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by Matt Wikstrom
May 26, 2016
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
Malvern Star is well known to Australian cyclists, such that many of today’s riders likely had their start on one of the brand’s bikes when they were kids. Established in 1903, Malvern Star is returning to its traditional routes with a new range of heritage bikes. In this review, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a closer look at one of the new bikes, the Oppy S2, a steel touring/adventure-oriented bike.
Malvern Star has a rich history that can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century when Tom Finnigan used the prize money from the Austral Wheel Race to start his own bike shop. He supplied his own stock by building touring and racing frames, naming them Malvern Star for the Melbourne suburb where the shop was located.
Finnigan sold the business to Bruce Small when he retired in 1920. A year later, Small noticed a young racer, Hubert Opperman, gave him a job, and was soon sponsoring him. Opperman would go on to become the company’s most successful ambassador as he made use of a Malvern Star to set a multitude of distance records during the 1930s.
Oppy’s feats have become legendary. The man was indefatigable on the bike, claiming multiple Australian road racing titles and a win in Paris-Brest-Paris. He also contested the Tour de France on two occasions and finished strongly despite some significant setbacks and complications.
Malvern Star continued to grow after Oppy’s retirement in 1940, enjoying its greatest success in the post-war period before Bruce Small retired in 1958. At that point, he sold the name to Electronic Industries, which was then passed on to Philips in 1970 followed by Raleigh in 1980. By this time, the brand was in decline and local manufacturing had come to a halt in favour of lower-priced imports.
The company would change hands again before the current owner, Sheppard Industries, acquired it in 2011. Interestingly, a deal between Sheppard Industries and Scott Sports last year has brought new direction to the brand, which is now embracing its traditional roots with a heritage range of bikes and a heavy dose of retro styling.
The Oppy serves as the flagship for Malvern Star’s heritage range. Where once the Oppy range comprised carbon fibre and aluminium racing bikes, now they are steel and designed for adventure. There are two bikes on offer, the Oppy S1 and Oppy S2, and both are equipped with drop bars, 700×35 tyres and disc brakes, with prices starting at AU$999.
For this review, I spent a few weeks riding the Oppy S2, courtesy of Malvern Star’s Australian distributor.
At the core of the Oppy S2 is a TIG-welded frame using double-butted Cr-Mo tubing. The head tube and bottom bracket shell are both externally machined, while the dropouts and seatpost clamp are CNC-machined. By contrast, the full Cr-Mo fork makes use of a traditional crown and is brazed rather than welded.
The frame uses an English-threaded bottom bracket and a 1.125-inch threadless headset. The frame and forks have fittings for fenders and racks, all cables are externally routed, and there is enough clearance for 40mm tyres. Fittings for Shimano’s new flat-mount disc brake callipers count as the bike’s most modern feature.
The Oppy is offered in four frame sizes, as detailed in the chart below:
The geometry takes its cue from traditional touring bikes, hence the horizontal top tube. The head tube length appears to be very aggressive, but it does not include the stack of the external headset. The axle-to-crown length of the fork is also very generous (for extra tyre clearance), further adding to the stack of the bike.
The fork rake (50mm) and chainstay length (440mm) is uniform for all frame sizes while the bottom bracket drop (70-72.5mm) decreases as the frame size increases. Visit Malvern Star’s website for more detail on the geometry of the Oppy S2.
The retro styling suits the Oppy S2. The classic logo and badging sits well with the heritage green of the frameset, while the leather bar tape is a classy touch, as is the brown saddle and matching sidewalls of the tyres. Overall, the Oppy S2 is well finished though a practised eye will discover some of the bike’s economies that affect the precision of manufacture. In this instance, the fork crown was not square with the dropouts.
A modern take on a traditional design, hence the externally machined bottom bracket shell and TIG-welding.
A modest build kit has been specified for the Oppy S2, and while the bike is largely an entry-level offering, it capitalises on the trickle-down of Shimano’s latest gear and brake technology. To this end, there is an 11-speed 105 transmission (11-32T cassette) combined with a RS500 compact (50/34T) crankset and RS505 levers and hydraulic disc brakes.
The wheels feature Shimano RS505 Center Lock hubs and tubeless-ready Alex rims. FSA supplies the headset, Chaoyang the 700×35 Shark Sprint tyres, and Zero the alloy stem, handlebars, and seatpost. Total weight of the size medium sent for review was 12.73kg, sans pedals and bidon cages.
Buyers can expect to pay AU$1,699 (~US$1,230) for the Oppy S2. The Oppy S1, which makes use of the same steel frameset and a cheaper suite of parts can be had for AU$999 (~US$720). The frame is covered by a lifetime warranty (with some limitations) while the forks have a two-year warranty. For more information, visit Malvern Star.
The weight of the Oppy S2 was the first thing I noticed about the bike as I lifted it out of its box. Malvern Star claims the butted Cr-Mo tubing is lightweight but the final result is in excess of 12kg. As a consequence, it required a noticeable effort to pick up, move around and load into the car.
The Oppy S2 uses Shimano’s flat-mount disc brake callipers and 160mm rotors, front and rear.
The extra weight was just as obvious out on the road. The bike was difficult to get going, cumbersome in the corners, and predictably slower on any ascent. Out of the saddle, the Oppy S2 seesawed haltingly like a sleepy metronome, so I found it was wiser to stay seated to avoid fighting the bike’s inertia.
Adding to the bike’s sleepy disposition was the slow steering. At low speeds, the Oppy S2 sometimes felt like it might fall over; at high speeds, the bike was incredibly stable, and while it was reluctant to change line, it was highly predictable.
The combination of the weight and slow steering is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, any rider trying to keep up with a bunch of lightweight carbon racers is going to suffer, but that’s not a fair comparison.
The Oppy S2 is better compared to a touring bike, where the Cr-Mo tubing arguably offers more utility than a carbon fibre equivalent, such that racks and panniers can be fitted without any concern for the durability of the frameset.
The Oppy S2 is rack- and fender-ready.
The ponderous nature of the bike is also well suited to a touring mindset. The bike invites the rider to dawdle, to look up and take in the surroundings, and enjoy the adventure rather than racing to another PB on the next Strava segment.
Without racks and panniers on hand, I couldn’t test the behaviour of the Oppy S2 with some touring weight. Nevertheless, the slow and steady handling promises that the bike will behave predictably without any of the nervousness associated with a quicker steering bike.
Heading off-road, the bike maintained its docile composure and proved quite adept at handling the terrain. The only challenge came from the climbs: I really needed lower gearing if I wanted to stay seated for the steeper pitches.
I’m a definite 1×11 convert for off-road use because the simple up-down sequence of reasonably spaced gear ratios reduces the fuss. I really noticed the extra time and effort that was required to manage my gearing when using the 2×11 transmission fitted to the Oppy S2, especially on undulating terrain. Inevitably, any shift from one chainring to the other demanded multiple shifts of the rear derailleur to find the next meaningful ratio.
The 2×11 transmission combines 50/34T chainrings with an 11-32T cassette.
A recent change in weather transformed my local dirt roads from dusty and slippery into firm and tacky, so the tyres never had any trouble providing plenty of grip. The casings may not have been particularly supple on the road but they were very robust off-road, such that I never suffered a puncture, even when traversing incredibly rocky patches.
The Oppy S2 had plenty of comfort to offer during these sojourns. The bike couldn’t tame rocks and ruts like a fully suspended bike could, so on the very worst passages, my upper body had to endure some pretty vigorous shaking. Regardless, I’d characterise the bike as very comfortable and well suited to long days in the saddle.
Shimano’s hydraulic RS505 disc brakes were flawless, though the shape of the lever bodies is likely to be polarising. Shimano’s other road hydraulic brake levers manage to incorporate the shifting mechanism into the lever body for a reasonably sleek shape. The RS505 lever, in contrast, has the mechanism situated in front of the blade, adding a huge bulb to the lever that is far from sleek.
While the levers appeared huge and bulky, I found they offered a few different comfortable positions. There is a little bit of adjustment for the reach and free-stroke of the lever blade that should help smaller hands.
Shimano’s lower-end hydraulic road lever design places the shifting mechanism in front of the lever body.
I found the shifting mechanism to be quite vague and barely audible. On-road, the effect was light and smooth, but off-road, I really needed extra feedback to keep my internal gear-counter informed. As a consequence, I would lose track of my progress up or down the cassette and end up cross-chaining the gears.
At face value, the Oppy S2 may look like an affordable entry into the world of gravel grinding, but riders looking to indulge their curiosity may find it too heavy and docile for their needs. Instead, I see the bike as a good choice for travellers on a budget looking to go touring locally, nationally, or internationally. I can also see it serving as robust town bike though some buyers may find more appeal in Malvern Star’s other offerings such as the Porter 2.
It’s worth noting that the Oppy S2 is quite distinct from the bike Sir Hubert Opperman used for his record-breaking ride from Fremantle to Sydney in 1937. With a 2×3 transmission and preponderance of steel componentry, it’s hard to contemplate the effort that must have been required to pilot the bike over the dirt roads that comprised the route. The Oppy S2 is obviously a much better bike for a trek like that.