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choosing the right bicycle for your cycling tour

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choosing the right bike

the most important choice you'll make

hassles ahead?
If you're planning a long tour, anything more than a few months, it's probably worth it to invest in a quality touring bike.  Touring bikes are specially designed to support the extra weight and stress of heavy baggage.  Mountain bikes are not.

This is what one cyclist, Rick Gunn, wrote about his equipment:  
After three years cycling 25,000 miles through 33 countries, I had worn out approximately three bicycle frames, five rear rims, 15 sets of tires, three drive trains and  four seats.

A bit extreme, but not unusual.  I read about one woman who cycled all through Africa on a second-hand mountain bike costing less than 300 euros and had no serious troubles. That's probably the exception. If you read Alastair Humphrey's account of his cycling journey, he had loads of equipment failures, ditto for the South African guy, Rian, who circumnavigated his home continent.

what kind of riding will you be doing?
Many parts of West and Central Africa are extremely tough on bikes.  You'll be riding on rough tracks for much of the time and smooth tarmac will be the exception rather than the rule. If you're cycling in East Africa or Southern Africa your bike doesn't need to be as sturdy because you'll have decent road surfaces for the most part.  Cycling in Europe or the Middle East you can count on good tarmac roads so you can easily get away with purchasing a bike of lesser quality.

Equipment failures are a hassle and can also be costly if you've got to have spare parts shipped from Europe or the US. Things will break, that's a certainty, but the higher the quality, the fewer worries you'll have.
If you're planning a long tour and can afford it, a specially designed expedition bike is the best way to go.  These particularly robust touring bikes are purpose-built with people like us in mind. They are designed for carrying heavy loads over rough roads in remote parts of the world.

the best bikes for touring
Expedition bikes usually have the following features in common:
  •  26 inch wheels offering better support
  • fitted with sturdy  pannier racks on front and rear
  • front and rear mud guards
  • longer wheel-base
  • extra-sturdy wheels
  • high-quality components

We are very satisfied with our Koga Miyata World Travellers. These bikes are made specifically for cycling expeditions such as ours and are tough enough to withstand African off-road riding. All components are Shimano XT, they come with Brooks saddles plus they're already equipped with Tubus racks. But they are expensive at 2,000 euros. If you've got the money, it's probably best to invest it in a high quality bike.

The Thorn Raven  is popular with UK based cyclists who swear by them.  The latest model is equipped with an internal hub gear by Rohloff.  This innovative system means minimal maintenance, reduced chain wear and a single gear changer, rather than the two you normally get.  Tempting, but keep in mind that if something goes wrong in some far-flung corner of the planet repairs may be impossible.

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Find out more about the bicycles we're ridingReturn to resources page for more practical information on planning your cycling tour.
clipless pedals

to clip or not to clip: the battle rages

the clipless pedal

The debate's still not settled, but here's some information to help you decide whether or not to clip. The main advantage of a clipless pedal combined with an SPD shoe is that it offers great energy savings.  Clipless pedals work the same way ski bindings do, giving you are more solid interface with your bike.  Since the shoe is clipped into the pedal,  you can pull more efficiently on your upstroke.

Clipless systems are generally two-sided for touring bikes and mountain bikes. That means you have choice to ride either with the cleated SPD shoes or regular shoes without cleats.

Road bikers almost always go clipless.   They're interested in speed and appreciate the added efficiency of being locked in to the pedal.  

Long distance touring cyclists seem to be split down the middle on this issue.  Some clip, some don't.  We wore cleated SPD mountain biking shoes for the first 17 months of our tour, until we made it to Cape Town and our SPD shoes wore out.  Then we replaced them with normal running shoes and used the flat sides of the pedals.  Honestly, I didn't notice much of a loss in pedal efficiency.  

Many cyclists insist that once you've used the clipless SPD system, you'll never go back to cycling the old-fashioned way.  That wasn't the case for us.

The obvious advantage of wearing normal street shoes is that they keep your feet comfortable when you're off the bike and you don't have to carry an extra pair of shoes.  And if you'll be traveling through West and Central Africa, keep in mind that you may be doing quite a bit of pushing.  

the mechanics of clicking in

You just position your foot over the pedal and twist and push -"click" and voila - you're "clipped in".

don't flip out when you try to clip out
Clipping out is the tough part and you're bound to have a few falls before you get it right.  I learned in the relatively safe environment of my spinning class at the local fitness center.  Eric learned on the road and he ended up with a few scrapes and some hoots of laughter from obnoxious kids on their way to school.  There is definitely a learning curve so give yourself time.  Here's the trick: just turn your ankle slightly away from your bike and your cleat should click right out of the pedal.  After a few rides, it should become second nature.

Before you set off on your big tour with your new energy saving clipless pedals, try them out while holding onto something. Practice turning the heel out to make the release and then clipping back in until you're comfortable with the new movement. Be patient with yourself, because it will take time before the reaction to click off becomes automatic. 

Return to resources page for more practical information on planning your cycling tour.
the right saddle We both ride on Brooks saddles and are extremely  satisfied with our choice.