(I first posted this on mtbr in 2008.)
54 Surly Long Haul Trucker with Kenda Nevegal 2.35’s.
For me, an adventure bike needs to be the following things:
– Versatile. I want to be comfortable pedaling for ten hours on asphalt, gravel or dirt, day after day; I want to be able to mount slicks and go on a training ride with the local road club when I’m far from home; I want to be able to ride pretty demanding singletrack; I want to be able to ride with panniers; at home, I want a bike that is decent on full grocery runs. In practice, a bike is probably going to be good at a small number of these things, but I want to be able to do them all and have the bike be at least reasonably up to it.
– Easy to ride. The geometry needs to be such that it doesn’t take much vigilance from me to pilot. There are going to be times when I am at 17,000 feet, bonked, cold, and in the dark. My bike can’t be yet another challenge. The thing is, I also want to be able to go fast on flat paved roads, or twisty road descents. And I want the bike to have good enough manners off-road. And when I’m in really dense urban areas, I want to be able to see traffic and be maneuverable.
– Durable. Basically I don’t want to even think about the fragility of the bike. I’m not totally convinced that an aluminum frame is wrong for adventure touring, but if there is even a slight chance that I’ll need someone to weld the thing while on the road, I don’t want the option excluded. More realistically, if the derailleur hanger or the fork or whatever get bent, I want to just bend them back (within reason).
– Not overly precious or prissy. The bike is going to get roped to the roof of buses and the back of pack mules, clipped to a steel basket for a gorge crossing, or tossed in the bucket of an empty dump truck. I want to be able to shrug off the inevitable dents or nicks. Some airlines still allow you to check the bike unboxed. When it’s an option, I want to be able to do that without caring that it might get scratched.
– Not have cost me a lot. The bike could get lost or stolen, and I don’t want to be devastated. This is going to be relative, of course, but, for me, certainly under US$2000, while under US$1500 would be even better.
– Repairable on the road, all over the world. Stuff is going to break, and I want to be able to substitute and improvise with what is available to me locally until I can have specialized gear shipped.
Given this wish list, I have not found anything better than the LHT.
(Compare it with, for instance, the 1989 Ritchey Outback; the LHT has 1 inch longer chainstays. This and the lower bottom bracket for the LHT certainly make a difference, but the near identical other numbers likely make the bikes feel very similar.)
I’ve ridden it with panniers in Asia, Europe, Mexico, and, of course, at home in the US. I’ve raced it in mountain bike races (not my first or even second choice, but it happened) and on frozen lakes with Hakkapelitas. It goes along pretty good with slicks when I’m in the drops, I can mount 2.35 Nevegals on it for offroad, and on most tours running Marathon cross 1.5’s is good enough for anything resembling a road or dirt path. On singletrack the bb is a little low for log hops, but riding the tops makes a lot of stuff surprisingly doable (I have top bar levers that you sometimes see on ‘cross bikes, though I don’t run them on my actual ‘cross bike). If someone said that I could keep only one of my bikes, this one would be it.
Are there other bikes that could do these things? Yeah, probably. But some popular choices fall short for me. Thorns are a fair bit more expensive, and I have no interest in Rohloff hubs (heavy, their durability seems overstated, and junky but serviceable derailleurs are readily available to run with shifters in friction mode). [2010 Update: I’ve decided to try out an Alfine 8 speed internal hub as a low-investment experiment.] I don’t have any reliable info on how big a tire can be mounted on the Dawes offerings. The Rivendell Atlantis is a gorgeous bike, but that’s also a downside. Some continental bikes look pretty good, but the Koga-Miyata’s, for instance, are aluminum. And then anything with an integrated rack won’t do for me when I want to take all the heavy stuff off and just go riding where ever I am. There are definitely steel mountain bikes that can be converted to adventure use, but they would have to have long chain stays for pannier heel clearance, couldn’t be too flexy, and need a long headtube for drop bars (I’ve done long tours on flat bars and I don’t care that much about not having the much ballyhooed multiple hand positions. But I like drops for going fast.)
What about the Fargo? I totally want one for riding here in the US. But as far as winning the adventure bike prize, the Fargo’s wheel size is basically a deal breaker for me. My main endurance race bike is a singlespeed 29er, and I’m not looking back to 26ers as far as mountain biking goes. For better or for worse, though, the wheel size that came to be the American standard for mountain bikes in the 80’s is now the most widely available around the world. Sure, a well build wheel isn’t likely to implode, but in the overall scheme of bicycle components, the wheels are a worrisome blend of fragile/difficult-to-improvise/showstopper-if-you-don’t-have-it. Moreover, though tires can be booted and stitched together, there is some wear and damage that just can’t be readily managed.
You sometimes hear people say that in this era of global access to consumer goods, you can just have a wheel or a tire shipped to you where ever you are. There’s something to that, but I’ve seen tires in shops and stalls in towns that don’t have phones, let alone internet. For a lot of places that I want to ride, there’s a much higher premium placed by locals on the availability of bike tires than on having a post office.
So, I’m sticking with the trucker for now. I think it’s the best that a US based adventure rider who is going to range far and wide can do.
– What’s my real basis for comparison? I’ve toured on a 1987 GT Tequesta with rear panniers (Utah), a converted 1989 Wicked Fat Chance with rear panniers (West Coast of USA), a Santa Cruz Superlight pulling an Extrawheel trailer (Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, Tibet), a Karate Monkey with rear panniers (East Coast of USA), an 80’s Bianchi steel road racing bike with a large Carradice seat post bag (USA, UK, China), a recent vintage Felt aluminum/carbon fiber race bike with seatpost bag (East Coast of USA, France, Spain), and a Bike Friday folding bike sometimes pulling its suitcase (East Coast of USA, Ireland, France, Spain, [2010 Edit: + New Zealand]). [2010 Edit: I’ve now also toured on my geared Dillinger 29er mountain bike in Italy and Switzerland. And on my Pugsley in Alaska.]
None of those were catastrophes. Indeed, the Superlight — in spite of being absolutely wrong by every bit of conventional wisdom — was probably the best. Of course, I was fortunate that neither the rear shock nor the suspension fork had any problems. The LHT is better than all of these