These enduring and solid bikes are cut to go around the world. Yet, at a time when borders are closed, they have never sold so well. On a test route in the corners and on the coasts of the Luberon, our two journalists got in the saddle.
Somewhere between the Lockdown of March and the summer of 2020, there was an amazing phenomenon. The travel bike, no doubt because it embodied a promise of horizons for the time being blocked by the health crisis, has turned into an object of desire. Sports shops and bikers saw an audience of neophytes who had the experience of cycling only the journey to work or a few outings during the holidays. This time, they ventured to the”great hike” department, dreaming of elsewhere, building long wanderings with tent and luggage, imagining themselves already spinning on the paths of France and – soon? – the vast world.
To better understand this craze, and understand what distinguishes the “frequent traveler” from the common bikes, we wanted to test two sizes of the sector. The Touring 900, the latest creation of the French giant Decathlon. And the TX-400, a reference on the market, was produced by the German firm VSF Fahrradmanufaktur.
A bike tour of the Luberon massif
Problem: where to get, in the middle of a global pandemic, a machine a priori designed to go around the planet? Our hopes of attacking Japan by its coasts having not survived the closure of the borders, we decide to fall back on a more realistic option: a tour of the Luberon massif, a loop of 236 kilometers between Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Vaucluse. Certainly, the Provencal hills do not have the same reliefs as the Japanese Alps, but the course still aligns some beautiful differences in height as well as passages out of bitumen. Enough to make sure that our destriers have some under the saddle.
Since the SNCF does not allow the transport of non-dismantled bicycles on all its trains, we had to disassemble ours before embarking on the TGV Paris-Marseille. So here they are lying on the place du Terreau de Manosque, our starting point, broken up like a puzzle. Perfect, before proceeding to the reassembly, for a small session of comparative anatomy between an ordinary bike and a machine designed to swallow the kilometer.© Provided by GEO Three keys (15, 10, and 8), a multitool (the cyclist’s Swiss army knife), and three good hours “will be enough” for the reassembly of the TX-400. © Clément Imbert & Vincent de Lapomarède
At our feet, therefore: two saddles with their stem, two handlebars, two pedals slightly more sophisticated than on our usual city bikes, four wheels with wide tires. Until then, we find ourselves there. Less usual, luggage racks, massive and branched, one for the rear strut, the other for the front fork, intended to support large panniers. And frames – made of steel for the TX-400, aluminum for the Touring 900 – heavy, solid, offering the most rigidity and therefore tensile strength… While being able to withstand the load without losing stability.
In contrast to gravel, whose purpose is to travel light with, like luggage, kits that insinuate themselves in the voids of the frame (the famous “bike packing”), or to the road bike designed to spin light like the bird on the asphalt, the bike “around the world” must be able to carry a lot, up to fifty kilos, and long. Not a thoroughbred but, it is not to offend him, a good old mule who does not balke under his pack.© Provided by GEO Vincent on his VSF Fahrradmanufaktur TX-400. © Clément Imbert & Vincent de Lapomarède
The difference can be noted from the first kilometers. Provided you have balanced the panniers well, you feel very stable, and you go straight, without worrying too much about the traffic, dense at the exit of Manosque. On the other hand, from the first slopes, even light, as on the coast of Pierrevert or, worse, about ten kilometers further, on the steep that climbs to the Bastide-des-Jordans, we quickly have the impression of standing still.
Rather than accusing his mount of dragging his paw, we will remember that after a year of teleworking, with a closed gym and reduced physical activities, the cyclist is involved. And that the bike, however great traveler it may be, without the help of the calves, will not move forward on its own. It is enough, too bad for the ego, to reduce the gear and move to the small tray to restart the machine, slowly but surely.© Provided by GEO Clement on his Riverside Touring 900. © Clément Imbert & Vincent de Lapomarède.
Past Peypind’Aigues, back to the flat, which gives the necessary respite to appreciate the view that emerges, to the north, on the bluish flanks of the massif. After fifty kilometers, we finally arrive in Lourmarin just in time to see the blond stones of the Church of St. Andrew ignite, it is the endorphins that make us lyrical, in the gold of the sunset.
The next day, we decide, instead of continuing west to Cavaillon, to cut due north, by taking the combe of Lourmarin, where flows the Aigue Brun and which splits the Luberon in two, the “small” with the left hand, the “big” on the right. The yaw road, lined with olive trees and dry stone walls, rises more dru than yesterday. But, despite the aches and pains, we feel more in our element, finding our rhythm, agreeing to let ourselves be overtaken by the climbers with shorts and aerodynamic helmets. They do not run in the same category.© Provided by GEO Shimano’s “trekking” transmission is not afraid of changes in pace. But if you force a little too much, as on any bike, it goes off the rails! © Clément Imbert & Vincent de Lapomarède.
Arrived at the top, it is the epiphany: in the foreground, the lavender fields of the Claparèdes plateau and, in the background, the silhouette of the Ventoux emerging under its snow hat like a Fuji-Yama. We had it, our Japanese moment. We will even know another, on the last day, in the climb of the Col de la Mort d’Imbert, where the wet green of the pines draws in the midst of the landscapes of printmaking. Finally, it is the descent to Manosque, five kilometers swallowed in a few minutes, with the apprehension of soon having to separate from his already faithful machine which, for the time being, despite the speed and the load, splits the wind, imperturbable.
Results of the races? Four days, a little short to judge the full potential of this kind of bike designed for very long courses. But enough to touch the finger what explains its success: their ability to embark on their luggage rack much more than our panniers, all our dreams besides.© Provided by GEO Imbert’s death? Oh no, that, never! © Vincent de Lapomarède & Clément Imbert.
The Decathlon Riverside Touring 900 bike
Saddle: the seat is none other than a mythical Brooks Imperial, whose leather bends to your morphology. But for that, it will take a long ride!
Colors: no madness, Decathlon bets on shades that remain discreet at the bivouac.
Brakes: mechanical disc, powerful, they are reassuring, even downhill in the rain.
Handles: cork, antiperspirant and rather racy!
Price: about 1300 €.
Clément Imbert: “A new kid in the Riverside range, it is also Decathlon’s first “big trip” bike. An orientation that jumps out at the design of the machine, with its massive frame, almost disproportionate, giving an impression of solidity to any test. Same robustness for the two luggage racks, which the French brand has specially designed for this model. The one at the back is firmly secured to the strut and can carry up to forty kilos. The one at the front, with a top platform and four horizontal bars on either side of the fork, allows you to hang all types of panniers (starting with those of the new luggage storage range that the OEM plans to release for this summer). As for the 28-inch wheels, they are equipped with Schwalbe Marathon anti-registration tires, comfortable on the road as well as on the paths, which complete the bike’s swathing look. These first impressions are confirmed as soon as I get in the saddle. Flattened hanger guaranteeing a good grip comfort, stable handlebars ensuring precise control: I have a little feeling, especially loaded, of being at the wheel of a thirty-eight-ton. But a powerful thirty-eight-ton, unbreakable, ready to roll again, and again, and again.”
The VSF Fahrradmanufaktur TX-400 model
Frame: made of double thickness steel.
Kickstand: solid and with reinforced attachment.
Luggage rack: standard, and accompanied by gourd holders.
Lighting: Connected to the hub dynamo, the front (powerful) and rear headlights continue to operate when stationary.
Brakes: hydraulic, very flexible.
Accessory: “ Hub” USB optional to charge its high-tech equipment while driving.
Price: about 1900 €.
Vincent de Lapomarède: “On the handlebars of this stocky German model, it was the feeling of safety that struck me first. Moreover, we can no longer count the adventurers who have straddled it for tens of thousands of kilometers without damage. Everything has been designed so that the weight (16 kilos empty, 30 loaded, up to 170 cyclists included, according to the manufacturer) is not a problem, especially thanks to two principles. Mechanical first, with a Shimano XT Deore transmission able to lower the gear to the point that few ribs resist it. In small development, we feel grind like a hamster before understanding that we are already at the top. Physical then, with a center of gravity placed low, thanks to 26-inch wheels – 28 on a classic bike – and luggage racks, especially at the front, which put the load as close as possible to the ground. Even the large ones (the frame exists up to size 57) will benefit from this. Disadvantage: in rough terrain, panniers flirt with pebbles. The handlebars, not adjustable in height, give a VTTiste look and limits the positions. Ergonomic handles provide a happy alternative. Wide tires hook any surface, sandy or rocky. Oversized for the Vélodyssée, the TX-400 makes the Andes dream.”