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Picking your touring bike...

Note: This section has been written specifically for the riders of the Illini 4000 for Cancer group. Of course, a lot of it is applicable to others so read on...
#1 - Comfort
#2 - Durability
#3 - Repairability/Compatabity
Comfort
You will be on your new bike for over 4,000 miles this summer. Hopefully you will continue riding and will put thousands of miles a year on your bike for years to come. Make sure you get one you like and, more importantly, is comfortable for you to ride. The role played by the shop, and the person working at the shop, is a very important one for you when you are in the market for a new bike. So, unless you are certain of what you are doing, a reliable local bike shop will do the best job of fitting your new bike to you and your needs. Use their expertise in selecting your bike -- you'll be glad you did.
Durability
You can the have coolest looking bike on the planet but if it doesn't hold up it's not going to do you a whole lot of good. Get a durable bike with reliable components that are capable of long distance riding.
Repairability/Compatability
Your super comfortable and durable bike will be useless to you if when it breaks no one stocks the parts to fix it. That left-handed Czechoslovakian-threaded shift lever might look cool in the catalog but if it breaks down in the middle of Montana the odds of Bob's Bikes and BBQ stocking any replacement parts are slim to none. Get a bike with parts that are easily fixed and/or replaced. As with repairability, if you've got a proprietary Shimano groupo and your rear dérailleur breaks you may need to replace it with that exact dérailleur. That could be difficult at the Bikes and BBQ place in Montana. Make sure your parts are somewhat universally stocked or can be substituted with something similar. Otherwise, you may find yourself driving SAG the rest of the trip.

What size bike do I ride?
"Fit the bike to the rider, not the rider to the bike."
In order for your bike to be comfortable it needs to fit you. Start out by calculating your bicycle frame size. Your local bike shop (often referred to as LBS on bike blogs) can help you do this. Alternatively, a quick google search will turn up a number of online calculators to help you. I've put a basic outline of the steps involved here.
Touring vs Racing
You will be touring across America -- not racing. You do not need a racing bike. Touring bikes have somewhat different frame angles, different components, and are made to be ridden comfortably all day long, day in and day out. They may be slightly heavier but they will generally be more durable and more suited for what you are doing. I suugest you look for a good touring bike.
Frame material -- Steel, Aluminum, Titanium, Carbon Fiber or Bamboo?
There are advantages and disadvantages to all frame materials. However, most custom touring frames are made of steel. Steel is generally a bit heavier but rides smoothly and, for long distances, this is ideal. Aluminum is generally "harsher" than steel, ridewise, making it less ideal. Carbon Fiber soaks up a lot of the road (i.e. more comfort) but is very pricey. Also, if you crash your steel frame, most good bike shops can bend it back into shape. That's generally true with aluminum as well but not so with any of the other materials. (Of course, if you don't crash this won't be an issue.) That said, an off-the-rack aluminum bike will probably be a reasonable cheap option and will work for what you are doing. For what it's worth, Bamboo is way too expensive for now!
Components -- Old School vs New School
If anyone tells you that you need the latest technology to get through the Rockies they are wrong. People have been doing it for years on bikes ranging from one-speeds with wooden rims to ten-speeds with old, heavy steel frames. What you need is a bike with durable and repairable components. STI shifters are very hard to fix if you crash and break one (or if you get a flat, turn the bike over onto its handlebars and get sand in the shifter bits -- hint: don't do this). Old down-tube shifters and bar-end shifters could be fixed with a piece of twine and a stick if need be. Research what you are getting and make sure it can be fixed or replaced while on the road.
Wheels -- spoke count and why it's important
Touring bikes have 36 or 32 spokes in each wheel. Racing bikes generally have fewer. More spokes makes it less likely that your bike will be unridable if a spoke breaks (if you have a 16 spoke wheel and one breaks you will be walking or riding in the SAG wagon -- with a 36 spoke wheel you will be riding on a wobbly wheel until you can get it repaired). Additional benefits of "standard" wheels are they have standard spokes, standard repairability, and offer a less harsh ride. I strongly recommend you get a good set of touring wheels for your bike. For a well written article on wheels check out Sheldon Brown's Wheelbuilding page. Remember, you want to minimize the chances that you will be side-lined during your ride.
Saddle (that's what we biker's call the seat... not sure why, though)
This absolutely, positively has to be comfortable. They come in various shapes and size, lengths and widths, and in plastic or leather. If you can, try a bunch of them out. Ask your biking friends what they ride (and, more importantly, why). Although heavy and in need of breaking in, I highly recommend you get a Brooks saddle. Once broken in you will not find a more comfortable saddle for touring (and many people still race on them). They come in a variety of sizes and styles. The most common is the B17 (or B17s for women) -- they cost around $100. You can get one on-line from Wallingford Bikes (the best mail order option) or from your LBS.
Shoes, cleats and pedals
You are a tourist. Hopefully you'll be getting off your bike regularly, walking around, and checking out all the exciting places you go. Racing shoes have exposed cleats (the ones that make you walk funny and click with each step) which are not made for walking around town and are not needed. And, if you walk on them long enough to damage them and they cease to hold you onto your pedals, you will fly over your handlebars at the most inoppurtune time thus breaking your collarbone and ending your ride... fun! Instead, get mountain biking shoes (sometimes called touring shoes) with recessed cleats so it's easy to walk around and not damage your cleats (alternatively, if you really want racing shoes bring spare cleats and check them regularly). Also, make sure your shoes fit. Cycling shoes generally fit a bit tighter but do not get ones that restrict your blood-flow to the point of causing your toes to go to sleep. Remember, comfort first.
Gears -- how many do I need?
When I rode across the country I rode a Schwinn Paramount with two chainrings up front and five cogs in back (also known as a ten speed). In the earliest days of the Tour de France, riders managed the Pyrenees (the big mountains in Europe) with one or two speeds total... sometimes three. Now you can get bikes with 33 speeds (or check out Sheldon Brown's 63 speed bike). So, how many gears do you need? The proper questions is, "which gears do I need?" Bicycle gearing (all gearing, in fact) is simply ratios. How far will you travel per revolution of the pedal. A large chainring in front with a small cog in back will produce a higher ratio, be harder to pedal and will move you farther (good for downhill or with a nice tail wind). Likewise, a small chainring in front and a large cog in back will produce a lower ratio, be easier to pedal and will not move you as far (good for uphill or against a stiff head wind). What you are looking for in your touring bike is a wide range of ratios. This can be accomplished with a well thought out 10, 12, 14, 21, 24, or 27 speed bicycles. If not planned properly, you could have a 33 speed bicycle that doesn't have a gear ratio that will get you up a hill. Learn about gear ratios and make sure the bike you are getting has a wide range or switch out some gears to achieve that range. Harris Cyclery has some Sheldon Brown special Touring cassettes... check 'em out here.
Here are a few useful Gear Ratio links:
Ken Kiffer (Cycling Cadence and Bicycle Gears)
Sheldon Brown - Gear ratio calcuator and gain explanation

Note for women riders: There are a number of manufactures who make bikes specifically designed for women. Team Estrogen has a great article about why that's important, what the differences are and where to get one. I would also recommend you read their Women's Cycling Discussion Forums and ask them questions if you have them... they know the answers.

Places to buy bikes
I would look at and try out as many bikes as possible before making your decision. So, start looking early. Ride your friend's bike to see how you like it. Read as much as you can about bikes. Once you know what you are looking for start shopping locally! Your local bike shop will be able to fit you to your new bike and maintain it once you have it. In Urbana-Champaign I recommend Champaign Cycle. If you are from Chicago there are a number of places you can go. The biggest are probably Performance and Kozy's (you can order on-line from either of these as well) but a quick internet search should also turn up some smaller shops in your neighborhood. There are also a number of large on-line sources. For starters, try Bike Nashbar, Bikes Direct, Colorado Cyclist, and Performance. You can also search out your local Craigslist or eBay for used bikes.

Links
Wiki page on How to Buy a Bike
Fully Loaded Touring Bike gallery
Bicycle Touring 101 web page
Sheldon Brown's Revisionist Theory of Bicycle Sizing

A few good old steel touring bikes
Bianchi - Volpe
Bridgestone - T700, T500 (no longer made but used ones turn up occasionally)
Jamis - Aurora and Aurora Elite
Salsa - Casseroll (complete bike = $1,195)
Schwinn - Paramount P-15 touring model (no longer made)
Surly - Long Haul Trucker or Cross-Check (complete bikes = $1,095)
Trek - 520, 620, 720 (note: the current 520s are very similar to the Surly Long Haul Trucker)
... and a few really nice but expensive ones
Rivendell - Atlantis (frame, fork, headset = $2,000)
Waterford - 1900/T-22 (frame and fork = $2,150)

A note on clothing...
Gloves - some folks wear them, others don't. There are different styles of padding so if you are going to wear gloves make sure they are comfortable.
Jersey -
Shorts - There are a lot of types of shorts out there. If you can, try some on and find ones that fit you well. Make sure you get shorts with good chamois. Saving a few bucks and ending up with uncomfortable shorts is not worth it.
Socks - proper cycling socks are designed to wick moisture and not bunch up in the toe. They are worth the $8-10 you'll spend on them.
Wool vs Synthetic - I prefer wool, others prefer synthetic. I'd suggest trying each and deciding for yourself.

Allison's Gear Guide
Allison Heim (a 2007 Illini 4000 rider) has compiled this list of recommended gear so that you don't have to. She's also provided contact information in case you have any questions. (link)
[Note: Allison recommends, and I concur, get yourself some mountain biking shoes -- the kind without protruding cleats. They are much easier to walk around in when not on the bike which will save you from damaging your cleats or having to carry along spare shoes.]

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