Touring Bikes Available in/near Madison, Wisconsin
(and probably elsewhere, too)
Jim Winkle, updated March 8, 2020
If you own only one bike, consider making it a touring bike... they're great for casual day trips through the countryside handling steep backroads with ease, they're good for century rides because they're comfortable, they of course excel at bike camping, and while they're not ideal for city riding people do use them to get around (with groceries!). Below are my favorite 2020 touring bikes available in the Madison area and probably other cities, too. (Most links on this page will open in a new window.)
This is not a complete list, but rather represents "classic" style touring bikes, suitable for worldwide self-contained road tours (there are other types of touring bikes for different kinds of touring). This is the kind of riding I love the most because the pace is just right for exploring an area, I get a sense of empowerment (you can travel indefinitely like this!), it's easy to meet people (they're curious about the journey), and I'm happiest when out in fresh air and sunshine.
The process of buying a bike is somewhat daunting since there are so many choices (and all a bit different... and none perfect) and information is scattered. Hopefully putting it all in one place like this will help, along with important things to think about, especially gearing.
Let's talk about gearing, which is perhaps the most important -- and overlooked -- feature of a bike.
I think the most enjoyable biking is in hilly or mountainous areas; it's scenic and the downhills are super fun! However, when you're touring and carrying a heavy load in an area like this, you want low (easy) gearing available for climbing those hills. Sadly, most bikes don't come with enough low gears. Ask around... nobody complains they have too many low gears.
Gearing is measured in "gear inches" (GI), which is a number that's directly proportional to the distance you travel in one pedal revolution (GI = distance / pi). The lower the number, the easier it is to pedal. Somewhere in the range of 17-21 GI is a good easiest gear for the average person. If you're particularly strong and/or young, perhaps you could go a little higher for your lowest gear. But be careful... you can easily ruin your knees or back with the wrong gearing. I rode a bike into my mid-40's where the lowest gear was 27 GI and lived to tell the tale, but it was work getting up those hills and I did have back troubles. I redid the gearing so the lowest is now 20.3 GI, which gave me two additional lower gears.
It's recommended that you pedal from 60 to 90 rpm (revolutions per minute), so in the table below I included the speed at which you'll be traveling while in the lowest gear. It's a little easier to relate to mph than GI. :) Note that even with Surly's/Masi's relatively low GI of 18.6, you'll still be moving at 3.3 mph (at 60 rpm), which is a whole lot faster than walking up a steep hill pushing a heavy bike. However, some people prefer to walk since it can be good to use different muscles throughout the day.
It's possible to have your local bike shop build up a bike with easier gearing, but this will cost more. Most bike shops can build up a bike including Revolution Cycles and Cronometro, which are not listed below since they don't stock off-the-shelf touring bikes. Even simpler, it might be possible to have your mechanic give your bike easier gearing by swapping the smallest chainring for a smaller one (it is possible on the Surly bikes down to 22 teeth; haven't checked on the others).
While I spent a lot of words on low gears, medium gears is where you'll spend most of your time, probably in the 10-20 mph range. Make sure you have a good selection of gears in your favorite range and easy access to them (from the same chainring is ideal).
The high gears are the least important and many touring bikes have some which are rarely -- if ever -- used. For example, most bikes below give you a highest gear with 48t in the front and 11t in the rear. That translates to 32 mph at 90 rpm. If you're able to go that fast, chances are you're going down a hill or have an unusually strong tailwind... do you really want to be pedaling while going that fast? Personally, I'd rather go a little slower, coast, and focus on safety at that speed.
Triple or Double?
One important final word about gearing... all of the bikes below come with a triple crank (three chainrings at the pedals). This is traditional in the world of bike touring. However, I think a double is superior... they're simpler, and more bike- and biker-friendly. Check out my article about using a double for touring bikes. You'll learn why I think a good gearing scheme is a 22/40t double crank (or 24/42t with 26 inch wheels) with a 9-speed 11-32t cassette.
Here are some other important things to think about.
Cabled disc brakes vs. rim brakes
It's best to avoid hydraulic disc brakes; while they are reliable, if they do break, and you're in the middle of nowhere, they'll be next to impossible to fix.
The biggest advantages of cabled disc brakes over rim brakes are:
Much better stopping power when wet. While this is great in an urban environment, a quick stop is rarely needed in a rural area.
Elimination of the risk of a tire blowout from excessive rim heat if you "ride" the brakes down a mountain road.
However, parts for disc brakes are not as widely available as parts for rim brakes and some bike shops may not be able to help you if you need repair. Also, disc brakes add about $200 to the price of a bike and you'll need to change the pads more frequently. Personally, I prefer rim brakes for touring, but here's a comprehensive list of advantages and disadvantages of disc brakes so you can decide for yourself. It seems the industry has embraced disc brakes for touring bikes for now; if you prefer rim brakes, your choices are limited or you can do a custom build.
If you end up going the custom route, you can purchase just the frame for most of the bikes below. Some companies like Seven, Soma, and Gunnar make nice touring frames, but not complete bikes. The Seven Expat SL is made of titanium and is popular. The Soma Saga offers frames designed for 26 inch wheels for frame sizes 52 and smaller, which many people 5' 7" and under prefer. 26 inch wheels are smaller than 700c and smaller wheels allow the frame to be slightly larger which makes it easier to get to water bottles, increases heel clearance, and reduces toe overlap.
9-speed vs. 10-speed Cassettes
9-speed cassettes used to be the de facto standard for touring bikes, but 10-speeds are becoming more common (10-speed cassettes used to be harder to find). Either is fine; the advantage of 10-speed cassettes is more variety in choices for gearing, if you need it.
Many who cycle tour use the Brooks B17 leather saddle. While it's rock hard at first, it theoretically breaks in to fit your bottom perfectly. This works well for most people, but hasn't worked so well for me. I still need biking shorts with good padding.
The three bikes in the table are my favorites for 2020. The "t" suffix stands for "teeth" (in the chainring/sprocket). Note that you may have to scroll the list.
Other touring bikes. These could all use an easier low gear.
Surly Long Haul Trucker has rim brakes if you prefer their simplicity. No longer available, but these were popular bikes, so might be available on the used market.
All City Space Horse is a beautiful bike! It's more suited to light touring and could use two more low gears. Comes with brifters and a double crankset. The GRX model is the better of the two, but unfortunately has hydraulic brakes. (Added in 2022)
Co-op Cycles ADV 1.1 unfortunately has hydraulic brakes.
Jamis Aurora is an entry-level bike. If you can afford a few hundred more, other choices are better, but this is a super-affordable starter bike.
Specialized AWOL doesn't seem to be for sale anymore.
Before you leave this page, I also want to let you know that Southwest Wisconsin offers some of the best conditions in the U.S. for bike touring! Also known as the "Driftless" area, the topography is interesting, the numerous back roads are lightly traveled, the scenery is spectacular, the downhills are fun, the small towns can be sweet, and there's a fair amount of camping. There are lots of hiking and canoeing opportunities along the way, too.
Do you know of other places in the US that are like this? I'm looking for other good places to tour; hills are optional, but I really value quiet roads (a few cars per hour) and decent scenery. Please contact me with your favorite places to tour!
Thanks for reading; please let me know if it was helpful!
Please send me an email if you have corrections or feedback.