Converting a MTB to a Touring Bike

November 21st, 2011

As the primary piece of equipment for someone on a bike tour, it isn’t surprising that most people spend a lot of time choosing their bike. Given that the majority of local or chain bicycle shops cater to mountain or road bikers, whose needs are very different to a tourer, it is not the easiest decision to make, especially if you don’t have much experience with bicycle components.

Countless factors including wheel size, drop or straight bars, slick or knobbly tyres, frame size, suspension and many others make it a daunting prospect and you can easily become drowned in bicycle jingo.

Of the three main options for obtaining a tour worthy bicycle, I went for the DIY route with an old Specialized Rockhopper that I picked up for 90 pounds, over 10 years ago.  This is what it looked like prior to its transformation…

The bike in its original state, excluding the cheap suspension that was on there since shortly after its purchase.

Taking the bike to my excellent local bike mechanic in Glasgow, Willy Bain, complete with old components and cheap front suspension, I left with a list of components that he recommended I purchase before returning for a rebuild.

Frame

The Rockhopper frame is the reason that I decided to upgrade my bike for the purpose of touring.  Steel, comfortable geometry for long days on the bike plus a perfect fit for me. To me it represents the soul of the bike, regardless of which other components are replaced.

Other than a new paint job, done mostly for vanity but with the useful effect of covering up the ‘Specialized’ label which could be tempting to a thief, there were no other changes to the frame other than reverting back to the rigid fork.

If looking through second hand bike shops or on eBay, a steel frame and a comfortable fit is the goal.  Older, non-suspension frames built by Specialized, Trek and Giant are ideal for conversions. Newer mountain bike frames tend to be aluminium and often don’t have enough space between the pedals and back wheel to allow pedaling without hitting the rear panniers. A Tubus Logo rear rack goes some way to helping this by placing the panniers further back than normal.  Check the frame for cracks or signs of wear that could compromise its strength.

Drive System

The drive system is the heart of the bicycle, spinning away with every pump of your legs to push you forwards.

  •  I upgraded to a Shimano Deore bottom bracket and chainset combo with mountain bike chainrings (44/32/22);
  • A Shimano XT rear derailleur wasn’t completely necessary, but provides silky smooth gear changes and allows the use of a large 34 tooth rear cassette ring;
  • A 7-speed rear cassette with a rare, 34 tooth granny cog for steep gradients.  Unfortunately for 7-speed users, the Shimano MegaRange cassette is now discontinued and hard to track down online.  This was the only one that I could find which covered the range of 11-34 teeth for flat riding with the emergency granny gear.  My personal opinion is that after a couple of weeks on the road, you will be in a good enough shape to not need the 22 front and 34 rear combo as it is an extremely low granny gear;
  • I kept the existing grip-shift gear system, which I have always found easy to use and unobtrusive on the handlebars.

Extras

  • Ergon GP3 grips & bar-ends eliminate wrist strain and numbness on my flat bars.  The GP1 model would suit me fine as I rarely use the bar ends, which only add to the size of the bike;
  • Brooks B17 saddle.  A no-brainer, there are enough rave reviews of these online;
  • Continental Travel Contact Tyres (26″ diameter, 1.75″ width).  These have been the only part to consistently let me down so far, even on decent roads.  It started with a dangerous sidewall puncture on my first day and multiple smaller punctures provided annoyance throughout the states. Punctures in the Baja desert in the middle of August are not fun to fix!  I have since switched to a  Schwalbe Marathon Extreme on the rear which is untested so far and a Schwalbe Marathon on the front which has been fine for a few thousand miles;
  • Tubus luggage racks.  A Tubus logo at the back and a Tubus Tara at the front.  The only annoyance has been due to my front fork not having the specific attachments for the Tara rack, leading to it falling off once which was entirely my fault due to not tightening it enough;
  • POWER GRIPS. I really didn’t want to wear SPD shoes on this trip as I didn’t have any experience with them and I wanted to wear my Keen sandals.  Power Grips are amazing and accommodate all shoe styles, except maybe stilettos;
  • I also switched the old caliper brakes for Shimano XT V-Brakes, which have been fantastic even going downhill when fully loaded.

The Finished Result

Conclusion

Needless to say, my bike has performed fantastically the entire trip.  At the time of writing, it has done 3700 miles and is due for an upgrade to 9-speeds as I have had some trouble tracking down 7-speed replacements.  I have done days up to 130 miles through the desert, without feeling any discomfort from the saddle, grips or riding position.

The wheels are the biggest unknown, although I haven’t suffered any broken spokes so far, even when on some of the bounciest corrugated tracks that Mexican road construction has to offer. Plans to use a Son Dynamo Hub on the front and a new Alfine 11 speed hub gear system on the rear will bring with them rebuilt wheels with newer rims and 36 spokes to provide more peace of mind.

Other than that, I have never once felt envious of other bikes that I have seen along the way.   The time and effort I put into this approach has paid dividends in the attachment I now feel to the bike, not to mention satisfaction from the admiring glances and complements it has received along the way.

My one major piece of advice to anyone going down this route who isn’t experienced with bike mechanics, is to have the help of a local bike shop who ideally have some idea of the requirements of touring bikes.  Without this, you may inadvertently be given some incorrect advice or sold parts not suited to the harsh conditions that touring puts on a bicycle.

For anyone else interested in reviving an old bike, the route I chose was not the cheapest, though that was never a goal of mine.  I could have done it much cheaper as some of the drive train was still functional.  In upgrading the parts I did however, I believe that I have taken the rebuild to a much higher quality than simply fixing what was broken.  The cost of the upgrade was around the same as or cheaper than most mid-range touring bikes, that probably wouldn’t have come with Shimano XT components, a Brooks saddle or the Tubus racks that were the costliest parts. The result is a bike that I have seen reborn and which I have full confidence will remain with me for many more miles.

The bike loaded up in San Diego

 

Unloaded and in dirt track exploration mode in the Redwood forests.

Additional Resources

TravellingTwo – The $100 Touring Bike
The Adventure Cycling Guide – Converting a Mountain Bike

17 Comments

  1. Chris
    The bike looks great and I really like the pragmatic approach. Nice one.
  2. Nico
    Thanks Chris, it has just been upgraded to 9-speeds which and I am slowly getting used to triggers instead of my usual grip shifters, though they feel great so far :)
  3. Swelkie
    Makes a lot of sense. It looks like old steel framed hardtailed MTBs like my Raleigh Memphis are making a comeback. Making a comparison to say, a LHT. steel framed - yes, 26' wheels - yes, comfortable - yes, heavy - er...yes, expensive - Yes vs not now, but in the late 90's, my bike cost me £200, which was expensive for me. UK/ US or Far East built - Yes Vs No - can't see any new metal offering up to £1,600 that look better finished than my old bike. So I agree and think old bikes are, the future...
  4. Andrew
    Great article and looks exactly like what I want to achieve in the next month or two. What kind of wheels did you put on the bike and how much did they cost?
  5. Nico
    Hi Andrew, The wheels were the originals that came with the bike. The brand was Araya, a Japanese company, though that is all I know I'm afraid. Throughout the trip they were my biggest concern as I knew the least about them. I needn't have worried, over 6-7000 miles they only needed to be trued once during a normal service and I didn't suffer a single broken spoke the entire time. Sometimes things just work out nicely like that :) Good luck with your bike build!
  6. Bill
    Great article Nico, I have just bought a Rockhopper with twist grips, must be about the same age as yours, like your mudguards, but you don't mention where they came from, would be great addition for commuting. Cheers Bill
  7. Nico
    Hi Bill, the mudguards are SKS Chromoplastics. They lasted for most of the trip until I moved to much chunkier tyres, so if you get a pair think of the tyre sizes you may use down the line.
  8. kenny
    Hi, I am thinking of doing the same. I have a triple butted Gary Fisher to play with. Or, I might find a already rigid front fork option (the Gary Fisher has a Rock Shock). Would a LHT with a Trekking bar be the same geometry as the old steel mountain bikes like the Rock Hopper? I like upright bikes, could not stand the drops on the LHT. That is an easy switch though. I might have a used LHT available in excellent shape for $700. But I DO want to convert to the equal in terms of the upright nature and tire size of a older steel MTB like you have! Thanks for thoughts.
  9. djkenny
    I picked up some Touring Plus Continentals for my mid 90's Rock Hopper build. I am making a list of changes I intend to make. Hoping they are better than the Travel Contacts! My intension is to, one day, take a trip to Baja from the PNW with whoever wants to join along. How is riding on that thin highway in Baja? I guess there is rougher trails as well part way. My Mom has wonderful rentals in Loreto. Cheers!
  10. Rideon
    I recently converted a mountain bike for touring by adding a Kona fork and Minoura front rack. http://biketourings.com/3/post/2013/11/building-a-fat-tire-touring-trekking-commuter-bike-by-rideon.html
  11. Nico
    Hey, I like your build. Looks like a capable touring bike. The handlebars look particularly comfy!
  12. Rideon
    Thanks, yes they are comfy with the 30 deg. sweep, handles nice on trails with loaded panniers.
  13. Sean
    Shot in the dark as this is an old post, but any chance you remember what fenders you fitted on this bike? I just purchased a 94 Rockhopper for the exact same purpose.
  14. Nico
    Hi Sean, they were SKS Chromoplastics, though any designed for fattish tyres should work. Good luck with the build, Nico
  15. Ben
    The bike looks really good. I've added bits and pieces to my 1998 GT Palomar over the years. It is interesting to see we have both added Ergon grips and Brooks B17 saddle, both of which have been great for me. I'll bee looking into the power grips next as they look very good.
  16. Bob
    What was the replacement fork was used?
  17. Nico
    Hi Bob, It was an original rockhopper fork, which I was lucky to track down on a forum online from someone who was interested in the build. Other forks I looked at were the Kona Project 2, Surly LHT fork and other 26" rigid forks. The Surly Troll fork would be great too. These are all £60+ brand new however, but ebay has plenty of generic 26" rigid forks.

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