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Wanted: advice from fellow bicycle tourists

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The wheels were stolen from my bike recently. The bike now needs a good $500 worth of help (new wheels, new shocks, and a serious tune-up), so I’ve decided to take the plunge and finally get the touring cycle that I’ve coveted for so many years. This is where I need your help.

The environmental benefits of bikes are well known. As with any manufactured good, bikes also carry some environmental costs, due to the energy required for manufacturing and shipping. Although these costs pale in comparison to other modes of transportation, it’s interesting to consider briefly how my choices affect the bike’s total environmental footprint.

One of the most basic questions is what material to build the frame from. Steel remains a popular option. Fully 4% of the world’s carbon emissions come from iron foundries, those industrial monstrosities that turn raw ore into steel and other useful products. Let’s say that a typical touring bike contains 10 pounds of steel. This is more than frames actually weigh, but we’ll assume there’s some wasted material during construction. Using this figure, the bike frame accounts for about 10 lbs of CO2 emissions.

Perhaps aluminum, in addition to being a lighter material, has a lighter impact on the planet? No way. Aluminum is almost twice as bad: 17 lbs of CO2.

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Which makes the best choice for material fairly obvious: bamboo. This renewable resource grows like a weed and is roughly carbon neutral, allowing for some small harvesting cost. Unfortunately, bamboo bicycles have yet to see mass production.

My new bike will be steel, not so much for the environmental benefits but for cost and riding characteristics. The new bike will be a true tourer. I’ve shoved my beloved mountain bike across 10 different countries on three continents, and I’m well-acquainted with its failings. It can’t take front panniers. It weighs about 300 lbs unloaded. The geometry is all wrong, causing various assorted body parts to go numb on long rides.

About the only good things I can say about my bike is that its granny gear is forgiving and that it has been unfailingly sturdy under absurd conditions. Sand roads in Cambodia. Mud and snow at 12,000 feet on the Tibetan plateau. A glorious 30 km downhill on cobbles in the Szechuan province.

Point being, I want a strong bike, built to be loaded, easy to maintain, configured for long rides, and as light as possible under the circumstances. I don’t want (can’t afford) a custom bicycle, which seems to leave me with a narrow range of choices:

First question: am I missing anything? These seem to be the only production touring cycles available. I’m not interested in the Cannondales (aluminum), and the Bianchi Volpe isn’t a real touring bike (chainstays are too short). Anything to add to this list? I’m kind of hoping not.

Second question: any opinions on these frames? I realize that bike fit is a very personal thing, but unfortunately it’s generally not possible to test ride these bikes. Surly has a reputation for offering a lot of bike at a low price. Some people are annoyed, though, that the smaller Long Haul Truckers take 26″ wheels. Should I care?

My mountain bike is a Trek, so I’m familiar with and fond of the brand. And I’m not really interested in the Jamis, for the questionable reason that I’m not familiar with the brand.

Third question: components? I last bought a bicycle over ten years ago, and I’m now completely out of touch with the state of the art. I plan to get STI shifters, even though they’re not field serviceable, unless someone talks me out of it. But what else? Where should I splurge and where should I skimp?

Any advice appreciated…

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