First off, let me say this is not intended to be an objective “Consumer’s Report” type road test. The Sam Hillborne is one of my favorite personal bikes, I’ve been a devoted fan of Rivendell for many years, and they’ve been a major supporter of this website, so what follows is an admittedly biased and subjective take on my experience riding a favorite bike for the past 9 months. I’ll cover some technical details regarding the build, and I’ll touch on some of the concepts and priorities that went into designing this bike (as I understand them), but know that I’m talking about a bike that I’m enamored with for personal reasons that might not resonate for everyone.
Some Background on Rivendell Bicycle Works
Grant Petersen was Marketing Director and Bike Designer for Bridgestone Bicycles during the 1980s and early ’90s. His philosophy of bike design was unique for that era (and ours); he believed in building bikes and speccing components that were practical, versatile, durable, repairable, and timeless, regardless of current popular trends. He marketed their bikes with thought provoking, informative catalogs. Some of the bikes he designed during that era are highly sought after today. Bridgestone eventually pulled out of the U.S. market (as did other Japanese manufacturers), but Grant’s vision has been alive-and-well at Rivendell Bicycle Works since 1994. Here’s a brief history of the company as written by Grant:
From late ’84 to late ’94 I (Grant) designed and spec’d bicycles and worked on catalogues for the U.S. division of Bridgestone Cycle, Japan’s largest bike maker. Bridgestone closed the U.S. office after ten years of no profit, when the dollar-to-yen exchange rate plummeted to the point where it became impossible to even break even. I was 40, and started Rivendell with $89,000, a mix of retirement money, savings, loans, and money raised by selling stock to friends.
True to the cliche, Rivendell was in my garage for two years. Now we have 5,000 square feet at about $0.90 per square foot, one of the cheaper rents in town. We like it here a lot. It’s easy to get to, close to good food and riding, and it feels like home, except that summertime temperatures average 90F and are often over 100F, and winter days rarely get above 57F. We drive home this point before we hire you. We’ve been profitable two of the past twelve years, but cash flow is neutral. Sales are about $2.2 million dollars per year. We’re just breaking even, there are no top-heavy salaries, and we fret a lot during slow weeks (and months). I do, at least.
Our mission is to make things that wouldn’t be made if we weren’t here, to offer an alternative to racing-centric bikes and parts, and to espouse a different approach to riding. And to resurrect and keep healthy many of the better ideas, designs, and styles of bicycles, clothing, and accessories that we personally like to use or wear. If you’d like to know more, just ask. It’s not a secret business we have here. —Grant
My History with Lugged-Steel Bikes
I cut my teeth on bikes in the 1970s and ’80s. Lugged-steel ruled in those days. Even with all of the so-called “advancements” in technology since then, I still prefer a lugged-steel bike built with thin-walled, lightweight chromoly tubing. One of my first “real” bikes was a beautiful, traditional, lugged-steel road bike hand-built by Bill Davidson in Seattle, Wa. I rode that bike to death for many years, using it for club rides, credit card tours, commuting, and just about everything. It cast my preferences in stone and forever ruined me for other materials and design approaches. I happen to be a fan of Rivendell because, among other reasons, they’re one of the few manufacturer’s still committed to this type of bike (as they’ve been from the beginning). In recent years there’s been a resurgence of interest in lugged-steel frames, though most are being made by boutique builders in the upper price brackets. At least some of this interest can be directly credited to Grant Petersen and his efforts to keep this type of bike alive.
The Sam Hillborne as a Concept
The Sam Hillborne is what Petersen calls a “Country Bike”, a term he coined to describe a bike that, in his words, “is just a road bike designed for comfort and versatility.” He goes on to say, “It has 32mm to 38mm tires, fits fenders easily, can carry racks and luggage, but is still zippy when you strip off the extras. It’s a bike without racing’s influence. It’s not going to be the ticket for racer-wannabes, but it’s just right for 90 percent of the rest of us.”
I love this concept. In this era of ultra-specialization, solid, versatile bikes that are able to cross from sport to utility are few and far between. This hasn’t always been the case. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, versatile touring and sport touring bikes were quite common. Today, there’s an active used market for these old bikes, an indication to me that there’s an unquenched thirst for smart, solid, versatile bikes, free of design gimmicks and trendy “advancements”.
I’ve spent great effort over the years modifying various bikes to make them more versatile, so it’s a real treat owning a new bike that was designed from the ground-up to be an all-arounder. In bike design, it’s often the little details that make all the difference, and Rivendell has paid close attention to the details on this bike. Careful consideration has been given to things like tire and fender clearance, handlebar height in relation to saddle height, and providing the necessary fittings for mounting racks, fenders, and kickstands. But perhaps, most importantly, Petersen brings nearly three decades of frame design to bear on this bike, something which comes out clearly in the ride quality (more on that later).
The Hillborne is considered one of Rivendell’s “budget” models. Last year’s Hillborne frames were made in Taiwan by Maxway (Maxway is a well-respected Taiwanese manufacturer producing frames for a number of well-known brands). The current crop of Hillbornes are being produced in the U.S. by Waterford at a slightly higher price (Waterford is a high-end shop in Waterford, Wisconsin owned by Richard Schwinn, great-grandson of Ignaz Schwinn, who founded Schwinn Co. in 1896). Regardless of who assembles the frame, the lugs are Rivendell’s, and the tubes, geometry, and all other details are strictly specified by Rivendell. Rivendell’s more expensive models such as the Atlantis and A. Homer Hilsen have fancier lug work, fancier paint (yes, these bikes are painted, not powder-coated), more refinement in tubing tapers, and generally more detailing across the board. They’re also available in a larger range of sizes.
Speaking of sizes, take a look at the spec sheet and you’ll notice that the Hillborne is only available in a relatively small number of frame sizes. The range is wide, but the steps between the sizes are large. This is a trend we’re seeing from more-and-more manufacturers as a way to reduce inventory and cut costs. To compensate for the smaller number of frame sizes, the Hillborne is designed with a 6 degree sloping top tube. Sloping top tubes reduce standover height and enable a wider range of riders to fit a particular frame size. While I personally prefer a nearly-level top tube for aesthetic reasons (there’s that 80s thing again), I certainly understand the economic factors at play here, and I can’t blame a small company for making this decision. And, of course, if a person wants a more closely spaced set of sizes and a level top tube, they can always move up the product line to one of the Hillborne’s more expensive siblings.
On most bikes, my ideal fit is a 58cm. Since the Hillborne is not made in a 58, I had to decide whether to go down to a 56 or up to a 60. I wanted to run Moustache bars on this bike, and I also didn’t want a lot of seat post showing, so I went with the larger frame; I’m glad I did. Doing so made it easy to place the grip area of the bars in my preferred position at 1-2cm above the height of the saddle. If I’d gone with the smaller frame, I would’ve instead opted for Albatross bars (with their greater rise) to make up for the larger drop to the head tube.
Pretty much every Rivendell is unique. They offer standard component builds, but one of the advantages of working with Rivendell is that you’re allowed—even encouraged—to spec the bike to your liking. They don’t use full component groups as you’ll see on bikes like Treks and Giants. Instead, Riv cherry picks individual parts that are a good fit for their bikes and their design philosophy. In the case of my bike, the component build is fairly typical for a Sam Hillborne, with a majority of the parts coming from Shimano, Nitto, Tektro, and Campagnolo (see below for the complete list). I have multiple friends and acquaintances who purchased Hillbornes this past year, and each one chose a slightly different set of components to suit their personal preferences and budgets.
- Frame Size: 60cm
- Crank: Sugino XD2 170mm 46/36/24
- Chain: SRAM PC850
- Cassette: 8 sp 11-32
- Brakes: Tektro CR720 High-Profile Cantilevers
- Brake Levers: Shimano Tiagra
- Hubs: Shimano Deore XT
- Rims: 36H Velocity Dyad, Silver
- Tires: 622×33 Rivendell Jack Brown
- Fenders: 43mm Honjo Hammered
- Handlebar: Nitto Moustache
- Stem: Nitto Dirtdrop 80mm
- Shifters: Silver Supermix Bar-end
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano Deore Rapid Rise Long
- Front Derailleur: Campagnolo Triple 28.67 Clamp-on
- Rear Rack: Nitto R14
- Front Rack: Nitto Mini
- Saddle: Brooks B.17 Special Honey
- Pedals: MKS Touring
- Kickstand: Pletscher Double Center-Stand
- MSRP: $1250 (frame only). Complete builds start at around $2200.
The one major change I made from the stock build is the wheelset. The bike originally came with a set of Rivendell’s budget wheels, a compromise made to keep the original purchase price at around $2000 total. While it’s likely these wheels would’ve served me reasonably well, I fairly quickly upgraded to a set of bomb-proof, 36H touring wheels built with Shimano XT hubs and Velocity Dyad rims. I also swapped out the stock kickstand for a Pletscher double. My favorites from the list include the Nitto Dirt Drop quill stem which works wonderfully with the Moustache bars and allows for a wide range of vertical adjustment; the Sugino XD2 triple which is still the nicest crank on the planet for the money; the Silver shifters which feel great in the hand and impart a classic look; and, of course, who doesn’t love a honey colored Brooks B.17 Special?
For me, this bike is all about the ride quality. The geometry is neutral in the best sense of the term, meaning there’s nothing at all weird about the handling (it still amazes that after all these years, so many bikes have handling quirks). The steering is predictable and easy, light in the hand without being twitchy, just pretty much dialed-in. No-hands riding is no-sweat on the Hillborne. The frame is long-ish on paper (1089mm wheelbase, 620mm effective top tube), but the front doesn’t feel long while riding. It took me a while to figure out why, and I realized it’s due to the 71.5 degree seat tube. Many people on many bikes end up jamming their saddles all the way to the back, with some even going so far as using seat posts with added set-back, effectively lengthening the top tube and slackening the seat tube angle. This is something I do on my Long Haul Trucker. But on the Rivendell, with it’s already relatively shallow seat tube and correspondingly long-ish top tube, the Brooks feels perfect when centered on the rails; there’s no need to jam the saddle back or sit on the back edge of the saddle to get the pedals in front of me.
The 60cm Hillborne frame is lively, and noticeably flexible in a good way. In this regard, it very much reminds me of some of my favorite old bikes from years past. By comparison, my 56cm LHT feels rigid, stiff, and even somewhat leaden. It’s not a difference in weight as much as it’s a difference in frame compliance. When hitting potholes, jumping train tracks, traversing washboard, or climbing up curbs on the Hillborne, the frame nicely absorbs shock; this forgiveness in the frame imparts a wonderfully comfortable feeling that’s one of the main reasons I still prefer lightly built steel frames over all others.
That liveliness and comfort comes at a price; the Hillborne is not as adept at hauling big, heavy loads as say, a rigid bike like the LHT. I run a medium-sized saddle bag in back and a small trunk up front; the saddle bag keeps the load near my center of gravity, and the small trunk up front is light enough to not negatively affect the steering. These bags limit my carrying capacity to what I feel is ideal for this bike, while still providing plenty of capacity for how I use it. While a person could certainly run a pair of full panniers in back and a cargo basket up front, I feel this bike performs at its best with light to medium loads (at least this version of the frame in the 60cm size).
So how do I use the Hillborne, and how does it fit in with my other bikes? I enjoy riding this bike for almost any outing that doesn’t involve carrying major loads or mixing it up with transit. That would be trips across town to visit friends, dinners out, coffee shop runs, quick trips to the library, fill-in trips to the grocery store, long rides in the country, bike picnics, and so forth and so on. My LHT is reserved for daily commuting and the big once-a-week trips to the grocer or hardware store that involve carrying cargo-level loads. And, of course, the folders are used for those times when a portion of the trip requires packing the bikes in a car or on a train or bus.
|Rivendell Sam Hillborne
|Surly Long Haul Trucker
|Legend: HT = Head Tube Angle, ST = Seat Tube Angle, TT = Effective Top Tube Length, BB = Bottom Bracket Drop, CS = Chainstay Length, WB = Wheelbase
Who Will Find this Bike Appealing?
The Sam Hillborne will appeal to anyone who has a soft spot for light-and-lively lugged-steel bikes, but can’t justify the price tag for a custom bike from a boutique builder. It’ll also appeal to those who’ve fussed and fretted over bikes that weren’t properly designed for everyday utility use: in other words, bikes lacking sufficient clearance for >28mm tires and fenders, and bikes supplied without fittings for racks, fenders, and kickstands. And finally, it will appeal to anyone who prefers tried-and-true designs over this season’s Next Big Thing.
The Sam Hillborne serves many purposes well, from commuting, to joy rides in the country, to quick errand runs around town. It falls short as a pure cargo hauler, but it more than makes up for it with its lively, comfortable, and refined ride quality. It’s nearly always my first pick for those times when I just want to enjoy a nice bike ride, regardless of what I’m up to or where I’m headed.
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[NOTE: Rivendell Bicycle Works is a sponsor of this website. For more information about our reviews, please read our review policy.]