There is now an updated version of this post for 2018, featuring new models and market changes. Check it out here.
So you want to chuck some stuff on a bike and hit the road, but what kind of bike do you need? The answer is pretty much any old bike, depending on how hard you want to make things for yourself. However there are bikes out there, known as touring bikes, that are specifically designed to carry lots of luggage and be ridden long distances over varied terrain. They are strong, reliable and comfortable, which will make your life a lot easier out on the road, and which also makes them a popular choice for an 'everyday' commuter bike. To help you get your head around things, I've outlined six of the best touring bikes available on the Australian market. They are all a bit different, with unique pros and cons, but they will all serve you well on anything from a trip to the supermarket to a cross-continental journey.
SURLY Long Haul Trucker $1999
I've started with the The Long Haul Trucker because it's one of the most popular touring bikes around, having gained a reputation over the years as being very reliable and tough. And there's good reason for this-it’s a very solid package at a pretty reasonable price. The frame is excellent quality and smartly designed, able to accommodate a variety of commonly available parts, and the combination of thick tubing and a long wheelbase make it astonishingly good at carrying heavy loads. It's a well thought out build, with parts chosen largely for their durability, value and ease of service, with one exception: the brakes, which lack power and are fiddly to work with. Fortunately, Surly do a disc brake version of this bike, the ‘Disc Trucker,’ for about $200 more.
I almost consider the LHT a throwback bike;it’s pretty old-school, pretty conservative. This leads some people to say that it’s uninspiring, and there is some merit to this-it’s not the most exciting bike to ride, and it’s a little heavy. But the upside to this conservatism is its incredible poise under heavy loads, cheapness and availability of spare parts and, like Helen Mirren, it will age gracefully.
Note: the LHT is also available as a frame only, making it a good choice for a custom build.
Pros: reliable, good quality, excellent at carrying heavy loads, large tyre clearance
Cons: a little heavy, poor brakes, comes with no accessories
SOMA Saga $2199
Another old-school, by-the-books, tried and tested tourer. Much of what one can say about the Long Haul Trucker can also apply to the Saga, as they are very similar in design-it’s solidly built, will handle big loads well, the parts are durable and commonly available, and the brakes could be better. The biggest difference is in the frame: Soma uses Tange Prestige tubing-a very nice tubeset indeed-and the quality of construction is top notch. This is the best frame out of the bikes in this comparison, being not only very strong, but also pretty light. The ride quality and handling are superb, with great shock-absorbing qualities, accurate cornering and a spritely feel. Going downhill on gravel is so much fun on a Soma because they inspire confidence. And it looks spanking. This is one for the purists.
Note: also available as a frame only, making it a great choice for a custom build. The new Saga frame has disc and canti brake mounts-sweet!
Pros: so pleasing to ride, very high quality frame, looks great, large tyre clearance
Cons: poor brakes, comes with no accessories
KONA Sutra $2149
The Sutra is a good quality bike that comes with the accessories required to get you on the road pronto, and features some more modern components and design cues than the Saga or the LHT. With a shorter wheelbase and straight forks, the Sutra handles nicely and feels reasonably lively for a touring bike, although it’s fairly heavy overall. The compact drop bars are an improvement on the old-style round bend ones that come with the LHT and the Saga, in my opinion, and the mechanical disc brakes will provide good stopping power in all conditions. The Brooks B17 saddle is noteworthy inclusion which contributes to the overall value of this bike-if you want a Brooks saddle that is-and it’s nice that they’ve gone with Shimano bar end shifters-they are super reliable and make a crisp, definitive click when you change gear.
Although I haven’t ridden it fully loaded, I would expect the geometry to make it a slightly less stable and comfortable under a heavy load than some other touring bikes, and some of the parts, like the brakes and the external bottom bracket, will be a harder to find spare parts for in more remote parts of the world. The mudguards are a bit flimsy but overall it’s a solid build at a great price.
Pros: comes with mudguards, rear rack and Brooks saddle, lively geometry for a tourer
Cons: flimsy mudguards, a bit heavy
SPECIALIZED Awol $1900
With the ability to fit 2-inch wide tyres, the Awol is the most off-road capable bike in this comparison. It’s a bit lighter than the others, with slightly lighter wheels and fairly skinny tubing, making it a little less suitable for carrying extreme loads on an extended journey. The inclusion of the STI levers is also a little problematic for these purposes-they are much nicer to use than bar-ends, but they are a heinously complex part that are a nightmare to fix on the road if anything goes wrong. The mechanical disc brakes and external bottom bracket work really well, but again, are a little harder to service on the road.
The Awol instead seems to be more oriented towards lightweight, off-road bike-packing trips. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not flimsy, and will handle most touring duties fine, but it’s perhaps not quite as bomb-proof as some of the others. The upside of this is a bike that performs well and is easier to throw around on a rough fire trail. How could that not be fun?
Note: Specialized also do a deluxe, fully-featured version, the Awol Expert.
Pros: will do very well on rough terrain, fairly light, STI levers
Cons: not quite as bombproof as some of the others, STI levers
FUJI Tour $1299
The Tour is the cheap and cheerful bargain of this comparison. It won’t be as refined or feature-laden as some of the others, but you get a lot of bike for your money. There are plenty of home brand components on it, which may be slightly less ‘premium’ than branded stuff, but who’s to say they won’t be sturdy and offer good service life? The drive train is made up mostly of good quality Shimano parts, and with the inclusion of a rear rack, this bike is well worth a look if you’re on a tight budget.
Pros: awesome value, includes a rear rack
Cons: touring snobs will look down their noses at you, the monkey poo paint job-gross!
VIVENTE Gibb $4299
The only trekking-bar bike in this comparison, the Gibb is what I like to call an ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ bike. It’s got just about every feature you could wish for: rack, mudguards, kickstand, dynamo powered lights and USB charging port. Add to that a bevy of premium components such as hydraulic disc brakes, DT swiss wheels and, most notably, a Rohloff drivetrain, and you’ve got one hell of a capable bike with a hefty price tag to go with it—though it’s still very reasonable considering what you’re getting.
Vivente follow a European design philosophy, which is to integrate all those extra accessories into the standard bike rather than bolt them on after market; so you skip the expense and hassle of choosing and fitting all those things, though it means you’re stuck with what the designers have chosen. Luckily, though, they've chosen well. The star of the show is the 14-speed Rohloff gear hub. It provides a very wide gear range and is probably the most durable drivetrain component around, a remarkable piece of equipment that embodies all the cliches about German engineering, and contributes most to the bike’s price.
There’s a lot going on mechanically with this bike, which results in great performance and convenience, and this does mean that there's more to wrap your head around if you need to fix things yourself. But with a regular service schedule from a good mechanic, it should be a very reliable bike, and pretty low-maintenance when you're out on the road.
Note: Vivente make a number of other touring bikes using the same frame.
Pros: fully featured and integrated, Rohloff drive-train, expensive but still excellent value
Cons: very heavy, expensive, won’t be the easiest bike to service on the road
Do you agree with what I've written? Do you have experience with one of these bikes that you'd like to share? Got any questions? Leave your comments below. And remember, RIDE FAST!