After spending years swapping the same worn-out parts between vintage steel frames, I was ready to build my ideal “road” bike in 2020. I wanted something that was comfortable, versatile, and beautiful, and after much deliberation, I settled on the Soma Grand Randonneur. Read on to learn why I chose the Grand Randonneur and my thoughts on the bike after two tours, a gravel race, and many long days on country roads.
I have very little in common with Jan Heine, the larger-than-life cyclist who played a significant role in the popularization of the modern Randonneur bike, and the man currently at the helm of Rene Herse. The Soma Grand Randonneur probably wouldn’t exist without him and his proven advocacy for “vintage tech.”
If you’ve read Jan’s publication, Bicycle Quarterly, or have spent any time on his website, it doesn’t take long to build a picture of what he might be like. Jan does enormous amounts of research and development which has led to some very specific and strong preferences around his bicycles. He loves low-trail geometry, extremely light tires, and his Nivex derailleur.
While Jan loves diving into the nitty-gritty—wind tunnel testing rando boxes as fairings and comparing the rolling resistance of tire sizes, for instance—I’m writing this review with the enthusiastic, albeit more amateur, cyclist in mind. A review of a low-trail Randonneur bike that was designed to check all of Jan Heine’s boxes, while keeping the research talk more minimal. With that, I hope you enjoy this, a review of the third version of the Soma Grand Randonneur.
An Overview of Low-Trail Geometry
It’s hard to talk about Randonneur bikes without giving an overview of the concept of “low-trail.” Can you imagine a fork that curves significantly forward near the dropouts? That’s a low-trail fork. Think of the Crust Lightning Bolt, the Velo Orange Polyvalent, or this bike, the Soma Grand Randonneur.
Trail has a significant effect on how your bike handles. A low-trail bike has quick steering at low and moderate speeds but can feel less stable at high speeds. It requires more effort to lean into and out of turns, and more than anything else, low-trail bikes just feel very different from the high-trail and mid-trail bikes that you’re probably used to. There’s a learning curve, and that’s okay.
Some Cool Features Soma Added to the Frame
I was very excited when Soma released the third version of the Grand Randonneur in 2021, and I was one of the first people to order it when it went live on their website. The third version of the frame added IS disc mounts and thru-axle compatibility while keeping the 1” threaded fork that I know and love. They also did a great job with the paint. The moss green looks beautiful and people tell me they love the color all the time.
How I Built the Bike
I love getting the opportunity to build up a bike from the frame. I enjoy getting to chase and face the bottom bracket. I try to get perfect lines with my housing runs. With this bike build, I started with the wheels. I laced a SONdelux 12mm thru-axle hub to some Bontrager carbon rims with my favorite spokes, Sapim CX-Rays. The rear wheel has a beautifully machined White Industries CLD hub.
I chose the Rene Herse Randonneur handlebar, which I love. The dramatically curved bar isn’t my favorite look, but it certainly feels nice under your hands. The drivetrain is made up of mostly 10-speed Ultegra 6700 components with the exception of a White Industries VBC crankset. My chainrings are 48/34 and my cassette is 11-34. You may notice that the non-drive side crank arm is Sugino, not White. You’ll have to ask me about that in person.
The Yokozuna Ultimos stop the bike perfectly well and they look absolutely beautiful, but I don’t think they have significantly more stopping power than a humble Avid BB-7 or TRP Spyre. I will say that the setup process of the Ultimos is incredibly intuitive, and they’re a pleasure to work on, but the stopping power is simply average in my opinion.
To finish the build, I added a set of Velo Orange Zeppelin Fenders, a Velo Orange front rack with an integrated decaleur, a SON Edelux II headlight, and a Swift Industries Peregrine bag.
I was ecstatic when the frame arrived at the shop. I patiently waited for my day off to build it up. The build came together nicely except for the rear brake. The rear IS disc mount was misaligned, and I had to add three washers between the IS disc mount and the brake adapter to align the caliper with my rotor. Ultimately it wasn’t a difficult problem to solve, but it felt pretty frustrating at the time.
The Grand Randonneur takes some getting used to but really shines when you ride it as it’s intended to be used – as a Randonneuring bike. The geometry is comfortably average when compared to other low-trail bikes. The 399mm of reach feels great for me on the 61cm frame with a 110mm stem. Cornering on low-trail frames may take some getting used to, but it can be really fun once you get the hang of it.
The bike holds its line very well, but it takes significantly more input in and out of turns. Over the last year and a half, I’ve set the bike up as a light touring bike, a gravel race bike, and a Randonneuring bike, and I have had very different experiences with each configuration.
The Grand Randonneur as a Light Touring Bike
I’ve toured on this bike twice. Once on the Around the Rock route by Fitzgerald’s Bicycles and once on the Adventure Cycling Association Great Divide Mountain Bike Route for a few hundred miles. I toured with a minimal camping setup and the Grand Randonneur did great. To give you a picture of what I mean by minimal: a tarp, an alcohol stove, and a quilt are the mainstays of my regular touring cargo.
Both tours were enjoyable with the Grand Randonneur. With about 15 pounds of gear, the bike handled predictably and the geometry was comfortable for full days in the saddle. As long as you can keep your camping setup lightweight, the Grand Randonneur does great on tour.
The Grand Randonneur as a Gravel Race Bike
My least favorite iteration of the Grand Randonneur was when I set it up for a gravel race. There’s a 50-mile gravel race near the North Carolina and Tennessee border called the Hardford 50. The course has just over 6,500 feet of climbing and multiple long descents on unmaintained forest service roads. People ride the race on gravel bikes and mountain bikes, so I thought running flat bars and aggressive gravel tires on my Grand Randonneur would make for a fun race setup.
After a few shake-down rides, I realized that I had made a mistake. Randonneur bikes require weight over the front of the bike to handle properly, and by taking off the rack and Peregrine bag, the bike suddenly began to feel unpredictable. This problem was worsened by running flat bars instead of drop bars because it shifted my weight off of the front wheel even more. The bike simply isn’t designed to excel on gravel or with flat bars, so I can’t fault it there, but I can say that the Grand Randonneur does not work well as a flat-bar gravel bike.
The Grand Randonneur as a Randonneuring Bike
The bike really comes alive when you set it up as it’s intended to be, a Randonneuring bike. The bike does great with a rack and bag on the front end, with everything you need sitting on that front rack. The 44mm Panaracer tires feel absolutely amazing at 30 psi (I weigh about 160 pounds) and I set them up tubeless on Bontrager carbon rims without any hassle. The wheels are what make the bike really shine. The White Industry and SON hubs laced to carbon rims with super light spokes allow the bike to accelerate beautifully.
The only problem I have with the bike when it’s set up in classic Randonneuring fashion is the classic rando-shimmy. If you ride the bike without hands, and occasionally at high speeds with hands, the front end of the bike can shimmy back and forth. If you’ve ever bombed a hill on a skateboard and gotten speed wobble, you know the feeling. It’s a hotly discussed topic on rando forums, and Soma has an entire Q&A on their website about shimmy issues on low-trail geometries. I don’t think it’s worth talking about that much, to be honest. Do people go on skate forums and discuss truck setups to prevent speed wobble? I don’t know. What I do know is that for me, this bike can shimmy some, but it’s not a deal breaker.
Would I Recommend This Bike?
The Soma Grand Randonneur really shines on long road rides. The bike is so comfortable that I stop less than I would on a more aggressive road bike. I find that longer road rides are some of my favorite days on the bike, and this bike reminds you that it doesn’t have to be a race. You can bring your camera and extra snacks to just enjoy spending your whole afternoon on rural roads.
I would not recommend this bike to someone looking for a “do-everything” build or for someone who likes to constantly tinker with their builds. If you set it up as a traditional Randonneuring bike then it will ride great. If you set it up nearly any other way, it will not ride great. If you’re looking for a handsome, comfortable bike that can carry everything you need for your next 200k (and you don’t mind a little shimmy) this bike could be for you. Go ahead and find the nearest bike shop with a friendly staff who can spell Randonneur, and have them build it up for you. It’ll probably be one of their favorite projects of the year.