Since I’m not riding because of travel and now a rather unfortunately timed snowstorm, it’s time for some filler. I wrote this review about a year ago and posted it on Flickr. I thought I’d move it over here to start my series on my bikes past and present.
If you look through my Flickr, you’ll see that I’ve rarely written more than a few sentences about any of my bikes past or present, but the change in mindset that this bike has caused deserves more than a paragraph.
I’m going to preface this review with a quick synopsis of my evolution as a rider.
Setting aside all the time I rode before I got my driver’s license, I’ve been riding since moving to New York City in 1998. For the first 10 years, I was a commuter riding about 50-60 miles per week. Inspired by Rivendell, I got serious in 2008. My first bike was a 650B Saluki in full Rivendell style–high bars, racks, bags…Grant Petersen’s dream bike. I quickly found that it was sluggish and not a lot of fun to ride, plus I was not a fan of high handlebars, platform pedals, or heavy steel. After only about 6 months I purchased a Toei on E-Bay. Big improvement, and I finally discovered the joys of riding clipless. I very quickly went from riding at a rate of about 2400 miles/year to almost 8000.
The Toei wasn’t the right size, so I ordered an Herse, which was a revelation in terms of fit and performance. Not to mention that it’s a gorgeous bike. During this time I experimented with other bikes that were quickly sold.
Except for the first few months, I’ve kept close track of my miles since 2008, and I’m up to just under 34,000. Most of my miles and time on the bike is spent on rides of 50 miles or more, and when I’m not traveling I prefer rides that are much longer than that.
So…I’m not the most experienced cyclist, nor am I the fastest cyclist, but I put in a lot of reasonably fast miles, usually in hilly terrain and with as much gravel and back roads as I can find.
Why am I telling you all this? This bike, which was built by Rob English, is the product of that experience. Previously I had thought the ideal distance bike was a low-trail steel randonneur with racks, a handlebar bag, and fenders.
After only 500 miles, the English turned my world upside down.
This bike was built to be the ultimate long-distance bike: It’s not a racer, nor is it a tourer or a randonneur. it’s a hybrid of all of the above. I should explain the geometry: I crushed a disc in my neck about 4 years ago as a result of a cycling accident (big pothole, high speed, long story). So I have a significant range of motion limitation that necessitates a bike with less drop than usual. My preferred kind of riding is long distance at a reasonably fast pace in all kinds of weather on backroads. It involves a lot of gravel, big hills, and really broken up pavement. For this reason, I asked Rob for a bike that would be comfortable for ultra-long distances, and relatively stable when I’m dead tired or when I’m shaking with hypothermia. It’s not regular race bike geometry. The bike as currently set up fits only up to 25 mm tires (26 mm actual), but with a change to an Enve fork I could fit up to 29 mm tires (the biggest that will fit under the eeBrakes).
The first time I rode the bike was after an 11-day business trip, during which I didn’t ride or exercise at all. I had rode hard all winter, and it was a short 20-mile ride. I felt like I was flying. My first thought wasn’t “this bike is amazing,” instead, I thought, “wow, fresh legs really make a difference! I should try to take more recovery time.”
After 500 miles, I finally realized that it was the bike, not fresh legs. I understood why some riders on 9W appeared to be passing me so effortlessly when I was riding a randonneur. Over both short and long distances, I am significantly and measurably faster on this bike and it is no less comfortable than either of my randonneurs. I descend faster and with more confidence, and I climb faster than I ever have before. I spend 90% of my time in the big ring, as opposed to a 50/50 ratio of big to small on the randonneurs.
Is it the light weight or something else? I don’t know, I’m just measuring results.
Coming to this conclusion wasn’t easy for me. I spent many years wrapped up in the randonneur mindset, and of course I spent a lot of money and time on randonneurs. The first hint that fat-tired road bikes weren’t for me was when I switched the Toei from 32 mm tires to 23 mm tires and noticed a measurable improvement in speed and handling.
I don’t regret buying the randonneurs, and I will continue to ride them–they have a place on rides that are primarily gravel or rough back roads, or when it’s pouring out and I need fenders. That’s probably 40% to 50% of my rides, anyway. But this is my go to bike when I want to ride long, fast, and hard. It is indeed possible to have a bike that is ultralight, reasonably durable, and comfortable for long distances.
What if I could only have one bike? I think it’s fair to say that it would still be the Herse. It does everything well, and there are certainly plenty of situations where a bike like the English wouldn’t be appropriate, such as really rough roads/trails, heavy rain, or any ride where I have to carry my own gear and food for hundreds of miles. Thankfully I don’t have to make that choice!
It’s 13.9 lbs as shown, 12.9 lbs with my tubular wheelset. Super Record shifters and derailleurs, Calfee integrated bar/stem, Extralite headset, Scapula SP fork, THM M3 crankset, and eeBrakes. Clincher wheels are Stan’s NoTubes with Alchemy hubs and C4 skewers; tubular wheelset is Dash hubs, AX Lightness SRT42, and (right now) Dugast 25 mm tubular tires. I now have a Enve 3.4 clincher wheelset. Keo Carbon Blade pedals.
Very nice bike. it’s funny you posted this today, because I saw a Vsalon post by you mentioning the English, and I was curious. I would love to get my hands on a Saluki or Bleriot for the slow rambles around town and stuff. I’m really enjoying your Blog. Thanks for sharing.
Nice review. You get very close to making the case for “re-thinking” the randonneur bicycle, I think. By that I mean: you are impressed with the English as a go long and hard bike, but there are still some elements of the traditional bikes that you like. What if you could have the English with fatter tires and fenders. Would that be your “one bike?”
Thanks! Actually, Rob is building me a similar bike but for 650B tires (42 mm Hetres). No fenders, though.
John – I linked to this post on VSalon today in light of Rob winning best in show at NAHBS. Hoping you can give a review of your new 650 when you get it.
Your bike remains the inspiration for what I am hoping to order. I may just ask if he can manage to make it breakable for travel…
Hope the riding is all good.
Thanks for this review John, I’ve been so curious about this bike since you started posting pictures of it. One thing I’d like to know: What is your gearing here?
Hi — the gearing is 48/34, 12/27. It could definitely use more low end around here, though.
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I don’t know how I got here, but I have to say your bike is stunning! I love everything about it. Congrats!