componentry, this bike simply felt lovely to ride, which seals the deal given a bicycle tour can last a very, very long time.