What I Learned from Buying a Touring Bicycle

A few weeks ago, I bought a touring bike. This was not my first experience buying a bicycle, but it was the first time I was shopping for something with a small market (i.e., limited selection) and perceived as slightly atypical for women. I’m not going to lie: it was frustrating.

Here’s what I learned in this process.

The most important thing about buying a bike is being able to articulate what you want to do with it.

When I walked into a store and asked about touring bikes, the most common response was to direct me to a hybrid style bike that’s not quite for touring and not quite for road riding. This would get me a lighter, possibly faster bike more suitable for riding around town, but it might cost me on the durability/repairability side and it isn’t built for carrying several days worth of gear. I don’t blame the sales guys. I expect out here they get a lot of people who think they want to do serious bike tours and limit themselves to touring bikes only to be disappointed by the bulk and relative lack of responsiveness when used for daily riding. But I’d done my research and I knew what I wanted. That said, it took me a while to learn to say “No, thanks, just show me your touring bikes.”

If a bike feels like home, it is home, and you likely won’t gain anything by continuing to look.

I admit it: for part of my search, I got seduced by the prospect of a beautiful bike. I had seen the bike and spoken at length to a very pleasant sales guy about it, but they didn’t have a floor model ready to ride. So in the meantime, I went to another store and tried out their selection of touring bikes. One of them felt like I could ride all day – which should have ended my search. But Store A had the prettier bike and, for roughly the same price, would do a full bike fitting. It seemed like the much wiser route. Only it turned out not to be.

No matter how experienced/knowledgeable the salesperson is, you are the only one who knows how your body feels and you are the only one who can say if a bike fits.

Rivendell Bicycle Works has some amazing articles on buying a touring bike. The best advice I got from the site was to ignore anyone who said that I would need to get used to a bike that felt wrong. If a bike fits, you will know fairly quickly, even if you can feel a few minor adjustments. It is very important to pay attention to this instinct.

I probably knew within about 5 minutes that the geometry of the pretty bike from Store A just didn’t work for my body. In fact, despite numerous adjustments over the course of an hour, I still felt cramped in the saddle, off balance, and generally unhappy. This is the opposite of what you need in a bike you intend (potentially, eventually) to ride for up to 100 km a day for multiple days.

The more disappointing aspect of this experience was the sales guy’s repeated failure to listen to what I cared about in a bike. There was no question that he knows far more about bicycles than I do, but he didn’t know me or the way I like to ride and he took no trouble to find out. In fact, he repeatedly tried to tell me that I did not actually want what I thought I wanted. I can’t say this made me inclined to trust him. Through a whole series of other incidents which take more words to describe than their pettiness warrants, I abandoned Store A with some resentment.

Every frustration is worth it when you know you have purchased the right bike.

After many months of research and several weeks of active searching, I bought the bicycle that felt like home. I know this is the right bike because I can ride for hours on one day – uphill, downhill, rough road, smooth road – and I still want to get on it the next day. It is my partner in pushing my limits. I’ll learn how to maintain it and repair it with my own hands as much as possible. I know that I couldn’t have come to this point by any other route.

But I hope I won’t have to buy another bike for many, many years.