On a long distance bike tour you have one main partner – your bike. You will be fully dependent on your bike to carry you and your gear the distance.
Picking the right bike for a cross country bike ride is critical, as the decision can significantly impact your enjoyment and likelihood of success on a cycling adventure.
When cycling over long distances, the bike must be comfortable, durable, and perform under intense circumstances.
Touring bikes come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and weights, and if you ask 10 long distances cyclists which is best you’ll likely get 11 answers.
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We suggest that you test ride numerous bikes before your pick the one that you’ll use to bike across America.
As you start looking for a touring bike, here are a few criteria to consider.
Finding the Right Size Bicycle to Bike Across America
A bike that is too small will fatigue you faster than a properly fitted bike, and it will likely be uncomfortable after long periods in the saddle.
A bike that is too large is dangerous to control. It can also cause knee problems if your saddle can’t be adjusted to suit your leg length.
Channel your inner Goldilocks and find the bike that is just right.
When standing and straddling the top tube of the bike frame, your crotch should have 2” to 3” clearance. This size will allow your center of gravity to be over the pedals and will take weight and shock absorption off your hands.
Considering a Recumbent Bicycle?
You may want to consider a recumbent touring bike. These bikes allow you to sit down and pedal on the bike. This gives you a lower center of gravity and also reduces strain on the body.
Many riders with back or neck issues prefer the position of the recumbent bike, and they appear most popular among aging cyclists.
Recumbent bicycles do require some time to become normal if you’ve never ridden one. However, from those I’ve met who ride them, they come to love them.
On a bike ride across America, a recumbent does have one significant safety drawback. Recumbents are hard to spot (or easy to lose track of) in higher traffic areas. The rider sits so low to the ground that drivers may lose site of them over the hood or beside the car. If you choose a recumbent, get a flag stick on the bike to increase your height and visibility.
Touring Bike Frame Material
One consideration for many adventurers when selecting a touring bike may the desire for a lightweight bike that is durable. They want a bike that will carry them the distance but not weigh them down on the steep climbs or become a bear to handle at camp.
There are steel, aluminum, titanium, and composite frames, with steel frames typically being the heaviest and composite frames being the lightest.
However, for many riders, the ultimate decision maker in regards to choosing a touring bike doesn’t boil down to weight.
The sturdier steel and aluminum frames help absorb the shock of a bumpy road, which is why many long distance cyclists will exchange comfort for weight.
Selecting the Right Drivetrain (Gears)
The more gears, the better flexibility you will have when riding uphill, traveling downhill, and cycling over hundreds of miles of flat land.
We recommend at least 21 gear positions if you are crossing the Rocky or Appalachian Mountains, yet a very popular option (and often stock option) is three gear cogs on the front and nine in the rear to create a 27-speed bike.
When you are cycling a 10 mile climb to the top of the Hoosier Pass along the Continental Divide, you’ll be thankful for the lower gears.
Choose a Handlebar Style
Many people ignore the importance of their handlebar position, but the handlebar style and positioning will contribute greatly to the overall comfort of a long distance bike ride across America.
The front end of the bike transfers shock to your body, and the handlebars dictate the position of your lower back and neck during the ride.
Riding upright allows you a better view of surroundings, but doing so also creates wind resistance in headwinds and puts strain on the neck and back after awhile.
Many long distance riders use drop bars so they can put their head down in winds while also stretching out their backs.
When considering your handlebar, it helps to find a handlebar that is not only comfortable in your normal riding position but also gives you options for varying your handholds and therefore body positioning through a long day of cycling.
When cycling long distances, you’ll want to mix up your hand holds to relieve pressure and pain, so get a handlebar that can accommodate that variety.
A soft plush saddle may seem ideal for long rides at first, but they tend to get sweaty and don’t actually offer the support that is necessary over miles and miles of riding.
The most comfortable saddles are really somewhat minimal while offering support only where the “sit-bones” have contact, while letting the rest of the rear end breathe.
Saddles are a very personal decision, and some depends on a person’s anatomy and personal preference.
We strongly recommend that during your training period you dial in the right saddle for you on a long distance tour.
Try various saddles until you find the one right for you.
Selecting Wheels and Tires for Long Distance Touring Bike
Narrow tires with high pressure have lower resistance when cycling but feel lots of the bumps in the road, while fatter tires do better to absorb road shock and may come in handy if you plan on or accidentally come to crushed gravel roads or trails.
As with almost everything when selecting an ideal touring bike for you, a lot of it has to do with personal preference and the terrain you expect to encounter.
If you are planning to cycle through Yellowstone and want to bike on the paths or perhaps hit a few hundred miles of Rails-to-Trail on your bike ride across America, a fatter tire might be right for you.
When I cycled across America, I purchased a touring bike referred to as a hybrid. It’s a mix between a road touring bike and mountain bike. I found the versatility to be extremely useful, as we often decided to stray away from paved roads to explore some of the more unexplored areas of various national parks and the countryside.
Got other tips to share with readers about selecting the right touring bike to bike across America? Leave a comment.