The trials and tribulations of finding a decent shop selling touring bikes
When I decided to cycle end-to-end I didn’t have a suitable bike and therefore started out by finding out what bikes other people use to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats (and other cycle tours). The only real parameters I had at this stage were that I’d already discovered from talking to colleagues at work that my employer’s Cycle to Work scheme was a good deal, giving a saving of about 40% over the cost of a new bike, up to a maximum of £1,000. Given it seemed unlikely that I would get a 40% discount on a new bike normally, I decided to go down this route. Only a smallish number of independent bike shops in Central Scotland were authorised dealers under the C2W scheme (excluding Halfords which I was advised to avoid at all costs) and so my criteria were that I needed to find a suitable bike costing up to £1,000 in any one of about eight bike shops.
Easy, you might think. Wrong.
From personal experience, here are my three ‘lessons’ of buying a touring bike:
- you won’t be able to compare two bikes in the same shop
- you will struggle to get any sensible advice and buying tips for touring bikes in your local bike shop
- they will want you to commit to buying a bike from them even before you’ve had a chance to test it out.
My guess is that the typical half-decent bike shop probably stocks 40% road bikes, 40% mountain bikes, 19% kids/electric/folding bikes and 1% ‘other’. The ‘other’ category might include one touring bike if you’re lucky. That is, if they have one in stock. And some shops will only be a den of carbon and lycra and will look very disparagingly at you for asking such a stupid question.
In my experience you will never find more than one make of touring bike in the same shop and if they do happen to have one you’re keen to see, it will be the wrong frame size. Comparison shopping is clearly a misnomer when it comes to buying a touring bike (at least where I live).
My second rule is that – unsurprisingly – since touring bikes are bit of a novelty, then none of the sales staff know anything about them. Forget trying to get answers to even basic questions. “I can give you a brochure which should help“, and “No, we don’t see much demand for these, I’m afraid” were the kinds of responses I got.
Finally, when I did find a shop which was a stockist for a bike I was interested in but which they didn’t have in stock, they wanted a non-refundable deposit of £50 up-front. Here’s a message to those bike shops who are keener to take your money than make sure they find the right bike for you: if the one bike I was specifically interested in wasn’t suitable then it’s highly unlikely I’m going to want to buy one from your shop !
Which bike ?
Given the lack of useful information I could glean from bike shops (don’t get me started on brand-obsessed cycling magazines …!) my main source of buyers’ advice were internet forums (the CTC Forum in particular) and several good websites. Here there’s no shortage of helpful cyclists offering their advice freely.
I found out that touring bikes generally have the following features:
- a strong frame (usually steel) to carry camping and other equipment, and to give greater comfort and withstand shocks in the road
- stronger wheels compared with other bikes, often 700c with 32 or 36 spokes
- wider tyres, typically 32mm
- wider gear ratios, normally with three rather than two chainrings, for getting up hills fully laden
- pannier racks and fixings for front and rear panniers on the frame
- a long wheelbase and relaxed riding position
- dropped handlebars, although straight and butterfly bars are also common.
Within my budget and set of stockists – this was in Spring 2014 – I narrowed the choice down to the following bikes:
- Dawes Galaxy (now called the Cromo) [£829]
- Dawes Galaxy Plus – as above but with mechanical disc brakes [£999]
- Ridgeback Voyage [£800]
- Ridgeback Expedition [£899]
- Revolution Country Explorer [£599] #
- Spa Cycles Steel Tourer [£985]
- Genesis Tour de Fer [£899]# **
- Jamis Aurora Elite [£918]# **
- Trek 520 [£950] #
# not available on my C2W scheme
** actually, these bikes were not available when I bought mine in 2014 but I’m including them here to widen the choice of bikes that others might consider. They are currently available at the time of writing (Spring 2015).
After several weeks of visiting various bike shops I made little progress in choosing the right bike for me. In spite of being a serious buyer I had exhausted the authorised C2W scheme stockists in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth. Not only were they completely useless when it came to buying a touring bike most staff also assumed I already had a certain level of technical and brand knowledge (about gears, brakes, chainsets etc) and often their arrogance was staggering.
During this time I also pored over internet forums but also found this quite a frustrating experience. What I discovered about the information on online forums is that people all have different experiences, they’re all different body shapes and sizes, and they have different personal choices and prejudices – often, firmly held ! I slowly managed to fathom the pros and cons of different technical aspects of bikes although often I found (and still find) the jargon quite impenetrable.
In the end I decided to buy a Dawes Galaxy Plus. Why ? Well, it’s very much the classic touring bike with a strong second-hand market should I ever decide to sell it. I also preferred to have disc brakes given the extra weight I’d be carrying; this seemed to me to be introduced on a growing number of models and was much more cost-effective to buy on a new bike than fit later on.
But what really swung it was the final bike shop I visited – Hardie Bikes in Cairneyhill, near Dunfermline. What this shop lacks in terms of size it makes up for in the quality of the advice I got from Bill Hardie. In contrast to the young sales staff in some of the chain shops I had confidence from many years of experience that he knew what he was talking about. Hardie Bikes are Dawes stockists and so were able to answer my (many) naive, beginner’s questions with lots of patience. So even though I’d never even seen or tried out the exact bike I chose I went ahead and ordered it on the basis of sound advice from someone who listened and understood what I was after. I wasn’t disappointed.
In retrospect and with the benefit of greater knowledge I now realise that you can sometimes get significant savings on older models of bikes, sometimes approaching 30 – 40%. If you have time to research and/or wait for these savings to come up during the sales then this opens up the choice of bikes that aren’t available under a C2W scheme in your local bike shop. While all more expensive than my Dawes (remember the net price of my Galaxy is £600), with the benefit of hindsight I would seriously look at the Spa Cycles Steel Tourer (and possibly the Genesis or Jamis) should I be looking to buy again.
So if you happen to live within a decent distance of a cycle touring specialist, such as Spa Cycles in Harrogate, then my advice is to go there first, ignoring your local bike shop full of overpriced lycra. In buying a touring bike you want both a choice of bikes in the same shop so you can compare and contrast them – ideally taking them for a spin around the block – as well as sound advice from people who also go cycle touring. Finally, finding someone who’s able to patiently answer beginner’s questions is invaluable. Good luck !