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Soma Gand Randonneur - 1000 mile review

Yesterday's ride put me at exactly a thousand miles on my Soma Grand Randonneur. I've had the bike a little over four months now and have had some great rides over varied terrain and conditions. I certainly went out on a limb with the decision to get this bike, as I had no experience riding one like it. I was basically buying in to Jan Heine's kool aid about low trail, 650b, wide tire bikes. Having ridden wider tires on my touring and mountain bikes I was fairly confident I would like the wider tires, but I was not sure I would like the smaller diameter wheels as I already knew I preferred 700c to 26" on a touring bike. As far as the low trail, I had no idea. It was a gamble. I knew what I wanted was a bike fast enough to keep up on club rides, comfortable enough for the really long rides, and versitile enough to handle mixed terrain.

From the frame up

There were other similar frames that I looked at, most notably the Velo Orange Polyvalent. I certainly liked the looks of the Polyvalent better, but did not think I would like the horizontal drop outs. As it turned out the Soma frame, which had beed in short supply, became available just when I was ready to order. Having already built my touring bike on a Soma frame I was confident that the GR would be a high quality frame and jumped on it. I worked with Mike Easter at Cyclotopia in Corvallis to build the bike. They have done some great custom builds in their shop and I knew Mike would be enthusiastic about this one.

Grando out of the box
Mike holding the frame right out of the box.

I wanted a classy build, with a mixture of retro parts for looks, and modern parts for performance. We sourced parts from all over the place, with an emphasis on Velo Orange and Compass Bicycles. The full build can be found on the bike page. Between Mike's experience, and my enthusiasm we came up with a pretty good build kit, except for one detail, which I'll get to later.

Ready to ride

Before I knew it I had a new bike, ready to ride. First test ride I headed for the nearest hill to see how it would handle at speed. The low trail geometry makes the steering feel a bit twitchy, which takes some getting used to. Right away I loved the way it went into a turn and tracked true throughout, but at speed things felt a bit shaky. I figured it would take some getting used to. I also loved the smooth, ultra-light, supple tires right away. The bike felt as fast and responsive as the carbon fiber road bike I had just sold, even though it was a good 8 pounds heavier. I was thrilled on the next club ride that I was able to hang in with the pack at 17-18 mph, something I could never do on my touring bike.

The big test came a week later when we headed down to Crater Lake for the car free day. I've ridden the rim several times before and knew it would be the perfect place to really put the new bike to the test. Climbing was fine. I didn't expect this or any bike to make me fly up hills. I'm a slow but steady climber whether I'm on a light road bike burden free, or a fully loaded touring bike. It doesn't seem to matter much. The Grando is a comfortable climber. I was happy to find the gearing was low enough for the steepest grade. It was everything I expected as far as climbing. Then came the first big downhill. I let her glide up to about 34 mph which is when the shudder began. Shudder, shimmy whatever you call it is can be terrifying at high speed. Fortunately I knew the drill and was able to clamp my knees to the top tube while slowly feathering the brakes until I slowed and the bike stopped shaking. I had heard that low trail bikes were susceptible to shimmy but I was disappointing none the less. I am not a speed demon. I keep it well under 40 even on straight smooth roads, never mind the twisty broken up pavement that Crater has to offer. But I expect a bike to be solid on the downhill like my touring bikes. For the rest of the Crater ride I found I was fine if I held it under 30, but after that things got shaky. My buddies flew by me while I was riding the brakes at a steady 27 mph for the rest of the downhills.

At Crater Lake
The Grando at Crater Lake

Get the right head set

When I got home I started doing more research. It took some digging but I finally found a forum where someone mentioned that a bike like mine needed a roller bearing headset to avoid shimmy. I had never heard of a roller bearing headset so I kept digging. I found another article by someone who had a custom Rene Herse bike by Boulder Bicycle. In fact the Soma Grand Randonneur was designed by Mike Kone of Boulder Bicycle so I knew this would be relevant. Once again the author mentioned the need for the roller bearing headset and even said that they recommended them on all low trail bikes. The final straw was when I went back and read the first review of this bike (currently offline) and sure enough, he had used the roller bearing headset. There may be others but the Tange/IRD NeedL BlastR Roller Drive available from Rivendell appears to be the most popular.

Needless to say I replaced the head set. Right away I could tell the difference as even at low speed it felt more stable. While I haven't been back to Crater, or have had an opportunity to ride that kind of long fast downhill, I have had it over 30 numerous times and it is much, much better. It did take me a while to gain back my confidence in the bike before I was willing to push it, but pretty soon I got to where I was craving the fast downhills to really see how she did. Once I no longer had to worry about shimmy I found that the handling on a fast curve was really superb. I had the bike a while before I read that Jan Heine had written a review of this bike in his Bicycle Quarterly magazine . Ignoring my displeasure at his continually referring to it as a "budget frame", in review he said "The Soma Grand Randonneur performs better the harder you push it." I realized this was true as soon as I read it. If I'm tentative the bike responds in kind, but If I commit to a fast curve and enter it with confidence the bike feels rock solid and is a blast to ride. One more comment about low trail, Jan Heine, and shimmy. It the latest Bicycle Quarterly he wrote a review of his own custom Rene Herse bike. In it he mentioned that it "required a light touch" and "could shimmy when riding no hands at high speeds", and that the bike had a needle-bearing head set. Live and learn. I wish Soma would just say as much to anyone ordering one of these frames. If you're reading this, and considering building your own low trail bicycle, save yourself some grief and be sure to use a roller bearing headset from the get go.

The next big challenge was to see how it did on a long ride. After all a randonneuring bike is designed to be ridden all day. I have no illusions about doing the really long rides, but I knew I was good for a 200k. Got out really early and had a couple of hours in the dark. Since I have the same Schmidt hub and B&M light on my touring bike I knew the light would be great and I was not dissapointed. I was on a road with hardly any traffic, with good visibility and it seemed like I was effortlessly flying along. It wasn't until it started getting light that I could see my speedometer and realized that I had been doing 16-17 mph for the last two hours. The supple tires were really showing what they could do. Of course I couldn't keep that pace all day. There was some blustery winds to contend with later on which prompted me to head for the hills. By the end of the ride I realized that my right ankle was hurting. I still hand't completely dialed in my position and I had the saddle lower than what I was used to, which caused some strain in my achilles tendon. Lesson number two, don't head off on an epic ride on a new bike until you know you've got everything adjusted. As it is I continued working on the lower seat position which, combined with the proper stretching, is working out very well.

Get the right tires

I had put on a set of ultra-light and supple Soma Grand Randonneur 650b x 42mm tires. Obviously Soma was targeting them for this bike so why not? I had also been looking at the Compass Babyshoe Pass which seemed to be equivalent as they are both manufactured by Panaracer in Japan. The Soma tires were more than ultra-light, they were ultra-thin as well. I loved the ride, but after 3 flats in as many rides I had enough. I'm used to Schwalbe tires on my touring bike which never flat. So I decided to try the Compass tires. Both of these come in either the ultra-light or regular. I decided not to chance the ultra-lights again and just went with the regulars. Unlike the Soma tires, the Compass tires have some minimal tread. The tread down the middle is just to gage wear, but the tread on the corners might offer a bit of traction on wet roads. The Compass tires seemed to be of better quality, but then the line where the black tread meets the skin-wall casing is a bit uneven. Although I liked the look of the skin-walls on this bike, they quickly turn from a pleasant beige to an ugly grey after a few rainy rides. Next set I will probably go with the black walls. So the Compass tires are a bit heaver, and I may have given up a little speed, but not anything I really notice. Of course I flatted on the first ride with them, but this time it wasn't the tires fault. I got a sheet rock screw right down the middle. I'm happy to report that I've had many flatless rides since then. I've still got the Soma tires and can always use them for special events on clean roads in the summer.

Head for the hills

One of my goals for the Gand Randonneur was that I wanted it to be an all road bike, so first chance I got I headed up the gravel roads into the MacDonald Forest. As expected with the wide tires it handled great. I've now ridden in on a variety of roads from hard packed dirt to loose gravel. One ride had me on a fairly smooth wet dirt road, with just enough mud to cause some tire suck. I though the slick tires would be more susceptible to suction but my riding buddy who had knobby tires was experiencing more of it than I was. This bike really shines on the mixed terrain rides. On pavement it is as fast as a road bike yet it can handle the gravel much better than any skinny tired bike. And all the while I'm riding in comfort. The one place where it wasn't at its best was on the single track downhill, and this was only due to the handlebars. It was also a cold day and I had on thick gloves, and I could not get a comfortable grip on the bars. On the hoods I felt as if my hands would bounce off at each bump, and in the drops I was too low. Thin gloves and less tire pressure would probably make the difference. On the fast gravel road downhill I had no such problem. Without the constant turns I could get down in the drops and let her go. Great fun. I now seek out miked terrain rides every ride. It really adds to the enjoyment.

And the verdict is

It's a great bike and I'm really enjoying it. As far as the things that are unique about this bike, I'll take them one at a time.

Steel Frame

This is a no brainer for me now. I've had aluminium and carbon fiber bikes in the past and now I know I prefer steel. The ride is always great, the performance is great, and I know I can trust it.

650b wide tires

I'm sold on this now. I feel like I'm not giving up anything as far as speed and agility while gaining comfort, stability, and the ability to ride on any surface. This is really a win-win for me.

Low trail geometry

The jury's still out on this one. I like the responsiveness and how well it holds true around a curve. I certainly don't like the possibility of shimmy at speed, or the twitchy feeling when going too slow. Once advantage of low trail is that you can carry more weight in the front. This is great but I can also load up my touring bikes with a front load and never have any problems. If the main advantage of low trail is that it handles better around the turns on really fast downhills, then this is something I don't need. I'd be perfectly happy going a little slower if the trade off was more stability. So this may be the one feature that I don't care for. Then again the more I ride this bike the better I like it. It may be that after a while I'll come to appreciate the low trail more. We shall see.

So that's my review. I hope you enjoyed reading it and that it helps you in the search for your own dream bike.