Real touring bikes: British Columbia


More real touring bikes from the Alaska Highway, the Cassiar and the Yellowhead–most of these bikes are highly personalized adaptations of otherwise familiar bikes.  If you saw these in stores you’d think, “Sure. That’s a mountain bike, and that’s a road bike and that’s a hybrid”.  On the road, they’re all touring bikes.  A unique theme threads it’s way through these bikes: this is the Joe Murray edition of “Real touring bikes”.

This Basque rider was on a Giant Iguana, purchased in 2001.  His signage suggests he’s been on the road for fifteen years, and over 150,000 kms.  He was carrying two spare tires and a spare rim, amongst many other things assumed quite practical when away from home for part of a lifetime.  His Carradice panniers were well-worn and bulging, but holding together.  When asked why he had the extra rim, he explained that when he saw it in Calgary he had to have it, owing from some past experience.  In a thick accent he declares, “Alex rim (brand), very strong!”.





The Swiss rider was on a closeout Voodoo Bizango sourced from a European distributor going out of business.  Fit with a Thorn Mt.-Tura fork (suspension corrected), he described his rigid ride to be quite capable, but that the fork soaked vertical disturbances on dirt roads quite nicely.  He shared with a hand gesture the appearance of the fork flexing, soaking washboard or rumblestrips.  Overall, a tidy bike; note the can of bear spray at his hip.  As well, the Thorn fork locates the v-brake mounts on the rear of the fork crown, presumably to make room for racks.  Voodoo Bikes are headquartered in Flagstaff, AZ and are designed by Joe Murray.  While riding through Flagstaff, this rider’s host insisted on taking him to see Joe.  Delighted, they shared a beer.


A Kiwi on the Cassiar riding a Giant Sedona with a standard carry-on suitcase and a folding camp chair strapped to the rear rack.  To know that some real comforts are stored amongst his equipment is reassuring, as I sometimes cannot imagine what’s hiding in all those Ortlieb panniers.  A camp chair would be a real comfort.


An early Kona Explosif, designed by Joe Murray.  This watershed mountain bike established tighter geometries, sloping top tubes, and straight-blade forks for mountain bikes to come.  At least, Cass (who’s old enough to know) waxes endlessly of the virtues of the early Explosif.    As Kona literature explains, Joe didn’t invent sloping top tubes, but he’s helped make them standard in the best new bikes (c. 1991).  Lots of Charlie Cunningham is hidden in the important features of the Explosif, at least to my eye.  This one’s got a purple fork, Deore DX components all around, original wheels with Araya RM-20 rims, and a U-brake in the rear.  Victor, one of three Spaniards in the group, saved it from collecting dust in a garage for another decade.  I suspect it’s from 1990, cross-referencing the existence of the short-lived Deore DX group and the popularity of U-brakes and Rollercams in the 80’s.





This couple from Buffalo, NY were riding newer Trek 520s.  If you go into a Trek bicycle store this is what they sell you for “touring”.  The male rider has had numerous problems with the stock wheels and warranty replacements.  I’ve ridden with other riders that have had similar problems with the wheels on a newer 520.  In a pinch, I’ve even purchased a wheel from a Trek store, similar to the ones specced on these bikes a few years ago.  It lasted only a week.  There’s no mystery to strong wheels;  what I’m suggesting is that Trek specs these bikes with crummy wheels.  They should know that people will load their possessions and ride cross-country on these bikes.  It’s no wonder they are losing ground to the Surly Long Haul Trucker which boasts a smarter frame, better tire clearances and stronger wheels from the start.  It’s cheaper too.

My first touring bike was slated to be a vintage military-green 1983 Miyata 1000, but the drive-side dropout broke a few weeks before the trip.  A 1995 Trek 520 was in waiting and carried me through my first year of cycletouring.  The 1985 Schwinn High Sierra replaced it, and was the gateway to my obsession with larger and larger tires.


A French rider from Nantes, riding an upright Giant bike with 700 x 47mm Schwalbe Marathon tires.  He was in love with the concept of fat tires, and we exchanged information and e-mails.  I listed for him the names of the Surly Pugsley, the Salsa Mukluk, and a new French builder of fatbikes, Salamandre Cycles.  The giant yellow drybag holds two sleeping bags, both quite old and worn as I was told.  He wasn’t sure what kind of temperatures to expect in the great Canadian north– it was 90 degrees on this day.


From Calgary, this woman attached herself to the French rider, although they travel together symbiotically.  She was teaching him English idioms and every time she wished to depart, she insisted that they “shake a leg”.  Home-stitched panniers and handlebar bar adorn this late-80’s Miyata RidgeRunner, which is an everyday rider back in town.




Her method of chain lubrication is unique.  Upon reaching a critical mass of lube, the rear derailleur becomes a self-lubricationg system which lightly dampens the chain with each pass.  The chainrings do the same.  In fact, this wet accumulation is what dry or wax-based lubes are supposed to avoid.  She was having a great time, regardless of specific chain-lubing techniques, or lack thereof



And this Surly Long Haul Trucker was wearing 700 x 47mm Schwalbe Marathon tires, vintage Campagnolo pedals, Nitto Randonneur handlebars, S&S couplers, and a custom aluminum front rack.  This Eugene, OR based rider borrowed the rack design from a Jandd Extreme front rack, but with a porteur-style top.  A local organization that teaches kids to weld bikes assembled the rack from his plans and materials.  Paul Thumbies are mounted on the tops of the bars, upside-down.  The rider has also owned a Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road, which he loved; a Rivendell All-Rounder which shimmied uncontrollably, and was sold; and this Surly LHT, which fits the largest tires of all and seems to be up to the task of carrying some things.




The Joe Murray trifecta:  these vintage Rock’n’Road tires date from as far back as 1988, back when Bruce Gordon’s 700c Rock’n’Road frame was pushing the boundaries of the 700c based bike.  Now recognized as an important proto-29er, the BG Rock’n’Road fit tires as large as 45mm.  This tire was designed by Joe Murray for Bruce Gordon, and was manufactured by Panaracer.  I wouldn’t have know anything about this tire three days ago, but it has recently been re-released and is available at Black Mountain Cycles (Point Reyes Station, CA and online), where I learned about it on shop owner Mike Varley’s blog.  Actually, he’s been talking a lot about 40-50mm 700c tires, which fit his Black Mountain Cycles cross frames and hook up well with assorted Marin roads and trails.  In theory, the rider planned to use these on remote dirt roads up north.


14 thoughts on “Real touring bikes: British Columbia

  1. Those 47’s look gnarly on that Trucker. And fenders too! As you said, the last year or so Mike has been speaking highly of increased girth for both dirt and road. (Tire girth, I mean) I have managed to squeeze a 35 into the frame of the Schwinn, and would now never go smaller.

    An interesting side note (at least to me) is that Bikes Direct (where I sometimes go late at night when I think no one is watching) has a an offering in titanium designed with more upright seating in mind as well as accommodation for 45s. Also a carbon fork with eyelets. An old-man road bike or the next generation of lightweight tourist?

    Your comments about the 520 were bold and necessary, I think. In my long ago youth we knew that if we purchased an implement from Sears Roebuck, it would be sturdy and serviceable and do the job we bought it to do. So when someone counts on the Mighty Trek corporation to outfit a bicycle for rigorous use, it should be up to the task. Unfortunately, Sears is no longer what it once was and I hope Trek is not following this modern trend of “good enough”.

    I won’t even get started on what happened to Schwinn and I noticed that Bikes Direct is selling those, also. Thanks Nick.


    • Late at night I go to Craigslist postings in cities I do not live, but will be visiting soon. You never know when a Schwinn Cimarron or Miyata Ridgerunner will show up for a sweet deal.

      45mm clearance is close to great, but when you ask to install a fender without the usual complications of fitting things in tight spaces, you lose close to 10mm of tire capacity. Basically, you get a 35mm tire and fender on the Motobecane if you are good at fitting fenders, although I’m glad to see that people are paying attention to the simple fact that the pneumatic tire is the best thing to happen to bicycles, and that was well over a hundred years ago! WIthout fenders, a 40mm tire will fit as long as the wheel is true, which is a common Grant Peterson point about tire clearances and forks without broad fork crowns. Just as on the BMC cross bike, the 1.95 Vee tire that Mike was using fit a little close for my tastes, although it’s not a problem when you are in a bike shop every day. Ti and carbon give desirable ride qualities I am told, but it’s all in the tires– maintenance-free suspension, better traction and floatation when necessary. This might just be luck, which I also suggest, but I’ve made it to Banff without a flat.

      Your ideal bike might actually be the BMC Cross frame or a Cross-Check, both of which are priced to move. A Ti Fargo or Vaya (not as cheap as the Motobecane, for sure), would also serve you well with appropriate clearances. An old ATB, customized for the TPC would also be wise and would never leave you looking for more room to fit tires or fenders. I’ve built tourers with new tires and chain, rack, and fenders for friends for less than $350 total.

      Or, keep riding that old Le Tour, stay away from hills, and never ride more than thirty miles a day and you’ll be happy. Actually, that sounds like my retirement plan.

      • And while I’m sipping beverages in a Starbuck’s in a cosmopolitain mountain village, I do not to pretend to school the TPC. Your volumes of wisdom will always exceed mine, but here’s a tip. Pay for and enjoy a drip coffee (provide own mug for savings), then proceed to drink cup after cup of delicious whole milk from the sugar/milk/condiment bar. Add free wifi for hours and leave Banff feeling like you were not cheated by this tourist-trap mountain town. In fact you have cheated Banff, and have strong bones and healthy muscles to prove it. That’s the gypsy trade, my friend.

    • Rocky Mountain News Headlines! This just in:
      From the Rocky Mountain News Report:


      Rumours of Gypsy Invasion! Reports of Nervous Sheep and Missing Milk Maids! Local Baristas claim sugar shortage amid speculation that Global Warming and Hot Air from Alaska may be behind upset.

      Authorities are searching for a mysterious figure known only as “Pugsley, ”

      In other news, President Obama again turned to noted White House Counsel and Man-About-Town the famed Trailer Park Cyclist who once again figured it all out and fixed everything.

      “I can’t take all the credit,” says the humble and dashing hero, ‘I relied heavily on my good friend the Handsome Devil, without whose deep pockets and fat tires we would not have had a chance. This Medal of Honor is as much his as it is mine, although I do get to wear it first and will be wearing it for a period of time that will be disclosed at a later date. Much later.”

      • Crazier than I, TJ. I certainly laughed, for not only did I “borrow” some milk but also cane sugar packets from two separate locations. Cream of wheat is real good with some quality sugar.

  2. A correction: The Bikes Direct Motobecane I referenced actually claims to fit up to a 40mm tire. Still, it is an indication that at least someone is paying attention to larger tire sizes to the point of designing for them.

  3. I have been thinking for a long time of getting a 700x47c tire, the max my Handsome Devil will accommodate, and that beefy Schwable marathon might be just the ticket for my own fat tire ride.

    • What kind of Handsome Devil are you riding? I do love the Marathon, although they’ve beefed it up a bit this past year with a thicker 3mm inner layer called “Green Guard”, much like the 5mm blue foam-like layer in the Marathon Plus. I’ve not ridden one of these new ones but Schwalbe says it’s a little heavier and I’d suppose a little more like riding on a pile of rubber, as the Pluses feel to me. For anyone worried about weight and things, the Dureme or the Mondial would be the ticket. For regular old folks like us, the Marathon will do just fine. It’s also more likely to be stocked locally, and as any tire, will ride a lot better after about some miles– I really liked the way it rode after about 10,000 miles.

      It is said that Neil Young prefers to play well-used strings; if I could find a source, I’d only ride well-worn Marathons.

      • I’m really liking the Dureme – it’s a good chunk lighter than the Mondial. I’m digging it because it’s fast on pavement, but there’s meat to it that it’ll bounce about on dirt too. It’s weirdly comfortable, and being light, makes a good spare. The only thing I don’t dig is the price tag, compared to the regular Marathons.

      • The Dureme is my dream tire as I enjoy more spirited riding when the pavement arrives, and don’t mind a less aggressive tire on dirt as I often maximize traction by adjusting my pressure, which is a benefit of traveling light. The Mondial would bite a little bit more and appears to be long wearing, for an acceptable weight. It’s like a fancy Marathon from what I can tell. I know lots of folks were disappointed when the XR went out of production, but I don’t have an interest in it.

        Riding the 50mm Dureme? Would you go for something a little bigger if available? Have you had a chance to measure it on the rim?

  4. Loving this Real Touring Bike series, Nick. And I’m glad to know — or at least it’s implicit in your comments — that’s there’s not much evangelizing on anyone’s part for their style of ride. Instead, everyone just enjoying her or himself. Cheers, Joe.

    • Small bits of evangelism are present, but I may be the greatest offender. Mostly, I manage to keep my mouth shut but the inevitable comments about my tires and my framebag come with some explanation on my part. Some Germans asked if I had a motor in my framebag the other day.

      This morning, I flew into Banff on the well-travelled Bow Valley Parkway, a secondary road for rubbernecking motorists and bicyclists. There were several commercial tours out riding, and I was in the thick of some smoking-hot Cat 6 races featuring Trek Madones and Ti Backroads bikes. In silent evangelism, I took most of them on the climbs and swept the field.

      • Now in my sophomore year of All Bikes All the Time I have learned to separate the wheat from the chaff (to quote one of Neil’s cohorts). Nothing like getting your facts from somebody typing in a tent a thousand miles from where he was a couple weeks ago.

        But that thirty-mile-a-day bit had a faint air of challenge about it. I ain’t dead yet, dawg.


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