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Getting a brand-new-to-you bike is always exciting. Fresh off the rack, ordered to your door or second-hand from your community, finding the right bike for you is an important, time-consuming decision.
Perhaps you’re keen to hit the streets and join your pals on their summer biking adventures but aren’t sure what kind of bike will best suit you. A good place to start is by gaining a better understanding about which types of bike excel in different areas.
In this post I’ll cover the differences between road bikes and touring bikes—which is faster, whether you can use a road bike as a touring bike, and what to consider when choosing between these two types of bikes.
What’s the difference between a road bike and a touring bike?
Road bikes and touring bikes are similar in appearance but not in purpose. Road bikes are built with different materials, smaller wheels, higher gears and shorter wheelbases. Touring bikes are made to be more durable for long excursions. Let’s get into the details and reasoning behind the designs.
Frame material and weight
Road bikes are light and fast. If you’ve got the need for speed, road bikes are the way to go! Unsurprisingly, these are the bikes that world-class athletes ride when they compete. They are ideal as a training or racing bike, and also pretty good for morning commutes. The frame material is generally aluminium or carbon, both of which keep the frame lightweight. Road bikes are fairly easy to carry up stairs or onto a bus or train if your commute is not within riding distance.
Touring bikes are all about strength and stability. This makes sense, considering that their purpose is to reliably transport heavy loads of gear, as well as the rider. Fortunately, well-made touring bikes don’t sacrifice comfort.
Touring bike frames should be made of steel. If you find one that isn’t, don’t go for it. Sure, steel makes the bike heavier, but these frames also have many advantages. They are the best for absorbing rough terrain and keeping your ride smooth, because they are quite flexible.
Plenty of bike tourists have sad stories about their bikes wearing out during a long ride. With a steel frame, you can easily find a local welder to fix bends or cracks that develop on your bike frame and get you back on the road in no time. A bike with an aluminum, carbon or titanium frame will require specialized tools, and you may find yourself out of luck and having to end your trip early.
Handlebars and saddles are the biggest contributors to comfort on a bike.
The handlebars on a road bike are usually drop bars. As the name implies, they are set lower for a more aerodynamic riding position.
The standard saddle styles for road bikes are meant to be used for shorter rides.
Staying in the saddle for days on end, as you do when you’re touring, means your bike has to be comfortable. A comfortable ride starts with your saddle, but there’s a close relationship between handlebars and saddle.
The shorter you have to reach, the more upright you can ride. The height and style of handlebars on a touring bike contributes to a more comfortable riding position, because it affects your contact points with your saddle. A riser stem can help raise the handlebars.
The more upright you ride, the more contact you have with the back half of your saddle, so being able to shift positions often can help alleviate some of that pressure. Many touring cyclists opt for butterfly handlebars—also known known as trekking bars—that offer additional hand positions so you can keep switching your steering style.
That said, you can also find touring bikes with flat bars and drop bars.
A regular road bike typically comes with rim brakes, but newer models come equipped with disc brakes for increased stopping power in wet conditions.
Traditionally, touring bikes were equipped with cantilever brakes. The extra clearance over the tires is a great defence against mud or wet gravel getting in the way of braking. Nowadays disc brakes are also a reliable option.
Wheels and wheelbases
One of the most obvious differences between road bikes and touring bikes is the tires. Road bike tires are thin, between 20mm and 25mm, but most often 23mm. Wheel size is 700c or smaller and designed to be ridden on smooth, flat tarmac. They do not do well on gravel.
Wider tires that absorb bumps from rougher roads are key when riding a touring bike. They range from 32mm up to 45mm for dirt roads. Knowing where you plan to do most of your riding will help you decide how robust you need your tires to be. If you’re ever on the hunt for new touring tires, check out our list of the best bicycle touring tires out there right now.
High spoke counts of up to 36 per wheel, on reinforced alloy rims attached with reliably sealed hubs, all help to distribute pressure throughout the wheel on a touring bike.
Another difference between road bike and touring bike design is that road bikes are built with a shorter horizontal distance between the front and rear axles. This makes the bike more responsive and gives you more control when steering. They also have a lower center of gravity, which is best for sharp turns around corners. Being light and quick to respond makes road bikes great for zipping through traffic on morning commutes.
Touring bikes have a longer wheelbase. Sometimes the rear wheel specifically is set further back. This modification makes the bike feel less responsive, but adds to comfort and stability. The extra space means you can more easily carry bulky luggage and pedal without your heels clipping your rear panniers.
Mounting points and gears
Touring bikes are meant to be able to carry all the gear you’ll need, so they come equipped with extra mounting points—a rear rack and often a front rack, up to three water bottle holders, and plenty of clearance for fenders to cut down on the mud spraying your things.
Although road bikes can have mounting points added, it isn’t advisable to drill into the frame as it will weaken it. Using a hydration pack with a road bike is probably a better idea than drilling extra holes for water bottles.
A big uphill grind with a fully loaded bike seems daunting. Fortunately, touring bikes have lower gears for just that purpose. Nobody wants to hop off and walk their fully loaded touring bike up a hill. Road bikes have higher gears for higher maximum speeds.
Are touring bikes as fast as road bikes?
Touring bikes are not as fast as road bikes, and they are not meant to be. A proper steel frame makes a touring bike heavier and puts it at a disadvantage for speed, but it’s a stronger, safer choice for a fully loaded bike. You’ll enjoy a long trip more if you pace yourself and take in the scenery instead of trying to eat up miles quickly and burn yourself out.
One of my co-workers at the bike shop told me a tale of his epic cross-Canada bike trip—a 50-day journey at 120 kilometres per day! Seems to me that if you’re committed to biking 120 kilometres a day, the speed at which you do it is irrelevant.
Can you use a road bike for touring?
You can definitely use a road bike for touring. This is great news if you already have a road bike, love how it feels and aren’t yet planning a massive journey that requires something more. You can customize your bike a bit for the trip. If you can increase your tire size, that will help absorb any uneven terrain. If your bike doesn’t already have a full size back rack, this addition is essential.
The trick is in how you pack. Experienced bike tourists suggest that you keep your load to 25 pounds or less so you don’t over-burden your bike. Knowing in advance what’s required for your trip will help you reduce your gear. For example, if you plan to ride between hostels and motels, you can forego a tent, sleeping bags and cooking accessories to keep the weight down.
What to consider when deciding between a road bike and touring bike
Now that you’re familiar with the differences between road and touring bikes you might still be wondering which type of bike is best for you.
This comes down to a few factors, and the main one is knowing your purpose for buying a bike. What type of terrain will you ride on? How far do you plan to travel? What gear do you need to pack? What is your budget?
If your bike will be mainly for day or weekend trips on paved roads, a road bike should suit your needs.
And if you’re looking for a more affordable option, road bikes are less expensive than touring bikes.
However, if you plan a month- or even year-long bike trip over less well-maintained roads and you need to carry a tent with a lot of gear, a solid steel-framed touring bike is certainly the best option.
Nothing beats the freedom of being able to hop on one’s bike and just go somewhere new. I’m greatly inspired by anyone who has set their sights on a long, multi-month journey and made it happen. If the idea inspires you, learn more by reading our guide to bike touring.
I love being able to physically get myself somewhere new on my own endurance. But it is hard to imagine a cross-continent trip. For now at least, I think I’ll stick to flying.
Images at top: © insidestory (left) and Glory Cycles (right) | Creative Commons