So you want to chuck some stuff on a bike and hit the road, but what kind of bike do you need? Pretty much any old bike will do, 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. This also makes them a popular choice for an 'everyday' commuter bike. To help you get your head around things, I've outlined seven 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 Disc Trucker $2299
I'm starting with Surly because it's still one of the biggest names in the touring market, and I'm going with the Disc Trucker (rather than the rim-brake-equipped Long Haul Trucker) because rim brakes are going the way of the dodo.
The Surly Disc Trucker is an excellent bike for long-distance, remote-area touring. Due to a combination of geometry and frame material, it's as good as any bike on this list at carrying extreme loads, and the build kit is capable enough to realise that potential. The downside of this is a certain degree of sluggishness when being used as a daily commuter, or for other un-loaded duties. The frame finish is solid, and as one of the longer lived and higher selling bikes on this list, it's been battle-tested, by all sorts of people, in all corners of the world, proving that it's up to the task.
Another good thing about Surly is that their frames are designed to accommodate a wide variety of parts, both old and new. This ensures flexibility and options when customising your bike, and to an extent, future proofs it by allowing you to replace and repair things with whatever is lying around. When you buy a Surly, you're generally buying a bike for life.
The main thing I don't like about the disc trucker is the value, or lack thereof, of the build kit. You fork out $2300 and you get the following: generic finishing kit (seat post, saddle, stem, handlebars), Microshift gear levers (a big downgrade to the Shimano levers it used to come with), and a generic crankset. The ergonomics of the handlebars, in particular, are terrible. For god's sake just put some standard modern road bars on there already! As evidenced by the brakes on the Long Haul Trucker, Surly's designers seem to have a hard time updating things when better options have come along.
Overall though, the Disc Trucker is a hugely capable and potentially long-lived machine, and when you consider this, maybe it's worth the dough.
Note: the Disc Trucker is available as a frameset (which is good value), making it a great choice for a custom build. And Surly still make the original rim-brake version, the 'Long Haul Trucker.'
Pros: excellent load carrying capacity, flexible build options, will last
Cons: complete build not the greatest value, a bit sluggish compared to its competitors
KONA Sutra $2099 (2018) / $2299 (2019)
The Kona Sutra has also been around a while, and it's improved a lot since its earliest iterations. One the main thing that jumps out about this bike is its value. It comes with a rear rack and mudguards (albeit cheap ones), a Brooks B17 saddle (that's not cheap), good gears and brakes, excellent tyres, and a better crankset and finishing kit than the Surly Disc Trucker. The handlebars in particular are an improvement, as is the 9-speed drivetrain, in my estimation.
But isn't 9-speed 'less good' than the 10-speed drivetrain on the Surly? Well, yes and no (I'm going to get a little technical here). 10-speed gives you a few extra gears, and allows you to run a 'nicer' rear derailleur (Deore XT). However Shimano don't make a 10-speed bar-end shifter that's compatible with this derailleur, necessitating a shift (boo-doom-ching) to a third party like Microshift. Microshift levers feel sloppy compared to the definitive crispness of their Shimano equivalent. The result is that the Kona Sutra, with its 9-speed drivetrain and more basic derailleur (the still very good Deore), shifts better than the 10-speed Surly Disc Trucker. Another advantage of 9-speed is that it's compatible with STI (Shimano Total Integration) brake/gear levers, whereas 10-speed is not. So if you want all your controls in the one place, you'll have an easier time making it happen on a Sutra than a Trucker.
The Sutra has the shortest chainstays in this list, making it fairly agile for a touring bike. This should, in theory at least, make it a little less adept at carrying extreme loads, but is an advantage if you plan to use it as a commuter for much of the time.
CHANGES TO THE 2019 KONA SUTRA
The 2019 Kona Sutra arrived in Australia in August, with a number of changes from the 2018 version. The most notable (after the colour) are the move to thru-axles, and TRP Spyre brake calipers. The new brakes are undoubtedly better than the previous Hayes ones, however it's debatable whether thru axles will improve this bike. Thru-axles do work better with disc brakes, however the hubs have been downgraded to keep costs in check (they are now Formula hubs rather than Shimano), and thru-axle standards are uncommon in less-developed parts of the world, should you plan to travel there.
Other changes to the 2019 Kona Sutra include flat mounts for the disc brakes, a slightly wider BB shell to bump up tyre clearance (now 29x2.2), and one of the lower rack mounts on the fork has moved—it now sits on the fork itself, rather than the dropout. This should make rack mounting easier, but don't be fooled, it's not a three-boss mount (a-la Salsa Anything Cage etc). That lower mount is further away than the other two.
It's evident that Kona has put some effort into the Sutra in recent years, and it's really grown on me in that time. It's very good value, progressive in design, well-rounded and fun to ride.
Pros: comes with rack and mudguards, fairly lively ride, excellent value
Cons: perhaps a little less stable with a very heavy load on board
VIVENTE Deccan $2749
Australian company Vivente make a number of touring bikes all based around the same frame. Last time I reviewed the super-deluxe, Rholoff-equipped Gibb. This time I'm going with the Deccan, which more closely competes with the other bikes on this list.
The most notable thing about the Vivente Deccan is that, like the others in the Vivente line-up, it comes with everything that you often have to buy separately. This includes mudguards, rear rack (not just any old rack but the expedition-worthy Tubus Logo Evo), kickstand, dynamo lighting, two bidon cages, a rear-view mirror, a quality brass bell and even a bugle horn!
Also, almost no expense has been spared on the build. You've got TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes, a Sugino crankset, a Deore XT rear derailleur and hub, DT Swiss rims and spokes (Alpine spokes on the rear wheel), Nitto Noodle handlebars, Schwalbe Marathon tyres and clipless pedals. And all that for a poultry $2749! Honestly, I don't know how Vivente makes money, or how bike shops squeeze a margin out of it. It's an almost absurd price when you consider what's on there.
With all that stuff attached, and with its long chainstays, the Vivente Deccan won't be a nimble beast. It will be great for carrying heavy stuff but slow getting up to speed. Also, the STI levers, though they work superbly and are generally quite reliable, can be a little problematic for multi-month/multi-year touring due to their mechanical complexity. If this is a concern for you, have a look at some of Vivente's other models which don't use this component. As far as downsides, though, that's all I can think of. Oh, and it only ever comes in black.
Pros: ridiculous value, fully (and I mean fully) equipped for the road, excellent load-carrying capacity
Cons: a bit heavy and slow
SPECIALIZED Awol $1900
With the ability to fit 29-inch tyres and geometry that is in some ways closer to a mountain bike to a touring bike, the Specialized Awol is the most off-road-oriented bike in this list. The wheels and tubing are lighter than many of its competitors, making it a bit less suited to heavy-duty touring and better suited to lighter-weight dirt-road adventures.
This is also reflected in the choice of STI levers over bar-end shifters. You're likely to be changing gears more often on tracks and trails compared to roads, and it's nice if you don't have to move your hand away from the brakes to do it, which helps with control on rough terrain. They work beautifully, and are generally quite reliable, but they're a very complicated part, which makes them less ideal for long-distance, remote-area touring.
That's not to say that the Awol is at all flimsy - it will still handle most touring duties just fine - it's just not quite as bombproof as some of the other bikes on this list. With a full 9-speed Shimano drivetrain and TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes, it's a solid build at a good price. With a road crankset, though, it may be a little over-geared for the kind off-the-beaten-path riding that this bike encourages.
Overall though, it's pretty neat. Just looking at it makes me want to chuck some bikepacking gear on and bomb down some rough stuff - after I've swapped out the cranks for a mountain double.
Pros: very capable off road, fairly light weight for a touring bike
Cons: not quite as good for heavy-duty, long-distance touring
SOMA Saga (frameset) $975
It's only available as a frameset now, but it's so damn nice I just have to include it here. If you have the coin, and you're doing a custom build, do yourself a favour and get a Soma.
I think of the Soma Saga as something of a premium version of the Disc Trucker. It has a similar design, and will do similar things, but is made from higher-quality steel, and has a top-notch finish. Add some changes to geometry – shorter wheelbase and chainstays – and you have a bike with more agile handling characteristics, and a beautiful smooth ride quality. With the ability to accommodate both rim brakes and disc brakes, plus clearance for up 700x47mm/26x2 inch rubber, the Saga is also a very versatile platform to work with.
The Saga is a very balanced bike; it has much of the load-carrying capacity of the Disc Trucker or the Deccan, and combines it with some of the get-up-and-go of the Sutra, while retaining a good deal of dirt-road capability. And in a category full of utilitarian plainness, the Saga is one of the most attractive bikes on this list.
Pros: excellent handling, smooth ride-feel, good all-round bike
Cons: only available as a frameset which will make it poorer value than buying a complete bike
WAYWARD Cape York $1789
Australian company Wayward make two touring models, the budget Nullarbor and the more premium Cape York. The Nullarbor occupies a similar niche that the Fuji Touring used to, providing good touring capability for a low price. I was excited to discover this alternative, until I read that it's only available currently in small and medium sizes. So for this post I'm going to focus on the Cape York model.
The Wayward Cape York is still on the cheaper end of things, as far as touring bikes go, and this is reflected in the build, which is a mix of premium and low-cost components. For example you have DT Swiss rims, which are laced to basic Shimano hubs. It's fitted with good brakes (Avid BB7), but el-cheapo tyres (Kenda K-West). There's a decent Shimano drivetrain, except for the Microshift gear levers. Overall, it's about what you'd expect for this price; solid, but with a few compromises compared to pricier bikes in this category.
With shortish chainstays and wheelbase, the handling should be reasonably snappy for a touring bike. Along with the build kit, this bike says "everyday workhorse" more than "expedition tourer." It will handle most touring duties fine, but if you plan to go long and remote, there are probably better options. The frame material - Reynolds 520 steel tubing - is a good choice for this kind of machine, offering solid performance for a reasonable price.
One of the things I like most about the Cape York (apart from its local heritage) is the way it looks. The mahogany paint job with cream-coloured decals are lovely, and the polished-chrome fork crown really makes it pop. If you think this is of little consequence, consider this: it's scientifically proven (by the Institute of Peter's Opinion) that a sexy bike makes you ride faster. More touring bikes should look like this.
Note: the Cape York is also available as a frameset only, making it a good choice for a custom build
Pros: solid bike for a reasonable price, good all-round capabilities, looks great
Cons: cheap tyres
FUJI Touring $1500
The Fuji Touring is the cheap and cheerful bargain of this comparison. It may not be as refined or feature-laden as some of the others, but you get a lot of bike for your money. There are some 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.
For 2018 the Fuji Touring got a major update. It has a new fork which with a sloping crown, lugged dropouts, and an extra eyelet for greater luggage hauling versatility. It also has better brakes, more tyre clearance, an extra bidon-cage mount and a small drop in weight. All this makes a great bike even better, however the price has gone up accordingly. Still great value though.
Pros: awesome value, includes a rear rack
Cons: touring snobs may look down their noses at you