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I want to buy a bike. These are the things I'm looking for:

  • frame that can handle weight and light off-roading (eg, sand, gravel, rocks, roots, but no big drops)
  • frame can accomodate fatter, treadier tires (for abovementioned off-roading)
  • road wheels fit for the weight involved in touring
  • drop bars
  • bolts for front and rear panniers
  • good for daily commuting too
  • fits a 5'4" (162.5cm) woman
  • around the 1000$ mark (give or take)

What kind of bike would be a good fit?

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A small-framed touring bike might do the trick, with 700x32 tires. Make sure the bars are the correct width and you should be very happy. (Will post a full answer tomorrow if someone else doesn't beat me to it.) –  Neil Fein Oct 3 '11 at 2:05
    
Oooooh, the Novara Safari is on sale for $900. That's the sorta-offroad version of the Randonee, an awesome touring bike that can already handle some gravel and packed dirt. –  Neil Fein Oct 3 '11 at 2:08
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Specific recommendation to evaluate is the Surly Cross-Check and Surly Long Haul Trucker, both of which have a 42cm frame size option, fit fat tires, commonly used for touring, front and rear rack supported, etc: surlybikes.com/bikes/cross_check surlybikes.com/bikes/long_haul_trucker docs.google.com/spreadsheet/… –  freiheit Oct 3 '11 at 2:10
    
Sasha, have you found a frame size that works for you with other bikes, or are you new to cycling? Do you want to get a regular bike, or the so-called "womens" step-through design? Is weight important to you? (Steel might be better for touring, but IMO Aluminum is better for off-road.) Lastly, any bike that's good for light touring is gonna be good for commuting - and the other way around, so that part's easy. –  Neil Fein Oct 3 '11 at 2:28
    
Yep, a touring bike. My current bike is a Novara Randonee, and it's been a good bike -- probably on sale this time of year for near your price point. But if you want a bike sized for a small female you might want to look at one with smaller wheels than 700C. (But your price point is going to be hard to hit then -- Terry's bike is $3100, eg.) –  Daniel R Hicks Oct 3 '11 at 2:43
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5 Answers 5

I think there are three options to look at that meet all your requirements:

  1. A touring bike
  2. A Cyclocross bike
  3. Build what you want starting with an old steel frame. (70s or 80s road, or hard-tailed mountain bike)

Note when shopping that a good rack is going to run you $50-$200 (and you want a front and back, so a total of two racks) and good panniers seem to run $100-$200 for a pair (and you may want two pairs). If a bike comes with good racks and costs more it may actually work out cheaper for you.

In general, you may want to look for bikes that have 26" wheels instead of 700c wheels. Since you're 5'4", fitting the larger wheels on a bike involves some frame geometry compromises. Also, if you're planning to do touring in other countries, apparently the 26" wheel size is easier to find in Asia and south america.

Also consider having the shop replace the stem and handlebars to get the fit right for you. You may find that the bikes come stock with handlebars that are a little too wide for you and a little too far forward to reach comfortably. (however, fit is tricky since there's a lot of details and height isn't enough)

Touring bike

There's a lot of sub-variants in the general touring bike category, so not all meet these descriptions

  • Touring bikes are specifically made for carrying heavy loads using a front and back rack. Holes to bolt the racks, heavy duty frame, heavy duty wheels, etc.
  • Touring bikes are generally heavy-duty enough to handle a bit of off-road paths and many people include fire roads and other dirt or gravel roads in their touring.
  • Touring bikes usually are designed to handle fairly fat tires (for comfort over long distances and rough roads) and could have knobby tires mounted easily enough. Or fenders, though fenders limit how fat you can go on the tires a little.
  • Drop handlebars are common on touring bikes, though many people opt for various other bar styles
  • Touring bikes work great as a daily commuter (I use one that way)
  • Finding a touring bike for somebody who is 5'4" could be a little tricky
  • Many touring bikes are above your price-point by a few hundred US dollars.

As far as specific models, a few people have mentioned Novara bikes, which are sold at REI. I ride a Surly Long Haul Trucker which I believe does have a frame size option that might fit you and I think still retails for about $1100 (and since it's distributed by QBP, most bike shops can order it).

Cyclocross bike

Cyclocross is a sport that involves a mix of off-road and on-road. Usually reasonably smooth dirt and/or mud. No jumps. The most expensive cyclocross bikes are optimized entirely for racing and have no rack bolt-holes, but the lower-end cyclocross bikes often have bolt-holes for fenders and/or racks.

  • Cyclocross bikes are designed for light off-road. Because of that, they're likely to be tough enough for what you want.
  • Cyclocross bikes usually come with tires that are slightly knobby, and often have clearance for slightly larger tires than that (so that muddy tires can still roll)
  • Drop bars are the standard on cyclocross bikes
  • Once you've added a rack (or two, or basket, or rack and basket) and fenders, these make great commuter bikes. I've definitely seen people using them that way. For commuting or touring I would replace the stock knobby tires with a smooth puncture-resistant tire with reflective sidewalls (Schwalbe Marathon something, Specialized Armadillo, etc). For more dedicated off-road usage you might want to replace the tires with something more knobby than the stock tires.

Specific models: The Surly Cross-Check should work, it's very similar to the Surly Long Haul Trucker I mentioned above. I've seen Specialized Tri-Cross bikes for under $1000.

Right now is the very beginning of Cyclocross race season in much of the US, so if you're in the US it's likely stores will have some on the floor to check out.

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Here's a brief article from a short female touring cyclist about getting the right bike: tamiasoutside.com/2011/06/25/shortcyclists –  freiheit Oct 3 '11 at 18:23
    
Uh, that's two options. –  Daniel R Hicks Oct 3 '11 at 19:02
    
@Dan - The "build your own" is meant to be the third option, I think. A steel hardtail MTB frame would work well for that one. –  Neil Fein Oct 4 '11 at 3:29
    
Thanks so much for the detailed answers everyone! My first post on this site, and I'm more than fully satisfied (double-fully? :) –  Sasha Oct 4 '11 at 4:31
    
I totally get along with @freiheit about Surly, they build the Long Haul Trucker with exactely what OP has in mind. Besides, tamiaoutside.com is an excellent blog! –  heltonbiker Oct 4 '11 at 14:23
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My Specialized Tricross meets all of those requirements, except it's sold as a man's bike so the geometry might be different and the seat definitely is. Note that in the photo there isn't front pannier bolts; the front forks for the 2011 bike were recalled and replaced with forks that did have bolts. There was a problem with how the brakes were attached to the forks for the old bike.

The tyres are 32" and a bit knobbly. I've used it for medium weight camping (I carried tent but no cooking equipment). I bought it for £600 ($938) on an end-of-season sale so you may struggle to keep the price below $1000 as the 2012 bike is now out and full price.

The only cyclo-cross bike sole for women that my girlfriend (5'2") could fit on and was happy with was the Kona Jake 2011. In the link, it is £699.99 ($1094.64) but does not have front fork pannier bolts

We've taken them both light off-roading where it may be fairly muddy and bumpy, but I wouldn't take it anywhere that I'd need suspension because it'd be uncomfortable.

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The 'strap on' low-riders have worked for me, but, after a while, I realised I was carrying too much stuff and got rid of them. A good bar bag is all you want up front, any more and you are getting it wrong/unable to live humbly enough... The front fork is swappable-overable to one with pannier bolts so not having the bolts is no show stopper. +1 for the research on women specific bikes b.t.w. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Oct 3 '11 at 10:43
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I'd second freiheit's vote on the Novara Safari, and depending on whether you want to stretch the budget or look into used, maybe a Salsa Fargo (or the 26" Vaya if the 700c thing doesn't work out size-wise). Also worth taking a look at might be the Jamis Satellite.

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I suggest looking at the Salsa Fargo. It is a drop-bar mountain bike, but you can always put skinner tires for light touring.

If you forgo the rocks and roots, then any cyclo-cross bike should fit your needs.

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I own a Salsa Fargo and I love it but it is a beast of a bike. Great for touring and off-road riding. It's not my preferred commuter.

Whichever bike you choose I would steer you towards 26" wheels. Very often a great bike design gets badly compromised at the smaller sizes unless the size of the front wheel is decreased. For smaller riders this means really bad toe/wheel overlap. This problem will affect you the most during low speed turning like you would do off-road.

Surly's 26" LHT is tried-and-true if maybe a little overbuilt as a daily rider. I wouldn't hesitate to take one off-road with an appropriately wide tire.

Make sure you ride all of your potential bike several times before deciding.

Good Luck!

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