UPDATE – I LOVE my AWOL. It fit perfectly and took me 4,100 miles across the US with style and grace! The day I shipped it back from Portland to New York made me very sad to be without it for a day let alone the week to ship.
WARNING: Lengthy Post!!
The last time I excelled at math it was Algebra I at Penndale Middle School. I since have taken Geometry and an Intro to Calculus (without Trig, thank Jah!) as a freshman at Pitt. Therefore my explanations of all things math related in the below post with be brief and should be taken with a grain of salt….
Since February I have been testing out different touring bikes. I have been reading about them since late 2016. I currently ride an aluminum 2012 Specialized Sirrus. I find it great for commuting or exercising in the city, even did 110+ miles on it to Montauk. Hills haven’t been too much of an issue on it. What I do find is that an aluminum frame, forks and seat post do allow the vibrations of the road to get into your hands/wrists/forearms and backside. I did not realize this until I road a steel frame bike…
Steel absorbs vibrations better than aluminum. Carbon fiber also absorbs vibrations well, but tends to be more expensive, is more prone to break and cannot be repaired with welding, unlike steel. So steel it is.
I have decided to purchase a touring bike, because that is exactly what I will be doing, 4500 miles through the US. These bikes have specific geometries (won’t attempt to explain), wider wheel base, sturdy wheels, grade friendly gear ratios (think hills) and extra fittings for attaching racks & extra water bottles, essentially built to carry heavy loads long distances. Beyond the aforementioned specs, the bikes tested have two major differences than what I am used.
First are the prevalence of drop bars, typical of road bikes. Second, the use of mechanical disc breaks.
Drops bars did not seem enticing to me at first, having ridden flat bars all my life, my current bike having bar-ends for an additional hand position. First few test rides, I found the “hoods” uncomfortable. Changing gears and breaking is usually done from the hood hand position. The drop positions and top of the bar seemed fine, the former offering a more streamlined/aggressive riding position, the latter providing a more relaxed position, similar to flat bars. After my 4th or 5th test ride, the hood position became increasingly more comfortable or at least familiar. I can now see myself riding in this position. Just like anything new, get used to it and build up the right muscle groups in hands, wrists, arms, back and core. Oh yes, core.
As for disc brakes, this is the best braking system that provides the greatest stopping power. The metal brake pad grasping a metal brake disc is efficient in slowing the bike, especially when riding in wet conditions or with a fully loaded touring bike. Born from mountain biking and the need to stop when firing downhill, it has been more recently adopted in touring and road bikes. Mechanical disc brakes are apparently low maintenance and easy to fix, if one is in the middle of nowhere. I will need some lessons for minor adjustments.
Please note that hydraulic disc brake systems differ from mechanical disc brakes, as hydraulic brakes rely on breaking fluid which could render you SOL if something failed far from tools or a bike shop. Linear pull, or “V Brakes” have the next best stopping power with cantilever brakes having the least. I have linear pull now and they seem fine for current rides, but I am yet to load up with an extra 30+ lbs of gear.
Having had numerous conversations with multitudes of bike shop pros, Tony at Sid’s Bikes in Chelsea said something simple and elegant, that being comfortable is of utmost importance. Groundbreaking stuff I know, but this stuck with me. He said of all the varying measurements between brands, stack and reach will make the greatest difference in finding the best fit. Finding the right fit in terms of how far one is leaning forward vs. upright. Most shops have professional fitters that can get you exactly to where you need to be (usually for a fee), but most people on the floor can walk you through the basics.
Here is my take on the bikes I have ridden (or am yet to ride*).
REI ADV 1.1 – $1200 USD Recently re-branded REI Co-op bike, I tried the XL version, which had nice components and smooth ride, but felt crammed and that I could not fully extend like I should. The bike utilizes bar-end shifters which I seem to hit fairly often with my knees.
REI does have an XXL version, but the SOHO location doesn’t have any in stock which meant I would have to buy the bike just to have it delivered and built for a test ride. I already did this for the XL and returned it the same day. Also, the XXL dimensions did not appear to have a significant difference in reach which would likely leave me with the cramped feeling. Plus the bike had linear pull breaks which was not what I was looking for.
Surly Disc Trucker (Long Haul Trucker) – $1400+ USD Pretty much the “go to” for touring bikes. So much so that my size in the 58 cm Disc Trucker was on back order until mid-May. I leave on May 10. In the interest of seeing what it had to offer, I road the Long Haul Trucker which is the same frame and components except that it has cantilever breaks. The body position was more aggressive than the REI bike, and I honestly felt a bit stretched out. That being said I could certainly see myself getting used to it and actually prefer it when trying to rack up miles in a single day or when facing a strong headwind. While I could see myself with the bike, I wasn’t ecstatic about the feel of the bike PLUS I couldn’t even get the version I wanted till a week or two after my departure date. Ideally I am outfitting my touring bike and putting some significant miles on it before I leave.
Specialized AWOL* – $1200 USD This is where it gets weird, but Tony’s guidance reigned supreme. I am yet to try this bike. I do currently ride a XL Specialized Sirrus. The Specialized website has exhaustive lists of dimensions for each of their products. This is extremely helpful in the comparisons that I have done between Specialized bikes and comparing them to the REI and Surly bikes I have tested. Essentially I compared many of the dimensions of the 2017 AWOL vs the Sirrus of the same model year (stack, reach, top tube length, fork angle, seat post angle, etc. etc.). I then found that you can look up old bikes, finding my 2012 Sirrus to which I was able to compare to the current AWOL and Sirrus. It appears to me that the XL AWOL will be very similar to what I currently have, except it will have drop handle bars, a steel frame, mechanical disc breaks and all the accoutrement that touring bikes possess. I am 99% sold on this frame and have my favorite bike shop guy, Jhonatan at City Bicycles NYC, waiting to order it when it becomes available in “early April”. Ideally it gets ordered, delivered and built by April 15 or so, allowing me time to get it outfitted in racks and bags and then start logging those miles. I will either be happy and think all my comparative research was very intuitive or I will be unhappy and be trying to sell the bike to everyone I pass. I think the former will be the case, fingers crossed…
Phew, any comments questions or suggestions on the above would be welcome.