Author Topic: Building an expedition touring bike  (Read 19019 times)

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Offline Smileyguy

Building an expedition touring bike
« on: February 20, 2007, 05:53:32 pm »

Hi everyone, I just joined the forum...

I'm finishing up university in May. Cycling has always been biggest passion, but I've always felt constrained, by various things, from fully indulging in it and really getting out on the road for weeks at a time. Over the next year, I'm finally going to do it. I live in Ireland, but am American and am planning a few trips for the next 18 months. I want to do a lot of cycling around New England, and then do the Rockies in 2008, perhaps by doing the great divide, or at least a long northern stretch of it. I decided to join the forum here to meet like-minded folks and learn everything I can.

As I'm going to be doing a lot of both on-road and off-road touring, I need a bike that will be comfortable and durable on both.

After investigating some purpose-built bikes for these tasks, I've decided the cost to be a bit prohibitive, and am now seriously considering some advice given to me to build a bike myself. I've never done this before, but I've been told it will work out cheaper, though I have yet to investigate fully.

So for my first post, I have a couple of questions:

Firstly, do you knowledgeable folks here agree that I can get a lower cost, high quality bike for the purpose described above (mix of on-road / off-road touring)if I build it myself? Is this a good option?

And secondly, if this is a good idea, would anyone have any specific recommendations for what I should be looking for in specific components. For the frame, a steel MTB frame has been suggested. I'm unsure about what wheels to get, or whether to go for dropped handlebars or flats.

If anyone could offer any advice on whether this is the right option or not, and on what kind of components I should be looking for, I'd really appreciate it.

Thanks a million,


Offline gregg

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #1 on: February 21, 2007, 04:34:23 am »

I like your question, and it is one that I have faced myself. I have bought two fully built up bikes in the last two years, and also a frame and then added the parts to make a complete bike. It is my experience that you save a lot of money buying a bike that is already built up by the manufacturer rather than doing it yourself. This is because the manufacturer gets a huge discount on every part on the bike  compared to what you, or I, or probably even the local bike shop pays. So it is easy for them to sell complete bikes that are way cheaper than a person buying each part themselves.

That is not to say starting with a bare frame is a bad thing. Doing it that way gives you exactly the bike you want, but, in my experience) you will end up paying extra (a lot extra I think) for it.

If your looking to save money on a do it all, on and off road bike, I think that the REI Novara Safari is something you should consider. It is a hard-tail rigid steel fork 26" wheeled aluminum framed mountain bike with treking bars and comes with a rear rack and disc brakes. List price is $849 here in the USA.

If you want to build up similar (though all steel) bike yourself, I would suggest you start with a Soma Groove frame (list $375.99 US) which comes ready for discs or cantis and is lugged for a rear rack. It is also designed for 26" wheels, which some prefer for their toughness and the easy of getting tires and tubes anywhere. The matching rigid fork is $119.99 (with lower lugs only). The frame and fork are a deal for the quality you get.

But as you can see, your already up to almost $500 dollars and that is before wheels, brakes, gruppo, saddle, etc. No-way your going to come in under a thousand here.

However, this is the route (Soma) I went because I already had a lot of the parts from my old mountain bike, and had some pretty particular ideas about what I wanted in a bike. However, I ended up spending over a grand. I do love the bike though, which I use for commuting/trails/touring.

So, there ya go.

Hope that helps,


Offline Smileyguy

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #2 on: February 21, 2007, 07:23:13 am »

Hi Gregg, thanks a zillion for the help.

Here's how I'm looking at my situation financially:

There's not much of a market for specialist bikes here in Ireland, but there is next door in England, so that's where I'd be buying. As usual, stuff is expensive there compared to the US (I had the same problem when I was buying a laptop). The cheapest proper expedition touring bike I've found is £900UK, or $1700.

I was chatting to some serious tourers on another forum, one who built his own bike and has cycled it practically everywhere on and off road, and he suggested I build it myself. He pointed me to some quality secondhand mountain bike frames on ebay, such as these:

I could pick something like one of those up quite cheaply, and then starting from there, I'd consider a final total of $1000 to be quite cheap compared to the other option.

Perhaps it's just a case that the kind of bike I'm looking for is a lot cheaper in the US, and hence the self-build option is cheaper here.  It's appealing too because can get exactly what I want by building it myself.

Or perhaps I've got this totally wrong all together.

Thanks for all the suggestions, I'll have a look at the  parts you mentioned.


Offline bruno

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #3 on: February 21, 2007, 10:06:40 am »
hey smiley!
take a look at surly frames--the long haul trucker (more of a road tourer) or the karate monkey (a 29er mtb frame). surly makes real nice steel frames with all the braze-ons. and real high quality and durability for around 450 dollars or so. i don't know if you can get them easily in ireland or england, but it'd be worth checking. like the previous poster pointed out, it's gonna be hard to get a proper tourer for under, i'd say, 1500 dollars. but if you spent that, i think you could build yourself a pretty nice bike.

i also heard that thorn bikes is selling off one of their derailleur models as they are going to all rohloff hubs. if so, thorns are (as you probably know!), REAL nice frames. check them too as they're english.

good luck.

Offline RussellSeaton

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #4 on: February 21, 2007, 12:43:50 pm »
If you are passionate about biking now, then you should have a bike or two already and be riding quite a bit now.  Use this experience to figure out what you need or want.  If you have not toured much yet, then put a rack on a bike you already have and do a weekend tour.  You can carry enough for a couple days on a rack.  Take your setup on gravel/dirt roads and paved roads and see what works.  People have been doing this for many decades prior to all of the modern bikes and gears and seemed to have survived.  In some things experience is a good teacher.

If you read various books or articles you will see a variety of bikes have been used to tour the world.  Many have done it on fairly stock off the shelf bikes and survived just fine.  Trek 520 has been used just fine around the world.  Mountain bikes have been used just fine around the world.  Heinz Stucke has used a bike that most new cyclists would not even bother carrying to the curb for the garbage collector to pick up.

Experiment with the bikes you have on the surfaces you expect to ride on.

Offline wanderingwheel

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #5 on: February 21, 2007, 01:56:23 pm »
In general, building a bike up is more expensive by 25%-50% than buying a similar stock bike.  Building a bike can be cost effective if you expect to replace half the components on a stock bike to get it the way you want, but it usually isn't the cheapest way to go.  The best option based on price, assuming that you do not currently have a suitable bike, is to buy a used bike.  If you do have a bike but wonder if it is up to the task, it probably is with only minor modifications.  About the only bikes that I would avoid for touring (on- or off-road) are super-light road racing bikes.


Offline Smileyguy

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #6 on: February 21, 2007, 06:15:43 pm »

Thanks for all the suggestions from everyone, I really appreciate it.

As regards building something from scratching, I was hoping to go down the route described by this gentleman here:

I'd like to think it could be a cheaper way to get an on-road/off-road solid, capable touring price at a good price.

Can anyone see any major disadvantages / problems with using an old steel mountain bike, possible with new wheels and other bits and pieces if needed, as a tourer?

Thanks again for all the help folks!

Offline gregg

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #7 on: February 22, 2007, 01:40:55 am »
Getting a good used steel framed mountain bike (rigid front and back) and making a few changes seems like a good way to go. If you do your research, you'll know what  kind of bike to look for, and about what it is worth. With mountain bikers all wanting front and rear suspension now, you should be able to do quite well on an  older bike without either. You will definitely save some money doing it that way, and if you can find a bike you like in good shape, you'll be set.

Offline RussellSeaton

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #8 on: February 22, 2007, 11:40:52 am »
"As regards building something from scratching, I was hoping to go down the route described by this gentleman here: "

Very odd statements this person makes.  Not sure I would put any trust into anything he says.  He complains about his Trek 520 skinny 700C wheels being skittish on gravel?  My 700x35mm tires are not skittish on gravel.  35mm is 1.4" wide.  I'va also used 38mm wide tires and they are not skittish.  38mm is 1.5" wide.  And 700C tires come in 41 and 47mm widths.  41mm is 1.6" wide.  47mm wide is 1.85".  Mountain bikes come with wide 1.9" tires.  Trek 520 might not handle the 47mm wide tires but it will handle the 41mm wide easily enough.  Touring bikes handle gravel just fine.  He says he put Michelin Windgripper 26x1.5" tires on his bike.  And said he could ride with confidence on gravel roads and dirt tracks.  Why are 26x1.5" tires able to handle gravel and dirt but 700Cx38mm(1.5") tires cannot?  Why didn't he just put 35 or 38 or 41mm wide tires on his Trek 520 and ride with confidence on gravel and dirt?

This person also says his 1" quill stem can be raised higher than a threadless stem.  Completely opposite of the truth.  Nashbar sells many threadless stems that angle out and up at 45 degrees.  And adjustable threadless stems that can be angled almost straight up.  You can easily get these threadless stems higher than even the Nitto Technomic quill stem.  And Nashbar sells a spacer that clamps to the top of threadless fork steerers that puts the clamping section 3" higher.  Then you can put the tall threadless stem onto this section.  Its very easy to get threadless stems much, much higher than any quill stem.  If that is your goal.  Of course if you are raising your stem to such extremes, then most likely the bike does not fit you too well.

"I'd like to think it could be a cheaper way to get an on-road/off-road solid, capable touring price at a good price.

Can anyone see any major disadvantages / problems with using an old steel mountain bike, possible with new wheels and other bits and pieces if needed, as a tourer?"

Except for the cost?  You talk about new wheels.  Can you build them yourself?  Or are you buying all of the parts retail at your local shop and paying the shop to build them?  Figure $300 minimum for these wheels.  $80 pair of rims, $40 for spokes, $100 pair of hubs, $100 labor.  Sorry, $320 minimum.  Or are you just going to buy a cheap set of wheels from a mail order place for $100 plus delivery?   How are these wheels better than what you have?

Other bits and pieces?  New cassette with gearing you like.  $25.  New chain.  $15.  New crankset with low gears.  $50.  New bottom bracket.  $25.  New tires because this is a used, old bike.  $40.  New grips.  $10.  New bar end things.  $15.  New saddle.  $25-75.  Bottle cages.  $15.  The bits and pieces add up quickly to the cost of a new bike.  If you have more time than money, and have no hurry to get this bike project done in the next 3-4-5 years, then you can scour swap meets, eBay, want ads, etc. and find lots of stuff real cheap.  But doesn't it make more sense to spend all of this time riding your bike than shopping?  Or get a part time job for a couple months and earn the money to get the bike now and go ride.  But again, if your hobby is just to buy bike parts and get a deal, then that is an OK way to spend your time.  But its not biking.

I build up all of my bikes.  None are factory bikes.  Every bike I own started as a separate frame/fork and I bought all of the parts to put the bikes together.  I did it to get the bike I want.  Cost savings was never a reason to do it.

There is nothing wrong with using an old mountain bike frame as a touring frame.  It would likely be a fun project.  Just don't think you are saving money or time.  It does have the advantage of 26" wheels that use tires available around the world.  Even more than 700C tires.

This message was edited by RussellSeaton on 2-22-07 @ 7:47 AM

Offline Sailariel

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #9 on: February 22, 2007, 03:14:35 pm »
I have gone around and around with the notion of getting a ready made bike--which would have been cheaper, and building my own. I opted to build my own and have no regrets. Like Russell, I got exactly what I wanted. I got the right fit, the right ride, the gears that work for me, absolutely love bar-end shifters--not everybody does, and built some really solid wheels. The bike is great on pavement and gravel-like old rail beds and carriage trails. What was the best in this whole deal was that I learned a lot--and that was well worth the extra money

Offline Smileyguy

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #10 on: February 22, 2007, 09:24:14 pm »

Thanks a million Russel and Sailariel for the comments.

I still think that building my own bike is going to be considerably cheaper, primarily because I'm not going to be able to get a decent expedition touring bike over hear for less than $1800. They're just cheaper in the US, it seems. Getting something from the states could be an option, but I imagien the shipping and customs would make up much of any cost difference.

Yes, I could work for a few months and save up, but to be honest I don't really consider it an option right now. I need to get out on the road as soon as I can.

So, as it's unlikely I can afford a new bike that I need, my options are:

1) Looking out for a secondhand expedition touring bike (I'm keeping my eyes open).

2) Buy a MTB frame and building it up, which we've already talked about a bit.

3) Buying a good quality, steel mountain bike and using it as is with only a few modifications if necessary.

I'd be particulary grateful to hear if anyone has any few on how well this last option would work.

Thanks for all the help again everyone.

Offline DaveB

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #11 on: February 23, 2007, 10:15:02 am »
If a suitable complete bike is more expensive in Ireland or the UK than it is in the US, why do you think individual components will be cheaper?  Since you are going to tour in the US could you wait to buy your bike here?

Have you looked at buying a used touring bike and making only essential changes?  A lot of used bikes are nearly new since many would-be tourists lose interest before they really go anywhere.  

Like Russell, I've built up several bikes myself but cost saving certainly wasn't the intent or result. I got just what I wanted but at a known and accepted cost penalty.  

I have built up complete bikes at low cost but that's was possible only because I have 20+ years worth of accumulated used parts, take-offs, "cherry-picked" items bought at closeouts, gifts from friends who were upgrading, etc.  

I also have the tools and a workshop to do all of these things.  I don't think you do in your present situation.  


Offline RussellSeaton

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #12 on: February 23, 2007, 11:09:31 am »
What exactly do you think an expedition touring bike is that a regular run of the mill touring bike is not?  If you want a bike that can do single track rutted mountian biking and smooth pavement riding, you are going to be sorely disappointed on one surface or the other.  Regular run of the mill touring bikes can take 40mm or so tires and go over dirt, gravel, mildly torn up trails/roads, just fine.

You keep talking about building up a bike or buying one and modifying it.  People who have the knowledge and experience and tools to do this do not talk about doing it.  They just do it because they have the experience, knowledge, tools already.  These are the only people I would ever suggest this alternative to.  Of course they don't need the suggestion because they have the tools, knowledge, experience already.

I get the impression you do not have much biking experience or knowledge or tools.  Are you going to pay a bike shop $250+ labor to change some parts for you?  Are you going to pay a bike shop $150+ labor to build up a frame/fork for you AND buy all of the parts at retail price from them?  Are you going to spend the months, years and money buying bikes and parts and working on them to acquire the experience and knowledge to build up a bike?  Are you going to spend the $200-300 for tools to build up a bike?  Maybe you can get by with $100-200 for the tools.  I have far more tools than I need but I work on a variety of bikes.

Cycling Week in Britain has reviews of various lower priced touring bikes frequently.  Chas Roberts, Thorn are two brands I recall.  Many others too.  Based on what I know, they seemed to be competent all around expedition bikes.  If going new.

Offline Smileyguy

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #13 on: February 23, 2007, 11:33:49 am »

Thanks for the help. Perhaps I have been to quick in my conclusions about building something myself. I do cyle a bit, my bike building and skills are certainly limited. And I would certainly need to buy a few tools to do the job.

So let's say I got down the buying option. What I keep asking myself is 'Should I really pay a two grand for a perfect expedition touring bike?'.

I've been researching this quite a bit. And in doing so, one possiblity has come up more than a couple of times: that of using an old steel mountain bike as a tourer that can also work off-road.

It might need new wheels, or one or two others bits and pieces even, but overall I think it would save ALOT of money over buying a new, or even secondhand, touring bike.

It would handle dirt trails fine, and road fine, though obviously it wouldn't excel on the road. Of course, if I was going to do an all-road tour, I could simply change the tyres to something more suitable, or perhaps even the wheels.

So my biggest question is: Could an older, good quality steel mountain bike be the right bike for me?

Or should I buy a specialist tourer...

And if so, will a regular tourer handle rougher trails  alright (for example, cycling in third world countries, or something like the Great Divide), or I do I need something tougher (or an 'expediton touring bike'. I'm not 100 per cent sure what the difference is between such a bike and a regular tourer, though I'm guessing the wheels are different, and may be the frame geomtery too perhaps?).

Thanks for the help again guys, I think I'm getting closer and closer to a final decison. I COULD, at a really big stretch, go out and spend a lot of money on the perfect bike, but as I've said, I really want to fully explore the option of using an older mtb first, because the cost difference would be huge.  

Offline wanderingwheel

Building an expedition touring bike
« Reply #14 on: February 23, 2007, 12:59:06 pm »
For extended off-road touring, a basic mountain bike is a good choice.  It will also work well for road tours with a new set of tires and possibly a set of bar-ends.  Go with no shocks rather than inexpensive shocks.  Aluminum bikes will work just as well as steel.  As long as you trust the brakes and wheels, it should work fine.  For components, I think Deore or Deore LX are  as high as you should go.  Lower components will also work but may require more attention from time to time.

What bikes are you considering that cost $2000?