Rivendell Clementine: a Belated, Befuddled, Bedazzled Intro
I do not like to describe a bicycle as magical, or mysterious. Despite any romantic cooings that might sometimes suggest otherwise, in the cold light of day I do not actually believe there is such a thing. Whether a bicycle is "fast," "comfortable," "stable," "climbs well" (insert other praiseworthy attributes here), it got that way not through some alchemical je ne sais quois, but through specific and replicable design factors. From tubing selection, to geometry, to method of construction - it all plays a role. Other, less obvious factors, lurk in the background also. And while even the most sensitive, most knowledgeable reviewers (of which I am not one!) find themselves stumped on occasion as to how to account for a particular bicycle's behaviour, that doesn't mean the explanation is not there - only that they can't see it.
All of this is to say: I've been testing a Rivendell Clementine over the summer. And I have stalled with its introduction precisely for this reason. I refuse to describe it as a magical bicycle. Yet there are certain things about it, which I am not sure how to communicate without coming across as implying just that...
But allow me to put that aside for a moment and provide some background. I have a bit of experience with Rivendell bicycles. My first roadbike was a green Sam Hillborne circa 2010. With its relaxed geometry, allowance for an upright fit, wide tyres, and general sense of sturdiness, it helped me learn how to ride with drop bars and eased me into the sportier side of cycling, despite my then-problems with balance. I owned the Sam Hillborne for two years, before ultimately switching to a "racy" skinny-tyre roadbike. The Sam's new owner set it up as an upright commuter, and, as far as I know, remains delighted with it to this day.
Having been lucky enough to live near Harris Cyclery during my time in Boston, I have tried other Rivendells over the years: the Betty Foy/ Yves Gomez, the Atlantis, the Roadeo, the Quickbeam, and a good few customs belonging to local riders. The bicycles continued to fascinate me, and I followed Rivendell news with interest.
In so doing, one trend I had kept an eye on, was the company's gradual shift from sport-oriented design (their very first bicycles in the '90s were fairly traditional roadbikes), toward utility. Over the years, angles relaxed, chainstays grew, virtual top tubes stretched, extra top tubes emerged, dynamo lighting appeared... and while the reasoning behind this was presented as mostly camping-oriented, to my eye it looked as if Rivendell was also inching toward releasing a transport-specific model. In thinking this, I was encouraged by Grant Petersen's involvement in the designs of Brooklyn Bicycles and the XtraCycle Radish - some of the best-handling urban utility bikes I have tried. Was Rivendell about to "drop" a homespun, country bike equivalent? I could only wait and see.
And one day, it finally appeared on their website: The Rivendell Clementine. In a strangely visceral way I knew immediately what I was looking at. Step-through construction, omafiets-like angles and chainstays, low bottom bracket, fat tyres, huge range of saddle and bar height adjustment, derailleur gearing... and a $1,500 price tag for a complete bike.
My goodness, I think they've done it! I had to unbutton my collar from the excitement.
At this point, I had been in vague discussion with Rivendell about getting a bike over to Ireland for review. And so now I immediately asked for the Clementine. The initial response was one of suspicious discouragement.
Are you sure?! It's not even fully lugged. And it's hefty, you know. You'll try to ride it in pacelines and complain it can't keep up with carbon bikes...
Touché. But I assured them I understood what the Clementine was, and wanted to try that specific model. Eventually Rivendell relented. And when the huge box arrived covered in drawings of talking cats (have you ever received a Rivendell-packaged bike? a topic worthy of its own discussion!) I prepared for something rather interesting.
What I was not prepared for, was to be surprised. I had thought - or, rather, hoped - that I knew what this bicycle was. And to be sure, the Clementine is exactly that. Only... how do I put this? a better version of it. In addition to doing the things I expected of it, it has also behaved in some unexpected ways - leaving me dazed and confused and more than a little in love - in the end, uncertain how to write about it at all.
Having admitted that, I will nevertheless try my best to describe this bicycle.
In 2015, Rivendell introduced a pair of new, lower priced bicycle models, for utility-oriented town and country cycling: the Clem Smith, Jr. and his "mother or sister" the Clementine. These models were designed much the same as standard Rivendells, but with partly welded construction ("cutting some artsy corners to lower the price"), and beefier, reinforced tubing, for extra durability. The models were made available as frames or complete bicycles, for a considerably lower price than typical Rivendells.
While the diamond frame Clem Smith might resemble other Rivendell models, the Clementine is particularly unique in that it is the manufacturer's first truly step-through frame, with a considerably lower stepover than their mixte models (i.e. the Betty Foy, Yves Gomez, Cheviot and Glorius).
The Clementine frames are available in three sizes, with size-proportional wheels. The small frame is built to fit 26" wheels; the medium frame (shown) for 650B wheels, and the large for 700C wheels - and all are designed to fit tyres up to 60mm wide, with fenders.
You can see the geometry chart here.
The overall style of the Clementine I would describe as: best of Dutch omafiets meets best of 90s mountain bike, but with the added benefits of proportional sizing and a low bottom bracket. Here is what I mean by that in more detail:
Best of Dutch omafiets:
. ultra-low stepover, for easy on/off
. the possibility of a bolt-upright riding position
. relaxed angles, for comfort
. super-long chainstays, allowing for monsterously sized panniers without heel strike
Best of 90s mountain bike:
. all-terrain capability
. stable handling
. derailleur gearing, with possibility of ultra-low ratios for serious climbing
. as frame size grows, all aspects of the frame (including wheel size) grow proportionately
. this makes for better fit
. and eliminates toe overlap concerns
Low bottom bracket:
. makes it easier to put a toe down at stops without having to dismount from the saddle
. particularly in transport bicycles, this enhances overall accessibility
In both aesthetics and feel the Clementine reminds me most of a certain type of German and Austrian utility bike that had been around for decades through maybe the early 1990s. While clunky in stature and most commonly used as city bikes, these types of bicycles were also surprisingly good over long distances and over unpaved terrain. They were not designed for sport, but for casual - yet, potentially endless - cycling. It is the idea of precisely this kind of cycling that first attracted me to bicycles.
As per its online description, the Clementine is a compromise between elegance and utility, between welded and lugged construction. Specifically, most of the frame is welded (you can see pictures of this in "naked" form here), save for the fork crown, head tube rings, and seat cluster.
But while the manufacturer describes the look as somewhat "less Rivendellish," I personally do not feel that way. To my eye, the overall aesthetic of the bike is unmistakably Riv. But in a way that you'll be perhaps less worried about scuffing it, leaving it locked up in the town, or using it in terrible weather.
When it comes to the Clem Jr. and Clementine builds, Rivendell recommends a medley of sturdy, but not overly pretty or fancy, components. I left it in their hands to decide on the demo build, specifying only that I wanted very low gears and dynamo lighting. The result was a build much like described here, with a 38/24t front / 11-34t rear drivetrain, v-brakes, an upside-down thumbie and brake lever setup, cork grips, and SKS fenders. I fitted my own saddle and pedals, and have been riding this bicycle as my main form of transport for much of the summer.
For anyone who reviews bicycles, we can never really anticipate what will go on in our lives when a demo bike arrives at our door. In case of the Clementine, it caught me at a time when I was in pretty great shape, followed swiftly by a period of time when, having just had minor surgery, I was unable to ride a bicycle at all for weeks. When I was finally allowed to cycle again, for a while it could only be on a bolt-upright bike. Having initially ridden the Clementine with the stem "slammed" nearly all the way down, I now extended it by a good fistful and a half and was pleasantly surprised with the bike's versatility - not only did the Clementine allow for a range of semi-upright and upright positions, but it felt equally "natural" in each setup. It also felt equally lovely to ride in sickness and in health, so to speak.
Despite the epic length of this post, this is not yet a review. But by way of introduction I would sum up the Clementine with the word "easy" - meant in the most positive sense. It is a bicycle that manages to accomplish what so many cyclists I know have been asking for since the Dutch bike's arrival to hillier, less bicycle-friendly lands: an upright, comfortable, casual, accessible, non-sporty bicycle, that can be ridden up hills and over longer distances without struggle.
The Rivendell Clementine is not a performance bicycle. It does not achieve its ease of travel by means of light tubing, aggressive positioning, or racy handling. In fact, it is a rather massive, and obscenely relaxed machine. Riding it down the road, I feel remarkably at ease. I want to be wearing dresses, fluttery clothing, flimsy footwear - and often I do. I want to meander endlessly. Yet despite this, the bike eats up miles. And I am left with the impression of getting to my destination quickly, without that tedious feel that long milage often begins to take on for me, when riding an upright bike.
Is it magic? Certainly not. But I have yet to put my finger on what exactly gives the Clementine this quality. Along with other mysterious traits, such as its unexpectedly lively climbing skills and superior headwind-coping abilities. I hope to explore all of that in detail in the long-term review, as well as to try the bike equipped with racks and some serious luggage by then (so far I've been riding it with an oversized saddlebag, large enough for my laptop and camera, but not nearly representative of what this bike is capable of hauling).
In the meanwhile, if you are in the market for an upright, step-through, non-performance bicycle that will take you places, have a look at the Rivendell Clementine. It may not be mysterious or magical, but it is more than meets the eye.