Once upon a time, many years ago, bikes fell into two categories. There were 'sit up and beg' bicycles (in England these were usually made by Raleigh), with straight handlebars and mattress saddles, and there were 'racing' bikes with drop-bars and narrow saddles.
The sub-species of racing bikes diverged into two further sub-classes: racers, built for speed; and tourers, built for comfort. Well, perhaps comfort is putting it a bit strongly, as anybody who has ever broken in a Brooks B17N saddle will know, but tourers were fitted with mudguards, wide-ratio gears, pannier racks and sometimes 'Grab-On' foam handlebar grips (a miracle of modern technology - foam tubes which slide onto the bars when wet and soapy, then stick when they dry out).
Initially, touring bikes were all hand-made to order, but in the 1970s major manufacturers began to cater for the touring market and produced ready-made bikes.
The Archetypal Touring Bike
Without doubt the classic British touring bike since its inception in 1971 is the Dawes 'Galaxy'. Originally hand-built in England, it is now assembled here from frames and components made overseas. It still uses Reynolds 531 tubing1, although not on the chainstays (which join the rear wheel to the bottom bracket where the pedals attach) because Reynolds no longer do these in 531.
The 'Galaxy' is a well-balanced bike which is shipped with reasonably good quality components at an affordable price. Its raked forks and relatively laid-back frame angles give it a long wheelbase and make it comfortable on all but the poorest roads. It set the standard for large-scale tourer production, and was followed by many other illustrious names in the bicycling firmament such as Claud Butler, whose 'Dalesman' is sadly no longer produced.
Touring bicycles are generally ridden by touring cyclists. There is a stereotype of the clubman tourist, member of the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC), with his capacious Carradice cotton duck saddlebag, mudflaps on the mudguards, traditional leather cycling shoes and long cycling jersey. A stereotype which is surprisingly accurate, even down to gender. Touring cyclists generally still ride touring bikes, many of them as venerable as their riders. Some, such as the legendary 'Curly' Hetchins, which had unique bowed chainstays and seat stays, are more prized than any modern bike. Indeed, the Hetchins is possibly the most aesthetically pleasing bicycle ever made.
Club tourists can be seen on the roads of Britain on any typical Sunday. They fulfil a useful social function: if you see a collection of touring bikes outside a tea shop or village hall, you are assured of the highest quality tea and cakes. The CTC takes its elevenses2 very seriously indeed, and good tea shops are the cornerstone of many a Sunday run, but don't be deceived by their apparently relaxed pace and addiction to brown china teapots - CTC Sunday runs can be anything up to a hundred miles or more, and many members have to cycle a further five or ten miles to the start point.
So, it is these hardy souls who define the character of the touring bicycle. No-nonsense, hard-wearing, able to take the knocks dealt out by poor road surfaces, strong enough not to wobble around when you hang a set of 'kitchen sink' panniers on the back - yet light enough to do a long run or climb a steep hill without excessive effort.
Touring Bikes Today
Today the touring bike is deeply unfashionable. Well, to be honest it always was - cycle reviews are rarely written by tourists. The bikes you see in the shops are mostly race replicas or mountain bikes (ATBs), but both of these have serious weaknesses compared to classic tourers. Even though your local bike shop will view your prized machine as a museum piece, the classic tourer is still the best bike for everyday use.
ATBs are heavy; unless you pay a fortune for an aluminium one they typically weigh up to twice as much as a tourer. They have different frame angles and are fundamentally designed for off-road use; they also have big soft knobbly tyres with high rolling resistance. Although they are great on potholed city roads - especially the bikes with spring-and-damper suspension - they require more effort to pedal and are not as fast as a tourer. And yes, you can fit narrower, slicker tyres, longer gear ratios, slightly larger wheels - but what are you building? A tourer with an ATB frame.
Race bikes on the other hand are vulnerable to those potholes, and don't take kindly to mudguards and flaps (which stop your back from getting a wet muddy stripe up the middle). No creature comforts, then, and typically no 'go up the side of a house' bottom gear for when you're a bit tired or find yourself faced with Baldwin Street, Dunedin, New Zealand3. And where do you put your sandwich box? No pannier racks here. Good road bikes are also expensive, although to be fair any decent bike is going to cost you the thick end of a thousand pounds.
So, although the mass manufacture of tourers is now in the hands of a very small number of firms (notably Dawes and Peugeot, whose bikes have a reputation as good workhorses), the classic touring bike is actually a very good choice for the commuter. 700Cx32 wheels (30mm diameter, 32mm width) are stronger than they look and only the worst roads will result in broken spokes or the occasional bent axle. If you're reasonably fit you can expect speeds of over 20mph on the flat, and you can achieve 30mph and more on even fairly modest downhill stretches. An average journey speed of 18mph or more is quite achievable, and that is hard to beat in a car with today's traffic.
Equipping a Tourer
Much of the fun of owning a bike is gained from bolting bits on and twiddling with things. Here are some of the must-haves for a tourer:
Brooks B17 Saddle
Saddles are the interface between bum and bike, so the use of a piece of hard leather under tension instead of a soft composite saddle with gel covering may be regarded as an eccentricity. But once a Brooks is broken in (the first 500 miles are purgatory), there is no more comfortable saddle for long-distance rides. It also has loops for your saddlebag.
The staple of touring cyclists everywhere, the ubiquitous black cotton Carradice, with its wooden dowel to give it shape, is a familiar sight. There is room in here for the puncture repair kit, tools, spare tyres, malt loaf, bananas and other accumulated detritus of the Sunday run. There is also a handy reflective triangle on the flap.
Some glue, a spoon handle or two, and some bits of rubber, right? Wrong. Yes you need rubber solution and patches, but you will also find a set of plastic tyre levers, some French chalk or talc (to stop the inner tube from sticking to the cover), a spare inner tube and maybe even a spare cover rolled up into a tight wad. When you get a puncture, you want to stop, pull the wheel off (quick-release hubs, generally) and swap the inner tube. Then, at tea time, you can repair the punctured tube.
Cycle shops sell fantastic Swiss Army Knife-style folding tool-kits with every kind of attachment under the sun, and cyclists get these as Christmas presents. They take with them instead, however, a small cloth roll with a couple of old spanners bent in just the right place, some long-nosed pliers and a spoke wrench. If you break down on your bike, you could not hope for a better bit of luck than a tourist riding by - they are usually generous with their time, helpful and friendly to other cyclists.
Before you head off on your bike, please make sure you have the basics for survival. A good helmet (now exempt from VAT4), bright clothing, maybe a reflective belt, and some lights just in case it gets dark while you're out. Flashing LED lights are not road-legal, but have one of these as well as a steady red light as they are cheap and very visible.