Cycle Equipment for Expedition Touring

What is an expedition tour? : General considerations : Racks and panniers : Frame : Wheels : Miscellaneous components : Spares and maintenance : Some final suggestions


What is an expedition tour?

The aim of this note is to address the needs of the cyclist who wishes to travel remote and difficult roads well away from “civilisation”, but within the range of what can still reasonably be described as “touring”. Your expedition is your own. You have your own plans and preferences. This note is not intended to be prescriptive, but to give you some idea of the problems you might face and some possible solutions.

The difficulties that I address in this note include:

These are the kind of difficulties that routinely need to be met in touring on roads, or what passes for roads, in many of the remoter undeveloped areas of the world, particularly those with more challenging terrain. But you can also go looking for something similar in Canada, Australia or Iceland, for example.

“Touring” by my definition means travelling where a loaded bicycle can mostly be ridden. I do not discuss the needs of those who wish to jump rocks or wallow in loose sand. Conversely, if you mostly stick to tarmac, or stay within reach of modern cycle shops, then much of this note need not concern you.

The author’s experience includes, among other rough tours, an 11,000km tour in the southern and central Andes in 1997/8.

General Considerations

The most important issue to address in expedition cycle design are:

One conclusion we draw from this is that lightness of the bicycle is of less concern than it would be for a normal tour. An extra two of three kg of bike is not a large penalty in comparison to your overall load, and may repay its investment in resilience and peace of mind.

Racks and Panniers

If you had seen the sorry state of the racks and panniers of the three Chilean cyclists I met in Coihaique, you would suddenly appreciate the critical importance of selecting the right load-carrying equipment. They had spent just one fortnight on the unpaved roads of their own country with relatively modest camping loads. They had the kind of racks and panniers you might see on many mid-range bicycles sold in Europe, which is the best you can currently buy in Chile. I had just spent four months on similar roads, and had set off with high quality alloy racks. In those four months I destroyed three front racks and one rear rack, before I was fortunate enough to acquire the racks which would keep me going thereafter.

Racks inevitably break under these conditions. The question is not if, but how often. That’s why the true expedition bicycle has tubular steel racks, because you can get a steel weld anywhere. Getting an aluminium weld is difficult to impossible, even at home. Tubular steel racks are not much heavier than aluminium racks, and break less often. You could get a frame builder to make some for you, but a less risky alternative may be to acquire some tried-and-tested Tubus production racks made in Germany. You can track down a continental mail order supplier on the internet, or try Swallow Cycles. An even better solution, which I have seen done a couple of times, is to have a frame built for you with an integral rear luggage carrier. This avoids the weak point at the rear dropout where the rack normally attaches to a single 5mm Allen bolt fitting eye. In the past I have had problems stripping the thread in this eye. Some custom built racks use two fixings to fit both eyes on the each rear drop-out. I also met a frame builder who fitted 6mm. eyes to his own bike.

A front rack is just about a necessity. Putting some weight on the front wheel will improve the roadholding of your cycle, especially on the climb, and also reduce the stress on components at the back of the cycle. But for some reason, front racks seem to be more difficult to engineer properly than rear racks. Despite the fact they usually carry less luggage, I found them particularly prone to break, as did many of the cyclists I have met on my travels. Low-riders are a popular design, but when made in aluminium often have insufficient stiffness below the spindle. Commonly the strut below the spindle breaks. A worse accident, which I suffered, is when the bottom of the rack flexes into the wheel. Several cyclists I met stiffened their low riders by bodging in additional struts, though this can hardly be a recommended long term solution. “Standard” front racks can also have a lack of lateral stiffness, this time at the top, particularly if fixed by a single bolt on the fork crown. If this shears off in the middle of nowhere, leaving an unextractable bolt end stuck in the eye, you will require more ingenuity than I possess to fix it up. Upgrading to tubular steel is perhaps more important for the front rack than the rear.

You may be able to get by with an alloy rear rack, provided it is of the highest quality. A standard Blackburn rear rack certainly took me a very long way. It has rather thicker struts and better metal than most others on the market. I found certain points on the racks were inclined to get eroded by rubbing from the panniers. I slowed this down by wrapping the affected points in old inner tube. But you will take the worry out if you go for steel here as well.

You will regret taking cheap panniers. Most long distance tourists use Ortliebs, which are equal to the task. Ortliebs do have one weakness, which is that the rivets are inclined to fail, so a goodly supply of short 5mm bolts and nuts is required to fix them up. The plastic hooks, often a weak point of many pannier designs, seem to be reliable. The roller design is more water- and dustproof. VauDe make a cheaper imitation of Ortliebs, with their own fixing system, but I have no experience with them. I used Ortlieb’s more expensive light-weight front panniers, and they still look nearly new.

I also carry a light-weight nylon kit-bag. This gets slung across the back with bungies when the load of water, food and clothes expands, and is also useful for complying with two-piece luggage rules used by some airlines. It was also most useful when my front rack self-destructed.


Many people have travelled amazing expeditions on pretty ordinary (and extraordinary) bicycle frames, so this area is plainly less critical than others. But taking the right frame will increase your pleasure (or reduce your pain) from the experience. Important considerations are:

Most mountain bikes are designed to get you down a rocky hill-side, not carry you comfortably for long hours in the saddle hauling loads. Many of us would appreciate a design which minimises expenditure of energy, stiff necks and sore bums. Ordinary mountain bike frames are often pretty stiff, so with luck your load will not flex too much.

These days you can get frames which look superficially like mountain bike frames, and are therefore as robust, but are designed with a relaxed touring geometry. Many serious long distance cyclists use this type of bicycle. The only makes I know in Britain are Roberts and Orbit (Romany), but there is probably a wider selection on the continent where such people are more inclined to such activities.

Even if you choose a mountain bike type of frame, you may want to use something other than straight bars. They are designed for down-hill, not touring. Many people find them uncomfortable for extended periods in the saddle. Drop bars offer a choice of riding positions, allowing you to change position when you start to suffer a back or neck twinge, or saddle soreness, and reduce the risk of getting them in the first place. Special touring or “randonneur” drop bars are available, which are more comfortable than racing bars. You will also find drops cause fewer problems on public transport.

The alternative, definitely a minority alternative, is to use a touring frame. You will not wish to use a touring frame unless you are happy with the wheels and tyres it is capable of taking, so make that decision first. Most tourers are built for 32mm tyres, but mine is built to take 40mm. tyres which personally I find a good compromise between the rough and the less rough. There is a more extended discussion of this below. The main issue with a tourer for expedition purposes is achieving sufficient stiffness, particularly in the rear triangle. Having in the past used a fast light-weight tourer for things it was not designed for, I know the remarkably energy-sapping effect of having my rear triangle flexing when climbing a hill under load, not to mention discovering my chain and tyre rubbing bits of the frame they are normally nowhere near.

Production bicycles ostensibly designed for a bit of cycle-camping may well not have the unusual degree of stiffness and strength required for this type of activity. Today several UK frame-builders can put together a tourer with oversize tubes which solves this problem. Roberts Transcontinental is the frame I used in the Andes, and has also been used by several UK cycle writers.

Suspension is little seen on the long distance tourist’s bike. There are a number of reasons. One is the risk of it breaking down. Another is that it is difficult to fit a front rack on suspension forks.

Although I have seen it done, I would be concerned about the additional shaking given to a component already known to be vulnerable. Another reason is that suspension eats your energy. Those who are reluctant to give up their suspension could consider using handle-bar suspension of the variety that can be switched off on better roads.

Some other details to take into account:

The iconoclast may wish to consider an alternative strategy. Bicycles are common in the third world, and the locals need to fix their bikes, and fit luggage racks strong enough carry senior family members. Why not buy a local model? It may be heavy and hard work, but it will be probably be robust, and any recurrent weak points should be capable of being fixed up locally. Not ideal for the remotest desert wildernesses or enormous mountain passes, but it will probably take you further than a western fashion toy. Some acquaintances of mine, who (illegally) cycled the 5000m passes of the trans-Tibet highway, said they met a Chinese long-distance cyclist coming the other way on a onespeed....


Wheels take some punishment, and most of us are unlikely to get through on the tyres we set out on, and perhaps not even the rims. The availability of replacements was a major concern to me. I broke a rim in Argentina and was exceedingly lucky I didn’t need to ship out a replacement. I once met some cyclists carrying spare wheels, but that is going to extremes.

In the last analysis, if you have broken a rim or worn out your last tyre, you will take what you can get, at least until you can arrange to get something decent sent out to you. So resilience in this department means being able to use the locally available equipment, and that means knowing what size is available. There are four sizes of large wheel in use around the world and the nomenclature is confusing. 26", 27", 622B (or 700C) and 635B we call them. But just to confuse, both of the last two are commonly known as 28", and here you have to look at the small print: 622B/700C is 28"x l 3/8", whilst 635B is 28"x something else. The 28" notation has a third figure which is the width of the tyre. Even 27" is occasionally described as a sub-variety of 28".

A heavily laden bike ridden on the rough delivers some punishment to its wheels. You want bulletproof wheels, and this turns out to be quite complicated to deliver. I spend more time in bike shops because of my wheels than the rest of the bike put together.

Miscellaneous components

Shimano is by far the most widely available of the quality brands, which means that you are more likely to be able to get a quality replacement if you are using Shimano-compatible components. But even Shimano is thinly spread, so anticipate on having to get by on the basic Chinese-made spares you can find anywhere. A regrettable disadvantage of Campagnolo, is that it uses its own peculiar threads and sizes on some components, which can make it impossible to replace even a lost nut with anything else. My general philosophy in choosing components is “keep it simple”.

Molybdenum grease is very good for greasing threads so that they will come undone again months later. But I doubt your bike shop will use it. Make sure at least you have some good grease on your pedal threads and crank bolts.

Spares and maintenance

Dervla Murphy has never learned even to mend a puncture, and she always gets someone to fix whatever goes wrong. Her tale of a mechanic trying to use a hammer to remove an axle nut suggests the risk of this approach. I have met mechanically naive long distance cyclists. Some get through with an angel on their shoulder. Others discover it’s easier by bus.

In general my travel philosophy is self-sufficiency. That means knowing I can mend minor niggles on the road, and keep going through all but total disaster. I also like to know what the state of my components is so that I am responsible for what is happening to me. I do a proper job, but a lazy mechanic may do a quick fix. I make my own luck by being prepared. Resourcefulness grows as assistance wanes. My greatest regret is that I can’t build wheels, a skill which would have served me well, though wheel building skills, after a fashion, do appear to be widely spread. I would not have got by had I not had the tool which the wheel-builder needs to remove my sprockets, and the knowledge to tell him the trick of how to do it. I knew I couldn’t carry a vice, so I also chose not to carry a large adjustable spanner, on the grounds that I would be able to borrow these at any workshop.

You will have your own views on what tools you should carry. If there is a tool that is essential to fix your bike and not universally available, then my view is that you should carry it, even if you cannot use it yourself. You will need to lend this tool to the mechanic so he can fix it. In some places, this might be something as basic as an Allen key.

This is what I carried in the Andes, with some comments to assist you to form your own conclusions.

Some final suggestions

Have an exciting expedition.

Ivan Viehoff, May 1999.

Ivan comments (2002) that “some of this advice is out of date. There are good heavy duty rims around these days, like Sun Rhyno; and Tubus racks are now readily available in the UK”.

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