marin mod touring bike at C+O

My favorite touring bicycles, part 3: A touring bicycle hack

So you want to get into bicycle touring but don’t have a “touring bicycle?” Fret not. Yeah, sure, it’s the most important gear you have on bike tour. But you don’t need something branded as a touring bike to go on a tour. Trust me. When I first started out, the only bike I had was a Marin mountain bike… with front suspension. I added a few things to it and it worked fine. In my series on my three favorite touring bikes we looked at my current personal ride, the Novara Safari, in part one. In part two, we ogled the arguably most popular touring bike on the road, the Surly Long Haul Trucker.1 Now, let’s talk about my third favorite touring bicycle – the do-it-yourselfer touring bicycle hack you put together with a bike you already own.

You’ve got a bike: transform it with touring bicycle hack magic

How often do people delay things until they have the perfect set of gear? I can think of a lot of things I’ve held off on in life thinking I wasn’t prepared or didn’t have the right gear or experience only to realize taking the leap early is often far preferable than waiting for the alleged perfect moment. This is why I think people new to bike touring should just use the bike they already own to take the leap and get out there.touring bicycle hack

Can I hack it?

When you’re going out on a traditional bike tour, the name of the game is hauling gear. I’ve seen some people strap a backpack on with their gear, hop on a bike and roll. That might be your best option, but as anyone who’s done that can probably attest, it’s sub-optimal. Let’s try to have the bike haul the gear for you instead.

Add a rear rack

rear rackMy old Marin mountain bike had the brazons that let me attach a simple, inexpensive rear rack. You don’t need anything fancy, but make sure the rack is attached well and has a reasonable weight rating. If you’re considering one of those clip-on rear racks (the kind that attach to your seat post alone) I’d recommend against that. They don’t hold enough weight unless you’re going ultralight. A decent $20 rack should do the trick, and hey… you might even have one in the garage lying about anyways!

Don’t have brazons to attach the rack directly to the frame? You can use P-clamps (check out this bikecommuters.com post on them) or (sometimes) hose clamps. Both of these are the secret tool for many a touring bicycle hack. The latter can scratch the hell out of your paint job, so be mindful of that.

Waterproof bags

old marin mod touring bikeYou don’t necessarily need fancy Ortlieb panniers (although they are nice). If you have a waterproof duffel, throw that on the rack and bungee it down. If you don’t have a waterproof bag, use whatever pack you have and throw it in a heavy duty garbage bag before you cinch it on the rack. Sure it won’t win any appearance awards, but we’re just going for function. Form can come later.

 

 

 

 

Bar ends

touring bicycle hack
Check out the bar ends on the old Marin.

If you have a flat barred bike (again, like my old Marin) a pair of bar ends are super helpful and a cheap mod to give you at least one alternative hand position. They come in all sorts of sizes and shaped (here’s just one example) and they’re often less than 20 bucks for a set. Play around with the alignment as you ride around. If you’re new to bike touring, trust me… this will be a great investment to avoid numb hands in the last hour of your first 50 miler!

Downside?

Some bikes just don’t tour well. If your bike is a big box store mountain bike or hybrid with plastic components, it might not stand up well to the rigors of a tour. That said, I’ve run into people on those bikes who’ve ridden hundreds of miles without a problem. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Heal strike can be a problem once you upgrade to rear panniers on your rack. You can shift them back as far as the rack allows, but you’ll find when riding a bike designed for touring that the extra length prevents that. For me, that was the big motivator to get the Novara Safari.

There may be other downsides specific to the bike you’re planning to transform with touring bicycle hack magic . My Marin had front suspension, which is really great for mountain biking, but a lousy feature when touring. The play in the front makes getting out of the saddle on a climb a little shaky. Stability on touring bikes (especially when loaded) is pretty important.

Bottom line

Don’t let having the “wrong” bike stop you. You don’t need to invest in a touring bike right away – you can spend a few bucks and modify what you already have and get that brand new touring bicycle hack out on the roads and trails. Refine your bike and your gear as you learn what feels right for you!

Want more?

There’s a whole series on my favorite touring bikes that I already mentioned, but you might also be interested in listening to The Pedalshift Project bike touring podcast. If you’re really into bike touring (new or not!) consider signing up for the free Pedalshift monthly newsletter for even more bike touring goodness.


  1. And the reviews keep coming… check out Part 4 on the Dahon Vitesse D7HG

5 comments

  1. JohnnyK says:

    The bike I had before I got the Novora Safari was a Cannondale hybrid. I rode that thing everywhere. I rode it to Daytona on the MS 150. Most others said oh you should use your road bike but to be honest I was much more comfortable on the hybrid for the simple fact that you sit up right more. I think the key to whatever bike you choose for touring of any kind is comfort. You don’t need to spend a ton of money on a bike for that to be true. Now I bought the Safari which was an upgrade and it was money well spent but if need be I know I can go as far as I want on just about any bike after riding the hybrid for 4 years. Of course I had a rack on the hybrid and it had room for multiple water bottles and I had a handlebar bag and stuff so even with a cheaper bike like you said Tim you can outfit it to serve your purpose. I have enjoyed this 3 part series Tim thanks for the good reads. I can’t wait for your next episode my friend so keep riding and Godspeed.

  2. Tim Mooney says:

    Thanks Johnny K, and I totally agree on comfort being your number one goal for touring. I forgot to mention if you’re converting a mountain bike like I did you get the added bonus of having really good climbing gearing built in as well. You probably had the same on your old Cannondale. Sometimes a road bike will be built more for speed than climbing and you’ll feel it on bigger hills, especially when loaded.

    There are a ton of other bikes out there that are amazing for touring… this 3 parter could probably be a lot longer, but it’s a good start. If anyone rides a bike they’d like to sing the praises of, feel free to include it here in the comments!

  3. jeff fearnow says:

    I’ve been hacking my Novara ponderosa for my commuter (and hopefully future adventure tourer) I live in Tucson and while the Pond was my real mountain bike for a while, I’m loving it as a commuter. 2.35″ Big Apples, Origin 8 bullhorns, lights, a slightly modified rack and some cheap bags. I use it a couple/few days a week to work (30mi r/t) and look forward to talking the family into letting me haul our camping gear someplace with my Mana trailer some weekend. They can tool along on their stuff while I do the pack animal thing.

    Would I like a steel drame? I don’t know. Should I replace the fork with something rigid and not just permanently locked out? perhaps. Gearing? I’m only ever using the big ring on the front ever but am starting to think I need a larger one and chuck the other two.

    Hacking is fun. It’s the best thing when you can’t afford a Pretty new Safari or Disc Trucker. 😉

  4. Tim Mooney says:

    The best part about hacking your ride is you can make the subtle changes you need as you need them. Converting a commuter into a touring bike is a great option, as you’re demonstrating!

What do you think?