25 August, 2021

The Many Manners of Touring

 by Connor

    It seems like every year in this industry, someone comes out with another sub-category of cycling to differentiate their product or their experience from the others. Be it the advent of the "down-country" mountain bike (Short travel, slack geo), to the "all-road" bike (just a gravel bike?), everyone wants to name their slice of the pie. 

    Velo Orange has been making touring bikes since its inception. Granted we've offered different specs and styles over the years, but the moniker never really changed all that much - life's simpler that way. Our Pass Hunter may be our one exception to this, being what would widely be defined as an "all-road" bike, but it can still take front racks, fenders, bags, and 650Bx42mm tires. 

Kevin's Pass Hunter, sans Rando Rack

    However, in today's cycling world, even touring (perhaps the most general and least-finicky flavor of cycling) isn't safe from subdivision. There's Credit Card Touring, Sport Touring, Traditional Touring, Bike Packing, Nomadic Touring, and Randonneuring, just to name a few. So what gives? You're putting your stuff on your bike and staying someplace - is it not all the same? No. At least that's what Scott tells me, so let's dive in.

    While mountain bike categorization is generally based off of amount of suspension travel, geometry, and frame kinematics, the differences in touring bikes seem to be based more on how much stuff you carry, and less on where you're going. From what I can glean, here they are listed from lightest to heaviest load:

Credit Card Touring

Light, fast road touring bike. You maybe have a small handlebar bag with a change of clothes, you're staying at hotels/BnBs, and you're paying for everything (food, shelter, utilities) on a credit card, hence the name. In theory, you could step outside your door with your bike and credit card and go for a tour.

Sport Touring

Slightly more gear, perhaps this is a longer trip, a few more changes of clothes, and you'll be staying at multiple places. Still a lighter duty bike, designed less for load carrying, and more geared towards speed.


Photo courtesy of Morgan of Found in the Mountains

This is probably the "fastest" form of touring because you're dealing with a time limit. Similar to Sport Touring, but with more paperwork. See Scott's blog post here.

Traditional Touring

More tire clearance, maybe you're hitting slightly rougher roads, carrying your full load including your food and shelter. Think racks and two to four panniers.


Photo courtesy of Brad from RoadRunner Bags

You're fully loaded, going on and off road, running wider, knobby tires. You likely aren't running racks, hanging bags fore and aft, and you're camping in remote areas not necessarily set aside for camping. About as remote as it gets.


Perhaps a bit of a backlash from bikepacking luggage and its often times over-complex system of straps, pads, enormous saddle bags, more straps, lashes, plastic holders, and straps, basketpacking is a happy medium between the practicality of traditional touring bags and the out-of-the-way-of-obstacles afforded by bikepacking bags. Through, you do need a front rack and basket, so there are some hard mounting points to keep in mind for those seeking rougher terrain.

Nomadic Touring

You have sold all of your possessions and now indefinitely are touring, riding where you please, making home where you roam.

    So maybe it does have a little bit to do with where you're going. I feel like most "Bikepacking" bikes I see have more in common with modern long wheelbase hardtails than they do traditional touring bikes, and they're often pictured in remote, wild areas with no trace of civilization in sight. Despite this, they're still far removed in essence from mountain bikes. 

Scott and Melissa's setup during their Iceland tour

    I would challenge anyone to convince me that what we call the "modern touring bike" isn't just a gravel bike with bits and bobs bolted onto it. Endurance geometry compatible with flat or drop bars, wide tire clearance and a little room for fenders and/or bags? Sure sounds like a gravel bike to me. Recalling that gravel bikes were once your off-season cyclocross bikes with big tires squeezed in, and that the early 'cross bikes were cantilever tourers with knobby tires glued on. You see how things begin to seem a little muddled?

       Photo Credit: https://www.velonews.com/news/cyclocross/commentary-ive-been-racing-cyclocross-for-50-years/ 

Alan Hills riding his Peugeot UO-8 in an early-1970's cyclocross race. If you haven't read his 50-year saga in the 'cross scene, it's definitely a must-read for enthusiasts, and can be found here.

    I think that the modern tendency to categorize everything has its benefits - it allows people, concepts, and designs to stand apart and differentiate themselves from the crowd. Concerning bikes, however, does it not also create a whirlwind effect where there are too many categories to choose from? I recall my time as a bike mechanic and salesperson back when the gravel boom exploded. The average customer didn't know what to make of this new category. Was it a road bike, a 'cross bike, or a hybrid (or a combination of all three)?  The customer is sometimes lost in a sea of subdivisions and thus ultimately put off by the process of buying a bike.  

    This begs the question; does touring (and cycling as a whole) benefit from this kind of categorization? Or is it just another barrier to entry for folks interested in cycling and/or more specifically, touring? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Smitty2k1 said...

I'd never considered strapping a sleeping bag to the back of my Daytripper. This may be a game changer for me!

Also burgundy bags are the best color!

Drew Roth said...

I love my Campeur. My touring is typically what you have labeled "nomadic". What matters most for this is a wide gear range and rider comfort for long days pedaling.

Dave said...

This is a great rundown! I might quible a bit about the "credit card tourer" being quite as pared down as you show. One might still want room for food, a couple of changes of clothes, a book, rain gear, etc, but not shelter. Of course it's different for everyone and depends too on seasonality and where you are traveling.

I must say, I despair a little when I hear people talking earnestly about "gravel bikes" as though they've got their heads around it and are enthusiastic about the category. It's awesome to be into riding on dirt roads, but the bikes have been here all along, as well as the dirt roads, they just didn't have the name. In this regard folks sometimes seem a bit clueless, as thought some new type of bike just got invented and NOW they can do a new form of riding. On the other hand, if more folk are feeling free to get off the pavement, that's awesome.

Unknown said...

this is such a great commentary!!!

Unknown said...

Where does this fit in?


John Frey said...

Does anybody just ride a bicycle anymore?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the enjoyable read. We are forever splitting categories and refining them to no end. I get the differences here, but ultimately, what these share is: long-distance travel, by bike, with some luggage. Not commuting. Not racing. Just seeing the world by bike. How much luggage, carried in what way, on what tires, with what frame geometry? For sure, everyone will tailor these to their planned voyage and route. Not every little tailoring implies a new category of bike, to be marketed and sold as something distinct. I, like many, have bought into this marketing, and I get it. But I also yearn for some simplicity.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a "cyclist".

I'm just a dude on a bike.

Stephen said...

The "categories" are really only shorthand for the typical users to which a bike might be put, so they're handy when discussing things provided both parties are au fait with the jargon. There's usually nothing to stop people from using whatever bike they have for another purpose, thiugh sometimes doing so can be frustrating. As for riding randonnees/brevets, the stuff carried has much more in common with Credit Card Touring, i.e., as little as possible. Unfortunately, it appears that in the US the word "randonneuring" has mutated and taken on a life of its own, not unlike Frankenstein's monster.

Jim said...

Bikepacking: put your stuff where your water goes and water where your stuff goes.
(tongue in cheek).

Clayton said...

As a near forty year, dirtdancing, bikepacking cyclist and hobby bike bag maker, I think it’s good to to divide up touring bikes, for folks new to touring. I feel everyone will have a subconscious preference, due to health, fitness, wilderness fears, level of tolerable comfort, etc.. Sub-classifying them gives the new bike tourer a starting point to figure out what their jam is, and gives a broad education on why gear needs are different.
I remember “Bicycling magazine’” in the seventies that had in depth tech articles (written for adults, not the pablum they now put out)) on racks and panniers. Back then there were no subdivisions. I learned to develop my own gear as I broke all the commercial road touring stuff.. in other words, the hard way. I didn’t know hard points broke, that panniers made lots of noise, and wire basket mounts failed off-roading…… until they broke. There were no bikepacking bags.
As a newbie, it would have been nice to know how to pick a ‘type of touring’ for my intended use. Disclaimer: I’m a major bike nerd, and the more new categories to drool over, or puzzle over, the better. �� BIKEPACKER FOR LIFE.

Anonymous said...

Great post! In my circle, I’m somewhat thought of as the guy to talk to about bikes. Invariably the question of what kind of bike a person should buy comes up. After a few minutes of me trying to explain about the many choices of bicycle categories, the listener usually gets a glassy look on their face and wishes they hadn’t asked.

henrywildeberry said...

We need a classification system for touring bicycles just like that for trees:

Family Single or group of bicycles that closely or uniformly resemble each other in general appearance and technical character

Genus A group of bicycle species that have fundamental traits in common but that differ in other, lesser characteristics

Species A group of bicycles in the same genus made up of similar bicycles (e.g. bikes that can ride on gravel)

Variety A subdivision of a species of bicycles having a distinct, though often inconspicuous, difference (e'g gravel racing bikes)

Cultivar A variety, selected for one or more outstanding characteristics, that is being cultivated (e.g. ultraromance)

Hybrid A bicycle that results from mating genetically dissimilar bicycles (can occur in nature or artificially) (e.g. hardtail MTB with drop bars).

Clone A bicycle derived from one parent, thereby being genetically identical to the parent bicycle (e.g. a gravel bike is a 90's MTB).

painter46 said...

This guy knows how to reach his destination!
(Encountered on the GAP in 2010) His rig had been welded, rewarded and had gussets everywhere it counted - to hold the weight.

Unknown said...

Connor- me thinks your definition of credit card touring missed the mark. It refers to a lack of camping gear, not that the only thing you have with you is literally the shirt on your back and a credit card. Also, I think sport touring would be the lightest one. To me it's always meant basically riding your bike with a camera slung over your back. Also, we need to call out "trekking" here which is a bogus made up category that means absolutely nothing.

Unknown said...

Best reason for all the categorization is additional rationalization for N + 1.
"But...I don't have a single speed basketpacking credit card nomadic T
tourer built up with something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue....

Unknown said...

I think all the categorization is great for expanding the rationalization of more N+1.
"But...I don't have a single speed basketpacking nomadic credit card tourer built up with something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue..."

painter46 said...

Sorry about the spell-check error in my previous post. The bike MAY have been "rewarded" but I meant "rewelded."

Anonymous said...

If any of the categorized bikes described does not come with proper brazed-on rack mounts it's not a touring bike in my opinion.

anniebikes said...

Bike choices and styles of touring are whatever you make it. Any bike can be a touring bike, just like any bike can be a commuter bike. Are the bike choices complicated to first time riders? Sure are. I'm just happy there are plenty of folks getting out there.

Unknown said...

Two quibbles:

"Credit card touring" is an activity, "sport touring" is a type of bicycle. Credit card touring is best done on sport touring bicycles.

You have stumbled into a very common and regrettable error: "begs the question" does not mean "asks the question." Begging the question is a logical fallacy. It's a form of circular argument, in which one's conclusion assumes an answer to a question not asked, such that the assumed answer is necessary for one's argument to be correct.


Mr. Cranky said...

Well Connor, pretty well disagree with most/maybe half of what you said but instead of getting into it I'll let this picture replace my 1000 words:


Mr. Cranky, cuddly curmudgeonly contrarian

Horrible Old Man said...


I'd hardly call your second quibble a "regrettable error."

500 years of common use has led to "begs the question" meaning different things to different speakers. Merriam-Webster lists various uses of the term, including: asking a question, asking a question to elicit a specific answer, or even ignoring a question.

All of this is ignoring that the phrase it self is a anonymous mistranslation from Latin of a mistranslation from Greek.

dfs said...

I think all the categories can be confusing for new riders, not knowing they are all very similar