One of the beauties of cycling is that there is a specific bike out for every desire. Although they may look similar, there are some subtle (and not so subtle) differences that make them more suitable for different riders, terrains, and cycling adventures.
Road bikes are a common choice among many cyclists nowadays. They are fast and comfortable enough to allow you to travel vast distances. Although racing and speed have always been part of the cycling culture, the initial reason for bicycles’ popularity was their ability to allow anyone, no matter what ‘social class’ they were, to travel vast distances under their own steam.
Touring bikes are a refined version of what owning a bicycle is all about, giving you the ability to leave your front door and travel miles under your own steam. You would be forgiven for thinking that some touring bikes are, in fact, road bikes.
Many of them have a similar frame design, and the classic road bike dropped handlebars. However, some significant differences set these two machines apart.
Let’s start by looking at the main characteristics of each type of bike. Then we can dive into which one is best for you.
What is a road bike?
A road bike is there to help you go as fast and as far as your legs can manage. Although road bike frames do not appear to have changed a great deal over the past 100 years, the technology that makes them help you go fast certainly has.
Road bike frames are light, aerodynamic and often provide snappy and responsive handling thanks to their short wheelbase. Their dropped handlebars help you to get into an aero position and allow for multiple hand positions adding to comfort on longer rides.
What is a touring bike?
Although they may not be as light as a road bike, they are built to last, and you will generally find that the frame is made from steel. Touring bikes with dropped bars may look similar to road bikes, but they have some unique features that make them different.
Which bike is better? Touring bikes vs road bikes
Now let’s look at the specific components that make up these two different types of bike to highlight the main differences and hopefully help you to decide which one is best for you.
Road bike frames are the silhouette that anyone would draw if you asked them to draw a bicycle. The diamond-like shape and the high flat top tube are the perfect combination of stable and lightweight.
Generally, you will find that modern road bike frames are carbon fiber or aluminum. This is due to these metals being lighter and plenty strong enough for tarmac. There are still road bikes made of steel and titanium, but they are rare (or cheap), and the steel is not the same you will find on other types of bike frames.
The geometry of a road bike is relatively compact, this helps to reduce your surface area and improve your aerodynamics. The result of which is that you can go faster with the same amount of effort, thanks to a reduction in drag.
This hunched-over position is not comfortable for some, but you can make some micro-adjustments to the handlebars, stem, and saddle to slightly change the riding position if you want.
A touring bike’s frame prioritizes stability and durability over being lightweight and nimble. Although the frame’s shape may be very similar to road bikes, there are some differences that impact the quality of handling and comfort over longer distances.
Touring bike frames are usually steel as this is hardwearing, can comfortably handle a heavy load, and withstand a few knocks without hampering the frame’s integrity.
A touring bike will have a longer wheelbase (the space between the wheels is longer). Somewhat counterintuitively, this results in a more relaxed and upright riding position. This is perfect for beginners or those looking to spend hours in the saddle day after day on a bike tour.
You will often find a lot more mounts on touring bikes, allowing you to install both front and rear pannier packs, in addition to being able to install more bottle cages.
The wheels and tires
The tires on a road bike have one purpose to help make you go faster (yes, there is a pattern emerging). The thin tires reduce the surface area that touches the tarmac, helping keep friction and rolling resistance to a minimum.
You will also find that road bike tires are designed to be inflated to 100PSI plus, again reducing the surface area and helping you to go faster.
Similar to the road bike frames. The wheels on road bikes are designed to be aerodynamic and lightweight. They do not have to be as robust as other types of bikes, so you will find fewer spokes and lighter rims on a road bike.
Although the jury is still out on their efficacy, you may also find deeper rims that are supposed to further ‘help’ improve aerodynamics.
However, on a touring bike, the wheels need to be robust and tires hard-wearing enough so that you do not have to stop every couple of miles to fix a puncture. As weight is not so much of a problem, you will find thicker and more puncture resistance tires on touring bikes.
They will often have more tread than you would find on a road bike to improve traction on the odd occasion you may need to explore a gravel track.
The wheels on a touring bike need to be able to handle a heavy load. As a result, they will have more spokes and have less emphasis on being as light as possible. The combination of slightly wider tires and more spokes makes touring bikes wheels a lot less maintenance and more able to handle a heavyweight without buckling or losing shape when you hit a pothole.
All the rest – saddle, drivetrain and handlebars
We have established that road bikes are designed for speed, and all their components compliment their wheels and frame to help make that happen.
The saddles (or seat) on road bikes are thin (that does not mean that they are uncomfortable), but they offer relatively little padding, and, without padded cycling shorts, will soon start hurting your sit bones.
The drivetrains on road bikes are lightweight, often with only two chains up front and between 7 – 9 cogs on the rear cassette. This gives plenty of range for a rider to build up serious momentum on the flats and still power up the inclines. You will find dropped bars on all road bikes. This design allows for several different riding positions, you can ride on the hoods, the bars, or the drops.
Touring bikes have a slightly wider saddle that needs to support the more upright and relaxed riding position. Thanks to the additional weight of all your camping gear or overnight provisions, you will find that you get more gears on a touring bike.
Instead of the two rings on the crankset, you will usually get three. The extra cog is the smallest and allows you to ride up the steepest gradients while fully loaded. Again the rear cassette usually has 7 – 9 cogs.
You will not often find the top-of-the-range groupsets on touring bikes as the reduction in weight and extra cost does not help with what touring bikes are designed for.
Whether the touring bike has drops or the larger touring bars, you can guarantee that they are not flat. You need to move your hands around freely while cycling for hours on end day after day to remain comfortable.
So which one is better, the road bike or the touring bike?
If you are only going to ride on the road, around your local area, or focusing on doing loop rides as fast as possible, then a road bike is the best investment for you.
At the lower end, they also make for a great commuter bike as you will be able to get to and from work quickly, and thanks to the relatively short distances, they are plenty comfortable enough. A road bike is your best bet if you are competitive and want to go as fast as possible.
However, if you are not too concerned about speed and are more interested in exploring, you should make a touring bike your next cycling upgrade. A touring bike does not have to only be for those that intend to cycle across a country (but it is incredible that they can).
If you are new to cycling and want a comfortable way to commute or get around at the weekend a touring bike is an excellent buy. The fact you can also attach bags etc makes them a great help for shopping too.
The truth is that touring bikes and road bikes are different. It depends what you are looking from in your new bike. Either way, you will not be disappointed if you buy a road or touring bike.
They are both great examples of why cycling is so popular and although touring bikes are not built for speed you are still able to build up more speed on the roads compared to mountain bikes and hybrids.
I’ve spent way more time in the bike trade than anyone should reasonably want to. In that time I’ve wanted to make cycling jargon and marketing easier to cut through to help people get the bike of their dreams.
When I’m not writing about bikes, I can be seen out bikepacking on single speed bikes or teaching kids how to ride.