What makes a good touring bike? Although spare parts can now be jetted out to the furthest locales around the globe, the fully laden touring bike blueprint still errs on the side of caution. So unless you travel fast and light, pry your eyes away from the scales. This means strong, dent resistant tubing on the frame, and clearances to run a range of comfortable or mixed tread tyres too. It means a tubing gauge that's laterally stiff enough to handle all your worldly possessions, but vertically compliant and suitable in geometry to deposit you at your destination in comfort. Expect a lower bottom bracket to improve stability, and make hopping on and off your fully laden machine a little easier. Look for a full compliment of braze-ons, including rack mounts for panniers. Prepare for slower steering too, so handling feels predictable under load. And check for heel clearance - longer chainstays mean no clipping your heels on your panniers. Components should be built to last and serviceable too - nothing too skimpy please.
Then there's the question of wheels, which should be built for the longhaul and suited to load bearing. 26in wheels are found the world over and are inherently strong, with no toe overlap issues for smaller riders. Many prefer the aesthetics of 700c wheels and feel they roll a bit better - but availability is limited to Europe and North America. 20in wheels are a more unusual breed. Spare availability is generally good (they share their wheel size with BMX and children's bike) and their compact nature lends them well to folders - if you do need to carry a spare tyre or tube, it's smaller too!
Thorn's Raven Tour (£1349), reflects the growing popularity of the Rohloff Speedhub, a 14-speed, precision internal hub that's famed for its reliability. In fact, Thorn have done more to promote it in the UK than anyone else, following the trend in continental Europe where these expensive, German built 14-speed hubs are more widely accepted. We were impressed with Thorn's first generation of Ravens, and this one sees several refinements, including upgraded tubing and a simpler, more appealing finish.
With its steerer tube spacers stacked up like casino chips, the Raven Tour's a little gawky at first sight - though the steerer would normally be cut down to customer requirement. It's certainly tidier than the Mark 1, finished in a choice of tough, powder coated paint with pleasingly understated decals. Compared to its predecessor, the Mark 2 uses even stronger, heat treated double-butted seamless 4130 chromoly tubing, and has clearance for Schwalbe Marathon XRs (2.25in), the expedition choice. Similar in grade to Reynolds 725, the end result is a very sturdy frame that should survive even an enthusiastic bash on the top of an Indian bus. Thorn has always provided a considered spread of sizes and the new Tour is no exception, with 13 options featuring both long and short top tubes to suit most body types. An eccentric bottom bracket adjusts chain tension, held in place by two bolts that screw directly into the eccentric shell.
Combined with the Rohloff specific dropouts, removing the rear wheel is as easy as on a derailleured bike, with two quick-release cables releasing the gear system. As expected, there're mounts for three water bottles, a pump peg and rack and mudguard mounts. The longer twin plated forks feature low rider and a dynamo bosses - it can also be replaced with an 80-100mm travel suspension fork for off road duties. The headset is FSA's excellent Orbit XL II, one of the most reliable in the business. We're nit picking, but we'd have liked to see the smoother, forged cable runners used on the Raven Sport, which are kinder on cable housing in the long term.
The Raven Tour is based on the long proven Nomad, with a slightly tighter wheelbase for a more spritely ride when unladen - relative to touring bikes, that is - yet predictable when loaded to the hilt. It's a tribute to the frame's versatility that it can handle heavily laden touring, commuting and even fairly involved offroad riding with aplomb. Ours came specced with a 39T/16T ratio (17.7-91in) for an Mtb-style spread of gears in 14 evenly spaced increments - though Rohloff allow a lower 40T/17T set of ratios too. Like all Rohloff driven bikes, it takes a little getting used too - mainly the need to ease off a little when shifting gears. There are advantages (little maintenance, long service life, durability, shifting at a standstill) and disadvantages (noisier gears 1-8, heavier shifting) to this 14-speed internal system. But having put one through two hard seasons in the Indian Himalayas, the pluses far outweigh the negatives for loaded, mixed terrain touring. There's nothing to beat it for ease of use, while the lack of dangling derailleurs makes it far easier to transport too. But like most things in life, it's not quite perfect. Noise and very minimal drag will bother some, and we have heard of the odd slipping gear - corrected by Rohloff's excellent customer service for no cost. While there's no doubt that the subjective 'feel' is quite different to derailleurs, under loaded panniers (and the inevitable drivetrain of grime) it's far less obvious.
What the Raven may lack in elegance, it makes up in sheer practicality, thought and attention to detail. As ever, Thorn provide an impressive range of extras to fine tune the setup to your individual needs, such as the all-important choice of crank length and sprocket sizes. Our Raven came with one of Thorn's new Taiwanese EX chromoly racks, an extremely sturdy design rated to 40kg. Both the front chainring and rear sprocket are reversible for a longer service life - bar the occasional tightening of the chain and drop of oil, there's nothing you need to do. Deore brakes provide excellent stopping power. The ergo riser bars are swept back for wrist comfort, while still providing plenty of room for gadgets. A matching black seat post would have completed the look - ours was just on the limit for long legs. An impressive 100-day money back guarantee offers enough time to see if Rohloff's system works for you.
Thorn offer a wide range of rims and tyres available at the time of ordering, as well as various hub upgrades. Ours came with Sun's CR18, a reasonably light yet surprisingly sturdy 26in rim that marks the bike out for lighter, more road-based touring duties, helping to ensure a decent turn of unladen speed too. If your touring vision is more expedition in feel, we'd recommend a sturdier rim, at the cost of extra rotational weight. At the front, a dependable Deore should keep out grime and run smoothly for many a mile, while at the back, the Rohloff, finished in a tough black anodising, provides the gear range too - a yearly oil change will keep things running smoothly. For the tourist, a great advantage of the Rohloff is the fact that in the absence of a cassette, there's no dishing. This allows for a stronger wheel to be built with just 32-spoke rims, which are easier to source, and negates the need for a cassette removal tool while on tour. Double-butted spokes all-round also provide strength and comfort at a reasonable weight. Pasela Tourguards are a favourite, with a low rolling resistance, strong sidewalls and a reasonable pocket of air for comfort.