Reportage

The Ritchey Outback is an Instant Classic

Over the years, having had the chance to ride a lot of different bikes, I’ve whittled my personal preferences down to a few assumptions about geometry and materials. Based on these preconceptions, I wasn’t sure I’d be into the Ritchey Outback.

Gravel bikes with carbon forks are pretty predictable in my experience: more capable and adaptable than the ‘cross bikes they evolved from, but too stiff to be enjoyable on rough terrain or long days in the saddle. Gravel bikes have also evolved to have longer rear ends than ‘cross bikes, and yet the Outback has the longest rear end of any performance-oriented drop-bar bike I’ve ridden.

I will also say that I’ve learned to keep an open mind about this stuff, and in the past couple of years I’m finding myself excited to ride bikes that don’t fit into neat and predictable categories. The chance to review oddball bikes helps me expand my experience and therefore become a better bike reviewer. I’m open to being surprised!

Well, there must be exceptions to rules and there must be challenges to preconceptions, and the Ritchey Outback fits into both of those categories for me.

Approaching the Sublime

Among the current crop of cookie-cutter gravel bikes, the Outback is a bit unusual, both in aesthetics and geometry. It doesn’t look like a modern gravel race rocket, yet it’s fast and light like one would expect of a bike in that category. It also rides smoother than any disc brake, carbon fork bike I’ve ridden.

From the first ride, the Outback stood out as special to me. I could tell that the 27.5×2.1” tires weren’t the only thing contributing to its buttery smooth ride; I’ve ridden plenty of bikes with bigger tires that rode stiffer. Yep, the Outback has what I’ve heard people refer to as the “Ritchey magic”.

When we compare factory-production bikes with custom-built or small-batch, as often happens with readers and writers here at the Radavist chasing the dream of the perfect bike, we often land on a blanket statement that factory bikes are overbuilt, by necessity.

“Overbuilt” is obviously a subjective statement to make, but in general, companies whose bikes are built in factories need to accommodate riders of all sizes, pass crash tests, and avoid excessive warranty claims – which are a pain for both companies and consumers.

And yet, some production bikes are an exception to that blanket statement. The Ritchey Outback is solidly in the exception category.

The only bikes I’ve ridden with a more compliant front end are small-batch, rim brake randonneuring bikes with ultra-thin steel fork legs that surely wouldn’t pass factory testing. The Outback’s fork has more compliance than any carbon or steel disc fork I’ve ridden while remaining composed under braking.

How has Ritchey achieved all that? And are there any tradeoffs?

The Stacked Spring Analogy

In terms of ride quality, a bike works as a system. Many components of the system have the potential to either be more or less flexible, more or less compliant. From the ground up, there are contributions from: tires, rims, and spokes; fork and frame; seat post and saddle; stem, bar, and even bar tape.

Each of these components work in harmony to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and this isn’t just some philosophical musing – it’s actually based in physics. I first approached this concept when playing with cars in the early 2000s, but the analogy works perfectly for bikes as well. The gist of the concept is this: if you take a stack of springs of various spring rates – some stiffer, and some softer – the total spring rate comes out lower than that of the softest spring in the system.

I was reminded of the stacked spring concept in an article by Alee Denham of Cycling About earlier this year. Alee’s conclusion is that the largest contributors to system compliance are tire volume and seat post, and suggests that frame material doesn’t really matter. I appreciate his thoughts, but I have to disagree. If the stacked spring analogy really is applicable to bikes, then every contributing component must be considered.

The Bicycle as a Holistic System

My philosophy about the bike as a holistic system, and what this Ritchey does so well, is that optimizing every part of the system – from the parts contacting the ground to those contacting the rider, and every piece in between – will create a smoother ride in the end.

For folks who read Bicycle Quarterly or Jan Heine’s blog this idea won’t be news. Jan’s been defending (and producing) high volume, light casing tires for years. He touts the comfort-enhancing benefits of rim brakes even though he lives in the wet Pacific Northwest. And he consistently points to built in frame flex – which he calls “planing” – as a desirable characteristic.

This last point is so subtle and difficult to discern in production bikes that most bike enthusiasts – and bike designers – are happy to write off Jan’s ideas and attempt to add suspension in other places. The current trend of wide 650b tires on production gravel and adventure bikes is a perfect example of this: low hanging fruit, but not the ultimate solution.

The thing is, frame flex as planing is real, and this discussion from the Bicycle Academy and resulting video from GCN is a great illustration of the concept. Every frame will flex under enough load, and when it does, that energy is stored momentarily and then returned immediately to the drivetrain. While planing flex is not necessarily correlated with comfort compliance, the two do go hand in hand.

So sure, beneficial frame flex is a thing, but it’s really difficult to feel. Problem being, rider weight and power output have a direct correlation to whether a bike will flex in just the right way. Rarely does a production bike flex enough to even qualify under the vast majority of riders. And here we are back at the conversation about production bikes being “overbuilt”.

It’s no wonder the accepted norm of production bikes is extreme stiffness. It’s much easier to overbuild than tune the holistic system. Hence why product managers and folks like Alee Denham can look strictly to the highest value-for-the-money changes. I appreciate that approach, but I want more from my premium production bike.

So What?

With production disc brake bikes, frames and forks are often so stiff that they’re not doing any of the good work we know a well-designed system can do. That is what truly sets this Outback apart: it’s doing the good work! Beyond the comfort that bigger tires can provide, a smoother riding system transmits less impact and vibration to its rider.

Does it get up and go? Does it ride lighter than its weight might indicate? Is it more than the sum of its parts? And the answer here is yes. The Outback strikes the balance between beneficial bicycle-as-a-system flex and not feeling “noodly”.

Frame Details

If you’re going to pay premium money for a production frame, you’re expecting a bit more consideration throughout the build. The Outback’s tubing is slim for a modern steel bike and from the side profile it looks a lot like a mountain bike from the ‘90s. Starting at the head tube, a Ritchey frame stands out. It’s a straight 1-1/8” head tube with bulges at the top and bottom for integrated headset bearings.

The fastback seat cluster is a Ritchey tradition, a unique look that I personally love. Maybe it’s the fact that fastback stays are really only seen on steel bikes, and aren’t common nowadays. The seat tube is sleeved into the forged seat lug, providing external butting and allowing use of a thinner seat tube. The dropouts are minimal, the derailleur hanger is stout yet replaceable, and the forging for the flat mount brake flows elegantly into the chainstay.

One thing that stood out to me as I spent time with the Outback is the careful consideration of cable routing. Ritchey has made efforts to allow gentle curves for each of the cable runs – the most unusual of which being the lowest-most point on the down tube for the rear brake, which is actually on the side of the tube. With hydraulic brakes a straighter run may not matter as much, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

All of these details add up to a frame that, even if found without paint long in the future, is easily identified as a Ritchey.

Geometry and Aesthetics

With a short fork and a relatively long rear end, the Outback’s front wheel is closer to the down tube than the rear wheel is to the seat tube. The silhouette, particularly on the big knobby tires, very much resembles the nostalgia-inducing mountain bikes of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

In fact, with a 71º head angle and 73º seat angle, the numbers are almost identical to those NORBA-era rigid bikes, but with flared drop bars replacing long stems and narrow flat bars. And it is exactly these bikes that show the true versatility of the Outback’s design. It climbs like a mountain goat, with the compliant frame and fork helping you along through chunky stuff.

My concern about rear end length affecting this bike’s fun factor faded quickly and at no point in my time with this bike did I find myself wishing it was any shorter. This bike is simply fun to ride, numbers be damned. I was thoroughly impressed with how fun and capable the Outback was on rooty singletrack, while also being fast and enjoyable for longer rides on smoother surfaces.

A Fork That Really Boings

Back in 2010 I had a canti brake Brodie Romax for ‘cross racing and it was spec’d with a Ritchey fork that I absolutely loved. You could launch the bike off bumps and I feel like the fork would boost your airtime, and then give you compliance upon landing. It was great. But, despite the awesome airtime, the fork shuddered terribly under braking.

I loved the way that fork rode at all times other than under braking. This led me to explore the world of disc brakes and fall into a deep, deep hole of suspension and singletrack, jump-starting my career in writing about bikes, and spending a good few years hating on rim brakes. The pendulum has obviously swung back and I’m much more open-minded these days, but I still like it when my brakes work flawlessly and when my fork boings.

The Ritchey Carbon Adventure fork has all the good traits of that old ‘cross fork, with none of the bad. It boings real good, and has noticeable vertical compliance, while exhibiting no negative traits such as brake shudder. All while weighing only 445 grams, and featuring holes for fenders and cages. If this fork had existed in 2010, who knows where my writing career would have gone? Now I want to try one on my Wolverine and my Rock Lobster, which is completely possible, because Ritchey does sell it in the aftermarket.

Spec Talk

VentureMax Carbon Bar. The standout piece on this bike was the carbon VentureMax bar. My Wolverine still has the original aluminum VentureMax bar and I absolutely love the shape. The Bio bend in the shallow drops is incredibly comfortable. I knew I would like the shape but the best part is that the carbon bar has noticeable compliance. Ritchey also recently (and quietly) released a polished silver VentureMax to complement their already-great Classic line. Options!

Shimano GRX Hydro. Shimano’s GRX group is a lot like the trouble-free experience of an XT mountain bike group, but with one big exception. With drop bars, the ergonomics of the controls can make or break your fit. The shape of the GRX hydro hoods is good, real good. In fact, I’d say it’s this hood shape that saved the fit on a bike that arguably was a bit small for me.

With every new generation, the formerly wiggly brake levers of Shimano’s system feel better and better when you’re barely gripping the bars yourself. The braking is great, and the shape of the levers is adapted to drop bars being ridden in increasingly more technical terrain. The wide, flat front is nice to squeeze from the hoods, and feels more comfortable than skinnier lever blades. The look is definitely a bit more “fighter jet” than the overall aesthetic of the Outback, but for the performance and ergonomic updates, I’ll take it.

Ritchey WCS Carbon Vantage Wheels. Ritchey classifies their WCS Vantage wheelset as a mountain bike wheelset, but in my opinion it’s perfect on this bike. It’s light at 1550 grams claimed and appropriately wide at 26mm for the range of tires you might want to run on the Outback. With only 24 spokes it is definitely a performance-oriented wheelset, so take that for what you will. The complete bike weighed just 21 pounds without pedals or bottles and these wheels no doubt helped with that.

Ritchey Z-Max 27.5×2.1 Tires. These tires use a classic Ritchey tread and contribute to this bike’s fun in cross-country mountain bike territory. On-road handling is loose, as you might expect for an aggressive off-road tread, but it rides way faster than it looks. If you like getting rowdy on dirt but still ride pavement to get there, this is a good tire. Even though Ritchey sent me the bike with these tires, the 2.1 was a bit tight in the rear end. I’d love to see just a bit more clearance eked out in the rear triangle to accommodate 2.1s with more margin for error.

Fit Limitations

The bike I reviewed is Ritchey’s Large (geo chart here), and I was on the very edge of not being able to get a proper fit on it. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, my saddle height is 76.5 cm and for a performance fit I tend to run the tops of the bars 2-3 cm below the saddle.

In the photos here I had a 110×6º stem on the bike, which gave me the reach I would need but left the bars a bit too low. You might think “more spacers” but Ritchey recommends a maximum of 3 cm of spacers below the stem on this fork, which is exactly what I needed to get the bars high enough with a +17º stem.

The 17º stem I had on hand was a 100, so I ran it with the bars rolled back slightly to push the hoods further forward, and regularly made use of the GRX hoods’ comfortable horns position when riding. A 110×17º would have been spot on with the bars rolled forward for a flatter ramp, but the fit was acceptable.

So, I would say the fit is smaller than an average Large frame. The 160mm head tube doesn’t appear particularly short on paper, but don’t forget it’s got integrated headset cups and that means less stack for a given head tube length. If you tend to run your bars high, you’ll want to do some careful measurements to ensure you can fit this bike with only 30mm of spacers under the stem.

Would I choose the XL if I was to keep an Outback in the collection? Definitely. While I don’t mind running a positive rise stem and I think that looks OK on this type of bike, I would prefer not to be at the absolute limit of a bike’s fit with basically the tallest (reasonable looking) stem you can buy. The XL is only about 12mm longer in terms of fit geometry, so it would be spot on for me.

But, this leads me to a final limitation of the Outback’s size range, which is that folks with larger fits than mine – and I know there are plenty of them out there – will very likely not be able to get on the XL. I’m sure those folks would love to have another, larger size in the range.

A Gravel Bike Unlike Other Gravel Bikes

I’m a bit uninspired by gravel bikes lately. It’s not that they aren’t great bikes – they really are – but there’s a lot of similar stuff out there and it’s tedious to write about bikes that differ mostly in the angle of their fork cargo mount eyelets and their millimetres of tire clearance.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed my time with the Ritchey Outback and was sad to send it packing. Sure, you can put big tires and a compliant seat post and a more flexible bar on any bike, but if you start with a more compliant frame and fork, the whole system will ride smoother, and I think it’s worth going to that effort.

The straight 1-1/8” steerer tube, both on the frame and the carbon fork, sets this and other Ritchey bikes apart from the current norm of stiff frames and stiff tapered carbon forks. Does the Outback’s relatively long rear end help add some compliance? Quite possibly. Combine these traits with careful tubing selection and you have a bike that rides ultra-smooth. Find a smoother riding production disc brake bike, I challenge you. Find a smoother riding custom, even.

The Ritchey brand has another appeal and that’s the classic aesthetic and branding. I don’t want my bike to scream “6 dudes ripping through your favourite multi-use path oblivious to the wake they’re throwing”. Ritchey somehow feels more sophisticated than that. It’s not just paint colours separating these bikes from the myriad of options in every category, but real tangible differences. The premium price tag gets you something unique with a real difference in ride quality.

If I were only looking at the Outback’s geometry, I might have written it off. Upon riding the bike, my preconceptions were quickly disproven. Occasionally a review bike comes along that challenges those preconceptions and completely surpasses my expectations. The Outback did just that.