Orbit Romany, the ultimate expedition tourer?
Now 20 years old I hope this review will still be of interest (it is all still relevent!)
Like most touring cyclists I'm an arch conservative and there's a good reason - if something on your bike breaks, or makes you uncomfortable whilst you are touring it can ruin a long waited for holiday. With this in mind I approached the Orbit Romany with some trepidation.
Your typical touring bike frame hasn't changed much in 40 years, a lugged and brazed Reynolds 531 tubeset on 700c wheels with a horizontal top tube. The Orbit couldn't be more different. The frame is made of the strongest cycle steel in the world, Reynolds new air hardening 853. Most steels loose strength when you heat them, this one uses that heating as a final heat treatment, and when allowed to cool in air becomes much harder and increases it's tensile strength i.e. it gets stronger. Orbit have chosen to TIG weld this tubeset, and using the freedom this method gives, have produced a tight, sloping top tube frame, much like an MTB but with softer touring angles, and topped it off with a pair of Chromo forks. Keeping up the innovation they have built the rear triangle with an offset so that the rear wheel doesn't have to be dished. As far as I know this is the first production frame to do this, though it has been available from custom builders for years. It greatly reduces the likelihood of spoke breakage's on the freehub side and is an all round GOOD THING - bravo. The only slight problem is that off-the-peg wheels have to be "undished" to fit the frame. To add to the list of unconventional features the frame is built around 650 MTB wheels. These are rapidly becoming the world standard so makes sense on an intercontinental tourer, but also makes for a stronger, and slightly lighter wheel. The disadvantages are that in larger sizes it looks a little odd, and the ride/rolling resistance is in theory poorer, though tyre choice makes a much bigger impact. The frame has of course all the braze-ons you would expect on a top touring machine with the rear brake wire under the top tube which is where I like it. Paint was a plain classic blue.
As for quality, I was very, very impressed. The frame was aligned well (tricky to check the off-set rear) and the welding was superb. Anyone used to mass produced machine welding with it's characteristic herringbone pattern might be alarmed, for here the welding looked so neat and smooth you could kid yourself it was fillet brazed. The fact that the 853 tubing is very thin, less than 1 mm at the buts, makes this quite an achievement. This thin tubing will save about 1 1/2 lbs over an oversized 531 frame, a lot on a racer, but less significant on a loaded tourer. What the thinner 853 tubing does do is give more flexibility and therefore comfort without a loss of strength. As I said at the outset I am a conservative, and the only tiny doubt is that though TIG welding is very strong, expertly brazed and lugged frames are even more reliable.
After the frame the wheels are the most important part, and here the Romany is equipped with Campy hard anodized rims, stainless spokes and Sach Neos hubs. These have annular cartridge bearings that are easily replaceable and available world wide. The Romany's 36 spoke wheels may be out of favour with some tourists, but try getting 40 hole rims in the wilds... A good cost effective wheel package that will do the job without being flashy.
Another mix-and-match with a full sized Sugino Fuse 500 chainset 48/38/26 with Deore LX mechs and Shimano bar end levers. You don't need me to tell you that the big S's gears work fine, and will keep working for a long time, the bar end levers have a friction option and are nice to use, but I'd spec downtube levers if I were to go round the world on the bike, as they're less vulnerable in a spill. The chainset just does the job, it won't impress the neighbours, no chromica or anodising, but it takes standard full sized rings which last longer, and has ramps to aid changing. My only criticism of the test bike was that the bottom sprocket of 28 teeth wasn't low enough for heavy touring, but Orbit are happy to spec the gearing as you want.
Orbit have chosen to fit the latest V-brakes with drop bars on this bike. I know anything with cantilevers is seen as a very poor second in today's market, but I'm not sure this combination works. Orbit have used special Dia-Comp levers which are designed to pull a lot of cable for cantilever brakes. The problem is that V-brakes need a whole lot more cable pull. To work properly the brake blocks had to be skimming the rim and even then it was easy to pull the brake levers to the bars. They gave phenomenal power, but would need constant attention to keep adjusted like this, not helped by the lack of cable adjusters - MTB levers have these fitted, drop levers don't. It was even impossible to remove the wheel without deflating the tyre first as there was no slack to allow you to unhook the brakes. Nice try but no thanks. A good pair of canti's would give almost as powerful braking without the heartache.
FINISHING KIT AND MISC...
A decent roller bearing headset, Uno seat stem, chro-mo stem, Randonneur bars and a gel saddle - (bin it when it falls apart and buy a Brooks - personal prejudice here). Very nice Deore XT pedals. Good plastic mudguards and a tough steel rear rack, the front alloy lowrider being of Orbit's own design and seems good, though only a long tour would find it's weaknesses. Three bottle cages and bottles, a good pump - all you need to go round the world...
WHAT'S IT LIKE TO RIDE
Sadly the bike sent was too small for me, but I did wobble up the road. My wife, Kate, is a very experienced tourist with a custom built 531 tourer and her comments are interesting. "It's so stable off road", "it's really comfy", "it's stiffer than mine (this loaded to the gunnels - front and rear 40 lbs+)", "it climbs really well, just seems to get up and go when you push on the pedals". This is extraordinarily high praise as those who know Kate will vouch for. She has had a love affair with her bike for 10 years and she felt disloyal after having her head turned.
Orbit have taken a fresh and innovative approach to making a long distance touring bike. In almost every respect it has been a resounding success. My reservations about the brakes are easily sorted at the factory as Orbit offer a semi "custom" option so you can specify exactly what you want. They will even supply a full set of replacement bearings for your expedition kit. The bulk of the 1000 pounds price goes into a world class frame, but the rest of the equipment is well up to the job of serious loaded touring. If you are looking for an off-the-peg expedition tourer then I think you cannot do better. The alternative is custom built, which for 1000 pounds will get you a 531 st frame and a similar, or less well specified component list. To get a frame as strong as the Romany you need to go up to oversized 531 which will be heavier, less comfortable when unladen, though stiffer when loaded. This of course would bump up the price of the frame well beyond that of the Orbit. The light weight of the Orbit and it's comfortable frame make it a much better allrounder than the oversized 531 option, making it great for commuting and day rides as well as the tour of a lifetime. I am very lucky as I have two touring bikes, both custom built. One is a light "squirrely" Reynold 653 machine, that I use for light summer cycletouring and unladen rides. The other is an oversized 531 expedition tourer which I use for heavily laden trips. The Orbit is the only bike I have ever ridden that comes close to combining these two disparate roles. Highly recommended 8/10
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