Saturday, September 13, 2008

Expedition Touring Bikes

PJC posted the message below on the Surly LHT & CC Group today. I agree with pretty much everything he said and thought it would be worthwhile to capture his comments in a blog post. I've included my reply below his comments which are particularly focused on my changing opinion of the suitability of a Rohloff hub for an adveture touring or expedition touring bike:

"Hey Gang,

There's been a lot of excitement over Salsa's new Fargo on the 29er
board on mtbr, and I count myself among the early enthusiasts. It
looks like a great bike and I can't wait to ride one. But I'm going to
submit that Surly's 26" wheeled LHT is a better adventure and
expedition bike.

Here's how I think about it. For me, an adventure bike needs to be
the following things:

- Versatile. I want to be comfortable pedaling for ten hours on
asphalt, gravel or dirt, day after day; I want to be able to mount
slicks and go on a training ride with the local road club when I'm far
from home; I want to be able to ride pretty demanding singletrack; I
want to be able to ride with panniers; at home, I want to a bike that
might be decent on grocery runs. In practice, a bike is probably
going to be good at a small number these things, but I want to be able
to do them all and have the bike be at least reasonably up to it.

- Easy to ride. The geometry needs to be such that it doesn't take
much vigilance from me to pilot. There are going to be times when I
am at 17,000 feet, bonked, cold, and in the dark. My bike can't be yet
another challenge. The thing is, I also want to be able to go fast on
flat paved roads, or twisty road descents. And I want the bike to
have good enough manners off-road. And when I'm in really dense urban
areas, I want to be able to see traffic and be maneuverable.

- Durable. Basically I don't want to even think about the fragility of
the bike. I'm not totally convinced that an aluminum frame is wrong
for adventure touring, but if there is even a slight chance that I'll
need someone to weld the thing while on the road, I don't want the
option excluded. More realistically, if the derailleur hanger or the
fork or whatever get bent, I want to just bend them back (within

- Not overly precious or prissy. The bike is going to get roped to
the roof of buses and the back of pack mules, clipped to a steel
basket for a gorge crossing, or tossed in the bucket of an empty dump
truck. I want to be able to shrug off the inevitable dents or nicks.
Some airlines still allow you to check the bike unboxed. When it's an
option, I want to be able to do that without caring that it might get

- Not have cost me a lot. The bike could get lost or stolen, and I
don't want to be devastated. This is going to be relative, of course,
but, for me, certainly under US$2000, while under US$1500 would be
even better.

- Repairable on the road, all over the world. Stuff is going to
break, and I want to be able to substitute and improvise with what is
available to me locally until I can have specialized gear shipped.

Given this wish list, I have not found anything better than the LHT.
I've ridden it with panniers in Asia, Europe, Mexico, and, of course,
at home in the US. I've raced it in mountain bike races (not my first
or even second choice, but it happened) and on frozen lakes with
Hakkapelitas. It goes along pretty good with slicks when I'm in the
drops, I can mount 2.35 Nevegals on it for offroad, and on most tours
running Marathon cross 1.5's is good enough for anything resembling a
road or dirt path. On singletrack the bb is a little low for log hops,
but riding the tops makes a lot of stuff surprisingly doable (I have
top bar levers that you sometimes see on 'cross bikes, though I don't
run them on my actual 'cross bike). If someone said that I could keep
only one of my bikes, this one would be it.

Are there other bikes that could do these things? Yeah, probably. But
some popular choices fall short for me. Thorns are a fair bit more
expensive, and I have no interest in Rohloff hubs (heavy, their
durability seems overstated, and junky but serviceable derailleurs are
readily available to run with shifters in friction mode). I don't
have any reliable info on how big a tire can be mounted on the Dawes
offerings. The Rivendell Atlantis is a gorgeous bike, but that's also
a downside. Some continental bikes look pretty good, but the Koga-
Miyata's, for instance, are aluminum. And then anything with an
integrated rack won't do for me when I want to take all the heavy
stuff off and just go riding where ever I am. There are definitely
steel mountain bikes that can be converted to adventure use, but they
would have to have long chain stays for pannier heel clearance,
couldn't be too flexy, and need a long headtube for drop bars (I've
done long tours on flat bars and I don't care that much about not
having the much ballyhooed multiple hand positions. But I like drops
for going fast.)

So what about that Fargo? I totally want one for riding here in the
US. But as far as winning the adventure bike prize, the Fargo's wheel
size is basically a deal breaker for me. My main race bike is a
singlespeed 29er, and I'm not looking back to 26ers as far as mountain
biking goes. For better or for worse, though, the wheel size that
came to be the American standard for mountain bikes in the 80's is now
the most widely available around the world. Sure, a well build wheel
isn't likely to implode, but in the overall scheme of bicycle
components, the wheels are a worrisome blend of fragile/difficult-to-
improvise/showstopper-if-you-don't-have-it. Moreover, though tires
can be booted and stitched together, there is some wear and damage
that just can't be readily managed.

You sometimes hear people say that in this era of global access to
consumer goods, you can just have a wheel or a tire shipped to you
where ever you are. There's something to that, but I've seen tires in
shops and stalls in towns that don't have phones, let alone internet.
For a lot of places that I want to ride, there's a much higher premium
placed by locals on the availability of bike tires than on having a
post office.

So, I'm sticking with the trucker for now. I think it's the best that
a US based adventure rider who is going to range far and wide can do.
Nice job, Surly!

Other thoughts:

- If I was too tall to ride a 54 or smaller LHT, then I guess I'd
convert an old mountain bike for adventure use.
- What's my real basis for comparison? I've toured on a converted 1989
Wicked Fat Chance with rear panniers (West Coast of USA), a Santa Cruz
Superlight pulling an Extrawheel trailer (Pakistan, India, Nepal,
Tibet), a Karate Monkey with rear panniers (East Coast of USA), an
80's Bianchi steel road racing bike with a large Carradice seat post
bag (USA, UK, China), a recent vintage Felt aluminum/carbon fiber race
bike with seatpost bag (East Coast of USA, France), and a Bike Friday
folding bike pulling its suitcase (East Coast of USA, Ireland, France,
Spain). None of those were catastrophes. Indeed, the Superlight --
in spite of being absolutely wrong by every bit of conventional wisdom
-- was probably the best. Of course, I was fortunate that neither the
rear shock nor the suspension fork had any problems. The LHT is
better than all of these.

[I also posted this on mtbr, and the thread there also includes a
photo of my LHT in one of its modes.]"

My reply:


Great post - we share a very similar view about the Fargo and the LHT. If you lived in the same town as me I'd buy you a beer!

We do diverge slightly on a couple issues so I'll touch on those:

I don't fit a 54cm LHT. I tried one and I can get the saddle bars and pedals in the right spot, but I feel like my weight is too far forward on the bike and I hate how it feels when I climb out of the saddle. Having looked around at the alternatives I think the options for a bigger rider that I'd consider are:

Thorn Sherpa: although I tried and sold mine I'd be willing to try a larger size. After riding a 54cm and 56cm LHT I think I really like the feel of a longer wheelbase bike with more length in front of the BB. Although the Sherpa is more $$$ than the LHT it's nicer in many ways: fittings, paint, tubing, etc... The sloping TT is nice if you'll be riding off pavement. Having said that I would have happily ridden a 54cm LHT if I had like how it fit me.

Thorn Raven Tour: This is a nicer touring bike than the Sherpa, but you have to use it with a Rohloff. I'm not a Rohloff cult member, but I have one on my Big Dummy and I'm slowly changing my mind about using on a long distance touring bike. I'm not completely there yet, but I'm now more open to it than before. Here is why:

- risk of Rohloff failure quite low [based on a # of units in service vs. reported problems], how low is up for debate and this is the make or break issue
- Rohloff is nearly weather proof. Having used it for some heinously muddy touring in the Yukon my shifting was perfect the whole time and the drivetrain needed zero attention
- Rohloff drivetrain nearly immune to damage while riding or during transport [buses, planes, taxis]. I can see ways to break it, but they are much less likely than wrecking a derailleur setup
- 32 spoke rear wheel w/ Rohloff is as strong a dished 40H wheel. So you have a strong rear wheel and 32H MTB rims are very common. Finding a 36H or 40H MTB rim would be much harder
- shifting a heavy touring bike while stopped is nice, if you need to start on an uphill
- chainring, cog and chain can be flipped when worn and you get another 100% of the mileage out of them, they will also last a lot longer in the first place
- if you break your Rohloff shifter or cable the hub can still be used and gears changed with an 8mm wrench until you can sort out the issue.

Having said all that I won't argue your cons about the Rohloff - I've made the same points myself. Part of the reason I got a Rohloff is to get some personal experience so I can come to a conclusion on the issue. From what I know and what I have experienced I think it comes down to one question: "How likely is a serious Rohloff problem?" I'm starting to appreciate the positive aspects of the Rohloff much better and I can see how you can avoid quite a few problems that a derailleur setup might face, but you won't get support or spares for a Rohloff on tour - you'll have to wait for FEDEX to deliver a part. Consider though that you won't get decent touring tires or a decent 26" rear wheel for a fully loaded touring bike from anywhere, but FEDEX either. You'll get a crappy wheel or tire or derailleur, but only something that will let you limp to the next big city where you can order replacements. I think most of the Rohloff failures you can come up with will have the same result - you'll be able to limp to the next big city and order spares.

Thorn could solve some of this dilemma by offering their Rohloff bikes with a derailleur hanger. That way you'd have an option to run a derailleur if you really needed to and it wouldn't cost much or wreck the design of their bikes.

I've thought about getting an older steel MTB frame and building it up, but given the cost of the parts I'd use I'd prefer to spend the $$$ on a dedicated touring frame like a Thorn that has all the nice details taken care of. My assessment of the theft risk is low so I don't mind investing in a nice bike. Admittedly I'm a bike snob and would value the experience of riding the nicer frame.

I've looked at Koga Miyatas and they don't do anything for me on a lot of levels - although they are undoubtedly fine touring bikes. The Atlantis is a nice bike, but I don't care for lugs or a fancy paint job and at $1600 for a frame I'd get an S&S equipped Thorn Raven Nomad S&S first.

As a LHT owner I think it's hard to beat the LHT and I wish Surly would offer a 26" wheeled Expedition touring bike for larger riders in the same vein. The Big Dummy is certainly an option, but its length and weight might be deal breakers for some folks. I'm also loving the straight bladed stiff fork less and less for touring as it sends all the vibration straight to the bars.

Unfortunately 29ers are the hot ticket right now and companies all want to jump on that band wagon - 26" wheeled bikes seem to be considered boring.

safe riding,



Badial said...

Since few weeks ago i prefer to read zour post through google reader rss chanel and yellow font looks unreadable on white canvas.
could it be sort out somehow?

Vik said...

My priority is how things look when viewed with on the blog itself, but I'll see if I can find another colour to highlight text from external source.

Thanks for letting me know about the issue.

Vik said...

I've switched to red - how does that look?

Otto Van De Steene said...

2000$ is still a lot for a student as me...

Vik said...


If money is tight get an old steel rigid MTB from the late 80's early 90's. They make decent touring bikes and can be had quite cheaply.

See this link:

However, keep in mind that spending money on strong wheels, tires, racks and other critical items of gear will pay dividends by being trouble free on tour. If you have to have a new wheel sent to you somewhere remote you'll blow any savings you achieved by using an inexpensive wheel.

JRA, Mike said...

After thinking Fargo like the others, I've also come full circle to old mtb. I'd like to buy that guy a beer too. Check it out here:

Brion van Over said...

I'm looking at getting a touring bike that would function well as an all-arounder and am interested in the LHT. Is there a particular reason you wouldn't get an LHT larger than 54?

Vik said...

The only reason not to get 56cm+ LHT is they use 700c wheels/tires which are hard to find outside of North America/Europe. Even there 700c touring tires are typically a special order and not stocked in bike shops.

Having said that you can certainly make it work. My LHT is a 58cm and I carry a spare tire.

Your worst case is you get tires or rims shipped from home.

OTOH if you plan on traveling lots with the bike and/or doing remote tours or tours in less developed countries a bike with 26" wheels makes getting spares much easier.

Andy said...

The co-motion pangea seems to fit really well into this discussion. It may cost even a bit more than the thorns and I do see the appeal of a "cheap" surly, but I think the pangea would be hard to go wrong with: No affiliation.

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