PEZ Reviews: Ritchey Carbon Break-Away Bike

Ritchey’s Carbon Break-Away is a full sized road frame designed for easy travel, but it’s an impressive performer that could easily become a daily ride. It’s built to perform at levels most of us will love, delivering a level of comfort to take on the longest epic, with handling and speed to keep you in the hunt at your local club race.

 

 

Ritchey’s Carbon Break-Away is their first full carbon road frame – and the ONLY carbon road frame in their line up.  It’s sold as a frameset only, and they don’t even offer a non-breakaway carbon road frame, nor do they plan to (at least as of this writing) – an intended statement to show just how much they believe in the breakaway concept.


There’s nothing as pretty as a freshly built bike, just waiting for that first ride.

Anyone who’s been around cycling since the 80’s pretty much knows about Tom Ritchey – he was part of that small crop of adventurers along with Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher and few others who basically invented mountain biking.  As a cyclist, and as an inventor, Tom Ritchey fully pursued his passion and began first building some of the best mountain bikes around (in the mid-1980’s I saved up about $1000 to buy a top of the line Ritchey Montare in cherry red painted full chromoly steel – it was also offered in a forest green -).  He started a company that’s evolved into developing specialized components for off-road, and road cycling.  His designs have always been known for high quality, good value, and very often ingenious thinking.

Ritchey’s road line now includes a full steel road frame, a carbon-titanium frameset, a steel break-away frameset, and this full carbon break-away – further evidence that Tom likes to keep things simple, and improve only where he knows he can make a difference.

Before I got into this bike’s tech, I had to know “why no full carbon road frame?”  The answer was simple – Tom believes his Carbon Break-Away frame fully delivers the ride qualities he wants, and is as good as a one-piece road frame would be.  The costs to develop additional moulds for a run of multi-sized carbon frames are not cheap either, so in keeping with the long standing Ritchey value proposition, this one makes sense on all fronts.

Start with the FRAME
As a breakaway travel bike, this frame was one of the most interesting, and one of the most fun to ride bikes I’ve tested.  The frame separates (and joins) at the seat collar, and in the down tube just above the bottom bracket – held together with just three bolts.  Fully built, it comes apart in a couple of minutes, and goes back together in just a few more – less if you practise a few times.

One of Tom’s design strengths is his traditional approach to making things better, or maybe it’s his approach to improving a traditional design, but this bike is not about fancy angles or tube shapes.  It’s about taking a proven platform and tweaking small parts to Tom’s personal tastes, then sharing this with the rest of us.

The frame is a bonded lugged carbon design, using a moulded carbon lug at the headtube, and inserted aluminum lugs at the seat tube and bottom bracket to best handle the clamping stresses of the breakaway coupling system.  The frames are made overseas in a facility that also produces for some very high end brands, and Ritchey’s been developing its carbon production for several years now to find the best suppliers for Ritchey branded gear.  From a consumer perspective, fierce competition in the cycling biz has pushed carbon production to the highest levels of quality ever – which means that there are a lot of bikes made to very good standards from very good quality processes and materials.   Ritchey is one of these, and while their own carbon materials selection and layup schedules are proprietary, they’ve chosen the best mix of stiffness and comfort for the ride Tom wants you to experience. What else do you need to know?

Tube shapes are traditional round carbon tubes, and chosen for each frame size.  The head tube uses 1.125 bearings on top and on the bottom, and connects to the top- and down-tubes via carbon lug.  The downtube is big and round – an efficient and economic use of the world’s simplest all-round tube shape – Tom says that a round tube is the stiffest and most efficient shape under torsion.


The raw lugs are made from the best material for each location: steel for the bottom bracket, carbon at the head tube, aluminum at the seat junction and downtube coupler.

The front triangle tubes are traditional straight-tube shapes (ie: no fancy flares, curves or bends here) and are “Right Sized”, meaning that smaller tube diameters and more compliant layups are used to deliver a ride not unlike good ol’ steel (a material near and dear to Tom’s heart), but at a lower weight.  The frame shown here weighed 1520grams (3.35lbs) – a perfectly acceptable weight for anyone who loves to ride.

Tubes are designed for durability too, (we’re not talking about paper thin walls and brittle here) so as you’d expect they come in at a slightly higher weight, but this only adds to the overall ride comfort.

The frame angles are Tom’s “classic” geometry –  which is a fairly ‘neutral’ design – and based on his 40 years of frame building, he knows what he likes.   It has a slightly sloping top tube – enough to look cool without being too aggressive.  My size Small tester has a 75 degree seat tube and 72 degree headtube angles – both adding to its ‘quick but stable’ overall feel.

The ride qualities are defined by Ritchey’s own carbon layup and fibre orientation choices, and the result is a bike that’s built for all kinds of riding.

The rear triangle features some nice curves that do more than just look good… the slightly curved wishbone design flexes vertically to kill road buzz, but resists sideways deflection to keep power transfer efficient.  The dropouts are aluminum – which just makes more sense on a bike that’s gonna be subjected to some time with the airline baggage apes.  It’s a proven design and beautifully executed by Ritchey.


The derailleur hangar is replaceable – another no brainer.

 

The down tube is joined by a steel coupler – the clamp bolts around two aluminum sleeves that are inserted into each end of the downtube at its connection point.  It’s a Ritchey patented design that’s intended to be used without grease.  After a few months, I noticed an occasional creak, which I remedied by cleaning and retightening.

The frame comes apart as essentially the front a rear triangle, which then fits easily into the travel case that comes with the bike.  (See more on that below.)

The top tube extends back from the head tube and flows seamlessly into the seat collar…

The seat collar coupler doubles as the seat tube clamp, and secures with two 5mm hex bolts, that clamp around an inserted aluminum sleeve to ensure nothing breaks from over tightening.


The cable couplers can be tightened by hand, and the tidy cable routing is external to make disassembly easy.

The cable couplers are really a thing of beauty that can be screwed together by hand.  In six months of riding, I had only one come loose.

 

The fork is Ritchey’s own design WCS Carbon fork, and built to their own carbon layup specs and with a pretty standard 43mm axle offset.  It’s a classic look, with a slight curve as the blades sweep forward and narrow towards the dropouts.  It’s not overly stiff by any means, but I liked that it works in perfect harmony with the frame to deliver the overall solid but comfortable ride, while keeping the bike tracking predictably through the full range of turns, climbs & descents, whether seated, standing, or sprinting.


ZETA II Wheels

Ritchey have been making wheels for almost as long as they have everything else bike-related, and while they might not be top-of-mind in the uber-competitive wheel biz, the more time I spend with all things Ritchey, the more I come to realize that pretty much anything Tom offers for sale is the result of his usual meticulous level of “thinking it through” and adjusting the designs ever so slightly to make a product that’s just better than so many brands settle for – that’s Ritchey “Logic” for you.  These Zeta II wheels are no different.

For starters – the set’ll run you just $800.  Yep – that’s right.  But don’t be fooled by the ‘inexpensive’ price tag – these hoops punch well above their weight in performance.

The ZETA II’s are an aluminum rimmed, low profile 24mm tall rim, steel spoked tubeless ready clincher.  The 17mm internal width is wide enough to allow the tire to open and sit more naturally in the rim with better connection to the sidewall, allowing the tire to perform as it was designed to.  Even in this carbon-dated era, aluminum continues to be an awesome material for wheels – and depending on how you look at it – the best.  It’s light, it’s plentiful, it’s easy to manufacture, it dissipates heat like no other,  provides enough sidewall strength to handle very high tire pressures, and this set of alu wheels are well within even the tightest budget.

No rim strip required – yet there’s a rim strip.   This is an added level of safety that Ritchey thinks is good to insulate the tubes from too hot rims if you like long, steep descents – like the Stelvio. On a tandem.

The rims use hidden head J-bend spoke all spokes, no rim strip required. Brake tracks are nicely machined and have shown very little wear after several months of spring & summer riding. The wheels use 24 spokes each, and I weighed the set at 1460 grams (the front at 630grams, 830g for the rear – both without skewers), making a perfectly competitive weight wheel set suitable for all conditions.

The rear wheel features Ritchey’s OCR offset spoke pattern to reduce dish and allow more even spoke tension to both sides of the hub, and a larger bracing angle of the drive side spokes.

The hubs are also Ritchey’s own design and use their Phantom flange – a forged flange where the spoke head nests, to support spoke heads in a spot where they usually fail.  Spokes are by DT Swiss, so you know they’re good, and the hubs weigh 195gm for the set.

The cassette comes off with no tools (just a small amount of elbow grease), which makes packing these wheels a breeze in Ritchey’s travel case.  On my first attempt to pack the Break-Away, I skimmed over the instructions (…as one does) and placed the rear wheel into the case first, hub side down.  Once I’d added in the front wheel and frame pieces, I noticed that the stack of these parts was just a bit too tall for my liking.  Upon removing the pieces, the rear wheel hub body basically slipped out on its own (my “eureka” moment), allowing me to lay the hub-less rear wheel flush with the bottom of the case and making enough space so that the rest of the bike went in sans incident.  This features also makes for easy maintenance and parts replacement.

One thing I really like about these wheels is knowing that real people built ’em.  Here’s the tag that came with my testers – dated, signed and certified  by “Kim”.  I once built up my own set of wheels, and learning the nuances of assembling a wheel and the fine adjustments needed to make it true and correctly tensioned forever changed the way I now perceive wheels.  Knowing that my wheels were built by hand under the watchful eye of a skilled technician immeasurably adds to the quality and enjoyment of my ride.  This tag is proof it was done right, and if there’s an issue, here’s a record and a real person who can answer it.

These have proven a great all-round training wheel.  First, shorn in 25mm rubber, the combo has proven one of the most comfortable wheels I’ve ridden.   Stiff enough for most conditions, but able to soak up and smooth out virtually any road surface I’ve encountered. I did notice a small amount of flex in extreme sprinting situations – but thankfully for me these only lasted a few fleeting seconds before I returned to a more civilized form of pedalling.

Along with almost every other part of this bike, Ritchey also makes tires, but just to be different, I went with Clement’s Strada LGG 25x 700 skins.  I’ve pretty much been a 23mm width guy to this point, but have been intriged by the promise of a bit more comfort that a wider tire offers. I originally mounted these back in February, and logged a bunch of miles in winter weather – which around here means rain and lots of grit on the roads.  The Italian brand named this one after the airport code for the Liege airport and harkens to the oldest Classic of them all- Liege-Bastogne-Liege… a solid moniker that’ll appeal to the ‘hard man’ in all of us.

The tires come is 23, 25 and 28mm widths and the tread pattern features a smooth center strip for fast rolling, nad chevron-styled tread on either side to help channel away water, and add some grip on the corners.

I’ve ridden these over all conditions – wet, dry, rough, smooth, and plenty of gravel path and dirt road sections on my local rides, and my overall riding impressions have been all good – and most importantly (although somewhat anecdotal) is that I ‘ve yet to flat on these.  I take that as testament to their durability.

 


I took the bike to Italy for some great rides at Lake Garda (GardaBikeHotel) and Cesenatico (Hotel Lungomare).


Packing For Travel
The big sell with the Break-Away system is travel: the full bike can be packed into an airline regulation-sized case, thereby avoiding those extortionist fees they charge for taking a regular sized bike case on the plane. I’ve packed enough bikes to know they never go in the same way twice, so I wondered what challenges awaited as I read through the one page of instructions that Ritchey provided. Seemed easy enough, but I also checked Youtube to find a couple small vids of others breaking the bike down, which was helpful- one guy even claimed he could break it down in 12 minutes.


Packing the bike was actually pretty easy (but do it once ahead of time for practise), and the case fits easily on an airport trolley – seen here behind my medium sized suitcase.

The frameset comes with the special travel case, which as a softshell case is pretty lightweight (lighter than my empty medium sized suitcase).  It has structured corners (made from sturdy plastic moldings), and comes with padded sleeves to wrap around all the tubes, a padded chainring cover, and a large padded insert to separate the wheels from the frame parts.  It also features multiple straps to secure the frame parts inside, and several handy pouches and pockets to store tools, skewers and more.  I used some of my own bubble wrap for the cassette and other parts.

Being my first time packing the bike, I blocked off an hour just in case I ran into some probs. And guess what – I had it all packed, zipped & strapped for travel in about half that time. I encountered one stumble with the wheels – the rear wheel axle depth was giving me a bit of grief stacking all the parts together, but I solved this one by simply pulling the Ritchey Zeta II’s axle and cassette unit out of the hub, allowing the rear wheel to lie flush along the bottom of the case.

The rest of the parts went in as shown in the instructions, and I had plenty of pockets and gaps left to stuff in extra gear like my helmet, shoes, small bag of tools, water bottles. Coming home from Italy, I even had space for two bottles of wine, a couple of balsamic vinegar, and more. Given the case’s soft-shell, I wondered how the bottles would travel – but I used bubble wrap and a couple of t-shirts as padding around the bottles, found them places in the case where they were surrounded by the protection of the frame parts and made sure they were not touching an outside edge of the case… and they arrived after two flights and 10.5 hours of airline travel with no problems.

Protecting the bike is easy as Ritchey supplies enough padding to wrap all the frame tubes. Pulling the case is easy too, thanks to two sealed bearing roller-blade wheels securely mounted into corner, and two easy grab handles on the outside. The whole thing was lighter than my actual suitcase, and I had no trouble rolling the bike case, my suitcase and a carry-on through the airport by myself.

The case seals up with a big zipper and three heavy duty straps. I used a small travel lock to secure the zipper, although it’s not designed with a designated lock ring, and I placed the two-way zipper under one of the big straps so it was tucked away from the on-coming baggage apes.

Overall travel with the case was way easier than I’ve experience before. The smaller case dimensions make it much easier to maneuver, the wheels are placed in the right spot, and the handles are placed correctly too. Give that the airline lost my other suitcase, I’m lucky the bike case made it through so I could at least comment on its durability across two intercontinental flights. It worked a charm – and showed no signs of wear or tear, scrapes or cuts, and everything inside arrived intact, and in place as I’d packed it.


 

The WCS Streem saddle ($159.95) and Superlogic Link Seatpost ($259.95) could not be more at home on this bike.  Touch points are key to ride quality, and there’s no guarantee that one designer’s choice in saddle OR seatpost will be right for you.  Saddle shapes vary as much as butt shapes, and much like shoes, I’ve seen over the years how even small variations in shape, padding, shell material, rail shape and material can influence how a saddle feels.

The WCS Streem is Ritchey’s most popular shape, and uses carbon rails suspended from the carbon saddle shell by their “Vector Wing” to allow for a better dispersion of forces to make a more comfortable ride because stress points are moved out to a wider area of the shell.  This one is also available with titanium rails or the Vector EVO monorail system. Padding is in the light-medium range, and the shape is fairly standard with a narrow nose and slim-enough body that I personally had no issues.  I found it quite comfortable, but  one thing I’ve learned over years of riding a lot of different bikes is that with proper adjustment, most saddles will work pretty well.

The Superlogic Link post here is a monocoque carbon 27.2 diameter (also offered in 30.9mm and 31.6mm sizes), and is offset 15mm.  The two-bolt alloy saddle mounting clamp is reversible to allow for a bigger range of fore-aft adjustment.  It comes in lengths of 350 & 400mm, and my tester weighed 145 grams.  My setup allowed for about 175mm of seat post length about the seat tube, and felt like the right combo of flex and stiffness throughout this test.

 

The Streem II handlebar ($299.95) is new for 2015, and comes with a shorter reach, more shallow drop traditional bend…

The bar tops sweeps slightly back from the center, the wide platform is actually aero shaped to meet UCI standards – a nice way to lower the frontal surface area for anyone looking for every advantage.  The curve at the drops allows for lever placement in a variety of angles, but I like a nice flat extension of the tops, and these accommodated perfectly to make a very nice flat straight platform.  The curve and length of the drops fit me perfectly, and I found myself spending a lot more time being low and aero than on a lot of other bars I’ve ridden.

Underneath the bars add to the wind-cheating with moulded grooves to get cables neatly tucked away -there’s enough room for both cables if you like.  I used Ritchey’s Superlogic Carbon C260 stem as a hi-zoot mate for the bars (another impressive piece of gear) – you can read my review of it here.

While the wide platform took a minor amount of getting used to, I quickly found these handlebars among the most comfortable I’ve ridden.  The large platform makes for a solid grip and the larger surface area feels good under the hands, and the carbon layup gives enough flex to dispense with most daily riding vibrations.  My 42cm testers have a 126mm drop and 70mm reach for a riding position that I don’t always get with standard issue bars, and allowed my SRAM levers to be always within my reach.

 

I built this one up with that SRAM Red22 groupset – pretty much my personal favorite gruppo for a bunch of reasons.  The Red group was first intro’d in 2012, and has been continually refined ever since.  Topping that list are the ergonmics of the levers and grips – they just fit my ‘medium-cadet’ sized hands better than other groups, and the adjustable lever reach makes them fit even better than that.

The front derailleur design is brilliant – as it sweeps though a small arc to better align with the range of chain angles as it moves across the gear range of the 11-speed cassette.

SRAM’s 1-1 Zero Loss shift mechanism is excellent as well – 1 mm of cable pull equals 1 mm of derailleur movement at the back, and the Zero Loss means that actuation is instant – with no lever flop or slop as you wait for it to engage the pull.  This makes for a very positive and engaged shifting system.

The 22 speed gruppo is another recent refinement, and SRAM has solved the issue of their early cassettes being noisy, while still making them very light.  The whole group weighs under 1750grams, making it the lightest SRAM group yet.

The brake design has changed considerably as well, and serves up excellent braking power and feel for both aluminum and carbon rims, with more power coming where you need it under harding braking situations.

 

RIDE IT
My first idea of the Ritchey Carbon Break-Away was that it was designed for travel, and then I wondered just how good a road bike this could be if it was designed for travel.  After several months of riding – and travelling with it, you can count me among the ‘yays’.   Before I broke it down for travel, I road it as a complete bike – and it immediately impressed me.   My biggest worry was how the coupling system would influence the overall ride, and I quickly saw (and over time the Ritchey proved) there was indeed nothing to worry about… at all.  There is simply no discernable flex coming from the coupling system.

So – the Break-Away rides like a one-piece framed road bike, which I noticed right away, and that inspired me to ride this bike a lot – in fact it’s become my daily ride over the past few months.

I took the bike to the Giro, for the official test of the travel-ability – and as I wrote above, it passed with flying colors.  But the riding is the most important part of any bike, and this Ritchey added a bunch of fun to my riding that I’d sort of forgotten about.  Maybe it’s because of the breakaway frame, but I really wanted to push this bike to its limits.  Not only did I ride it up super steep BB-bending climbs like the Carpegna, but then I dive-bombed long descents on it too – sweeping and swooping through turns, tucked into the drops with just one-finger poised on the stoppers.  I rode it for hours on my own, and for hours in big groups (and always got questions and compliments about the bike.)

You know how some bikes just fit you right?  I was surprised and impressed by how ‘at home’ I felt of the Ritchey from the get go.  It took just a couple rides to dial the set up to that often elusive point of feeling like I’d been riding this bike for years.  Tom Ritchey gets sizing, and his ‘logic’ to keeping things simple while making them better shines through with frame dimensions and geometry that should fit most riders well, and will feel fantastic.

The bike is well suited to a lot of different riding conditions – and would be a great choice for anyone looking for one bike to cover off most types of riding – from long epics, to varied surfaces – it handles itself with confidence from smooth to cobbles to gravel, and everything I found in between.  Unlike most of the road bikes at PEZ HQ, I found myself riding a lot of gravel and dirt on this one – mostly as short cuts, but I’ve also added a 3km section of dirt trail that softens the climb back home at the end of many rides – and until I tried it on the Break-Away – I only ever rode this section on a mountain bike.  Now it’s my go-to traffic avoidance route and to stay in the shade on hot days.

The ride is a mix of stability: descending the 15km backside of the Passo Di Carpegna on the wheel of our guide Elio (nothing like having a local show you the best lines on a fresh descent) the bike tracked true and steady as we swept through an endless series of fast turns – and agility: the solid main triangle, and tight rear wheel placement make this bike right at home going uphill.  Whenever standing or seated, I never felt like I was fighting this bike to fight the grade.  Acceleration in all situations is quick – thanks to the steeper seat tube, and pretty tight placement of the rear wheel, and also thanks to the Zeta II wheels which spin up without much delay.

Maybe the best part of this whole package is the price – just US$2999 for the frameset, fork, AND travel case.  And that means you can build up a pretty nice ride for somewhere under $6000.

Ritchey’s Carbon Break-Away is a full sized road bike designed for travel – but don’t think of it as a travel bike, think of it as a bike that’s easy to travel with.  And at a price like this, this bike deserves full consideration for anyone looking for a high quality, high value, high performance road bike – period.

• See more at the Ritchey Website

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