Monday, September 30, 2013

Bucking the Trend

In my previous post, No Such Thing as Junk Miles, I wrote about how a lot of road bikes today are overly influenced by racing -- making them too narrowly focused for the needs of many people who otherwise could be well served by a good-quality road bike, but instead get steered into mountain bikes, "comfort" bikes, and cruisers because they don't want something that essentially boils down to a racing bike. There are exceptions, of course, and I thought I'd highlight a few bikes available today, to fit a range of budgets, that buck the current trends in bicycle design by being simple, comfortable, and versatile.

Surly Pacer (photo used with permission from Surly.)
Surly Bikes, a brand from Quality Bicycle Products (QBP -- which supplies many bike shops around the country), offers a couple of bikes that fit my description of versatile road bikes. They also are pretty affordable. Using chrome-moly frames, welded construction, and single-color powder coated finishes, they are not particularly fancy, but should prove to be durable and enjoyable. The Pacer is Surly's answer to the question "Why can't I just find a sporty, no-nonsense, comfortable road bike?" Something like this would be a good choice for someone who wants a nice road bike for spirited riding -- but who isn't trying to be the next big thing in Cat 5 racing. Then again, it's about as racy as a lot of high-end racing bikes from my youth. The folks at Surly say it's a bike for "all-day rides" and it will fit tires up to 32 mm, which is a nice thing. Tires make a huge difference in comfort. It has eyelets so one could add fenders (though I'm guessing it would only take 28 mm tires with fenders). Available as a complete bike, or as a frame set for a truly customized set-up. I've seen Pacer frame sets sell for around $500 - $550, and complete bikes about $1400.

Long Haul Trucker (photo used with permission from Surly)
Also from Surly is their Long Haul Trucker. This bike would be a great choice for long distance, loaded touring, commuting, and more. With slightly heavier-gauge tubing, it should handle heavy loads and anything else a person can throw at it as well. It can accept fenders and racks of all kinds and configurations. One particularly interesting thing about the LHT is that in many frame sizes, it can be ordered in either a 26" wheel or a 700c wheel version. (26" available from 42 to 62 cm frame, 700c available from 56 to 64 cm.). Considering that an awful lot of people out there ride mountain bikes that never leave the pavement, I really think that many people who might think they need a mountain bike would probably be suited just fine with a 26" wheeled LHT. Like the Pacer, it can be purchased as a complete bike, or as a frameset, which gives a person lots of options for tailoring the bike to their own specific needs. Equip it as modern or as "Retro-grouchy" as you like. Complete LHTs seem to average around $1300, while frame sets are likely to be found for $450 - $500.

A Velo-Orange Polyvalent, built to completion
with a lot of V-O branded components.
(photo used with permission from V-O)
Velo-Orange offers several models of nice road bike frames for buyers on a reasonable budget. Their Polyvalent and Campeur frame sets are both welded with butted chrome-moly tubing and painted in single-color paint jobs with tasteful, understated graphics. The Velo-Orange designs tend to have a classic French flavor, being influenced by great French road/touring bikes of a golden age. According to the V-O description, the Polyvalent Mk II (French for "general purpose") is designed for "cyclo-touring, brevets, and fast club rides." It is designed for 650b wheels (a size about half-way between 26" and 700c) which is a size that was often used on those golden-age French touring, or Randonneuring bikes. The Polyvalent is only available in four sizes, between 51 - 60 cm, which means very short or very tall riders may need to look to one of the other models. The Campeur frame is designed to be a very versatile bike, capable of loaded touring, or riding on pavement or path. It is designed for 700c wheels, and is available in sizes from 51 - 63 cm. Both bikes can be built up in a variety of configurations to suit many types of riding styles, and Velo-Orange can supply most of the parts needed to complete the bike (V-O has a full line of classic and traditional styled parts and accessories -- many with their own brand name). Some new, or newly re-designed models are in the works at V-O, like the Pass Hunter, and Camargue, and should be worth checking out once they're available. Current frame sets sell for about $500.

Soma San Marcos -- available as a frame set, but shown
here as a complete bike. (photo used with permission from Soma)
Soma Fabrications offers their San Marcos as a frame set so it can be built in a variety of ways, to suit anyone's particular needs or desires. Designed in conjunction with Rivendell (and also available from Rivendell) the San Marcos is built in Taiwan with lovely brazed lug construction and Tange Prestige chrome-moly tubing (excellent quality, heat-treated, butted tubes). It has provisions for racks and fenders, and room for large-volume tires (up to 35 mm) with long reach side-pull or center-pull brakes. This bike would be a great way to get the beauty of a lugged frame with Rivendell pedigree on a modest budget. With a smart nod to good frame fit and proportion, the San Marcos is designed for 650b wheels in the smaller frame sizes, and for 700c wheels in the larger ones. The two largest frame sizes have a double top-tube design to add strength. The San Marcos frame and fork sell for about $900, which is a bargain for a nice quality lugged frame. I should also point out that Soma has other frame sets available, a little more budget-conscious, that would be of interest to people shopping for classic-styled versatile bikes, like the Stanyan (which is also lugged steel), and the Buena Vista Mixte.

Sam Hilbourne (photo used with permission from Rivendell)
From Rivendell Bicycles comes the Sam Hillbourne, a Taiwanese-built frame and fork embodying Grant Petersen's design sensibility and Rivendell's lugs and fork crown. Described by Rivendell as a bike in-between a loaded tourer and a "roadish country bike," the Hillbourne should suit many kinds of riding on the road and even some trails -- a true all-arounder bike. Like the Soma San Marcos, it is designed for 650b wheels in the smallest size (51 cm), while the two largest sizes (58 cm and 62 cm) have the double top-tube for added strength. Compared to the Soma San Marcos, the Sam Hillbourne should fit slightly larger tires, has a little more "deluxe" detailing in the build and a fancier 2-tone paint job. It can be purchased as a frame set for $1,225, or as a built-to-order complete bike from Rivendell who can advise on component choices to fit the owner's preferences. The folks at Rivendell say a typical complete build would run approximately $2600, but it could vary depending on component choices.

A nice AHH example, outstanding in its field
(used with permission from owner Mel Hughes)
For riders after an extra nice, deluxe road bike, built from great materials, with a fantastic design, and brazed by some of the best craftsmen around (at Waterford in Wisconsin), there is Rivendell's A. Homer Hilsen. An uncommon name, but an uncommonly nice bike. For the same price as a "popped out of a mold" carbon fiber bike that's good for going fast and not much else, a person can get the AHH and have a timeless, durable, classic-looking bike that does all kinds of things well. In its design and geometry, the AHH is very similar to the Rivendell Long & Low that I've been riding and enjoying for the past 12 years -- the biggest difference being that the AHH takes long reach side-pull brakes instead of cantilevers. The AHH is a production-made bike, but it is about as close to fully custom as one can get without having a frame made-to-measure. It comes in a huge range of sizes -- between 47 and 71 cm. (typically in about 2 cm increments). Not many bikes are available beyond 65 cm (if even that) -- I'm not sure I can impress upon readers just how large that is -- if you're a 7 footer, this might be the only production frame you can find to fit. Sizes from 47 - 58 are built for 650b wheels, while larger sizes are designed for 700c. Sizes from 65 - 71 include the double top-tube design, which really makes sense in frames that large. The frame and fork cost $2300 (frames from 65 cm - 71 cm are $2400). It comes only in blue, but one may be able to order different colors for an extra charge.

All the bikes I've mentioned here would be much more versatile than many of the road bikes out there today that take too much of their design influence from racing bikes. The Surly Pacer is probably the "sportiest" bike I've listed, and it's still miles more versatile than most carbon-fiber wunderbikes on the showroom floors. Most of the bikes I've mentioned will take pretty large volume tires (a huge boon for comfort) and can fit fenders easily. All of them are built from chrome-moly steel which is tough, safe, durable, and repairable. They should all be good for a lifetime of riding.

Of all the bikes I've highlighted here, the Surly bikes may be the easiest to find at a local bike shop as they have a pretty extensive dealer network, and because QBP supplies so many shops around the country. Soma bicycles don't have as large of a dealer network so it's possible they might not have a dealer in everyone's area -- but their online web store is easy to use. Velo-Orange has a growing dealer network, and everything they sell is also available from their website -- I've ordered a lot from V-O over the years and their packing and shipping are first rate. Rivendell does have dealers scattered around the country, though not many -- but their website sales and over-the-phone customer service are tops.

It's possible that someone might want one of the bikes or brands I've mentioned, but not have a dealer in their area. If that person isn't confident in their ability to order the "right" bike/frame/components for their needs, and because I strongly value supporting local bicycle dealers, I'd suggest asking a favorite dealer if they'd be willing and/or able to help with or handle the order, even if they aren't regularly a dealer of that brand (it can't hurt to ask) -- and be willing and ready to pay for their assistance -- it will be worthwhile.


  1. Very well rounded representation here! Well done! Mel Hughes

  2. I just got a Pacer, and LOVE it. I've been riding/racing on a Cannondale Caad 9 for the last 4 yrs, and what an improvement the Pacer has been. The Pacer weighs about 5lbs more than the Caad 9. Yet, according to strava, the Pacer is faster on all courses/rides. It's just that the Pacer is able to smooth out the road. It feels as though the smoothness allows me to maintain power on the choppy pavement. The Caad9 seems to throw itself backward anytime an imperfection on the road is encountered. I always had a hard time riding more than 10-12 hrs/wk on the Caad. On the Pacer I can easily bag 15-25 hrs/wk.

    1. There is a lot of evidence that a forgiving frame and supple tires will make a bigger difference to ride quality (and I'd argue, speed) than weight. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I found your blog while re-reading John Forester's Effective Cycling. I've thoroughly enjoyed your postings. Especially Bucking the Trend, since I'm in the market. In 2020, are these manufacturers still on your short list of interesting, comfortable, vintage-like road bikes?