Originally written around 2012. May be updated at some point. First in 4 part series.
You want to go on an adventure bike tour. Great idea! There is a lot of speculation about the best kit to use which is one of the fun parts of going. Cycle touring is one of the things that you can still do without the kit, but sometimes it helps to invest in stuff which has been well road tested and benefit from others' experiences.
For most of my touring so far, I've ridden a mountain bike because I wanted something which would be take plenty of abuse for a multiple year bike trip heavily loaded with luggage. I knew a fair bit about mountain bikes from three years in bike club at York Uni and working as a bike guide in Croatia which helped me to test various bike set ups and know what kit broke first and the more reliable brands and technologies.
Mountain bikes have different geometry to touring bikes. They are designed to climb or descend steep and technical tracks. Maneuverability, stability and vibration-absorbtion are high on the priority list. Whereas a road bike pings along the tarmac effortlessly carrying it's speed, a mountain bike will churn over minor 'trail buzz', gravel and will carry speed over uneven terrain, whereas a road bike would be very uncomfortable unless it was perhaps a 'cyclecross' bike which you could check out as another interesting angle for touring bike selection.
My efforts in constructing a touring bike were framed by my previous experience with mountain bikes and probably a little bit too do with not wanting to look like a 'roadie'. However times have changed and these days I would suggest fitting your bike to your style of tour. If it's not road, perhaps consider a something from the Dawes, Surly or Claud Butler touring range and of course The Thorn Nomad touring-specific bike is a beautiful piece of engineering.
Frame For a tour
The frame should have comfortable geometry and be strong enough that it doesn't break(or can be welded if it does). Some older frames had more laid back geometry which meant that they encouraged the rider to push higher gears which put more force put on the knee joint.
A further forward seated position means you will be more inclined to spin the cranks using lower gears. Design points on the frame useful for touring are: rack mount eyelets for fitting a pannier rack and bottle cage mounts for water bottles. The racks mount eyelets are not essential because you can use an adapter which clamps round the frame, like I have with my tubus logo rear rack. However, you still need to have a place at the dropout to bolt the rack on to.
Frames worth considering include the Orange P7, On One Inbred / 456, Kona Explosif, Genesis altitude, Handsome Dog Talisman (cheap), Orange R8 and some others with no rack eyelets are Evil Sovereign, Pipedream Cirus, Charge Duster, Cotic Soul which would be fine with a trailer. In conclusion, for a long distance tour in a place where the roads disappear (like Mongolia) a mountain bike frame is a good choice, otherwise a steel touring specific frame will be fine.
Its worth looking at folding bikes like the Brompton or bikes from Dahon if you are planning to be hopping on and off public transport, but equally it's perfectly feasible to pack up a bike into a box - I even managed it with a trailer too (check out my article on taking your bike on a bus or train).
The headset is the component that allows for the forks to turn smoothly and fits into the steerer tube at the front of the bike.
The Chris King headset began as a thing of desire but later developed into a long term relied on piece of kit. At over £100 its not cheap but then it's probably worth the investment because it comes with a 10 year guarantee. However, there are alternatives, like the FSA pig. You can also get these in chromoly and I'm fairly sure you wouldn't have any problems. I don't think you can get them in a range of shiny colours like the CK ones! Front Suspension There is a lot of hype around suspension forks.
They are the things that people always bounce up and down when you stop somewhere and people fiddle with your bike. There is usually a lot of talk about how 'plush' the movement is and of course, the amount of travel needed for various terrains. Nevertheless, for touring, it's pretty straightforward. A pair of mid range forks, with 80 - 100mm travel, around the £250 mark will serve pretty well. I used Magura Odur forks which worked very well but they have now been discontinued by the company. If you do own these forks, then you need to get them serviced yearly to get the bushings changed otherwise it can wear the stanchions.
Alternative forks: Marzocchi Corsa, RLO or Marathon, or the Fox Vanilla or Float. Avoid forks which are specced for dirt jumping- although they might have the right travel, they will be heavier and designed for absorbing large impacts rather than giving a comfortable ride over the smaller stuff. I'm not an expert on bike building but I do certainly like talking about and sharing my views on bikes (but most of all riding them). Personally, since riding my Kona set up, I intend to make a number of adjustments for my next trips.
I'm planning to do the Great Divide MTB route for which, i'll be using a full suspension XC bike, and for road touring I am keeping my eye on touring specific bikes and cyclecross frames. Of course, there is also the mindset that you actually WANT to use a scraphead bike or something that isn't fit for purpose in order to increase the adventure spirit!
Please feel free to drop me a line if you would like any questions answered or would like to meet up for a beer and a bike chat.