I am, what I would call, an avid cyclist. I am also, what I would call, hella short. These two things often do not mix, especially with touring bikes. I don’t mean a road or CX bike with racks hobo-ed on, but A REAL touring bike fit for me that can take me on the gravel less traveled.
I wanted to feel like these ladies on my touring bike:
And not like this:
I was also not Demi Moore, Indecent Proposal, rolling around in bills so it needed to stay under $1000 total, which means used. Luckily, while I am not rich in dolla bills, I am rich in the ability to search Craigslist and Ebay multiple times in a day. The hunt was on.
But first, what was I looking for? What makes a good touring bike?
- Braze-ons for front and back racks and fenders. If needed, I could double up and attach both a fender and rack to one braze-on but ideally I wouldn’t have to. The ability to put on a front rack is tantamount for two reasons: 1. It’s really nice just reaching in front of you for snackies or arm warmers without having to stop and dig through the bottomless pit of a pannier. 2. Your bike will handle way better if at least some weight is distributed to the front of the bike.
- Quality steel. Why Steel? It gives you a softer ride then aluminum. A softer ride helps you not tire out as quickly, even if it may be heavier. But, for the record, high quality steel is lighter then shitty aluminum. What makes it high quality? Well, the steel tubing is double or triple butted meaning it thicker at the points where the tubes connect, where strength matters, and thinner in the middle to save weight. Tange, Reynolds, and Chromoly (or chromo as the cool kids say) are all types of tubes that are top-notch. Luckily for my wallet, they have had steel frames pretty much perfected since the early 90s so high-end frame from 1995 would be just as light, if not lighter, than a brand new frame.
- Relaxed geometry. You want to be comfortable. Aches will really wear you down.
- Ability to run fat tires with fenders. You want lots of space between the wheel, the fork/frame and the brakes. Fat tires can make you feel like you’re rolling on sweet, fluffy marshmallows. Once again, the more comfortable you are, the less tired you will be. Fenders are pretty self explanatory. This means your brakes will be cantilever, side pull, or disk brakes.
Then what makes a good touring bike for me, a small person?
- Lightweight frame. The trouble with a lot of touring bikes is that they make the tubing strong and thick for someone 5’10, 200 lbs with 40 lbs of gear. Then, even with their smaller sizes, they keep the same giant heavy tubing. Someone who rides a 44cm doesn’t need ultra strong tubing even when loaded.
- 26″ wheels. No seriously, for small bikes, so much better! If you use 700c wheels on a frame under 50cm they have to stretch out the geometry like crazy to get them to work, which gives you a squirrelly bike. You also get a crazy amount of toe overlap (when your toe hits your wheel when you turn) which gets real annoying as the day goes on and, if you have fenders on, god it’s the worst. Nothing is more irritating then knocking your fender out of alignment from doing something simple like turning. These bikes also turn like mack trucks, which might be ok for the burbs but, when you are going down a narrow gravel path, no bueno. Plus, as an added benefit, 26″ wheels are more popular than 700c in other parts of the world for touring internationally. If you are short and ride a 700c wheel bike, it probably seems normal but just take a smaller wheel out for a bit and you will change your mind. For more info, years ago, I wrote a bit about road bikes with smaller wheels.
- Top tube not all up in my stuff when standing over the bike. I think that one is pretty obvious.
But Monica what about disc brakes? Everyone is talking about them? Shouldn’t a touring bike have them? My stance was, finding a bike with disc brakes would be a lovely added bonus but, weighing 115lbs, the stopping power of cantilever brakes worked just fine. The main benefit of disk brakes for me is that it’s getting harder to find wheels for rim brakes as discs become more standard. The drawback to disk is cost when, as I said, I am not Demi Moore rolling around in $$s.
So what were some bikes I had an eye out for? What came with 26″ wheels, a frame small enough for someone 5’1, AND could find under $1000″?
- High end, mid to late 90s, rigid (no suspension) mountain bikes. These had 26″ wheels and usually, at least, one set of braze-ons and room for big tires. The frames were light and they ran short with relaxed geometry. There is a whole forum about which of these are good to convert to touring bikes. Here is a great blog about what a guy did to make a 90s MTB into a touring machine. If you have ever been to Velo Cult in Portland, one of the super fancy beautiful touring bikes you see in the front window is the owners that he built on a 90s Specialized Rockhopper frame. Side note; he is a fun guy to shoot the shit with about bike touring.
- 1993 or 1994 Bridgestone XO-1 or 2 or MB-1 or 2. The famous Grant Peterson was the one who designed Bridgestones bikes, who went on to start Rivendell Bicycle Works. The lower the number the higher quality they were and 1993 and after is when the frames became lighter and XOs started using cantilever brakes. MBs are Bridgestone’s mountain bike. The XOs are their “hybrid”. I put hybrid in quotes because it’s not what we think of today when we think of hybrids, it is actually closer to today’s cyclocross bikes. They were designed for adventure cyclists and really ahead of their time. Even more awesomely, they also came as small as 42cm! The bad is the diameter of the seat tube and head tube are a measurement that is not popular now making getting stems and seatpost a bit harder.
- A Rodriguez Stellar Tourer. R&E is a bike shop that specializes in custom and nearly custom frames for hard to fit people, including shorties. They had a production run of women’s bikes called Stellar made between 1996 and 2006 with a touring version that you can sometimes find for reasonable $ either at their shop on consignment or on Craigslist.
- ’97 or ’98 Novara Randonee. For only two magical years, REI had a super short version of their touring bike with a high quality frame and decent components.
- Soma Saga. These are relatively new bikes. They have only been in production for 6 years, never produced in giant numbers, and obviously people who have them love them as I have yet to ever see one in my size come up used.
- Surly Troll. This bike is based off of the old school 80s/90s rigid mountian bikes but with a few extras that make it nice for touring. Provisions for racks, fenders, disc brakes, v-brakes, cantilever brakes, derailleur gearing, cargo cages, panniers or bikepacking bags. Whatever you want to throw at it ,it can handle. The bad: tubes are as heavy and thick in the 42 cm size as in the 62 cm, which makes for a sluggish bike.
- Surly Long Haul Trucker (sort of). This was my least favorite option as the head tube is way too angled to prevent toe overlap; I always found that made it squirrely. Again the tubes are as heavy and thick in the small sizes as the large. To be fair, I hear lots of people say they love their LHT so, if one came up for sale at a decent price, I would test ride it.
I test rode a number of bikes including a ’94 Ritchey Ultra Logic (OMG so nice and light but too big) and a Long Haul Trucker (yep still don’t like them) but ultimately drove two hours north to buy a 1997 Randonee for $200 bucks in an REI parking lot.
It looked kinda durpy but it had potential. I could put front and rear racks and ridiculous fat tires on it.
Everything was stock, except for the stem, and in pretty good condition so I am able to use those components until I decided to change them up.
The thing I was not pleased with was the crazy sloping top tube. I just aesthetically didn’t like it and I could not get two water bottles in the triangle but that also meant it was nowhere near my stuff and my stuff is pleased with that.
Stay tuned for Pt 2. Outfitting Little Touring Monster. Getting accessories that fit a tiny frame and person.
Side Note: I have heard really good things about the 650b Straggler for the short people. 650b (also known as 27.5) is a wheel size that is slightly bigger then a 26″. It’s really more like a 27.25″ but still a lot smaller than 700c wheels. The 650b version only came out on 7/14 so you can pretty much forget about finding a used one but, if you ARE Demi Moore rolling around in bills, it might be a good one to check out. They usually run about $1700.
If you want to know more about the difference between 650b and 26″,
- Checkout a death match comparison on the same bike explained by puppets of course.
- If you hate puppets Bike Radar explains the difference.