The True Story of The Decline of The Touring Bike
"The Day The Music Died"
Don McClean's American Pie keeps mentioning "the day the music died," but "the day" seems to be a series of events from the day Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens died to the Monterey Pop Festival. On the other hand, there was a real day when the music died, and it happened more than once. The most dramatic to me was the day when disco suddenly disappeared off of the rock stations. It was the most popular form of music at that time, it was interesting and colorful and so much better than heavy rock, but one day the disc jockeys refused to play it any more, and without any airtime, it quickly disappeared. When I say "one day," I really don't mean that every station acted on the exact same day, but there was one day on every station when disco was played for the last time. It's events like these that prove that the "free market" is not controlled by the consumer. Folk music had disappeared earlier in the same way, but not as dramatically, since folk had a much smaller piece of the airtime and since it was gradually banished. Getting rid of other kinds of music was what transformed pop stations into rock stations.
"Nobody Goes Touring any More"
During the late 80's, the touring bike experienced the same fate in the cycling magazines and bike shops as disco experienced on rock stations, although there's more grounds for debate as to exactly what happened. I'm sure that many would explain the matter in this fashion, "Touring was briefly popular, but interest died, and nobody goes touring any more," because I've heard that explanation a thousand times. But having watched what happened, I think touring was discouraged by the bike shops and bicycling magazines rather than disappearing naturally, and I also think that it didn't die at all but continued to grow, although invisibly. In addition, I think a real opportunity to increase the number of cyclists was lost as most cyclists were either uninterested or incapable of high speeds and as the touring bike was more suitable for commuting, errand running, and travel than the bicycles which the shops and magazines advocated.
The Touring Boom of the 60's
Touring, or the idea of touring, has been popular since the 60's. In fact, the big boom in bicycling sales in the US which caused adults to finally get interested in cycling was largely fueled by the Schwinn Varsity, a 40-pound bike which was essentially a touring bike. Many bikes, such as my 1975 Motobecane "Grand Touring" received touring as part of the name, even though they were unsuitable for carrying any great amount of gear, because cyclists were interested in touring.
Characteristics of a Touring Bike
What is a touring bike, and how is it special? A touring bike has mid-weight tires to absorb road shock, a long wheelbase to make steering more relaxed, triple chainrings and wide gears to make hill-climbing easier, and room (and double eyelets) for fenders and carriers front and rear, so it can be ridden in the rain or used to carry groceries or camping gear. A touring bike is a few pounds heavier than a racing bike only because of its fenders, carriers, and bigger tires and gears. It is lighter and faster than a mountain bike due to its skinnier tires, which require less energy to turn. A touring bike is a great all-round bike for someone unpreoccupied with thoughts of competition and speed who wants to be able to travel long distances easily. On a commute to work, the bike might actually be faster than a racing bike, as John Schubert, currently the technical editor for Adventure Cyclist Magazine, established years ago on his daily commute with his Cannondale bike equipped with fenders and light-weight wheels. There are some mountain bikes which have the long wheelbases and front and rear double eyelets of a touring bike but use 26-inch wheels, and these are highly useful bikes as well. Other mountain bikes have been designed for stunts or competition and are not very practical for traveling, commuting, or running errands.
Fast Recreational Cyclists and the Racing Bike
There have always been cyclists who dislike touring bikes. These cyclists either like to race or to go on fast club rides where speed is emphasized and where any extra weight is a handicap. And the attitudes of these cyclists often dominate in bike clubs, books on bicycling, cycling magazines, and bike shops. In fact, from reading Eugene Sloan's Complete Book of Bicycling in the early 1970's, I was encouraged to purchase their kind of bike, which is called a racing or road bike. It's weight was 21 pounds, there was no room for fenders and no attachments for carriers, the rear cog was 14-21, and the tires were sew-ups. I quickly discovered that this was the wrong kind of bike for me. I liked to climb long, steep hills, and the 14-21 rear cogs did not; I liked riding in the rain, but the lack of fenders made that impossible; I wanted to be able to carry food and a raincoat, but there was no room for a carrier or bags; and I liked to travel long distances at speeds below 20 mph, but the pounding ride caused by the tiny tires made a long day in the saddle very uncomfortable. Resewing tires by the side of the road was no fun either.
New Bikes and New Cycling Magazines
With the beginning of the Bikecentennial cross-country tours in 1976, cyclists started asking for true touring bikes, and these bikes started showing up at the end of the 70's, first a trickle and then a flood until every bike shop had them. Other events were happening at the same time. Manufacturers started producing mountain bikes in 1982, although it took a few years for them to show up in the east, and the number of people interested in cycling began to increase with the new bicycles. Three new cycling magazines appeared by 1985, with the Cyclist, Bicycle Guide, and Bicycle Rider all contending for top place against Bicycling. I have heard that the influx of new cyclists had been brought about by our victory that year in the Olympics, but the growth had started earlier and bike sales grew slowly due to poor economic conditions.
How Bike Shops Sold Touring Bikes
It just worked out for me that I lost not only a job but also the desire to continue with the same career just at that time. I moved into my cabin in the woods, started riding a bicycle everywhere, and started reading cycling magazines and visiting bicycle shops. Although I already had a bike and could not afford another, I asked in every shop about touring bikes, and every shop had at least one touring bike my size. However, not a single shop tried to sell me that bike. Instead, they spent their time telling me that "touring bikes were slow, heavy, and not much fun" and that I needed a good racing bike instead (in spite of the fact that I had shown up on a bike equipped with fenders and a rear carrier). When mountain bikes started appearing in the shops, the salesmen -- when they recognized that they could not sell me a racing bike -- would try to get me to buy a mountain bike instead. Somehow, the touring bike was too slow and heavy, but the mountain bike -- which actually weighed a good bit more because of its heavy tires -- was not.
Bicycle Rider, the "Grand Touring" Magazine
Among the cycling magazines, only Bicycle Rider promoted touring. In fact, during the first year, it labeled itself the "Grand Touring" magazine, although about half of the copy was not touring related. While the magazine had excellent photographs and published a few really great articles and accounts of touring trips by free-lancers and by a few experienced regular writers, most touring articles told of beginner attempts at touring, made by the staff. It takes a bit of hubris for a writer to act expert about something he has no experience with. In reading back over saved issues, I find many embarrassing incidents reported as normal, such as falling off of a bike while leading a trip, getting angry because of having to pedal up a hill rather than catching a ride, admitting never having used toe clips before, admitting to never having ridden that kind of bicycle before when it is the featured bike (a mountain bike on one trip, a tandem on another), and having to walk due to a flat tire. For some strange reason, each issue makes fun of some common touring practice, such as carrying a lot of gear (it suggests that cooking gear and most clothing should be left behind) or wanting to cover a hundred miles a day or more (it suggests napping in the shade instead). The staff trips were uninspiring. One group trip mixed loaded touring bikes with unburdened sports and mountain bikes on steep dirt roads, followed by a motor home. A photo-op tour of Baniff involved almost no bicycling. While the free-lance articles were great, the rest of the magazine was hopeless confused as to what touring was, and it was of no help to anyone wanting to tour. About the best feature by the regular staff were the unbiased reviews of the bikes. Some great touring bikes, such as the Bruce Gordon models, were given ample space. As sales for the magazine dropped, the staff decided that not enough people were interested in touring, and so they dropped touring completely for their second year (although they denied it), but the magazine did not long survive.
Bicycling's Attitudes Toward Touring Bikes
Bicycling came a distant second in devoting attention to touring. However, this attention consisted mainly of a once-a-year review of touring bikes by a staff with no touring experience or interest. The reviewers found opportunity to drop remarks about the bikes being slow, heavy, slow-shifting, and rough to ride compared to the fast road bikes that they preferred. The message usually was that a touring bike is necessary only for heavily loaded trips, while lighter bikes would be suitable for touring otherwise. They failed to notice that a touring bike would be excellent for almost every use except racing. Ironically, the same reviewers later found reason to praise even heavier mountain bikes, hybrid bikes with similar specifications, and triples on road bikes, when these features showed up. In my opinion, they could accept mountain and hybrid bikes because those bikes could be used for sports, but they could not see any value in a practical bike.
Bicycling's Touring Issues
In 1987, Bicycling decided to create a good, 40-page touring bike section for the April edition, which I have. However, the intent of the piece seems to be to marginalize touring and to demonstrate that it is rapidly disappearing. For instance, the articles claim that while 7,000 cyclist traveled all or part of the way across the US in 1976, only 600 or less made the trip in 1986. The first article begins, "Don't let anyone tell you differently. You suffer a lot on a bicycle tour." The second piece claims a great decline in interest in touring, suggesting that the flower children must have gotten jobs. It includes a quiz to determine one's desire for bicycling adventure that consists mainly of weird answers. Two of the "correct" answers are to mooch a room rather than find a camping site and to slip into a church dinner rather than purchase a meal. The account of a touring trip is by two elderly cyclists who spent nine years and a million dollars to travel around the world. While others complained about this article, I found it touching and interesting, but I would have preferred a tour by cyclists who spent more time in the saddle, and who could have enlightened others about how to do it. One article (with both good and weak advice) suggests how to save money while touring and another lists sources of travel information. An article about training for the trip follows, and this advocates spending much of the training time on high-intensity attacks on hills, periodic sprints, and time trials, all of which are counterproductive for touring. The article waxes enthusiastic about training on up for the Race Across America, but describes touring as "dreary weather, headwinds, balky cook stoves, unfriendly natives, and fitful nights in damp, musty sleeping bags." Included with the training article is one on "guilt-free feasting," but the foods are fairly exotic for a bike tour. After an article on clothing, there is a review of three touring bikes, the article stating that most touring bikes have been discontinued and giving the mistaken impression that these are the last ones left (actually, there was and is a good variety to chose from). For a change, the article points out that these bikes are also useful for commuting, general riding, and day-tours, something previous articles had not done. The section ends with uninspired articles on panniers and on packing panniers.
I remember, but do not have a copy of, another Bicycling special on touring. This issues included some better articles, one written by a person who had actually traveled across the US by bike and another a collection of experiences from the Bikecentennial tour, both of which were very good. Unfortunately, the trips and experiences were all about ten years old, again sending the message that nobody goes touring anymore.
Bicycling Guide and the Cyclist
Bicycle Guide and the Cyclist basically ignored touring, although they both had features on places for cyclists to ride. Bicycle Guide had a yearly review of bikes, which included touring bikes, and I never saw any bias against them in these reports. The Cyclist published one piece attacking touring in a humorous way, supposedly written by a semi-illiterate Mexican, who argued that a moped was much more practical for travel than a touring bike, as it was cheaper to buy and operate, could carry much more gear, and could travel further and faster in one day. However, the Cyclist also had a great piece on RAGBRAI (the yearly bike ride across Iowa).
I also remember a couple of articles that I vaguely associate with one or another of these magazines, but I have forgotten most of the details. In one, a cyclist crossing the country starts hitting on the locals in a restaurant, telling them how much he and his friends have suffered on the trip, hoping to get invited to someone's home for the night. In the other, the intent was to demonstrate a touring route in Kentucky, but the cyclists became exasperated at having to ride such miserable distances, so they drove around and took pictures of themselves on bikes instead, making fun of touring articles. I would have fired the authors, but it was published as written.
Overall Attitude Towards Touring
Otherwise, these magazines ignored touring and focused on fast riding, racing, and sports cycling. They could devote whole issues to racing, but only a few pages to touring. If touring received poor attention from them, it must be pointed out that commuting received even less. I saw only one article on commuting to work, and in that article, all the cyclists used racing bicycles and practiced sprints along the way. They obviously were riding to work to increase their average speed rather than to save money, improve their health, or to solve car-related problems. The magazines did have a more favorable opinion of mountain bikes. Why? Mountain bike races quickly became popular, and mountain bikes could be used as a different kind of sports bike, requiring one to jump logs and ford streams. They preferred mountain bikes with short wheelbases and chainstays, bikes that were more suited to racing and less useful for touring and commuting. Their reviews encouraged bike manufactures to make these changes.
Eliminate the Idea by Excluding the Term
The final decision which I think was intended to kill touring for good was the decision to avoid using the word "touring bike" in the future. The magazines decreed there are only supposed to be two kinds of bikes, road bikes and mountain bikes. However, the real loser in all this turned out to be the road bike. People wanted bikes with lots of gears to climb hills and the ability to carry stuff, and so they bought mountain bikes and hybrid bikes in droves and ignored the skinny-tired machines, which all but vanished from the shops.
Did Touring Actually Decline?
Now, the question is, did touring "disappear" because nobody was interested any more? It is true that sales of touring bikes and panniers were not as good as expected, but was that due to the poor economic conditions, biased comments, or some problem with the bikes? It is true that a practical cyclist isn't going to go out a buy a new bike every year like a racer wannabe. It is also true that the original Bikecentennial route became less popular as cyclists found new routes on which to ride, including several new Bikecentennial routes. And, in all fairness, it has to be pointed out that only a minority of cyclists are in condition for and have the time for a long coast-to-coast trip. Usually, the only people who can make these trips are teachers, students, the unemployed, and the retired. Nonetheless, my experience from traveling around the US and Canada tells me that those who call themselves fast recreational riders or racers were and are the true minority among cyclists. On my trips, I commonly met cyclists I could keep up with, in spite of my heavy bags, but I was rarely passed by faster riders. Bikecentennial (now Adventure Cycling) reported that their membership had continued growing to 26,000 cyclists by 1990. Yet few of the many long-distance bike travelers I have met were members of that organization. Although you would hardly know it from reading the magazines, there are other kinds of touring as well. Day touring has always been popular. And nearly anyone can find time to make a weekend or occasional one-week journey. However, even these shorter trips still require special skills, knowledge, and a willingness to experiment and take chances. To meet the needs of those wanting to tour without these skills, small touring companies were springing up everywhere. In fact, while the magazines were claiming that "nobody goes touring any more," their classified ads were filled with advertisements by touring companies. And state organizations began offering large, group, across-state rides. While many were small, RAGBRAI had 8,000 riders in 1985. MS tours also attracted many thousands. All these things indicate an increase rather than a decrease in touring. Later statistics show that those preoccupied with speed are hardly the overwhelming majority. For instance, Rodale Press, which publishes Bicycling, conducted a survey in 1990 of adult cyclists who had purchased their last bicycle new and discovered that among all the cyclists, 15.5% had touring bikes, 14% had mountain bikes, and only 7% had racing/triatholon bikes. Even among the enthusiasts (those spending the most for their bikes, who were 2.7% of the total), touring bikes nearly equal racing bikes in number (33% vs. 38.5% with mountain bikes at 43%). We also find that among the enthusiasts, 25% commuted, 23% made day-long tours, 12% made weekend tours, and 7% made week-long tours compared to 41% engaging in fast recreational riding, 12% racing, and 9% riding in triatholons or similar events. These statistics prove that there was no basis for saying that "nobody goes touring any more." Currently, my own site traffic is an indication that touring and practical riding are still popular, with 2/3rds of my 26,000 monthly visitors going to the touring pages.
The claim has been made that while there might have been lots of people interested in touring, the fast recreational cyclists were the ones spending the money. John Schubert replied to this in Chainguard on June 28, 2001 (while I was writing this article), "The people who go on fundraising rides for the Multiple Sclerosis Society are the single biggest demographic plum in all of bicycling (based on sheer numbers, money spent on equipment, and the fact that many are the new faces you want to get involved in the sport), and the industry does shamefully little to nurture their interest."
After I published this article, several readers extended this economic argument by saying that while touring cyclists may have more money, they are more likely to spend that money on their trips rather than on fancy bikes and clothing. Thus, if the magazines appeal to the fast pack, they can produce more sales for their advertisers. That is true, and would also explain why the magazines never included articles on how to avoid spending money, as I do. However, it would not hurt sales of racing bikes and accessories to also include articles for the non-racing crowd as well, and doing so would increase sales of the magazine. And there were angry letters published asking for such coverage. One event illustrates this point well. One of the writers for Bicycling managed to ride 100 miles just within four or five hours, I forget which. So, the magazine put a male model on the cover in a striking pose (who was supposed to be him) and issued a challenge to other riders to match or beat that time. The magazine was flooded with angry letters by those who couldn't hope to ride 100 miles at that pace, so the staff decided to drop the high-speed requirement for the challenge. Then hundreds of cyclists wrote in to tell about their 100 mile rides. By dropping the high-speed pretense, the staff had made a popular article out of an unpopular one. The controversy about using a model led to placing photos of readers on the covers (but only on brand-new racing bikes). By paying more attention to ordinary cyclists on that occasion, the magazine sold more issues. But the bulk of the time, by over-emphasizing fast cycling, the magazines hurt their own sales.
The Real Cause of the Problem
The real cause, in my mind, is that most of the writers were sports oriented, and they couldn't see normal cycling as interesting. Due to having control of major cycling magazines, these sports-minded cyclists tried their best to discourage touring because they couldn't understand it. I don't understand their attitude; although I have never been one of their number, I have always enjoyed reading about bicycle racing, so I can enjoy their world while they can't appreciate mine. Perhaps they feel that the most expensive bikes and the fastest speeds make them superior. If that is their viewpoint, they are truly foolish, as riding a bike confers low status not high status, and no one but them cares about their speed. Whatever their motives, I certainly am angry about the delay they have caused us. Now that the magazines have become unimportant and the internet has become the main medium for transmitting cycling knowledge, we touring and commuting cyclists have an opportunity to spread the word. People will learn that they don't have to purchase exotic bikes, maintain high average high speeds, or monitor their heart rates, and they will be encouraged rather than discouraged about using bicycles for transportation.
This problem, of ignoring practical bikes and practical cycling at the expense of expensive, ultra-light bikes and racing or fast riding has its counterpart in our school systems. The coaches ignore the bulk of their students as much as possible and focus all their attention on a few top athletes. The result is that most students do not acquire the appropriate exercise habits and diet information that they will need throughout life. In addition, the students selected as the school champions often find their educations ruined, as my brother-in-law experienced in high school. Finally, the attempts to produce winners are not even healthy for the athletes, as they are sometimes forced to bulk up, encouraged to take drugs, or pushed beyond endurance.
A Near Confession
In my opinion, there was almost a confession of what I have been saying about touring bikes written in Bicycling Guide in 1996. On page 8 of the October issue, the editor, Patrick Brady says about the return of the triple chainring: "For some years now, touring has been the red-headed stepchild of the road crowd. In an activity where looking sharp is often tantamount to looking fit, the tourist's black socks, cutoff jeans and hardshell helmet are objects of great derision. . . Hooked by events such as the AIDS rides, the MS 150 tours and various events for cancer and other forms of research, not to mention the assortment of cross-state rides such as RAGBRAI, riders are rethinking the mountain bike. The mountain bike was an attractive alternative to the racing bike for many years because it had more usable gears, but . . . the fat, knobby tires weren't well-suited to road use. The emergence of the hybrid did little to rectify this situation . . . The bike craze of the 1970's wasn't a fluke. . . What I've come to realize is to most people, suffering isn't any fun. . . The world could use a few more sub-$1000 triple-ring bikes. Industry statistics say that the road bike is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and these generously geared rides [bikes?] are leading the way." It may sound as though Patrick, although avoiding the banned word "touring bike," is saying that the cycling magazines made a big, fat mistake by attacking the touring bike and now recognize that error. Unfortunately, the featured bikes, while having triple gears, have no room or eyelets for fenders and racks, and so are very far from being useful bikes. Ironically, the picture shows him on a mountain pass with a fully loaded touring bike. It's evidently OK for him to ride such a bike; it's just wrong for him to advocate one within the magazine.
I doubt if the true, specialized touring bike will ever come back in numbers. I believe instead, as cyclists recognize the value of racks, fenders, a long wheelbase, and mid-weight tires, more mountain and hybrid bikes will be designed that are suitable for touring and commuting, and fewer will be built that are suitable for racing. In fact, if I were to order a custom-made touring bike today, I would specify 26-inch wheels, so tires would be easier to find. However, I would want a larger frame, dropped handlebars, 1.4 inch tires, and a somewhat lower bottom bracket. In addition, many cyclists are now touring and commuting on recumbent bikes, which are rapidly increasing in number. While I have no experience with these bikes, I consider their arrival a healthy event.
It is my belief that touring, commuting, and other kinds of transportational cycling are on the upswing. As much as possible, we need to encourage these activities because they are lots of fun, environmentally friendly, and good for the health. At the same time, I bear no ill-will towards racing and fast cycling or those engaged in those sports. Let us all do what we can to advance the various kinds of cycling -- but not at the expense of each other.