Which is the best cycle for touring the Indian himalayas?

People often ask me what is the best cycle for touring the Himalayas. It is a hard question to answer, mainly because different people define ‘touring’ differently.

For instance, cycle touring may mean cycling hundreds of kilometers self-supported where the rider carries a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear on the bike, and has the option to stop and camp wherever she fancies. However, many of the well established Himalayan routes can also be toured ultralight, by eating and sleeping in teahouses (dhabas). And then there is the option of riding without any baggage because the support team/vehicle follows the rider(s) closely.

The choice of cycle can vary significantly depending on how you define ‘touring’, which route you pick, and how much road support you have. Consider the iconic Manali-Leh route. I am aware of people who have done this trip on an MTB, on a Hybrid, a touring bike, on a single-speed bike and even on a road bike.

If you are going to ride with only a saddle bag under the seat, with a support vehicle in tow, then you could pretty much choose whichever cycle you want. Just two caveats: Depending on where you are going, some of the passes can be steep, even for unladen bikes, and the gearing for most stock road bikes may not be appropriate for most riders. Some of the roads in this part of the world can be really bad, so skinny tires, rigid fork and drop-down bars may not be advisable, unless you are a glutton for punishment. However, if you are not venturing into deep Himalayas and know that the roads are in reasonable condition then you could definitely ride a roadie. The Tour of the Tigers (and the Tour of Nilgiris, which is not in the Himalayas, though) are often ridden on roadies.

Ready to ride through a stream flowing on the road. Dry bags (waterproof Ortliebs) but wet shoes.

Ready to ride through a stream flowing on the road. Dry bags (waterproof Ortliebs) but wet shoes.

If you are going fully laden (generally over 25 kgs) you should consider a touring bike or at the minimum a Hybrid bike with appropriately low gearing. On fully laden tours I have never heard of anyone complain of too many low gears, and with all that weight on your bike it would be ill advised to get into the top gear and hammer the downhills. More on cycle gearing here.

If you are going fully laden and know that you are going to venture away from the major Himalayan highways, (they may not look like major highways, but often are), then you must seriously consider an MTB/touring bike, perhaps with front shockers. You could go with a rigid fork, as I do sometimes, but be prepared for some punishment on the gravely and rocky tracks that are often found near the not so well traveled high passes.

Have you ridden the Himalayas?
What was/is your set up? And what has been your experience? Feel free to add to the conversation.

My current touring rig:
Here is a description of my current rig. It is not perfect, and it is far from the best that money can buy. I have built it slowly over the years and it works well for most part. I must admit that sometimes I miss the front shocker. On my recent trip across Spiti valley the hundred odd kilometers from Losar to Gramphu was one continuous rock-field with many river/stream crossings thrown in for good measure. A nice shocker wouldn’t have hurt! Next time I am on a trip like that I will consider carrying a RockShox along!

Trek 4300 modified for Himalayan touring. Nothing on this bike, other than the frame and seat post, is original.

Trek 4300 modified for Himalayan touring. Nothing on this bike, other than the frame and seat post, is original.

Original bike: Trek 4300
Everything other than the frame and seat-post has been replaced/changed over the years.

Wheels: 29er in front and 26er in the rear
Why I do that is a possibly a blog entry by itself

Fork: Rigid aluminum alloy (Mosso)
Very good value for money (Ebay) but it really is rigid. I have had no problem doing short off-road rides with it, but extended rides over rock-fields can get a little tough, as I discovered recently.

Handlebar: Butterfly/Trekking bar (Nashbar).
Another great value for money item. Having climbed over 10,000 vertical meters with it, I am a convert. I can’t imagine doing another loaded tour with regular flat bars. These are just awesome, and would highly recommend it. Perhaps a detailed review would be in order.

Drive train:
Derauilers – SRAM X7
Shifters – SRAM X5
Chainrings: 44-32-22
Cassette: 12-36
22 teeth in the front and 36 teeth at the back is a good choice, if you are doing a loaded tour in the Indian Himalayas.

Saddle: Brooks B17
I have had no issues with it. But I am not sure that it is significantly better than my previous saddle. I am told by multiple people that I need to give it 5000 kms for it to really grow on me. I guess I will reserve my judgement till then. The only downside to this saddle is that you have to worry about exposing it to the elements — it needs to come into the tent at night, or get a waterproof bag of its own.

Pedals: Shimano M520 Clipless SPD MTB Pedals
For touring many people prefer pedals which have flat pedal on one side. Somehow I prefer pedals with SPD mechanism on both sides, that way I can cleat-in on either side with minimal fuss.

Pannier Racks:
Front: Old Man Mountain
Rear: Topeak. On the last tour I noticed that the rack was making significant creaking noise. On closer inspection I noticed that some of the bolts had come loose with all the Himalayan rattle. Once tightened, I did not face any more issues. Have had zero issues with Old Man Mountain after multiple trips.

Pannier Bags: Ortlieb
Have used them on multiple tours and logged in over a couple of thousand kilometers and I have had no issues at all. Would unconditionally recommend them.

My current cycle rig for cycling in the Indian Himalayas

My current cycle rig for cycling in the Indian Himalayas

 

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27 comments

  • Subra October 10, 2014   Reply →

    Loved reading all the technical details.

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Thank you

  • Sumanta Gupta July 9, 2015   Reply →

    I presently own a full suspension Hercules MTB and am very comfortable with it. I intend to go for a cycling expedition to gangotri with starting point at Uttarkashi. I am aware of the terrain and elevation (4500ft to 12500ft) but would like to know whether there is any serious disadvantages while taking this bike in the expedition?

    • Ajay Jaiman July 13, 2015   Reply →

      I can’t say much about your particular bike, but in my opinion touring on dual-suspension bike can be a little challenging because regular pannier racks can not be fitted — if you have support, or if you are traveling light then this should not be a problem. However, if you do intend on loading a dual-suspension bike, there are some work-arounds; let me know and I could give you some suggestions…

  • Sumanta Gupta July 31, 2015   Reply →

    Sir, thanks for your reply. I do intend to travel light with around 05 kilos on my backpack.

    • Ajay Jaiman August 2, 2015   Reply →

      Well, I guess then it should not be a problem.
      All the best! Do tell us more upon returning.

  • R Singh August 1, 2015   Reply →

    Hello,

    I am currently in the process of buying a new bike for touring the Himalayas. I am debating between a hybrid / MTB. Given your experience, do you think a hybrid can take the beating? I am planning on going solo, so the bike would be fully laden.

    Would appreciate your thoughts.

    • Ajay Jaiman August 1, 2015   Reply →

      If the tour is going to be longer than a month I’d lean towards a MTB, otherwise you could go with either.

      If you do decide to go with a hybrid please keep some of the following in mind:
      1. Since you are likely to use panniers make sure that (i) the fork is ‘NOT’ carbon (ii) the frame has eyelets for mounting pannier racks (incidentally these days most high-end MTBs don’t have them).
      2. Make sure that the gearing is optimal. Loaded touring of the Himalayas requires gearing that most stock hybrids don’t come factory-fitted with. You may need to make some changes in the setup. More on cycle gearing here.

      Hope this helps. All the best!

      • R Singh August 2, 2015   Reply →

        Thank you for your reply. The reason for the dilemma was that I’ve driven on the Himalayan roads and the higher one goes the roads disappear and it becomes a MTB trail. The tyres of a hybrid weren’t giving me much confidence. On the other hand a hybrid would help me cover a greater distance in less time (at least where there is tarmac)

        I think i have my answer. I’ll look for a MTB with eyelets.

        One follow up question

        Is a hydraulic disc brake a requirement for wet weather given the unpredictable nature in the Himalayas?

        Thank you in advance.

        • Ajay Jaiman August 2, 2015   Reply →

          I agree, the hybrid will be faster on the tarmac (how much faster is a whole other topic, though). But in my opinion part of the charm of self-supported cycle touring is that you are not trying to set speed records!

          I started touring on an MTB with rim brakes. After a rim failure in Bhutan I changed to mechanical disc brakes. On a recent tour of Spiti coming down Kunzum La in a bitterly cold, windy and rainy morning I did miss hydraulic disc brakes. Prompting me to come back and install them. So I guess, I think it is a luxury worth having…

          • R Singh August 3, 2015  

            Thank you for your prompt replies. You’ve cleared all my doubts. Now I can focus on buying the bike and start training for my trip next year.

          • Ajay Jaiman August 3, 2015  

            Glad to be of help. All the best!

  • R Singh October 24, 2015   Reply →

    Hi. I wanted to know from where did you purchase the Pannier Racks and the Ortlieb bags?. I am in the process of gearing my mtb for touring. Thought I’d seek advice from Yoda before embarking.

    • Ajay Jaiman October 27, 2015   Reply →

      Friends and relatives. Ortliebs came from Thailand. And the racks came from the US.
      ‘Yoda’ 🙂

  • Nilesh Dhore August 29, 2016   Reply →

    Hello Ajay,
    Do think tubeless tyres are better than those with tube to Leh or Spiti Valley. Have you ever used tubeless tyre. Are the puncture repairing for tubeless tyre is same as that in Car tubeless tyre.

    • Ajay Jaiman August 30, 2016   Reply →

      I don’t think one needs to be tubeless for these routes. If you already are tubeless then it is fine, I guess. I have ridden (my touring bike is not tubeless) in Spiti, Ladakh, Bhutan, Arunachal, Myanmar… and have almost entirely been puncture free. With one exception, on a solo ride in Ladakh I had three or four punctures on the same day. I later deduced that the cause was in the wheel itself and not on the road…

      My mountain bike is tubeless, and in my opinion it is a good solution to riding in thorn infested countryside (country roads and broken tarmac are generally not thorn infested, in my experience). The only caveat is that you have to remember to refill the sealant every couple of months otherwise things can get ugly. I once had a total flat on the tubeless and the bead got detached from the rim — there is no way you can reset it with a mini pump. Fortunately I was not very far from the trail head, otherwise it would have been a much longer solo walk in the blistering summer sun.

  • Vaibhav Arora December 7, 2016   Reply →

    Hi. Do you think a road bike (B’twin triban 500) would do fine for some similar long trips. Any particular route you would suggest?
    Thank you.

    • Ajay Jaiman January 18, 2017   Reply →

      You could certainly do long trips on the B’twin Triban, but I’d think that a road bike is not ideal for touring in the Himalayas…

  • Davis Antony May 9, 2017   Reply →

    Does Montra Helicon 2017 makes touring good in Himalayas?

    • Ajay Jaiman May 29, 2017   Reply →

      I have not ridden or seen the Montra Helicon. From what I can tell form the specs on their website it should work. However, if I were riding with all my cooking and camping equipment I would at the minimum invest in wider gear range; YMMV.

  • Saravanan May 24, 2017   Reply →

    Hi Jai! Am new to your blog.Your adventures are awesome. I am a doctor, used to long rides on flats,say 100 kms in a day.Not a frequent rider though. Earlier used a hybrid, now riding a road bike for the past one year. Ooty is just 150 kms from my location. Planning to buy an MTB ,with future namaku leh trip. Your set up on trek looks very good. Especially the rigid mosso forks and trekking bar. My heart is advising to assemble a custom MTB as yours,with trekking bars.i love rigid forks. Cheaper, faster option is to get any MTB on the market and modifying it. I can spend up to 50k .Is it feasible to assemble , resembling your gear?

    • Ajay Jaiman May 29, 2017   Reply →

      Thank you.
      I think 50k should be enough to assemble a similar bike. Though it may depend on the cost of the frame you start with.

  • Karan August 5, 2017   Reply →

    Please suggeste a bike under 40k for manali leh tour. I am considering these
    Trek marlin 5
    Raleigh phase pro
    Scott aspect 970
    Btwin rockrider 540
    I am not able to decide give me the best bike suggestion under 40k for himalayan touring.

    • Ajay Jaiman August 7, 2017   Reply →

      I haven’t look at the exact specs of each of those bikes. But I suspect any decent MTB (or even a hybrid) should work. Go with the one that suits you, one you like — take a test ride if possible.

      • Rohit November 10, 2017   Reply →

        Hello,

        I have a question regarding tires. Do you think a 700x40C is wide enough to pedal thru all the slushy and off road sections of the Manali Leh route?

        Thx

  • Pavel October 3, 2017   Reply →

    Thank you for sharing! Do you have any gpx track saved for this tour?

  • Chandukumar October 24, 2017   Reply →

    I gifted myself a Schnell M300 29er after staying away from cycling for about 15yrs. It was amazing to see people do long tour on cycles and made me to search more about it and i stumbled upon your jacked up great looking cycle.
    I have a question – 26″ at rear and 29″ in front. Why/How does it help?

    Cheers.

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