Upon learning that I purchased a new Ocean Air Cycles Rambler, several of my friends requested that I report on my impressions. This post is more in response to that than any attempt at an in-depth Bicycle Quarterly type extended road test. I’ve only had the bike rolling for a short time, but it is sufficiently different from my other bikes that it makes very clear impressions.
Immediately prior to acquiring the Rambler, I owned three Rivendell bicycles (A. Homer Hilsen, Quickbeam, and Atlantis). I sold the Atlantis to help fund this project. The point is that my impressions are from the perspective of one who has owned and enjoyed Rivendell bicycles for several years. This bike still rides like a bicycle, but it is really quite different, especially considering how I’ve built it up.
The frameset has (I think, but don’t know for sure) thinner walled, lighter, and (for sure) smaller diameter tubing. That makes for a more flexible frame. In my case as a relatively small, light, and unpowerful pedaler, it makes for a more “lively” feel. It also has low trail frame geometry which means it is intended to handle front loads better. My Rivendell framesets have all been lugged construction, but the Rambler (except the fork crown) is tig welded. Finally, this frameset includes a larger diameter head tube and non-threaded fork. So no quill stems like I’m used to on my Rivendells. The last major difference is that Paul Components centerpull brakes are included with the frameset. Oh wait, one more thing, the Sunflower Yellow is brighter than my other bikes. So even before we discuss how I’ve built up the bike, there are several significant differences.
The build approach makes an even stronger contrast with my Rivs. What is in common with my Rivs are the plump Compass tires, drop bars, downtube shifters, and platform pedals. The differences are the narrow Q factor wide range double crankset, my drop bars are narrower and lower, and my saddle is not a leather Brooks. For this build I wanted to try out the newer Brooks non-leather saddle.
So the heart of the bicycle (frameset) significantly different, and the build-up includes several significantly different characteristics as compared to my Rivs. Would I be pleased?
The Rambler frameset is attractive to me and appears to be well made. I like the look of lugs, but I believe that a good TIG welded frame is as strong and light (perhaps stronger and lighter) as a lugged frame. I own lugged frames because I like the decorative way they look. But one side of me admires the sparse, functional aesthetic as much as the decorative look. The welds are small and tidy. When I installed the wheels, they sat square in the dropouts. When I rode the bike for the first time no-handed, it tracked straight and without any compensating lean required. It was easy to build up, and I know that Rob spends some time preparing his frames to make this a joy for his customers.
Photos of this frameset online caught my attention, but it looks much better in person where you can see the subtle sparkle of metalflake in the paint. The combination of design, engineering, and craftsmanship on this frame appeals to my soul. The way I built it up with narrow cranks and bars, gives it a leaner, sportier look that I am enjoying. Even so, the frameset has similar relaxed angles and long-enough chainstays to give the same visually pleasing proportions I have always admired in my Rivs. How my bikes look is a big part of the fun for me. I am pleased with how the Rambler looks. But what about how it feels?
If you are a Bicycle Quarterly subscriber, you can already predict how I might describe the differences in how the bike handles and performs. As I rode the bike, so many of Jan’s words were recalled to my mind through the sensations experienced in the ride.
The narrower Q factor cranks feel like they induce a higher cadence and more efficient pedaling. I’m not sure they are any more “comfortable” to me, but not sufficiently different on a comfort scale to put into words.
The lower, narrower bars are quite noticeable, with certainly less air resistance, and not as comfortable as sitting up, but certainly not bad for (at least) short rides. The bike encourages a little more speed (pedal pressure) so weight on my hands hasn’t been a problem. The ability of my 55 year old back and neck to handle bars this low is yet to be determined. I haven’t been out on any really long rides yet. I’m hopeful, but uncertain about my current bar orientation, yet there are two reasons why I want to extend this experiment out for awhile. First, I’ve set the bars a little closer and reaching the drops is a little easier than in the past, and second, I’ve lost some belly fat lately so I can actually ride in the drops and BREATHE.
I don’t ride any major ups and downs, so brakes are not a defining issue for me. The Paul Component centerpull brakes look cool, and they work fine, but so do my other brakes. I’m just not that sensitive to brake performance.
Handling with the front load design is something I anticipated. I had a Kogswell P/R for several years, and I’m familiar with low trail front geometry. One of the motivations for pursuing a bike like the Rambler is that I missed having a bike set-up this way. The Rambler has handled my front load quite well, without shimmy (so far). Well, I actually was able to sort of induce shimmy at one point by riding downhill at moderate speed with no hands and using my body to vigorously (violently!) shake the front end. But I put a knee to the top tube and it settled down immediately, and didn’t come back until I shook the front end vigorously and induced it back again. Without abusing the stable frame, I have had no other shimmy, and I was able to carry a hefty (for me) front load and carve S turns no-handed down an incline with ease. The other things Jan describes with low trail front ends was also evident, such as easily changing lines in mid-curve, less side-wind sensitivity, and more low-speed stability.
The two big revelations for me were the liveliness of the skinny tubes and the comfort of the Brooks Cambium saddle. This frame is quite zippy. I believe I can ride and climb faster with less leg fatigue as compared to my Rivs. That doesn’t mean I always want to ride and climb faster, but I can if I want. To use the BQ terminology, this bike “planes” for me. To use my terminology, it feels lively and FUN. My Rivs are similar to a large, comfortable cruising sedan, and my Rambler is like a (insert your favorite small, manual five-speed, convertible here). The Brooks Cambium saddle is really comfortable for me. My guess is that the width is right and the smoother top-to-side transition curve works better with my body than the B17 with its more angular transition that I’ve been happy with. It’s weird, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my leather saddles, but somehow the Cambium disappeared even more. Surprising and delightful.
In summary, mission accomplished. I wanted to sacrifice my Atlantis, that was a little too large for me and a little sturdier than I needed, to add something more zippy. I wanted a bike that would allow me to extend my range for day rides, coffee brew-ups, and credit card tours. I wanted a bike to allow me to turn on a little speed if I happen to be feeling good that day. I wanted a bike to compliment my pretty, comfortable bikes with functional aesthetics and more sporting performance. The Ocean Air Cycles Rambler has definitely delivered everything I’d hoped it would. I might refine the build some over time, but I’m confident this bike has a place in my stable. Could this be my only bike? That’s a tough question, but I can tell you this. It would most definitely be on the short list.