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I've been planning to do an "Orient Express" tour for a while now and I realised it would be a good idea to ask for advice regarding choosing the bike.

I was born in a mountainous area and used to ride a lot up until I was around 23, mostly on road and gravel, but featuring hills. "A lot" is subjective, I'm talking about 300-500 kilometres a month. I could do a 100 km day without issues.

I am now 29, have a sedentary job, did not cycle for a couple years, and choosing big goals is generally how I am able to make progress. I'm not planning to do the tour next week.

I need a proper bike for it, however.

The itinerary is Paris - Istanbul, a lot of flat areas, on the road, but I would also like to challenge some passes in the Alps, like the Furka in Switzerland.

I've travelled before with very little stuff and I don't need much luggage, just the basics.

I've been looking at a few bikes, the Trek 520, the Surly Disc Trucker and the Kona Sutra seem to stand out.

What are the aspects I should pay attention to when it comes to making a decision?

The one I like the most is the new 520 Grando, but I can't even try it since it's not available on European markets and I'd have to find a way to get it transported to me from the U.S.

I feel like I might be making a vanity decision here and for the purposes I need the standard 520 might even be a better choice.

TL;DR: I've fallen out of touch with the biking world and I would like to make a smart decision and not just pick something that looks "cool". Thank you for your advices

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  • In Germany, bicycle touring is popular, so it might be a good idea to go for a German touring bike. Particularly, the VSF TX-800 might be a good idea since VSF is very popular and widely available and it's probably easy to get it serviced and to obtain spare parts. Also, perhaps take a look at the Touring Bicycle Buyer’s Guide. – Erlkoenig Jan 8 at 16:25
  • Also, in some countries including Germany, lights are mandatory by law, so importing a bike without a dynamo might not be a good idea, unless you are sure you can keep battery lights charged. Also think about using a bike with a Rohloff hub, since it's robust and hub gears are popular in Europe so serviceability is good; but it's of course expensive. – Erlkoenig Jan 8 at 16:35
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    You should really tell us what features and important differences do those bike have. Otherwise this is really a shopping question. – Vladimir F Jan 8 at 17:48
  • The Germans have a suitable name for the kind of bike you're looking for: eierlegende Wollmichsau, meaning an egg-laying pig that will give you wool and milk. In fact you'd need a comfy bike for long distances, able to carry luggage, not too heavy for climbs, rugged enough for bad roads and solid as not to break down too easily. A hard task at hand. A shopping and catalogue-page turning question indeed – Carel Jan 8 at 18:25
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    Given the travel restrictions at this time, you may be better to ride locally and build up your strength and endurance, until the situation improves, before undertaking a long ride. – Criggie Jan 8 at 23:01
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There are a few factors to consider.

How much luggage do you want/need to carry? Stopping in hotels, or carrying a tent etc? Is speed/efficiency important? Can your flexibility/core strength support long periods in a more aerodynamic position?

You certainly can't go wrong with a traditional touring bike like the ones you mentioned, but there are other more modern and lightweight options available.

My personal preference for such a trip would be a race orientated gravel bike (like a Cervelo Aspero for example) fitted with bike packing bags. Fast, efficient and fun to ride, but with features that are good for touring like extra bottle cage mounts and top tube bag mounts.

But that is my preference for how I like to ride - others would have different ideas and priorities. The best we can do is give ideas/options, but only your own preferences and experience can tell you the right answer for you.

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  • It may be worth noting that the Aspero has no rack or fork blade mounts, and I think many race-oriented gravel bikes may also lack these mounts. Many road tourers do seem to prefer racks and panniers. – Weiwen Ng Jan 8 at 16:32
  • That you're thinking of a race/gravel bike suggests a degree of flexibility that the OP may lack as a returning cyclist. A long test ride or renting one for a day would be in order – Chris H Jan 8 at 18:45
  • Or (@WeiwenNg) you could do what I did - by a tourer, do very little touring but get into long day rides, and end up using bikepacking luggage despite all the mounting points. Not ideal but it fits. – Chris H Jan 8 at 18:48
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I'm not going to tell you what to buy. I'm going to suggest you look beyond a heavy tourer if you can truly pack light, despite liking mine (a Genesis Tour de Fer with dynamo lights, similar to some you're thinking of).

I'd planned on touring, which is why I bought it, and have ridden with full camping gear, wetsuit, hiking gear etc. for a total of 35kg of luggage in 4 panniers plus stuff on the rear rack. That was fine even with some short sharp climbs, but slow. Having optimised my kit, I can have a night or two away camping with a 15l saddlebag, bar bag, frame bag and toptube bag. That means no rack weight, and a smaller cross section for drag into the wind. I'd now only fit the full luggage for bike camping as opposed to touring. I stripped mine down to do a day ride with over 4500 metres of climbing in the Alps, and I took my time - but I did it. I can also handle dirt roads with 32-35mm tyres; the latter have a little tread and do fairly well on mud unless it's steep.

In a sense you wouldn't go wrong with any of the bikes you're looking at, with one big caveat: What you need is something that fits really well for long or consecutive days in the saddle.

A tourer may well offer this as the riding position is a bit more relaxed than faster road bikes, though there are "endurance road" models that look interesting, and light tourers, often from smaller frame builders. Just watch out for anything too restrictive around tyre choice. A third bottle cage under the downtube is very nice for tools.

The ideal I would say would be a light tourer, possibly steel, 35mm tyres, don't use the racks - or do what I've done recently and us the front rack screws for extra water when you really need it, freeing up space elsewhere.

When it comes to compatibility, don't worry too much. 700C and 26" should be no trouble in Europe, 650b/27.5" rarer but possible. Anything else would need caution. Similarly I wouldn't go above 10 speed - personally I'd choose the 3x9 gears I've got even if buying again. One thing I would avoid is hydraulics, though having injured myself in a brake-related crash, I'd want to be very familiar with my brakes and how they can go wrong (and not do a big trip on radically different pads, but that's rather specific).

When packing for multi day rides, do at least make sure to have room for fresh shorts often, also your other contact points - don't neglect feet and hands to save a little bulk/weight.

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  • Why do you say you would avoid hydraulics? Personally I'd think I'd want hydraulic brakes for a heavily-laden bike that I plan to ride down steep hills. – rclocher3 Jan 11 at 16:25
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    @rclocher3 lack of field serviceability is the big factor. I can strip my cable discs and replace the inner cable and pads at the side of the road with basic tools; pretty much any bike shop in the world could replace the whole cable. Would you carry the means to deal with a damaged hose, or even to bleed hydraulics? For sustained descents, cable discs with sintered pads can take all the heat you can throw at them without the fluid boiling. My 2019 crash was caused in part by resin-bonded ceramic pads - the resin melted on the back brake. – Chris H Jan 11 at 16:40
  • ... Had I field-stripped the brakes I might have noticed the excessive front rotor wear caused by the ceramics and switched to my spare metal pads before it got too late, but the descent before the one I crashed on was fine. – Chris H Jan 11 at 16:41
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    Thanks for sharing your experience with us, and I'm sorry to hear that you crashed. The field-serviceability issue and the resin-bonded-pad issue are news to me. One of my friends had a bike with cable-actuated disc brakes, and he says the brakes were terrible because the brakes would work well one time, but the next time the stopping power might be very poor. Hopefully not all cable-actuated disc brakes are like that! – rclocher3 Jan 11 at 18:38
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    @rclocher3 I've learnt quite a bit about them. Stopping power is generally very good, until the fixed pad wears a certain amount. It then needs to be tightened before the next big descent. That's easier on better designs, but shouldn't need tools. I've ridden in the Alps with mine, and some very laden hilly camping trips. I've changed pads at the roadside when I ran out of adjustment - a 5-minute job. As for the crash, all healed now, and surgical scars are much tidier than those left by a bad case of road rash – Chris H Jan 11 at 19:03
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For the brand and type of bike you want to use, consider one that is available and in use in the countries you want to cross. And if it is not the same for all countries, go for the one where you think it is the hardest to get service and replacement parts.

My parents always went on cycling holidays in France, bought Peugot bicycles and the first time they needed service in France the bike shop owner did not know this model, as it had not yet been sold in France. He did have a solution but even having French bikes was not enough.

From this experience I would say not to import a bike which is unknown in Europe. Especially if it works with imperial sizes for bolts, nuts and tools, as those will not be readily available in most of Europe.

And just like the first answer I would suggest to select any bike you like as long as you can bring the amount of luggage you need. And with that I mean that your bike carries the luggage, for a multi day ride you should not use a backpack.

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  • Peugeot bikes not being serviceable in France is quite unbelievable, unless they had been built outside of Europe for a specific market with totally different standards, like American, British or Asian. Most bicycles today, except maybe some US-BSO are built to ISO standards. – Carel Jan 8 at 18:35
  • They were just too new, the new model had been introduced in the Netherlands in one year and in France in the next, this was a small town bike shop which had not seen the new bikes yet. – Willeke Jan 8 at 18:37
  • When did this happen? In the old days there used to be lots of oddball national standards for components and Peugeot might have been big enough to invent their own proprietary stuff but since 90s components have been more or less standardized. – ojs Jan 12 at 8:18
  • Thinking back, late 80's or early 90's. It may have been that the new bikes used standard rather that brand specific parts. – Willeke Jan 12 at 9:04
  • That explains. A friend of mine had a Peugeot from the time, and it had weird mix of French, Swiss, JIS and ISO parts. – ojs Jan 12 at 9:21
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I've been looking at a few bikes, the Trek 520, the Surly Disc Trucker and the Kona Sutra seem to stand out.

Those are some of the most reasonable bikes you can buy today. The optimum material for bicycle frames and forks has long been butted chromium molybdenum steel (chromoly) and with recent "inventions" such as aluminum and carbon fiber it's all been going downhill since chromoly.

If I was about to purchase a non electrically assisted bicycle today, Kona Sutra plus few modifications would be my choice.

Let us look at the specifications of those bikes and what problems they have.

A common weakness is that none of these bikes is sold with a front hub dynamo, so you can't have reasonable lighting solution without changing the front hub or the entire front wheel. Another common weakness is that all those bikes on the list have a triple crankset with a ridiculously small "granny" ring that's so small not even grannies would use it. Also as is typical of most bikes sold today, the spokes are not optimal: for today's hubs, 2.34mm/1.8mm/2.0mm triple butted is optimal but bikes are today usually sold with straight gauge or double butted spokes.

Kona Sutra:

In addition to the common weakness, you are paying a lot of money for a Brooks leather saddle that takes huge efforts to maintain, takes about forever to break in, and will be destroyed in the first rain.

The wheels in Sutra require an immediate change too: the 622-23C rims won't take reasonably sized tires (so the stock tires are 622-40mm, too wide) and the hubs are cheap no name Formula hubs -- but you would be changing the front hub anyway as it has no dynamo.

As good features in Sutra, it has thru axle (which is necessary for disc brakes to not be fatally dangerous), the frame is butted chromoly, the bottom bracket is apparently Hollowtech II, the bottom bracket drop of 72mm is about optimal if you choose a size with 170mm cranks (for optimal BB drop, calculate 240mm minus crank length for conventionally sized road tires), and there are disc brakes (although the brakes are mechanical not hydraulic -- good for maintaining, not so good for braking feel). The shifters, bar end shifters, are very reliable, not likely to break in a crash and can be operated with even thick gloves.

Trek 520 disc has more problems:

The frame has disc brakes and quick release wheels, a no-no. This is fatally dangerous. The front disc brake causes the front hub end to move slightly during braking, wearing away the metal, loosening the quick release, until the quick release is so loose the wheel pops out of the dropouts when braking hard.

The fork seems to be aluminum not chromoly. Fork is not the place to experiment with "novel" materials. If you are a fan of aluminum, choose aluminum seatpost, stem, cranks etc. And if you really like lots of aluminum, then perhaps the frame could be aluminum. But fork? No!

The rims appear to be 622-21C so you can't fit narrow high performance tires. The shifters, STI Sora, cannot be operated with gloves on, cost a lot of money, and are likely to break in the first crash plus are likely to wear away.

As good points in Trek 520, it has Shimano Hollowtech II bottom bracket, Shimano hubs (but you would be changing the front hub anyway as it has no dynamo), the frame is butted chromoly (although the fork is not), there are mechanical disk brakes (easier to maintain than hydraulic but poorer brake feel). The bottom bracket drop is 75mm or 70mm depending on the frame size, not totally unreasonable.

The weight limit of Trek 520 is stated as 125kg, leaving only 110kg for the cyclist and the cargo. A bit heavier cyclist and you're over the limit with no cargo. However, it could be the lawyers just wanted to play safe and put a low weight limit on it.

Surly Disc Trucker has problems too:

The bottom bracket drop, 80mm, is way too much for 170mm cranks using conventional road tires. You will be hitting the pedals to the ground in corners. Not only that, but attach 175mm cranks and the bike is nearly unridable due to its low bottom bracket. The handlebar is a strange riser drop bar which means if you need a new handlebar you can't find an identical one and a non-riser drop bar changes the geometry of the bike. The hubs are cheap Novatec ones (but you would be changing the front hub anyway as it has no dynamo). There appears to be no kickstand mount. The shifters are STI Sora with their already explained problems. The tires are ridiculously sized 41mm. The frame is unavailable with 622mm conventionally sized wheels in the smallest frame sizes.

As positive points in Disc Trucker, it has thru axles (good for disc brakes), frame and fork are butted chromoly, there are mechanical disc brakes (tradeoff vs hydraulic), and the bottom bracket is Hollowtech II.


My opinion is: get the Kona Sutra as it has the best frame+fork combination (for example the BB drop of Disc Trucker makes it unusable and the aluminum fork of 520 is bad experimentation). You will want to change the wheels anyway to get front hub dynamo, Shimano hubs, triple-butted spokes and 622-19C rims with double eyelets. The tires of Sutra need changing too to something like Grand Prix 5000 in 32mm size, and unless you're a masochist the Brooks leather saddle needs to be thrown away. If you find the non-optimal chainline of the triple crankset a problem, you can easily change it to a double one, the bar-end shifter makes it easier.

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  • Out of curiosity, what would be your take on this one? bikepacking.com/news/decathlon-riverside-touring-920 (asking because it comes from a brand that has a reputation of low-end, but they are trying to gain credibility in higher segments). – Renaud Jan 8 at 17:41
  • @Renaud To me, the only front chainwheel looks to be a bit small (need to use the smallest rear sprockets all the time, the smaller the sprocket the lower the chaindrive efficiency is). I wouldn't prefer aluminum frame + carbon fork for long-term durability. But at least it has a dynamo, though. I would probably still buy a Kona Sutra and modify it according to my tastes. – juhist Jan 8 at 17:48
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    @Renaud Alu frame and a carbon fork is the best combination, if you cannot afford or do not want full carbon frame. Important on harder roads and off-road. Also, do not listen to those nonsense points about ridiculous tyre sizes, that STI tyres cannot be operated in gloves. STI shifters like the Sora ones can be operated in gloves without any issues in temperatures around zero. Also the worst issues with QRs and disc brakes were solved a decade ago. – Vladimir F Jan 8 at 17:55
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    @VladimirF is right. I ride 3x9 Sora and have no trouble in what are essentially ski gloves – Chris H Jan 8 at 18:49
  • And I've crashed a few times on my Sora brifters. Cosmetically they're in a terrible state but they still work. I've had much more trouble when a gear inner cable snapped and damaged the outer – Chris H Jan 11 at 16:43

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