In the summer of 2015, I set about buying everything that I would need for my cycle around the world. For this adventure, I wanted to ride a bike that had been built to my specifications. The budget for the bike that I had set myself was £1100 for the basic bike set up. So, whilst I was back in the UK visiting family I headed north by train from London to Harrogate to visit Spa Cycles which had been recommended by a friend.
If you Google Spa Cycles, and read peoples reviews of the company, it soon becomes clear that people either love or hate this place. Most reviewers agree that the company is one of the go-to-stores if you are in the market for a new touring bike, as the staff are very knowledgeable when it comes to the nerdier aspects of biking. Beware though that your overall experience may well depend on the person that greets you as you enter the workshop.
Spa Cycles is located behind the train station in an industrial estate. As you walk towards it you pass a series of car body repair shops who seem to be collecting wrecks on the street. At the end of a row tucked next to a breakers yard you will find a warehouse which is home to Spa Cycles. The front of the building is essentially a bike workshop where they build the bikes with a small sales area to the left hand side. The stock that they display in this area does not really have any order to it, and things are randomly stacked here and there. They also run an online/mail order store, and so the rear of the warehouse is devoted to this.
Within a few minutes of my arrival in the workshop it was pretty clear that the staffs’ reputation was accurate. The people definitely work there because they love building specialist touring bikes, but I would say that people skills are not high on the recruitment agenda. Most of the staff seem to have their own preferences in terms of bike parts and set up, and will try to convince you accordingly. If they deem you to be worthy of their advice then you are in good hands. To be honest, I didn’t mind this at all as I was here specifically for this advice.
The first part of the process in building a bike is to choose the frame that you want. What is the difference between a road bike frame and that of a touring bike you may well ask? The first obvious difference when looking at a touring bike is that the tubing for the frame is of a larger-diameter. This allows for it to be thicker-walled than standard bike frames, which means that the frame is able to successfully support the weight of equipment that the touring cyclist needs to carry. Without this, the frame would not have the necessary strength and durability that is needed for it to withstand the stresses and strains that it is put under during a cycling tour.
Another major difference is that the bottom bracket is set much lower. This lowers the overall centre of gravity of the rider, and the lower the centre of gravity the more stable the object. This is especially important to the tour cyclist as it provides the rider with the necessary stability when the bike is fully loaded. The final real difference are the extra braze-ons that have been added to the frame. These give the tour cyclist the required equipment carrying capability by allowing pannier racks to be mounted on the bike. It is also possible to mount three water bottle carriers which can be used to carry extra water supplies when cycling through arid areas or to safely transport petrol for your multi-fuel burner. Another nice touch on most touring bikes is the addition of a mount for you to carry spare wheel spokes.
The first decision when choosing a frame is what material do you want it to be made from. In Vietnam, the bike shop next to the school where I work does a very good line in bamboo bikes and they have a reputation for being indestructible. In Harrogate, your two main option are titanium or steel. After a brief discussion about what type of tour cycling I would be doing it was agreed that as most of it will be within ‘developing countries’ I should go for the steel option due to it being easier to weld in the event of it being involved in a major crash along the way.
Prior to arriving in Harrogate, I had researched the main touring bikes that seemed to be ‘hot’ at the moment. I narrowed the list down to 4 main contenders Ridgeback, Dawes, Kona and Surly, as their specifications seemed to fit the type of cycling that I would be doing. Plus, each of these manufacturers produced a suitable frame option that fit in with £1100 price bracket.
At Spa Cycles, they had all of these frames except for the Kona, and so I spent about 30 minutes test riding them around the industrial estate. From these test rides I deduced that I couldn’t really tell any difference between them. In the end, I went for the Surly Long Haul Trucker for no better reason than back in Vietnam I had one in my house that I looking after for a friend who had cycled to Vietnam on it. I had not test ridden it though as the frame size is far too big for me. The colour choice was also an easy decision as they could do the frame in any colour as long as it was black.
Now it was time to choose the size of the wheels. 26 inch and 29 inch (700c) are the two main options that most people choose between for cycle touring. Again, there are many opinions about which size is best in terms of different types of terrain and their respective rolling resistance, but the two factors of why I chose the 26 inch were durability and availability. (see Toms Bike Trip for a good discussion on this topic). The 26 inch have a reputation for being stronger and less liable to fail in the middle of nowhere. In the developing world the 26-inch tyre is used everywhere and so tubes and tyres can be easily, and cheaply, replaced. This means that the need to carry spares is dramatically reduced, and the only specialist spares I plan to carry with me is a set of spokes that I will store in the seat post.
The next area that I needed to decide on is the one area more than any other that affects the comfort of the ride and that is the type of handlebar. There is a fair amount of choice as to the shape of the bars with the four main types being flat (think mountain bike bars), moustache, drops (think racing bike) and butterfly bars. (City Bike Company give a good overview for each type) What I wanted was the shape of handlebars that offered the most positions for my hands as from experience I know that they will eventually go numb if kept in the same position for hours on end.
Following the advice of Sam at Spa Cycles the butterfly bars seemed to offer this, and so I went with these. Having subsequently ridden the bike on a couple of multi-day adventures I am really glad that I went with this option. A note of caution though is the butterfly bars take a bit of getting used to as each hand position radically changes the handling of a fully loaded touring bike. I found that in terms of comfort the other main benefit of the shape is that they allow you to stretch your back out by riding with your hands on the front curves every now and then. I am not sure that I have quite gotten the tilt of the bars dialled in yet but they really do offer a truly comfortable ride. One extra addition that I have added since test rides on the bike are comfort grip pads on the back bar section which offers extra support for the palm of your hands, and helps to minimise the transfer of vibration to your arms.
The easiest decision to make was in the saddle department as there can only be one – a Brooks. I was tempted by the B67, which has springs, but in the end went for the flagship model – the B17.
Having now ridden on it, I can only agree that they are indeed very comfortable saddles to ride. The only note of caution is don’t ‘proofide’ it just before heading out for a ride as you will spend the first 10km sliding off it.
In terms of the actual bike set up this now left two main decisions that I still had to make – pedal type and gearing ratios. For the pedals, I had Shimano’s SPD M324 fitted. These are duel faced which combines the SPD mechanism on one side and a flat pedal body on the other.
The duel facing means that for efficiency I have the option of riding with SPD cleats, or for those days when I am pottering from one pristine white sand beach to another I can just wear a pair of flip flops.
The final decision, and perhaps most important, was the gearing ratio. What I wanted was a ratio which offered me a gear for all occasions – low enough to get over the top of the Paso Internacional Los Libertadores in Chile/Argentina but high enough so as not to ‘spin out’ when every cyclists friend – the tailwind – was pushing hard from behind.
There are two main ways of calculating gearing ratios – ‘gear inches’ and ‘metres of development’. Bicycle gear inches describe the relationship between the front chainring and the rear sprocket – if the front chainring has 48 teeth and the rear sprocket has 24 teeth, then each turn of the pedals produces two turns of the rear wheel. This number is then multiplied by the diameter of the wheel to calculate the ‘gear inches’.
As nearly all bikes are now fitted with a dérailleur system most bike specialists use ‘Metres of development’ to calculate gearing ratios. This calculation has a physical basis and indicates the distance travelled with one turn of the crank. The calculation is wheel diameter x (no. teeth on front chainring teeth / no. teeth on rear sprocket).
The recommended gear ratio for a fully loaded touring bike is 18 – 100 gear inches or 1.5 – 9 metres of development (to convert gear inches to metres of development multiply the number by 0.08). The table on the right shows the metres of development for a 9 speed cassette with 165mm cranks, 48 / 36 / 24 chain rings and a 11-34 cassette. This set-up should be sufficient to allow me the range of gears that I need to conquer the gradients that I will face in the Alps, Andes and Himalayan mountain ranges and so this is the gearing ratio that I asked to be fitted to my touring bike.
Having subsequently ridden the bike on a 5 day trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat this set-up seems to fit my needs perfectly. The route included a 10km hill climb between Madagui and Bao Luc. The steepest gradient was around 12%, and I was very comfortable sat in the granny gear while grinding my fully loaded bike up to the ridge line.
All other parts for the bike e.g. mudguards, brakes and drink bottle holders are part of Spa Cycles standard set up. You have the option of upgrading these if you want, but their standard options seemed fine for me.
Total cost of bike build
The cost of the Surly frame and upgrades to the hubs, saddle, pedals and chain rings meant that the total cost for Spa Cycles to build the bike to my specifications would be £1073. For a complete breakdown of the costs associated with building a bicycle to my own specifications then please click on the link below:
It took Spa Cycles two weeks to build the bike and they couriered it to my parents address for £20. This meant that the total cost to build the bike to my own specifications came in £7 under my original budget of £1100, so I was more than happy with the decision to head to Harrogate for the day.
Now that I had sourced the bike it was time to get busy buying the equipment that I would need to sustain me on my cycle around the world. Please use the link below to take you to a breakdown of the kit that I am using for my 12 month adventure:
For a complete breakdown of the myriad of additional expenses that you may incur if you set about planning your own cycling adventure click on the following links or use the ‘Costs’ tab at the top of the page:
When I set off from HCMC on the 4th of July 2016, I will update the actual costs to the flights, visas and accommodation as I incur them. Once I have completed my cycle I hope to have a truer picture of the total cost that is associated with a 12 month world cycle tour adventure
If you have any comments, tips or recommendations for places that I must visit on my cycle I would love to hear from you – please leave a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I can, or alternatively click here to email me direct!
Finally, I intend to record my journey via blog posts, so if you would like to follow my journey as I cycle around the world add your email address to the form at the foot of this page to receive automatic updates.