Rivendell Sam Hillborne: Floor Model Test-Ride at Harris Cyclery

[edited to add:  There is now also a full review of this bicycle, written after 6 months of ownership]

As mentioned previously, I received a Rivendell Sam Hillborne frame for the holidays. It was a joint gift from several parties, purchased at Harris Cyclery. Here are all the beautiful Rivendell frames that were hanging at Harris at the time (Atlantis, orange Hillborne, and green Hillborne). The one on the right became mine. I was excited to get the last green frame in my size: They are being replaced by the orange, but that gorgeous green was the colour I wanted.

Some of you expressed surprise that I got a diamond frame and not the Betty Foy. But I specifically wanted a diamond frame that I could fit with drop bars and use for sporty, long-distance rides. My experiment with drop bars on my vintage Motobecane did not work out last summer, but I do miss them. The one thing Rivendell bikes are known for, is comfortable geometry, making the Hillborne perfect for trying to conquer drop bars again. So that was the rationale behind this frame. Receiving a frame rather than a finished bicycle does put financial responsibility on me to come up with the funds for parts. But I think that's great, as building up the bike will keep me obsessed/entertained for months.

This is a built-up Harris floor model in the same size as the frame I got: 52cm, with 650B wheels. It is fitted with gorgeous red Grand Bois Hetre tires (650B x 42mm), Nitto Moustache handlebars, and a Brooks B17 saddle. I will probably fit mine with the white version of these tires and with Nitto Noodle bars, as well as add some fenders.

Before deciding on the Hillborne frame, I took the floor model for a short ride. It was a freezing day and the ground was covered with patches of snow, which created interesting test-ride conditions. But this was not the first time I had test-ridden the Hillborne; I have tried both him and Betty earlier in the Fall.

As you can see, I have been perfecting my leg-swing technique and no longer have too much of a problem mounting diamond-frames. (I was actually kind of proud that I could do this in a floor-length parka!)

There are many things that attracted me to the Hillborne, but what truly swept me off my feet was how comfortable and stable it felt. Even with the Moustache bars on the floor model being set too far out for me, I felt comfortable riding it in traffic. And the geometry allows me to keep my leg extended when pedaling, while still being able to reach the ground with a toe - Splendid!

The proportions of the 52cm Hillborne frame seem to suit me well. This is a notable contrast to the Betty Foy, whose 52cm frame feels too small. (This, and several other discrepancies between Betty and Sam make me question Rivendell's description of them as being basically the same bike.)

The Moustache bars on the floor model were handsome, but after trying them a few times over the past several months I do not think they are for me. I feel that they present the same challenges as drop bars, but without the benefit of offering as many hand positions. So I think I will stick with the plan to get drop bars.

These are such nice looking handlebars though, and I know that some people, like Alan at ecovelo, are very happy with them - so it is a matter of personal preference.

This pretty much concludes my Hillborne test ride report. I like the way Harris builds up their floor models and will only make a few changes when I build up mine. The main one, is that I plan to get a dynamo hub (Shimano Alfine) for the front wheel, which should be exciting. I am looking forward to riding my own version of this bicycle in Spring!


  1. You better be careful with this acquiring bicycle thing. I went through a similar stage with Jaguars, where people decided I needed more of them. You, at least, are lucky that bicycles are smaller than Jaguars.

    Myself, having learned from the prior phase, am trying to avoid providing a home for various and sundry bicycles. Be ruthless about keeping to a maximum number of bikes!

    Cameras, on the other hand, can fit into a single closet in large numbers. Watches and light meters are even better.

    1. Exactly. I've been thinking about the same thing recently. Hobbies can be addicting so it's better to keep your hobbies in check. Cameras can fit in a half a closet space while bicycles need a whole garage. I love bikes though. Can't shake it.

  2. Steve,
    But bikes are easier to fix than cameras! ;) Or so says the couple of very expensive paperweights I have floating around... but I do agree that too many is too many.

    I am reiterating when I say this; but it's good that you are looking to fill different niches with your different bikes. No point in having 30 bikes that all are suited to the exact same thing.

    This whole touring/drop-bar thing is more up my alley, and I am looking forward to seeing what you wind up doing with this frame.

  3. Ah . . . it is handsome built up. Can't wait to see your iteration.

    Long-distance touring is actually the reason I'm wanting to move to a more upright riding position. On our long rides, day after day, I'm always trying to prop myself up on fingertips and I've got my handlebars adjusted in as upright a position as they will go. I'd be interested to hear your reasons for wanting the drop bars for touring.

    Unrelated bike question: is it possible to put a chain guard on a derailleur-type like the Electra Ticino? I'll be asking the bike shop crew, too, but I'd like to not sound too ignorant going in. Thanks!

  4. Emma,

    RE: drop-bars

    The best thing about drop bars is that you can set them up for a myriad of different hand positions.

    If you desire an occasional more upright position, I would recommend bringing the "horns" (the brake and/or shift levers ... unless it's an older bike w/ tube or stem shifters) a little further up the bars.

    Also consider twisting the bars (slightly) up and towards you (reducing the distance between you and the bars curve). This coupled with the "horns" should give you a more upright and relaxed position while still offering the benefits of having the more streamlined positions available.

    Last but not least is STEM LENGTH. Every bike I have ever ridden has come with a stem that's too long. Get a shorter stem.

  5. Emma - You can definitely put a chain guard on a derailleur bike, but not a fully enclosed chain case. The guards look something like this.

    The main reason drop bars are good for long touring is the variety of hand positions they offer. I love the North Road bars on my vintage loop frame Raleigh and the VO Milano bars that I now have on my Motobecane, but on rides longer than 30 miles my hands begin to go numb. As Lucas explains, drop bars also do not necessarily mean you need to be leaned over; you just need a longer stem (or a bicycle with a longer headtube, like Rivendell + longer stem).

    Luc & Steve - I agree with you both re cameras vs bikes. On the one hand, cameras are certainly easier to store overall... But then there is large format... and enlargers... and darkroom space. It all sort of creeps up on you and takes over your living space. And yes, fixing a vintage camera is cost prohibitive, unless you are an expert yourself. We have a half dozen "paperweights" at the moment that we don't know what do do with. Anyone local want to adopt them?

  6. Emma again - Are you buying an Electra Ticino mixte with derailleur? I just tried one of those a few weeks ago; it has an odd but interesting combination of features!

  7. Tell me what you thought of the Ticino. I'm playing with the idea, but not committed. I just mostly love the shape . . .

  8. If you decide to go with drop bars, stem extension (the distance from the center of the headset to the center of the bar clamp) and height will make even more difference than they do with flat or upright bars. I have found that, very often, people who don't like drops were riding them on a stem (or a bike) that wasn't the right size.

    You might like a drop bar I use on two of my bikes: the Nitto "Noodle". The drops sweep back slightly, which offers even more hand positions than most drop bars. Plus, I like the way the "ramps"--where the bar sweeps forward to the drops--provide an almost seamless transition to the hoods of my brake levers: Cane Creek road levers, which are available in a shorter reach version for people with smaller hands as well as a more standard size.

    Harris has those bars (I bought one of the two pairs I ride from them and the other from Velo Orange)as well as the levers I described. Rivendell also has those items: In fact, Grant at Riv designed the bars.

  9. Emma - I have some pictures and will write a short review in the next post. Personally I would not get an Electra as my main bike, because it is aluminum and because the quality is not so good. Though maybe these new Ticino models are better.

    Justine - The Noodle is the bar I am leaning towards, so to speak. Probably the 144 size. I hadn't noticed that it is swept back, but will take a look next time!

  10. Wow, what a lovely green bikes. Would like to try that too.

  11. I think the placement of the brake hoods on those handlebars might drive me crazy. I only use drop bars.

  12. I was looking at those frames the other day and thinking of you!

  13. "I will probably fit mine with the white version of these tires. . ."

    That is a fashion choice that I can't recommend for an all purpose, long distance, sporty bike. Look at pictures of old cars. Their tires are all white. At a certain point in time they become all black. On racing cars they became all black within about a single year; because black is not tire fashion, it is function - and racing cars cannot afford fashion.

    I'd suggest that on this particular bike you can't afford fashion tires either, its performance potential is too high. Get black tires that can match it.

  14. Filigree, if you have a moment I would love to hear more of your thoughts about the differences between Sam and Betty. My husband is eyeing the AHH and of course that bike will need a lady. :)

    That is a great looking frame. I love that bizarre green. Rivendell frames make me happy.

  15. kfg - But I would suffer with black tires! Besides, I think dirty cream looks good. I rode through muddy dusty Cape Cod with Delta Cruiser cream tires, as well as through the snowy grime of Boston, and they still look good to me. There is also the skinwall colour to choose from. What worries me more about the Grand Bois is that some have complained of them developing "cancerous deformities". But others claim they are the best tires on Earth. What is a girl to do!

  16. "I think dirty cream looks good."

    I think cobalt porcelain looks good, but I still wouldn't use it for brake blocks on anything but a pootler.

    "There is also the skinwall colour. . ."

    Ah, yes. I don't really mean ALL black. My concern is the bit that interfaces with the road and prefer natural skinwalls myself; although again COLOUR has nothing to do with the choice.

    Your aesthetic sense canna change the laws of physics. I canna gee ye wurp neyn. Th' zinc crystals canna stahnd the lood, Cap'n. We need a wee bit o' carbon BLACK.

    "What is a girl to do!"

    Let me introduce you to my friend Jack Brown.

  17. neighbourtease - The main difference seems to be sizing/ geometry. I don't know why, but the 52cm Betty feels much smaller than the 52cm Sam, as well as generally "off" in terms of proportions. Harris has both bikes as floor models and I have tried both a number of times. The 52cm Betty feels almost like a children's bike, whereas the 52cm Sam is perfectly sized for me. I am 5'7" with an 81.5cm PBH. The bikes must have different constructions to have a 4cm sizing discrepancy.

    According to Rivendell's specs, they do have slightly different seat tube and head tube angles: Sam has a 71.5 degree seat tube angle and a 71 degree head tube angle. Betty has a 72 degree seat tube angle (steeper than Sam) and a 70 degree head tube angle (slacker than Sam). These are small differences, but taken together they might help explain why an equivalently sized Betty feels so cramped? I am just rambling here of course; anybody knowledgeable is welcome to comment.

    Another significant difference, is that Betty does not have the braze-ons to allow cantilever brakes like Sam does. Cantilever brakes are very powerful and some people really like them, especially for touring. If you are one of those people, then Betty's not having them would be seen as a serious shortcoming. I think the reason Betty was not fitted with the braze-ons for these brakes, is that it was assumed most who purchased it would use it as a city bike or only for very light touring, and you do not need such brakes for that. Sam though, seems to be designed with rougher and more strenuous riding in mind. The fact that I have almost never seen anybody build up a Betty with anything but Albatross bars and upright geometry confirms this.

    There is also a difference in the lugwork of the two bikes, but this is mostly cosmetic and so I will not go into detail here. A matter of personal taste. The only aspect I am curious about is the seat cluster - mainly the attachment of the seat stays on the Betty vs those on the Hillborne. Why did they choose that direct weld/braze method on the Betty as opposed to the more traditional attachment on the Sam? Stylistically, it is a huge difference, though I am not sure whether it translates into a difference in functionality...

  18. kfg-- i don't think i would choose white shoes for this long-distance steed, either (but red hetres? in a heartbeat!). but on the other hand, filigree has suggested at least one color combination to me which, contrary to my own expectation, has worked out quite well. we also don't know what other combinations of accessories fil has in mind that may complement white tires. but still, i'd go with dark red sidewalls against a black tread, personally.

    filigree-- there can be other reasons why the betty feels so different and more cramped than the hillborne-- for example the more slack angle of the betty's head tube (as you mentioneD), or the higher rise of the head tube relative to the seat tube, or the length of the virtual top tube. also, did both bikes that you tested have the same stems? were they raised to the same height? they can make a world of difference. my guess is that it's a combination of all three and maybe more variables (bottom bracket height?) that, in isolation, are negligible, but in sum create a noticeable difference.

  19. The Betty will actually be a wee bit "taller" for the same seat tube length than the Sam, but it will have a shorter effective top tube; a more compressed "cockpit." This makes it a good candidate for building up with Albatross bars and an upright seating position, or mustache bars if you want to be a bit more stretched out. You might almost think they designed it that way on purpose. It's not a bike that most would find suitable for "performance" riding (which doesn't in the least mean it's slow). More of a fast city/bike path alternative to a clunky hybrid (the mustache bar is really a hybrid bar, an alternative to the execrable straight bar).

    The differences are large enough to be significant, but small enough that a Sam and Betty could be set up exactly the same with the right seat set back and stem/bar combination, however; one might expect the Betty to give a slightly more plush ride at the expense of wallowing a bit under hard cornering. Again more of sit up hybrid alternative.

    ". . .you do not need such brakes for that."

    While there is certainly truth in this, I think the real reason is that you don't need such large tires on the Betty, as it isn't expected to be ridden off road. The Sam is and the cantilevers provide clearance for mountain bike size tires AND fenders. The cantilevers will also track a bent wheel; the double pivot sidepulls on the Betty will not, but with a straight wheel will provide very quick and solid feeling braking, just as one might prefer in the city.

    So basically your intuitions are correct.

    "Why did they choose that direct weld/braze method on the Betty as opposed. . ."

    I believe the answer to that is that sometimes Grant just gets "that way." For all the rationalization that goes into his bikes sometimes he has some sort of a fit and does something just because it strikes him at the moment; and there you are.

  20. I understand now why this bike appealed to you so much!

  21. Thank you so much for the detailed answer, Filigree -- I am small, 5'3", but I have long legs relative to height -- I wonder if the Betty's geometry is better for a long-torso kind of girl, who would feel a bit less cramped by that geometry?

    There is no Rivendell dealer in NYC (!) so this is probably not something I'd really research until the summer, when I will probably come to Cambridge to do some work.

    I like the Atlantis lugwork best of all. And the AHH frame. I do love Betty's coloring, though.

    Thank you again for the great answer! I appreciate your thoroughness so much. Cheers.

  22. kfg - Yes, tire clearance! Forgot about that one.

    Re seat tube height: although logic suggests that Betty should be a tad taller given the .5 degree steeper angle, she is definitely not. As somervillain said, I think this could be due to BB differences or even to the tires they've got the bikes fitted with (though in late summer, I think both the Sam & Betty floor models had the same tires, and I felt the same size difference). Also, according to Rivendell's own sizing recommendations, a person of my height and PBH should be riding a 52cm Hillborne but a 56cm Foy.

    And just o be clear, I am not criticizing the discrepancy in sizes, but rather simply trying to understand it. And I think that people who are purchasing online should be aware of it. Women who can ride their husband's 52cm Hillborne should not assume that this is the size Betty Foy they should be ordering. Unless you are shorter than, say 5'5", you will probably find the Betty Foy 52cm frame too small.

    neighbourtease - At 5'3" I think the 52cm Betty frame would be perfect for you.

  23. "I think this could be due to BB differences"

    It is conceivable, perhaps even likely, that the Betty has a lower BB than the Sam. Another city bike vs. all terrain bike difference. The lower BB would make stops easier in the city, whereas a bike intended for hours in the saddle over a bit of rough stuff would want greater pedal clearance to keep from snagging on some sort of hummock.

    Bear in mind, however, that does not in the least affect fit. It lowers the seat with respect to the GROUND, not the PEDAL. It may require a slightly longer chainstay, but does not affect effective top tube length.

    As for sizing recommendations I believe that comes down to the nature of the bikes more than actual geometry. With a drop tube bike it is perfectly reasonable, perhaps even desirable, to ride a frame so large that the seat post is inserted fully into the seat tube. This allows for a comfortable rise of the bars without resorting to a swan's neck stem.

    On a rising tube bike such as the Sam most people would find riding such a large frame uncomfortable; although it was common practice back in the day. My 58 Quickbeam has rather more post showing than my first real racing bike did; a slightly more upright 60 ( and I'm only a couple of inches taller than you).

    Back then you could get any length seat post you wanted so long as you wanted a 200mm. Some people cut them down a bit to save weight and still maintained a safe insertion length. Now 250mm is considered a short post.

    I concur, however, with your recommendation to neighbourtease. I'll bet the 52cm will be perfect.

  24. Oh, I missed this post. You and Sam go together perfectly, even with his diamond frame. It's all about the green and the steel and the lugs :)

    My husband and I are drooling over the floor of Harris Cyclery. What an amazing collection!

  25. This is a timely thread in that I have a Betty on order as we speak! I'm 5'1" and have been waffling between the 52 and the 47. Now I'm waffling between the Sam and the Betty. My PBH is 71.5.

  26. I ride a Sam Hillborne as a commuter about 15 miles everyday. I cannot say enough good things about the bike. My only complaint is that, unlike you, I'd rather have had the orange.

    Mine is built up a little different in that I use a standard flat bar like a mountain bike because I find it a better option in traffic

    I plan to do a tour on it next summer to celebrate turning the big five-0.

    Some pictures

  27. Well, I'm on the other side of the 'like this bike' fence. Mine is a 52cm with 650b Grand Bois tires and drop bars. The bike seems uncontrollable! I'm not sure if it is my unfamiliarity with 650b vs 700c, or this bike has unique properties. It is a bit difficult to explain, but its handling acts like the front fork is welded in place. Oh it rotates just fine in the head tube, but on the road the bike seems to swerve into the direction pointed requiring constant attention to keep it moving straight. I cannot take my hands off the handlebars without the bike diving side to side. Previous to this bike I had and Atlantis which was a great performing frame.

  28. Is it possible to put a chain guard on a Rivendell bike like this one, and how does that work out? Which one do you use?


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