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Planning Your Own European Bicycle Tour-Part 2
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by Charles Hansen
edited and HTML converted by Sheldon Brown

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The Touring Bicycle

Although there are bicycles designed specifically for touring, it is not absolutely necessary to use one of these. However, either a touring bicycle or a mountain bike (MTB) will work out the best. Perhaps more important is knowing what type of bike will not work for touring: this would include racing bikes and most sport bikes, although these may work for a very specialized type of trip known as 'credit card touring', where the implication is that you don't carry a whole lot else.

I have neither the expertise nor the desire to get into an involved technical discussion of just what qualities define a touring bicycle, but I will try to present an overview. There are several books available on bicycle touring, and I comment you to read one of them if you want more information. Two recommended by the Whitehills (see Resources) are: The Bicycle Touring Book by Tim and Glenda Wilhelm, and Living on Two Wheels by Dennis Coello. I see the touring bike as needing three basic elements: strength (ruggedness), low gearing, and ability to carry a touring load.

The strength element has to do with the strength of the individual tubes that the bike is made of, how they're joined, and the durability of the components that complete the bike - particularly the drivetrain (including shifters) and brakes. One of the reasons that mountain bikes have become popular for touring in the last few years is that all but the least expensive (less than US$350) will generally have these qualities. Another benefit of a mountain bike is that the heavy wheels resist damage and the thick tires resist flats and provide good traction on dirt and gravel roads (as well as providing some cushioning on the cobblestone streets that one can still encounter in Europe). I particularly recommend an MTB if you plan to spend a lot of time in cities and/or country areas with rough roads, or you want the ability to ride off the road on occasion.

The major downside of MTB's is that the heavy wheel and tires take more effort to turn and generally mean a slower riding speed and fewer miles covered per day. For many people that is no problem, and I used an MTB in Holland because I planned to spend a lot of time exploring cities and didn't intend to cover more than 50 miles a day at the most. The other major problem I have with MTB's is the lack of multiple hand positions on the handlebars. Most riders resolve that by adding 'bar ends' to the end of the bars, which give a different grip and also provide a far more efficient and comfortable hand position for climbing hills. A mountain bike is also recommended if you're buying your first bike in many years, since most folks find them much more comfortable, stable and maneuverable than bikes with 'drop bars'. Also, MTB's make better urban bikes and will be of more use around the city when you're not touring.

In order to have sufficiently low gearing to climb hills with a touring load it is necessary to have a bike with triple chainrings, the innermost - and smallest - of which is known as a 'granny', because it provides a gear ratio low enough that even your granny could ride up a steep hill using it. All mountain bikes come with a triple chainring, although in some cases you might want a granny gear with fewer teeth. Anything that looks like a mountain bike but only has two chainrings is actually a 'city bike', which is a fancy industry term for "piece of junk". Actually, there are a few quality city bikes, but if you're going to spend the money for a new bike you might as well get a mountain bike which gives you far greater flexibility with no real penalty attached.

If you do get a mountain bike, replace the fat knobby tires (if that's how it comes) with street tires, preferably 1.5" wide. The front one should be basically smooth, but you might want a bit more tread on the rear if you plan to ride on dirt/gravel or off-road at all. [For an second opinion on this, see "tread"--Sheldon Brown] See if the shop will replace them for free, or perhaps a reduced cost. However, if you think you might be interested in using the mountain bike for actual gonzo off-road riding at some point, you could just purchase a second set of tires for touring and change the tires as needed.

There are a number of different approaches to gearing, with the most widespread commonly known as 'crossover' or "alpine". Mountain bikes typically have chainrings of 26-36-46 teeth, or perhaps 28-38-48. If you want the lowest gear possible for climbing hills, the inner chainring should be 26 or even 24, if that will work with the front derailleur on the bike. The other component that determines what gearing your bike has is the number of teeth on the freewheel cogs on the rear wheel. Many mountain bikes come with a 28 or possibly a 30 as the largest cog, but for the maximum (minimum?) in low gearing, I suggest a 34 tooth cog. However, due to changes in the bicycle components industry, represented by homogenization of drive trains, it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate these large rear cogs. The combinations of the number of teeth on the chainrings and the freewheel cog determine what actual gear numbers you have, and this gets into the sticky waters of what's known as gear charts (see next page). [Newer bicycles use "compact drive", with all of the sprockets smaller than these examples--Sheldon Brown]

I will say that another approach to gearing is known as 'half-step', and is favored by many cyclists who tour with heavy loads. Perhaps I should say "by many cyclists who tour with heavy loads and understand gearing". People who are extremely interested in gearing philosophies and gear charts are popularly known as "gear freaks". Regarding half-step gearing, it is designed to ensure that all the combinations of chainrings and freewheel cogs provide unique gear numbers, and that the change in ratio from one gear combination to the next (whether shifting up or down) is approximately the same percentage in each case. Successfully using half-step gearing can mean more shifting than a crossover set-up, but it does guarantee that you will always be able to find a gear that is just right for the terrain, the bike's load, wind conditions, and your energy level.

The traditional touring bike differs from 'road' models (racing, sports) in a number of ways. First, the tubes are generally made of a slightly heavier and more rugged material, with sturdier construction. Most important for touring is what's known as the geometry of the frame. This has to do with the relative lengths of the various tubes and the resultant angles where they join. The touring bicycle will have longer chainstays than a sport bike. This is the tube that runs on either side of the rear wheel from the bottom bracket (where the cranks and pedals come from) to the rear wheel dropout (the specially cast piece that the axle actually slides - drops - out of). This is critical because you want most of the weight in your rear panniers to be forward of the rear axle, otherwise the weight behind the axle will cause the bike to 'fishtail' while you ride. This effect might be thought of as analogous to the tail wagging the dog, and you can get an idea of what it would be like to ride such a bike.

True touring bicycles often have handlebars in the 'randonneur' style, which look like regular drop bars, but have the ends flared out to provide greater leverage with a heavily loaded bike. Both MTB's and touring bikes have cantilever brakes, which are much more efficient at stopping in wet conditions than other styles. Many serious touring riders prefer to have their gear shift levers mounted at the very end of the handlebars, and there are two traditional reasons for this. First, with the shift levers on the bar-ends, you never have to take your hands off the handlebars to shift. This can make a difference if you're struggling up a hill with a heavy load and don't want to loose control of your bike due to the 2,000 foot drop just past the edge of the shoulder. The other reason for bar-end shifters is that half-step gearing sometimes requires 'double shifts', where you have to shift both the front and rear derailleurs simultaneously, and this is easier to do with the shifters mounted on the handlebars. The downside of the bar-end shifters is that they require more cable to get between the shifter and the derailleur, which doesn't give as 'solid' a feel to shifting, and may require adjustment after a shift.

[Many newer touring bikes use Ergo or STI shifters, which are built into the brake levers. These are more convenient than conventional levers, but are mechanically complicated and difficult (or impossible) to repair in the field.--Sheldon Brown.]

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Gearing Set-Ups and Gear Charts

Formula for calculating gear inches:

Chainring teeth X wheel diameter (inches) / Freewheel teeth

Crossover (on Specialized Allez Sport)

30 26 22 19 17 15 13
26 23 27 32 37 X X X
42 38 44 52 60 67 76 X
52 X 54 64 74 83 94 108

Crossover (on typical mountain bike - 26" wheels)

28 24 21 19 17 15 13
26 24 28 32 36 X X X
36 33 39 45 49 55 62 72
46 X X 57 63 70 80 92

Half-Step (on Bianchi Volpe touring bike) Alternate chainring might be 26-44-48

34 28 23 19 16 13
26 21 25 31 37 X X
42 33 41 49 60 71 87
46 X 44 54 65 78 96
[Note: I have developed a new, alternative system of gear designation which is explained at Brown]

What you often get on new bikes with crossover gearing, and you generally want to avoid, is "duplicate" gerars. This occurs when you have multiple gear combinations, using different chainrings, that result in gears no more than three gear inches apart. This means that you may have a "21 speed" bike, but you may only have something like 13 different, effective gear combinations. This is why many serious tourers prefer half-step gearing. You"ll note the X's in the charts above. These are primarily used for gear combinations you shouldn't be in, which can be thought of as "small-small" and "large-large". When your chain is on these combinations of chainring and cog, the "chainline" is so angled that it provides poor mechanical energy transfer and promotes premature wear of parts. Try putting your bike in one of these combinations and you"ll see what I mean. It is called half-step because a change between the two outside chainrings produces roughly half the effect of changing a freewheel cog. If you look at the chart you"ll see that the relative percentage change between all the combinations is generally consistent.

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Selecting and Outfitting a Touring Bicycle

You may decide whether you want to tour using a mountain bike or a touring bike before you visit a bike shop, or wait until you see what is available and at what prices. You can get a decent quality (in my view) mountain bike for US$400 up, while a true touring bike will cost at least US$700. At the current time, there are very few manufacturers and models of touring bikes to choose from. In the past there had been many more in a wider price range, but manufacturers react to what they see as the hot markets. Another option is what's known as a hybrid bike, which has a geometry mid-way between an MTB and a sport bike, straight handlebars, and wheels and tires that are more heavy duty than a road bike but less weighty and aggressive than a mountain bike.

I suggest getting a new bike, although you may find a decent used MTB in the Want-Ad tabloids. You will not find many used touring bikes for sale, and almost definitely not one in your size before you have to leave the country. One possible way to save money is to ask bike shops if they have any prior year's models available at a lower price. This is often a vey good deal, since prior year's models sometime have better quality components due to manufacturers attempts to keep bike prices stable while coping with inflation.

Good shops will generally change chainrings and freewheels on a new bike at no charge, providing they have what you want on hand. More extersive changes can be negotiated.

At a minimum you will need a rear rack put on your bike - Blackburn is the best choice. Depending upon how you feel about getting wet and your idea of bicycle aesthetics, you may want fenders. I recommend a bicycle computer so you can use it with your maps to determine how far you've gone that day and whether you have to increase your pace (average MPH). A front handlebar bag is indispensible for touring, and Cannondale makes the one that I like best. It has a number of faults, but it's greatest asset is the ease of attaching and removing it. You should have two water bottle cages, and the larger size water bottle for each.

You will also need a pump, and these come both in full size and compact varieties. The full size ones are sturdier, but also more prone to theft since they are mounted on the frame of the bicycle. I recommend a strap or two to help keep the pump attached to the bike. You should also be conscious of your pump in cities, since they are so easy to steal. I recommend removing it from the bike and carrying it with you if you plan to be away from the bike for more than a few minutes. The compact pumps are small enough to fit inside your pannier or tool-bag.

You may also want to consider replacing the saddle that comes with the bike. Usually new bikes come with a relatively cheap saddle and the expectation that it"ll be replaced. People's experience here varies greatly, and the best option is to try a long day ride with the stock saddle before considering changing. However, if you're not used to riding at all, it may takes weeks to get used to it, and it's better for that period to be before the tour. Saddles with gel [or leather--Sheldon Brown] are usually the most comfortable for a majority of people. The more you pay for your bike, the better chance of it having a quality, comfortable saddle to begin with - although some MTB's come with very-narrow, racing-style saddles, which will need to be changed.

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Panniers and Handlebar Bags

There are a number of different brands of panniers, in a wide price range. My preference is for those with a 'drawstring' closure on the main cargo compartment, and a flap that covers the opening and secures with Fastex buckles. I find this style very flexible, and they allow you to get your hand in without exposing all the contents if it's raining. Also, you can easily modify the volume of your pannier based on how much gear you need to store at any one time. Packs that use a zipper to close the main compartment are more prone to mechanical problems in my view. The panniers I've used for the last four or so years are made by Madden, and I've found them extremely sturdy and reliable. With over three months of touring and close to a thousand days of commuting in that time I've had no problems whatever. There are monster panniers with up to five separate compartments on each pack, but I've always thought it would take an obsessive organizer to keep track of what's where.

Something to consider if you're going to be carrying a heavy load - definitely if camping - is low-rider front racks and panniers. These racks attach to the front fork such that the pannier is centered over the front axle. This will affect the bike's handling a little bit, but not as much as the same weight mounted over the front wheel on a traditional front rack. If you use these, you must be careful to balance the weight equally on both sides of the front wheel. Tourers on the road for extended periods (over a month) will almost always have a set-up including the front low-riders.

I do not have lights permanently mounted on any of my bikes. Unless it's a generator model, they are very easy and tempting to steal. I recommend carrying either a detachable light or a head lamp that can also be used as a flashlight. The benefit of a headlamp is that you have both your hands free - very useful if you have to fix a flat in the dark. For the rear I suggest using a clip-on flasher unit. [Most of the popular countries in western Europe are fairly far north, so the sky stays light quite late into the evening in the summer time.--Sheldon Brown]

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Packing for the Road

I'm not going to provide a packing list here (it may be a separate handout), for a number of reasons. Firstly, since I invariably overpack, I'm the last person you should listen to. There are countless lists in any number of publications. Finally, what you bring is very much a personal choice. Perhaps the best way to fine tune this is to pack your projected load and go on a two or three day training tour. Of course, you won't go through as many sets of underwear and socks as you would on a longer trip, but you should consider anything you don't use on the short trip as something to reevaluate for the longer tour.

Although I won't provide a list, I will mention a few key items. Bring at least two, and possibly three pairs of cycling shorts. I can't wear anything besides the tight style of shorts, although other folks do fine in the looser touring style of shorts. Whatever type you wear, wash each day's pair that evening so it can dry overnight. You will also want a pair of tights, and/or leg warmers. I have tights that look like lycra/spandex but are actually 90% Polypro, which I think handles wind, cold and moisture better. For cool weather top layers I prefer Polypro or some of its relatives. Actually, I find the EMS Bergalene product to be more comfortable and wear better over time. You can buy sneakers specially designed for bike touring, but many people find that some sort of running shoe works just as well. The bike shoe will have a stiffer sole so the pedal doesn't bother your foot, and if you use a running shoe it should not have too wide (flared) a sole. Clipless pedals are another option, but be sure to get the type where the "clip" is recessed into the shoe so you can walk around in them.

The last mandatory item is raingear, and Gore-tex is the best choice here. It does cost more, but it's well worth it. Top and pants are best, but at the very least buy a parka or cycling jacket. There are Gore-tex suits designed specifically for cycling, but these are usually only obtainable through mail order. You may also want to consider some sort of cycling booties to keep your feet dry and warm; if you don't have these, bring a pair or two of wool socks. You will want casual clothes for the evenings, but don't even be tempted to bring blue jeans - they are far heavier and more bulky than other choices. [Fenders should also be considered essential equipment for European touring--Sheldon Brown]

Your handlebar bag should be 'tour control central' and contain all your valuables, including air ticket home. I have never used any sort of money belt, but perhaps I've just been lucky. However, I am always aware of my surroundings and don't stop in places where I don't feel comfortable. Whenever you leave your bike, put the shoulder strap on the handlebar bag and bring it with you. You may or may not lock your bike depending on the situation. The nature of your trip will be radically changed if you lose your bike, gear and clothing, but not nearly so much as it will if you lose your wallet, keys, passport, camera and airline ticket. The Whitehills mention that it"s particularly important to be vigilant in train stations; don"t leave your valuables - or even your panniers for that matter - out of sight for even a second.

In terms of actually packing your panniers, here a a few basic guidelines. First of all, line the pack with a heavy duty garbage bag to keep the contents dry in case of rain. Bring a couple extra on tour, since they will inevitably tear with use and you'll need to replace them. There are waterproof nylon covers that go over the pannier, and these can be an alternate solution. Don't bring the empty garbage bags but not pack your gear in them, thinking that you'll use them if you have to - I speak from sad experience. The best solution for packing is to get about three small stuff sacks for each pannier. You can put like items in these, and their drawstrings will help you compress the load for space and stability. You can also buy different colors so you know what's in each, and they're generally easier to deal with than sorting through lots of loosely packed gear. These are available at camping/mountaineering shops. Put the heaviest items on the bottom of the panniers, where it will impact the bike's handling the least. Put those items you want fast access to (raingear, etc.) in the pannier that goes on the left side of the bike, which is where you should be when you get off the bike.

Forward to Part 3

Copyright © 1997 by Charles Hansen

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Reports of the demise of this Web site are greatly exaggerated! We at thank Harris Cyclery for its support over the years. Harris Cyclery has closed, but we keep going. Keep visiting the site for new and updated articles, and news about possible new affilations.

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