Last updated: January 2nd, 2023
If you’ve ever waded into bike geek territory, then you might have stumbled across Rivendell Bicycle Works.
Based in Walnut Creek, CA, they make some unique and beautiful bikes for basically everything but racing and stunts. The brand has a bit of cachet in some circles, and a relatively small but dedicated following.
Rivendell bikes aren’t cheap, and they’re tough to find.
But are they worth it? After owning two, here’s how I’d anwer.
Rivendell bikes are expensive but well worth their price for certain types of riders. They are excellent if you appreciate steel frames and more traditional components, but don’t race or ride aggressively off-road. Rivendell frames are also ideal if you prefer their long, relaxed geometry which very few other brands use.
Rivendell bikes are expensive because of high-end craftsmanship, but if budget is a concern, some modern steel bikes are good alternatives, as are vintage touring and mountain bikes.
Choose a mainstream brand instead if you want minimal weight, extreme strength, or certain modern components like disc brakes and suspension. You might also prefer a shorter bike with a higher bottom bracket for technical trail riding.
Let’s take a closer look at the pros, cons, and “ideal” rider (if there is such a thing) for Rivendell bikes.
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What your money buys you
I’ve owned two Rivendell bikes: a single-speed Quickbeam for all-around fun followed by a Clem Smith, Jr. primarily for commuting.
I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing and trying others in person, and can make at least a few generalizations that you might find helpful.
Reliably traditional designs
Every Rivendell frame is steel. I don’t know (or frankly care about) the details of the tubing, but it’s chromoly steel of high quality across the board.
Check out this page for their own run-down, but here are the main advantages I see.
- Steel handles bumps and dents better than anything
- Steel fails rarely, slowly, and gracefully–especially compared to carbon fiber
- Steel can be repaired, even by an average welder if you’re really in a pinch
Many would argue that steel frames are more “supple” or “vibration-dampening” than other materials.
That’s probably true if you tested frame tubing on some laboratory contraption.
In real life, it’s actually the last reason I lean toward steel bikes. Geometry and tire choice make a much larger difference in how the road feels under you.
To me, at least, the bullet points above are the bigger factors in frame material.
Another traditional thing I appreciate is the use of quill stems. These are vanishingly rare on modern-day bikes, especially high-end ones. The strong racing influence has prioritized stiffness above all else, which means quill stems have (mostly) given way to threadless ones.
That’s not to say that threadless stems are bad. They just sacrifice extensive and convenient adjustment for more stiffness than most riders need.
Ironically, brands like Specialized and Cannondale are sticking ~1″-travel suspension inside their stems of certain gravel and road bikes. They’re engineered so much flex out that they’re engineering it back in!
It’s not apples to apples, of course, but I’d prefer to err toward simplicity and let the inherent flex of a steel quill stem do its thing!
Simply beautiful work
Every single one I’ve seen was downright beautiful up close and personal. Same goes for all the other models I’ve seen in person, too. It’s not cheap to use gorgeous lugs and create flawless welds and brazing.
Painting the frames costs a pretty penny, too.
(The paint may chip over time in a way that powder coating wouldn’t, but you can argue that that’s part of the charm, as with a broken-in leather wallet or gradually faded pair of jeans.)
Whether you buy a Taiwan-, USA-, or older Japan-made frame, this quality applies across the board. There are no shortcuts, period. As far as I can tell, the only objective manufacturing difference is more or fewer lugs. Lugs increase labor costs and therefore prices, but that’s more of an aesthetic choice than a functional one.
(Almost) one-of-a-kind frame geometry
The aesthetics are neat, and frankly, I don’t mind paying for them. Rivendells also tend to hold their value better than mass-market bikes. Perhaps that’s just a function of scarcity, but it’s worth noting anyhow.
But the real differentiation, in my book, is their geometry.
Being comfortable on a bike is basically a function of being upright. That’s not to say we all need to sit bolt upright, although that’s nice around town. The point is that being in a racer-style forward bend just doesn’t feel good.
If you just stick upright bars on an average road bike, it will most likely feel atrocious. You’ll get a weirdly “light” feel to the steering and perhaps a harsher feel in the back over bumps. The short chainstays, short top tube, and steep head and seat tube angles assume you’ll lean far forward.
Rivendell bikes are optimized for anything from a modestly to a very upright position.
That’s accomplished through basically the opposite geometry: long chainstays, a long(er) top tube, and relaxed head and seat tube angles.
In fact, Rivendells have the longest chainstay lengths of any production bikes I know of. Bad for carrying through tight staircases and cramped apartments, but marvelous for everything else!
This amounts to a steadiness and comfort that I struggled to find on other bikes.
It’s surprisingly hard to explain until you ride one.
The one caveat here is that ultra-long wheelbases (and low bottom brackets) can be a bit of a handful on tight, twisty trails. Their beefier models are more than sturdy enough, but they’re not optimized for it. If that’s the majority of your riding, then a more typical cyclocross or mountain frame may be a better choice.
Proven, timeless parts
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Classic bike parts like friction shifters and rim brakes and quill stems have worked awfully well for decades. They’re not the pinnacle of performance, but then again, most of us don’t need the pinnacle of performance!
When cycling is transportation and/or relaxed outdoor fun, it’s better to have reliable and easy-to-fix parts than more sophisticated black boxed.
Ironically, these “retro” parts are sort of future-proof, too.
What disc brake mounting standard will prevail in five years? What steerer and handlebar clamp diameters will be the norm? How many rear gears will we have?
I don’t know.
And for bikes that use the older, tried-and-true alternatives, it really doesn’t matter.
What you might miss on a Rivendell
In practice and in principle, Rivendell is diametrically opposed to most of the bicycle industry these days.
Speaking as a practical city cyclist who’s tired of race-driven everything, I think that’s terrific. I’m thrilled that they’re well into their third decade of business (as of writing) and I wish them many more!
But if you do want to ride aggressively off-road, or race on any terrain, then you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
It’s no secret that they’re expensive bikes.
Now, they’re nothing like the eye-watering $10k price tags on the latest Specialized/Trek/Giant/Cannondale racing bikes, but they’re not cheap.
A complete Clem Smith, Jr. runs something like $1,650, and that’s the “cheap” model. Other will run closer to $3,000 with comparable builds, and can easily go up from there.
To be clear, cheap is relative, since there is absolutely nothing cheap about that bike or any of theirs. It just skips the most labor-intensive frame features and some cool-but-unnecessary component options. Mine rode like a sporty Cadillac, but 1,000x more fun and 100,000x more sustainable. Give or take.
It’s possible to snag a used one, but demand usually outstrips supply. Even new Rivendells have a way of selling out quickly.
The lightest materials (namely carbon fiber) are simply counter to Rivendell’s philosophy.
They say that “steel is real” and there’s some truth to it.
I don’t race, and my own fitness is more of a limitation than a couple pounds of bicycle weight. And with racks and lights loaded bags on there, the frame’s weight ceases to matter.
But others see it differently, and that’s all right.
So, if bare-minimum weight is a criterion for you, then there are a lot of other options to choose from. Some of them, like the racier Wabi Cycles single-speeds, are even fully steel or steel frame/carbon fork designs.
Certain “modern” features
Thirty seconds on their website will make it clear that Rivendell doesn’t do disc brakes or suspension or ultra-stiff frame engineering.
All signs say they never will.
Personally, I share their perception that those things are overrated outside of very specific circumstances.
They’re not worthless. It’s just that for most cyclists most of the time–and that includes just about every recreational or utilitarian city rider–their cost and complexity outweigh their value.
But if your situation demands either, then you’ll need to choose another brand. Most manufacturers even have steel-framed touring and gravel bikes with disc brakes, so that’s an easy criterion to satisfy. And suspension is par for the course on mountain and “crossover” bikes, so the major brands have you covered there, too.
3 cheaper Alternatives to Rivendell bikes
So, you’re basically sold on the Rivendell ethos of comfortable, steel bikes with time-tested components…but the price is an issue.
I feel you.
Now, nothing has ridden exactly like either of my Rivendells. There’s no magic, but there is some unique and thoughtful design that almost nobody else seems inclined to replicate.
That said, I’ve found a few alternatives worth considering. You could say they’re 70% or 80% of the experience for, well, much less than 70% or 80% of the price. Whether that’s sufficient depends on what drew you to this brand in the first place.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but I hope it’s a useful starting point.
For commuting, urban & general all-around riding: Brooklyn Bicycle Co. Franklin/Willow
Brooklyn Bicycle Co. was directly inspired by Rivendell’s city bike designs.
In fact, Rivendell founder/owner Grant Petersen directly guided the design of a few of their models. Those are the Franklin and Willow, and I suspect (but don’t know) it also applies to the Bedford and Driggs.
Those models share the signature long chainstays, extended top tube for swept-back bars, and tall head tube for (mostly) upright posture. The difference is that complete bikes start at a little over half the price of a Clem Smith, Jr. frame.
To be clear, they don’t offer the beautiful design flourishes or high-end parts of a Rivendell. They cost less for a reason. But after riding a Franklin for years, I can attest that you do get a similar fit and feel to a Rivendell that costs 3-6x more.
There are plenty of other steel city bikes, several of which I’ve owned or tested, but none match Brooklyn’s “Rivendell-y-ness.”
For drop bars/disc brakes: Surly Long Haul Trucker/Disc Trucker
Brooklyn bikes are all made with upright bars in mind. I think that’s perfect.
But not everyone does, and that’s fair enough.
Surly is one of those alternative brands that got so big you can’t really call it an “alternative” anymore. But if anyone has made steel bikes mainstream(-ish), it’s Surly.
And until Rivendell started selling relatively affordable complete bikes a few years ago, the Surly Long Haul Trucker was the default “poor man’s Rivendell.”
It’s a wildly popular drop-bar touring bike in its own right, too. More recently, it comes in a disc option called (appropriately enough) the Disc Trucker.
I’ve only test-ridden one, so take my opinion with a grain of salt here. However, it had a stout quality that I would surely have appreciated with a heavy load, but couldn’t quite get excited about when riding unladen.
Fortunately, their longevity and popularity has made them easy to find secondhand. They’re getting easier to find brand new in bike shops, as well.
And if the Long Haul Trucker’s price is still pushing the envelope, then check out the Marin Four Corners. For about a grand, you’ll get something close to Rivendell- or Trucker-like geometry with a chromoly frame and fork. It also has disc brakes, if that’s your thing.
Another option is the Jamis Aurora, which comes equipped with a rack and fenders for less than a thousand bucks. It’s slightly shorter and more aggressive than anything I’ve mentioned so far, but I can’t think of a better value for drop-bar steel touring bikes bikes.
For tinkering (or tight budgets): vintage touring bikes
In most large cities, you can find a steel touring bike from the 1980s for $150-$300. That’s usually your cheapest way
Fuji and Trek seem the most common at good prices, but there are many others. As long as you stick to North American and Japanese brands (since their components are the easiest to replace) it’s hard to go terribly wrong.
That pretty much exhausts my knowledge of vintage touring bikes, but you can find encyclopedic resources online once you have a local bike or two in mind.
Should you buy a Rivendell?
Rivendell bikes use remarkably well-made frames that should last essentially forever. Naturally, this comes with a high price tag and (slightly) higher weight, although both are easy to justify. Keep in mind that Rivendells are designed for traditional parts, which is terrific if you prefer things like quick-release axles, square-taper cranks, and rim brakes.
When a brand commands hefty prices for deliberately low-tech bikes, they’re tapping into something significant.
In Rivendell’s case, it’s the desire for simple and beautiful bicycles that are a pleasure to ride in non-extreme, non-aggressive, non-race-y ways.
If that’s what you’re looking for, then nobody delivers better than Rivendell. The Clem Smith, Jr. and Roadini are relatively good deals. The Sam Hillborne and Homer Hillsen are perhaps the most popular of several pricier (but exquisite) all-around alternatives. More recent models like the Gus Boots Willsen venture into mountain bike territory. And the list goes on…
If you’d rather spend less, and can’t find one secondhand, then there are much more affordable options, too. I believe Brooklyn Bicycle comes the closest in ride quality, and is a terrific value. The Surly Long Haul Trucker/Disc Trucker, along with several other modern and vintage brands, will also give a similar feel for potentially less money.
After owning or testing all the above, they’re not quite the same.
But will they let you happily and affordably “just ride” (as the excellent book is titled)?