Buying a bike is an exhaustive process. Hours upon hours of research, comparisons, sizing and all manner of other decisions can be abruptly dashed when you learn that the bike you settled on is no longer made in the color you want. And don’t spout some nonsense about the color “not making a difference.” Because it does. If you say otherwise you’re a goddamn liar.
No. Shut up.
Before I launch into my reviews, I think a few points about touring and bikes should be discussed
1). 700c vs. 26″ Wheels
In the world of touring there are 700c and the slightly smaller 26” wheels and both have their own avid followers. Geometry dictates that the smaller wheel is going to be stronger, but more susceptible to damage from potholes and other hazards. 26” are also the more prevalent wheel in the less developed world. So if you are riding into remote areas, that style would be more fitting. The larger 700c’s are the standard in the US and also pair well with narrower tires. The larger diameter allows for smoother, more efficient riding and the narrower tire reduces surface drag. The difference between the two is small, to be sure, but I am accustomed to 700c’s as they are what I use on my other bikes.
2). Cromoly steel and TIG welding in bicycle frames
If you do any of your own research about touring you are going to see these words a lot. Cromoly steel stands for chromium molybdenum—a steel alloy that is an excellent balance of rigidly and flex. Cromoly comes in varying degrees of quality but some of the better levels are 4130 or Reynolds 520/525. These higher grades have more chromium than others which makes the steel harder. For that reason, high-end cromoly frames are welded using tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding. Without going into too much detail, TIG is a method of welding which uses a tungsten electrode to produce an arc between the welding torch and a metal’s surface. Melting a pool of metal on the surface of the material being welded, the welder then adds filler metal to the weld zone (which is purified by the inert gas) and combines the materials being welded.
3). Barend Shifters
These are the industry standard in touring. Those unfamiliar with barend shifters may not notice their benefits immediately. Located at the end of the curve in the handlebars, the shifters are like little paddles. They are helpful to touring because the rider can toggle between indexed and friction shifting. So, if you spill on your right side and bend your derailleur, you can switch to friction and just force the sucker into the desired position.
Alright anyway, these are the bikes that made it to my final round:
Surly Long Haul Trucker ~$1200
The Long Haul lives up to its name. It’s a long-range, heavy-duty touring bike that has been proven time and again. Now, heavy-duty was not simply a turn of phrase. The LHT frame is a chromium molybdenum alloy colloquially referred to as 4130 Chromoly. It is often compared to Reynolds 520/525 (which might just be branded 4130—I’m not too versed in frame alloys) and is certainly up there in terms of steel quality… and weight. Tipping the scales at almost 28lbs unloaded the LHT is no featherweight, but that is the price you pay for durability and flex. There is a reason there are no carbon touring bikes.
The LHT makes up ground in other areas. Surly cleverly extended the headtube allowing more versatility in positioning the bars and stem while putting the rider in a more upright, comfortable position. In regards to loaded touring the bike has the braze-ons for racks, three water bottles, a chainstay spoke holder and clearance for 26” or 700c tires and fenders.
One of the biggest weak points I find on the Long Haul Trucker is the Sora front derailleur. Especially when coupled with the Deore LX rear, it seems out of place and unreliable. Additionally, this bike comes barebones. No perks or little extras sweeten the deal—Surly leaves it up to you to make those purchases on your own.
-Shimano LX Rear Derailleur
-Shimano LX T660 Front and Rear Hubs
– Alex Adventurer Rims
Kona Sutra ~$1500
The first thing to mention about this bike is that it is straight up purty. Touring doesn’t lend itself to good looks so it is always nice to come across a head-turner. That being said, Kona has some features one might not expect. The first and most prominent is its severely sloped toptube (STT). Kona was the first company to pioneer this type of geometry in road bikes back in the late 80s. They claim that this adds compliancy, strength and shock absorption to the frame. I have to say that, after riding my brother’s Kona Blast, I agree. Still, the fact that no other major manufacturers have followed suit and mimicked this geometry leaves me hesitant. The Sutra also opted for Avid BB7 disc brakes. While looking for my bike, brakes were one of my primary concerns. After much consideration I came to two conclusions: Firstly, disc brakes are better than cantilevers. Obviously. Secondly, that doesn’t mean that I need disc brakes. I will be riding through some mountains fully loaded and probably am gonna get rained on more than I would like but I won’t be doing any downhill trailblazing and I hopefully won’t be too heavy. Cantis should be more than powerful enough to stop me.
Certainly, some of the most alluring aspects of the Sutra are its stock front/rear racks and fenders. These are options that I know I will have to go for one way or another so factory-direct sounds pretty nice. Unfortunately, the racks are aluminum and aren’t actually fit for long hauling. I feel a warped rack isn’t worth the risk and therefore I would rather go for steel. As far as I’m concerned I would be paying for something I wouldn’t use.
-30/39/50 Chainring set: Kona gave its bike a higher top range than most manufacturers—a great option for those days when the wind is at your back
-Continental Contact Tires
-Beefy brakes and a respectable Tiagra/Sora drivetrain
Raleigh Sojourn ~$1200
Now here is a company with a pedigree. Raleigh is one of the oldest bicycle companies in the market today and that fact, coupled with my relatively extensive experience working on Raleighs, is almost enough to sell me on this bike right here and now. Add to that a laundry list of fantastic specs including a Brooks saddle and bar tape, Avid BB5 disc brakes, Vittoria Radonneur Reflective tires, front and rear fenders, rear rack and a tire pump makes the decision seem pretty simple.
That being said, Raleigh made some cost-saving decisions which should keep any buyer wary. Critically, the wheelset. 36-hole hubs are the industry standard for touring and the Sojourn only has 32. Further, these are no-name hubs which aren’t even mentioned under the Raleigh specifications webpage. I will be the first to attest to the durability and quality of a Brooks saddle… but it ends up being pretty worthless when you crack a hub shell 100 miles from anywhere.
I am in no way discrediting the Sojourn—I love Raleighs. These are classy, hardy bikes that have been around for a while. In fact, if I had planned to stay closer to home with my riding this would undoubtedly be my number one choice. Wheelsets can be easily swapped and the rest of the bike seems bombproof. It is simply the same situation as the Kona Sutra. If you are on a budget you probably don’t want to buy things that you will just end up replacing. The Sojourn is a great bike on paper, I just wouldn’t take it for those long rides.
-The thing almost weighs 35lb. If it weighed any more it would probably achieve critical mass, implode and create a blackhole
-Avid BB5 Disc brakes: Nice depending on the type of riding you’re looking to do
-Oh so many nice extras like the Brooks saddle
-Reynolds 520 Cromo Frame with 4130 Cromo fork
Trek 520 ~$1400
And now to address the elephant in the room. Of course, Trek—one of the most recognized names in cycling—has a touring bike. And it is one hell of a contender. The 2012 Trek 520 is a shark in cycling history. They nailed it back in the early 80s and they haven’t needed changed much since then.
One of the best things about the popularity of Trek is that everyone has one. This Trek was by far and beyond the easiest bike to research as cycling websites are inundated with owners talking about their 520s. Said reviews almost always seem to mention its responsiveness and durability, particularly while under weight. Those are points you always want to hear for touring, especially when it is the majority of the community.
Still, to stay competitive, Trek cut some corners. The rack and seat leave quite a bit to be desired. The Bontrager Back Rack Deluxe and the Evoke 1 saddle are both entry level (or lower) and are parts that Trek probably expected to get swapped. Additionally, Trek opted for Avid RL520 linear-pull brakes. While reliable in good conditions, that system seems inappropriate for loaded riding on wet or muddy days. The Avids are not bad brakes by any means, but they pale in comparison to the discs and cantilevers used by competitors.
-The Trek name. You can’t argue with history… Trek makes a good bike
-Manufactured in the US
-Wide wheel base and elongated rear triangle allow for maneuverability even while under load
So those are the bikes I had in my final round. My next post will explain which I got and why.