Around 30 miles into my cycle tour to the north cape of Europe someone asked how I would get the bike back to Britain. I replied that I would probably just leave it, after all it was an ancient mountain bike I had found abandoned in a stairwell so wouldn’t be a great loss. ‘You can’t leave it’, I was sternly informed, ‘It will be like a part of you!’
I’m not sure the bike became ‘part of me’ exactly but I grew sufficiently attached to bring it back on the plane anyway. Not long after, I upgraded to a dedicated tourer at a cost of well over £1000 for a self-built bike but kept the old mountain bike for commuting and off-road cycling. After a few long tours on the dedicated tourer I’ve come to the conclusion that I actually prefer the ancient mountain bike.
I’m not the first person to notice that older mountain bikes make good tourers. They are preferred to modern mountain bikes due to the lack of suspension and the use of chromoly rather than aluminium in the frame and forks. They also usually have rim brakes rather than disc which are considered simpler thus easier to maintain. They are less comfortable and less well suited for off-road riding than modern mountain bikes but are still very tough and durable and more efficient on road. Many have adjustable stems which enable a fairly upright position (though mine doesn’t). They are similar to modern (and very expensive) treking bikes but have more compact frames with fewer fittings and so are less well suited for carrying gear. Perhaps most importantly, they can be obtained for substantially less cash than a dedicated tourer.
So what exactly is it that makes me prefer an ancient mountain bike to an expensive dedicated tourer?
Psychologists have found that people are more strongly motivated by loss than potential gain. If you’ve spent £2k on a top-end touring bike the thought of losing or damaging it is going to have a strong psychological effect on you. You’ll be afraid to leave the bike anywhere in case it gets stolen. You’ll probably feel the need to take out insurance which will require you to carry a massive and heavy lock. You’ll probably want to secure both wheels in case they get stolen. You’ll be fretting about minor scratches on the paint job. Your lovely expensive bike can become a huge albatross around your neck.
On the other hand, if you use a cheap mountain bike it’s much less likely to be stolen and even if it is the loss will be less severe. You can use a cheap, lightweight lock and forget about insurance. It’s no big deal if the frame gets scratched or bashed – which can easily happen if taking it on a plane or other public transport. You can stick some tape over scratches and a few bashes won’t bother the tough steel frame (they won’t really bother an expensive steel-framed tourer either but they will probably bother you if you’ve paid £2k for it). You can leave the bike and go sightseeing or hiking without worrying too much about it. You can use quality components and the bike still won’t look very desirable to thieves, who tend to be on the lookout for flashy modern bikes with disc brakes and suspension.
For me the cost isn’t really an issue since I’ve already paid for my dedicated tourer yet still often find I prefer the mountain bike. The mountain bike was obviously much cheaper – it had been abandoned so was free – but I put in quite a bit of work to make it roadworthy and needed to replace many components. If going on a long or remote tour you don’t want to rely on ancient parts that will likely fail. I was lucky in that I found very cheap but decent quality wheels and other parts but it will generally cost a few hundred pounds to make an old mountain bike tour-worthy. However, this is much cheaper than buying a new tourer.
A mountain bike is designed for off-road cycling so if you want to head into the hills it should perform fine. It won’t be as comfortable as a modern mountain bike with suspension but gives a good compromise for road and off-road performance. It will be perfect for bikepacking and mixed cycling.
A steel framed mountain bike with decent tyres isn’t notably less comfortable than a dedicated tourer. You might feel a bit more tension in your shoulders due to the twitchier steering and higher bottom bracket but on rougher ground the bike will be easier to steer. Many older mountain bikes have adjustable stems (though mine doesn’t) which allow you to obtain a comfortable riding height without the huge stack of spacers that seem obligatory on most tourers.
Advantages of a dedicated tourer
- more stable and comfortable
- longer chainstays – so better heel clearance if using panniers
- more fittings for racks, bottle cages and other stuff
- will probably look a bit more elegant
- may be lighter and/or stronger
- can use drop bars (you can fit them to a mountain bike too but the geometry won’t be right)
- can use 700c wheels which are faster and roll better
- buying a new bike means the parts are new and you are sure of the frame’s condition
- if you have the money you can get one custom made or fitted
In practice though I’ve found these advantages to make much less of a difference than I imagined. A chromoly mountain bike is easily tough enough for heavy cycle touring, even off-road and the weight difference between a touring bike using high-end steel will be minor (my tourer is actually notably heavier due to the larger wheels and thicker tubing). Many very expensive touring bikes only use high-end steel on the front triangle anyway – the rest (rear triangle and forks) is basic chromoly just like the old mountain bikes! You can buy adaptors for racks and bottle cages or even improvise your own. And who cares what the bike looks like – are you at a fashion show? The better a bike looks the more likely it is to be stolen and the more annoyed you will be if it gets damaged.
If you really want a road oriented tourer with 700c wheels and drop bars then a mountain bike clearly isn’t for you. However, I was pretty sure I preferred these things before I bought my dedicated tourer, as I generally much prefer them when riding. But when the bike is heavily loaded and fitted with heavy-duty wheels and tyres most of the advantages are lost. For light to moderate-weight touring on roads it rides better but with more weight the bike feels very heavy and isn’t notably faster than a mountain bike. The comfort of drop bars is offset by weaker braking and steering and more complicated gear shifting. Overall the mountain bike is more versatile and easier to set up yet isn’t notably less comfortable.
For me, cycle touring is all about freedom – you can go where you like when you like. If you’re tied to an expensive bike that sense of freedom is diminished. A dedicated tourer may look better on paper but those fancy specs may seem less important on the road.
If you’re planning on using an old mountain bike make sure you get it thoroughly checked over before going on tour, or on the road at all really. It could have cracks or rust in places that aren’t obvious which could fail with serious consequences. Perhaps the most important quality in a touring bike is that it can be relied on not to fail (I personally think this an important quality of any bike). Rigid chromoly mountain bikes are simple and extremely reliable but they can get damaged like any other bike, including expensive tourers. Be sure the bike is in good shape so you’re confident it will hold up over a long tour.