Saturday, May 18, 2013

Riding the Rawland Nordavinden

(Edited to correct assumptions about set up as a dirt road and not randonneuring bicycle.)

I started cross country skiing in November of 1976 in a rural part of New Hampshire, at the home of a guy who knew Bill Koch at Putney School a couple of years earlier.  It was after Thanksgiving and an early snowfall gave Chris the opportunity to share his passion for cross country skiing with all of his overnight guests.  I jumped at the chance to try this new sport, something I had never heard about - though I would have if I paid attention to Nordic skiing at Winter Olympics earlier that year when Bill Koch won the first medal in a Nordic event by an American.  I missed it.  I couldn't tell you what I was watching on the tube back then but in those days, I was probably watching television although I skipped television for the most part since then.  Having taken up cross country skiing and never having a lot of money, I tried downhill skiing only once.  But starting in 1995, I started to learn Telemark skiing.  Telemark is a turn developed in Telemark, a county in Norway.  Telemark is free heel skiing, in which you turn by bending your knees with the downhill ski in front and the uphill ski trailing.  It is a graceful turn when well executed and interesting to downhill skiers even when done just adequately.  I have even impressed quite a few downhill skiers with my technique.  In the early 2000s I was skiing with a bunch of telemark skiers, including one guy from Trondheim, Norway.  The joke in those days was that randonnee was French for "can't telemark".

Fast forward a few years.  A lot of my telemark friends left for other states or other countries or had children and couldn't spend the time skinning up a mountain for one run down.  At the same time, I grew tired of paying for lift served telemark.  And I was more comfortable skiing 15 or 20 mile solo than skinning up a mountain for a wild descent by myself.  One day while skiing into Greeley Ponds from Waterville Valley, NH, I spied a skier descending one of gullies on Mount Osceola.  This skier was more skilled than I ever was and was doing it alone in what could be very hazardous conditions.  As I skied down towards the Kancamagus Highway, on what was for me an out and back route, the skier from the gully sped past me, on randonee skis.  Apparently not knowing how to do a telemark turn was not an obstacle for this skier.  If anything, he had the right skis for what he was doing.  And he was more courageous (or stupid) than me on very steep hills and was faster on the flats.

That's a very long introduction to my concept of randonneuring, which I have to think is closely related to randonnee skiing, though I may be wrong. But it's clear to me that the right equipment for the job is key in any endeavor.  My introduction to bicycle randonneuring was quite by accident.  I was about to buy an Independent Fabrication Club Racer in 2007 and I read a page (since updated) written by Pamela Blalock about her Club Racer.  The idea of long distance riding is appealing and would be more appealing if I discovered this in the late 1990s when I was more or less single.  After reading Pamela's writing, I didn't pay much attention to the long distance aspect of cycling (more than 60 or 65 mile rides) for a few years.  But after reading a few of Jan Heine's Bicycling Quarterly articles that a friend had graciously lent me, I was again exposed to this type of cycling.  Though with two children now, that kind of time has to be negotiated for.

Fast forward to today.  Everyone is now talking about short trail bicycles and 650b wheels, concepts that remained just concepts to me although I do like the idea of these.  A friend, who now has the Joshua Bryant randonneuring bicycle recently reviewed in Bicycle Quarterly, explained his long road to this bike as an evolution from the small stiff frames of the 1990s through a Rivendell Rambouillet  to something that his body would not have to adapt to but instead would fit him and be comfortable and would still be responsive for the kind of riding he does.  That's a lofty goal and one that I think he and the builder succeeded at.  I think that I could borrow this Joshua Bryant for a ride, if only the bicycle would fit me.  The reach would be a bit long and I could tell that from looking at my friend or seeing the numbers on the geometry of his bike.  And there aren't a lot of 650b, short trail bikes on the market for me try otherwise.

I met Velouria of Lovely Bikes this spring.  She happened to have her Rawland Nordavinden with her.  This bicycle is set up as a randonneuring bicycle but is primarily used as a dirt road or road to trail bicycle although it may see service as a randonneuring bicycle.  It has the mystical short trail and 650b wheels.  And she was willing to let me try it.  Velouria is understandably busy and my schedule, with children, is relatively inflexible. Having a scheduled day off during the week, Velouria made time for a ride together, our plan was to have her ride my Independent Fabrication Club Racer while I would ride her Rawland.  Unfortunately she was sick on the arranged day.  Fortunately she was willing to take my bike in trade, if only to photograph, while I took the Rawland out for some exercise.  Her Rawland Nordavinden is set up primarily for dirt road and hill riding.  The first indication of this is the very small chainrings in the front and the large chain rings in the rear, which you might be able to see in this picture (at the Concord center rotary):

The bicycle has the Grand Bois Hetre 650bx42 tires, which seems to be Jan Heine's favorite for brevets and are great for dirt roads, at least in my very limited experience.

The day was a brilliant late spring day, with blue skies and an expected high temperature of about 70F.  We talked for a while and exchanged bicycles after I took the Rawland for a spin around the block.  Velouria has described the short trail experience as something that some people may adapt to and others may hate.  It was worth it to experience it first hand on a very short ride before committing to a longer ride.  I didn't notice anything unusual on the ride around the block except some instability when I used my left hand to signal a turn.  I wasn't alarmed and was happy to take the Rawland for a long ride - 45 miles as it turned out.

What I first noticed was that I had trouble making the bike go fast.  This was mostly related to the seat position, which I had set to the measurement that my fitter gave me.  But that was intended for the Terry saddle that I use.  Velouria warned me that the Selle Anatomica wouldn't be so easily adapted to the same measurements and she was right.  I added several millimeters to find the right place for my saddle.  After the adjustment I noticed that the saddle was too far forward, a result of Velouria's preference for a steep seat tube -compared to my IF at 72 degrees.  Rather than mess with her fit, I decided to ride with the saddle slightly out of my preferred position.

That I couldn't make the bicycle go all that fast was in part from the gearing and, I think, from my saddle position.  I found myself backing up on the saddle as I road, which I found  bit more comfortable and more ergonomic.

Once I figured out positioning, I did notice two things, the promised tracking of the short trail and the comfort of the 42 mm Hetres.  The tracking was not noticed per see, rather it was something that just felt natural.  I never could really lift my hands off the handlebar (at least not more than a couple of inches above the handlebar and I never ride no handed in usual practice) but the bicycle did seem to follow a line without any effort.  On one significant downhill run, Strawberry Hill Road in Concord, the bike easily followed the line I intended at around 25 mph.  I have taken that S curve faster and could have done so on this bike, if it didn't belong to someone else.  The comfort of the wide tires was obvious from the bumps on the the bike path to the usual bad pavement on the the rural roads outside of Boston.  The Rawland didn't have the floating feel of the titanium Seven Cafe Racer that I tested last summer but it was anything but jarring.  And if I could make this bike go fast, it would prove, to me, that Jan Heine's thesis about tire width and speed was correct.

As far as speed goes, I finally figured out how to make it go fast.  In Lexington center, a triathlete, Sarah, pulled up even with me at the light in the center of town.  Sarah is preparing for Lake Placid Ironman Triathlon in late July and was heading home on what would be a 60 mile ride.  I kept pace, mostly in front of her until Arlington center, when I stopped to let Velouria know that I was coming back into town.  It turns out I just needed to adjust the seat some and have some friendly competition to figure out how to make this bike go fast.  Sarah did thank me for pulling her though that 5 mile stretch and I thanked her.

I didn't talk to Velouria about me taking her bike on dirt roads specifically so when I passed the sign for Camp Acton, I decided to be cautious.  I walked up the hill for 500 meters or so.  I enjoyed the quiet that Velouria and I had thought missing in town.  Then I cautiously descended back to Pope Road.  The bike handling was smooth and I was very confident as I descended.  In retrospect, and after mentioning this to Velouria, I wish I had rode up through all of the camp sites and descended with a bit more speed.  This bike could have handled it easily.

Another aspect of the bike that I was very interested in was the Paul Racer brakes.  I have been very disappointed with adjusting the Avid Shorty 4 brakes on my Surly Cross Check.  The brakes perform well but adjusting them seems to be hit or miss.  And aesthetically, they are not amazing in my book.  I've long thought of switching to the Paul Racer brakes (mounted on the fork) but it's not clear that the brakes will fit on my Surly and whether they would look terribly out of place with the canti mounts so close to the brakes.  I think that I would use the Paul brakes on my next bike, whatever it may be.  The performance of the brakes was great and while not as sharp as the Shimano long pull brakes on my IF, I learned to appreciate the feel of the Paul brakes.   This Rawland has the rear brake on the left lever, front on the right.  I felt this was an easy transition to make and could imagine this for my IF.  I adjusted my speed mostly with the front brake and, once comfortable with the Paul brakes, braking was perhaps more easily measured than with my Shimanos.  I have machined rims on both my Surly and my IF and that certainly affects the feel of the brakes, making braking a bit more firm than it may be otherwise.  I don't think the Pacenti rims on the Rawland were machined.  One criticism of the machining rims is that you are guaranteeing that the rims will wear away faster.  I recently had a wheel built up with a dynamo hub and machined Mavic Open Pro rims to match the rims on both of my bikes.  As I made this transition, I noticed that my old (3000 mile) front rim on my Surly was already worn.  So machining may make your brakes better, but it will wear your rim, if you do some off road riding, as I have done on my Surly.  The rims on my IF, with 8000+ miles on them, are still in great shape.

One interesting thing about the feel of the Nordavinden:  After the ride, Velouria asked me how the bike felt.  I thought it was similar to my IF and I thought I was honest about this.  But on getting on my IF for the ride back home, I felt two huge things.  One was the saddle - sitting down was like hitting something very solid and sort of in the way. The Terry Liberator Y I use on both of my bikes has not been noticeable to me except after riding the Selle Anatomica on the Rawland.  I was pretty shocked at how the Terry felt when I first got back on it - it was more solid than I ever thought it was before.  In retrospect, the Selle Anatomica was invisible to me.  I think that the Selle saddle, set up correctly for me, would be ideal.  Second was handling.  Velouria asked about the weight of the front bag, which was largely empty, which I really didn't notice.  However, when I got back on my IF, and recovered from my saddle surprise, I really noticed the twitchy feel of the front end of the IF.  It felt as if I were on my old Trek 520 and I just removed the front panniers while on a tour although this isn't something that I have noticed before.  I don't attribute this to weight of the bag and rack but to the difference of the handling of the Rawland and the IF.  The IF is purposely designed to respond to body English, as Roy Cervantes of Grace Bicycles says.  This is perhaps not exactly what I'd ask for today, if I were to have another custom bike built for me.  The Rawland never felt like it was a hard to steer - it was anything but that. It was simply a bike that followed the line you chose.  And that's a nice goal for the kind of riding I do.

Once I figured out that the bike could move quickly with what seemed like very wide tires, I was very impressed.  A bike that tracks well, absorbs the bumps of New England roads, and can go fast is a great goal.  I could imagine getting a Rawland myself one day, once day care costs are a bit lower.  I can also imagine that this is the kind of bike that my wife would be happy with.  She was amazed at the difference between her old aluminum racing bike and the old steel mixte we bought for her last year.  But the mixte isn't exactly what she wants and this bike could be it.  I could imagine my wife doing credit card tours on a Nordaviden with me carrying a bit more weight on my Surly.

As far as the saddle, I thought the Selle saddle disappeared beneath me, just as my Terry usually does.  And it wasn't something that made me sore after the fact.  I rode with my two boys today and noticed no soreness on the ride.  I was very surprised at the leather saddle.   My experience with them is both outdated and restricted to certain brands of saddles of a couple of decades ago.  This saddle, broken in for someone else - although I understand that no breaking in was necessary - felt just fine for me.  Except for positioning, I did not notice the saddle and that is saying a lot.

I thank Velouria for the opportunity to ride this Rawland.   Getting a 45 mile ride on a 650b, short trail bicycle on familiar roads was an amazing opportunity.

The ride is here except Middle Street in Lexington was closed so I took Lincoln Street into Lexington center and then Mass Ave into Arlington center.

Here is the Rawland at the bridge on Maple Street in Carlisle:


  1. This is a really valuable review you've done. Two different takes on the same bike almost never happens. Thank you!

    1. Well, it was not quite a review but an impression after a ride but I see your point. We all come at riding from different places. Velouria rides a lot of bikes. I rode 5 different bikes in the past 3 weeks but that very unusual for me. I've been riding longer than her but she does many more miles in a year than I ever did. But we agree on this bicycle and that's a good message to share but it would also be good to share if we disagreed.

  2. Oddly thrilling to see somebody else's photos of my bike : )
    Glad you liked it!

    1. It was lots of fun. I had that one day to ride and I was happy to get out for a decently long ride, which wouldn't have happened if the fit wasn't good.