10th November 2010 Words: Matt Lamy
British bike companies have a long and glorious history of making touring machines that can take you on far-reaching cycling adventures. We load up and test four of the best.
When I was 15 my dad and I cycled across France from the Channel port of Saint Malo to the Mediterranean town of Sète. It was a fantastic journey, seeing a country morph through all its different shades and shapes in front of our eyes.
We noticed small things like the roof tiles on houses turning from slate grey to terracotta red as we headed south, and the names of cakes (always a high priority) carrying different connotations for different local traditions.
But the real beauty of the voyage was that we crossed an entire country under our own steam, carrying our accommodation, needing only food and water. To paraphrase Julius Caesar, we went, we saw, we conquered, and all from the saddle.
Tour the world
Of course, our relatively civilised expedition is as nothing compared to what some people get up to — whether it’s riding through the world’s political hotspots or taking on nature’s greatest challenges. But the one thing all levels of cycling explorers share is that they put their faith in a touring bike.
And helpfully the qualities these hardy souls look for in their riding machine — bomb-proof construction, load carrying ability, relatively high cruising speeds and supreme comfort — mean touring bikes aren’t just for circumnavigating the globe, they’re also great bikes for a variety of other applications, not least commuting and mixed-terrain fun.
So for this test we’ve picked four great British touring bikes — the frames may be made in the Far East, but these are British designed, to British specification, for British companies. They all share similar traits: a dignified British composure; a British stoicism in their ability to carry heavy loads over varied surfaces; and a classically British sense of style.
These are the sorts of bike our forefathers would have built the Empire on — outwardly refined, while harbouring a brutal efficiency to subjugate foreign lands; a cross between a Jaguar saloon and a Challenger tank.
A steely verve
But if we ignore my pompous pretensions for a moment there are also tangible, practical qualities uniting these bikes. The first of these is that they are all made from Reynolds’s high-quality steel tubing. Although aluminium and even carbon touring bikes are now available, steel is both comfortable and repairable.
Unlike aluminium and carbon, steel bends and flexes, giving just that little bit extra dampening when crossing broken surfaces, which creates a more comfortable ride and ultimately makes the long-distance pedaller’s life a little easier. The second good thing about steel is that it is easily fixed — even if you find yourself in the back of beyond there should be somebody nearby with a suitably hot implement to weld it back together.
Then there is the choice of components. Every firm here has opted to spec ultra-reliable Shimano kit throughout, with the majority of it coming from the Japanese firm’s all-terrain range. All four bikes have Shimano triple cranksets, which combine dependable operation with a range of 27 gears that should get you and a full set of panniers up almost any incline.
The wheels — which personal experience tells me are potentially the most important part of any touring bike — are all made from seriously solid box-section rims and Deore hubs, which is the very least that will be required to withstand the demands of heavy loads. And all four bikes come with decent rear racks, mudguards and three — yes three — bottle-cage mounts.
So, on paper, each of them looks ready and willing to travel the world. But which is the Walter Raleigh, and which is the Raleigh Chopper?