Sam Hillborne Ride Report

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

I've now gone on my first proper ride on the Rivendell Sam Hillborne - 25 miles or so. I include some quick pictures of this glorious bicycle, but I am not entirely finished setting it up yet - so I will save the glamour shots and detailed close-ups for when it is complete. For now, here is a first ride report.

The build is fairly classic, with long distance riding in mind. I will go into excruciating detail about all the components in a later post - but if you have a specific question, feel free to ask. Of course I know what some of you are thinking right about now: "Gee, couldn't she get that stem to extend any higher?" So I will explain that the giraffine stem extension is to get me used to the drop bars. Because I have a short torso, I am practically lying down across the top tube in order to keep my hands on the "hoods" of the handlebars unless I have the stem extended this high. I might need to think of a more elegant solution, but not sure what can be done. I do not like the look of the "dirt drop" stem, but perhaps I should rethink that.

This is a pretty accurate picture of the bicycle's proportions, as well as of its size in relation to my body. I am 5'7". The bicycle is a 52cm frame with 650B wheels. Other than the strained handlebar reach, it's a perfect fit.

The biggest challenge I anticipated with this bicycle was riding with drop bars. As I've mentioned before, I was determined to learn to ride with these handlebars "properly". In the picture above I have my hands on the "hoods" of the brake levers, which is a position that allows both a semi-upright posture and braking. The drop bar hand positions are like nothing I had tried before, and the dynamics are very foreign to me. Controlling the bicycle feels so different, that I do not even know how to describe the sensation. It is as if my very concept of "handlebars" had to be discarded. If you've ridden with drop bars all your life, you probably don't understand what the big deal is - but for someone new to it, holding these bars can feel counter-intuitive and scary.

Having said that, I was surprised at how quickly I grew comfortable with the drop bars in the course of the ride. After the first mile, I loosened my death grip on the hoods and began to trust that the brakes would work when pressed from the top. After the second mile, I began to move my hands around a bit by sliding them along the bars - never venturing too far from the brakes. A couple of miles later, I was able to change positions freely and to take my left hand off the bars entirely.

The one thing I still cannot do is shift. The bar end shifters are so far down, that I do not feel confident enough yet to reach there with my right hand while cycling. But next time, learning to shift will be my main task.

Once I grew used to the handlebars and relaxed, I was able to pay attention to the ride quality itself - and it was ...amazing. Where to start? First of, there was a miraculous lack of pressure on any specific part of my body. No feeling of pressure on the hands despite being leaned over, and not much pressure on the butt either. Where does the pressure go?.. Is it all on the feet and I was pedaling extra hard without knowing it? Or is it so well distributed between hands and butt that I feel it on neither? I wish I understood bicycle geometry better.

The other miraculous thing is that I can get full leg extension on this bicycle and still touch the ground with a toe when stopped. I am guessing that a combination of a semi-relaxed seat tube angle and low bottom bracket makes this possible. The geometry is perfect for someone like me, who wants to be able to touch the ground when stopped. Also perfect is the fact that it is impossible for my foot to hit the front wheel when turning on the Hillborne - something that happens on my Motobecane and other roadbikes I have tried.

Finally, the Sam Hillborne is super stable and easy to balance - which I feel is not just due to the fat Grand Bois Hetre tires, but to the frame design itself. Cornering is especially delightful, because the bicycle feels both responsive and stable, a combination I have never experienced together. I imagined that my first ride would be very slow and very careful, just trying to get used to the drop bars and the diamond frame without falling. Instead, I soon began to pass people and to enjoy the turns in the road, feeling safe and perfectly balanced.

At the end of my 25 mile ride, I felt that I was just beginning to warm up and was now ready for "the real ride". And that, more anything, sums up what the Sam Hillborne feels like and what it was designed for. Don't be fooled by the good looks: This is an amazingly capable and comfortable bicycle, and I am happy that I have gone from being too scared to touch it (Harris Cyclery can attest to this!) to riding it in the way it was intended to be ridden. I still have a way to go before the drop bars and diamond frame become second nature to me, but I am looking forward to the learning experience.

Oh, and the bicycle's name is Graham. If you can guess why, then you probably already know his last name as well.


  1. Given his lovely shade I think I can guess -- love the name! Will be interested in following your road bike journey. The Flik is closest I've come to that, and it was OK for a long ride, but I did have some arm/neck/back strain. Interested to see if any of that is a prob with the Hillborne, esp once you get the bars dropped. Sounds like it won't be!

  2. Yes...He was one of the most underrated English writers of the 20th Century, in my opinion.

  3. This ride report was fascinating to read, as I am scared of drop bars but also want to try them for real this summer. I've seen Betty Foys with drop bars; I wonder if it would be possible to swap mine out back and forth with my albatross bars depending on the type of riding I'm doing. Then at least I would already by comfortable with the bike itself.

    I look forward to hearing about all your future adventures. A fine couple!

  4. From one who is known to favor cyclocross bikes, I suggest you consider cyclocross drop bars and their cross top brakes. The cyclocross drop bars are shallower than what you are using and might be more comfy for the intended use. The cross top brakes allow for easy braking at those times when you are NOT in the drops. I LOVE mine.

    In a completely different direction, wrt the "long distance touring/randonneuring," I look forward to your descriptions of how you outfit the bike with racks and such for that purpose. Clearly, this is a "trial ride" post.

    PS: I saw a Mercier mixte today. Mostly original. The owner was clearly too young to be the original owner. Unfortunately, she doesn't have the front fender. Does YOUR Mercier have that photo of somebody on the seat tube?

  5. I have never felt comfortable with drops - the only time I attempted to use them properly, I went straight over the handlebars. When I got my touring bike they suggested touring bars (butterfly bars?), and I've found them great - all the different hand positions you get from drops without the missing front teeth. Not very classic looking, though, which may rule them out for you.

  6. Congratulations on your new bike! I have an orange Sam with mustache bars, and I love it. Yours is a beautiful bike and I like how the handlebar tape matches the color of your hair. It's a little hard to tell, but no twine? :)
    Again, congratulations.

  7. Girl In A Thunderbolt - Thanks! I try not to take advantage of the bicycles when I photograph them, and they sign release forms.

    Anonymous - Oh, there will be twine! I am about to do it tonight actually. I will also replace the black zipties that some might have noticed along the frame with these beige ones I've found. The ties are to hold down the cables for the dynamo lighting.

    townmouse - I am sorry to hear about your experience. How did you go over the handlebars - from braking too hard or something different? You are right that I don't like butterfly handlebars. But in terms of the danger/discomfort of dropbars - I think it depends not just on the bars themselves, but on the bike & handlebar combo.

    Steve - Do you mean interruptor levers? I intentionally did not get them on this bike, because I don't want to keep my hands on top. I am very comfortable with the handlebars and with braking now (just went on another long ride today, and it was great), so I don't think I need to replace them. The reason I have trouble reaching the shifter is because I have to take my right hand *off* the bars, which I haven't quite worked up to yet. Perhaps I can switch the left and right shifters, so that I can do it with my left hand. My Mercier did not come with a portrait on the frame, how interesting! Maybe this person's bike was a special edition of some sort, or they stenciled it themselves?

    Trisha and Justine - Yes, you got it! One of my favourite writers.

    Dottie - I think it's a great idea to try the bars on a bike you are already comfortable with. I know that some people do switch their bars back and forth, though this might depend on the bike.

  8. I'm so glad you're getting confident with the drop bars - but then that bike looks very stable. He suits your anatomy to a T; you look really comfortable on him. Reading your thoughts on weight distribution/pressure was really interesting; I guess the whole geometry of the bike is just right for you.

    I don't blame you for not being up to shifting yet though; when I got my mixte it had drop bars. I think I gave it three days before I swapped to 'sit up and beg' bars as I found the steering so twitchy with the narrow bars I was terrified of riding it. However... the Hillborne looks like a slightly different animal, and I'm sure you'll work your way up to shifting in no time.

    That is one stunning bike, and you've chosen components that obviously work well but look great with the frame as well. Love the name too!

  9. very nice...

    As someone who has ridden (and prefers) drop bars most of his cycling life, I can say that I have felt things similar to your feelings of strange counter-intuitiveness when first riding a MTB (straight bars)... I keep wanting to cut them narrower and narrower!

    As far as positioning, perhaps rotating the bars back a bit (towards you) to bring the horns (brake lever hoods) closer to you could help; you can see how far up I have mine set in this pic. I would say that about 90% of the time I ride "on the horns" and only get into the drops when climbing or accelerating aggressively.

    I would have said that a 52cm frame for someone 5'7" is perfect, but once you switch to 650 wheels and larger tires (tyres?) my measurements are all rendered asunder.

    I like the Adidas, fyi! Good riding.

  10. He's sooo handsome! Congrats! I think sometimes riders who have enjoyed upright bikes are suprised about how comfy the weight distribution is because it's shared more equitably between body parts. There's a reason the 'sit-up-and-begs' need such beautifully generous saddles! As to the drop bars, could I suggest you do nothing rash for the time being. Give yourself a month. It is a very different riding position and I think in time you might be suprised at how much you gradually lower the bars and how your natural reach changes. If in a month or two you decide you do need to make some changes you will have more of an idea about the path you want to take, rather than swapping bars just because it's strange or might not seem comfy straight away. Good luck, and may you enjoy many days with Graham.

  11. i agree completely with astroluc. simple rotating the bar inside the stem can raise the position of the brake hoods to bring the rider's hands farther back (and up). you can also see this on my shogun touring bike. notice how high the hoods are:

    this keeps my hands as far back and high up as possible while resting on the hoods.

  12. Luc & Somervillain - The bars are already angled up a tad, but I will try to do it some more while lowering the stem a bit.

    Luc - Putting the 40mm tires on the 650B wheels makes the sizing about the same as regular tires with 700c, I'd say. And thanks re my sneakers! They are Adidas Spezial in "moss green", bought in Austria last year.

    Caro - Lowering the stem gradually is definitely the plan. I am not thinking of switching the bars, I love these. I have ridden the bike some more since the first ride report, and it just gets better and better.

    Re the weight distribution, I am not comparing this bike to upright bikes, but to other drop bar bikes. When I got my vintage Motobecane mixte last year, it came with drop bars and I rode it that way for a couple of months before damaging my hands. Nothing I did to that bike could get the weight distribution right. Similar experiences with drop bar bikes I've tried in stores - the weight seems to be disproportionately on my hands.

  13. That is an impresive ride! Congrats!

  14. Whenever I think of Graham Greene I remember someone from Africa remarking how much they enjoyed Grim Grin, I noticed your expression in the photos was very focused but anything but grim.

    I think that on a properly fitted and adjusted bike our position becomes more dynamic, we shift our wieght around continuously and unconciously and thus don't experience excessive pressure. One of the things I love most about my "life-partner" roadbike(boy does that sound dumb) is the way I can shift my wieght and center of gravity without actually moving around much. I can bunny-hop that bike over curbs and potholes without coming completely out of the saddle. I have never damaged a wheel doing sketchy stuff like that in spite of the marginally suitable wheels I like to use on it, and I get tired long before I get sore. I have had bikes that I could never find that sweet spot on and was constantly messing up wheels and feeling like I was trapped on top of a threshing machine.

    Maybe your position issues will prove to be a self regulating problem, as you get more comfortable you might find yourself adapting to a more conventional arrangement. After all, to some degree it became the convention because it works for most people alot of the time.

    It's been interesting following along as you write about all this as you think your way through it. The rest of us tend to learn by copying people who know as little or less than we do, and if we stumble on something that works before we give up and buy some golfclubs we're fortunate. Keep it up.

  15. It sounds like your Motobecane's geometry might have a long (virtual) toptube. Most men have short legs and long torsos compared to women, we like long toptubes alot of the time and when women or men with the oposite(long legs, short torsos) ride our "ape-bikes" they often have the problem of too much of their wieght on the bars. Your Sam seems to be free of that sort of problem and I hope you find you can ride whatever bars you want.

    Steve's suggestion about interrupter brake levers really seems like good sense for many of us. One more usefull position with access to the brakes at all times can't be a bad thing. I have often thought about trying them sometime. Do they affect the feel of the brakes through the normal levers?

  16. I think the long stem looks pretty hot. What I want to know is where you got it? I've had my eye out for a loong stem for some time.

  17. spindizzy - if anything, I think the Motobecane has a shorter virtual top tube. But now I'm curious and will measure them both to compare. "Lifepartner roadbike" is a great term : )

    Herzog - The stem is a Nitto Technomic. They are super long and are available with different degrees of forward extension.

  18. Diamond frame or loop frame? I am feeling all green right now. You look so fit with long strong legs while riding your Hillborne that makes me wonder... I want to look like you :P Stunning bike!

  19. Oh, it was entirely my fault (riding too fast, getting too confident, braking too hard), not the bars, but it made me realise that wasn't the kind of cycling I wanted to do. I love my touring bars, however funky they look, and wouldn't swap them for anything, but that may be because they're on a bike that fits me to a t - if the bike is comfy, you'll forgive it most things.

    Enjoy the new bike...

  20. Funny how these bikes have personalities and they sort of tell you their name after one or two rides. My Hilsen is "Chief" and my Hillborne is "Henry".

  21. Julz - Thanks : ) Cycling 20 miles a day will do that to your legs very quickly!

  22. A thought on the stem. While you tinker with sizes it might be worthwhile to pick up a threaded->threadless adapter for Velo-Orange and then try out various extension and rise threadless stems from VO or other manufacturers - not for style but for sizing. They don't look bad in combination and they do make trading out the stem very easy to try out different sizes.

  23. One more note about shifters.

    There is NO shame in having a shifting set up like this

    I've been debating going that way for our tandem.

  24. I am absolutely certain that you will appreciate interrupter brake levers. Please give this a consideration for the future. I've been cycling regularly for 30 years and just recently installed the interrupter levers on two bikes. They are quick and easy to reach when sitting in a more upright position. They are especially useful when in city traffic and in the upright position for better vision.

  25. Re the interruptor lever suggestions: I had a bike with drop bars and interruptor levers last year. I damaged my hands pretty badly from riding on the flat top of the bar and using these levers. I've written about this before, so did not want to repeat the story here again, but I guess I should make this clear every time I write about this. In any case, I absolutely cannot hold my hands in the "tops" position anymore, not even for a few minutes. This is why it was essential for me to learn to use the "hoods" position before I could ride the bike. With the sideways placement of the hands I can ride forever with no damage. If I hold my hands on top, I get electric currents running through my wrists almost immediately.

  26. The type of interrupter brakes we installed on Velouria's old mixte resulted in her hooking her thumbs around the straight bar in order to have more reach to squeeze the lever. We've since looked around and they all have roughly the same amount of required reach, and it just would not work for her. There was certainly a degree of pre-existing issues, but, in any case, one should avoid using the thumb for leverage when braking or holding the bars. If you can't use the flat part of your palm to oppose the fingers, the lever is not working for you (and you should stop before you injure). Sorry about the rant.

  27. If I'm not mistaken, I believe I may have seen you taking the photos above along side the Minuteman in Lexington. I've read your blog a few times while researching my own Hillborne purchase (I get mine from Harris in a day or two!), and so other day as I was flying home from work and saw what looked like a Hillborne being photographed, into my head popped "Lovely Bicycle!" I would have stopped and admired the bike but for the fellow commuters who were drafting me at that moment. Small world, I guess, and it is a lovely bicycle, definitely.

  28. Burton - Yes, that sounds like it was me : ) I've been riding on the Minuteman trail every other day in the evenings. Enjoy your new bike from Harris!

  29. I recently got a diamond-frame touringish bike myself (cheap version though), which led to consideration of the handlebar question. My torso length is fairly normal, as far as I know, but the bicycle feels very long to me. From stem to seatpost, I guess. I tried some "touring" bars on it, including drop and butterfly (euro trekking) style bars, but hated the way I had to stretch out to reach them. I want stretching to be an option on long rides, not a requirement.

    Anyway, I concluded that the whole point of North Road bars and other bars that curve back behind the stem is so you can have a longer frame without having to stretch. In your case, I certainly understand the desire to master the drop bars. And they have a lot of fans. But don't be opposed to trying out the butterfly bars and other touring and randonneuring styles - maybe there is a good compromise style out there with drops but also sweep-back...

    My solution is going to be North Road bars wrapped up to the stem so I can adjust my grip for climbing and stretching.

  30. Even more on bars - I spend 90% of the time on the hoods and never worry about speed, but it's nice to be able to ride comfortably in the drops for that 10% you want to keep more out of the wind. Also, the cool thing now is the variety of bars available - it's no longer a binary choice between flat and drop bars. Besides the aforementioned moustache bars, take a look at some of the variants by Soma, for example, such as the Junebug and Sparrow:

  31. Step-Through - I have North-Road style bars on 4 bikes (on one of them they are upside-down). I would not be comfortable holding them on the forward curved parts, "moustache"-style, because that position would once again place my fists in a clenched grip straight in front of me. It's just not a good position for me, given the situation with nerve damage in my hands. So while I love holding North Road and Porteur bars on the sides, the classic way, holding them further out and close to the stem would not work. I've been riding with the drop bars now every other day since getting the bike (4 long trips total), and I am loving the hand positions. My hands and wrists are singing a happy tune!

    Velodork - The Sparrow bar looks interesting indeed!

  32. Velouria:
    Congratulations on a wonderful bike. Your post underscores the importance of proper bike fit, and how seemingly minor adjustments to stem length, seat height, etc. can enhance comfort tremendously. No doubt Harris Cyclery is well versed on the science of proper bike fit. I predict that you will continue to embrace speed on future cycling adventures. Have fun!

  33. Although some posters hinted at adjustments to bike fit, I did not see anyone mention trying a stem with a shorter tail. The stem show in the photos appears to have a tail of about 80 mm. You can buy stems with shorter tails, down to 50 mm and maybe shorter, if you search around. A 50 mm tail would move the brake hoods more than an inch closer to the seat, effectively reducing your reach. Also, a seat on rails can slide forward 10 to 25 mm depending on the particular seat, but this changes your position over the pedals. Finally, top tube length is important when fitting your bike. Many women may prefer a shorter than traditional top tube length - while maintaining desired seat post and head tube angles.


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