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!
Bike Friday's Pocket Lama was born in the US, where it found a perfect niche among multi-modal tourers. It can be folded to the size of a standard hard case which can even be towed along later too! Ours came rigged for more rugged duties though, with a full complement of racks and wide tyres to match - at a price of £1650.
Bike Fridays are chromoly and built in Eugene, Portland (US). There's an enormously wide range, from TT bikes to tandems - the Pocket Llama is built for more rough stuff touring, with a slightly increased bottom bracket height over other models, beefier tubing, and tyre clearance for 2.3s. With eight top tube lengths to choose from, fit is pretty much custom, with a range of adjustable and non-adjustable stem risers available too.
There are two standard quick releases - one on the steerer tube to remove the handlebars, the other on the seat tube to fold it down. The initial 'fold' takes just 20 seconds and the full breakdown into a hard case (£100) takes 15 minutes for the well-practised hand, though in this case, you'll need to remove racks too. There's a custom colour option, three bottle mounts, a kickstand mount, a trailer attachment point and rack/ purpose designed by Bike Friday.
Cable routing is wiggly but neat, designed to allow the frame to pivot beneath the bottom bracket when folding. With its smaller wheels, the derailleur does hang low, making it more prone to damage from stray rocks when off-roading.
Cast aside those notions of how folders should or shouldn't ride. Everyone who took the Pocket Lama for a spin was immediately impressed by how 'normal' it felt - indeed, Bike Friday will set your bike up to pretty much exactly the riding position of your 'big' wheeler. Small wheels are nimble, fast to accelerate and of course, small - so the whole bike takes a lot less space to store.
20in wheels teamed with a 105 triple chainset and an Mtb cluster provide a good spread of gears. While lighter loads were fine, we did find the rear rack, which can be flat packed, wasn't rigid enough for 20kg panniers - on dirt tracks, it flexed from one side to the other. A standard expedition rack should be better, though the longer stays and extra leverage will always mean a rack on a small wheel wheeled bike will be compromised. On the downside, small wheels and rough terrain don't make such a good combination.
The Halo Twin Rails handled dirt tracks and gravel roads surprisingly smoothly, only struggling on rocky terrain where the greater angle of attack means they tend to bounce off rather than roll over obstacles. We also tried the bike out with Schwalbe's excellent Big Apples, offering a good turn of speed and plenty of comfort too.
In terms of the fold, the Bike Friday is no Brompton either. A quick release on the seat tube and head tube help compact the bike down for the boot of a car in under half a minute - otherwise, it's a 15- 20 minute affair to get the bike broken down to the size of its hard case (£100), and you'll need to remove the racks too.
These days airlines are becoming increasingly strict, and Bike Friday provide a very viable solution to reaching other parts of the world with your bike in one piece. A soft and light (but ridiculously expensive at £65) Travel Bag can be put in the hold of any coach without a raised eyebrow, and it's light enough to carry with you too.
Bike Fridays are custom bikes, so you can spec what you like, and there is a multitude of options. Ours came with shiny Shimano 105 crankset with outboard bearings. It looks great but wouldn't be our first choice for touring in more remote locations, simply because conventional replacement bottom brackets will be easier to source, and could well last longer too.
Our test model came pimped up with matching Easton EA70 stem and seat post, and standard alloy bar and comfortable Cane Creek bar ends. The XT brake and shifter is integrated - we prefer a separate pod, as in the event of a mechanical, there's less to replace. Deore Vs provide good stopping power and the gel perch kept our backsides happy.
There's an attractive, powder coated set of racks (£100 each) but as discussed in the Handling section, the rear is too flexible for heavier loads - though it does fold flat. It's also worth noting that Bike Friday specific extras are very expensive.
The Bike Friday uses standard 406 20in wheels. Ours also came specced with 32- hole Sun SC18s. Their small size gives them an extremely high inherent strength too, though rim wear will be more of an issue. Wheel size is one factor that might dissuade expedition tourers from the Bike Friday due to availability of quality parts - though low-end kids wheels should be fairly easy to come by.
But this hasn't put off Heinz Stucker - world traveller and godfather of expedition tourers - from buying one recently. With 415,000 kilometres to his name, we expect he knows a thing or two about what works on the road. There's a quality Shimano XT hub on the back, and a perfectly respectable Deore hub on the front, both of which have a good touring pedigree.
We really rated Halo's Twin Rail tyres (2.2in), which help smooth out the ride, roll surprisingly well both on and off road, and give it a groovy dune buggy look that steals it plenty of admirers. Schwalbe Marathons and Slicks are also available.