Rough touring myths

Think about the durable myths of adventure bike touring, namely those things that everyone assures you are absolutely true, the rules that, if you don’t follow them, you’re probably going to die hungry and miserable in some remote place.  These myths turn out to be, at best, a mixture of harmless firm opinion without basis and well-meaning reasonable suggestion that you can take or leave. There is also a lot of what I think amounts to just foolish habit.

For example, everyone says disc brakes are a disaster waiting to happen on an adventure tour.  Before I left to Asia, I stressed about this because I wanted to take my old trusty Superlight. In addition to months of touring, I was going to do a bunch of races over there.  (Why not one of the 29ers? Because of tire availability, though more on this below.  Why not a singlespeed? Because, even though I race singlespeed in the US, it would be too difficult to cover the big distances on the tour that I envisioned. Why not a hardtail/front suspension 26er, then? Because I don’t have one.) My Superlight had seven year old Hope Mini’s.  And my imagination started in with the rhetorical “what if’s?”.  What if the hose breaks and all the fluid leaks out?  Where will I find DOT 4?  What if the airline bends a rotor out of recognition? What if the seals on the reservoir cap start to leak at high altitude?  Luckily, I snapped out of it.  In more than a few seasons of racing the Superlight, I never touched or even looked at the brakes.  What are the chances that one of the “what if’s” would happen? I’d say low, and rode the disc brake equipped bike just fine for many months.

Or the myths about suspension.  Everyone will tell you just don’t do it, that the suspension is going to fail and that you’ll be stranded.  That’s certainly possible, but probably not that likely.  If at home you worried every ride about your suspension, you probably wouldn’t bother having it on your bike.  True, it’s another thing to go wrong that you could get by without, but that’s not by itself a decisive reason not to bring your bike with suspension.  There are other considerations that might well make you want it, and, in my estimation, conventional wisdom overstates the danger.

How about: That you absolutely need multiple hand positions to be comfortable.  That an aluminum frame is hopeless.  That if you don’t have a square taper bottom bracket, you’re going to be stranded.  That STI shifters on a drop bar bike is a sure-fire way of going home early.  And we haven’t even started talking about non-bike equipment yet! Mostly, this stuff doesn’t matter at all.

And wheel size? The claim that you must go with a 26″ wheel because of world-wide availability can turn into a silly mantra.  I stand by what I said earlier, however: in every bike shop in Asia that I visited, they had (usually crappy) 26″ mountain bike tires available.  Only once — in Chengdu — did I see a selection of road bike tires along with their road bike offerings at a Giant dealer. I absolutely never saw a 29er knobby tire.  But these anecdotes are a weak kind of evidence.  For me, when I try to balance the calculation of what I’m going to enjoy riding versus what can go wrong plus what equipment I already have plus trying not to be too psycho about worrying about things, what I get is the bike that I now use.

I have been on both sides of tours where some people had 700c wheel bikes and others were on 26ers.  If you’re touring with a group, there’s some advantage to all of you having the same size wheel, as you can distribute the spares among you.  But other than that, the difference in the wheel size is largely irrelevant to whether tourists can travel together at the same speed.

Cargo bikes are probably not a good idea, since they will be extremely heavy for portaging and will pack long in a box. People figure out how to deal with their bikes, though, so it can’t really matter.

But the worst and most insidious myth of adventure biking — the one that prevents a lot of people from doing it on small scales and large — is that you need some special cycling equipment.  If you’re reading this and you’re wondering, “what would be the best bike for me to use to get started doing these kind of rides?”, the answer is right now in your basement or your garage. Mountain bikes are pretty incredible when it comes to reliability and versatility.  You can mount a rack on any bike, whether or not you have special fittings for it.  Or you can pull a trailer.  Or you can go with the fantastic lightweight option of having a frame bag made to go along with a large seatpack and bar bag.  Or some mix of these.  Whatever drivetrain you are running, whatever suspension you have or don’t have, whatever wheels or tires or seatpost: It doesn’t really matter that much because it is probably going to work just fine.