Sunday, 3 November 2013
The Amazing Race 23, Episode 5 (FAQ: Buying a Touring Bicycle)
Gdansk (Poland) - Vienna (Austria)
FAQ: Buying a Touring Bicycle
Viewers of the most recent episode of The Amazing Race 23 may have been surprised that it took the racers 22 hours to cross Poland (and the smaller Czech Republic) from Gdansk to Vienna by train. That's partly because of the limited frequency of long-distance international trains (most of which are deliberately scheduled to operate overnight) and the consequent long layover between trains in Warsaw, and partly because trains in Poland, like most of those in central and Eastern Europe, are still generally slower than those in Western Europe. But it also takes more time to cross Poland than you might think because Poland is bigger than many people think.
Yet while Poland today (after, of course, multiple historical revisions of its borders and even its definition as a country) is only slightly smaller than Germany (ditto) in area, Poland's population (38 million, twice that of the next largest EU member state) is slightly less than half that of Germany. In other words, Poland is only about half as densely populated as Germany, or of the UK or Italy.
As in Spain and France, much of the population of Poland lives in the big cities but much of the land is rural. The land is generally a level plain except along the southern and southwestern borders, with numerous rivers, ten thousand lakes, and some of the largest forest preserves in Europe. Think of a European counterpart of the farms, lakes, streams, woods, and small towns of Minnesota. Average temperatures across Poland are even similar to those in Minnesota, although typically with less extreme highs or lows and less daily or annual fluctuation.
Most visitors from the USA to Poland are visiting friends and relatives and/or exploring family history. Other than among Polish-Americans, however, Poland has a lower profile in the USA as a tourist destination than any other similarly large or populous European country. Most US tourists (except those with family reasons to visit a specific village or small town) focus on the cities.
It's the lakes, forests, rivers, and countryside, however, that are the destination of most domestic Polish vacationers and a growing share of tourists from elsewhere in Europe. Poland markets itself as a preferred European destination for outdoor activities: camping, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and, yes, bicycling.
The terrain is largely flat, and there are dense networks of campgrounds, hostels, and home-stay accommodations. I haven't been to Poland (yet), but it sounds like an attractive place for rural meandering by bicycle, without the need to reserve or plan your route too much in advance. Potential drawbacks include a high language barrier (German and/or Russian might be more useful than English) and the sometimes poor condition of any roads or paths except those with heavy truck traffic, as highlighted in this page of advice for foreign cyclists from a local Polish advocacy group for bicyclists.
Supposing the idea of travelling around Poland by bicycle, or a trip by bicycle someplace else like the ones Phil Keoghan of "The Amazing Race" and I both took this past summer, catches your fancy, and you haven't done anything like that before, how do you get started on bicycle touring? Get a bike and go, obviously. But what sort of bike, and how do you find it? That's the question I'll try to answer below.
Crossing North America by bike, I met too many people who said they fantasize about long-distance travel by bicycle, but assume that their dream is impossible. As with the dream of a trip around the world, I want to help people realize their travel fantasies. This will be a longer article than most of my columns about The Amazing Race, but given Phil Keoghan's and my shared interest not just in cycling but in travel by bicycle, I hope fans of the race and my other readers will forgive my taking some time to explain just how you, too, could travel by bike. This is a topic I haven't seen treated well elsewhere, and that isn't covered in previous editions of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, which focus more on bicycles for local sightseeing -- for which you can make use of pretty much any kind of bicycle that's locally available -- rather than long-distance travel by bicycle.
Touring bike buying guide FAQ:
How to buy a touring bicycle
What sort of a bicycle do you need for touring, and how do you go about procuring it?
First, get a bike (get the bike you already have out of storage, borrow a bike, or get an inexpensive second-hand bike) and start riding as much as you comfortably can. Not so much to get into better shape -- as I mentioned in one of my columns earlier in this season, you can start a tour slowly, and work yourself into better shape as you go, as long as you aren't in a hurry and haven't committed yourself to a schedule or pace -- but in order to find out what bike will fit you best, and how you want it configured.
Start early. Don't wait until spring to start shopping for a bike for a summer tour. Your riding style, the type of bike you want, and its proportions and details are likely to change significantly as you ride more and get into better shape. A bike that you find comfortable at first, if you haven't been riding much recently, may be very different from the bike you pick out after six months of riding regularly for a few hours a week. What feels good for an hour's ride may not feel so good for an all-day ride.
There's a whole universe of bicycles for different people and purposes, with no single dimension along which they can be ordered, either literally or figuratively. Some aspects of a bicycle's fit can be adjusted after you buy it, but many others are set in steel when the frame is built. The best starting point for fitting a new bike is a bike you already have, and have adjusted and adapted as well as possible so that you know (or a bike fit expert can tell) what fits, what doesn't, and what needs to be different, and how, for your new bike to fit you better than the one you are using as a prototype.
If you are lucky, have proportions that are a close fit to some manufacturer's template, and find a knowledgeable and trustworthy bike shop or freelance bike refurbisher, you could buy a bike they have in stock, with the components and accessories that come standard or that the shop or mechanic recommends, and ride that bike happily ever after. Or you could find that no matter how much time and money you spend tweaking the bike, swapping out components, adding accessories, etc., it's never going to fit right or be suited for your riding and travelling tastes.
Unless you are already riding a lot, and already have some experience with the sort of travel by bike you plan to do, you probably won't find the perfect touring bike for your needs and wants with the first bike you buy. That's true no matter how carefully you shop, or how much you spend. Plan accordingly. Treat your first touring bike as an experiment and part of a learning experience that will prepare you to find the right bike on your second or third try.
How much should you budget? And how should you figure out what to spend it on?
Don't spend too much at first, but don't expect to learn much from riding or customizing a piece of junk, either. It's worth spending US$500 on a first bike that will enable you to make the right US$2,000-$5,000 purchase of a second bike you can pedal happily for most of the rest of your life.
For that second bike, good new bicycles designed for touring start at about US$1,500 plus tax, for a total starting from about US$2,000 including racks (some models include a rear rack but rarely a front rack), front and rear panniers, and a handlebar bag. US$2,500 gives you a margin for swapping out, customizing, and adding components and accessories for better fit and to suit your tastes.
That may seem high if you think of a bicycle as a children's toy, but it's mostly a one-time expense: costs of routine maintenance and consumables for bicycles are low. And it compares favorably with what you might spend on motorized travel (I've never owned a motor vehicle, but I could easily have spent more on a second-hand car for a road trip than all the bicycles I've owned in my life) or on gear and lift tickets or greens fees for, say, a season of skiing or golf.
Buying a used bicycle and setting it up for touring, or buying a used one that someone else has already set up for touring, requires more knowledge and a lot more effort than buying a new bike, but can be cheaper if you know what you are doing (or have the help of a knowledgeable Friend) and can afford to be patient.
Depending on how much (if anything) you spend for a used bike, and how much (if any) of the work you do yourself, and how much you pay a bike shop or a freelance mechanic to do, you could get a serviceable old-school bike for touring for US$500 or less, a very good one for US$1,000, or a semi-modernized and professionally overhauled one for US$1,500, plus another $500 for accesories if it doesn't come with fnders, racks, etc.
The sweet spot in vintage bikes for touring is in those made from the early 1970s through the late 1980s. Within this large range, my personal preference (in which I'm far from alone) is for mid-1980s Japanese-made bikes from what the late Sheldon Brown called the glory years of Japanese bicycle in the US market: "The Japanese tourers of this era were a value unequalled before or since."
Before that sweet spot, derailleur bicycles had no mass market in the USA before the explosive 1970s "bike boom" in sales of ten-speed drop-handlebar "racing" bikes. Before that, most bikes sold in the USA were Schwinn and other domestic single-speeds, while the "high-performance" segment was dominated by Raleigh three-speeds (90% of the bicycles imported to the USA in the 1960s).
After that sweet spot, starting in the mid to late 1980s, most bike sales in the USA (and then the world) shifted to mountain bikes. Aluminum and later carbon fiber largely replaced steel as a frame material, except on the lowest-quality department-store bikes. The doubling in value of the Japanese Yen against the US dollar in 1986-1988, and continued appreciation of the Yen against the US dollar in the 1990s, rendered Japanese bikes -- which had been some of the best bike values in the world -- so expensive outside Japan that sales crashed and by the mid-1990s they largely stopped being exported.
In between, during the second bike boom in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s (the first bike boom was in the 1890s, and was worldwide, which is a fascinating but different story, and the third in the USA is ongoing), US economic prosperity and the strength of the US dollar relative to the currencies of Japan and the European countries where most bikes were being built meant that baby boomer teenagers, college students, and young adults in the USA who weren't even serious bicyclists could afford to buy bikes almost as good as (although designed somewhat differently from) those that were being ridden by top international racers.
Tens of millions of these bikes were imported to the USA. Millions of them are still in use or still potentially serviceable but gathering dust in garages, basements, and storage sheds. Prices are low but rising as the finite pool is depleted, especially in major urban areas and centers of bicycling. There is growing interest in vintage bikes, and recognition of their value. People who don't give a hoot about pedigree are finding them practical for transportation (often, but not always, after they are converted to single-speeds). Craigslist (and to a lesser extent, because shipping bicycles is a hassle, eBay) have created a new business niche for freelance mechanics who buy bikes "as is" at garage sales and thrift stores, overhaul them, and re-sell them.
Some of these "flippers" are better mechanics, while some are better at marketing. Caveat emptor. Buying a used bike has all the pitfalls of buying a used car, although the amount of money is likely to be less and the defects are usually easier for an expert to spot. If at all possible, bring a knowledgeable Friend to help you check out the bike before you buy.
The best source of parts and expertise for overhauling a vintage bike is probably a local bike repair collective, if there is one near you. Most of these (here's one incomplete list for the USA and Canada) are nonprofits or worker collectives. Typically they provide members with bike repair classes and/or personal training, workspace, tools, and access to their accumulated collections of spare parts.
Two significant but potentially costly areas for modernization of a used bike for touring are indexed shifting and new panniers that are waterproof rather than requiring separate rain covers and that attach with quick-release latches rather than bungee cords and hooks.
You can find old-school panniers cheaply on Craigslist or eBay, and perfectly sound old racks for next to nothing at garage sales, swap meets, flea markets, etc. I started out with old-school racks and panniers on my touring bike, but eventually decided it was worth replacing them with new racks and new panniers, each of which cost more than the bike had cost me. I've converted one of my vintage bikes to indexed shifting, but not my touring bike. Old ("friction") and new ("indexed") drivetrains each have their pros and cons.
Adding fenders ("mudguards" in UK usage) is a necessary but fairly inexpensive nuisance.
Most bikes other than "mountain" bikes come with insufficiently low gears for loaded touring, but with older friction shifting that too is relatively inexpensive and straightforward to change.
Whether you buy a new or used bicycle, and whether you buy your dream bike right away or experiment with a cheaper bike first, your most important resource is that Friend I've mentioned a few times already. Even if you rely primarily on the expertise of a local bike shop, you'll still need that Friend (unless you're pretty knowledgeable yourself) to find the right shop.
Most bikes sold in the USA are throwaway toys sold at department stores. Most of these, as well as most bikes sold by bike shops, are "mountain" bikes.
These aren't necessarily or primarily for going up or down mountains, and you might want a mountain bike for touring on routes or in regions where the roads, even if level, are sufficiently rough. The French name for such a bike, vélo tout terrain ("all terrain bicycle"), seems more accurate than the English "mountain bike". Confusingly, though, the French abbreviation "VTT" can mean either vélo tout terrain or the very different, véhicule tout-terrain ("all-terrain motor vehicle" or ATV in English).
Of the remaining minority of bike-shop bikes, most are either "city", "comfort", or "hybrid" bikes (comfortable for short distances, but not for long ones), or "racing" or "road" bikes completely unsuitable for touring. Often the latter are made wholly or partially out of unsuitably fragile materials like carbon fiber, with no way to mount fenders or racks or carry luggage and no clearance for sufficiency wide and sturdy tires for a heavy load or an occasional necessary mile of unpaved path, gravel highway shoulder, or dirt lane leading to a campground or bed-and-breakfast.
A dented or bent steel bike can usually be rendered rideable again. If a carbon fiber frame or fork gets cracked or scratched from a crash or a brush with a passing motor vehicle, you have to throw it away and buy a new one. Aluminum is less fragile than carbon fiber, but if it fails, it too does so catastrophically and usually irreparably.
Bike shops in the USA mostly cater to people who ride for recreation, not transportation. Since touring bikes are such a small share of even the bike-shop bicycle market, hardly any shops specialize in them or keep more than a couple in stock. Most bike shops know little or nothing about steel touring bikes (or, for that matter, any quality steel-frame bikes), and have none in stock. If that's the case, go elsewhere. Don't tempt the staff to try to sell you what they have, or what they can order for you, just to make a sale.
Ideally, you want to find a shop that sells more than one make of steel touring bicycles, has at least one in stock, will order one in your size for you to test-ride before you commit to buy it, and where the staff rides steel bikes (new and/or old) and has experience travelling by bike.
I can find several shops like that in my neighborhood in San Francisco, one of the epicenters of the current Third Wave of bike booms in the USA (and specifically a boom in bicycles for transportation). You probably won't be so fortunate elsewhere, but you should try to find a bike shop where somebody on the staff has some bike touring experience. The less relevant expertise and experience the shop has, the more important it is to bring that knowledgeable Friend I keep talking about with you, or at least to get their advice on which shop to go to.
Ask your friends, family, and other networks of contacts, and you might be surprised to find someone whom you didn't realize has fond memories of their own bicycle travels, and will be willing to help you prepare for similar adventures. A bicycle touring enthusiast might actually take vicarious pleasure in helping you find a bike and get started on your own bicycle travels.
Don't look for just anyone who rides a lot, but a bicycle tourist: someone who travels by bike, and has some knowledge and experience with touring bicycles. Most similar and next best: Someone who commutes by bicycle, in all weather, the longer their commute the better.
Someone who rides a lot for recreation, but only on a carbon-fiber "road" (racing) bike without any luggage or only off-road on a "mountain" bike, may not be of much help in shopping for a touring bike, or may give you well-meaning and authoritative-seeming but inappropriate advice.
Bicyclists and their tastes vary, and ideally you want to find someone to advise you who rides the way you plan to. But it's equally important to find someone with awareness of, and tolerance for, the diversity of bicycling tastes -- as well as knowledge of which choices are likely to be categorically wrong for any would-be bicycle tourist.
You might also find such a Friend, or at least get a recommendation for a suitable local bike shop, through a local cycling club (including randonneuring clubs: "randonneurs" typically ride steel bikes, although some of them shade off into bicycle ultra-marathoners and quasi-racers) or bicycle transportation advocacy organization. Some cycling clubs are mainly for racers (or would-be racers) in training, but others emphasize mutual support and skill-sharing. It's pretty easy to tell if you go on one of their rides. Look for riders on steel bikes, especially bikes with fenders, racks, lights, and/or panniers, and ask them where they would go to buy such a bike or have it serviced.
The Adventure Cycling Association (originally the Bikecentennial organization) publishes an annual Touring Bike Buyer's Guide, current and back issues of which are available online. Over the years, the authors of these guides have included some of the leading experts on bicycle design, and it's worth reading through the collection (skipping or skimming the reviews of specific brands and models) to get a sense of their varied opinions and the different features they think are important in choosing a bike.
Raymond Bridge's Bike Touring: The Sierra Club Guide to Travel on Two Wheels (make sure you get the 2009 second edition, not the 1979 first edition) focuses on bicycle, component, and other gear choices. Inevitably, given the number of details on which Bridge makes recommendations, I disagree with some of his specific advice. But in general, Bridge's book is excellent, and noteworthy for acknowledging and trying to explain the pros and cons of alternate choices.
Despite their usefulness, however, these guides overlook the basics of buying a bike. They talk about brands of complete bikes and frames, and component choices, but not about the general factors that you should look for in any bike, new or used, regardless of brand or price point.
What are the most important things to look for in a bicycle to use for touring?
Look for a bike that fits the following criteria, in order from most to least important:
- Of adequate quality, made to be maintainable and to last at least a lifetime.
- That fits you, or that can be made to fit you without impairing its performance. (Not a simple or unidimensional question, and one of the largest reasons you probably need expert help.)
- That's suitable for touring and for the sort of touring, with the amount of gear and on the types of roads or surfaces, for which you expect to use it.
Basically, a "quality" bike means the sort of bike that is, or was, sold primarily in bike shops, not the sort of "throwaway" bike sold in much larger numbers and for lower prices in department stores, toy stores, and the like. Department-store bikes aren't made to be maintainable or to last. If you want a cheaper bike than anything available new in a bike shop, get a used bike of the sort that was originally sold in a bike shop, not a department-store bike.
With respect to suitability for touring, the bad news is that only a very small proportion of new bikes, even of quality new bikes, are suitable for loaded touring.
The good news about new touring bikes is that because touring bikes are made of cheaper-to-work-with steel rather than expensive-to-work-with carbon fiber, even very high-quality new touring bikes are typically cheaper than comparable-quality new "racing" bikes. You can get a touring bike custom-made in the USA to your measurements by a top name in frame-building for US$4,000 all-in -- less than the base price of many mass-produced carbon-fiber road bikes. Mine is a Rodriguez UTB from R+E Cycles in Seattle:
(I would strongly recommend having S&S couplers built into any custom frame. They add almost $1000 to the price, but they make it much easier to transport the bike, whether as airplane luggage or by bus or in the trunk of a small car.)
The good news about used bikes for touring is that a much larger proportion of older bicycles than of new bikes are suitable for touring. That's largely because bicycles used to be designed for more "all-purpose" use, while newer bicycles are typically more narrowly optimized for a single specialized use. Most "racing" bicycles sold in the USA and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s that you could find in a friend's basement or garage or on Craigslist -- steel-framed, with 36-spoke 27" wheels -- are more suitable and readily adaptable for touring than a random new bike you might buy for US$1000 or more. I've ridden this c. 1984 Maruishi TA18 Tour-Ace across North America and in Europe:
Why is this? Buyers may have liked the image of a "racing" bike, but bike manufacturers used to recognize that most buyers weren't really going to race these bikes. Older bikes all had at least 36 spokes per wheel (sometimes 40 in the rear), while contemporary racing and "sport" bikes use lighter wheels with 32 or fewer spokes that are much more likely to fail under a heavy load or over the course of a long trip. And the more spokes each wheel has, the more likely it is to remain rideable even if a spoke breaks. In addition, typical 70s-80s "racing" bikes actually had frame proportions more like what would today be called "sport touring" or "club riding" geometry. Also, with a steel frame, unlike a carbon fiber or even an aluminum frame, you can clamp rack and fender mounts onto the bike, even if it wasn't designed with brazed-on mounting eyelets for these touring necessities -- without risk of breaking the frame. And with old-school non-indexed shifting, it's not difficult to add a smaller third "granny" front gear (chainring) for climbing long hills or fighting headwinds with a heavily loaded bike.
Any bike that was originally sold with 27" diameter wheels -- even those with side-pull caliper brakes -- was designed to fit the then-standard 1 1/4" (32 mm) width tires, in contrast to contemporary racing and road bikes with 700C diameter wheels and clearance for tires no wider than 25 mm. Your tolerance (and bike-handling skill) for narrow tires on rough surfaces may vary, but for many people the difference between 25 mm and 32 mm width tires is the difference in whether they are willing to take their bike off pavement when necessary. Indeed, you could argue that the 1 1/4" (32 mm) tire width that was standard with 27" diameter wheels is the sweet spot between fast rolling and the ability to ride safely and comfortably on both paved and unpaved roads. If you start with a vintage bike that was built for 27" wheels, you won't have to change a thing to be able to use tires wide enough for at least some off-pavement use. I rode more than 500 miles last summer on 27" (diameter) x 1 1/4" (width) tires on crushed-rock trails on former railroad rights-of-way, as well as shorter stretches of dirt and coarser gravel. I wouldn't have chosen that route with a fully loaded bike on typical new racing-bike tires only 25 mm or less wide.
Unlike buying a new car, as should by now be clear, buying even a new bicycle isn't predominantly about choosing a brand and model. [In response to comments, however, I've added some suggestions of models to consider in a follow-up comment below.] Bicycles are essentially modular, and there are potentially far more combinations of components you could choose for your bicycle than there are option packages offered by any car manufacturer.
Bicycles come in sizes, but that can be misleading. A person on a bicycle is a cyborg that functions as a single entity. To function optimally and in synergy with your body, each dimension of the bicycle needs to be properly matched to the shape of the rider's body, not just their overall body size.
Some dimensions of an assembled bicycle can be adjusted (within limits) by moving a slider or turning a wrench. Others can be changed (again, within limits) by substituting components, such as handlebar stems that extend forward different distances. Others are fixed by the geometry of the frame tubes. Two people with the same leg length and total height, for example, may have different torso and arm lengths, and require bicycles with different frames.
Just as some people with proportions that don't match manufacturers' standards have to sew their own clothes or have them custom made if they want them to fit, some people can't find any mass-produced bicycles that will fit them well. Fortunately, high-quality "production" bicycles are made in such small quantities with so much hand labor that made-to-measure custom or semi-custom steel bicycle frames don't cost as much more than good production steel bikes as you might expect.
Even if you are ready to buy the bike of your dreams, it's impossible to tell from catalog descriptions which model(s) might be well suited to your proportions. And even if a particular frame can be adjusted to fit you well, you can't expect any bicycle to fit you out-of-the-box. A bike may come with a "standard" set of components, but most bike shops will allow you to substitute other components for only the difference between the prices of the components, as long as you tell them what you want before they assemble and adjust the new bike: shorter or longer cranks, a shorter or longer stem, differently sized and/or curved handlebars, a different saddle, smaller chainrings for lower gears, and so forth.
Because so much of the fit is determined by the frame geometry, and can't be adjusted after you've bought the frame, a good bike shop will measure you (and your present bike, if you have one) carefully, before they begin to recommend which models might fit. Some shops include fitting with the sale of a new bike, while others charge for a fitting but will apply the cost of the fitting to the price of the new bike that you subsequently buy from them.
Even adjusting and setting up a demo bike for a test ride could take a bike shop half an hour or more, while a full-fledged fitting could involve an hour or two with the bike shop's fit expert watching you pedal and measuring you on a special adjustable stationary bicycle that allows the seat, pedals, and handlebars to be moved up and down, forward and back, and in and out relative to each other.
Do you have to go through all this to buy a bike? No, but if it's done right, and you end up taking the bike on a long tour, you won't regret it. If you spend a lot of time and money trying to make a bike fit, only to find that it's impossible to make that frame work for you, you will regret it. If you are going to need a custom bike for proper fit, it's better to learn that early in your bike search. Women with short torsos are especially likely to need custom bikes, because most off-the-shelf bikes are designed for typical male proportions and it's harder to make a bike fit a smaller person without using smaller-than-standard wheels.
Some people are less sensitive to small variations, but the longer you spend on the bike, the more you'll notice even the most minute deviation from perfect fit. Get the seat and handlebar height vaguely right, and I can ride almost any bike for ten miles or so without undue discomfort. After twenty miles, I'll feel it in my knees if the seat height is off by a centimeter. After fifty miles, I'll feel it in my wrists if the brake levers -- where I rest my hands most of the time -- are mispositioned on the handlebars by a couple of millimeters.
If you're not yet ready to pay for a professional fitting, and don't already have a bike that fits you perfectly for all-day loaded riding, to use as a dimensional model, you should think carefully about whether you are ready to commit to the price of a new bike that might not fit -- or whether, as discussed above, you might be better off experimenting with a cheaper bike first. As I noted earlier, you can give bicycle travel an initial try on an overnight or weekend trip on almost any half-decent bicycle that more-or-less fits and that you or someone you know has lying around, or that you can pick up second hand for a couple of hundred dollars (or less).
And if this all seems hopelessly complicated, find that knowledgeable Friend I keep talking about, to help guide you through the process or at least steer you to the right bike shop. There are also links to some books and online resources that I find useful in the sidebar of this blog under "Bicycle Travel".
Most of this is the same regardless of where you plan to take your bike, in your home country or overseas. Next week, I'll have some tips on those bicycle and component choices that are specifically influenced by whether you plan to travel internationally with your bike.
Bon voyage, et bonne randonnée!Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 3 November 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)