Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ocean Air Cycles: Rambler Review

A long overdue post, but it has given me plenty of time to consider my experience riding the Rambler and getting to know its designer Rob Perks.  In case you don’t have much time, or are just impatient I loved the Rambler.  My brief ride was very satisfying, I rode Rob’s personal 63cm Rambler which is probably a touch large for me but I found it fit me remarkably well and was setup so that I naturally fell into the drops.  That being said, I haven’t pulled the trigger on one myself so far and I’ll talk about my observations here.

A Rambler 'complete', courtesy of Ocean Air Cycle's Blog with Rob's permission.

The Frame
The Rambler, and Ocean Air Cycles is the brainchild of Rob Perks who described the bike design to me as an extension of his experimentation with 650B converting classic steel TREK bikes, particularly those sought after ‘low-trail-treks’.  This was a ‘had me at hello’ moment for me, as I’ve documented on this blog the conversion of my own 1982 Trek 715 to 650B.  Though my frame is not low trail, that pursuit has definitely been in the back of my head for a while.  Back to the Rambler, what Rob has done is spec out a bike that pulled the relatively narrow double butted steel tubing, low-trail geometry, and several useful integrated frame braze ons to create the ultimate realization of a Low-Trail Trek.  The frame is realized by Zen Bicycle Fabrication in Portland, the weld’s look amazing, there is a custom Kelly Bedford on the rack at work that is TIG welded and I would put these Zen weld’s up against them.  The powdercoat finish is good, and I really like the ‘American Flag Blue’ color (what a cool name!).  Rob also herald’s the flexibility of the frame to be realized as anything from a traditional drop bar rando bike, to an upright, porteur style city bike.  He has examples of each in his shop and I thought both were very successful builds.  It’s nice to think you have the flexibility to re-imagine a hi quality frame like this throughout your time owning it.  One nit for me is the threadless fork, I understand it is the modern standard and I guess it is inherently stronger.  From my talk with Rob he clarified that more than just stronger the larger diameter adds a small but noticeable bump in stiffness that is part of the secret sauce that keeps the front loaded handling stable and avoids change with or without load.  For myself I prefer both the look and the functional flexibility of the threaded stem, but Rob does have a compelling argument in the ride stability of his Rambler.

The Wheels
So the 650B conversion mindset, and my own really positive experience with the Extra-Legre 42mm Hetre tires has me in a bit of a quandary.  Rob has spec’d the Rambler frames starting at 59cm for 700C and has a very reasonable explanation that basically gets down to – it’s not the wheel size that matters, it’s the wheel size integrated with the tire choice, integrated with the frame geometry that dictates the ride feel.  And large frames just look cleaner with the 700C wheel… ok, I hope I got that right.  My head comprehends this explanation and given current wheel choices available over at Rivendell I’m guessing that they have similarly rational thought processes for the wheel size debate.  My perspective; my 64cm Trek with 650B x42mm tires and fenders looks just fine from a size perspective, and I haven’t met the 700C tires to give the same road feel as the Hetre’s.  I do need to try the new Soma C-Line tires, but given limited $ and time I would just prefer to outfit my bikes with a tire I know I really like and be done with it!

*(Some/many would argue that the high cost of the Hetre’s is reason enough to experiment… I wish they were cheaper, but given the cost of other quality components and the overall impact on every part of the ride I’m willing to pay for a nice tire)

The Ride
Rob very generously and without hesitation let me take his personal Rambler out and around the block a few times in Ventura, CA.  With a minor seat adjustment of his 63cm frame I was off and pedaling, the first lap was unloaded and I was really impressed with how easily the Rambler pedaled, tough to describe but it honestly seemed to give me more ‘ummphf’ per stroke than I was anticipating.  It steered very naturally even though the bar height, top tube reach both contributed to putting my hands squarely in the drops.  I am not usually a drop’s rider but I found the Rambler in that configuration entirely natural.  Rob was almost gleeful when at the conclusion of the first lap he threw several weights into the front basket of the bike, at least 10 lbs maybe more…. I took another lap, the handling was unchanged.  Some low-trail bikes, many in fact are criticized as being tender/unstable when they aren’t loaded up in the front. The Rambler was very stable both loaded and unloaded.  While I didn’t have any challenging high speed descent’s to really push it I can say it is a very stable, well mannered ride and to top it off there is that feeling of getting more out of each stroke than I would expect.

Rob's personal 'American Flag Blue' Rambler, this one is a prototype and has a couple odds and ends that aren't fully production representative.

The Cool Frame Bit’s
I’m not going to try and be encyclopedic about the cool semi-custom add-on’s that Rob spec’d on the Rambler but he put a lot of thought into the needs of the modern cyclo-tourist.  First and foremost are the canti stud’s designed to support the braze-on center pull Paul Racer brake calipers, so integral are these brakes to the design that the frame comes with a set of the calipers… pretty cool.  The brakes worked very well and though I did pay attention I found them to be basically un-noticeable…not a bad thing at all, they didn’t grab suddenly, good modulation and when you needed to they stopped the bike without much effort.  That being said, the brakes are $264 for a pair direct from Paul, and as nice as they are that is an expensive component in my book when some Tektro720 Canti’s do the job pretty darn well.

Next is the integrated, internal wiring for your dyno powered lights, a very nice touch. Having recently jury rigged installs on two bikes I can attest that a frame with thoughtful braze ons to make the job easier would be very welcome.  The columbine chain rest is a really cool du-dat, I’d never seen one like it and am now considering picking up the strap on versions for all of my bikes.  One omission that I noted was built in provision for a frame pump.  Rob explained to me that 1. He doesn’t really use full size frame pumps, 2. The traditional pump peg on the head tube does significant damage to frame bags and 3. He demonstrated a couple of alternative mounting options using the rear triangle…  all good arguments, but I do like carrying a frame pump and at least so far I haven’t used frame bags.

I almost forgot to mention the 'Thin Gripster' pedals, they were awesome, really wide and grippy!

The Price Point
$1,799 is not to expensive for a bicycle of this caliber, when discounted for the retail cost of the Paul Racer brakes it comes in at an even more reasonable $1,535.  So why bring it up, particularly given my earlier statement on being willing to pay exorbitant sums of money ($88/tire) for fancy tires?  Well the $1,500 price point brings with it at least two other very compelling, high quality bikes that could fill the same requirements as the Rambler. On the slightly less expensive end there is the Boulder  650B All-Road (TIG) for $1,435 and then on the admittedly more expensive, but infinitely flexible you can get into a Waterford Custom 14-Series TIG frame with 22-Series Fork for $1,875 before paint.  Very likely $2,000 before you are done.  So maybe that’s not a fair comparison but I can’t get it out of my  head when I’m already in that $1,500-1,800 ballpark.  On the significantly cheaper side, if you can find one in your size the Rawland Stag is a very attractive $725 frame and fork, similar design goals though definitely a more production oriented bicycle than the Rambler.

MUSA / Small Business / Prestige
To borrow the Rivendell moniker for Made in the USA is appropriate with Ocean Air Cycles, Rob could have gotten his frames built overseas at a significant discount and potentially made more money per frame.  But he partnered with an excellent fabricator in Zen, and spec’s out many other US component’s including Paul Brakes and White Industries Eno Crank’s.  More than just supporting smaller US businesses I was impressed by the passion and personal commitment Rob has for his idea.  I reached out to Rob several weeks before I was going to be in his area asking to drop in and check out the Rambler.  I think you can tell that I was impressed by the bike, but I was more impressed by Rob.  We cut our conversation short after about 3 hours and could have gone much longer, getting to know him will make you like the Rambler even more.  Bottom line is purchasing from Ocean Air Cycles is supporting a great idea and a nice guy.  On the flip side of the ultra-small business/new business coin there is the matter of ‘prestige’, or brand awareness.  There just aren’t that many Rambler’s out there, and if re-sale is in the cards in the future the depreciation of your investment may be higher than buying from a more established brand. (If anyone out there has a 61 or 63cm Rambler want’s to let it go at a heavily depreciated price let me know! J)
Rob joined in for the last lap which included a quick trip down to the Ventura beach

Excellent ride quality
Front load ease
Nice frame extra’s

Other strong options at price point (Boulder All Road in particular)
Threadless Stem*
Frame Pump Provision*
*Completely admit that these are highly personal nit’s


I had a very uncomfortable (for my wallet) early head’s up from Rob that he had a 63cm blemished but quite usable frame going up for sale at a steeply discounted price right after my visit… I truly wish I had the cash on hand to have taken advantage of that offer.  But as I’d fairly recently splurged on my used Atlantis I just couldn’t pull the trigger.  The more I ride my 650B Trek and the Atlantis the more I get to thinking that a bike like the Rambler could be a good replacement for both.  I’m riding a lot these days with my daily commute and intend to put some serious miles on the Atlantis including multiple cockpit setup’s before I make any rash decisions. In the meantime I’m hoping to get a riding experience with a Boulder All-Road at some point and make a visit to the Waterford facility in Madison…  finding ‘bike x’ is a fun journey to be on.  I highly recommend taking a long look at the Ocean Air Cycles Rambler and I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Links to consider


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