Is A Steel Touring Bicycle The Best Choice For A RTW Bike Trip?

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Steel Touring Bicycle For Any Long Distance Adventure

As a veteran tourer, I’m a strong advocate for a steel touring bicycle for any long-distance bike trip. In my experience, a steel frame for your touring bike is the gold standard for reasons of strength, practicality and value for money.

Whether you’re planning a charity bike ride or traversing the Hippie Trail by bike, choosing the right touring bicycle can make or break your trip.

In this guide, we’ll take you through the top touring bikes on the market and help you find your perfect match. So grab your credit card and let’s go touring bicycle shopping!

Dawes Ultra Galaxy Touring Bicycle made with Reynolds 853 steel
Dawes Ultra Galaxy Touring Bicycle made with Reynolds 853 steel

How I came to the conclusion that steel touring bikes are the best

When I first got into bicycle touring, I tested all kinds of bikes.  I researched online all the best bicycle touring blogs and websites to understand what bikes other folks were riding around the world.

My first proper touring bike was a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. Made from Reynolds 531 steel, it was (is) a bicycle touring classic. However, the geometry meant that the size wasn’t quite right for me. If ever there were a reason for testing a bike before you buy it or tour with it, this is it!

Get the geometry, size and fit of the right bike before you go on tour

A Whole New Galaxy

My next touring bicycle was a brand new, off-the-peg Dawes Ultra Galaxy. When Adrian and I made the decision to purchase a pair of these bikes we had already done thousands of miles on bicycle tours. We knew what we were looking for in a new touring bike.

Since we were planning a European bicycle trip, we knew we would want certain specifications.  We saw the trend in long-distance multi-month bicycle tours for choosing steel.

Steel is Real (Common Sense)

We knew from our own common sense that a steel bike could be welded, heaven forbid, that something happen to the frame while out riding.

Through intuition and research, we determined that steel would be our preference

The other prime factor that led to our purchase was the availability of parts. Europe presented the possibility of replacement parts being widely available. 700c tubes and tyres are hugely popular on the continent, less so elsewhere in the world.

At the time, the terms bikepacking and gravel travel hadn’t yet been coined. Expedition bikes were still relatively few and wildly expensive. Typically custom-built by a small number of expert touring bike builders such as Thorn.

A bike fit for a Grand Tour

We knew that the Dawes set-up would handle a Euro bike trip with ease. We had mapped the route to travel by road. Any detour would be optional.

A Dawes Ultra Galaxy represents a golden era of bicycle touring, having been one of the most well-known and respected touring bike brands for a century. The specifications of the Ultra Galaxy circa 2011 were robust by any standards and match those of a high-end expedition bike of 2023.

The Hippie Trail by Bike

With the spec of the Dawes being what it was, I felt comfortable riding my Glaxay back to the UK from Vietnam. I carried spares I thought hard-to-find and tools enough to make most repairs.

Someway into the trip, deep in the East of India, I sheared off a braze-on. The little threaded piece of steel that holds the rack secure snapped off. Luckily, Guwahati, the little town where the breaking occurred was a major centre for gate fabrication.

Keep it solid steel

Fifty pence and a cup of chai later, I was back on the road to England. Any other material and this roadside fix would not have been possible. That is why I always recommend a steel frame for a touring bicycle.

Thanks and praises to the welder that mended my Dawes

The repair still holds today, even after the assault of the Pamir Mountains and some of the most demanding off-road mountainous sections of Central Asia, India and Nepal.

The best steel touring bikes you can buy in 2023

When it comes to touring bikes, 2023 brings a whole new level of innovation and performance. These touring bicycles are designed to tackle any terrain and make your journey as smooth as possible. From sturdy frames to reliable components, these steel touring bikes are built for endurance and comfort.

A High Spec Touring Bike

In the world of uber-traditional bicycle touring, the Genesis Tour De Fer 30 reigns supreme. With its robust steel frame, powerful disc brakes, and wide-ranging gears, this bike is ready to take on any adventure you throw at it. It’s picked up the torch where the Dawes left off.

Budget Bike Touring

For those seeking excellent value without compromising quality, look no further than the Ridgeback Voyage. This budget-friendly touring bike offers a dependable ride with its durable steel frame and reliable Shimano drivetrain. It’s the perfect companion for long-distance journeys without breaking the bank.

Style Your Ride

If you’re in search of a cult classic that combines durability and versatility, the Kona Sutra is an excellent choice. This bike features a butted chromoly frame that provides both strength and flexibility on different terrains. Equipped with reliable disc brakes and ample gear options, the Kona Sutra will keep you going strong mile after mile.

Pair of Dawes Galaxy Touring BIkes made of Reynolds 853 Steel
Pair of Dawes Galaxy Touring Bikes made of Reynolds 853 Steel

Three of the best

When it comes to choosing the best steel touring bicycle, there are several options available in the market. Here’s a quick look at some of our top picks for 2023:

  1. Surly Disc Trucker: A bicycle touring veteran, these bikes have covered more miles than Heinz Stucke! With its sturdy frame and reliable components, it can handle any terrain you throw at it.
  2. Dawes Galaxy: If you’re looking for great value without compromising on quality, a second-hand Dawes is an ideal choice. Find a wholesaler or pre-owned for a bargain touring bike.
  3. Kona Sutra: The Kona Sutra LTD is a high-end touring bike that offers superb performance and comfort. Is it a bikepacking rig or a sports tourer – you decide!

These are just a few of the top contenders when it comes to choosing the best touring bike. You’ll notice with the selection that I’ve made that all bar one of the bikes come with drop bars.

This is a deliberate preference on my part. I love the variety and comfort of the riding positions that drops enable. Flats can be great, as they are on the Oxford Bike Works Expedition, but I prefer drops. The wider the better.

bike touring proverb- the road is your friend
Old bike touring proverb: the road is your friend

How to choose the best touring bike for your trip

When it comes to choosing the best touring bike for your adventures, there are a few key factors to consider. First and foremost, think about your riding style and preferences.

Are you someone who enjoys long-distance rides or shorter trips? Do you plan on carrying heavy loads or travelling light? Understanding how you’ll be using the bike will help narrow down your options.

Other Materials Are Available

Touring bikes typically come in steel, aluminium, or titanium frames. Steel is known for its durability and smooth ride quality but can be heavier than other materials.

Consider the other possibilities for your frame, then buy steel

Aluminium is lightweight and affordable but may not offer as much comfort on rough roads. Titanium offers a balance of strength and weight but tends to come with a higher price tag. Neither can easily be fixed at the roadside (if at all).

Cycle Touring Kryptonite

I met Super Cycling Man just as he was beginning the Pamir Highway in 2016. That afternoon, the rugged terrain had caused a major failure of his titanium frame. The break was irreparable and he had to order a new frame from the supplier. It took weeks for the replacement.

Components of the Touring Bike

Look for features that will support the type of tour you plan to make. As Adrian and I planned and purchased for a European bike trip, you too can dream up the machine that best suits your needs.

Hub gears or derailleur? 700c, 26″ or 27.5″ wheels? Disc or rim brakes? The possibilities are seemingly endless. The bikes I’ve chosen are based on my preferences. So long as you choose a steel frame as a starting point, the rest is really up to you.

Buy cheap, buy twice

When it comes to long-distance bicycle touring, it pays to invest in reliable kit wherever possible. Expensive gear is by no means essential to making a bike trip. However, if you plan to take up bicycle touring as a means of long-term adventure travel, a decent bike is money well spent.

Genesis packing a punch with the Tour de Fer 30
Genesis packing a punch with the Tour de Fer 30

Genesis Tour De Fer 30: Best all-around steel touring bicycle

The Genesis Tour De Fer 30 is a touring bike that checks all the boxes. It’s versatile, durable, and built for long-distance adventures. Its steel frame provides a smooth ride and can handle rough terrains without breaking a sweat.

The Shimano Tiagra groupset with 3×10 means you’ll have no trouble tackling steep climbs or cruising along flat roads. Equipped with powerful disc brakes, the Tour De Fer 30 ensures reliable stopping power in all weather conditions.

The bike also comes with sturdy Tubus racks to carry your gear effortlessly. Whether you’re planning a weekend getaway or embarking on an epic cross-country journey, this bike has got your back.

With its comfortable geometry and high-quality components, the Genesis Tour De Fer 30 is truly one of the best all-around touring bikes on the market today.

Bon Voyage; the Ridgeback budget steel touring option
Bon Voyage; the Ridgeback budget steel touring option

Ridgeback Voyage: Best value steel touring bicycle

When it comes to touring bikes, finding the perfect balance between quality and value can be a challenge. But with the Ridgeback Voyage you get a solid combination of the two.

One of the best value touring bikes on the market!

First and foremost, let’s talk about its durability. The Ridgeback Voyage is built to last, thanks to its sturdy steel frame that can handle any terrain you throw at it. Whether you’re navigating rough roads or tackling steep hills, this bike will keep up with your adventurous spirit.

My Mate Tom Says This Bike Is A Steel

Not only is the Ridgeback Voyage durable, but it also offers exceptional comfort for those long rides. Its relaxed geometry and wide tires absorb shock and provide stability, ensuring a smooth and enjoyable journey.

And with its reliable Shimano drivetrain and rim brakes, you’ll have no worries when it comes to gear shifting or stopping power. My mate Tom rides a Ridgeback on tour and says he loves it – decent spec for a good price.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a touring bike that delivers excellent performance without breaking the bank, look no further than the Ridgeback Voyage. It’s an unbeatable combination of quality construction, comfortable design, and affordability.

If I were looking for a steel touring bike, I'd choose the Kona Sutra LTD
If I were looking for a steel touring bike, I’d choose the Kona Sutra LTD

Kona Sutra: a game-changing touring bike

The Kona Sutra range shows the possibilities of the touring bike category.

The standard Kona Sutra, with its durable steel frame and fork, can handle any road or trail you throw at it. Whether you’re embarking on a weekend adventure or a cross-country tour, the Kona Sutra has got your back.

Equipped with reliable Shimano GRX400 drivetrain components, this bike ensures smooth and precise shifting even under heavy loads.

It’s fitted with a Brooks B17 saddle and matching bar tape as standard for your comfort and style. The disc brakes provide excellent stopping power no matter the conditions.

Additionally, the Tubus Tara Big Apple low-rider front rack offers epic luggage carriage. The Big Apple is the same model that came with my Dawes and it can really hold some snaffle.

Kona Sutra LTD

Designed for the long-haul adventurer, its touring-specific frame geometry ensures a comfortable and efficient ride, even when the miles stack up.

Now, let’s talk about components. The Sutra LTD features a reliable and wide-ranging Shimano Deore 3×10 drivetrain, offering seamless gear transitions for conquering varied terrains.

With TRP Spyre C disc brakes, you get the stopping power needed for any adventure, rain or shine. The WTB ST i23 TCS wheels, paired with WTB Venture TCS tires, guarantee a smooth and reliable ride.

Packed with essential touring features, the Kona Sutra LTD is not just a bike—it’s your ticket to boundless exploration. Ready to redefine your touring experience? The Sutra LTD is ahead of the game.

Surly Disc Trucker; the gold standard in steel touring bikes
Surly Disc Trucker; the gold standard in steel touring bikes

Surly Disc Trucker: A long-distance legend

Ready for a bike that can handle the demands of your wanderlust? The Surly Disc Trucker is a bicycle touring heavyweight and is arguably the most popular touring bike ever made.

The Surly Disc Trucker is a touring bike that means business

Mother Truckin Awesome Ride

Its chromoly steel frame offers the durability and smooth ride that seasoned cyclists crave. The Disc Trucker’s geometry strikes a perfect balance, providing stability on winding descents and nimbleness through tight turns. Engineered with touring in mind, the bike’s frame accommodates racks and panniers for all your gear.

Kitted out to a high spec, the components include some of the industry’s finest makers of shiny things. The Shimano Deore drivetrain ensures reliable and precise shifting across diverse terrains, while the Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes deliver unparalleled stopping power.

Long-distance Disc Jockey

The Surly ExtraTerrestrial tires, paired with WTB ST i23 rims, roll over rough surfaces with ease. Equipped with thoughtful details like three water bottle mounts, fender eyelets, and clearance for wider tires, the Disc Trucker is a touring workhorse.

Happily, and perhaps the reason for the success of this Disc Trucker, is the range of wheel and frame sizes and clearances for tires. Mix and match to find your perfect ride.

 

Skyelander built by Stanforth Bikes
Skyelander built by Stanforth Bikes

Stanforth Skyelander: Best UK-made steel touring bicycle

The Stanforth Skyelander is a touring bike that proudly bears the “Made in the UK” label, and it certainly lives up to its reputation. This bike combines quality craftsmanship with high-performance features, making it an excellent choice for any avid tourer.

Crafted by Stanforth Bikes, the Skyelander boasts a Reynolds 853 steel frame, a testament to its robust yet lightweight build.

The bike’s touring geometry strikes the perfect balance between stability and agility, ensuring confident handling as you navigate diverse landscapes.

Designed for comfort during long rides, the Brooks Cambium saddle and ergonomic handlebars provide a luxurious touch.

Made in the UK

The Shimano Deore drivetrain guarantees smooth and reliable gear changes, while the TRP Spyre disc brakes offer precise stopping power, instilling confidence on descents.

The 650B wheels, shod with WTB Horizon tires, glide effortlessly over varied terrain. With a front rack and fender mounts, the Skyelander is ready to carry your gear in style.

Elevate your touring experience with a bike that blends classic aesthetics with modern performance—the Skyelander by Stanforth Bikes.

Stanforth Bikes also build the Stanforth Conway, a sports tourer designed in partnership with endurance athlete, Sean Conway.

I like the balance of the bike with all four panniers once mounted – it feels like a tank

steel is real; touring bike in europe
Steel is real; touring Europe by Dawes Galaxy

Dawes Galaxy: ultimate second-hand steel touring bike

When it comes to second-hand steel touring bikes, the Dawes Galaxy is often hailed as the ultimate choice. This classic bike has stood the test of time and continues to impress seasoned cyclists with its reliability and durability.

With a strong and sturdy steel frame, it can handle long-distance journeys with ease. This review from 2011 is a fair commentary although for the Super rather than the Ultra.

Ultra Distance Touring Bike

The Reynolds 853 steel frame ensures durability and a smooth ride, making it the perfect companion for long-distance journeys.

The touring-specific geometry strikes a balance between stability and responsiveness, allowing you to tackle diverse terrains with confidence.

The Shimano Deore XT drivetrain delivers reliable and precise shifting, ensuring you find the right gear for any ascent or descent.

10 of the best Touring bikes, by “Cyclist” magazine. Our Dawes Galaxy may be the cheapest of the 10, but still stacks up against the big boys…and with money to spare for all your touring kit!… https://t.co/yK4rFkG62K

— Dawes Cycles (@dawescycles) April 16, 2018

The Gentlemen’s Touring Bike

With Avid BB7 rim brakes, you’ll experience consistent stopping power even in challenging conditions. The Ultra Galaxy features sturdy Tubus front and rear racks as standard. These beauts are for carrying your gear in style.

I tend to sling a 30l Messenger bag over the back with bedding, tent and Trekker Chair onboard. These lightweight items offer a counterbalance to the more dense things packed in the panniers lower on the bike.

Plus the Alex XT19 rims with a 36-spoke arrangement provide strength and reliability on the road. The two spare spokes in the little bracket on the frame is a lovely little quirk of the Ultra Galaxy.

the expediton built by oxford bike works
The Expedition built by Oxford Bike Works

The Expedition built by Oxford Bike Works: a custom build for remote rides

From the specially selected touring tires to the ergonomic handlebars that ensure optimal comfort during long hours in the saddle, every aspect of this bike has been carefully considered.

Plus, with its ample storage capacity and customizable options, you can truly make this bike your own.

The attention to detail on the Expedition is truly remarkable.

A Touring Bicycle Designed for the Intrepid Adventurer

Crafted with meticulous attention to detail, the frame, made from Reynolds 853 steel, strikes a perfect balance between strength and flexibility. Its touring-specific geometry ensures stability, allowing you to navigate challenging terrains with ease.

The Shimano Deore XT drivetrain offers smooth and reliable shifting. Arguably one of the most reliable groupsets for chain-driven touring set-ups.

Equipped with TRP Spyre disc brakes, the Expedition provides reliable stopping power in all conditions. The hand-built wheels with durable Sputnik rims and reliable Shimano hubs make for hard-wearing yet easy-to-service parts.

With a robust front rack and fender mounts, this touring bike is ready for your gear and any weather conditions. The Expedition is not just a bike; it’s your partner in exploration, inviting you to embark on unforgettable journeys.

Toms Expedition Bike

I road-tested this machine at the Cycle Touring Festival in 2017 and I was heartily impressed. Back then it was known as Tom’s Expedition Bike.

Designed by Tom Allen in collaboration with Oxford Bike Works, this expedition-grade touring bike became an instant hit with bike travellers around the world.

Marrakesh Express; a steel steed for adventurous rides
Marrakesh Express; a steel steed for adventurous rides

Salsa Marrakesh: Inspired by the Hippie Trail

As we conclude our ultimate guide to choosing the best touring bicycle, we can’t help but mention one more exceptional option. Meet the Salsa Marrakesh, your ultimate companion for the road less travelled.

Crafted with precision, its touring-specific geometry strikes the perfect balance between stability and responsiveness, ensuring a confident ride across diverse terrains.

The robust steel frame is designed to handle the demands of long-distance touring, providing a comfortable and smooth journey.

Marrakesh Express

Fitted with a reliable Shimano Alivio drivetrain, the Marrakesh delivers precise and efficient gear shifts, while the mechanical disc brakes offer dependable stopping power in all conditions.

Equipped with thoughtfully integrated features like multiple bottle mounts and front and rear rack compatibility the Marrakesh takes care of the basics to a high standard.

The Microshift bar end shifters are a welcome choice as is the Cane Creek headset. The standard issue 42mm Terevail Rampart tires suggest off-roading is recommended with this US-made touring bike.

A Steel Touring Bicycle For RTW Bike Trips

When selecting the best steel touring bicycle for your needs, consider factors such as durability, comfort, versatility, and budget.

Each of the bikes mentioned in this guide offers unique features that cater to different preferences and riding styles. The best choice will depend on your specific requirements and personal preferences.

Remember to take into account factors like geometry for riding position – as well as wheel/tire size options and overall weight.

The Truth About Touring Bikes

The astute among you will notice that these touring bicycles are all remarkably similar. Of course, a steel frame for a touring bike is the core argument in this piece – it’s the best choice for the job.

Beyond that, the selection of bikes here leans into my preference for wide drop bars, easy-to-service components and 700c wheel.

I’m a tall rider and there’s no better way to roll.

But the truth is, until you’ve tested the thing in real life, you just won’t know if it’s the right bike for you. Make sure to test-ride several models before making a final decision. It’s the only way to be sure you feel like the bike is a good fit.

I mentioned earlier that I tested several second-hand options before making my new purchase. It was the best thing I ever did and it’s why my new Dawes Galaxy is still the perfect bike for me today.

Happy pedalling!

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