In the year preceding the trip, we put a lot of time into researching various aspects of the trip in order to be properly prepared. To save others time, I will try to compile what we learned here. If you are not planning on bike touring, this will probably not interest you, so no complaints if it makes for a dull read.
To do any international bike travelling, the bike you get should have 26″ wheels, as these are universally available. Cooper and I both bought touring bikes (a Trek 520 and a Schwinn Voyageur) before learning about the difficulties of replacing a 700c tire in South America, so we had to go out and find new bikes again. Turns out this is a cheaper option anyway, as run of the mill 80’s and 90’s mountain bikes will do (we hope). They are built of steel and built to take a beating. Steel is preferable because it can flex, and also because it is weldable. I don’t know how important this second factor is, as I’ve never heard of anyone’s frame breaking on a trip like this and furthermore just because steel is weldable doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to find someone to weld the bike together and make it ride-able. I think there is some finesse to frame building.
I ended up paying just $20 for my frame, a Schwinn Frontier, but I had to put over $1000 into it for various parts. Having good wheels is imperative, as we have seen already on this trip: in the first month Joe and Tom have already had to replace their rear wheels because they were not built to take the burden. I got a wheelset from http://www.universalcycles.com for $300. They are Sun Rhynolite rims, with Deore XT hubs and DT Swiss spokes. The front wheel has 32 spokes and the rear has 36. Cooper took a wheel building class at a local bike shop and made the same tires for about the same price (minus the fee for the class). So far they have made it 4000 miles with no broken spokes and only minor truing. I got Continental Touring Plus tires, 1.75″ wide, for about $30 each. In the 2200 miles to Seattle, there is noticeable wear on the rear tire but almost no wear on the front tire, so I have swapped the front and back tires. Don’t skimp on the tires, especially the rear one! Cooper tried a pair of regular mountain bike tires (Serfas Drifters) and while the front one holds up fairly well to this day, he paid dearly with 11 flats on the rear one. I think the quality of tire available outside of America will be much worse, but apparently tires will not last much more than 4000 miles at best.
Besides the wheels, I bought a new chain, cassette, and crankset. The chain and cassette were cheap and SRAM, I know I’ll have to replace them periodically. The crankset is a Sugino x600 with a Shimano UN-54 bottom bracket. I chose this because the bottom bracket is square taper, which apparently is the most common type and so will be more easily replaced in Central and South America. In total, the drivetrain cost about $200, with the crankset being the most expensive part.
The other components were taken from a Schwinn Woodlands. I recommend friction shifters, as they are much simpler and can be fixed more easily. Also, they are more common and more easily replaceable. The seat I am using is the seat I’ve had on my everyday bike for years. It is a cheap, tattered seat, but I’ve always found it pretty comfortable, so I didn’t think it necessary to buy a $100 Brooks saddle (though those do come very highly reviewed). My pedals actually come off the Schwinn Frontier and have cages. I’ve grown to like the cages, but they aren’t necessary. I bought Ergon GC3 grips and bar extenders, as I had had problems with the old grips pinching a nerve.
The racks I got were the Tubus Cargo and Tara racks, from thetouringstore.com. Unlike virtually everything else, there is a comforting consensus regarding these racks. So far, they’ve been perfect, and I don’t anticipate any problems. Wayne at thetouringstore was exceptionally helpful. For the pair I paid $210.
For panniers, we all got Ortlieb roller classic panniers. Virtually everyone we read about used these panniers and nobody reported any problems. I looked around a long time to before buying, and I think I paid $220.