Specifying and building your own custom build cycle touring bikes has been an immensely satisfying experience. Below I’ve detailed the specification of our bikes and the rationale behind each selection so that it may help someone else. It’s a sort of payback for all the information that others have published and I have found immensely useful on the internet.
These specifications are not intended to be the definitive specification for a touring bike; firstly, I wouldn’t be so arrogant and secondly, these bikes are hugely personal and have been built to suit our touring needs which probably differ from yours.
So let’s start with what our needs are. We are in our 50s and are somewhere between mid-range fitness and unfit. I am 6’3″ and weigh about 113kg (250lb) – that makes me a big chap and although that, since moving into semi-retirement (subject of another post), the weight is falling, the weight is a factor in choosing the specification.
Siubhan is a lot slimmer but is also tall at 5’10”. Her slimness is particularly evident in her limbs and she does not have much muscle power so, perversely, our comparative power:weight capabilities aren’t that far apart.
Then there’s the type of touring that we do and intend to do. We don’t intend to be adventure tourists, crossing Africa via dirt tracks is probably not going to be for us, and when we specified the bikes the most adventurous thing that we had done was a few hundred km down the Danube. However, our target destinations will be largely Europe and large swathes South East Asia, of which we are particularly fond. A typical tour, for us, is likely to be 1000km, up to 2000km, over a period of 2-4 weeks and on mixed surfaces, the thought of 1000km+ on tarmac would bore us. Riverside paths, dirt tracks and jungle paths will usually be a part of any ride.
All of this feeds the decisions we made later on.
- Frames and the first questions
- Headset, Stem, Handlebars & Grips
- Racks & Panniers
- Saddles & Posts
- The Paintjob!
- The Bottom Line – Cost & Effort
Frames and the first questions
A frame seems to be the most logical place to start and we did a lot of reading on steel vs other frames and we have no real experience in this area. A short ride doesn’t really give us a feel on whether steel is really as good as many advocate. So far, we have been riding Marin DS2 San Rafael hybrid bikes and they feel all a little cramped and we knew we wanted something more relaxed. So we were definitely buying into the concept of the more relaxed geometry of a touring bike.
With this thought process it would be difficult to put together a shortlist without a Surly on it. But before we could make any decision on the frame, we needed to answer two other questions first:
- What wheels do we want?
- Do we want disc brakes?
This is where our target destinations started to come into it. Many more adventurous round the world cyclists advocate the 26″ wheel because of the universal availability of all parts. The alternative, 700c, is a little less available in some of the more far-flung places. But in Europe and Thailand, the 700c seems to have an availability of parts, inner tubes and tyres that is acceptable against the risk of something going wrong.
We took a trip up to Spa Cycles in Harrogate to have a look at a few frames including the Surly Long Haul Trucker on 26″ wheels and their own steel touring frame on 700c.
The 26″ felt like clown wheels to us tall folk after having been riding on the 700c, so we were fairly quickly agreed that we would want 700c wheels. Siubhan liked the 58cm frame, but I found it a bit small and I was lucky enough that Adrian from Richmond Cycle Centre had a 60cm LHT on 700c wheels that I could throw my leg over. That seemed to fit me well.
I’ll talk more about brakes later, but my bike was likely to be quite heavy at over 160-170kg and we would be riding in the wet so we settled fairly quickly on disc brakes for their better stopping power and the rationale was similar for the availability for parts as the 700c wheels.
We looked at as many frame options as possible, but most paths came back to the 700c Surly Disc Trucker as the choice for us, 60cm for me and 58cm for Siubhan.
Wow, I lost hours, nay days, researching this lot and it was an iterative process of defining what we wanted and then seeing if it was available.
So if we start with the rationale of what we wanted:
- It has to have gearing low enough for a fat, fifty-something to propel 170kg up most hills
- It has to have gearing high enough that we’re not always spinning out at any downwards incline (I love speed)
- Nothing too exotic that is either prone to failure or difficult to get replacement parts for
- Good quality
So if we start with the first one. We did some reading around gearing and we got to understanding gear inches. We knew that the gearing of our current bikes were too high and we had to get off too often. One of the many online calculators told us that our current lowest gearing was 24″. The received wisdom of many cycle tourists that suggest 20″ as the “Granny Gear” was now starting to make sense and seemed to hold water for us. So we now have our bottom end.
As an aside, a very capable road cyclist (ex National Team) that I worked with told me that we should try to keep the cadence (leg rpm) up when climbing hills because Cardio Vascular will both develop and recover quicker than leg power and to try just grinding hills in a higher gear slowly is probably not going to work for us.
So, to the other end. How fast is fast enough to not spin out (not being able to pedal fast enough to power the bike because the bike is already going too fast for the fastest gear). So far, I had been over 60km/h and had felt OK at that, not sure if I’d want to do that fully-laden though, but 50-60 km/h when pedalling at 90-100 rpm seemed like a good target. That gave us an easily memorable desirable range of 20-120″
It all gets a bit obsessive and geeky now (but i really enjoy it) and I won’t bore you with the whole process, but this wide range immediately suggests a triple front set with a probable 10sp rear cassette. But it should be remembered that the extremities of 20″ and 120″ should be relatively rare occasions. Then my thought process began thinking that 90%+ of our cycling should be done with the middle front ring.
It was all a bit of a compromise here, and I would have preferred just a little lower gearing at the bottom end, but I settled on a 36T middle ring and an 11-36T 10sp cassette that gave us a range of 27-90 gear inches. The other rings were then 26 and 48 that with this cassette came to 19.96″ at the bottom end and 120.58″ at the top – cycling at 100rpm, the 48 front / 11 rear combo of 120.58″ would give us 57.5km/h before we span out and that’s plenty.
Happy with that as a concept but the problem was now where to source the parts. Shimano was the obvious starting point and it needed to be the MTB set of products rather than the road 105/Tiagra family. Once we’re here, I started looking at the difference between the different options. I’m far from being a mechanical expert in these things but the hybrids had Acera groupsets fitted and they felt “cheap”. I’d had a few minor issues and the indexing seemed a little vague compared to a 105 groupset that I had looked at. As a value for money position, where we could get max quality before getting into depreciating returns that would be irrelevant for us, then I was leaning towards Deore XT as a base.
Then I saw the Cycling About article on the T8000 groupset and that chimed well. There aren’t many groupsets aimed at the touring cyclist and this one seemed to have a spec similar to my own research and then reinforced my findings.
The 11-36 rear cassette and the font and rear mechs from the T8000 were a slam dunk for me but I had reservations about the crankset, even though it was the perfect 48/36/26 to meet my specification.
My reservations were mainly around the Hollowtech bottom bracket. I can’t defend this one with my own firm rationale, but many touring builders had gone for the square taper bottom bracket and I had a bias towards this. Besides I thought the Shimano crankset was brutish and ugly.
It was certainly brutish looking compared to the alternative that I was considering, the rather gorgeous XD2 custom chainset from Spa Cycles that could be specified as 48/36/26
Aesthetics play a secondary part for me in designing the bike, but they are a factor and we were now heading towards a bike with silver fittings and black highlights. More on that later.
Verdict: I would say with a little smugness that it’s pretty much spot-on for us; it’s rare that we would leave the second cog except for the steep climbs. Over nearly 1000km now I’ve only been in the big front cog 3 times, but I’m glad it’s there when I want it. As we get fitter we probably won’t use the granny gear as much and we may modify something but, for now, it’s perfect as we’ve only had to walk one hill.
So now we have gears & mechs specified we need a way to shift the gears. Again, this was an iterative process with some chicken & egg stuff going on but the key questions involved whether we wanted straight or drop bars and whether we wanted Shimano brakes. The first was easy, straight bars for us, but the latter question is important because if we were to go for a different brake to the Shimano then it would be a different brake lever and therefore any Shimao brifters would be out of the question and it was unclear whether the Shimano trigger shifters would sit well with other brakes.
I decided to keep all options open and wanted to find some independent shifters. I can’t remember what or where I read something about indexing for the rear and friction for the front so that you could make micro adjustments to the front to stop the chain rubbing on the selector, first one side then the other as you move the chain left and right across the rear cassette. After the hybrid that made perfect sense because the chain rubbed, ever so slightly on the front mech when at both extremities of the cassette.
Then I saw the Microshift SLM-10 thumb-shifters on a bike, 10sp indexed at the rear and friction at the front, and I was immediately sold on them. At £80 from SJS they’re not a cheap option but they were the right option for us.
Verdict: a great choice for us, they feel really slick and positive and I just love the friction adjustment of the front mech as needed. They take careful positioning on the bars though, too close and they poke at your index finger knuckles and too far make them an effort to use. We found that positioning was a function of your palm width across your knuckles, Siubhan has hers a lot closer to the grips than I do with my gorilla paws.
As partly described at the start of this page, the brief for the brakes must be to stop up to 170kg downhill in the wet at speed. As an ex race driver, I am fully aware that the brakes are only half of the equation and that tyre selection is equally important, but I’ll come to that in a minute. The important factor here is that the brakes don’t give up before the tyres do.
I am wholly convinced by the efficacy of discs over V brakes for us and the only remaining question was whether to go for cable or hydraulic. The issue of spares on tour were a consideration and that was our main reason for initially resisting hydraulic brakes. But then I rode a mountain bike with decent hydraulics and I was impressed.
The issue was finally sorted though when I saw that the Magura MT5 hydraulic brakes were exactly the same for the front and rear and the lever was simply mounted one way up or the other. The whole assembly (lever, callipers & hydraulic tubing) was all very light and we agreed to carry one assembly with us in the spares pack and that would cover all 4 of ours – a worst case scenario would be a double or triple failure and one, or both of us, would be riding a little more carefully with a back brake only. We agreed that this was an unlikely scenario and that it was worth the risk against the benefit.
Verdict: AWESOME! Total confidence that whenever I grab the brakes with intent that the wheels will stop turning. They all needed bleeding straight from the box after fitting, but that’s not too much of an overhead for the performance. I would appreciate being able to adjust the bite point though and maybe I could be tempted by the MT7s next time for this reason, but with a 100% price increase for the 7s I wouldn’t be too sure.
We toured the Danube on a set of 700c x 32 Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres that were great, no punctures and the rolling resistance felt low.
They were great until I needed to stop in a hurry one day in the wet; I jammed on the cable disc brakes and, sure, they stopped the wheel turning OK, but I was still continuing forward at a pace albeit with both wheels locked. I felt like an idiot because I knew better. Fortunately nothing bad really happened, except a bit of a damaged ego, but the incident influenced the spec for our tyres.
There’s no such thing as a perfect tyre and a compromise will be needed somewhere. Initially I was heavily biassed towards the Marathon Plus because of the puncture resistance but, after speaking to a couple of other cycle tourers, then both recommended the folding Mondial. I did my customary research and anded up agreeing with them for a few reasons:
- The Mondial is a lot lighter
- The Mondial still has a high degree of puncture resistance and is only slightly less puncture resistant
- Better grip on alternative surfaces
A couple of other advantages are that we can also carry a single spare tyre easily and it’s a lot easier to get on and off the rims.
Verdict: After 1000kms, we have had 2 x punctures, one of which was my fault for pinching the inner tube, but the other was no drama to fix in 15 mins. But the weight difference in the rolling weight makes the bike feel a lot easier and the grip is in a different league to the 32mm Marathon Plus.
NB: I considered going tubeless for a while but I couldn’t properly quantify the benefits over the risk and went for the tried and tested inner tube solution which, at worst, is going to be the occasional 20 minute inconvenience to fix. We have specified 2 x inner tubes to carry as spares and a box of the absolutely brilliant Park Tool Super Patch
It seems odd to put “Wheels” this far down the list when it was one of the earliest decisions we made. If you search the internet for touring wheels then a couple of things come up regularly:
- Ryde Sputnik rims are very popular, proven and appear bulletproof
- 36h is the way to go
- Handbuilt wheels are a worthwhile investment
For hubs, we had chosen the Shimano XT 785 as the value for money vs quality point for us. Tom Allen’s website had been a great help in shaping our thinking and I was heavily influenced by his choice of Ross Speirs to build his wheels when I chose him to also build ours. The fact that he lived quite close to us was a deal clincher.
Easy decision really, silver Sputnik rims and black XT 785 hubs to match the colour theme that was developing elsewhere on our bikes.
Verdict: The wheels inspire confidence and they feel great. I had a spoke break in Thailand but I don’t know whether that was a factor of putting 120kg over the rear wheels and riding rough tracks or whether I had damaged a spoke when carelessly poking the fat bike locks in and out.
Post Script – Ross has now, sadly, retired from building wheels 🙁
Headset, Stem Handlebars and Grips
I dithered for quite a while about the headset and vacillated between the £40 Cane Creek Forty (pictured) and the Christ King alternative at a £100 more. The brutal truth is that we don’t have the long term experience to be able to assess the risk of one against the other and whether the Chris King option is worth the extra 250% on the cost!
Tom Allen is one of those very experienced touring cyclists and he advocates the Chris King on his website when he talks about building the ultimate expedition bike. But we’re not expedition cyclists and Surly fit the Cane Creek to their Disc Trucker and the general consensus on the Cane Creek 40 is very good. We were swayed to the Cane Creek in the end on a value for money against risk basis.
We took a relatively simple approach to stem and handlebars and we viewed them as temporary items that would be replaced as we settled into the bikes. No amount of internet reading or hypothetical calculating on geometry for bike fit can compete with time in the saddle and we worked on the assumption that the stem and the handlebars would be replaceable items.
The only thing we knew for sure was that we both wanted straight bars. Our experience with the hybrids told us that we both liked a small amount of sweep and we had one pair of FSA V-Drive MTB bars that seemed to work well on the hybrid and, at 660mm width fitted Siubhan well. We bought another pair for £30 from Spa Cycles at the impossibly wide 740mm with an intent to cut them down to fit me (Mark).
At first we cut them down to 700mm but they were still like huge cow-horns so we went down to 680mm fairly quickly. I am quite a lot bigger than Siubhan and it was a reasonable expectation that I would need mine wider. But I just couldn’t get on with them at 680mm and we both ended up with 660mm and that’s how we felt comfortable.
We also had a 110mm FSA Omega OS168 stem in the parts box and when we fitted that to the steering column it felt about right for both of us and it was as good a place as any to start from, so we just bought another with the expectation that we would be replacing them in a couple of hundred kilometres.
The grips were the final part of the cockpit set-up and we started from the premise that the Ergon range would be a key part. We both had GP1 grips on the hybrids and we really liked how they felt in our hands. But we needed more positions because both of us suffer from pain in the hands after long periods in the saddle.
First I started with the Decathlon 3 position long bar ends and these were reasonably successful, even if they did look a bit odd and they felt very hard on the hands.
I had a thought that I would wrap them with bar tape and that was the favoured option for a while but it still didn’t feel like the whole deal.
We both tried a pair of Ergo end grips and, again, they were good but not quite there for either of us.
So the quest continued.
It was The Cycle Show at the NEC where we got to try a few different grips and set-ups and we settled on Ergon Large GP5s for me and Small GP4s for Siubhan.
Verdict: We now have 1300km on the bikes and the handlebars & stems haven’t been replaced. I have the occasional sore hands early in the day, but it’s not too bad and I suspect that this has more to do with core strength. I thing we have the geometry about right.
The grips have worked out well, we have both raised the angle of the bar ends so that we use them in a more upright position to change the position not just of our hands but also of our backs and buttocks on the saddle.
Racks & Panniers
Another decision that was made before we started. Tubus and Ortlieb. We have been using Ortlieb Back Roller Classics on the hybrids and they were excellent. We cover this in more detail in Gear and Gadgets, see what we wrote there
The decisions were only really in the minor stuff but front panniers were bought to match the rears and then the Tubus racks were the fairly standard Cargo Classics for the rear and Tara Lowrider for the front. No surprises there and we really haven’t seen anything better.
Verdict: Nothing to say really, it all just works as you would hope and expect. It really is a very strong weight-bearing combo that inspires confidence, albeit at a price.
Saddles & Posts
For me this was a no-brainer and it was the favourite of the long distance tourer that came with me from the hybrid bike, my Brooks B17. It was just about broken in now and, whilst it wasn’t as comfortable as some bloggers purport, it was as comfortable as any saddle that I had tried.
Siubhan was a bit more problematic. For a woman, she’s not always built like a woman. She’s very tall at just under 6′ and more androgynous in her shape than femininely curvy. That can make clothes shopping a bit of a nightmare and the pattern was now being repeated with saddles. We now have a garage full of “dead” saddles that haven’t worked for Siubhan, including her Ladies’ B17 that was particularly painful. Siubhan can have a colourful turn of phrase sometimes and “chopped liver” was mentioned as a simile after a ride on the B17 :/
We had just done 250km in the Netherlands and had now arrived in Passau to start off down the Danube when we went into the excellent Denk bike & outdoor shop to pick up a couple of things when we saw a funny little stool, like a kindergarten stool, but with small, raised plastic spikes all over the top. Next to it was a pad with paper of about A3 size that said “Saddle Fitting”. We soon worked out taht the paper was the same size as the to of the stool and that the idea was to put the paper on the stool and then sit on it. Where the spikes made indentations was where your body put the pressure.
Siubhan did this a couple of times until she was happy that she was approximately at the riding angle she would use when touring. We took the paper to the wall of saddles and correlated the width of the indentations to a saddle width and a style for touring. That very quickly narrowed it down to just a couple of saddles and Siubhan picked the €80 unisex Selle Royal Scientia M-3 for a moderate (60°) riding position. This Bike Radar article gives a bit more info on the range.
The seatposts were a little more problematic than we anticipated. The B17 is notorious for not being able to slide it back far enough, there’s multiple posts about this over the internet, and most resolve it with a setback seatpost. I went to the excellent Thomson Elite as a first choice and I ordered the same for Siubhan. However, there is an issue of “unusable length” which means that all the post above the setback kink cannot be inserted into the tube. At 58cm and 60cm and a horizontal top bar, the bikes are quite tall and we definitely didn’t want a lot of seatpost sticking out. See this pdf from Thomson for the specs – Elite-Seatpost-SB – and on out 27.2/300mm versions that meant 97.2mm of unusual length that would be sticking out of the frame.
When we tried them on the bikes and started riding, that was perfect for me and put the Brooks in the ideal position, but for Siubhan it was too high and she went back to the Marin seatpost from the hybrid, primarily because it could go all the way into the frame and she could now get the saddle as low as she needed. The other advantage is that the Marin has gradations on it that Siubhan likes and she can now swap the post easily to the perfect position between these bikes and the Hybrid that is now mounted on a TACX T2240 and Zwift for the winter months.
Verdict: Siubhan has done about 2000km now on that saddle and she wouldn’t swap it for anything else and the 1300km that I added to my saddle in Thailand now makes it fit me well.
We had been riding with the Decathlon B’Twin MTB pedals for a while now and we find them to be excellent. The only thing that we wanted more of was a little longer spikes as we found that our feet lost grip occasionally on rough ground. Also, aesthetically the black B’Twins just didn’t look right on the silver cranks. We did the usual research around all the usual websites reading the reviews and we soon had a shortlist.
But that shortlist became just one contender when we saw them in polished alloy, the DMR V12s.
As soon as they I arrived, I fitted them and they looked as beautiful as we had hoped.
Verdict: 1500km later, they’re excellent pedals that give great confidence, but those spikes come with a price when you get it wrong carrying the bike up steps and you catch yourself in the back of your unprotected calf.
Custom Paintjob by Arte de Aerografo
As with all great ideas it started with a drink. Alan from Arte de Aerografo in Spain has been a friend of ours for more years than any of us care to remember. His airbrush business specialises in artefacts, helmets and vehicles, so when we mentioned that we were about to start building our own bikes he suggested that we should have them “personalised” – at the end of the second bottle of vino tinto, the plan was cemented; we would have the new frames and mudguards shipped direct to him and he would paint them. We agreed to name them SIURLY (a play on a concatenation of Siubhan and Surly) and mine would be called BURLY for a big chap.
The brief was as loose as we all were as we popped the cork from another bottle and I described that I liked the aesthetic of rusty bolts on boats, Alan then jumped up and ran to his workshop to get a box he had just finished and we were sold! I have since learned that the style is called “Rat Rod”.
Part of the rationale was for security in that bikes that looked a bit “distressed” were less likely to catch the eye of potential thieves.
It was a painful month when all sorts of wheels, brakes and other parts started arriving at home but our frames were away; one week shipping to, one week shipping from and two weeks of work in the middle. The bits continued to mount and I would get progress updates from Alan.
But no pictures!
With such a loose brief, part of the fun was to be the surprise of how Alan interpreted our personalities onto the bikes.
Independently he spoke to me and to Siubhan, asking for some insights and photographs. He still didn’t give too much away.
When the courier arrived on a Wednesday afternoon in November 2017, there was great anticipation, and then we opened the boxes to see our bikes for the first time. There was tears. They were better than we had ever hoped for.
There was so much detail everywhere that it took us over an hour just to discover it all. It was worth every minute of the wait but it had fundamentally failed to meet the brief of making the bikes look distressed because, everywhere we go we have people asking us about the bikes :))))
Siubhan’s background is geology and it’s still a major passion for her. I had sent Alan a photograph of a trilobite (we have several of them in the house) and this is how he interpreted it onto Siubhan’s mudguard.
On my bike, I got a toy race car that I had when I was 2 years old, but it had the XO logo on it to represent my car racing days and XO was our company that had been so good to us and had given us the financial freedom to be able to have the time to ride. A lovely touch!
So thank you Alan and Arte de Aerografo we appreciate your hard work.
The Bottom Line – Costs & Effort
With a little bit of judicious research and more than a little bit of haggling with the Local Bike Shop (Broadribb) the all up cost was about £1800-1900 per bike. When haggling with the LBS we were very aware of needing to leave enough goodness in the deal for them to support them as a valuable business. They also run an online business (Discount Cycles Direct) so I didn’t feel too bad about pushing them hard on some of the components, such as the frames, and buying a pair of everything sweetened the deal. That said, we usually came within a few percent of online prices and that extra cost was worth it for the service and goodwill. Also, although I did most of the work myself, I asked Broadribb to fit both the bottom brackets and the headsets because they were the bits that I could screw up quite badly, everything else could be backed out and tried again, even if I had to buy the component again, it’s not the same league as trashing the frame.
Those fitting costs, the paintjob, shipping to and from Spain and some specialist tools took the total cost over £5000 for both bikes and I don’t really care to explore too much more.
The effort was much less than I expected and I feel that the bikes have really benefitted from me not rushing at it. All in all, it probably took me about 7-10 days end to end to build the bikes with 2-3 days effort in that. I very much learned as I went along and YouTube clips played on an iPad were a frequent companion in the conservatory that I had converted into a temporary bike workshop.
The difference between the duration and the effort was mainly down to my learning curve, if I were to do it again, I feel confident that I could now build and fettle the bikes to a high standard in under 2 days.
There were also a few frustrations along the way and I was prepared for them; I’ve managed many large and complex programmes in my professional life and they never run completely to plan, anticipating and planning for those hiccups has always been the secret of success, so I knew that even though I had done extensive research and reading, that large pile of parts on the floor that some bits were going to be wrong and some bits, most likely critical path stuff, would be missing because I hadn’t even thought about them.
Frustratingly, it was the first day when I hit the first roadblock. I wanted to fit the gear cables and couldn’t work out the channelling of the cables around the frames. The bit I was missing was the little downtube cable stops, now forever known as “fucknangles”
The only other thing that went awry was a very similar story for the brakes when I couldn’t work out how to mount the Magura MT5 calipers onto the Surly Disc Trucker frames. Again, I had no idea about the adaptors that would be needed here; although the MT5 caliper and lever assembly was identical for the front and rear, the adaptors weren’t and it took me a little while to find out what I needed and then to oder them.
All in all though, a fantastic and incredibly satisfying experience.
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