Bikes for a Tolkienesque Journey

It took us three years of discussions to decide which bikes would carry us around the world. In the end, we opted for three Surly Trolls that our local bike store was able to find us at a decent price.

Even when buying past season models like we did, good bikes are expensive. Buying new ones felt like we were going counter to our goal of saving enough money to afford taking a year off to travel. The truth is that we already had nice bikes to start with. Maxime owned a beautiful steel touring bike, Yan enjoyed a lovely and surprisingly fast hybrid bike and Ivan probably had one of the best bikes of all the kids in his school. These bikes, after all, did carry us on a number of one to three weeks trips.

There were a few problems, however, that we felt needed to be addressed:

  • Maxime’s bike was in need of new wheels and the frame was a bit on the soft side for his weight (too much flex when climbing and an annoying shimmy when heavy loaded)

  • Yan’s bike was built on 700c wheels which were, frankly, too large for the small frame, creating instability, especially under load.

  • Ivan’s bike, while quite decent for a kid’s bike, was not necessarily the best choice for the rigor of year-round touring.

We also considered a number of other factors:

  • We wanted to minimize the number of spare parts to carry with us. This meant opting for wheels of the same size and similar componentry across all bikes.

  • We wanted bikes that would allow us to easily follow dirt paths as these are often the best roads.

  • We wanted uncomplicated equipment that we could MacGyver by the roadside in case of breakage.

  • We also wanted flat bars that provided some width for control and a slightly upright position to be able to see the landscape around us.

Given Yan’s and Ivan’s relative small size, we’ve decided to opt for 26” wheels. Some people argue that this is still be best size for world travel indicating that spares are easier to find in developing countries. I call bullshit on this. The standard has shifted years ago and good bike shops can be found in large cities the world over. We’ll try to remember to report back after our trip but suffice to say that we didn’t pick 26” wheels for that reason nor for the supposedly added strength of smaller wheels. No, we picked 26” wheels because it made sense for 2/3 of the family size wise.

There is a lot of debate online about frame material. Many people suggest that steel is best for touring as it is easier to weld than other material. From my very limited experience, I feel that it provides a better ride (less vibration). That being said, we didn’t select our bikes because they were made of steel. The fact of the matter is that steel is widely used for touring bikes. It is pretty much the only segment of the cycling world where steel is still dominant. The reality is that steel was pretty much the only option available to us. I think that the smaller steel tubes are classier so I’m not complaining.

One thing we did seek, however, was flexibility. The Troll provides some and then more. The frame is covered in mounting bosses the way a teenager’s face is covered by pimples – they are everywhere, even in places you would not expect them. We can also run both disk and cantilever brakes on the frame and, with a bit of ingenuity, you can use different wheel sizes as well. Then, there is the awesome Jones handlebar which allows for multiple hand positions and ample mounting options dor cockpit gadgets. The Troll is also equipped with old fashion thumb shifters which can allow you to shift speed even with a bent derailleur hanger using the friction mode. On paper at least, it feels like the kind of bike that can be fixed on-the-go with whatever we find along the way. We’re hoping we’ll never have to rely on duct tape and zip ties solutions to ride our bikes but it’s good to know we’ll have some flexibility to help solve problems if and when they arise.