Until recently, my uneducated view of bicycles was that they fell into a small set of categories: road bikes (your typical 10-speed and 21-speed), mountain bikes, and then speciality bikes (cruisers, tricycles, etc.). I’d never even heard of a touring bike. Chances are you’ve never heard of one either. Yet swapping out our road bikes for touring bikes is the most essential decision in terms of our TransAm gear.
When we first started contemplating riding across the US I thought we’d be riding bikes designed to be uber-light with super skinny wheels so we could fly across as many miles as we could on any given day. Wrong. That would be true if you had a support team driving a van behind you carrying all your stuff. When you’re doing long touring rides, carrying all your own gear, it’s not about being the rabbit. It’s about being the turtle. Or, maybe, a better analogy: if you think in terms of a long car camping trip, what you really need is a big ole SUV rather than a convertible sports car. You want a lot of room to jam all that stuff. Lots of space to get comfortable. And rather than a stiff performance suspension, you want something that will handle all the potholes and can stand getting a bit beaten up. In cycling that means riding around on a big boned beast so you can carry a lot of weight for long periods of time in relative comfort.
My lovely (but definitely not high-end) road bike (a Giant brand Defy 1) is the typical 21-speed road bike – its skinny tires and aluminum alloy frame means it weighs in at only 18 lbs. Just like our red convertible BMW sports car, it’s really fun riding down our local winding mountain roads. But it’s not really all that comfortable for long periods of time. Those skinny tires are inflated to 95 psi which helps to go fast but makes for jarring rides. And I’m hunched over in that classic cyclist pose which means that after about 30 miles in the saddle, my back is sore, my butt is sore and my hands are tired. And because it’s designed to be light, it doesn’t really support panniers. It’s not even designed to support a kickstand (which sucks when there’s no bike rack to park your bike).
Our touring bikes, on the other hand, are beasts of burden. My unloaded steel-framed bike (even without panniers) weighs at nearly 36 pounds!
The much wider tires are only inflated to 55 psi which means a much smoother ride when the road is rough. (And fewer flat tires.) The wheels have 32 spokes instead of 28 to help support the weight of all our gear. And I sit in a much more upright position so it’s much less taxing on my back and butt. Our weirdly-shaped handle bars give us many hand position options which keeps our backs, hands and arms from getting tired.
On these bikes we won’t be passing too many other cyclists. This is going to gnaw at my competitive side — and why our blog is named “Itinerant Philosopher” rather than “On Your Left” *(which would have been a really appropriate name). But these bikes will help us carry all the gear we’ll need for our adventure and stay in our saddles over the long haul.
In an upcoming blog we’ll highlight what makes our touring bikes particularly cool and why they’re so well suited for the days of riding ahead of us both on this specific journey as well as other treks we’re already starting to plan.
* “On your left” is what a cyclist calls out when passing another cyclist.