Monday, October 29, 2018

First Impressions of a Steel Road Bike: The Rivendell Roadini

In prior posts, I've mentioned that over this past winter I was on the hunt for a dedicated road bike. The biggest problems I faced were my preference for a steel frame and that I really wanted a bike that would accept at least a 32mm tire. Although custom options are available, it always surprises me how few choices there really are in an era of bicycles becoming more wide-tire-centric. After trying out an "adventure bike" made of titanium, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I had been eyeballing the Rivendell Roadini with mild curiosity.

Despite being unconvinced it was the right bike for me, after riding my Riv Sam Hillborne nearly exclusively for solo paved rides over several months, I began to think that maybe it was not only a plausible but potentially smart option. For a Rivendell, the cost was somewhat reasonable and I could build it with up to 35mm tires. It met the steel requirement too, however, I wasn't convinced that it would actually ride like a fast road bike.

My desire was for something that felt swift (since I'm not a fast rider, being able to feel like my effort is producing something is important to me) and responsive -- not to have a duplicate of the Hillborne. The goal for whatever bike came into my life was to fulfill my want to occasionally ride solo and not feel as though I'm weighted down by anything other than my own lack of capability.

Secondarily, but also of great importance was to have a road bike that was comfortable or at least tolerable on road rides. I've owned far too many road bikes that were incapable of providing the comfort I always seem to be seeking. Between hands (and other body parts) going numb, to improper fit, I was fed up with road bikes that hurt.

The one bit I was hung up on in regard to moving forward with purchasing the Roadini was the fact that in the smallest size (that I would require), the bike takes 650b wheels. I don't have a problem with the wheel size in general (after all, we own several 650b-wheeled bikes in our home), but there is not a huge selection of road wheels in that size that accept rim brakes. I didn't want to end up with something that I'd be struggling to find parts to complete or to end up with inferior parts because there wasn't another option. While custom wheel builds are a possibility, it's nice to just be able to buy a wheelset off the shelf.

But, after several debates about whether this was a good option and looking around to see what else would potentially fit my desires and budget, I opted to take the plunge and see how this bike would do for me.
If you don't have interest in the parts build of this bike, feel free to skip down below, but for those who have the desire to know, here is the build:

- 47cm Rivendell Roadini frame/fork
- Pacenti 650b wheelset
- Shimano Ultegra R8000 11- speed shift/brake levers
- Shimano Ultegra R8000 crank (170mm, 50/34)
- Shimano Ultegra Bottom Bracket (BBR60, 68mm)
- Shimano M7000 SLX 11- speed cassette (11-40t)*
- Shimano XT rear derailleur*
- Tektro R559 brake calipers (unlike what was recommended on the Riv website, the smallest sized frame needs the longer reach of these or an equivalent)
- Continental Sport Contact 650b x 32mm tires (that are strangely marked as 650c tires)
- Compass Randonneur handlebars (42mm)

All told, with the Brooks saddle and flat pedals, the bike weighed in at just over 22 pounds.

*So, I have to note here that it is unlikely many bike shops would offer or attempt this setup, but fortunately for me, the in-house mechanic is used to my strange requests and is willing to try just about anything. I prefer a triple set up in order to get up steeper hills/mountains in our location; however, I have found that a double makes me ride a bike more like a road bike (meaning, I tend to push myself a bit more when I know I don't have the gears to fall back on). Still, I wanted to have some of the range I would get from a triple, so we decided to try out an 11-40 cassette and used a mountain rear derailleur to get everything to cooperate. This setup required the use of an extra long chain (I believe it took 118 links) and also required this little gadget in order to get things to communicate/shift properly.

Not mentioned above in the build is the quill stem. I know this is something that often brings about debate in the cycling world. It's not an item I take particular issue with; however, I will say that one of the huge annoyances with a quill is figuring out the right reach. Since I've owned several (too many, really) quill-necessary bikes over the years, we have several options in the parts bin. For those who don't have that luxury, it's important to know personal fit to be able to determine the right measurement on the first try, or you may end up purchasing (or exchanging) several sizes to find the correct one (not to mention the annoyance of removing the brifters and the handlebars in order to change the stem).

I did not choose the correct length for the first round build. Thinking that too short a reach would have the bike feeling squeezed, I opted for an 80mm, but it turned out that was far too long for me and it was immediately exchanged for a 60mm in the stash, which feels nearly perfect.
Of note with this particular Rivendell is its lack of the company's typical lugs. While there are some (seat cluster), the cost savings on this frame comes at a loss of all those beautiful lugs. I was perfectly willing to accept this, but for those who need to have every joint lugged, a look at the Roadeo or potentially a custom option is probably a better bet, though those options come at a much higher price.

With the bike built and ready to ride, all I had to do was actually go out and use it. After some delays due to out-of-town visitors and other various happenings, I was finally able to get the bike out on the road.

As I had anticipated, I was not particularly fast on this ride - but I had doubts that it was the fault of the bike, but rather my own lack of pushing myself over the prior couple of years when it comes to speed. Part of my hope for this bike is that I would actually want to ride it and therefore speed would come back to me over time with regular use.

What I did notice on this inaugural 30+ mile ride was that I was not in pain, and dare I say it, even comfortable. No doubt, having the wider-than-usual road bike tire played a role in that, but I also think my body just likes the way Rivendells ride. I've had success with the Sam Hillborne (obviously) and it's difficult to get me off the tandem, not to mention the others that have blown in and out over the years.

From Rivendell, I have ridden at various points the Sam Hillborne, A. Homer Hilsen, Betty Foy, Cheviot (which is much the same bike as the B Foy), Saluki, Hubbuhubbuh, and the made-for-Soma San Marcos. So, at this point, I think it's safe to say that they just make bikes I like. Likes aside, other than the San Marcos, none of these have ever felt road-bike specific, which isn't to say that any of them can't be ridden on the roads, but rather that they lacked the pickup and lightweight that is often expected of a road-specific bike. My biggest issue with the San Marcos was simply the size - it was just a bit too big to ride long distances with drop handlebars (for me) unless I hiked them up to a ridiculous level, which then changed the handling of the bike.
For me, the real test with a new bike comes around the fourth or fifth ride. It's easy to let the excitement of a new bike take over and sometimes I don't notice things that become apparent a little later in the relationship. About the fifth ride on the Roadini, I became keenly aware that I neither feel fast nor am I physically fast on this bike. Granted, as stated prior, the rider is not particularly gifted with the ability for speed regardless of the bike, but I was averaging even slower times than I had been on the Sam Hillborne. Minimally slower (which may have been the fault of the rider and not the bike), but still slower.

This frustrated me entirely. I came home whining to Sam about how slow I am, but he was convinced that it was all in my head. Not that I was making up the speeds I was traveling, but rather he believes that I get it in my head that I'm slow and then actually make it reality. It's probably a fair assumption, but I truly believed I was pushing myself, so it was all the more painful (mentally) to realize that I was actually slower on a road bike than on a bike meant for carrying luggage.
Sam theorized that perhaps lowering my handlebars would help put me in a better power position and that this, rather than the bike, had been what was slowing me down. So, the next time out, I lowered my handlebars about an inch or so and set out to test his idea. While I could feel that I was using bigger leg muscles that in theory should bring more power (and therefore speed), I didn't actually average much faster speed. Bummer.

What I realized after testing this bike is that it is a lighter version of the bike I already owned and that my initial supposition that it would ride similarly was absolutely correct. While theoretically the Roadini fits better than the Hillborne with the shorter top tube that allows for the use of drop bars, it just wasn't going to meet my wants in regard to a swifter feeling/pedaling road bike.
Back to a triple setup here... it really is a lovely bicycle!
What's great about the Roadini is that it is supremely comfortable! It pedals smoothly and rides the way one would expect a Rivendell to behave. If I were looking for a completely comfortable road/light adventure type of bicycle, this would definitely be on the list of possibilities because of these qualities. Unfortunately, I had high hopes for this steed to behave more like a road-race bike (a rather silly thing to think based on what the creator believes and manufactures), so it just isn't the right fit for my stable at this time.

Although I think the Roadini is a fine bicycle, I had to let it move on to someone else to enjoy and I hope it will find the use it deserves in its new home. Of course, that put me back on the hunt for something else that would fill the missing slot in my stable. It's as though the quest to find the "right" road bike remains elusive; but in the meantime, I've continued to ride my trusty Hillborne and have been riding a mountain bike (a post is forthcoming on that steed soon as well) a lot more regularly.

I've read on a couple of forums that people are truly loving this model from Rivendell, so if you've had the opportunity to test it out, I'd love to know what you think of the bike. I think if I didn't already have the Hillborne settled in, I would've definitely hung on to this one.


  1. Interesting. I’ve never had a proper road bike. In fact, the only drop-bar bike I’ve ever owned is my trusty Vixen, a Bianchi Volpe. I had intended it to be my go fast-ish bike, but instead it turned into my daily commuter, and I love it. After a few rides on it — in its pre-commuter configuration — I figured out that I don’t actually want to go fast. I can make myself go faster if I really concentrate. But apparently, I don’t want to concentrate!

    If you want to go fast, though, I hope that you can find a bike that helps you do that. In the meantime, I love reading about all of your experiments!

    1. :) I know that feeling. It's the same thing I say about the Hillborne... if I want to make it go faster, I can, but most of the time on that bike it's more about just enjoying the scenery (or getting where I need to go).

      I still have hope of a faster road bike that isn't completely uncomfortable... but, we'll see how that goes.

  2. Oh, wait, a question: Whatever happened to your Soma ES? I thought I remembered that as go-fast bike that worked really well for you.

    1. Sam ended up riding it for about 6 months or so and then it was sold. It definitely was a fast bike, but the geometry is just off for me and I think I'm in between sizes for Soma, so it's as though the smallest is just a hair small and makes pedaling feel strange but then the next size up would have too long of a top tube. :( It's a bummer because I really could fly on that one... and even Sam enjoyed it, but found the same thing to be true - that the geometry was just a little off even for him.

  3. I keep re-reading your review because I also own a Sam Hillborne and have been on the fence re: the Roadini. I love the Sam so much, and it's the only bike I've ever owned that makes me feel comfortable riding over gravel/dirt (the 650b wheels/fat tires probably help this). It's also soooo aesthetically pleasing. But I'm definitely much slower on it, and I don't prefer to take it out for rides longer than 10 maybe 20 miles--it's more of a cruise through the park, ride to the market kind of bike for me. It's also too long for me to put drop bars on it. I was thinking maybe the Roadini would get me what I want from the Sam (the comfort/beauty/tire width) with a more compact reach/lighter weight that would enable me to go fast. Sounds like if I try though, I will literally be repeating your story?

    I'm not sure if you found your dream road bike, but your feeling of wanting to feel like the bike is not hindering you in any way, and that it's only your own abilities, resonates with me quite a bit. I've also ridden and owned many many bikes, and the only bike I've found that gives me this feeling is my full carbon fiber bike. I've never found this feeling on a steel bike. I think when you're smaller and less powerful (speaking very much for myself), the weight IS important, especially over long distances. Don't let big dudes tell you otherwise!! Somehow the carbon feels like it absorbs a lot of shock, and allows me to very directly transfer power. And the bike fits well. So guess that's all a testament to its design. It's actually slightly cheaper than most of the cool/more beautiful options, too (which these days are easily $4k-$6k). But I think to get this feeling in steel/titanium, which is what I'd really like, I'd have to go full custom, which would be so much more expensive and still an experiment. I'm currently trying to replicate this feeling on an off-the-shelf adventure bike...but still not sure how I will find it! Have you considered a custom frame and/or off-the-shelf carbon? One day I will bite the bullet and try custom!

    1. Although I tend to be hesitant to recommend (or not) a bike to someone else (because it's so hard to know what will work for someone else), I will say that the Roadini definitely has a shorter top tube than the Sam Hillborne, so if you're looking to put drop bars on it and cannot currently ride with them on the Sam, I'd say you'd be in a good spot in that regard. As far as speed/weight/etc compared to the Sam H, to me there was not enough of a weight difference to make a significant impact to average speed. Take that for what it may be worth. While they are both easy to ride bikes, fun, etc, I can't say that I would give up my Sam H for the Roadini - but again, that's just me.

      Since the time of writing, I have picked up a road bike that I've been riding for the last six-ish months or so. It's not steel, but titanium. I'll be writing about that soon too. It's not new, however, but has been interesting to try out.

      I have owned both aluminium and carbon road bikes (and have had a couple of rounds with custom road bikes in steel), and I was most definitely faster on both of them. I preferred aluminium for the feeling of speed, but because of my hand/wrist issues, I always struggled to be comfortable for more than 20 miles or so (I say that, but I did ride a century on it, so it must've been somewhat tolerable :)). The carbon was more comfortable, but it felt dead to me after riding the alum bike. It was pretty high-end carbon, but it just wasn't to my liking. The custom bikes were a nightmare all their own... but some (though not all) of it was my own fault for trying to cram too many uses into a single bike.

      I hope you find something that works for you.