How to build yourself a free or very cheap touring bike
Getting to know the “bicycle touring enthusiasts” online community, I’ve got the feeling that too many people assume you’ll need an expensive bike to get on a bicycle tour or bikepacking trip.
Let me say that straight, that’s not true, you can build yourself a cheap touring bicycle from scrap, and we’ll show you how.
Although there is no doubt that, as a rule of thumb, you get what you pay for, I like to say that every bike is a touring bike, as long as you tour with it. In this article, I’ll try to give some advice on how to turn a free or cheap piece of junk into your next touring bicycle.
My first 25,000km were done on a 1936 Royal Nord, a museum piece of a bicycle. Antique more than vintage. The President (that’s the name of the bicycle) wasn’t specifically designed for loaded touring, but it ended up handling it amazingly.
Let’s also face another truth, the great majority of people won’t embark on multiple years journey, mainly weekend tours, everyday commuting, and once-a-year longer trips.
If instead, you have a budget to invest, you can check our lists of
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Where to get a Bicycle for Free
Ok, let’s assume you don’t have a bike nor a budget, but you really want to start bicycle touring. Where do you start looking?
Your, or your family members’ garage: are you really sure you don’t have a bicycle? Maybe your parents kept that mountain bike they bought you when you were a teenager, or maybe your uncle once bought a steel race bike he never used. What about your grandparents? You could find some vintage jewel in their canteen.
Ask your friends, even on Facebook: are you sure none of your friends has a bike he/she wants to get rid of? Explain to them your crazy ideas, they might want to support you by giving you that dusty bike they almost forgot they had, or maybe you can barter that for a dinner, few beers, or that old guitar you don’t play anymore.
Scrapyard: see if you can visit your local scrapyard or junk deposit, people often throw away stuff that is almost new!
Where to get a Bicycle for Cheap
Second-hand stores and thrift shops: those are everywhere and always have a few bikes, check often because nice bikes are quick to go. You can also ask the clerks to contact you when they get some new items, again explain to them what you want to do, maybe you’ll get their sympathy.
Benefit Auctions: ask around if there is some going on, network with your community.
Social workshops: I don’t know if they exist in your city, but in Italy, those are pretty common. They are usually organized by squatted places or social centers. We are talking about bicycle workshops where everybody can go and fix his own bike, using shared tools. There are always experienced people to learn from and usually bikes and parts that people donate. This is another great way to network with like-minded people.
Internet: when we talk about second-hand bikes it’s always better to have a look in person than to blindly buy online. That doesn’t mean you can’t find good deals. There are often local websites to check or Facebook buy/sell groups. Resort to eBay as your last chance.
When you go looking for a bike to transform into your next touring companion there are a few things to pay attention to, the most important are the frame and the wheels, that hold all the weight of the rider and the gear. Especially important if you’re and heavy rider.
The Frame: How to recognize a frame suited for bicycle touring
The most important component on a touring bike is no doubt the frame. First of all, be sure the frame is not bent and presents no major rust corrosion. Then take a look at the geometry, the shape of the frame.
The characteristics of a touring frame are:
Long wheel-base, or at least long chain-stay geometry: the longer the frame, the more stable is the bike, longer frames absorb vibration better thus making for a more comfortable ride. A long wheel-base helps you avoid the annoying heel-to-pannier contact without shifting the panniers back too much and so losing the center of stability (the weight should be centered with the back axle).
A sign of a long chain-stay is the length of the rear fork, while the wheelbase is made longer also by the bent angle of the front fork, called the rake. A longer rake means a more accentuated bent, this is sometimes referred to as a lazy fork. A lazy fork also offers some cushioning for the vibrations while making the bike a little less agile (steering is slower). A long chainstay may also help in fitting larger tires
Strong and stiff frame: this may be hard to get at a first sight. How do you know if a frame is strong or not? First of all the material: titanium is stronger than steel, that is stronger than aluminum, that is stronger than carbon (at least that’s usually true). Since it is not likely you’ll find any titanium frame in the garbage, go for the steel. The second hint, check the weldings: clean and nice welding is more likely to be stronger than an ugly one. Check this article to understand more about welding and brazing. Third, again geometry: a diamond frame is usually stronger than a step-through frame, while a mixte frame may be as strong as a diamond one. Confused, check here to understand more about frame types.
A weak frame may be too flexible, and start wiggling when loaded, especially on downhills, this is dangerous so, before you go, test it with the load on. If you feel that wiggle, opt for a trailer or pack less stuff.
Rack and bottle cage mounting points: unless you opt for the trailer solution or the bikepacking setup, your bike should be equipped with mounting points for front and back racks.
Well, you can also just go with the back rack if you pack light. About the bottle cage, you can always strap one up with zip ties if the frame doesn’t have the holes, I did this on my 1936 bike, and traveled 25,000km with it. Having more than a bottle mount is nice but not as important as other states.
Wheels: the second most important component of a touring bike
After you found the frame you like, it is time to think about the wheels. Wheels are the second most important part of a touring bike, they hold all the weight and are always under stress.
Unless you don’t want to start turning the wheels every day and find yourself with plenty of broken spokes, try to find the best wheels you can.
When I replaced my back wheel in South Korea I bought a 30$ mountain bike wheel and it did just fine for 15,000km more, and still is working. Don’t invest a fortune on wheels but, please (for your own sake), don’t set off with a pair of 5$ wheels, you’ll regret.
Double-check the size of the wheel you’re purchasing is right for your frame.
There’s plenty of debate whether a touring bike must be 26″, 28″ or whatever, don’t overthink that, they are all fine… well, I had some troubles with the 26 1 3/8 size of my old bike, it’s an old standard still used only on cheap bikes, so it was hard to find good tires.
Drive Train for bicycle touring
The more gears you have, the better you’ll challenge every hill. Try to have a triple crankset in the front and at least a 7-speed cassette in the back. Don’t spend too much money on these, if your budget is tight invest more in the wheels.
Hi-end front and rear derailleurs are not needed in the world of loaded bicycle touring. You’ll be fine even with the cheapest Shimano SIS or Tourney, but consider putting 10$ in a Shimano Acera or Sora back derailleurs.
The front derailleur matters less, that’s why a mix of different Shimano (or SRAM, or Campagnolo) series it’s often found also on commercial bikes.
I advise to choose Shimano for one simple reason, you’ll find replacement everywhere, literally. Here’s the Shimano Parts hierarchyif you’re curious.
Cranks are really not so important, the main difference between expensive cranks and cheap ones is the weight, we’re talking about few grams, that really won’t make any difference when for loaded bike touring. Same goes for the cassette. Choose the wider range of gears you can figure out, that’s it.
Chain: cheap chains wore out faster, but it’s the most common item and you’ll find a replacement everywhere.
Shifters: go for the cheap ones, but bear one thing in mind, don’t combine different brands of shifters and derailleurs because they don’t work together!
I went crazy for three days trying to regulate the shifting of Shimano shifters with a SRAM back derailleur before I found out that, don’t do my same mistake!
Well, those are important too, lifesaving sometimes. But what’s most important when talking about brakes is maintenance. Be sure they are always well regulated and check if the pads need replacement.
Disk brakes have the strongest breaking force, but cantilever and V-brakes are also pretty good, I myself toured with long calipers, I was never very happy with them but they worked fine enough for two years. I had no choice with my frame so I went for it.
Headset and Handlebars
Unless they are rusty or bent, you can go with what you have. Open and lubricate the headset bearings before going and that’s it, if you don’t know how, go to a bike mechanic and have him/her do that, watch and learn.
If you want to change the style of the handlebars (from drop bars to flat or butterfly or any other way around), be sure the frame can accommodate that. Flat bars and butterfly are always (I think), interchangeable but not so goes with drop bars, ask a mechanic.
People often wonder which style of handlebars is better for bike touring, there’s no answer to that, just try what you’re comfortable with.
The intimacy between you and your saddle will take a while to work, but after that (months of riding) you’ll be perfect companions. Remember that man’s saddle are different from woman’s. The seat post is really not that important, go with what you have (always check for major rust).
Racks for Bicycle Touring: another important component
Racks suffer heavy solicitations under load, so they are prone to failure. Especially if you plan to cycle some dirt roads, consider investing a few bucks in that, we know people who didn’t and regretted. We use Crosso, they are cheap enough (about 30$) and we never had any trouble.
You can go with cheap tires like this too, as long as you bring your toolkit essentials and learn how to repair a puncture. Just be sure to don’t put yourself in danger by riding on worn-out tires.
Assemble your touring bike and go
Now that you have all the components, is time to put the bike together. If you have no experience, don’t worry, you can always watch a ton of YouTube video and learn. By doing things yourself you’ll gain a lot of skills that will be extremely helpful during your trip.
If there’s a local social workshop, go for it or you can always try to befriend a mechanic, buy him/her a couple of beers and watch him/her work. Be sure though to let a professional give the last look to your bike before you set off.
Now that you’re all set with your (almost) new touring bike it’s time to gear up, pick a destination (or just a direction) and set of for you great trip!