Picking the Perfect Bike for the Tour d’Afrique
Amongst the myriad of questions running through the mind of someone planning on embarking on the epic cycling adventure from Cairo to Cape Town, is “what bike should I bring?” While the Tour d’Afrique has been completed on an assortment of different bikes over the years, some designs are certainly better suited to the rigors and challenges of the tour than others. Following are the opinions of a returning tour mechanic on what the criteria for the ideal cross Africa bike should be. The purchase of a new bike can be an intimidating commitment for many participants and the temptation to bring an older bike is strong, but if the bike in mind fits what’s written below, then all the better. When all is said and done, the bike purchase is a small percentage of the overall cost of the trip. The enjoyment and comfort that can be had from the right bike is priceless, considering the rider and the machine will be inseparable over the next 4 months on the road.
Before delving into the many options available, it’s worth saying that the single most important factor is the bike fit. The bike should be purchased from a bike shop that has experience fitting, and the fitter should understand what the rider is planning to do with the bike. Too many times have I had to completely change someone’s fitting parameters. Numb hands, stiff ankles, and sore butts are all things that can be avoided if the fitter understands the necessities of a long distance touring fit. The rider should also put at least 50 hours of riding on the bike to iron out any inevitable kinks in the fit and the saddle. The terrain to be encountered is going to limit one’s choice to something between a mountain bike and a cyclocross bike. Either end of the spectrum is well suited to the ride, so the choice should be influenced by bike fit and local bike shop availability. A good starting point is a high and comfortable handlebar position.
The rough off road sections, the daily bike pile-ups at camp, the potential for crashes, the bike racks on the trucks, all these factors point to durability being the number one criteria. Steel and titanium are the most durable frame materials, but nothing is indestructible. Since a titanium frame will cost at least three times as much as a steel, in case the frame gets damaged or the bike is lost, my vote is for a steel frame. Aluminum can be durable and is certainly affordable but the ever nagging presence of soft and easily damaged derailleur hangers puts it at a far 3rd in my opinion. Of course, hangers can be replaced, but this leaves little comfort after the derailleur has jammed into the rear wheel and left you stranded at the side of the road. Though the tour has been completed by many carbon fibre bikes, bringing one is ultimately a gamble, a throw of the dice, as you can be left without a rideable bike on any day.
Component choice is a wider playing field, but again I think durability should be the number one priority, durability and his good friend simplicity. Wheels should have many spokes, 32 or 36, hubs should be easily serviceable cup and cone designs, (i.e. anything from Shimano), rims should be sturdy, double walled, and eye-letted. I prefer disc brakes over rim brakes, they are less finicky, less sensitive to wheel truing, and you’ll be glad to have the extra stopping power on those steep potholed descents. Most touring and cyclocross bikes are being sold with disc brakes as standard now, Avid BB7’s being my first choice. Hydraulics are not a good idea, there’s many opportunities for a line to get cut and all your braking power lost along with the trickling oil. Most people will think I’m old fashioned, but nothing beats bar end or friction shifters for simplicity and durability, extra points for anyone who has a pair on their bike. A wide gear range is needed, either a compact road crank or a triple, with an 11-32 (34) cassette will serve you well. The ability to mount a front or rear rack will reward you countless times, no one likes a sweaty back and backpack. If you’re leaning towards a touring bike or cyclocross bike, it should be able to fit wide tires, at least 40mm. A front shock on a mountain bike is a nice thing to have sometimes, but ultimately a potential maintenance headache and a lot heavier than a rigid front end. A full suspension mountain bike has no place on a long cross continental bike tour, it’s a Pandora’s Box of maintenance issues, and can’t even carry a proper rack!!!