Ridgeback Expedition 26” Touring Bike 2016 Review
What can the Ridgeback Expedition offer? (Updated for 2017 - see below)
Sadly Ridgeback inform me that for 2017 the Expedition is to be updated with Hydraulic disc brakes. Though lovely to use these aren't a great idea on a true expedition tourer - too easy to damage, difficult to get spares or 'bodge' on tour in Europe let alone outside... - Manufacturers Website
A small favour
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I have long been a champion of the 26” wheel – it's stiffer, stronger, lower weight, offers lower gearing and is a world standard (see my article on 26" vs 700c wheels) – so much so that all our BB Special hire bikes run with 26” wheels - it's what you need for loaded cycle-camping.
The mystery is why there are so few reasonably priced touring bikes using this wheel. Well to my great delight I recently discovered that Ridgeback had been making just such a bike for some years – however on contacting them I found that for 2016 the bike had undergone a major change in direction – from a 'classic' drop-handlebar configuration, to a 'flat' bar set-up. What this masked was that the frame itself also underwent quite a change. As this new version mimicked very closely our BB Specials, and therefore would offer me the opportunity of buying an off-the-peg bike rather than the hassle of batches of custom made bikes, I jumped at the chance and ordered two bikes for testing purposes – a 50 cm and the largest 60 cm version.
Configuration and kit
The Expedition is a conventional looking cycle made of Reynolds 520 butted Chro-Mo, with bars offering a slight rise and grips with built in bar-ends. The build kit is a well thought out mix of components from Shimano's Deore and Alivio 9-speed groupsets. The former supplies the rear derailleur, the gear and brake levers and the V-brakes themselves. The latter comprises the chainset with octalink fitting and 48/38/28 chainrings, the front derailleur and the hubs.
Madison/Ridgeback's purchasing power is shown by the own brand headset, bars, stem, seat and rear rack – all good quality. The seat is a generic plastic job that most people will throw away and the bike comes equipped with pedals and straps plus a surprisingly good pump fitted to a mount on the rear stay.
Tyres are quite expensive Schwalbe Marathon-Cross in 1.75" section and decent mudguards but sadly with the now obligatory fragile plastic mounts (for safety reasons).
The idea is that here is a bike you can throw a pair of panniers over and set off round the world – a very ambitious brief for such a keenly priced bike. So how does it fair?
Suitability for purpose?
The secret of a good bike is to balance out the budget to spend it where it really makes a difference – I'll dedicate a later section to the frame because it is the heart of the bike – but the choice of providing a Reynolds 520 butted frameset with every braze-on you could wish will take much of the budget. That Ridgeback have managed to then produce such a well-equipped bike is very gratifying. All the kit is good quality and works extremely well together as you'd expect. I've long resisted 9-speed because of the accelerated wear rate, but because Shimano have introduced a 36 tooth lowest sprocket it means that with the smaller 26” wheels you can get a gear as low as it's possible to ride (sub 20”) using a full-sized chainset whereas before, and on our BB specials I've had to use a compact triple – the result should be a lower wear rate than an 8-speed.
The Alivio front derailleur is indistinguishable from it's Deore equivalent and the chainset I actually prefer because I find the rings wear more slowly than the better chainset's alloy rings and more importantly if bent, can be bent back with less risk of snapping. Incidentally, as the cost of three spare chainrings (when you can get them) is more than that of the chainset the fact that the chainrings are replaceable is immaterial.
The one area which is compromised is the wheelset. The Alivio hubs aren't as good as the Deore, and even Deore hubs seem to have fallen in quality of late. Combined with the budget Alexrims DH-19 rims on a 3x 36 spoke package, you get a good set of starter wheels. They'll do a job and be reliable up-to-a-point but of all the components they are the ones I'd see as the weakest link – and sadly they are 'mission' critical – personally I'd have perhaps downgraded the brakes and rear-derailleur to pay for Deore hubs, but then that's not so obvious in the 'storefront' and not likely to happen. However that said, if the kit had been 100% Alivio I still wouldn't have seen it as out of place at this price-point so the Deore equipment is a bonus. The Schwalbe Marathon Cross tyres are not bargain basement either, but more on them later.
The excellent pump I've mentioned and also the pedals complete with clips and straps. The snag with the latter is that they are a single-sided pedal and so if you don't use straps you will have to change pedals. I can imagine that any bike-shop would swap the supplied pedals (plastic body/metal cage) and straps for a basic pair of double-sided pedals at no extra cost so it's a minor point.
The supplied rack is a sturdy affair in aluminium rod with good support for the back of the pannier and extremely well finished. Like all racks of it's type (Blackburn copy) its weakness is that it will inevitably break at the point where all loads are fed into one thin alloy rod which has had the ignominy of being stamped flat and then having a hole drilled in it. How long before this happens will depend on the unknown quality of the alloy, but it's not a rack I would trust for extended loaded touring, however at the price point it's pretty good and certainly good enough to start you on all but expedition touring.
In fact the only thing missing are a couple of bottle cages.
This deserves its own section for obvious reasons – it's the single most important part of the bike and dictates how it rides and what it is capable of. It is also the part that most interested me because although it superficially resembles the BB Special frame it is in fact quite different.
The raw material is Reynolds 520 butted tubing – this is a licence built version of Reynolds 525 tubing produced in the Far East. And in turn 525 is the Reynolds replacement for the legendary 531 – a tubing less suited to MIG/TIG welding and so is now obsolete. This is essentially 4130 Chro-Mo though the Reynolds name and the butting lifts it above many generic tubes and makes it at least the equivalent of the 'no-name' Chro-Mo used by more expensive bikes like the Surly LHT and vsf TX-400.
The BB Special also uses 520 tubing but what is interesting is that Ridgeback have oversized both the top and down-tube – the two tubes that are the major components in resisting twisting. On the BB Special the two tubes are 28/32mm respectively and on the Ridgeback 32/35 – the top-tube on the Ridgeback also tapers for the last 15 cm to blend into the seat-tube. The result is a considerably stiffer frame than the BB Special. To gild-the-lily a gusset is welded where the head-tube meets the down-tube...
Now it's easy to imagine that stiffer=better, but bike design isn't that simple as we'll see.
The frame geometry of all sizes (57,50,54,57,60) all share a 70 degree head angle which is very relaxed. This is unusual in a tourer nowadays - it produces a bike that likes going straight on, is difficult to ride hands-off (why would you?) and which you steer round corners rather than 'think' round them. It's something you get used to, but the upside is that the more you load the bike the more stable it seems - and you find riding on broken surfaces much easier. My own custom Bob Jackson tourers are rarely ridden unladen and I've chosen similar angles for them - when you are coming off a Pyreneen col at 50 mph with front and rear panniers you'll be glad of it trust me;-) The seat-angle is classic tourer varying from 74 to 72 degrees as you move to larger sizes. The bottom-bracket height is likewise pretty standard touring bike. The forks are unicrown, tapered Chro-Moly. Tyre clearance is simply massive - I don't think you'll find any tyre that won't fit...
What this doesn't tell you is that the frame comes with just about every possible braze-on. Three sets of bottle cages, low-rider mounts, chain-hanger, pump-peg, all rack mounts and even a carrier for three spare spokes. The drop-outs are forged with the rear being of the 'hooded' type and the welding/brazing/alignment spot on. In fact the whole frame is very similar to the Surly LHT 26” version and certainly of the same quality and spec – this is very high praise. Paint finish is excellent and very 'classic' I loved it.
Now here it's important to remember that we are looking at a bike that sells for £850. In terms of quality, build and spec you could easily spend that much at a custom frame builder to get the same quality of frame - but just the frame... How could it be improved? Well of course there are steels available that have far higher UTS (Ultimate Tensile Strength) and Yield Strength (the point at which something will bend permanently) but here's the thing – all steels have the same Young's Modulus – i.e. all are equally stiff. These better steels will allow you to make thinner, lighter tubes with the same strength BUT those tubes will be less stiff.
To illustrate this – if you built the Ridgeback's frame from Reynolds 853 tubing – over twice as strong as 520, the frame would ride exactly the same as the 520 frameset and be exactly the same weight. It would be stronger of course, but no stiffer or in any way a different feel. Now we've used BB Specials for 20 years now and the fleet has covered over 2,000,000 miles. We have never had a frame failure, so as far as I am concerned, in the gauges used for touring 520 has all the strength you need. A major crash? Perhaps the 853 might do better, but in 20 years ours have had plenty of tumbles.
In order to benefit from 'super-steel' you'd either have to make the tubes thinner walled to make an equally strong, lighter but less stiff frame, or make the tubes thinner walled but bigger diameter so retaining the stiffness and strength but gaining a little weight saving.
My point is that 520 is 'good enough' – the gains from using better steels are marginal in terms of weight, and pretty irrelevant in terms of strength because in the gauges needed for a stiff touring frame 520 is strong enough. If 531 has been the standard for touring frames for 70 years its modern equivalent is just fine for the rest of us today:-)
Forgive me, but I'm not going to go on about all the Shimano kit – it just works. The one thing I would say, is that in 30 years of testing bikes this is the first off-the-peg touring bike I've every tested with the mega-low gear a cycletourist needs – maybe not every day, or even every trip, but one day, climbing a steep hill fully loaded at the end of a long day the rider will click into that 28->36 chainring/sprocket and twiddle up something instead of pushing. With 27 gears to play with surely other manufacturers could help us out in the same way for heaven sake...
Once out on the road one factor dominates all else – the tyres. The Marathon Cross tyres are a heavily treaded tyre that rides like a ¾ worn MTB tyre. Any tyre that whines on the road is going to be achingly slow and so the Marathon's proved. I'm sure Ridgeback wanted the emphasise the 'go-anywhere' nature of the bike, but something with this much tread really only comes into its own on grass or mud where you need a tread to cut into the surface and those situations are going to be rare on most tours. It's a bit like BMW putting serious off-road tyres on the X5 – yes it would look macho and be great off-road but for the vast majority of owners for the vast majority of the time it would kill the handling and economy of the car.
So much did they dominate the bike that I though it unfair to continue the test in that manner. I stripped off the Marathons and fitted the 1.5” section Schwalbe Spicer semi-slick tyres that we fit to the BB Specials. These are cheaper than the Marathons and I'm sure a bike shop would swap them for free on purchase and I would strongly recommend you do so.
Thus shod the bike was transformed. The bike became far more lively and responsive and gave much more confidence on-the-road. The semi-slicks gave plenty of cushioning for the cycle-paths I tried and had all the grip I needed on them even when it got a bit muddy with autumn leaves.
The comparison with the BB Specials was interesting. The BB Specials felt a bit more springy and alive – the Ridgeback stiff to the point of being like a garden gate. On the road, personally I preferred the standard 520 tube sizes, and from years of experience I know that the BB Special will also handle considerable loads without shimmy. Loading up the Ridgeback the impression was that you could put everything including the kitchen sink on and it still would be rock solid. In fact the ride reminded me a lot of my own Bob Jackson expedition tourer. This I had built 20 years ago and I gave the brief to Bob Jackson that I wanted something that could carry front and rear panniers, a tent and tow a baby trailer with two kids in. The result was a frame in oversized, tandem weight 531 which was absolutely solid. It was based on a design they'd done for someone doing a round-the-World ride and I could believe it. The Ridgeback gave that same feel of masses of stiffness in reserve – this bike is never going to flex or wobble or give you moment's grief no matter what you load on to it.
Overkill? Yes and no. I think that for 90% of the time the standard 520 frames will do just fine and feel a bit more lively and springy but the Ridgeback is a superb ride, the caveat is that the tubes are the same diameter for the 60 cm and 50 cm bikes - the 60 is actually really lovely to ride and quite springy, but on the tighter, smaller frame (which inevitably will need stiffness less) it is a bit over-the-top. But it's a compromise and the Ridgeback, in sacrificing a little ride comfort and feel, has produced a true RTW capable frame at a stupid price.
For me, bikes like the BB Special, LHT, and now Ridgeback Expedition come closer to a do-anything, go-anywhere bike than anything else. A bike you could ride round the world is also perfectly suited to the cut-and-thrust of town cycling, or the trip to the shops when you suddenly realise that you've bought rather more than you intended. The caveat is that in every case you need to fit the appropriate tyres. Yes the Ridgeback bought its phenomenal stiffness at the cost of a little weight (it's about 800 grams heavier than a BB Special) but far more important are the tyres. Fit some slicks and pump them up and the Expedition will feel suitably lively that someone coming from a more conventional tourer, a Galaxy or indeed a Ridgeback Voyager will not find it a drag and yet the ultimate capabilities are well beyond those conventional tourers... It's interesting that Dawes have introduced their own 26” tourer in the C2C, but the use of disc brakes makes it less suitable for expedition touring, the build kit is of lower spec and the price is £100 more – a knockout for the Ridgeback. I look forward to more competitors!
As delivered it is a flat-barred tourer, but because the downtube is fitted with proper braze-ons with cable adjuster the conversion to a drop handlebarred tourer would be fairly painless and I can see a few shops doing this as a reasonably priced upgrade as the flat bars/gear changers etc could be sold on.
So – planning a round the World tour? The Expedition provides the frame, fit it with better racks and a better wheel set and off you go – you could spend £3000 on a bike and not have something that was fundamentally better. Want a commuter bike – well it has it all out-of-the-box, something for a weekend away – again it'll do it in style. And if you really do want to do some serious rough-stuff on a Sunday then you might even find a use for those Cross tyres. If I'm being honest with myself I think it's a better all-round tourer than my Bob Jackson heavyweight and that does hurt just little.
I'm hugely impressed. Great value, classic kit and well thought out, this is the bike I've been waiting for someone to produce for the 20 years that I've been forced to undergo the hassle and costs of making what I consider the perfect 'BB Special'...