We ultimately chose to ride customized Gunnar Grand Disc touring frames. While we both could have easily embraced the “just buy something, anything, and go ride!” philosophy, the fact we were towing precious cargo in the puppy wagon caused us to carefully ponder several options. The failure of a bike frame might be bad on any ride, but a failure of one towing two cute little dogs in a steel trailer may have resulted in long and interesting conversations with an ER doctor. Here was our journey to selecting the Gunnar…
Surly Disc Trucker
This is the most popular touring bike in the history of all mankind. I don’t really have any hard facts to back that up, but it seems right. In fact, there is someone who will read this and think, “wait? They didn’t do this on a LHT?! WTH?!” We believe it is a great bike and kudos to Surly for making it and changing the landscape for bicycle touring. Also if you send an email to Surly, they actually answer! You can’t say that for a lot of companies these days. We like Surly products, as evidenced by the choice of the Bill trailer, which you can read about our customized version here (link coming soon!).
Jamis Auora Elite
Mark’s local shop is a Jamis dealer and this bike is spec’d out very well for the price. At the time we were looking to buy bikes, it was difficult to find any reviews on it and the couple we did find indicated it makes a great light-to-medium duty touring rig. Since “medium-duty” was a tiny spec in our rear-view mirror, we elected to pursue other options. If you are doing normal touring, give this bike a hard look as it looks like a great buy.
Co-Motion Americano Rohloff
Ah, look at those monster chainstays! Such a thing of beauty. Yes, we love the Co-Motion bikes. There are only two reasons we didn’t pick this bike. 1. Cost. Dang, it’s not cheap. Worth it? Probably so. Do you need two kidneys to ride a bike? We might ponder selling one to get our hands on Co-Motions someday. Co-Motion, if you are reading this, call us. 2. The folks at Gunnar were so good to us we simply felt going with them was the right thing to do. We aren’t saying that any of the other brands/dealers were not good to us, they all were, but Gunnar got involved early in the process and exceed our expectations. Just like we shop at REI and fly Southwest, we tend to stick to the businesses that treat us right.
We considered several other bikes by Soma, Salsa and even a recumbent trike! But none of them seem to grab our attention, when leads us to the winner…
Gunnar Grand Disc
Gunnar is made by Waterford Cycles in Wisconsin, and guess who runs Waterford? Richard Schwinn! Yes, of those Schwinns. (Mark: One of my favorite movie lines of all time was from a Muppet movie where Kermit was riding a bike and almost gets run over and he says, “whew, I was almost gone with the Schwinn!”) Annnnway, the folks at Gunnar are simply amazing. Early on in our process to find a bike, they offered advice on dog trailers and safety even before they knew they might be selling us a bike. Because of their level of attention and service, we elected to use them to build custom frames for our trip. Based on how much we would be carrying, towing, and the distance we would be riding, they recommended beefing up some of the key frame tubing to give us reliable frames. Also, as part of the decision making to pick Gunnar it didn’t hurt that the Gunnar name comes from a dog that showed up at the shop one day and got adopted. You can read about him here. Or that Georgia is from Wisconsin (is that an odd sentence?!) The end result was purty bikes!
We look forward to giving updates on performance and durability of the frames as we put miles on them.
You want some details?!
The following text details every single little itty bitty part on our bikes, each one carefully pondered and researched. It was a lot of work by us, our bike shops, and by others who got pulled into the vortex of constructing a touring bike from scratch. It’s not like we were doing something that hasn’t ever been done in the history of mankind, but it is something that isn’t well represented on the internet. If you are a current or future touring cyclist, this list and the subsequent details might help you along your path. Keep in mind that this is only what worked for us. Your choices may, and likely should be different. Part manufacturers are also always changing everything around (so you have to buy new stuff!) so what worked for us today, may not work tomorrow. Lastly, your momma called and she said you are old enough to make your own decisions.
This first writing is right after the bikes have been assembled and we’ve ridden around a few miles. We’ll be updating each of the sections as our opinions develop over the course of the trip.
We use mountain bike Shimano XT 10-spd rear cassettes, 11-36T. This gives us a wide range of gears, but most important to us is that 36T cog. The total weight when the puppy trailer is attached is around 400 lbs. Do we need the 36T? Our knees need it!
Since we have a 10-spd cassette, we have to use a 10-spd chain. The SRAM Quick Link chain requires no tools for removal, so we went that direction.
We wanted reliable shifters, and the touring standard is Dura-Ace bar-end shifters for road bikes. They are simple and the left (rear) can be used in either indexed or friction mode (front is friction only). We felt these give us the best chance at doing our own field repairs should things go wrong, and/or allowing us to shift until we can get into a bike shop for a full repair.
Mark has his shifters mounted on the bar-ends of a drop bar. Georgia is using Paul Thumbies to mount them on a flat bar, next to the hand grips.
Here is where things get a little wacky. The rear derailleur is a Shimano XT mountain bike 9-spd. Its physical shifting range from left to right is the same as a 10-spd, and when mated to the 10-spd road shifter, it shifts to all 10 cogs just great.
So, why not a 10-spd mountain derailleur? Once upon a time, Shimano road and mountain bike components were interchangeable. Those days are over. On the current Shimano mountain components (Dyna-Sys), the 10-spd RD has a cable pull specification that when mounted with road shifters (like the Dura-Ace on our bikes), won’t work. So you would shift one click on your shifter, and your rear derailleur would move something other than one cog over. Not good. It would work with mountain bike shifters, but we wanted to use those Dura-Ace bar-ends. It would also work in friction mode, but indexing is nice if available. And it is.
So, why not a 10-spd road derailleur? Because a road derailleur won’t shift an 11-36T cassette, the 36T is beyond its capacity.
On the front, about the best you can do is a top to bottom ring tooth difference of 22T. We wanted a small ring of 22T (400+ lbs!), meaning the largest ring had to be 44T (or smaller). So what about the middle? We landed on a 36T as that gives us a range in the middle ring that won’t have us shifting all the time and is a manageable jump/drop. We also used a few bike calculators to determine bike speed at various cadence levels and felt this setup gave us a solid range of speeds for the real world. Can you go out and buy a 44-36-22 off the shelf? Nope. So what do you do? You buy as close as you can get and swap a ring, which is what we did. We bought a standard XT 9-spd 44-32-22 crank and swapped out the 32T middle ring for a 36T. Done. Wait! You can’t have a 9-spd crank with a 10-spd cassette and chain! Yes, you can. We did it. It works. The reason is that the ring width and interior diameter of the chain is exactly the same between 9 and 10 speed components (I didn’t actually measure this, but it’s what I’m told).
If you have a 9-spd crank, you have to use a 9-spd FD because the ring spacing IS different and you need the FD movement to cover the gap from left to right.
On the front wheels we installed SON dynamo hubs. Using a dynamo hub was an easy decision, as the ability to have full-time front lights (if we are pedaling, we have lights!) for safety was a big selling point. In addition to the light, the dynamo hub allows us to have a USB port (more on that below). There are a few options (about 3 or so at this point) for dynamo hubs and we chose the SON because it has received wider use and the reviews are excellent. We wanted dependability because if a hub fails, replacement isn’t a matter of just un-bolting and reinstalling a part. The entire wheel must be disassembled and rebuilt by a competent wheel builder. The service interval of the SON is 30,000 miles, which speaks volumes about its construction. It does cost more than the other options, but once you factor in the potential of having to replace one (the unit itself and having your wheel rebuilt) then it’s more cost efficient in the long run to buy a SON.
The rear hubs are Shimano SLX for a nice balance between cost and durability.
Both of us are using DT Swiss TK540 36-hole rims with DT Swiss straight gauge spokes and brass nipples. These are very stout and in our test rides haven’t given us an ounce of trouble. There is a solid chance we won’t have to true these during the trip!
We are doing a little comparison test. Mark is running The Plug III and Georgia is sporting a Sinewave Cycles Reactor. The bikes will be subject to the same conditions over the next year, giving us an effective way to compare the results of the two different brands.
A USB port attached to the dynamo hub allows us to charge smaller devices like our phones, but not larger devices such as a tablet computer or refrigerator. We will not always have reliable access to power sources, so being able to generate our own is a pretty big deal. We also carry a GoalZero Nomad 10 battery pack, which we can charge via the port. This allows for portable power in camp when we aren’t pedaling.
Our research on tires started and ended with Schwalbe, the only question being did we want the Marathon Plus or Marathon Supremes? The Plus tire are a little more heavy duty, while the Supremes have better grip and weigh about half as much. We aren’t weight weenies, clearly, but the added wet grip of the Supremes won us over. If these tires prove to be easy to flat, we’ll change to Marathon Plus tires.
Georgia: Jones H Bar. She loves the swept back hand position, as she finds it’s much easier on her wrists. It also allows for mounting of tons of accessories, like a handlebar bag, bell, computer, phone, etc.
Mark: Salsa Cowbell 2. This is more of standard drop bar style, but with a shallow drop. Mark mostly rides on the hoods, but the Cowbell also allows for a fairly comfortable drop bar riding position.
We both chose Ortlieb panniers and handlebar bags. Although we hope to not be riding in a lot of rain, over the course of a year it’s going to be unavoidable. The Ortliebs use waterproof fabric, so there is no need to stop and add a rain cover.
You may have noticed that Georgia has a color theme going on with her bike. She is running Classic Roller bags over the other Ortlieb offerings, primarily because they come in white. Her bags are the Front Roller Classic, Rear Roller Classic, and Ultimate 6 Classic handlebar bag. Mark is running red versions of the same, except for the the handlebar bag is an Ultimate 6 Pro and the rear panniers are Rear Packer Classics.
We went with Tubus racks over other options partly because we also went with the Ortlieb bags (Tubus and Ortlieb are the same folks). It’s hard to find a negative opinion of them anywhere.
The front racks are Tubus Tara. The Gunnar forks are specifically designed for these, so they bolt on easy peasy, although we suggest having a variety of spacers available in order to make your fit perfect. Also, if you plan to mount fenders, the Tara has a braze-on for the fender mount, so be sure to plan ahead.
The rear is a Tubus Cargo. It was either this or the Tubus Logo Evo. They are basically the same with the Logo offering two mounting options (one a little lower than the other). We didn’t think we would see much advantage in a slightly lower mounting, so instead opted for a larger platform area.
The front lights are Busch & Müller Lumotec IQ Premium Cyo T Senso Plus. For the price, these are pretty amazing headlights. They have a light sensor, and automatically switch between a daytime running light (it flashes some LED lights) and a full-on headlight. At night, when angled properly it lights up the road well enough to ride without much worry. The beam pattern isn’t entirely clean, as there are some darker areas, but it’s still fantastic for a full time light.
The rear light is a Cygolite Hotshot 2W USB. On its most conservative setting, a single charge will last 500 hours! That’s pretty impressive. It’s bright, has a lot of flashing options, and seems to get attention. The fact we can recharge it via the bikes is a big advantage…no batteries to mess with!
There are lots of options for a headset, and we just wanted something reliable and reasonably priced. The Cane Creek 40 fits this perfectly. We could have upgraded to the Cane Creek 110, which gets its numerical designation because it’s warrantied for 110 years. Is the CC 40 warrantied for 40? Nope, one year.
We took a break (ha!) from touring bike tradition and went with hydraulic disc brakes on both bikes. You can read internet forums for days about all the pros and cons of disc, rim, hydraulic, mechanical, drum, kites, and using your feet, so we aren’t going to even try to give the entire topic a synopsis here. We’ll leave all of that research up to you, and just let you know what we picked and why.
Basically, our needs and research led us to pick hydraulics discs for the increased power and improved modulation over the other choices. We understand the concerns that hydraulics have about lack of field repairability, but we weighed raw stopping power and control over those concerns. Some folks will say, “well, Bud’s Beast Brakes (I made that up) give you plenty of stopping power!” I’m sure they are great. Have you used those brakes to stop a speeding 450lb train of bike, trailer, human and canine? No? Then hush.
Mark has a drop bar, and is running a relatively new brake system from TRP, the Hylex. It was originally designed for cyclocross, but has potential for single speed and touring applications. The brake lever is just a brake lever, no integrated shifting here. The hoods are meaty and cushy, and the levers themselves have a solid, quality feel.
Georgia is using the Jones H Bar, so she went with Shimano XT mountain bike hydraulics. These brakes have a strong record of dependability, and are a good mix of price and performance.
To minimize potential overheating, we are both using Shimano ICETECH rotors and on Georgia’s bike, also ventilated pads. Heat is always a concern on long descents with a lot of weight, but we will use a combination of technique and technology to keep things as cool as possible.
It would be unlikely that both front and rear brakes on a single bike will fail at the same time. If we do have a brake failure, we’ll ride slowly using the single working brake until we get to the next town with a qualified bike shop to get us going again.
It is a little odd that most handlebars are still round, and not shaped to support the hand. It’s certainly much easier and cheaper to manufacture, but it’s not a good way to go. The choices are limited if you want something with a flat landing spot and if you want to install accessories, it’s an even bigger challenge.
As such, both of us are using a double layer of tape where applicable, to make the bars as cushy as possible. Georgia is also using Ergon cork grips on the ends of Jones H Bar, providing a nice solid, and hand shaped surface for her hands to rest.
Cateye Padrone Smart computers are installed on both bikes. These strike a balance between basic computers and the very expensive full-on GPS units by using Bluetooth to connect the computer to our phones. This allows us to not only have the details of each of our rides, but the opportunity to save it to a third party application like Strava. These will allow us to wow you with our speedy travel details, upwards of 10 mph!
Shimano PD-M545 on both bikes. We wanted pedals with wide platforms AND clips. There will be times we won’t want to use bike shoes to ride around, and there will be times we will want to have a strong attachment to the pedals. While a bit heavy, these fit the bill and should be plenty sturdy to last the length of this trip and beyond.
Oh boy. This is an area where it really just comes down to personal preference. If you found a seat that you can ride for miles pain free, congratulations! Keep using that saddle!
Georgia is riding a Brooks B17S, and is currently breaking it in, though for her it is comfortable right out of the box and without bike shorts.
Mark started with a Brooks C17 Cambium. He absolutely loves the concept, but found it a little too unforgiving for long distance riding. The second choice was a Selle Anatomica X, which is proving to be much more comfortable.
No magic here. Thomson brand in a size big enough to fit the oversized tubes of the Gunnar bikes. It’s made in the state of Georgia, which sort of seems to fit. [JB: Go Dawgs!]
We are using SKS brand fenders and while they were a bit tricky to install along with the racks, once on they perform very well. Let’s even call it SUPER full-coverage, as the front fender comes down very low, perhaps too low as it has caught on some bumps already.
Some final thoughts…
Thinking of using all of this to build your own bike? Well, the first thing you need to do is get a good bike shop in your corner. If you don’t already have one you trust, go visit all of them in a reasonable driving distance and describe what you want and see what kind of reactions you will get. You’ll find out pretty quickly which ones are willing to invest time and effort into you and your project.
You’ll need to work out some details, like how much you are willing to spend, start to finish. How will you be riding your bike? Commuting? Fully loaded touring? Super-duper fully loaded touring?
In your process, if you feel there would be questions or issues that we might be able to help you with, contact us! We would be glad to talk to another touring cyclist and offer any advice we can.