Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Novara's Near Miss

As promised, here's that micro-review of the Novara Verita I fondled during a recent jaunt to the Minneapolis REI store.

The Verita fits into the category of "non-racy road bikes" -- fatter tires, fender capability, wider-range drivetrains, long-reach brakes, and a slightly more upright riding position. Back in the day, they'd be called sport-touring bikes, but nobody really uses that designation any more. The modern proto-non-racy-road-bike is probably the no-longer-made Rivendell Rambouillet (geez, don't ask me to pronounce it... I can barely spell it). Raleigh also has a nice-looking example (with fenders, even) in the Clubman. And if the rumor mill is to be believed, Surly finally wised up and reset the brake bridge/fork length on the Pacer for long-reach brakes in the 2012 model.

What I like about these bikes is that they offer the efficiency and -- let's face it -- flat-out fun of a drop-bar road bike without some of the tradeoffs that come from a one-trick-pony race bike. You can fender them up for wet days. They'll take fat rubber for rough roads (or heck, off-roading). In a pinch, you could probably rack them up for a spot of light touring. But all of this comes in a package that -- thanks to the caliper brakes -- doesn't stand out as terribly unusual at the weekly go-fast ride (assuming you have the motor for the weekly go-fast ride).

Novara's entry into this fray is pretty darn interesting. First up, you get the SRAM Apex drivetrain: a compact crank (50/34) with a crazy-wide cassette in the back (11-32). SRAM piles a lot of marketing hooey on this, but the core concept is cool... almost all the range of a triple without the hassles (and the derision of the guys -- always guys -- on that weekly go-fast ride) that a triple can bring. I've bodged together this kind of setup in the past, but for those who aren't comfortable with Frankenbikes, SRAM now has it in a "factory-approved" package.

Another good box ticked on the Verita is real Shimano calipers (a cheaper model, but real Shimano all the same). The Tektro equivalent would probably be cheaper (and look a little nicer), but I've done the side-by-side, and the Shimano will win on brake power. Those calipers (and the fact that their mounts are placed correctly) left plenty of air for fenders over the stock 700x28 Vittoria tires. Granted, those Vittorias are actually smaller than 28mm, but a good effort nonetheless.

So, you're saying, why is this bike a "near miss", Mister Critical? It's the aesthetics, of course! What else would someone with no aesthetic sense complain about? The "gold sand" color seems to be going for that retro-loving demographic, and Novara's gone for a lot of silver parts to match up with that. The catch is that SRAM only made that (previously raved about) Apex kit in black... which is kind of jarring, especially against the retro-style polished finish on the rims. The other aesthetic clunker? I know that short-and-shallow handlebars are all the rage right now, but they just look squashed and -- more importantly -- felt cramped. And bike company product managers, can we come to a little agreement? The diameter of a bike's handlebars should NOT be larger than the diameter of its top tube. I know 31.8mm is supposed to be the new standard, but it just looks bloated on a steel frame.

A couple theoretical haggles that may be unfair since the REI I visited didn't have my size, thus I couldn't really test ride... one, dang these things have steep seat tube angles. 73.5 in my size? 74 elsewhere in the range? Um, does that tri-bike come with aerobars? Mix that with the no-offset seatpost and you're gonna be living on the rivet.  And two, I had to wonder about ride comfort, since the seatstays looked like kielbasa sausages. Maybe they're super-thinwall and thus absorb more shock than first impressions would indicate, but I'd bet against it.

Okay, before I become Novara persona non grata, here's how I'd do it differently. One, yes, the SRAM drivetrain is a cool selling point... but if you're trying to catch the eye of that retro demo, go Shimano instead. Silver Tiagra compact crank (still 50/34), derailleurs, STI, and a 12-27 cassette (not as wide as the SRAM, but hey, 34-27 is still pretty stump-pulling). Two, ditch that stem/bar combo and commission a cheap copy of the classic-bend Nitto 115 (in a non-oversized clamp diameter, natch). And finally, assuming the frame jigs are already set for those steep seat tube angles, at least switch out the no-offset seatpost for something that will put the rider a little further back. Then, by golly, you'd have something. Or if you want to bypass the retro crowd entirely, stick with the SRAM bits, go black with the rest of the parts (and I'll even let you keep the short-and-shallow bars if you make them black), make that seatpost swap (in black), and paint it something more classic-racy (my vote is red). Then you'd have something different, but by golly, it would still be something.


louis said...

If this is a flop, REI will close them out at very nice prices. This could even make a tempting 650b conversion if the closeout price was good enough. (not that I want it to flop, you understand....)

Steve Fuller said...

Go completely old school and put one of those Velo-Orange compact double cranks on there with a square taper BB.

Speaking of which, you going to be around on Sunday. I'll be in your neck of the woods with the Big Dummy.