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by Matt Wikstrom
November 21, 2016
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
TECH NEWS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BIKEEXCHANGE
Interest in gravel riding has been growing in recent years, and while some have been re-purposing cyclocross bikes for the activity, the number of purpose-built entry-level bikes is on the rise. The Bend RV made by Polygon Bikes is a recent addition to this market, and in this review, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a closer look at the new bike.
Polygon Bikes is an Indonesian brand of bikes that is part of a larger manufacturing concern called Insera Sena. Located in East Java, Insera Sena’s facility has grown considerably since it was founded in 1989, to the point where it is now equipped to take care of every step of manufacturing for steel, alloy and carbon bikes with an overall capacity of up to 750,000 units per annum.
With such an enormous scope for manufacturing, it’s not really surprising that there is an extensive range of bikes in Polygon’s catalogue to satisfy a variety of markets and pricepoints. The company’s greatest strengths lie within MTB thanks to its strong commitment to international racing, however the Polygon has worked with road racing teams (including an Australian NRS team) in the past to help with its product development and promotion.
Among the dozen models in Polygon’s current road catalogue there is a new addition in the form of an entry-level gravel bike dubbed the Bend RV. This bike is equipped with Shimano’s 11-speed 105 groupset and hydraulic disc brakes and has an asking price of AUD$1,599 (~US$1,320).
I recently spent a few weeks riding the Bend RV, courtesy of Polygon’s Australian retailer, Bicycles Online, and discovered that it has a lot to offer riders that are curious about gravel grinding and adventure riding.
There was a time when aluminium alloys were reserved for high-end frames but that all changed during the ‘90s when the material gained widespread use amongst Asian manufacturers. Now it is the go-to material for any entry-level bike, so it’s not surprising that the Bend RV has an alloy frame.
Polygon has extensive experience with manufacturing alloy frames to the point where it has a couple of exclusive formulations at its disposal. In the case of the Bend RV, the frame features Polygon’s so-called “ALX Advance Endurance 6061 Aluminium” that it claims is lighter and more durable than alloys used by their competitors.
This ALX alloy is used throughout Polygon’s MTB range, including some of its downhill and enduro bikes, so the company clearly has faith in the strength and durability of this formulation. Polygon goes to the trouble of internally butting the main tubes of the Bend RV to further refine the final product.
Polygon’s manufacturing capabilities extend to hydroforming alloy tubing. For a bike like the Bend RV, which appears to be constructed from standard tubing, the application of this process may not be immediately obvious, however it is used to form the chainstays, where extra tyre clearance can be created without affecting the strength of the tubing.
The chassis of the Bend RV features a pragmatic mix of traditional and contemporary fittings. On the one hand, there is a threaded BSA bottom bracket, 27.2mm seatpost, external routing for the rear brake, and fittings for a rack and fender; and on the other hand, there is a tapered head tube (1.125inch upper headset bearing; 1.5inch lower headset bearing), internal routing for the gear cables, 12 x 142mm thru-axle, and a flat mount for the rear disc brake calliper.
A carbon fork completes the Bend RV frameset, though in a nod to economy, it has an alloy steerer. The fork legs and crown have fittings for a fender, post mounts for the front disc brake calliper, 12 x 100mm thru-axle, and internal routing for the brake hose.
NAILD thru-axles require a quarter-turn to be released, but there is a locking lever (coloured red) incorporated into the quick-release lever that prevents it from opening accidentally.
Thru-axles are becoming a common feature of gravel and road disc bikes. As mentioned above, the Bend RV utilises 12mm thru-axles, front and rear, however Polygon have opted for the clever twist-and-lock mechanism created by NAILD rather than standard threaded axles.
The NAILD thru-axle is a threadless system that engages with a key in the dropout. Once the two are mated, a short quarter-turn is all that is needed to secure the wheel. Closing the quick-release lever provides the final tension on the axle, while a second locking lever prevents it from coming open.
At face value, this thru-axle system resembles Manitou’s Hex Lock design, however there is one important distinction: there is a tab on each axle that must be aligned with a notch in the dropouts before the mechanism can be engaged. Thus, there is no need to fumble with the orientation of the axle like there is with Hex Lock. Once the tab drops into the notch, the axle is ready to twist and lock, and while I needed a few tries to master the system, it proved to be simple to use.
Polygon keeps sizing for the bend RV very simple with a choice of four sizes, as detailed in the table below:
The geometry of the Bend RV is clearly off-road-oriented with a generous wheelbase (>1,000mm), long chainstays (435mm) and a high bottom bracket (65mm drop) while the fork has 45mm of rake and a tall axle-to-crown measurement (to provide clearance for large tyres) that increases the stack of the bike. It is the latter that moderates the fit of the bike, though riders looking for an aggressive position may consider going down a size.
Polygon has opted for a simple, understated finish for the Bend RV. The matte-black paint is a practical choice too, because it will hide a lot of grime. There’s not a lot to catch the eye but the final product sits well with the company’s pragmatic approach to bikes.
The other defining characteristic for Polygon’s bikes is its preference for specifying complete groupsets rather than piecemeal conglomerations. Thus, the Bend RV is supplied with a complete 11-speed Shimano 105 groupset (50/34T crankset, 11-28T cassette) including hydraulic RS505 flat-mount callipers partnered with 160mm RT-54 Center Lock rotors. Polygon’s in-house brand Entity supplies the stem, bars, seatpost and saddle, while the wheels are built in-house with Mavic XM 119 rims and Novatec hubs and shod with Schwalbe’s G-One tyres.
Shwalbe’s G-One tyres excel in dry and dusty conditions, plus they roll easily on paved surfaces.
Overall, this build is good value and the whole package comes together at a fairly modest weight — the size 52/M bike supplied for review weighed 10.52kg without pedals or cages — that is typical for an entry-level bike.
I was a little disappointed to see that the rear derailleur has a short cage rather than a medium one. This means buyers will be limited to using a cassette with a maximum cog size of 28T, which may not be low enough for some riders (or for conquering some terrain).
This is a point worth dwelling on because gravel tyres increase the rollout of the bike, and therefore, overall gearing when compared to typical road tyres. Buyers looking for lower gears will have to spend extra money replacing the rear derailleur or fitting Wolf Tooth’s RoadLink before they can use larger sprockets on the Bend RV.
The Bend RV is supplied with a complete Shimano 105 11-speed groupset however the short-cage rear derailleur limits the lowest gear to 28T.
The other thing that caught my eye before I started riding the Bend RV was the generous length of the cables and hoses at the handlebars. It was the gear cables in particular that troubled me, crossing from one side of the bike to the other to enter the down tube behind the head tube.
This routing method keeps the cables off the head tube (to protect the finish of the bike) but when there is excess, it becomes unsightly and can interfere with the knees when the rider is out of the saddle. At least it provides buyers with lots of freedom for adjusting the stem height and length.
As mentioned above, the Bend RV sells for AUD$1,599 (~US$1,230) through Bicycles Online where Australian buyers can take advantage of a 14-day test ride. For buyers in other parts of the world, Polygon has its own web store with international shipping, however the Bend RV has yet to be offered for sale via this portal.
Polygon offers a lifetime warranty for the frame of the Bend RV along with the usual manufacturers’ warranties for the rest of the parts (typically 12 months). For more information on the Bend RV, visit Polygon Bikes and Bicycles Online.
At face value, the Bend RV looks like a robust bike, tough enough for any gravel adventure, and that’s exactly what Polygon delivers. The combination of a sound build-kit, excellent tyre choice, and well-mannered handling meant the bike was easy to get to know and unperturbed by demanding terrain.
I have a strong penchant for unpaved roads, so I didn’t need much encouragement to get the bike dirty, yet the performance of the bike had me going in search of new rides and bigger adventures. I didn’t go so far as to attempt a bikepacking trip, but after spending a few weeks riding the Bend RV, I couldn’t find any of the limitations that are normally associated with a bargain-priced entry-level offering.
In short, the Bend RV defies its pricing to offer the kind of performance that would be expected for a more expensive bike.
A large part of that can be attributed to Schwalbe’s G-One gravel-specific tyres. Not only were they generous enough (700x38c) for uneven terrain, they offered plenty of grip in dry and dusty conditions. Better yet, they had a supple feel and rolled beautifully on both paved and unpaved roads.
There were times when I wandered onto the kind of trails where an MTB would have been a better choice, yet the Bend RV handled the challenge. I was forced to make one compromise though: after a light pinch-flat on my first rocky ride, I was reluctant to lower the tyre pressure below 40psi. This worked well for avoiding pinch-flats, but after a couple of hours, I was left wishing for a plusher ride from the bike.
The rear brake hose is routed on outside of the frame.
Had the tyres been tubeless, I would have been able to lower the tyre pressures (e.g. 30psi) for an easier, less fatiguing time on the bike without fear of pinch-flatting. Unfortunately, Mavic doesn’t recommend its XM119 rims for tubeless tyres, so there won’t be an easy (or cheap) way for devoted gravel riders to do away with the tubes.
Tubeless tyres have become a common, if not mandatory, choice for off-road riding, and therefore, an obvious upgrade for the Bend RV. Indeed, there is room to argue that tubeless-compatible rims are a necessity for any gravel bike. Polygon’s choice of rims is an economy that’s easy to forgive, but a change to a tubeless-ready rim like Mavic’s XM 424 would be very welcome for 2017.
The alloy frame had a role to play in some of the discomfort felt off-road. After all, there is only so much that tyre pressure can do to compensate for a rigid frame. In my experience, softer tyres smooth out the buzz but the jolts and jarring that come from hard hits remain largely unaffected. When put up against the steel chassis of Malvern Star’s Oppy S2, the Bend RV was a stiffer bike that was less comfortable on rocky terrain.
The 700x38c tyres fitted easily within the seatstays of the Bend RV.
The stiffness of the Bend RV was easy to overlook on paved roads where the broad, supple G-One tyres offered plenty of cushioning. Furthermore, the tyres managed to defy the generous tread pattern to provide a quick and smooth ride. While the bike was too heavy (~10.5kg) to rival the speed and agility of a road bike, it was still a pleasure to ride, and a sound choice for a super-commuter.
Swapping out the G-Ones for 25mm road tyres imbued the Bend RV with a little extra agility but there was no escaping the heft of the bike. It was the reduction in tyre width that made it easier to corner and change direction, since less effort was required to lean the bike over. I wouldn’t hurry to swap the tyres unless buyers wanted to preserve the G-Ones for weekend grinding.
The Bend RV was a well-mannered bike, on- and off-road. The steering was on the slow side of neutral, so the bike never surprised me, even when I was sledding through sand and loose gravel. While it was possible to attack sharp bends in my local singletrack with a measure of aggression, I found the bike was better suited to meandering through the bush.
I really enjoyed the long wheelbase of the Bend RV. The extra distance between the wheels calms the bike down and keeps it grounded even though it reduces manoeuvrability. Such stability becomes ever more valuable on long rides over uneven terrain, where the effort to control (and correct) the behaviour of a more responsive bike (e.g. with race geometry) can become tiresome.
It’s the amount of clearance provided by the forks that will limit tyre sizes to around 40mm, which should be ample for cyclocross tyres.
All of the parts on the Bend RV worked well, coming together to produce what promises to be a robust and reliable bike. I’ve had some experience with Shimano’s 105 hydraulic disc brake levers previously and my opinion remains unchanged. The hoods are more comfortable than what the bulbous styling suggests, braking is smooth and effective, however the shifting action is too vague to keep the hands informed when riding off-road.
Similarly, my preference for a 1x transmission when riding gravel remains firm. Aside from the simplicity it offers, there is no risk of sabotaging the front shifter like there is with Shimano’s current design. When the primary lever is accidentally engaged at the same time as the secondary (inner) lever — as can happen when reaching to downshift to the small chainring on bumpy terrain — the chain will remain on the big ring until the secondary lever is released for a second attempt at the downshift. This is not something that has ever troubled me on paved roads, but it always seems to happen at the most inconvenient moments when I’m off-road.
I’ve already discussed the major limitation of the short cage derailleur, which restricts the maximum rear cog size to 28T. Riding on the road, I found the gearing was low enough for tackling any climb, but unpaved climbs were much more challenging. A 32T cog would have been very welcome, however some buyers may find themselves considering a sub-compact (48/32T) crankset to compensate for the extra tyre rollout (and perhaps weight) of the Bend RV.
The flared drop handlebars may look a little unusual, but the extra width helped when I was riding in the drops on unpaved roads. By spreading the arms apart, these bars improved the stability of the front end of the bike to provide a measure of comfort and relief compared to the hoods.
The seatpost never slipped in the frame, however the knuckle wasn’t as reliable as other designs. If I didn’t take care to apply maximum torque to the bolts securing the saddle rails, then the angle of the saddle would change with the hits and jolts of off-road riding. It was only a matter of a millimetre or two over the course of a single ride, but it soon had a profound effect until I corrected the problem.
The Bend RV is a sound bike that offers great value with lots of quality components, but the one thing that lingered after I was finished riding the bike was the versatility and utility it offered. Much of that versatility was on display during Roadtripping Bali, where Andy, Jonathan, Leigh and Matt were able to tackle busy roads, isolated singletrack and even a volcanic landscape on the one bike.
So while it is easy to pigeonhole the Bend RV as an entry-level gravel grinder, I can see it serving a variety of purposes, and that can only strengthen the appeal and value of this bike. The Bend RV is not so versatile that buyers will be able to keep pace with a fast bunch ride on the road or triumph at a technical cyclocross race, but as a gateway to more adventure, it has a lot of appeal.