I plan on going across the U.S. next summer. Now I look at my touring differently. It isn't how many gears you have, its what the range is that is important.
I recently talked to a Warmshowers host in Ontario, Canada, who took me up a very steep, longish hill, with no panniers. I told him that I am notoriously bad at hills. He suggested that I shift into my lowest gear and not pass him. This forced me to use a much slower cadence than I would normally set. At about 50 rpm, going 3mph, I made it up the hill without even feeling winded. Conclusion- even though I have a granny gear, I don’t really have a gear low enough on my loaded bike for mountains. I can do hills, given enough time and a low enough gear. Keep in mind that the bike was overhauled several years ago to put a granny gear on it.
At the time it did not even occur to me to question my bike shop. They never gave me choices or asked me my preferences, so I went back and asked them why. The final outcome of the conversation is lengthy. Apparently, because I have an older bike with 27” tires, the choices for a rear wheel are limited. They gave me the best set of gears available. I could switch my wheels to the current 700 standard, but those are slightly smaller and the brakes would also have to be switched out. In addition, the rear derailleur would have to be changed to accommodate larger gears and more chain… you get the picture. The alternative would be to have a custom made rear wheel with a cassette. Still would have to change the derailleur to accommodate the longer chain which would accompany larger gears. All in all, about $500 would have to go towards putting a lower gear on the bike. Sigh. Each time I needed a new rear wheel, I would have to pay to have it custom built (or rebuilt) again.
Now I am considering buying a Bike Friday. It would save me about $50 every time I fly or take a train. I would not save the entire cost of sending a standard bike, because I would have to ship the suitcase back home or to a shop on a one way sojourn. It is just difficult to justify the $1,400 cost. I stopped in at their factory in the summer of 2008 to ride one. Truly a nice bike. I have read many blogs about touring on a Bike Friday and people generally glow about them. Kind of a cult, though.