Our Favorite New Road Bike Has 26-Inch Wheels

Our Favorite New Road Bike Has 26-Inch Wheels

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One great thing about the bike industry is that if you have a good idea, plus a little capital, it’s possible to carve out a niche. Sure, Trek and Giant and Specialized rule the industry, but little guys can also stake out a claim—and sometimes, like Salsa, even earn a big-time following.

Enter Rawland, a ten-year-old company with a penchant for fine steel and Norse mythology that started before “gravel” was a thing and now makes some highly unconventional but very quality small-batch bikes. The company offers only two models at the moment. (We’ve already written about the über-strange Ulv.) The second model is called the Ravn, and it’s a 26-inch road bike.

Yes, 26 is back, at least in a very small niche. Before you groan (as I did!), know this: The Ravn was one of the most surprising and enjoyable rides of the year, both for me and a stack of our bike testers.

On its website, Rawland bills the Ravn as “an all-road enduro or dirt rando bike. Some call it plus road.” In case that didn’t completely clear things up for you, the company adds that the bike is good for “adventure, gravel, rando, bikepacking, and road plus.”

Adventure Bike
Somehow a steel frame matched with light wheels and balloon tires results in a surprisingly nimble ride. (JJAG Media)

If the Ravn makes one thing clear, it’s that the labels and categories in bikes these days are totally ridiculous. They not only try to slice whisker-thin differences, but they also attempt to do so with a catchy name or expression. By contrast, here’s what you really need to know about the Ravn, in the company’s own words:

Our bikes can take you from pavement to gravel, fire roads, singletrack, and beyond seamlessly, whether you’re after a quick ramble, a weekend wilderness adventure, or months of two-wheeled exploration. It’s how all of us at Rawland have ridden since we were kids, and we’re on a quest to give riders everywhere smart, fun, unique bikes for this kind of experiential cycling. It’s not about miles so much as time and space.

So yeah, this is a bike you can ride pretty much anywhere, within reason, and be pretty darn comfortable and have a pretty dang good time. Not only that, it’s also affordable, or at least approachable, at $3,000.

Adventure Bike
The Ravn’s steep head angle and raked-forward fork provide both snappy handling and stability at speed and through the rough. (JJAG Media)

What you get is a frame built from custom-drawn 4130 chromoly steel, including a segmented fork. A bike manufacturer friend recently told me that steel bikes are boring because the building blocks are all the same (just steel), and there’s no way to distinguish the ride quality when testing one bike against another. I get that sentiment, but clearly it’s the geometry that sets the Ravn apart. This bike comes with with a steep head angle (73 degrees) matched to a raked-forward fork, a setup that provides both snappy handling and steering as well as incredible stability at speed and through the rough. Meanwhile, the compact geometry and upright position help with comfort. And thanks to the synergy of those two factors, the Ravn is a bike you could ride for days straight.

I wanted to hate this bike for its 26-inch wheels, which seemed regressive and self-consciously iconoclastic. But here’s the truth: The wheels were lighter than the ones that came on the (far more expensive) 3T superbike, provided an outrageously supple ride, thanks to the 54mm Compass Rat Trap Pass tires, and didn’t feel slow or halting in rough terrain. Would the bike be better with 48mm tires on 650B rims, which it also accepts? Possibly, but I opted against trying that, because if Rawland thinks the Ravn rides better with 26ers, I’ll take their word.

A big portion of the road industry is still holding onto skinny tires and lightweight frames. But I’m guessing a significant segment of the population would be happier riding a bike like the Ravn. It’s easy on the hands and neck, it’s stable, the ride is soft, thanks to those balloon tires, and it’s equipped to handle any terrain or surface. The Ravn will never be the flat-out fastest ride, thanks to the 24-pound complete weight. But it motors along just fine and feels far more sprightly than that weight suggests (likely because of those light wheels). Besides, only a few people will ever be the flat-out fastest—the rest of us should enjoy the ride.

I’ve pedaled my Ravn all over town and ridden it on group rides, where it went fine but took a bit more oomph to keep up. I’ve explored hundreds of miles of dirt roads—some extremely rocky and brutal—and never had a flat or a bad attitude. I even took it bikepacking for some overnights and almost decided that it rides better with weight than without. (Yup, that pizza rack works wonders.)

You might call the Ravn a small-scale equivalent of the Specialized Sequoia. In some ways, it’s even better: It’s smoother, quicker, and more stable, with nicer wheels. But it also has its failings, namely the poor handlebar shape that bangs your forearms in the drops. Whatever I or anyone thinks of the bike, however, I’m just glad to see companies, no matter how small, pushing their way into the market with good ideas. Let’s see what comes next.

Hunting

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June 28, 2017 at 03:55PM

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