You can easily get carried away and spend a whole load of cash on a touring bike, especially once you factor in a long list of extras. The truth is, there are a lot of perfectly capable, ready-to-roll machines for well below the £900 mark. Not only that, but tourers are real jack-of-all-trades bikes, meaning you get even more for your money - use them for commuting, shopping and, with a lighter set of wheels and tyres, even road riding.
The classic Dawes Galaxy, with its reliable steel frame, 700c wheelset and drop handlebars, has been the blueprint for many a touring bike. With even more history to its name, here's Raleigh's version, the £699 Pioneer Venture GT.
At the heart of the Venture is a Reynolds 725 steel frame, a deservedly popular and time-tested tubeset that's a very pleasant surprise to see at this price point. It's not as robust as the cheaper 631 in terms of denting resilience but it's heat-treated (which strengthens the tubes), so it can be built up lighter and sprightlier. The quality of the TIG welding is good and there are socketed dropouts, though the silver finish and decals are a little uninspiring.
There are eyelets for a rack and mudguards, as well as provision for two water bottles - most distance tourers feature three - and there's no pump peg. Clearances are really generous though. There's room for 35c tyres with mudguards and we fitted Marathon XRs in a 40c (equivalent to 1.6in) without, allowing plenty of room to spare - similar to Surly's LHT frameset - so 'rough-stuff' touring is on the cards too.
The frame is connected to the fork via a rather basic, non-integrated headset that uses loose ball bearings that sit directly in the cups. While the bearings should be available anywhere for replacement, they're much more fiddly to change than simple cartridge versions. The top section is plastic, so we'd advise checking it for grime ingress regularly - we noticed some superficial rust inside the head tube.
Reynolds also supply the steel forks, with eyelets for mudguards and racks. Sizing is limited to just a 55cm and 60cm, though a 50cm should be available soon. Although the semi-sloping design means frames are more adaptable (the effective top tube was a 56cm), it is still not a great choice.
The Venture GT comes with a range of branded and unbranded parts. There's a simple, reliable square taper Truvativ triple crankset mated to a Deore rear mech, which provides smooth shifting. A 48-tooth outer ring ensures a good top speed, with an 11-32 cassette to bail you out on steeper climbs.
The handlebars are really well wrapped and, although the nine-speed Tiagra levers are well positioned, I personally found the bars drop away too much at the hoods. This means that, if you mount the bar so the tops are flat, as I like to for a comfortable touring position, the bottom curl drops away very steeply. The aluminium racks are basic but handled a shopping load of up to 30kg - which is probably a lot more than you'd tour with.
However, the bolt attaching the right leg of the rear rack was too long, and caused the chain to jam when in the smallest sprocket. It was easily fixed with a shorter bolt but it's this attention to detail where the Venture falls short. Likewise, the mudguards rattled incessantly against the rack's doglegs until I bent them into a better shape. The metal on the seat clamp was also a little soft, meaning I had to take care not to round it out. Aside from these minor issues, a matching black stem, seat post and fairly firm Selle Royal cutaway saddle, complete the good-value package.
The Venture uses Shimano Parallax hubs, which are basically recreational, Alvio-grade models from the 90s. The fact that they've long been superceded doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them and, being cup and cone, they're easy to service.
Spokes are basic but sturdy plain gauge, laced to Mavic A119 rims, which are a fairly hefty, basic model with double walls, single eyelets for strengthening around the spoke ends and a wear line indicator to tell you when you need to replace them.
Tyres are Maxxis Overdrive, rated to 90psi, which have a tread pattern that's happy on roads, Sustrans routes and canal paths alike. Although we didn't have any real problems with the wheels during our testing period - which was mainly on backroads and occasional tow paths - we did notice they hadn't been de-stressed, needing some time to settle in over the first couple of rides. A few turns of the spoke key put them back in true.
The Venture has a classic touring geometry, in that it's stable and handles loads well, but takes more work to steer unladen than an average road bike. This is due in part to the longer wheelbase, the slacker head angle and its overall 31-pound weight. Loaded up, there's a reassuring solidness in the frame that means you won't get caught out negotiating potholes or signalling. Unladen, or with just a couple of light panniers, it's surprisingly engaging.
There was a little toe overlap with mudguards and my size nine shoes, but not enough to worry about, even at slow speeds. Tektro cantis provide good braking performance and the Shimano/ Truvativ drivetrain package shifts without any complaints. On tarmac it proved a comfortable bike, though we found the Maxxis tyres gave an over-firm ride on canal paths, so had to be dropped down in pressure a bit.
Though it beats them on price, the Venture still faces some tough competition from the likes of Dawes, Ridgeback and Hewitt. Given its Reynolds 725 frame and its £699 tag, as a complete, ready-to-roll package, it is good value. It's a shame it falls short on some of the detailing and braze ons you'd expect on a distance tourer. Limited sizing is also restrictive. However, the quality frame is certainly worthy of being upgraded over time and will get you on the road - be it for touring or commuting - without spending a fortune. What's more, we've seen it advertised for a lot less in several shops, at which point it's a bargain.