Review: Novara Randonee


One of Novara’s original models and a part of their lineup for over 20 years, the Randonee was designed as a loaded touring bike and has remained true to that heritage throughout its history. The Randonee is intended as an affordable loaded tourer that is ready to ramble, right off the showroom floor. Novara tells me that, while they certainly sell a number of Randonees to commuters, or folks simply looking for a less-racy road bike, it’s really designed as a true, long-haul touring machine.

REI‘s Novara brand includes a full-blown bike team, made up of cycling industry veterans, responsible for designing all 45 bikes in the lineup. Their general design goal for the Randonee was to provide stability with a loaded rack, without creating too long a wheelbase, which would make the bike unwieldy and/or uncomfortable to ride. Novara’s geometry exercise worked out to a 103cm wheelbase, 43.5cm chainstay length and 56.6cm effective top tube on my 55cm test bike. They also like the feel of a steel frame, hence the Randonee is made from butted Reynolds 520 chromoly. Complementing the frame is Novara’s own fork that sports curved 4130 chromoly legs, an investment-cast crown and a chromoly steerer. The Randonee comes with a stout-looking 6160 tubular aluminum alloy rear rack that Novara designed and had manufactured specifically for this bike.

I put the Randonee to the test over a three-month period, under conditions that included multi-day, full-loaded touring; hauling panniers full of groceries; commuting around town; and long joy rides. Overall, the Randonee handled like a good touring bike should. It was stable and predictable under full load, whether climbing, descending or just riding along. Even with the front and rear panniers fully packed, I could take both hands off the bars and pedal along, or coast down a hill, and the bike would track true. I loaded the Randonee to the gills, and it never felt nervous or overburdened. A portion of my loaded touring took place on the sometimes-rough C&O Canal Towpath between Cumberland, MD and Washington, DC. I was pleased by the vibration-damping qualities of the bike and fork, on what amounted to a rough dirt road. This is the first Reynolds 520 steel frame that I’ve ridden, and I’ve come away impressed by the “ride feel” of this budget-minded tubeset. The smooth-riding frame felt laterally stiff at the bottom bracket when I had to lay down the diesel power. Overall, a nice blend of smoothness and efficiency.

If the Randonee can handle loaded touring, then rest assured that it can handle grocery getting and general commuting duties without batting an eyelash (and it certainly did). However, with its touring geometry, it will not feel as spry around town as a general-purpose city bike, or even a typical cyclocross bike outfitted for the daily grind. If you don’t have some touring in mind, then choosing a touring bike such as this for your everyday commute involves compromises in handling that might leave some riders wishing for a more snappy feeling. But if you have some panniers, and aren’t afraid to load them, then the Randonee would serve you well as a do-it-all bike.

While “the ride” is key, there are a lot of other details that go into making a good touring bike. For starters, both the Randonee frame and the Novara fork have separate mounting eyelets for racks and fenders. The fork also has mounting studs for a low-rider style front rack, a very nice touch for folks like me who prefer the way a bike handles when the load in front is as low as possible. Another nice touch: there are two spare spokes/nipples attached to the driveside chaninstay.

I’m of the belief that the wheels on a touring bike should be sturdy and reliable—and the wheelset on the Randonee has been just that. They are comprised of Mavic’s sturdy 6061 aluminum alloy A319S rims laced up 3-cross style to 36-hole Shimano Tiagra hubs using 14-gauge stainless steel spokes and brass nipples. The wheels have remained true, and I have yet to reach for the spoke wrench. Where the rubber meets the road, the Vittoria Randonneur 700x32c tires have become a personal favorite by combining long-wearing compound, puncture resistance, and good grip on wet or dry pavement. I was also pleased to find that there was plenty of tire clearance when I mounted my Planet Bike fenders.

I appreciated Novara’s ATS stem system that provides 40mm of stem height adjustment, with a single cinch bolt and no spacers required. The clever design allows the stem to slide up and down on a keyed spacer that slips over the steerer tube. Proper fit is important, and easily getting the bar height just where I wanted it was a beautiful thing.

The Shimano Deore 48/36/26t crankset combined with the SRAM PG-950 11-28t, 9-speed cassette provided an ample gear range for the hilly, but not mountainous, terrain that I traversed when fully loaded. The 26/28 low gear ratio was fine for the 5- to 10-minute climbs that I encountered. However, if I were headed for the mountains, and 30- to 45-minute climbs, then I’d prefer a cassette with a 30t or 32t granny gear. The three-piece crankset uses a Shimano Deore Octalink bottom bracket with internal bearings, which Novara likes because their testing has proven them to be more durable than external bearing-style bottom brackets. I have a minor nit to pick, in that the system uses 10mm crank bolts, which is larger than the hex wrenches on my multi-tool. Fortunately they’ve stayed tight, so maybe I just worry too much.

At the control center, the Shimano Tiagra STI integrated brake/shift levers were connected to Tektro cantilever brakes. I was happy with the fully-loaded stopping power, on dry and/or wet roads. I’ve seen touring bikes with more-powerful disc brakes, so I asked Novara about that and was told they had given some thought to discs, but ultimately decided that cantis made more sense. They reasoned that cantis are more readily fixable and that pads and parts are more universal—a bonus when you’re in need of repairs and off the beaten path. Also note that rack fit on a bike with discs can be problematic due to caliper interference, and some sort of spacer kit is usually required.

My first adult bicycle was a brand spanking new touring bike that I purchased soon after I escaped from college and entered the real world, with its real paychecks. I toured, commuted, raced, and just plain rode the hell out of that bike for many, many years. So perhaps I have a soft spot for rigs like the Novara Randonee: a workhorse tourer that can deftly cross boundaries on a daily basis and earn its keep as a jack-of-all-trades.

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[Ed notes: This product review of the Novara Randonee by Karl Rosengarth originally appeared in print in Bicycle Times issue #3. Photos by Maurice Tierney and Shannon Monimee. Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Times.]


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