The Outback is a steel frame, carbon fork go-anywhere frameset, with the cachet of Tom Ritchey’s name backing it up. Ritchey has serious chops when it comes to knowing a thing or two about bikes that can live in two worlds: dirt and road, and anywhere in between. The Outback is a worthy recipient of that do-anything moniker.
Partnered with the thru axle-equipped Ritchey Carbon Fibre Gravel fork, the Outback takes advantage of different technologies and blurs the lines between steel and carbon fibre’s relative benefits. The TIG-welded frameset uses Ritchey’s own designed Logic steel butted tubing.
The Outback is available as a frameset; Ritchey’s New Zealand distributors provided us with a nicely specced SRAM Force review bike. This review focuses on the frameset, as different riders will choose to build it up to suit their needs.
Although boasting some classic numbers like a 27.2mm seat tube, integrated seatpost clamp and threaded 68mm bottom bracket and external control line routing, the Outback merges with more contemporary design features: integrated headset ups, 12mm thru-axles at both ends, disc brakes and the capability of accepting up to 40mm-wide tyres.
The Outback’s geometry is in the vein of a modern cyclocross bike, with slightly longer chainstays (437mm), lower BB (70mm drop) and ample clearance for wider, knobbly tyres. A 72-degree head angle partners with a 74-degree seat tube. Some of the geometry measurements vary slightly across the range of available frame sizes from Ritchey; the 72/74 angles apply to our size L review bike.
The traditional design of running brake lines and gear cables externally may not look as streamlined as internally routed carbon frame, but they sure do make building and changing out those components hassle-free. While the Outback offers the standard dual bottle bosses, I’m a little surprised it doesn’t offer rack or mudguard mounting points. I don’t think it’s an oversight or corner cutting though—more an indication the bike has a pedigree of finely crafted aesthetic beauty in its DNA; it can be built to be a beautiful bike as much as a utilitarian go-anywhere machine. It’s also less of an issue these days as frame bags are rapidly making pannier racks redundant for all but the most dedicated or old-school cycle tourer.
The combination of the steel frame and the carbon fork is noteworthy in its own right: in an unconventional decision, Ritchey chose to run a straight 1⅛” steerer tube. The resultant look is off-putting at first, largely because we’re so used to seeing larger tubing diameters on carbon frames running a carbon fork. The balance in size between the legs of the fork and the frame tubing is noticeable.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad look, just different to what conventional thought would expect.
Conventional marketing rhetoric is that stiffer-is-better up front. While there is some truth to this in relation to responsive handling, it comes at the expense of comfort, particularly on extended periods on rough roads. The Outback has an ideal balance in feel between the frame and the fork. The compromise is well matched between handling that responds well to rider input, and remains comfortable over rough, or long, or rough and long rides. The rides I did on it were testament to its capabilities: on some of the more challenging rides I may have been cursing my lack of performance at times, but could never honestly say the bike was anything other than ideal for what I was doing. Whether that was lugging bikepacking kit and a 10 kg camera bag on a 100 km (plus 2,500 metres vertical gain) gravel road day, or zipping out for a quick session of skids and wheelies to blow off some steam after a day in the office.
Like many experienced (cough: older) riders, I have a soft spot for steel bikes, due to both the ride characteristics of quality steel tubing, and the nostalgic feeling of steel as a material for bikes. That emotive impression isn’t worth a bean though, if the entire package doesn’t live up to the requirements I have of an adventure bike.
To that end, there is a balance to be struck between light, thin-wall tubing—which offers a sprightly feel—and heavier tubing, which promises to last longer without being susceptible to dents. The trade-off being the ride quality of heavier tubing is a little more subdued. A common term for those heavy but lifeless frames is “dead,” but I think “wooden” is a better descriptor. They just seem to be a little lethargic, and simply aren’t as rewarding to ride. Although these characteristics I’m talking about may be extremely small differences, they’re the aspects that are most noticed, and appreciated, at the end of long rides, or when pulling a crux move to clear a technical section, or using intense concentration to try and hold maximum speed on given terrain.
With all that said, I found the Ritchey to be zippy and responsive. This is further evidenced by a small dent I mysteriously managed to put in the top tube without even knowing how. This is an even clearer indication of the tubing set’s performance than the bright “ting-ting” sound it makes when you flick the main tubes with a fingernail.
Thru-axles rock. I love the difference they make to the responsiveness of a bike’s handling. Fittingly, the Outback runs thru-axles at both ends, which have a part to play in aiding its ability to point-and-shoot. They also contribute to its predictability under hard braking on rough surfaces.
I rode the Outback in a variety of scenarios, from multi-day bikepacking and long-distance road rides, to a few stolen hours blasting around forest gravel roads and dirt tracks.
Although I don’t have a single bad thing to say about the frameset, the build did cause me issues in one respect. For the love of God , it would be great to have adventure bikes specced with gearing that is actually practical for, um, adventuring. Our review bike was, in my opinion, over-geared, which resulted in some painfully slow cadences on sustained steep climbs.
If the potential use of a gravel bike is a sliding scale from a sharp-steering whippet at one end, to a laid-back cruisey workhorse at the other, the Outback covers the middle ground. About 80% of the middle ground, since it avoids being a niche bike with only a small range of suitable applications. The 10% of bikes focused on the fast end would be lighter, stiffer, and more aero. They would also be much more punishing to ride. The 10% at the other end of the scale would have more mounts for bottle cages, rack and mudguards slacker angles; and heavier gauge tubing. Their increased robustness would also suck a lot of the joy out of trying to ride fast. The beauty of building up a frameset means each rider can tailor the build to their requirements, whether weighted towards the fast or the comfortable end of that sliding scale.
Although each rider’s choice of components will vary to suit their requirements and taste, there is one item on the review bike that deserves to be singled out for comment: The Ritchey bars are instantly like an old friend. (Not that you should try laying your hands on your old friends!) They have enough flare to be comfortable without straying from good looks; a similarly subtle tubing shape on the tops adds to the comfort factor. Perhaps not as much as an aero handlebar, but enough to be comfortable immediately, as well as at the tail end of a long day’s riding.
Words & Images: Nick Lambert
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