A survey of 20 expedition bicycles on the Pamir highway
Are you thinking of doing on a long-distance bicycle tour, but are a bit unsure which components your bike should have? Or does the price of a brand new bike scare you off to the point of abandoning your dream of a cycling expedition? If so, read on, because this article will clear some of the confusion.
In July 2016 I spent 10 days in a wonderful hostel in Osh, Kyrgyzstan where I met many long-distance cyclists: some were there for just a quick shower and for washing clothes, others for a couple of days to relax or repair something on their bikes. Some cyclists were on a 3-week tour along the Pamir highway (one of the highest and toughest roads in the world), others were on months-long world tours and just passing through.
Katja and I are avid bikers (back home we don’t own a car and we do everything with our bikes) and we are also planing to do a long-distance cycling tour one day, so I started taking notes on the bikes and talking to the cyclists. Some of the things I learned were basically as expected, others surprised me quite a bit.
Of the 20 or so people I met, about 2/3 were couples and the rest were single guys. The ages ranged from 20-somethings up to almost 60. Many said they were “between jobs,” pondering the meaning of life, or on a minimalist quest.
Most of the bikers were Europeans: mainly from France and Germany, but also Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia. There were also a couple of people from the USA, Malaysia and Taiwan.
I didn’t speak with all cyclists, but the ones I did speak with were really kind and quite interested in life and traditions of the local people.
Understandably, all cyclists had a tent and a full set of camping and cooking gear, but I still have no idea how they managed to pack everything in the four small panniers they mounted on their bikes every morning.
Bike Construction and Components
What a varied bunch of bikes I saw! Some cyclists were proud of their high-tech machines while others were particularly eager to point out that their bikes are 20 years old, bought on eBay for less than 200 EUR or built from spare parts around an old frame.
As you’d expect, these were all touring bikes: with strong frames optimized for long-distance treks and for carrying heavy loads. But what did surprise me was the fact that all bike frames had the standard “male” diamond geometry. My guess that this is due to the optimal stability of this geometry was only half of the truth. Most travelers just said “well, it allows me to attach three water bottles to the frame.” Especially for hot climates like in Central Asia this seems to be an important consideration.
However Joze Krizan (whom I met in Osh and who biked the entire Pamir Highway in 2016) commented that he saw a number of recumbent bikes along the way. And his overall advice was to just go with the bike you know and trust, even if it doesn’t quite conform to the findings of this article.
Another “as expected” fact was that not a single bike had any form of suspension. While suspension makes a lot of sense on a mountain bikes where the rides are usually short and bumpy, on a long-distance touring bikes it would add unnecessary weight and the wobbling motion would waste energy.
Wheels and tires
Sixty percent of the bikes had the smaller 26″ wheels. These are not only stronger, but they also lead to a lower center of gravity which makes the ride more stable. On the other hand, a couple of the bikes had larger than normal 29″ wheels, which make it easier to roll over rough patches on the road.
Several cyclists told me that in Central Asia it’s almost impossible to find replacement tubes and tires in any size other than 26″.
Of course, all bikes had wide mud guards over both wheels. And the tires were usually 2″ or wider, to compensate for the lack of suspension. Most tires were Schwalbe, and many of those were Schwalbe Marathon Mondial.
Every single bike had low riders in the front which allow the bikers to attach two small panniers to the fork. One guy even had a small luggage rack assembly in the front. And of course everyone had sturdy luggage racks in the back, where they were transporting two side panniers and usually an extra bag sitting flat on top of the rear rack.
Pretty much everyone had high-quality Ortlieb or Vaude panniers made out of water-resistant material. And most racks were made by Tubus.
The one area where there was no clear “winner” were the brakes. It was a 50/50 split between disk and rim brakes and 70/30 between hydraulic and cable actuation.
There were many Magura hydraulic rim brakes and many Shimano disk brakes, both cable and hydraulic. And only two bikes had the simpler cable-actuated V-brakes found on most “city” touring bikes. I guess these might start fading along the long downhills if your bike is heavily loaded.
Here we had another 50/50 split, this time between hub and derailleur models. There were no pinion gear systems yet, but I’m sure that t’s just a matter of 1–2 years until we start seeing them on newer bikes.
It’s interesting to point out that all of the hub systems were Rohloff (no Shimano Alfine or any other alternatives). Several of the riders said that the main reason for choosing the really expensive Rohloff hubs is the excellent service that the company offers worldwide.
Three bikes (from 20) used a belt instead of a chain.
Light and Electricity
I was expecting that everyone would have a front hub dynamo, but only the newer 50% of the bikes had them. The older ones had no dynamos and no permanent lights. Instead the riders were using headlamps or battery-powered lights attached to the handlebars.
However virtually none of the riders were needing their lights. They all said, “well, you are riding all day long, so in the late afternoon you already start looking for a suitable place to spend the night. And with many cars driving with either no lights or with high beams, it feels quite unsafe to ride a bike at night.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Two of the bikes had USB chargers in the headset, which seems like a cool idea. Does anyone know how well these work?
There was not much variation in the handlebars. 80% were straight or slightly curved with flattened Ergon touring grips and bar ends. One person had touring handlebars, one had the rondoneur-type drop handlebars and one had added aero-bar as accessory. Only one guy had “normal” round grips, and when I talked to him, he was really sorry that he hadn’t opted for the flattened ones. But he said it’s impossible to buy them in central Asia, and he wasn’t willing to order them and wait for 2 weeks for them to arrive.
60% of the saddles were Brooks leather saddles, 30% were very thinly padded plastic saddles and 10% were plastic with very thick foam cushioning.
A few people riding with light pants on black leather saddles had dark stains on their riding pants. I guess these were caused by the leather fat and possibly by sweating.
I was actually expecting to see a few caged pedals (toe clips), but there were none. Instead it was a 50/50 split between “standard” two-sided platform pedals and pedals with platform on one side and click on the other. However I saw no one using click shoes.
So, just to recap:
- Diamond frame, fixed fork, low riders in the front and a stable luggage rack in the back.
- 26″ wheels for a lower center of gravity or 29″ wheels for smoother rolling over uneven surfaces.
- Brakes you know and trust.
- Your personal choice of gear or hub shifting system.
- A front hub dynamo if you need light, however if your current bike doesn’t have one, you might get by with just a good head lamp (which you’ll need for your tour anyway).
- Select the handlebar type you find most comfortable, but definitely put a pair of those Ergon flat grips on the ends.
- A saddle you know will not hurt your rear.
By no means do you need a super expensive bicycle for this, or a brand new one. What you need is a bike which is good enough (fulfills the requirements above), a 2-day course on bike repair to teach you the basics, and an excellent repair shop to inspect, repair and adjust everything before you leave.
We’d love to hear from you
If you’ve already done a long-distance tour and have knowledge or stories you’d like to share with our audience, we’d love to hear from you!
Thanks to Joze Krizan for his knowledge and valuable feedback!
And if you are getting ready for a long-distance bicycle tour and are facing difficult decisions, also get in touch. Either Katja and I will help or the collective body of wisdom of our readers. 🙂