Mid-range tourers are volume produced touring bikes offered by major brands such as Dawes, Cannondale and Trek. Typically, the frames are produced in the far-east and the bikes assembled in the UK or US. Most of these bikes fall into the £600-£900 bracket. This is a competitive market, so the bikes are generally good value for money. You'll get a good frame and some reasonable components. Also, buying new, you'll be able to get a frame size that's right for you.
Most of these bikes are designed primarily for doing light tours of 2-3 weeks, on reasonably good roads. So, they are not that well suited for rough tracks or really heavy loads. The main limitations are:
racks are rarely expedition grade;
tyres are likely to be on the narrowside;
clearance between the wheel and the frame and mudguard may not allow you to fit wide tyres;
the gearing may be a little high for expedition use;
most (but not all) bikes in this bracket are based on 700c wheels.
However, with some not too drastic changes and upgrades, these bikes can be brought up to a configuration where the they will cope well with all but the most extreme expedition use.
Our experience of mid-range tourers
About 11 years ago we bought two Dawes World Tour, steel, mid-range tourers, for about £500 each. We have used them for long, heavily loaded tours in South America, Central Asia, the Himalayas and Europe. Here's how they have performed:
The most irritating problem has been the lack of clearance between the tyres and mudguards. It was very easy to clog up the wheels on muddy tracks. We finally dumped the mudguards in Tajikistan.
They came fitted with fancy "Traffic Flex" sprung stems. These both developed a wobble during the first tour. Replaced with bog-standard stems.
One rear spoke broke on the first tour (Argentina-Chile).
In Bolivia on very rough tracks, one of the front racks fractured and collapsed into the wheel taking out a few spokes. For the next trip we replaced all the original racks with Tubus.
For Trans-Europe & Central Asia, we rebuilt the wheels on Sun Rhyno rims, using the original hubs. We experienced no problems with the wheels on the trip.
After ten years one of the freewheels failed and was replaced en-route in Germany
After returning from our latest trip to Central Asia (rough tracks) one of the forks fractured at the drop out, one of the derailleurs finally gave out and a seat rail broke.
That's it! Not bad for for a couple of five hundred quid bikes.
Buying a mid-range bike
When you are buying a mid range-bike, you have a choice between using your Local Bike Shop (LBS) and shopping around on the internet. At your LBS you'll be able to get a good look at the bike, they will help you with sizing, they may let you take one for a test ride and they will be close at hand if anything is wrong with the bike. However, the price is unlikely to be that competitive. There is also a limit to the quality of advice you will get - few LBS staff have experience and knowledge of expedition touring. Shopping around on the internet will get you the best price - this can be a substantial discount on the LBS price. The downside is that if there is a problem with the bike, it's less easy dealing with a company 100 miles away. Some internet retailers are significantly better than others, so before you buy, ask for feedback on the retailer on one of cycling forums e.g. cyclingplus.co.uk/forums.
Somethings to bear in mind when buying a mid-range bike:
Autumn is a good time to look for discounts - dealers are trying to clear stock ready for the new year
Check the spec carefully. The chances are the manufacturer is trying to save money somewhere and you need to know where you may need to upgrade components .
Check the bike you receive carefully against the original specification. Most dealers are at the whim of the manufacture and have "specification subject to change" small print. However, you should not accept major changes to the spec you paid for.
As well as asking for a discount, try negotiating small upgrades, e.g. XR tyres instead of standard Marathons.
Nobody ever got fired for buying Dawes. This popular British brand, offers a wide range of bikes for the volume market. Their range includes a couple of decent mid-range tourers.
At around £500, the Karakum hovers somewhere between an entry level and mid-range tourer. It offers an aluminium frame and some reasonable components and accessories for the money. The ever popular Galaxy, a traditional tourer, comes in three variants: the plain Galaxy, the Super Galaxy and the Ultra Galaxy, the differences being in the quality of the frame and the componentry e.g. Reynolds 853 over 631, Shimano XT over Deore mechs. Prices range from around £700 to £1,000 depending on which variant you choose and whether it is the latest model or not.
Trek are a well regarded american bike company. Their touring model, the 520, is a well specified bike based on a good steel frame. As it comes, the gearing on the bike is a little high for loaded touring, so you would probably want to replace the 30-42-50 crankset with a 22-32-44. To get it ready for a big trip you would also want to fit front racks, replace the rear rack with something more robust, replace the tyres with something wider and more substantial, and possibly fit some mudguards. Having to make these changes makes the £900 price tag seem a ltttle high. However, if you shop around and can live without owning the very latest version of the bike, it's possible to pick up a 520 for around £700.
Only available in the US, from the REI chain of stores and website, the Safari is a bike I've been hearing some good feedback about on american forums. The bike feautures an aluminium frame, 26 inch wheels, butterfly bars, front and rear Shimano disc brakes and decent Shimano Deore drive-train components, all for around $850. If I was going on a long trip on un-made roads I would probably swap the aluminium rear rack it comes with for a steel one. The disc brakes make fitting a front rack a little more difficult than normal, but not impossible. www.rei.com/product/730480
Surly Long Haul Trucker
Surly is a quirky american company that has been supplying very well regarded bike frames for a number of years. Their Long Haul Trucker is very strong frame specifically designed for touring. It has good geometry, e.g. long chainstays, braze-ons for front and rear racks and all the water bottles you could want, and the ability to accomodate up to 45mm wide tyres(42mm if you fit mudguards). And the frame is available to suit either 26" or 700c wheels. The company is now offering complete bikes based on the LHT frame. There's not much to complain about the componentry other than the crankset gearing is a little high (easily fixed) and racks are not included. The complete bikes, which sell for about £900, are relatively difficult to get a hold of in the UK (something to do with import duty), however the frames are readily available for around £350. The bikes are good value in the US where they sell for around $900. www.surly.com
Based in Connecticut, Cannondale offers some well-built, well-equipped aluminium framed touring bikes, with both 700c and 26" wheels. The build quality, specification and price of these bikes takes them to the very top of the mid-range bracket. They are equiped with good wheels and tyres and expedition quality racks. The Touring Classic and Touring Ultra shown below retail at around £1,100 and £1.200 respectively.