Ride Like a Pack Mule

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1996

Ride Like a Pack Mule

What you really need before hitting the road
By Bob Howells

If your bike-touring burden consists of everything in your pockets, it matters little what bike you ride: Your mountain bike will do if you don't mind a slower pace, and a racing bike will get you there quicker. But when you add the weight of racks and panniers, your needs change.

It sounds obvious, but a good touring bike is by far the best choice: Its drop bars are suited for aerodynamic riding and offer multiple hand positions. It has the gearing to get your load up hills, clearance to accommodate wide tires (you want at least 28C width, and 35C is better), strong tubing to prevent full-load shimmy, eyelets for racks and fenders, fittings for three water bottles, and chainstays long enough to let your heels clear the rear panniers. Top choices: Trek 520 ($1,039), Cannondale T1000 ($1,299), Bruce Gordon Rock 'n' Road Tour ($2,320, with racks), and the Gordon-imported BLT ($1,165, with racks).

If you don't want to shell out for a new touring bike, your mountain bike has the stout build and low gearing you need, but be sure it has eyelets at the front and rear dropouts to accommodate racks (suspension forks and many high-end bikes lack them). If not, try a set of adapter brackets from your rack manufacturer. Then swap those energy-sapping knobbies for street tires; good choices include Specialized Fat Boys ($20 each) and Continental's TopTouring tires ($30). You'll want to add bar-ends ($15-$30), because being locked into a single hand position is a drag on a long ride. Racing bikes offer the positioning you'll need for touring, and many have the requisite eyelets, but the shorter bike length can hamper clearance on the back end.

Some of the best panniers on the market are those from Robert Beckman Designs ($175-$280 per pair) --bombproof, with a rock-solid attachment system made for Bruce Gordon's virtually unbreakable chrome-moly steel racks ($205 per pair). Panniers from Madden are a little trickier to get on and off but are solid and less expensive ($92-$196 per pair).

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