Touring Bike Buyers Be Warned: There’s A Difference Between Traditional & Ultra-Lite Touring Bicycles

It’s quite common for bicycle manufacturers and local bike shops alike to purposely blur the lines between “traditional” and “ultra-lite touring bicycles.”

Their reasoning, of course, is simple: money. If they don’t carry the type of touring bicycle that you actually need for the type of bicycle touring you plan to conduct, they’ll try and sell you a bicycle that is equipped for a different type of touring altogether. Uninformed buyers often times fall for this sales tactic and the person who gets hurt, of course, is the consumer (YOU!).

The truth, however, is that there are several different types of touring bicycles, and each specific type has been designed for a different and specific breed of bicycle touring.  Get the right type of touring bicycle and your cycle touring adventures will be a dream come true. But get the wrong touring bicycle and your trip by bike (no matter what the length) could be over before it has even had a chance to begin.

This is a scenario reader, Danny Levine, recently ran into while out shopping for his first touring bicycle. Here is what he had to say is his recent email to me:

Hi Darren,

I know a few months ago I emailed you about 13 questions and you took the time to respond to me- thank you very much for your help. I also wanted you to know that I have bought from your website your 3 electronic books (free lodging, touring blueprint, and stretching) as well as the DVD.

Before I begin reading/watching these things, quick 2 question about selecting a touring bike:

I was told at a Giant bike store that in order to get a good touring bike, you should select one that has side frame bars extra long, so that way you can attach panniers to the sides of them without your feet kicking into them when you pedal. (If the side bars are too short your panniers will not have room without your feet hitting them each time you pedal). But then I talked to a different bike company, Specailized.

Specialized told me I could buy a good touring bike from them for 990 dollars- and that it does not matter how short the side frame bars are that connect the wheels together- because you don’t need to attach your panniers so they are hanging on the sides of the bike. Instead, they told me at Specialized that you can attach your panniers to the back of the bike on the fork and the front of the bike over the wheel- and you can have the side frame bars completely free of panniers. So do you think I can buy a good touring bike for 990 dollars if that is what they said? And is it true you don’t need to attach your pannier to the sides of the bike?

Also, one more question- you said in your video that a touring bike should be heavier and made out of steal. But wouldn’t that make it harder to ride- I mean a lightweight bike made of aluminum or carbon is easier to ride if it is lighter isn’t it? They told me at Specialized that they have there touring bikes made of lighter metals than steel. So is that ok if the touring bike is made of carbon or aluminum frames?

Here is how I responded to Danny about his two questions:


It is true what the people at Giant told you. Most traditional touring bicycles have longer chain stays. They are called “chain stays”. And like they said, this allows for the panniers on your rear rack of your bicycle to be mounted further back on your bike so that they don’t hit the heels of your feet as you ride.

As for the second part of this question, I don’t know what you are asking when you want to know if the panniers do or do not need to hang off the sides of your bicycles. Please remember that your panniers attach to racks on the front and/or rear of your bicycle. You first buy the bicycle, then attach then racks to the bicycle, and lastly attach the panniers to the racks. You would never attach a pannier directly to the chain stays themselves. You always attach them to the racks! That is where panniers hang – on the sides of the front and rear racks!

You also need to remember that when looking at touring bicycles, there are several different types of bikes that can be described as “touring bicycles.” There are “traditional” touring bicycles (which are the ones I am usually talking about on Bicycle Touring Pro, and are designed to carry lots of gear and go at a relatively slow speed) and then there are “ultra-light” or “light” touring bicycles. A traditional touring bicycle is made to carry a bunch of gear and go super long distances. An “ultra-light” or “light” touring bicycle, however, is made to carry far less gear (sometimes no gear at all!) and to get you to your destination in a much quicker time.

It sounds to me like the people at Specialized might be trying to push you towards an “ultra-light” or “light” touring bicycle in which you would be able to carry a small amount of gear and go a whole lot faster than you would with a traditional touring bicycle. But if you want to get a traditional touring bicycle so you can carry a lot of gear (like camping equipment, food, clothing, etc), then I would listen to the people at Giant shop you visited.

As for your second question about touring bicycles being made out of steel vs. aluminum or carbon… yes, a steel bicycle is heavier than a bicycle made out of these other materials. If speed and distance is your #1 concern, then you probably wouldn’t want a steel bicycle. But for a long-distance bicycle traveler, speed and overall daily distance are usually not as important. Instead, being able to carry all your gear (without your bicycle’s frame breaking) is priority #1. Speed and distance are secondary.

So again, Specialized is correct if you are wanting an “ultra-light” or “light” touring bicycles. But if you want to do traditional long-distance bicycle touring, then you will probably want a bicycle that is made out of steel (which is better equipped to carry a whole bunch of gear) and will be more comfortable for you to ride day after day.

So the question to all of this really depends on you and the type of touring that you plan to conduct. Once you figure that out, finding the perfect touring bicycle will become a whole lot easier.

I hope I answered Danny’s questions here. But more than anything, I hope this helps to answer any questions YOU might have while searching for your perfect touring bicycle.

For more help finding your perfect touring bicycle (whether it be a traditional touring bike or a speedy ultra-lite), be sure to check out “The Essential Guide To Touring Bicycles” – my digital buyers guide to the 5 main types of touring bicycles.


20 thoughts on “Touring Bike Buyers Be Warned: There’s A Difference Between Traditional & Ultra-Lite Touring Bicycles

  1. Dan says:

    A good perspective on lightweight is to look at the weight of everything and everyone.

    ex: you have 35lbs of gear and you weigh 180lbs and are comparing a 25lb bike and a 32lb bike.


    so we’re talking about a ~3% difference here. Now this is a simplified approach, but something to keep in mind when you’re about to hand over and extra $1000 to save a few lbs on your bicycle.

  2. Richard Welch says:

    I think that maybe you might be missing a couple of decent touring bikes by excluding aluminum frames from you list of “real” touring bikes. I own a Cannondale Touring2 bike, it carries heavy loads has low gears, and has a frame guaranteed for life. I doubt if it’ll break in my use.
    Santos Travelmaster is also a World class touring bike, made from aluminum.
    I really don’t think that breaking would be much of an issue for either bike, nor the ability to repair or not while on tour. Neither is a particularly light bike, both are decent riding bikes, and both get the job done.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro says:

      You are right Richard. There are a number of other touring bicycles available (and many of them are built with aluminum bicycle frames). The Cannondale Touring bike, however, is no longer in production… and the Santos Travelmaster is not a traditional road touring bicycle. It is instead, better classified as an off-road touring bike, which is better designed for off-road riding scenarios. It should be noted that while the Santos Travelmaster is available in aluminum, it is available in steel as well.

      There are a number of reasons why steel is used in touring bicycle frames (which I cover in great detail inside “The Essential Guide To Touring Bicycles“), but the ability to repair the bicycle on the road is just one of those reasons. Comfort, weight and rigidity are a few other reasons that steel is the preferred metal of choice in most (but definitely not all) touring bike models.

  3. Wilson says:

    I had a similar instant when I took my 1986 Trek 420 to a LBS to have the wheels replaced with 700Cs. They attempted to try and “up-sale” another Trek bike that was a Hybrid made of aluminum for under $400. Their thought was the price of new wheels would be best to replace the entire bike. I laughed. I am carrying 180 pounds on the rear axle fully packed and with me on the seat. The next day I go back to pay for the wheels, a different person says how nice the 420 was versus the bikes in the store. Go figure. Different strokes, different folks.

  4. Colleen Welch says:

    I agree with everything you said, Darren, but would maybe clarify steel vs. aluminum. The advantage to steel over aluminum in long distance touring is its ability to be repaired should something disastrous happen. I ride an aluminum frame Cannondale t2 touring specific bike. It is rated to carry up to 350 lbs. I’ve now put over 20,000 miles on it, much of it fully loaded, and have had no issues regarding the frame. It appears that Danny has not had a chance to read your Touring Blueprint that he says he bought.

  5. Yeoh Cheeweng says:

    Darren, do steel-built bikes give a more comfortable ride than aluminium ones over long-distance and continual days of cycling? I have a Raleigh Elite MTB made of aluminium frame and a Bike Friday made of chromoly steel. I find that it’s more comfortable cycling on my Bike Friday than on my Raleigh over distances longer than 50km. Or is it because my MTB weighs more than my folding bike?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro says:

      Yes Yeoh, that is exactly right. Steel frames are usually a lot more comfortable on long rides than aluminum frames. This is because steel frames are thinner than aluminum frames, which allows the steel to bend and flex as you ride, which helps your body to absorb bumps in the road and remain comfrotable on the bike for longer periods of time. Most cyclists won’t be able to tell the difference between steel and aluminum until they start to ride for hours on end, day after day. This is when steel begins to really make a positive difference, and aluminum begins to leave some scars.

  6. Froze says:

    I also agree with everything Darren said; but then I see a aluminum bike like the Koga Miyata World Traveller that is supposedly the best built touring bike on the market, and my whole belief system, like Darrens, gets blurry.

    What is your thoughts on the Koga Miyata World Traveller?

  7. Rob Krochenski says:

    Thank you for the article Darren,

    These debates are often very helpful and I extend my appreciation for same.

    However I would be grateful for any comments on how Titanium frames fit into the mix (aside from cost). I am currently looking at Van Nichols and Seven bikes and comparing them with a delightful Cannondale F400/Fatty Headshok that I have until recently been very happy with. (Cannondale has abandoned ship respecting the Headshok and will no longer back up at least the slightly older models with service and parts…) I am therefore moving on.

    While I would not quarrel with your experience Darren, respecting the advantages of a steel frame providing a positive degree of flexibility, I also take note of another “blogger’s” feeling that this same quality constituted an energy absorbing, fishtailing negative which drove him to a stiffer frame material.

    My purpose is long distance, heavy but not insanely heavy loads, and backcountry and pavement equally mixed.

    Thanks for any attention you can afford my inquiry.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro says:

      Rob, I think there is SO MUCH personal preference involved in selecting a bicycle. I love the flexibility that a steel frame affords, but I can understand how it might worry other cyclists and be something that they actually try and get rid of. It just depends on what you want. I think titanium is a great frame material… if you can afford it. If you can, I would go for it! If not, I would still lean for a steel frame. I think you’ll be happy either way.

  8. nza says:

    interesting comments on steel vs aluminium, what are your thoughts on aluminium cyclo x bikes being used for touring. A cyclo x bike in theory should be built more tough to withstand rubbish road sufaces, and with a less racy frame geometry should also be comfy.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro says:

      I think we will see more and more people using cyclocross bikes for bicycle touring purposes. It is hard to say, however, if these types of bikes are good to use in this type of way because it depends very much on what type of bicycle touring you plan to do exactly. Remember: there are several different types of bicycle touring and each type will have a bicycle that is better or worse for that particular type of touring. So it just depends…

  9. John Hopkins says:

    I have just finished a 3500km bike tour of Southern USA and Mexico on a steel frame Aravis touring bike with 700c tires – no, nobody has ever heard of the Aravis. Anyway, absolutely no problem with the frame and pannier racks (tubus) and I had new wheels built in Austin, Texas – DT Swiss TK 540 rims 36 spokes front and back which were great, and I was using Schwalbe Marathon tour plus tires (700 x 45) which look as good now as they did when I started. I had a Brooks Flyer saddle. I was fairly heavily loaded with about 85 lbs on the back, but I am very light at only 140 lbs. I was on paved roads the whole way although at times in Mexico the roads were pretty bumpy, and I hit a couple of large pot holes at speed, but everything held together.

    When I get back to Africa, I want to do some off road cycling, which may include some single track riding, mostly with no gear at all, but at times may put something in the bags. At this stage I can’t afford a whole new mountain bike, and would like to ‘adapt’ my touring bike. She is really comfortable to ride. I am thinking of putting on some front suspension forks, and a suspension seat post – my gearing configuration is the same for most mountain bikes: 11- 34 on the rear cassette so I feel I don’t need to change anything here. I did some mountain biking on a Giant mountain bike before I left on the tour and it really killed my back – but absolutely no problems on tour…even in the Mexican mountains.
    What do you think of the conversion? And will the frame and rims be strong enough for some rough roads? I am also unsure of the pedal clearance from the ground – how does a road/touring frame compare to a mountain bike frame in this regard and also as far as handling in rough terrain?
    Many thanks,

  10. Craig says:

    in your comments you have mentioned that the steel frame flexes giving the rider greater comfort. you mentioned preferences and it is very true, so please take no offense of my analysis. for me frame flex is a loss of energy that is not acceptable. i believe that the only part of the bike where comfort needs to be considered is the saddle and the grips. i use gel pads underneath my bar wrap and it helps, my saddle is still not perfect but it seems to work

    i take one thing in mind when considering a bike, how much energy am i going to have left ant the end of the day when i get to the campsite. more fame flex means i am going to be more exhausted. there is of course some flex that is necessary to maintain control

  11. Kristina says:

    Great discussion on bike styles and frame materials!

    In my (limited) touring experience, I have used two bikes, and found a MAJOR difference in the quality and enjoyability of my ride, based on the use of different frame materials.

    My first bike was a Trek hybrid – not really intended for touring, but I thought I’d give it a try. It has an aluminum frame and a CARBON front fork, making it a fairly light and fast ride. However, when I loaded it with rear panniers (no front rack attachments on this bike…) I truly struggled with how unbalanced and unsteady the bike was. It was nearly impossible to come to a stop without the front end popping up and the whole bike falling over.

    My second bike is a more “traditional” touring bike. It also has an aluminum frame -making it fairly light in comparison to some touring bikes – but it has a STEEL front fork. The steel fork really gives the bike a beautiful balance when it’s fully loaded with panniers – no more tipping over for me, and a much safer-feeling ride when going down big hills 🙂 At double the cost of my old Trek, the value of this bike new touring bike was still well worth it’s purchase.

  12. FSuhandra T says:

    What I haved read above made me more knew about touring bike…
    I planned to buy touring bike but do not know which one better.

  13. Trevor Fletcher says:

    Steel bikes are really the best for touring, your riding with weight anyways so why not have a solid bike you can depend on. Touring really isn’t about speed, it’s about pace and enjoyment , no rush enjoy it all take it all in.
    Kona Sutra is one of thr best bets out their you can’t go wrong, but again up to each of us what we ride.
    Flying Fletchman
    Calgary Ab

  14. NIgel Amies says:

    Hi Darren. Just wondering what you think of folding bikes supposedly made for touring. Obviously there are pros and cons. Personally I’ve liked the Tiwanees Tern folding bikes- supposedly made for touring. Thanks.

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