Bicycle touring in the US really got popular in the 1970s, and a lot of the collective wisdom related to that activity dates to that period. Mountain bikes had not yet hit the mainstream, so manufacturers of touring bicycles could not have borrowed the MTB design elements. The touring bikes of the 1970s tend to resemble slightly beefed-up versions of European racing bikes from the same period. Most of those machines could fit a 28 mm or maybe a 32 mm tire with a fender (not that bigger rubber was available anyway). And they had traditional racing geometries, possibly with the concession of 1/2 or 1-degree of seat tube and head tube angle and an extra 1 cm of chainstay length. Nowadays with the internet bulletin boards overflowing with discussion of even the most trivial aspects of bicycle design, the longing for a "traditional" aesthetic often rises above the chatter. Things like sloping top-tubes, threadless headsets, larger diameter (stronger/stiffer) tubing, and the ubiquity of black components tend to push traditionalists out of their comfort zones. While I believe the modern renditions of frame design, threadless headsets, etc, often represent some real functional improvements, I admit that the traditionalists do have a point: if it ain't broke, why fix it? After all, William and Bob rode 600 miles around Northern Minnesota back in 1935.
I love this photo. In truth, the 1930s ballooners pictured here had the big tires that permitted riding the unimproved roads of 1930s Northern Minnesota. The bicycle tourists of the 1970s, by and large, rode paved roads exclusively.
The current generation of bike tourists, at least some of them, have gravitated back to the dirt roads and trails or tours that combine a variety of surfaces. Considering ALL types of roads gives us so many more options! In the past few years, we have seen the proliferation of bikes that straddle the territory between traditional road touring bikes and devoted offroad bikes. At HC, we have built up and sold many Rivendell, Rawland, and Surly bikes that have the sneaky, built-in versatility of massive tire clearance.
The next step in the evolution of touring bikes is best typified by the Salsa Fargo. We recently sold and partially assembled an XXL Fargo for a customer who has had trouble previously finding a bike big enough. This one is big enough.
This bike was designed and tested by at least one person (a local guy who stops in to HC to buy stuff sometimes) who has an impressive history of doing long, mixed-surface adventure/endurance tours, such as Trans-Iowa and Tour Divide. Clearly, every aspect of the design was an answer to the question: Is this feature compatible with off-pavement touring in remote areas? The result is that a lot of "traditional" features got cast into the dustbin in favor of purely practical considerations. This bike has mounts for six water bottles, because who knows how long until the next water stop. The steeply sloping top-tube is a response to the fact that offroad touring sometimes requires frequent intentional and unintentional dismounts, and why not have some extra crotch clearance? The high handlebar position and drop bars provide a range of comfortable hand positions over rough roads and long days. The disc brakes give great stopping power even when riding on roads that leave the rims covered with water and mud, and not relying on the rims as a braking surface makes it easier to keep riding with an out-of-true wheel. And tire clearance! The bike pictured above has 29x2.35 tires on it, and it looks like there's room for a bigger tire, a fender, and/or gobs and gobs of mud!
Of course, one of our ingrained responses as savvy consumers will be to pigeonhole and stereotype this bike as an offroad-specific machine. Yes, it can do that, but it is also a wonderful choice for pavement. You never know when you'll encounter poor pavement maintenance, or a tempting gravel/dirt-road detour. Swap the knobby tires for some of the 29x2.0+ smoothies (Marathon Supreme, Big Apple, etc), and this becomes a road touring (or commuting) machine that is ready for damned near anything. Speaking from my experience, even if you enjoy a traditional aesthetic, keep looking at the Fargo, and its unorthodox appearance will grow on you. (maybe)