Saturday, August 6, 2011

rSogns in the Mountains: An In-Depth Review by Will

Build Details

Frame: Rawland rSogn, size Medium
Headset: Chris King
Bottom Bracket: Syncros Titanium
Stem: Easton
Bars: Ragley Luxy
Brake Levers: Cane Creek SCR-5
Brakes: Shimano XTR M900 cantilevers w/VO roller straddle wire hangers
Wheelset #1 (all-road): Rear: White Industries 8/9sp hub, Velocity Dyad 32-hole rims, Shimano XTR M900 11-30 8-speed cassette; Grand Bois Hetre 42mm 650B tires. Front: Schmidt SON dynohub; Schmidt deluxe headlight)
Wheelset #2 (specifically ruff-road/trail): Shimano XTR M950 8-speed hubs, Velocity Dyad 32-hole rims, Shimano XTR M900 12-32 8-speed cassette; Pacenti Quasi Moto 2.0 650B tires
Crankset: Specialized Discovery triple 46-36-24 chainrings
Pedals: VO Touring
Front & Rear Derailleurs: Shimano XTR M900 8-speed
Shifters: Suntour Power Ratchet bar ends
Seatpost: Tom Ritchey-Nitto
Saddle: Brooks B-17 Special
Front Rack: Nitto M-12
Front Bag: Carradice Nelson longflap saddlebag, modified for use up front.
H20 Bottle cages: King Cage Isis

Backcountry version with Pacentis

Road version with Hetres

I waited many months for my rSogn to be delivered, and was happy to be involved in the design process (along with many others) with feedback on features I was interested in. Primarily I was interested in a all-roads bike that was responsive and would handle a front load well; and, I was one too that lobbied for many braze-ons so that the bike could be set up in a number of different configurations with racks, etc. I had a vision as to how I would build the frame up, and had many months to acquire the necessary components. Primarily I saw the bike being built-up with MTB components, as the sort of riding I was interested in doing with it were big loop routes that usually consist of off-pavement on rough dirt roads and trails, with sections of paved roads. 

When the frame arrived, I was quite impressed by the quality of the workmanship as shown in the tigging and the paint job. I was initially concerned about the heaviness of the fork, but actually since I've built the bike up and ridden it on some pretty rough routes, I am glad that it is as beefy as it is. Someone with more expertise will have to evaluate whether the fork blades flex nicely -- I'm assuming they do under a load. 

Sometimes the dirt roads are rough enough with rocks, etc. to warrant using big fat knobbies to add suspension and traction, and sometimes they are not too bad and one can use something like Hetres for the whole ride - therefore, I chose to build two wheelsets to minimize the headaches and hassle of swapping out tires depending on what ride I was going to do that day; one mounted with fat knobbies (Pacenti Quasi Moto) and one mounted with fattish road tires (Grand Bois Hetre). Some claim the Hetres are fine on dirt and rocky roads - and I have ridden them on such roads as well - but when climbing out of the saddle on dirt my assessment is that they don't offer much traction and will slip a lot more than knobbies; some "roads" have un-relenting rocky sections where Hetres just don't have the air-volume to handle well; and, and when bombing down a rough rocky dirt road, Hetres don't hold a candle to the stability of a fatter knobby tire - and overall, they just aren't as sturdy/tough for the real ruff-stuff as the Pacentis. But if a ride is mostly some form of pavement, even if it is rough (like the local roads here that are primarily chip-seal and in bad shape) and damaged (such as the road up Mt. Evans, which has many cracks, holes, and ridges from frost-heave damage), then the Hetres rock, fair-dinkum. There is some overlap of course which is great - the Hetres are fine for moderate off-pavement stuff, and the Pacentis don't completely suck on pavement (esp. with the addition of a few more lbs of air). BTW, if using Hetres there appears to be plenty of room for fenders, if one wanted them. I did buy some fenders for it, but haven't installed them, and may not unless I am setting the bike up for touring or a brevet series. 

Ryan sez, "Fat knobbies rule on Rollins Pass!"

I included the build details in this review because obviously one doesn't ride just the frame - you are riding a whole bike! Therefore, the components you select for the build and how well they work (and work together) heavily influences the final outcome of the bike you end up with. The fact that I am VERY happy with the Sogn as a bike is due in no small part to how well the components I selected work, and work together. 

While most of the components I used to build up the Sogn are older, one of few parts that was new is a new design of dirt-drop type handlebar that is quite radical (Ragley Luxy). I was using similar On-One "Midge" bars on other bikes - and like them mostly fine - but the Luxy bars are in my opinion more comfortable and offer seriously wide drops which are great for climbing steep stuff, and great stability for descents. I'm going to do some more rides with them before I decide whether to keep them or chuck 'em in a box. Handlebars - like saddles - are a personal choice and reflect the reality that it's not a one-size-fits-all world and "to each their own" - for example, my friend and riding buddy Ryan built up his new Sogn with Nitto "Noodle" bars, which you couldn't pay me to use on such a bike - but he seems to like them just fine.

Some will undoubtedly see my fairly large saddlebag that I am using as a front bag and gasp in disbelief - therefore some explanation might be necessary. First, I do not like to use a backpack if I can avoid it - I don't like having a sweaty/clammy back, and the best packs are still unwieldy to some extent. I will use a backpack if the gear/water needs necessitate it, such as on some long backcountry rides in shoulder seasons. I live and ride in the desert and the mountains (Moab, UT), and ride in the mountains of Colorado as well. It astounds me how little gear many cyclists carry with them. In years past I worked as an outdoor professional, teaching mountaineering and sea-kayaking courses, and that is probably where I acquired much of my philosophy about being prepared for being in the backcountry. Changes in altitude and weather necessitate being prepared for a range of temperatures and possible foulness - which can either accentuate ones experience of adventure and comfort, or cultivate an epic, depending on your preparation! For example, Ryan and I rode up Mt. Evans over in Colorado this last weekend (on our new Sogns), which has a paved road that goes to 14,130 ft., which is well above timberline into real alpine country where anything can happen weather-wise. We started with other riders who were wearing regular sublimated racing cycling kits with a few things stuffed in their jerseys, and later we saw them coming down, having turned around well short of the summit - simply because of threatening weather because they were not prepared for it. We were dressed in wool and had good raingear and other extra items of clothing well-suited for riding in wet and cold which were stashed in our bike bags - way too much gear to stuff into jersey pockets! As well as the extra layers of clothing and raingear, I had the storage capacity for plenty of food, a camera, and extra fluids. We were prepared for foul weather, and continued on undaunted to the summit. We got hailed on during the descent, but were warm and cozy, and the bikes handled the wet and bumpy road quite securely due to the relaxed geometry and fat cushy tires (Hetres). 

A brace of Sogns on the summit of Mt. Evans, CO (14,130 ft), shortly before it started hailing.

OK, I will finish this discussion of the utility of using big front bags by saying that the geometry of the Sogn is well-suited for carrying a front load, and I am pleased about that because of obvious reasons. I usually carry extra clothing layers and raingear, tools, plenty of food, misc. items such as camera, and two extra liters of water up front and it did not adversely affect the handling of the bike at all, even when climbing for extended mileage or bombing downhill. The Nitto M-12 rack is a strong, secure front rack well-suited for carrying a front load.

Will sez, "no need to leave the kitchen sink at home, when you might need it out here!"

My impression so far of the Sogn is that it "planes" well for me. I am about 5'9" and about 150 lbs, so am of average height and weight, and I chose the size Med frame. "Planing" is a term invented recently by someone in the industry to describe the ability of a bike and rider to be in synch with each other. This quality can be more easily felt and evaluated if you have other bikes made from various tube diameter and thickness, and materials, which I do. OK, I will say that I am not an engineer tech-weenie type -- I have a long love-affair with bicycles and riding them (and have about 10 currently), and am into cycling more for the aesthetic experience of how being in nature and riding pleases my sensorium in all sorts of delicious ways - and, I am enough of a masochist that I can enjoy the challenge and suffering involved in climbing or long punishing rides - but I could care less for more technical discussions about bicycles. So I can have fun riding most anything -- the bike I was riding for the sorts of rides I got the Sogn for was a Surly "Long Haul Trucker", which I had tons of fun with, but my beef with it was primarily that it was extremely heavy. It most assuredly did not "plane" either. My experience of "planing" is this: if a bike does not plane, it feels like you are either in the front of it pulling it like a cart, or in the back of it pushing it like a wheelbarrow - both of which create a sensation of you being a motor in front or in back of the bike, depending on the bike. The Surly I felt like I was pushing from behind.

If the bike "planes" - and I do think the Sogn planes - then it is more like riding a horse, where you are on top of the bike and you are more "one" with it, and the energy you are putting out with your effort more directly transfers to the bike in such a way as to give the sensation/experience that you are in sync with it - rather than pushing or pulling it - i.e., you are more "one" with it. This is my own experience of what is described as "planing", and someone else could very well explain it differently -- at any rate, the feeling of it is best brought home experientially rather than a verbal description. And, to be fair, as I said before, I just love riding and I can have a great time on a heavy stiff bike like the Surly -- but the bottom line is, I VERY much enjoy riding the Sogn because of the added dimension of its responsiveness to my own efforts -- it is like an animal, a sentient beast rather than a steel "thing" which has no lively potential, and so therefore a bike which planes can be a friend and companion that lends itself to being named! And so instead of a thing that you pull or shove around for fun, you can have something more "alive" that you actually ride!

Ryan flying up Mt. Evans due to ability of the Sogn to "plane." The dark clouds up
ahead was what turned around a group of less well-prepared cyclists.

"If it's really alive, do I need to sneak up on it to get on it?"
Ryan contemplates a wild-west style bike mount.

Like a burro, sometimes the Sogn cannot be ridden and must be pushed from behind.
The Sogn performs no better than other bikes in this respect, unfortunately.

But is the Sogn durable? So far, I have ridden the Sogn on some very rugged roads (an understatement overall), and despite being built of skinny tubes and relatively lightweight tubing (both things that contribute to planing), I definitely think the materials and construction are strong enough to handle a steady diet of ruff-stuff riding. Strong enough. I felt very secure bombing down many miles and thousands of feet of rocky bumpy rutted dirt road off the west side of Rollins Pass, with my front load -- it was all smiles -- the bike handled beautifully. In this respect, ones choice of tires make a huge difference too, as that is where the rubber hits the road!, and I found the Quasi Moto to be superb on loose, rutted, rocky terrain.

I feel like the Sogn is perfect for the kind of riding I got it for; routes that incorporate mostly dirt or 4WD roads along with sections of pavement, or randoneurring-type riding on rural/country roads that may be in rough shape. This means having clearance for bigger tires, and load-carrying capacity via the geometry and braze-ons to allow front and rear racks. I knew intuitively that the bike was probably going to plane (and therefore be enjoyable to ride), as the design was inspired by much-touted classic French geometry and would be built of lightweight skinny tubes. Being that I prefer to carry significant weight up front, I am very, very pleased at how well the bike handles with a front load. Good job, Sean!!

A brace of Sogns on Rollins Pass, CO at 12,660 ft.