July 21, 2024


Travel Finishes First

Ritchey Outback Break-Away review: the zen machine

Ritchey’s a brand with a long and rich history under the careful guardianship of Tom Ritchey, a living legend of the cycling industry. After having helped pioneer what we now call ‘mountain bikes’, Ritchey has spent the last four decades curating a shifting line-up of bikes and components – from road frames to tandems to stems and wheels.

Story Highlights

  • What: A classic-looking steel gravel bike … with a trick up its sleeve.
  • Key features: Triple-butted ‘Logic’ chromoly tubing, full carbon fork, generous tyre clearance (700c x 48 or 650b x 2.0”), rack and fender mounts, and it fits into a suitcase.
  • Weight: 10.2 kg (22.48 lb) as tested (size large, with pedals and cages); 2,280 g (5.02 lb, frame only, with hardware); 450 g (0.99 lb, fork only, uncut).
  • Price: US$1,799/EU€1,899/AU$2,899 (Break-Away frameset, headset, travel case and assorted padding). Standard version is a few hundred less in each currency.
  • Highs: Sublime ride quality, excellent handling, fair value, uncompromised by Break-Away system.
  • Lows: A little heavy, dropouts lack guides to assist in wheel placement.

Despite being fond of the saying “every bike is a gravel bike”, Ritchey felt the need for a dedicated gravel bike in the company’s range, and in 2017 the brand launched the Outback. 

That bike, in teal-painted steel, was a little late to the party and, in hindsight, a bit conservative in its tyre clearance and carrying capacity. Meanwhile, a carbon-framed Outback Break-Away was also launched – although that featured a notably different geometry that tilted towards being too aggressive, especially in smaller sizes.  

As the gravel market continued to evolve, it became clear to Ritchey that the Outback could do with an update. In April 2020, the new Outback first emerged into the light, the result of a substantial makeover that gave it a different character, a lot more practicality, and a broadened appeal. A few months later, Ritchey revealed a Break-Away variant, featuring an identical geometry and tube-butting but with the ability to pack it down into a suitcase.

At the recent CyclingTips Field Test in Bright, I took the opportunity to test the new Ritchey Outback Break-Away on some of the region’s glorious gravel roads, getting lost among the pine plantations and remembering the simple joy of riding a bike.

What’s new?

Spoiler: the Outback’s great. But before I get into why, let’s take a few steps back to talk a bit about what’s new in the latest version.

One of the most obvious differences is in tyre clearance. Where the previous Outback cut off at 700c x 40 mm, the new version accommodates at least 700c x 48 mm tyres with the option to run 650b wheels as well (with a width up to 2.0”). There are now rack and fender mounts, two bottle cage mounts inside the main triangle, plus one on the underside of the down tube.

Continuing this theme are the cage and fender mounts on the 450-gram full-carbon fork. This fork is new to Ritchey, comes in a 50 mm rake, and is also available aftermarket in a simple black finish.

All fittings on the bike are with an eye on practicality and serviceability, with an English-threaded bottom bracket, a 27.2 mm seat post, and all cabling routed externally. The only somewhat fiddly quirk of the frameset I uncovered was a lack of any stops at the dropouts to assist in positioning of the wheels – something Ritchey says allows them to accommodate the myriad of different axle diameters on the market – but which nonetheless adds a minor complication when fitting the wheels as they skate freely around in the dropouts.

Both the standard and Break-Away versions of the Outback are designed around mechanical drivetrains, while the regular Outback accepts hydraulic disc brakes routed externally.

The Break-Away version of the frame is optimised for mechanical disc brakes, and supplied with cable splitters for when you pack it down. Note that you can, however, source third-party adaptors from the likes of ProblemSolvers allowing you to run a hydraulic brake line to the back, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing, without any issue.

Because the frame is built to split into two, it’s designed around a mechanical brake. However, these plastic adaptors allow you to run a conventional hydraulic brake hose – and if you leave the hoses cut a little longer, I found you can fit the bike into the case without removing the calipers, too.

Something very like the previous Outback lives on in the most recent iteration of the Swiss Cross cyclocross bike, which offers the same racey position, less tyre clearance, and none of the mounting points. The new Outback, meanwhile, moves a little closer to the now-superseded Ascent adventure/touring bike.

In the process, compared to its first iteration, the Outback has evolved into a markedly different beast, with a more adventurous spirit and numbers that skew toward stability.

On which note …

The geometry

453 millimetres. 

Let’s get that out of the way up front, because that chainstay length is what your eye is drawn to – both in the geometry chart, and on the bike in profile. The Ritchey Outback has some of the longest stays you’re likely to find on a performance-oriented dropbar bike, especially in a category where designers are resorting to dropped chainstays and elaborate shaping to squeeze as much tyre into as little space as possible. 

The upshot of this design consensus is that, almost by osmosis, a new norm has become established, stating that short chainstays are the only way that gravel bike chainstays should be. Which is all well and good, but the Outback makes a spirited counter-argument.

That’s a whole lotta chainstay.

The chainstay is the biggest outlier in the geometry of the Outback – a full 16 mm longer than the already long previous version – and it gives a pretty big clue about the bike’s demeanour. Elsewhere, in the tested size large we’re dealing with a head tube angle of 71º, a fork rake of 50 mm, a 569.8 mm effective top tube, and a 68 mm bottom bracket drop. In this size there’s a frame stack of 587.4 mm and a reach of 395 mm, and Ritchey says that the bike rides best with a slightly shorter stem (in this case, 90 mm). The long chainstays contribute to a wheelbase that’s a couple of centimetres longer than most others in the category – 1069.6 mm in this size. 

There’s a five-size run on offer, from XS to XL. At 180 centimetres tall with a 75 cm saddle height, I found the large size to give me an instantly comfortable position. It’s worth noting, however, that there’s probably not a big enough frame offered by Ritchey for really tall folks, and there is a limit on how high you can run your stem if you prefer a tall stack (Ritchey suggests a maximum 30 mm of spacers below the stem). 

Steel is real

One of Ritchey’s defining innovations is its triple-butted chromoly ‘Logic’ tubeset. This has been in the brand’s repertoire since the 1980s, and continues to be the foundation of each of Ritchey’s steel framesets to this day. 

The slender tubing profiles give the Outback a classic stance that looks almost retro alongside the girthy aluminium and carbon fibre framesets on the market. Even the fork steerer dimensions adhere to an old school straight 1 ⅛” diameter, with the headset bearings nestled in a hourglass-shaped head tube adorned with Ritchey’s crest. 

The frameset features an Electrophoretic Deposition (ED) treatment which has then been painted over, providing a durable finish that should withstand the ravages of rust for a lifetime. The conventional Outback is in a verdant green ‘Guac y Crema’ colour, while the Break-Away version comes in a mustard yellow (‘Queso y Crema’) that feels slightly retro-chic. Both have a hardwearing satin finish that isn’t quite as easy to keep clean as a fully gloss paintjob, but it gives a lived-in patina that I feel matches the vibe of the bike nicely.  

A bit about the Break-Away

So, this is a full-sized, fully-featured gravel bike – but wait, there’s more.

Ritchey’s venerable Break-Away system allows the frame to be split in half for travel in a provided suitcase, with those halves held together by the seat post and a hinge clamp at the base of the down tube. It’s a discreet and simple design, less visually obtrusive than its main rival from S&S, and carries just a 100 gram weight penalty.

The Break-Away system has been a long-standing feature of Ritchey’s range, but the company also licenses it to other framebuilders. 

The seatpost forms one part of the Break-Away system …
… with a notched clamp keeping things together up the top.
Finally, a hinge clamp at the bottom of the down tube is the other structural component.

Perhaps most impressive is that even with the Break-Away system, Ritchey is able to retain its butting profile in the tubing, while the ride quality is identical between the Break-Away and the standard versions of the Outback. The Break-Away system, as with all Ritchey’s frames, is tested to – at minimum – ISO standards, although Ritchey says that the company conducts additional testing above that to “mimic real world conditions.”

“The final test for our frames is Tom himself. When he initially came up with the Break-Away coupling system he rode it for thousands of miles before deeming it safe for public production,” Fergus Tanaka of Ritchey told me.

And indeed, a Break-Away is still one of the regular rides in Tom’s garage, with the company founder typically travelling with a Break-Away Tandem on which he explores the world with his wife, Martha. Indeed, the company even released a tandem version of the Outback Break-Away recently, called the TandM – for Tom and Martha – which makes my cold, dead heart feel a little warmer inside.

Breaking the bike apart isn’t hugely intimidating, and I managed it in about half an hour on my first try – and that’s while being filmed, photographed, and heckled by a few CyclingTips colleagues at the recent Field Test in Bright, Victoria, Australia.

It’s a bit of a shuffle to get everything into the case, and I’m told it’s more challenging with a 700c wheelset instead of the 650b one I was using. Regardless, I could fit everything in – plus shoes – without any dramas, and was ready to go and conquer the world. Metaphorically. 

Not in frame: four colleagues offering gentle commentary. No pressure.
I found the Outback Break-Away surprisingly straightforward to pack down, aided by the helpful included instructions. The case and padding for all main tube sections is likewise included at purchase.

Of course, nobody’s travelling very far at the moment and in the current climate it may seem a little dissonant to be assessing a bike that’s been designed to ease travel. But with an uncompromised ride quality, a near-irrelevant weight penalty, and a perfectly reasonable price differential, that’s perhaps the wrong lens to view the Break-Away through. You can pack the bike down into a suitcase, which is included at purchase, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from riding the Outback Break-Away year-round (which I thoroughly intend to do).

It is a travel bike, but it’s more accurately just a bike that can travel. All upside, no down.  

The build

For review, Ritchey sent over this frameset and a bunch of other Ritchey WCS-level parts – basically everything beside the groupset, saddle and tyres – while SRAM provided a Force 1x groupset and my garage provided a weathered old saddle, an exceptionally well-loved set of pedals, and a pair of Panaracer’s Gravel King SS+ tyres. 

I surprised myself a bit by asking SRAM to send a 1x groupset across – I’ve been a staunch defender of the front derailleur for as long as I’ve been riding gravel bikes – and then I surprised myself even more by falling in love with it.

On one level, it makes a bit of sense to have a simple groupset on a bike of this nature, removing one cable from the disassembly process. But I also discovered the Force 1x groupset to be a really nice match for the personality of this bike, on which I tended to find myself entering something like a zen state.

With a 40-tooth chainring and a 10-42 tooth cassette, I was able to successfully tackle (‘conquer’ seems a bit bombastic) any of the steep fire roads in both Bright and my local area.

And yeah, while I did sometimes run out of gears on paved descents, it never really bothered me. I was having such a lovely time – why would I want to hasten its end?

I got along well with just about everything else, too. The Ritchey Butano WCS handlebar is a firm favourite of mine – I have one on my personal Specialized Diverge – so I knew I’d be happy on that front, and the C220 stem was reassuringly unremarkable. The two-bolt carbon WCS FlexLogic Link post, meanwhile, offered tangible compliance and a firm hold on the saddle.

The Ritchey-branded cockpit offers fuss-free excellence.

I’ve got a couple of sets of 700c wheelsets at home, so when Ritchey supplied a wheelset I requested a 650b option for variety’s sake. They sent over the parts to build up a pair of the WCS Trail 40 wheels, which is a sturdy, somewhat stocky wheelset originally designed for mountain bikes with a very wide internal rim width of 35 mm.

At a glance these have some nice features, not least the fully-sealed rim bed that removes the need for rim tape when running the wheels tubeless. But because the wheels were sent over in parts, I took them to one of Australia’s most highly-regarded mechanics, Dan at @superbe.velo.service, for a build. Luckily for me (but unluckily for him, and Ritchey) Dan reported that they were among the most challenging wheel builds he’s ever been tasked with. 

Of course, most people would buy this wheelset fully-assembled – and Ritchey’s wheelbuilders probably have proprietary tools to ease the process of threading a nipple through the rim cavity – but Dan needed to fabricate a magnetised nipple-locating guide to allow the nipples to be fitted inside the rim, which given the tight internal rim dimensions made the build an extremely fiddly and time-consuming process. 

There’s no such tool available for purchase, which is not overly promising news for servicing in the field if you break a spoke. Fortunate, then, that throughout my testing they’ve been absolutely bulletproof. 

That broad rim width – and the way the tyres interact with it – introduced some quirks in the handling, with a modest amount of oversteer when initiating a turn at low speeds and the need for a more forceful intervention from the rider to track along the desired line. 

At first, I wondered whether this was a weight distribution thing or a 650b thing. However, a careful dissection of the wheel flop (21 mm) and trail dimensions of this bike with a 650b and 700c wheelset (67 mm and 69 mm respectively) didn’t uncover any particular red flags. 

Based on discussions with several colleagues that also rode the bike, the wheelset seems the most likely culprit. There’s not the clearance on the Outback for tyres much wider than what I was running here, which were Panaracer Gravel King SS+ in a 650b x 48 mm width, which measured up here at 52 mm (or, about 2.05”).  For the tyre sizes that the Outback is capable of accommodating – which is listed at 650b x 2.0” – that leads me to suspect that a 35 mm internal rim width is a bit too much, squaring off the tyre shape and introducing that funk into the handling.  

While I’d advise some caution in opting for a rim width as broad as this, I learnt to adapt to those quirks pretty quickly, and the benefits of the bigger tyre volume mostly outweighed the downsides for me. One of my regular gravel routes near home involves a long descent that I can most charitably describe as ‘rough as guts’ – fist-sized lumps of quartzite interspersed with ruts – and it’s refreshing to be able to just bulldoze your way through that kind of terrain.

And the rest of the time, big volume tyres just accentuate the already plush ride quality of the Outback. 

Over my time riding this bike I’ve roughly split my time between an alloy 700c wheelset and the supplied 650b wheelset. The Outback is an exceptionally pleasant bike to ride in either wheelsize, although on balance I slightly prefer it with 700c wheels because the handling is more predictable – almost telepathic – whereas with the smaller wheel size it all feels ever so slightly less fluent. 

The ride

From the geometry chart, I wasn’t sure I’d get along with the Ritchey Outback all that well. It is, after all, pretty different to the other gravel bikes I’ve ridden recently – including the better part of a year on the newest Specialized Diverge, and before that, a year on a Parlee Chebacco. Those bikes both feature more road-bike-like handling, and in the case of the Diverge, even front suspension. They’re also both rocking thoroughly modern carbon fibre frames.  

I’m no stranger to steel frames – and love the Ritchey Road Logic which is my road bike – but I fell into the trap of thinking that the geometry and material of the Outback would push it in the direction of being too heavy, too long, and too cumbersome. 

I was wrong.

It is glorious. And what’s perhaps most surprising is that it’s good not in spite of the things I was unsure about, but because of them. Turns out Tom knows his stuff! Shocker.

Some of the praise here needs to go to those chainstays, which stretch the wheelbase out and give the Outback its impressive stability. Those paired with the already lovely ride quality of Ritchey’s tubeset makes for an exceptionally smooth ride at the back of the bike, aided by the perceptibly plush seatpost Ritchey supplied. 

The fork, too, is excellent at absorbing high frequency chatter, only really getting overwhelmed by big hits. Compared to the other gravel bikes I tested up in Bright – a Fuji Jari Carbon and a Curve Kevin of Steel (reviews coming soon!) – the Ritchey was by some margin the most cushy at the front end. 

While most bike manufacturers opt for tapered fork steerers and oversized head tubes, the Outback is a bit anachronistic in its slender profile and straight steerer. This is a purposeful move by Ritchey to balance the ride characteristics of the frame, producing a holistic ride quality with the right amounts of compliance and stiffness – something that I’ve observed working to similar effect in the Road Logic. When people go on about the fabled ride quality of steel, it’s something like this that they mean. 

In the case of the Outback, that beneficial flex in the system helps the bike retain traction and track through loose corners, while keeping things supple the rest of the time. 

Andy van Bergen (of Andy van Bergen fame) models how to fang around downhill.

At 10.2 kilograms in the pictured build (with pedals and cages) it probably weighs in more or less around what you’d expect, but it rides like a lighter bike than it is and it truthfully doesn’t feel like it is handicapped in any meaningful way, and could easily lose half a kilo with some less burly wheels. In any instance, the only time you really feel its weight is during all-out efforts uphill.

But then, it’s not really that kind of bike. 

Most gravel bikes these days try to split the difference between a road bike and a mountain bike, and if we look at the Outback through that filter, it has some limitations. It’s more of a cruiser than a speed-demon, and wouldn’t be my first choice for road bunch rides. And off-road, it’s entirely competent – and wholly enjoyable – but when compared to something like, say, my Specialized Diverge, it’s less flickable and agile in technical singletrack.

It’s less puppyish, more refined. Less mongrel, more faithful old hound. But you cry at the end of ‘Marley and Me’ because it hits you in the feels, and this bike does that more than any bike I’ve ridden in recent memory.

There’s an appeal to the Outback that’s hard to pinpoint, and challenging to articulate without resorting to cliches or gushing.

So I’ll put it as simply as I can: I adore this bike, and am going to pay real money to keep it in my garage, because at the moment it fits what I want from a bike almost precisely and I don’t want to live without it.

Folks have their preferences in how they want a bike to ride, but the Ritchey Outback is far more than the sum of its parts or the numbers on its geometry chart, and the more time I spend on this bike, the more I come to appreciate it. A ride on the Outback usually consists of me hopping on, feeling like I am at home, pedalling a couple of hours in meditative bliss, then returning with things more figured out than they were when I left. Cheap therapy.

Life is complicated, and for me, the greatest appeal in the Outback is that it isn’t. There’s no sleight of hand or attempts to dazzle you with this bike – it’s just an honest, unpretentious machine that is bloody lovely to ride and distills all the magic of cycling into two triangles of mustard-yellow metal.

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