Wanted: advice from fellow bicycle tourists


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.


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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  1. Anonymous - June 6, 2007

    My commuter bike. This thing is great and downright cheap for all you get with it–built-in Shimano dynamo for lights, fenders.

  2. Eric Carlson - June 6, 2007

    My first comments refer to embodied energy in bike frames. Riding comfort issues aside did you take into account that most aluminum products (and steel for that matter) comes from recycled sources. And, the smelting process for recyled aluminum takes only about 10% of the energy of producing aluminum from bauxite ore. In general the embodied energy in the frame of either a steel or aluminum bike is going to be small. Modern composite frames, as you know, may only weight 2 – 3 lbs with steel being maybe 5 or 6. The bamboo frame is interesting and should have pretty forgiving ride characteristics. However, consider that the bamboo rage has had unexpected consequences, especially in China, where it has created boom towns replete with riches and deforestation. Depending on variety bamboo regenerates for several years, then it all dies, sometimes leaving villages without a livelihood. I’d stick with steel, and if you’re not on a tight schedule, troll Craigslist for lightly used tourers in your vicinity.

  3. Rule 56 - June 6, 2007

    For the kind of touring you’ve described, I’d start and stop my search at http://www.koga.com/uk/segment.asp?collection=8&segment=63
    and that’s coming from another Trek owner (actually, I have two Treks, the most recent addition being the Portland). Good luck on the search.

  4. Kelly Lux - June 6, 2007

    I bought a Trek Pilot last year and it is great. I had a hybrid before that and there is no comparison. I ride in charity rides, and have ridden up to 75 miles per day — very comfortably. Any other questions, please let me know. The cost of this bike was about $950. Good luck! And I love the idea of the bamboo bike — haven’t seen any of those around yet, though…


  5. Mike C - June 6, 2007

    I think the Trek 850 would be a solid choice. It’s steel, so an easier ride. I am actually contemplating a touring/commuter bike myself and have narrowed it down to three bikes: Trek 850, the Lemond Propad Disc and a Cramerotti Touring bike. All are steel and all are roughly in the same price range. The Cramerotti is a bit rare (we have a dealer in Vancouver who is a member of the family), so you might want to just keep with the larger brands. I’d certainly ride the Lemond to see if you like it. I agree on steel, softer ride so more forgiving. I’ve owned Trek’s in the past and found them very reliable. Get it fitted and just keep it forever vs. buying used and perhaps not getting the perfect fit. Lemond bike link: http://www.lemondbikes.com/bikes/cyclocross/classic_steel/poprad_disc.php

  6. Jason - June 6, 2007

    A lot of bikes are starting to incorporate Carbon Fiber components, like seat posts, front forks etc. In fact for a nice price you can get a complete Carbon Fiber frame and same some weight. But my question is what is the CO2 footprint of Carbon Fiber? Anyone know?

  7. Anonymous - June 6, 2007

    If you travel a lot with your bike, you should take a look at S&S Couplers. These can be added after the fact on a steel frame and will allow you to travel with the bike without incurring the airline large item fee.

  8. Anonymous - June 6, 2007

    Besides just looking at the environmental and functional uses, when we bought our bikes we looked at making a positive impact on the economy and bought from an American company and tried to find a smaller company that would still be around for support. Of course, we also looked at companies in developed nations that pay their workers a living wage. I think this is a consideration that some overlook and it has enviromental, social and political ramifications.

  9. Adam Stein - June 6, 2007

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll check out those other bikes.
    Eric — I agree about the embodied energy. I was hoping the analysis would provide some interesting data, but it didn’t. Oh, well.
    Point about getting a used bike is well-taken, but I’ve decided that it’s difficult enough getting a bike to fit properly when it’s new. Given that it’s my only means of transportation and that it will last me a few decades, I figure it’s worth a few hundred bucks extra to get it new.
    Jason — carbon fiber is cool, but hard to service in the field. I’ll stick with steel for now.
    Anon — S & S couplers are very cool. I think they cost $500, though. Given that I’ve never been charged for taking my bike on a plane, I think I’m just going to risk the airlne fees.

  10. Jeff - June 6, 2007

    I noticed that no one who commented has yet addressed your component issue, so I will take a stab at it.

    Since all three of these bikes use Shimano, it’s quite easy. In order from cheapest (and least reliable) to most expensive (and not necessarily most reliable) it goes: Altus/Acera/Alivio/Tiagra, Deore, Deore LX, Deore XT, XTR.

    I was unable to see the specs on the Trek (work computer blocks flash) but I assume it has similar components – I know Trek’s and have ridden them for years.

    The thing I would caution is the Jamis. Jamis is a solid company and makes some great high end mountain bikes. But this bike in particular has Tiagra STI shifters – meaning the gear shifting is controlled using the brake lever, like modern road bikes. STI shifters are expensive to replace and work on, and since these are Tiagra, they are bottom of the line.

    The Surly uses bar-end shifters, which is a very simple and easy to adjust shifting system. Anyone with a wrench and common sense can adjust bar-ends. This is great in case you are in the middle of Africa and have some derailleur problems – you won’t be stuck looking for a mechanic. And the Surly has a basic component grouping – a bit better overall than the Jamis.

    The Trek most likely has a very similar component group as the Surly. But here’s the thing: with Trek you will pay for the brand name.

    Lastly, and “Anonymous” touched on this: buying local. As far as I know, all 3 are based in America, but sell internationally. Your Trek will no doubt be built in China/Taiwan (only their high-end racing bikes are built in Wisconsin). I would bet the Jamis will be a China build too. The Surly should be built in America.

    All in all, I recommend the Surly. This coming from a solid cyclist of 10 years (I’m only 23 so forgive me) who cares about the same things you do: environmental impact of our purchases and owning a dependable, fun, easy to maintain ride.

    Good luck with your pick and happy riding!

  11. Anonymous - June 6, 2007

    Surly Long Haul is a GREAT touring bike. even has a place to put extra spokes along the chainstay.
    If you are concerned about the 26″ wheels, maybe take a look at the Surly Cross-check. It is a cyclocross/touring bike. It is my everyday commuter and I spent 3 weeks touring through Slovenia on it.

  12. Mark - June 6, 2007

    Check out the cyclocross bikes, they may be why you see so few touring bikes as cyclocross bikes have gained in popularity. They are aluminum but poster Eric Carlson may have a point. The Specialized Tricross offers a shock absorber up front (this is not like a mtn bike’s) and carbon seat post to take out much of the riding vibration and they can handle smooth dirt roads and pea gravel with ease and speed in addition to the pavement. Trek has a similar bike, the X0 1. Both bikes are in the same price range.
    Regarding components on the ones you have selected I like the Trek the best. I recomend going with 105 or LX components or better.

  13. Priscilla - June 6, 2007

    I’m not familiar with the bikes or their costs but may I suggest Bike Friday’s New World Tourist model. The US-made (Oregon) company, Green Gear can configure the steel bike to your specifications/componentry to meet your budget. The biggest advantage is the folding/packing ability in airline regulated suitcase dimension that allows you to avoid paying surcharge that the airlines so love to apply to ‘big wheeled bikes’. That feature alone may offset the added front end cost difference of your proposed budget. And yes, they ride very well. I have the Crusoe model & I could do a century (if I were in shape ;-0 )

  14. Ted - June 6, 2007

    You might consider using the Shimano internally geared rear hub for touring. It has eight speeds and a good range. If it breaks in the middle of nowhere, you’re finished – but I doubt it will. Check it out at http://sheldonbrown.com/internal-gears.html .
    I used one of these hubs every day in New Hampshire, logging about 50 miles a week of commuting, even at temperatures in the single digits. It worked great!

  15. Ross H. - June 6, 2007

    I agree with Anonymous #8 in that there will be significant carbon savings by avoiding shipment of a Trek or Giant from Taiwan…
    I have many of the same concerns and recently bought a cannondale R700 (1.5 years ago)… It is a great road bike, was fit well by my local shop, and was made in America. I didn’t check into the aluminum/steel carbon emissions differential back then, but, as #8 states above, there are lots of great American bike manufacturers who are making steel bikes on a smaller, more local scale. Heading to or calling a really good bike shop, like Continental Bikes here in Hazel Park, Michigan, rather than one that just deals wholesale bikes from big manufacturers like trek & giant should provide you with a list of these smaller manufacturers and might even be able to tell you which ones build bikes similar to what you are looking for.
    Considering the likely power consumption of a Trek or other taiwan or chinese-based manufacturing is almost certainly coming directly from coal-fired plants with little to no pollution controls, buying American (as well as for all the low shipping CO2 emissions, pro-job, local market reasons) seems like the best way to go.
    It takes a little digging to find the good, local manufacturers, but my guess is you’ll be more satisfied with giving them this sizable chunk of change than with a big manufacturer, and will be more pleased with the bike that you should have for the next 10-15 years.

  16. Anonymous - June 6, 2007

    To chime in on the domestic production theme: the LeMond is probably made in the US as well. Mine was.

  17. lance - June 6, 2007

    The best bikes out there for global trekking are the Kago ones made in Holland….one poster noted that. Also check out anything from Rivendell, a small bike company in Walnut Creek California headed up by Grant Petersen, who brought the world the Bridgestone X0-1 and many other legendary “all rounder” bikes. Go to http://www.rivbike.com and check out the Atlantis or Bleuriot. Last, hate to break it to you, but the energy inputs for the bike manufacturing are a rounding error compared to flying your bike to Siberia and Nepal or wherever. Sorry. Maybe also consider a titanium bike…it will last forever and give a more compliant ride over the rough stuff. check out Litespeed ($$) or Seven ($$$$). The money spent on a bike that will last you forever is insignificant. If you change out bikes all the time, then it matters.

  18. Les Brinsfield - June 6, 2007

    I guess I must be an idiot as I am the only one on the planet calling for an all out blitz on using crude oil.
    It is simple to eliminate imports of mideast oil which is only 25% of imported crude oil. It is just as easy to eliminate the need for it by a sane energy policy, discipline, conservation and an intelligent portfolio of tax incentives.

  19. cyclist - June 6, 2007

    I actually have a friend who is having a bamboo frame built for his next road bike. It will have composite lugs (where the frame tubes connect) and carbon fiber components. I don’t know how carbon neutral “carbon fiber” components are, but it should be an interesting bike to see?

  20. Adam Stein - June 6, 2007

    Keep the advice coming.
    Koga bikes look supremely awesome. Unfortunately, they’re about twice my budget. Rivendells — despite their really unfortunate names — also look cool, but have the same problem.
    Lance — I’m well aware that my bike’s carbon footprint is hideous. It’s logged a lot of plane time. I’m actually planning to do some more touring in America, for just this reason.

  21. Rob J - June 6, 2007

    I miss my schwinn stingray. IT had a banana seat and sissy bar and I rode that damn bike everywhere. Back in the day what was important was making your bike look good. Oh the 60’s… who knew! Yup… I would get a sting ray if I where you Adam.

    ps. Just kidding

  22. Anonymous - June 6, 2007

    Calfee makes bamboo bike frames but they are costly and I doubt much more sustainable once you factor in the carbon fiber lugs, etc. (more a boutique item probably). There is a vendor regularly selling a Reynolds steel framed touring bike by Motobecane or Mercian or somebody for under $600 on ebay new, with racks. It has Deore parts, which I’ve found to be adequate in past years. Look at how the bike is equipped, and the geometry (long chainstays traditionally featured, and braze-on eyelets for racks), and go for the features and fit rather than just one brand over all others.

  23. Ed Oies - June 6, 2007

    I have recently looked at buying a bike with ‘greener’ credentials. As well as manufacture also look at transportation CO2 – most bike components are made in Taiwan, Korea, China etc.
    Specialized (CA)seem to have the most info about their Advocacy programme on their web page out of all the manufacturers.

  24. Paul - June 6, 2007

    You might also want to consider REI’s Novara Randonee. It has all the features of a sturdy touring bike (including a rear rack and the extra spokes people seem to think is such a big deal on the Surly Long Haul) and sells for $950, although you can often find last year’s model for $200 off that price. It receives good reviews from magazines and users and REI’s guarantee is unbeatable. The only downside is it’s 27lb weight, but that’s nothing compared to your 300lb mountain bike. :) Novara’s Safari is another option, retailing a bit cheaper and incorporating a mountain-bike-type frame. It has an aluminum-alloy frame, but a load of rugged features making it particularly suited to the kinds of riding you described.

  25. MD biker - June 6, 2007

    Joe Breeze has probably put some serious thought into this. http://www.breezerbikes.com/index.cfm?CFID=26801022&CFTOKEN=51131485

  26. MNWalleye - June 6, 2007

    Adam, I would recomend the Surly LHT if you can find one. They’re a bit in short supply at the moment, but they’re a great bike for the money. Steel is definitly the choice I would make.

    As in a previous comment, I’d stick with bar end shifters, while STI is nice, you don’t fix them if they break, you just replace them. This makes it more difficult in a remote area. While all Shimano’s components really work well, I’d try to use XT level for it’s dependabilty. 700c size wheels would be my choice over 26″, they’ll roll better and give you better ground clearence. Same reason you see rising popularity of 29″ mtn bikes.

    If you’re really concerned about the carbon footprint of the bike, I’d recommend staying and touring in this country as any potential carbon footprint savings in manufacturing the bike will be diminished probably in the 1st 60 seconds you step on an airplane.

    6.5 bushel carbon footprint

  27. Anonymous - June 7, 2007

    Bike Friday makes their bikes in Oregon. They are terrific bikes. They custom fit each one to your body dimensions. I have ridden a century, traveled across Italy and toured the passes of Colorado and the Austrian alps with mine. I don’t personally bother with fat tires, but you can get them, especially for 30 km downhills on cobblestones. I have their pocket rocket race bike, but I carry fully loaded panniers and it holds up great. Bike Friday is a company committed to reduce it’s environmental foot print. They are putting in solar power for their electricity, they encourage their workers to commute by bike. They are terrific to deal with. Good luck.

  28. Anonymous - June 7, 2007

    Hi Adam,

    Touching on some of the notes about STI and bar end shifters. I agree that bar ends are likely to be less of a concern in the field, but I think you can get away with STI. If you go with STI though, the frame should be able to handle downtube shifters (in this case the Jamis is right out; actually even if you go with bar end shifters I think the frame should be able to handle downtube shifters). Although these are relics of another era, they are _very light_, packable and easily mounted on the downtube. Having these will allow you to shift if an STI or bar end shifter goes south and will get you by until you can buy an STI or get service.

  29. Adam Stein - June 8, 2007

    Yah, that’s my plan for the shifters. Realistically, 99% of my rides are going to be commuting around town, so I want the STI. For traveling back-up, I’ll bring along a downtube spare. The are both light, as you note, and really cheap.

  30. Ed Kohler - June 10, 2007

    I’ve ridden the Trek and Surly and ended up buying a Trek because I liked the faster wheels. Both are excellent bikes. If durability is your #1 concern, Surly may come out slightly ahead, but if you’re planning on riding with other touring people who have 700c wheels, go with the Trek.

  31. ethan - June 16, 2007

    I reccomend buying a rivendell bike (google them) which are made in the US (west coast I think) and are made to last. Bar end shifters – or accept the truth that is fixed gear cycling. Also, I would ignore the maximum amount that you can afford, just get a new credit card that will give you a year’s worth of no-interest, buy the bike and pay it off over a year with your min payments. Seriously, if you can afford $700 for a bike this year, that means that you can afford $1400 over two years, and get a much better bike (possibly that bamboo tourer)

  32. Matt - September 6, 2007

    Just a few corrections –

    Factory Locations:
    SURLY is a subsidiary company to Quality Bicycle Products and all of their frames are made in Taiwan. Lemond Racing Cycles is a subsidiary of Trek, and their primary production is handled by Kinesis Industry Co., Ltd. at their factories in Taiwan, China, and Portland, OR. Anything in the sub $2000 range will be produced overseas.

    Shimano Components:
    A previous poster referred to Tiagra STI shifters as lower end, which is very much incorrect. Tiagra has never been in the same series as Deore, LX, XT, and XTR. It is part of the road components line, which is Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra, and Dura Ace. Therefore, it is most comparable to LX. That said, I agree with those discouraging STI shifters for touring applications. I work in a bike shop and they are hard enough to fix with a room full of tools, let alone in the middle of nowhere. I would agree more with the individual touting the benefits of internal gear (plenetary) hubs.

    Also, buy powdercoated frames. One major reason that frames are painted overseas is that EPA regulations make it too expensive here. Powdercoating is much less toxic and therefore cheaper to do domestically.

  33. Jay - February 5, 2008

    You really ought to check out a Bruce Gordon
    touring bicycle if you haven’t already bought something (or even if you have!).

  34. Steve - March 9, 2008

    I agree, check out Bruce Gordon’s website. This is a great chart (though dated), that’s a good place to start. Obviously, you paste this into your spreadsheet, and add whatever bicycle you’re considering.
    If you’re doing international touring, I’d drop the STI for barcon’s and DiaComp’s V brak. Maybe I’m the only person who has mechanical problems in E. Texas 300 miles from the nearest shop, but barcons function in friction mode when there are problems. STI’s don’t function with the same problem.

  35. Anonymous - March 9, 2008

    I left the hot link out of my post. Bruce Gordon’s chart: http://www.bgcycles.com/faq.html

  36. Adam Stein - March 9, 2008

    One thing I never did mention — the Trek 520 I ended up with came with bar-end shifters. I like them well enough that I never bothered replacing them. There’s actually something quite satisfying with how big and meaty bar-end shifters are. I can easily operate them, even with a gloved hand.

  37. Rob Pace - July 12, 2008

    I test rode the Kona Sutra, and loved it. Climbs very efficiently.